A/N: This story is the sequel to "Misfire of Global Proportions," and takes place roughly eighteen months later. It would be a good idea to read the predecessor first, as many of the characters' backstories are explained there.
A Fresh Start
Gwennithil wiped another tear away as she watched the Greenway wind away behind them. Her parents sat together on the buckboard of the horse-drawn cart, her father handling the reins. Five hired swords rode alongside them on horseback, keeping a wary eye on the lands and woods to either side.
The words 'necessary' and 'unfortunate' were frequently mentioned whenever she asked why they had pulled up roots and packed their belongings for the southerly trek. She could understand wanting to leave the thief-ridden Chetwood well behind them, but Archet wasn't so lawless that hasty departure from the entire country was necessary. Why could they not settle in the populous Bree-town? Why travel hundreds of miles to the south, pass eastward through open, hostile country known to have savages behind every bush and Orcs up every tree, in hopes of reaching Gondor? The King's own country would probably be safer and better managed, and it was true her father had family there, but getting to distant Gondor would be dangerous.
Biting her lip anxiously, she thought again of Serondaen and his unknown fate. It had been nearly two years since the War's end; surely that was sufficient time for him to return. His name was never mentioned among those lost, and so few from Bree-land chose to join the war to the east, if he had fallen, surely his death would have been noted. She had but to wait, and her betrothed would come to claim her hand as he'd promised. Gwen held tightly to the hope that he still lived, and would return as soon as he was able.
Except now, she would not be there to receive him. It was a bitter draught to taste, and one which had caused much strife. Gwen still didn't want to speak with her parents, preferring to pout obstinately in the back of the cart among the boxes of linens and cookware. She'd stubbornly held her silence for three days of travel, hoping they would seek her forgiveness for this gross inconvenience. Neither of them had yet seen fit to do so.
Packed away as well were her finer dresses. By no means a highborn lady, she still kept as closely to the fashions as she could, often mimicking the latest fare with a deft hand at the needle. But her father insisted she wear little better than her work clothes until they reached less hostile country, so not to draw unwanted attention to their station and wealth. As if they had any left to speak of. Nearly all the family's fortunes had been given over to these men for their services. Very little remained, and was guarded closely by her father.
She plucked at her faded dress with disgust, and glared at the worn toes of her boots peeking out from beneath the skirts. There would be no new dresses for her in Minas Tirith, she thought crossly. Not for a good long while.
"Be of good cheer, lass," Berendir said with a smile as he rode beside the cart on a tall stallion. "I spent part of my boyhood in Gondor; tis a beautiful country. And the White City where we are bound is a marvel. I trust you will fall in love with the land and its people in no time." Waving his hand dismissively behind them, he added, "Archet is but a mean village by comparison, and the Chetwood a vile holding for ruffians and murderers. The seat of the King is a wondrous place."
"If you don't mind the neighbors," another of the hired men grumbled. Geldagnir never spoke above a mutter, and always saw the dismal side of everything. Gwen did not much care for him.
"What, Rohan?" Berendir replied with amusement. "There are few as noble and brave as the Rohirrim. Recall the tales of their victories against the White Wizard's fell beasts? Those cursed Orcs he bred? Ah, that I could have fought at their side. What a battle it must have been." He gazed wistfully ahead.
"Ain't the horselords I'm talkin' about," Dag replied gloomily. "It's them Orcs what survived the war. Clever little bastards, they are. Don't even hear'em comin', then they're on you. Bands of'em roamin' about, I hear; some hooked up with goblins from the east and wild men from the hills. Heard rumors of them Uruk-hai still about, too. Ain't a safe place, is Rohan. And they're still hurtin' from the war. Ain't tidied up yet. Like as not, there's still burned out villages and lands that can't be farmed."
"Well, we are not bound for Rohan," his leader said confidently.
"We won't be able to avoid the country entirely, remember," Maevodh spoke up. "We haven't much choice in routes, with this wagon. The passes are treacherous through the Misty Mountains, and we won't want to be in Dunland long enough to take the southern route through Gondor. Best we cut through Rohan at the Gap. Take a rest in Edoras, then move on eastward. That's if the family still wants to make for Minas Tirith."
"We do," confirmed Gwen's father, Faelur. "No sense in getting settled only to find we're squatting on land owned by another. I'd rather get a proper deed from the king himself. And I have been long away from that country. Much has happened; likely a good deal has changed. My kin could have fled their holdings. Best to go to Minas Tirith first and learn of their whereabouts."
"There you are, then," Maevodh replied smugly. "We'll be traveling through Rohan sure as anything."
"I'd rather have open country about," Bronhador chimed in, "than get lost in the foothills. The White Mountains are not so easily managed as they were before the War."
"The better to see them filthy Orcs comin', eh?" Maevodh laughed.
"If not for our duty, I would welcome it," Bron replied. "They are despicable creatures that offer nothing to the world but cruelty. I would rather see their heads on pikes then upon their shoulders."
"You'll have all the open country you could want," Dag groused. "And like as not, all the Orcs too. Gotta pass through Dunland, that cursed place. Ask any horselord; they'll tell you what a cesspit that country is. Stinks of traitorous Men and bloody Orcs."
"Mind your tongue, young man," Faelur snapped, glancing at his wife. Maeglethril seemed uncomfortable with the rough talk of the hired men.
"If memory serves," Nibendu pointed out, "there's a village along our way here before long. Hadn't we ought to be thinking about taking a rest for the night?"
"Or a pint and a bint," Dag muttered. Nibendu laughed loudly, and Gwen barely stifled a giggle. Her mother's cheeks flared red, and Faelur shot an angry look over his shoulder at the swordsman.
"You'll take your rest in the stables, Dag," Berendir growled reproachfully. The offending man just shrugged.
Gwen's brow furrowed the longer she thought about what they said. Looking up at Berendir, she asked quietly, "Are there many Orcs in Gondor?"
"Aye, a fair few," he replied. "Mostly from the Black Land. Those that survived the battles in Gondor and up in Mirkwood." Noting his avid audience, he affected a grim countenance and a deep voice. "But worse than any of them were the Uruk-hai of the White Wizard. Bred from Men and Orcs, they were. Ugly and brutish monsters. No other breed of Orc was as foul or cursed as the Uruk-hai from Isengard."
Gwen's eyes were wide with delicious fear of such creatures, and she whispered, "Is it true they were destroyed?"
"Nay," he said, shaking his head. "There are always rumors of them, as Dag says. Whether they be true tales or fancy, none can say, for none live who meet them. They are wicked beasts. It is said they have a far greater hunger for the flesh of men than any other Orc."
The young woman gasped with shock at such a vile revelation. Her father rolled his eyes.
"Stop filling the girl's head with such nonsense," Faelur admonished the guardsmen's leader. "You will give her nightmares."
"I am not a child, father," Gwen muttered sullenly.
Berendir winked at her and grinned. She ducked her chin shyly, but smiled in return. Perhaps the months-long journey would not be so bad after all.
The 'village' Nibendu recalled was little more than a cluster of three buildings huddled together like vagabonds sharing warmth. To Gwen's dismay, there was no inn, nor were the inhabitants friendly enough to offer better lodging than the stables to any of them.
"You'll make do," Mae scolded her daughter as Gwen protested the poor accommodations. "These people have next to nothing and live in an unpeopled land. Do not begrudge their wariness, for that is how they have survived."
Faelur ensured his wife and daughter were comfortably settled in the deep straw of the stall, and positioned himself at the entrance. It wasn't that he didn't trust their hired men... well, no, he didn't trust them, not with regards to his maiden daughter. Especially that Berendir. The man was more than twice her age, and showed far more than protective interest in the girl. To Faelur's displeasure, she seemed too responsive to him. That would not do.
Assuming his folk could not be found easily, if at all, he would need the surety of Gwen's innocence to establish his family within the proper circles. If she made eyes at the man and forced his hand, Faelur would be extremely put out.
Sighing, he patted the breast pocket of his coat, reassuring himself that the few coins they possessed were still in their place. He'd given a few coppers to the stable's owner for the night, taking care not to show how much money they had. He hoped they hadn't looked too closely at the wagon's contents, both the goods and his child. They had little wealth remaining after engaging these men, which made his daughter's worth all the more dear. While his wife's work would most assuredly gain him introductions with the 'proper' folks of Minas Tirith, he knew a worthy match for his daughter would be the first step in assuming their comfortable new life in Gondor. If he could keep her from enticing the hired men long enough to broker a marriage contract, that is.
The men set up watches over their charges' rest as well as their goods. They spoke in low voices so not to disturb the ladies' slumber. Now and then, Faelur caught words and phrases. It comforted him that they spoke most about the road ahead, the possible dangers, and the importance of their duty to Faelur's family. Perhaps the hired men weren't without honor, regardless that they swore a bit more than was proper in the presence of ladies.
Faelur shifted to a more comfortable position, and grudgingly allowed himself to sleep.
Lying awake, Gwen lamented to herself how her life had taken such an undesired turning. Forced to sleep in a pile of straw! She would be picking bits of it out of her hair for the rest of her life, she was certain.