Disclaimer: The Lord of the Rings and all its characters, races, and creatures, as well as our beloved Middle Earth, belongs to JRR Tolkien.

The horse and rider stood on a low-slung hill, so still one might think they were carved of stone. Only the sliver of a moon lit the late spring sky. The stars overhead cast glittering pinpricks of light so small that only the vague shadows of rocks and clumps of trees surrounding them could be seen. Nothing moved. The deep quiet belied the turmoil pitching in the stormy sea of the rider's heart.

The young woman turned in the saddle, staring hard back the way she had come. In the distance, tiny lights flickered on the walls surrounding the settlement where the details of her life had so recently been decided—and shattered like glass cast upon rocks.

"Well, there's no help for it, Two my girl," she whispered to her mare. "We might as well find someplace to camp for the night." She turned her horse further into the trees. When the brush grew too thick, she dismounted and tethered her mare, removing the few articles she'd need—her blanket, water skin and long knife. She took her bow from over her shoulder and moved to settle for the night.

She buried herself in the scrub and dense growth nestled among the trees, pulling the blanket around her. She'd already eaten and her evening meal sat like clay in her stomach, cold and hard. She checked her long knife at her waist and burrowed deeper into the blanket, cocooning herself for sleep. But sleep evaded her.

Her father's voice, quiet when he'd spoken, now shouted in her mind, echoing, "Have you taken leave of your senses, daughter?" Jeren shook her head, trying to dislodge the ugly incident from which she'd so recently fled. She swiped at a tear as it rolled down her cheek. Anger at her father threatened to erupt in a scream. She didn't want to remember it now. She wanted—needed—to sleep. And she needed to stay still and quiet, ever mindful of her surroundings and what might creep through the night surrounding her.

Jeren closed her eyes again, and again her mind tortured her, replaying what she wanted to forget—Lord Aragorn, while kind, had denied her request to join the Dúnedain rangers. Adding insult to her pride, Elladan and Elrohir had witnessed her shameful rejection.

Ever since that fateful day in her yard at home—she'd been only sixteen—when she'd been overwhelmed, beaten and defiled by a group of Orcs, dreams of revenge had preoccupied her life. Her sole purpose—her dream—became fighting Orcs, killing as many as she could, as horribly as she could. But that dream lay slain tonight. Her heart was raw.

Jeren's father Anardil had been delighted to see her when she rode into the settlement yesterday afternoon. She'd spent seven years in Imladris training, and father and daughter had seen each other rarely. Anardil, having been a ranger for all of Jeren's life, had continued to ride patrol for the Dúnedain, reporting back to the largest settlement in the Angle.

That's what Jeren aspired to—fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Dúnedain rangers. For seven long, hard years Jeren had worked with fierce intensity to prove she could hold her own in battle. She'd spent countless hours on the training fields with sword and bow. Endless nights she'd camped without the warmth of fire, buried as she was now in brush and weeds, hiding from the instructors as part of survival drills. None of the Elven trainees ever so much as lifted a finger to help her, and Jeren always suspected that perhaps Glorfindel had warned them off. He knew—as did she—that any lesson not learned by one's own sweat and toil, was not a lesson likely to leave the full impact it should.

In the end Glorfindel had been impressed enough with her skill that he had pronounced her ready. But apparently an Elf lord's opinion mattered not when gender prejudice reared its ugly head among the Dúnedain.

She remembered how the hall had grown silent—tomb like—after she'd made her request to their Chieftain. Then the place erupted with the grumbling and growling of the men. Words like 'crazy' and 'fetched in the head' wove through the crowd.

Anardil's shoulders sagged as he walked away from her. He seemed ashamed to have sired her. Did he not remember training her himself? Why had he done so, if not for this? He'd treated her as one of his own recruits, complete with discipline deemed very harsh to visit upon a mere girl. She'd grown up to be exactly as he'd made her—a warrior. So why was he ashamed of her now? Why?

All around them the voices of the men had grown louder, more irate. Aragorn finally lifted his hands and in a barely raised voice said, "This is finished. Everyone go about your errands." He then circled Jeren's shoulders with one of his arms and led her and his Elven brothers to his own office, of sorts, in an alcove at the far end of the hall.

Aragorn motioned her into one of the two wooden chairs sitting before a plain, oaken desk. Really only a table, it held an ink pot, a small bag of sand for blotting, and a quill. There were no papers or parchments littering the scarred top.

Aragorn took his pipe from his belt, filled the bowl with weed and lit it. He settled himself on the corner of the desk. He inhaled deeply then let the smoke escape from between his barely parted lips. He looked at her as if considering her request.

Hope burned in her heart. He'd not told her 'no' yet.

But when he spoke it was in a quiet, firm voice. "I am sorry, Jeren. You know that women do not join in the ranks of the rangers of the Dúnedain. I cannot fathom circumstances in which I would even contemplate making an exception in your case."

Jeren's heart fell to her feet, then rebound, hitting the top of her head. "I believe the circumstances are extreme!" she said, louder and with much more force than she'd meant to convey. She closed her eyes for a moment, composing herself, trying to kill the anger in her voice. She leaned forward, looking him in the eye, even though he towered above her, and said, her voice lowered, "Do you not remember what befell me at the hands of Orcs? I have ever since aimed my entire life toward the defense of others from those vile creatures, that no one else need suffer a similar fate—or death—at their hands could I help it." He shook his head and started to answer her.

"Lord Aragorn, please." She hated the plaintive tone of her voice as she pleaded with him not to kill her life's ambition arbitrarily. Turning to Elladan, she continued, "Lord Glorfindel would not have sent me on my way without his being sure of my ability. You know this, Elladan." Then her eyes sought Elrohir's, telling him the same thing with her gaze. If anyone would side with her, it would be Elrohir. Elladan tended to still treat her like a child, something she could not understand, now that she was well past majority.

Elladan looked at her with what she hoped was sympathy and not pity. But her hope died at his first words. "Jeren, you are so young." He paused a moment, looking at her intently. "Yes, you've had the finest training, but that was for your own defense, not for wielding a blade in battle. To save your life, not to go do war alongside men. Glorfindel does not sanction your presence here. You know this is true."

Jeren suddenly gained her feet, the backs of her legs sending the chair squealing across the stone floor several inches. "I know no such thing, Elladan. I've spent years learning and drilling and sweating and breaking my back so that I might help with our common cause. Yes, I need to defend myself, but I also need to defend others who are defenseless. I need to do this, Elladan. And Lord Glorfindel knows of my plan—I've told him of it often enough." She stopped to collect her thoughts, unsure of just how much of her heart she wanted to share. But her desperation won and her hopes and desires came spilling from her mouth. "I cannot hunt and kill Orcs on my own. No one can with the state our world is in, be they man, Elf or woman. I need to be a part of a group. I want to be a part of this group—my heritage demands it of me. I'm trained and ready. For the Valar's sake, my own father—a ranger, himself—schooled me when I was a mere child. I only need to be given the chance."

Aragorn rose and stood directly before her. "You may be ready for the rangers, but I can assure you that the rangers are not ready for you." He gestured with his pipe into the greater part of the hall from which they'd just come. "You heard their anger and resentment at the mere idea of a woman joining them. Do you believe, even were I to give you my blessing and take your pledge, that these men would accept you and allow you to join in their ranks? You cannot think that, given how smart I know you to be."

Jeren searched the eyes around her for some inkling of support. "Elrohir?" she said, as if he were her only last thread of hope.

The smile that usually etched Elrohir's face was not present. He shook his head. "No, Jeren. It's simply not possible."

She had then left the hall without another word; had retrieved her gear and her horse and had gone. And now here she was buried in a pile of itchy brush, crying over this rejection. Not only had Lord Aragorn's refusal hurt her, Elladan's denial cut her to the bone. It was ever Elladan, the love of her life, the Elf she adored above any man, who had the power to break her heart. His voice along with the others had denied her most fervent desire.

And hadn't Lord Elrond told her this would be the outcome? Hadn't she seen the war in his eyes when she'd told him she was leaving—at war with himself, contemplating the effectiveness of beating the message into her head? She'd watched him rise from his desk, his barely controlled anger, the balled fists, the lines that hardened around his mouth, the arched brows drawn together, his angry words, quiet but steely, "Jeren, do not do this. The Dúnedain rangers are a strictly traditional group of men. They will never accept you as one of them."

She knew Lord Elrond's anger only masked what he truly felt: the hurt of her leaving him and his complete concern for her welfare. And somewhere in her heart she knew Lord Elrond was right in his prediction of Aragorn's reaction, but she'd refused to believe it. She could not abandon her goals, not even for him. She'd ridden away from Imladris, she herself, breaking the heart of someone she loved.

Lord Elrond had been right, and now it seemed she stood at a crossroads. Should she give up her dream or fight alone, which really wasn't an option at all? Valar, giving up on her only goal in life was not an option! She remembered how she'd felt as she recuperated from the vicious Orc attack. Every day—every hour—she spent thinking of the revenge she would take on the vile beasts that had left her for dead in the dirt of her yard. Forgetting any of that was not a choice.

How could she make these stubborn men see that she could fight with them—help, not hinder them?

Jeren considered that thought. That's exactly what she had to do! Make them see. It would be risky; she'd be alone and vulnerable to Orcs and the Valar knew what else that roamed the countryside with her. And she might die trying to turn the rangers' opinions of her. But what good was life without hope? How could she live and not follow her heart?

She would do it! She would become as a shadow to them, following them as they patrolled. She'd be out of sight until a battle erupted, and then she would show them! Demonstrate to them just how deadly she could be with a blade and bow. She knew she must steer clear of Elrohir and Elladan—their Elven senses could ruin her plans before they even began.

Her heart lifted with her new plan. She yawned and settled into the half sleep she needed so desperately. Even though she was well hidden, Jeren could not possibly relax enough to go deeply to sleep while she was alone, the possibility of Orcs stumbling upon her only too real. Her past flared in her mind momentarily, but she controlled it and knocked away the images that haunted her. Lord Elrond's ability to heal minds had served her well.

Placing her hand on the hilt of her long knife, Jeren loosened the blade in the sheath. She yawned again and closed her eyes. She smiled to herself. She'd convince them she could do the job.

Or die trying…

o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o

Jeren woke with a start.

She didn't move, didn't even breathe for the seconds it took to determine what exactly had disturbed her shallow sleep. She relaxed a little with her first breath. There were no sounds in the night except for the rustle of leaves and brush in the slight breeze. It was nearly dawn; the complete darkness of the night had faded to a dim slate gray. Completely still, Jeren let her senses free, listening intently, scenting the air.

There was nothing—nothing but a feeling of being watched. She'd felt this way so many times in her training she'd learned not to ignore it. She heard the faintest echo of a footfall.

There were Elves about; she knew it in her soul.

She continued to listen, making sure she'd made no mistake. Orcs could be stealthy at times, but for the most part, their misshapen bodies and warped legs made for noisy progress. And they had a stench to them that no one could miss. She knew they weren't in the near vicinity. Straining her ears, she heard the faint step again. In her mind's eye she formed an image of the scene: the Elf was behind her to her right.

Gathering her feet under her, Jeren silently took her long knife out of the sheath. Bracing herself, she stood, turning and raising her weapon in one fluid motion. The Elf held up his hands in surrender, Jeren's knife pointed at his throat.

"Impressive, Young Lady," Elrohir said. Jeren couldn't tell if she heard genuine admiration in his voice or just more of his unceasing charm. She had to fight the smile that would reveal just how much she loved seeing him again. She relaxed and let her hand with the knife fall to her side. She then sheathed it.

She knew that Elrohir had let her hear his footsteps, deliberately making enough noise to get her attention. The realization didn't lift her flagging spirits any. Gathering her bow, blanket and water skin, she turned away from him and waded through the tall brush and scrub, making for clearer surroundings.

Elrohir followed her closely. He ducked sideways when she let go of a low branch as she made her way, knowing she'd done so on purpose. He chuckled.

Jeren turned on him, venting her growing frustration, "What so amuses you, Elrohir?"

"I was actually thinking about my brother and how right he is about you. You're so young."

Jeren shot him a look that might have killed lesser Elves, but continued toward where Two—her mare—was tethered. The faintest hint of pink and orange tinted the crest of the eastern horizon. The air was crisp and cool, belying the warmth that the day would bring. "Why are you here? What do you want, other than to torment me, of course?"

Elrohir walked around Two, whispering words to the mare as he ran his hand down its neck. He kept speaking to the horse with lowered, murmuring Elvish words, all the while caressing along its back. Two was between him and Jeren, but they may as well have been leagues apart. "I came to be sure that you were safe."

"I am. You can go away now." Jeren plunked the saddle onto the horse's back, the stirrup only missing Elrohir's face because he dodged out of harm's way.

"Do you not see how you are acting as a child? Pouting and running away is something a youngling would do, not a person of your age."

"Go away, Elrohir." Jeren hoped that he couldn't hear the slight trembling of tears in her voice. She pulled the cinch tight. She said not another word as she placed the bit between the horse's teeth, pulling the halter in place. She patted Two between the eyes and gathered the reins, drawing the horse along behind her.

Elrohir grabbed her arm, turning her back to face him. "Jeren, you cannot be out here alone. The danger is too great."

"How do you think I made it to the stronghold, if not alone Elrohir? Besides you heard for yourself I'm neither wanted nor needed by the Dúnedain."

"Oh, Jeren, how hard-headed can one female be?" Elrohir looked around, as if trying to find someone sane to talk to. "There are plenty of roles for you to fulfill with your people. Why do you insist on one that you cannot have?"

Jeren wanted to scream at him, tell him those 'other' roles were not to her liking. They included being a wife and mother and all the duties that went along with them—making meals, scrubbing pots, tending a cabin. Perhaps one day, that might be her chosen place in life, but not now. She had to avenge herself and her honor. She had to help with their common cause.

But she knew that to open her mouth at all would open her soul, and painful tears would escape her eyes. And the one thing she'd never wanted him or any man to see was any weakness in her at all.

She looked at his hand clasping her arm, then looked in his eyes. He released her.

"At least tell me what you plan, Jeren," he said. "Where will you go?"

"I'll be around, Elrohir. More than that I cannot say."

Jeren mounted her horse and looked at him again, wanting so badly to tell him her deepest heart. But she knew she could not. Not now.

She dug her heels into Two's flanks and trotted out of Elrohir's sight. As soon as she knew she was well away from him, she stopped. Stepping down from the mare, Jeren repeated to herself, "I'll be around Elrohir. When you least expect it."

*A/N: For the purposes of this story I am making up this ranger stronghold. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought it was something that did exist in Tolkien's work, but I've researched with what books I have and have not come across any reference to this place. Maybe I read it in another fan fiction story, and if so, I'd love to give the author credit, but I do not know if this is even the case. So, I'm simply going to make the place up and try to stick as closely to Tolkien's world as I can in the process.

Also, about Aragorn being the Chieftain. Certainly he was, but mostly he was Strider until well into the War of the Ring. I don't know that he embraced his role as Chieftain with the rangers prior to the WOTR, so I've taken a little artistic license with him, too, I suppose, if this is not canon.

Evereven