Redwald's breath huffed as his feet pounded the earth. Fast as he could run, the encampment didn't seem to be getting closer. Then quite suddenly, he burst in amidst the shelters. The members of the clan who were about looked up.
"They're coming!" he shouted, then collapsed in a heap. Beornflaede, his mother, stood and gazed into the distance, nervously wringing her hands. She bit her lip and hope flared for a moment in her eyes.
The summer grasses were swaying in the breeze, flowing like golden waves across the hills. They'd spent the early spring near Edoras; once the first reports of the war's ending were delivered, the clan returned to their beloved delta in the Eastemnet. The families spent the better part of the last few months gathering the scattered herds.
Far away, the plumes of dust raised by shod hooves could be seen approaching.
"At last," Beornflaede whispered, closing her eyes and holding on to the hope that her Godwine would be among them.
"I hope they bring no cause to grieve," Sighard said quietly. "There is plenty enough to be had here." Nearby, Cynburga flinched, and her eyes filled. Hugging herself, she hurried to her shelter. What if Leofdaeg was not among them? How could she face another loss so soon on the heels of the worst grief a mother could suffer?
"I advise you to expound on the good, leaving the bad to tend itself," Hengist remarked, his eyes following Cynwise as she saw to their daughter. "We are alive. There would be a different tale to tell, had we not been so well aided." He shuddered at the thought of their brave sons and grandsons returning to a camp littered with the dead and defiled. They must be made to understand what horror they were spared, and above all, who it was they had to thank.
Osgar's countenance showed little most of the time, yet seemed to become more grim as his gaze flicked from one elder to the next. "They're gonna kill'im, ain't they?" It was not so much a question as a statement.
Hengist sighed heavily and shook his head. "Nay. Not a soul in this camp would allow it." He forced a smile, attempting to reassure a boy who could see as well as any man that his granddad was unsure. "No matter what griefs they bear, or how angry they may be, Baan is one of us. That will not change."
"Where is the lad, by the by?" Sighard asked. Hengist glanced at Alric and they shared an amused smile.
"Down by the river, teaching Eafrida to fish," Alric supplied.
Ebba paced the ground anxiously, her eyes darting to the slowly approaching riders. How long did it take to cover so short a distance? She refused to acknowledge the possibility that the horses were likely already run hard just to get within sight of the encampment.
"Stop it this moment, you're making me nervous," Githa scolded. She, too, was watching the horizon, fairly dancing from foot to foot.
Ebba sighed deeply, hugging herself. "Do you suppose...?" Thinking better of voicing her worry, she shook her head. "Never mind."
"What?" Githa asked. Standing next to Ebba, she glanced at the other young woman's face. "What is it?"
"I should be happy," Ebba said quietly, worrying her lip. "He is surely among them. My Aldwulf. He is. I am sure of it."
The other woman furrowed her brow. "That is not what is bothering you. What is the matter?"
Glancing over, Ebba's frown deepened. "I still see... when I close my eyes. When I lay in the darkness, and cannot sleep. What if... what if I remember it too well... when he... when he touches me?" Shuddering, she bowed her head.
Githa put an arm around Ebba's shoulders. "I see it too. Theodhilde was my cousin; Wilburh was your auntie. What those monsters did..." She shuddered herself. "Our husbands will understand."
Chuckling mirthlessly, Ebba pointed out, "They have not been our husbands for long, though. It is the way of young men to..." Another shudder made her falter. "Oh Githa, I do not want to even think of it!" She covered her mouth, trying not to cry. "He will hate me for denying him," she whispered.
"Here now," Githa said firmly. "He'll do no such thing. Chances are, Aldwulf will be too spent from his journey to even suggest it. There will be too much grieving when our kinfolk's fate is told for such thoughts to enter his mind, if he has any good sense. Talk to him. Tell him of your worries. I shall speak with Wilfred, for I have the same feelings." She gave her friend a reassuring squeeze. "You trusted him with your heart before; trust him now with this."
Sighing, Ebba nodded gratefully and dabbed at her eyes with a kerchief. "I suppose I must."
As the familiar encampment came into sight, the men spurred their horses for one last sprint. Coenred clutched his wife's faded, stained hair ribbon in his hand. Thoughts of her were what gave him strength when all hope seemed lost.
That no member of his clan who rode with the king was slain was nothing short of a miracle, when whole villages in the Westfold had been wiped out. Tales told by the survivors, hungry for revenge against any Orc, but especially against those who drove the beasts, spurred Coenred and his men with a righteous fury. Now that the war was won, and the last great force of will behind Orc-kind had been extinguished, he was looking forward to peace. He gripped the ribbon tighter.
Beside him, no less eager to reach home, was his son Eadric. Glancing at the young man's face, Coenred was relieved to see the battle-forged hardness relaxing as they neared the encampment. Their brief stay in Minas Tirith had soothed him somewhat; Eadric's heart eased enough to purchase trinkets for his sisters. If Coenred was not mistaken, there was at least one lass of Gondor who was quite smitten with his dashing son. Perhaps when things settled back to normal, Eadric would remember her.
As they drew closer, however, Coenred frowned. There were only five shelters; four of the size a single family might possess, and one large one for meetings and clan gatherings. Before, they could boast twice that many. For the first time, the thought entered his mind that the clan he'd assumed to be safe and far from any danger, may not have been either.
The Three stood together as the men rode into camp, their horses' flanks steaming. Wives leapt into the anxious arms of their husbands; children hugged their fathers' knees. Ebba's fears were momentarily forgotten in Aldwulf's fierce embrace.
Alric briefly closed his eyes; how would they explain...?
Paega was the first to dart eyes about in growing distress. "Where is my wife? Where is Wilburh?" His son, Deorwine, looked around the assembled folk as well, his brow furrowed.
Also bereft of a spouse at the moment, Leofdaeg joined him. "And mine? Has something happened? Where is Cynburga? My daughter as well?"
Sighard held Beornwyn's hand tightly, drawing strength from her. He laid the other hand firmly on Paega's shoulder. "We have... sad news to tell you. While you were away, we were beset by Orcs. Cair Andros must have been overrun. We..."
"No," Paega growled, shaking his head in denial. "Not my wife. No."
"Son," Sighard said tightly, "I am sorry." As the man dissolved in tears, Sighard held him close. "She fought bravely," he told Paega. "There were too many..."
Deorwine was stricken; it didn't seem real. Had they not marched far away to meet the threat before the Shadow could touch their families? How could it have come here, to his home? How could it have reached his mother? Unwilling to face such a loss, his eyes scanned the group, but could not find the one person he'd hoped to see.. if only to break her heart, for away back in Gondor a pretty young maid waited...
"What of Cynburga?" Leofdaeg barked impatiently, denying grief as long as he could. "And my child? Where are they?"
Cynwise clung to Hengist's hand; the elder seemed unable to deliver the news. Steeling herself, she said quietly, "Cynburga... is well enough. She is in our shelter. She feared... you would not be among those returning, and could not face it."
"She mourns," Hengist said thickly. "As do we all. One other was... lost to the Orcs. Theodhilde..."
Leofdaeg shook his head, his face hardening as mad grief threatened. "No. No."
"I am afraid so," Alric interjected. "As Sighard said, there were too many."
"Come with me," Cynwise said gently, steering her son-in-law toward the family shelter. Leofdaeg was too stunned to protest.
"Was my daughter also among those lost?" Coenred snarled. In his arms was Eadgyd; at his side was Aelfled, gripping his waist hard enough to squeeze the breath from him. Yet there was no sign of Eafrida.
"Your daughter is well," Alric replied. "We thought it best... There is something we need to tell you, before you see..."
"No Orc better have laid a hand on her," Eadric growled, gripping the hilt of his sword.
To the young man's surprise, the members of the clan stiffened and held their heads up defiantly. His little sister detached herself from Coenred and stood in front of him, arms crossed and face even crosser.
"Explain," Coenred said tightly as he scanned the faces all around. While it was heartening to see them united as one, he wondered what common cause had enflamed them, and what it had to do with his daughter.
"No doubt you and the others fought bravely and well," Alric began. "You departed with the intention of restoring peace to our lands. This you have done, and for that we are proud and grateful. What is more, Béma be praised, you have all returned to us in full health."
"Get to the point," Coenred snapped, crossing his arms over his chest.
"My love," Eadgyd interjected, "please understand. He came to us so... innocently. It would have been cruel to do him harm. He threatened no one..."
"I found him," Aelfled informed her father. "He is my friend. I will be terribly cross with you if you make him go away."
"It don't matter what he is," Osgar said firmly. "He saved my mum. Saved us all. He's one of us now."
"What are you all talking about?" Coenred asked. "Who? Has someone joined the clan?"
"Yes," Sighard said. "He has proven himself a worthy ally and fierce protector. Mark you, he may be more than that in the coming months, but for now..."
"For now, to be quite blunt," Alric put in, "he courts your daughter. With the blessing of all, I might add."
Coenred blinked with surprise. "Who is he?"
Alric drew a breath about to speak, then thought better of it. "Perhaps I should show you." Nodding to Hengist and Sighard, he added, "You may tell the rest. This is... well, it is a family matter."
Alric led Coenred, Eadgyd, Eadric and Aelfled down to the river. Behind them, the expected cries of shock and protest could be heard, though thankfully no words were distinguished. Coenred glanced at his father, but Alric's eyes were fixed forward.
Worry began to form in Coenred's heart, and he recalled Osgar's words: It don't matter what he is. Whatever did that mean?
The Entwash flowed deep here, but the shallows were wide. Coenred saw his daughter knee-deep in the water, her skirts gathered and knotted above her knees. She was leaning over, staring into the water, her hands poised as though to grab something. Before her, stripped to the waist with his trousers rolled up to the knees, stood...
Both Coenred and Eadric drew swords and made to advance. Alric grabbed their arms, holding them back.
"Be still," Alric hissed. "And put those away. Weapons are not needed here."
"But that's...," Eadric blurted, but he could not say the word. His father stood rigid, stricken speechless.
"Yes," Alric confirmed. "His name is Baan, and he is an Orc. To be precise, he is an Uruk from Isengard, so not... fully Orc. There is much Man in him. A good deal more lately, I suspect." A slight smile formed on the old man's face.
"How...?" Coenred gasped, and found he was at a loss to form a single question, for so many crowded his mind he could not settle on just one. A shuddering breath escaped him. "You say... that... thing... courts her?" he breathed.
Even as he spoke, Eafrida's hands shot into the water. With a cry of triumph, she straightened and held aloft the speckled yellow-greenish body of a trout. Yet the fish was not so easily won, and Eafrida was clearly too surprised at her own success to hold it long. The trout flipped wildly and flew out of her hand. The Orc made a grab for it, but he was no match for the slippery fish, either. With a mocking splash, the fish disappeared beneath the surface.
Eafrida and the Orc met one another's eyes and burst out laughing. She laid a hand on his arm in a companionable way, and he returned the gesture. Their foreheads pressed affectionately for a moment, then they resumed their vigil.
"Th-... that's... but...," Eadric stammered. His hand waved feebly in the direction of his sister; he was too shocked to say anything else.
Coenred's mouth hung open. After all he had witnessed to the south, the years here in the Eastemnet protecting his family against creatures like this one... Yet he could not say he had ever seen an Orc so like a Man in his manner as this one was. As if in defiance of what Coenred knew of Orcs, this one appeared... happy.
"What you likely are thinking, and unable to say," Alric said, "is that he does not behave as an Orc should, by your reckoning." He nodded and chuckled quietly. "Nor has he since the day he came to us. Though one could argue that when he does battle, he is most like an Orc. If that is so, then he is an Orc who knows where his loyalties lie." Looking significantly at his son, Alric said pointedly, "They lie with us, Coenred. As I said, he has proven himself. Many times. Not one of us holds any distrust in him, for none of us would be here to greet you if not for him. Baan is a good man."
"I... this is... so soon upon our return, after...," Coenred began, then deflated. He shook his head. "I would hear the tale of his coming, father. How... this," he said, gesturing toward the pair in the river, "came to be."
Alric nodded. "I will tell you all that has happened. Come, now. Leave them to their fishing." The elder urged Coenred to return to the encampment. Glancing back over his shoulder, he smiled. "Perhaps we shall have trout for dinner."
"They've kissed, you know," Aelfled supplied helpfully. Eadric looked down at her, eyes wide. An impish grin shone on the child's face. "You know what that means."
A/N: It seemed like a good place to end it, with a hopeful future and a bit of flirtation. :) And now, for those who have probably been clamoring for it (and at the risk that someone will discover instances where I messed up my lineages in the narrative), here are the family trees. I'd love to do it in diagram form, but FFN won't let me.
Alric and Merewyn (deceased) - son Coenred
Coenred and Hilda (deceased) - son Eadric; daughter Eafrida
Coenred and Eadgyd - daughter Aelfled
Hengist and Cynwise - daughters Eadburga, Cynburga, Mildgyd
Eadburga and Baelwine - daughter Githa, son Cearl
Cynburga and Leofdaeg - daughter Theodhilde
Mildgyd and Eastmund (deceased) - son Osgar
Githa and Wilfred
Sighard and Beornwyn - sons Osbeorn, Paega; daugher Beornflaede
Osbeorn and Bregusid (deceased) – daughter Ebba
Osbeorn and Godgyfu
Paega and Wilburh - son Deorwine
Beornflaede and Godwine - son Redwald; daughter Emma
Ebba and Aldwulf