Halla sat at the long wooden banquet table with a garland of white and blue flowers in her hair. Her families old and new surrounded her, and her new husband Finnan sat beside her, stiff in his fine green cloak. He was neither handsome nor ugly, the sort of face you'd not pick out in a crowd, with limpid dark blonde locks and a soft, receding chin. But he was, in Halla's village, a hero. He'd answered King Theoden's call and fought beside young King Eomer and Pelenor Fields, gone on to the Black Gate as well. Halla's friends assured her that she should be happy. They reminded her that her parents were dead and her aunt and uncle were simple farmers, with only twenty horses, and she should be honored at the match. They did not mention that the wedding would join Finnan's land with her own inheritance, good fertile land near the River Isen which now that the War was over would no longer be too dangerous to farm, and thus worth something suddenly again, just as she had to give control of it away. No one suggested Finnan's family had planned the marriage with that goal—and no other—in mind.
"A toast to the bride and groom!" Finnan's father declared, and Halla's new husband raised his fancy goblet with hardly a thought. "May they have many strong sons!"
Halla blushed to the tips of her ears, and Finnan grit his jaw. The wedding party laughed into their cups of mead and ale, making randy jokes about the young couple. But who could fail to be in a good mood? The War was won and law restored. Burnt out wattle and daub houses were rebuilt and mares covered to make new foals, replacing those slaughtered or stolen by the Enemy. Finnan had a good herd, near three hundred now. Halla closed her eyes, wondering if she was little more than a brood mare to this remote new husband who had not even proposed himself, but sent his father to Halla's uncle, at which time the two old men sat in the shade and drew up land deeds to be filed in Edoras.
Well, so be it, she was a woman now, a woman of place and position at last. Halla, two weeks past her sixteenth birthday, told herself that her mid-summer marriage to the taciturn twenty-five year old warrior was the best she could hope for. Finnan had fine manners and seemed quiet and thoughtful, and he had given her a beautiful grey colt to train up herself, along with a golden torque necklace. She would live in a wide house of good grey stone with a bedroom and an undercroft, and her bread would come from a large kitchen, built close enough to the house to keep the bread warm for her breakfast, but not so close as to bring a danger from fire. There would even be a serving woman and a boy to do farm chores. I've no reason to feel sour about it, she told herself firmly.
When the feast was over, Halla's aunt and friends crowded round her, and the men around Finnan. They sang songs and the little girls of the village threw daisies and mountain laurel along the path to Halla and Finnan's new house. Finnan took a cup of mead in the wide hall, where swords were mounted on the wall, and Halla and the women climbed the narrow wooden stairs to the second story. The bedroom ran the length of the hall and had southern widows. Wide oak floor boards were covered with fresh rushes and sweet strewing herbs. Laughing and chattering, Halla's young friends helped her change into a delicately embroidered linen nightgown. The maids were blushing and the married young women laughing and making bold jokes. Aunt Hilda tied the neck of the nightgown with a cornflower blue ribbon. Her cousin Freyda brushed her long pale hair. Internally Halla was panicked about what was to come, but when Aunt Hilda asked if she had any last questions, Halla shook her head firmly. Having grown up with livestock, she had no confusions about where babies came from. She didn't want to tell them that the idea of someone touching her so intimately was quite horrifying. She hoped to get through the whole business without much of a fuss.
"You look lovely," Hilda assured her, kissing her on both cheeks. The women sang and laughed their way out the door and down the stairs, leaving Halla alone in her new bedchamber. She walked around the room, tentatively examining her new surroundings. A fire was burning in the polished bronze grate in the fireplace. The bed was a great oak four poster, with thick felt curtains in a deep forest green. She touched the white coverlet, her fingers sinking into goose-down. An ornately carved trunk stood at the foot of the bed. Halla lifted the trunk, peeking in at linen sheets and spare wool blankets. The trunk had been lined with dried lavender. Outside the window, a bird sang in the summer twilight.
She dropped the lid, hearing bootsteps on the stairs. Halla sat down on the bed, trying to achieve a poised balance of good posture and relaxed calm.
Finnan appeared in the door, and Halla gave him a small smile that she hoped would seem inviting, but not wanton. She was chilled a little by his hard stare. It was, Halla realized, the first time he'd looked at her straight on, and his eyes were cold and grim.
He crossed the threshold briskly, unclipped his broach, and dropped his cloak on the chair by the fireplace. He kicked his boots off, dropping clumps of caked mud on the floor. He snuffed the candles out, and approached the bed in a business-like manner. Halla drew her breath and climbed under the soft white coverlet. She lay carefully, spreading her hair out over the pillows in a way she hoped looked fetching.
Finnan climbed into bed beside her. They lay in perfect silence, a silence that hummed with nervous energy.
Suddenly her new husband reared over her, pulling up her nightgown, squeezing her small breast clumsily. Halla grit her teeth and steeled herself. Love will come later, she thought. That's what Hilda had told her. She'd get through this, and wash up, and go to sleep as if it were any other day. In the morning she'd bring him bread and sweet cream butter and small ale, and bid him a good day as a proper wife should. Then she'd see to the chores, and by mid-morning go to ride her new horse. She'd visit her friends and they would laugh at her. She'd tell them it wasn't as painful as they'd said it was.
Only, there was no pain coming. Finnan was beavy and awkward between her willingly parted thighs, and all she felt was his hand beating against his belly. Halla had a morbid curiosity to look down, but she kept her eyes on the tester above the wide bed. Something didn't seem right, and she had a sinking feeling what it was. Finnan gave out a hard gasp of frustration and flipped onto his back. He turned away from her, lying to face the fire. She didn't hear another sound from him.
Halla was in shock. She'd been ready for anything, no matter how awkward, she'd heard all types of stories… but this!
She wanted to melt into the soft featherbed. He didn't like her. Didn't like her, didn't want her. She'd known men who'd hump anything on foot or hoof, so long as it was female, but this young Rider couldn't raise his spear for her! She would have sniffed herself for bad smells, but she didn't dare breathe, and besides she'd bathed in lavender water just before the wedding feast. What if he thought her repulsive? What if he could never do it? What if she never had children, never had sons to keep up the herd and the farm, and she grew old alone and abandoned—
Halla felt hot tears of shame in her eyes. She blinked in the gathering darkness, desperate to get a hold on herself. In the morning they'd all stare at her for signs of a change, that great movement to adulthood that every woman made… What could she possibly tell them? She was humiliated!
Halla felt that he was still awake. It was almost like he didn't breathe as well. She didn't want him to know how hurt she was, as if there as some way to pretend that everything had gone as it ought. Halla closed her eyes and forced herself to take slow, deep breaths, but just beneath the surface, she was beyond devastated, certain that if she repulsed him as a bride, she couldn't fail to repulse him later on. What sort of life could she have now?
Unable to sleep and unable to face her husband, Halla slipped out of bed before dawn. The cold air chilled her as she quickly dressed in a good blue work dress and plain brown cloak, and tied on a white apron. She washed up, brushed and braided her hair into a long single plait, trying not to linger before her polished bronze mirror in a painful effort to find out what was wrong with her narrow, regular face. She'd always been called a pretty maid: was it possible folks kept something from her about her appearance, something that was wrong? Something that would repulse a warrior?
Halla laced up her leather boots and hustled down the stairs. She passed by the guests from out of the village—some of Finnan's battle brothers and relations from far away—who slept on the floor of the hall. She stepped out into the grey dawn, and took a great breath of crisp morning air. A fog clung to the high, sweet meadows filled with flowers. Horses stood slumbering or moving slowly through the field, grazing the dew-filled grass. Mountains rose in the horizon, smoky-blue against a pale grey sky, some still capped with white. The air smelled like sweet clover and pine from the forests at the feet of the mountains. Some of the trees were damaged and rockslides were common now that the rains were coming strong, but the War was over, and no summer had ever seemed so sweet.
"It's not so bad," Halla said to herself. "Three hundred horses! And a colt of my own, from a mighty sire and a true line."
"Up early, Mistress!"
Halla jumped out of her boots. The serving woman, Blythe, stepped beside her with a bucket and a smile. She was a plump woman in her middle-years, with dark blonde hair tied back under a plain white kerchief.
"Sorry to startle you, ma'am. Beautiful morning, eh?"
"Beautiful," Halla repeated. "I'd like to see the barn, and the kitchens."
"Glad to show you! I've just come here myself, a few days ago. But I know it well enough now. A goodly place. I'm going to gather the eggs for Master's breakfast. He left word last night he'll be leaving early this morning, but I 'spect you know that."
"Oh—yes, I remember now. I'll come with you, Blythe, if that's all right."
"You're the Mistress here!" Blythe said cheerily.
Halla walked along with Blythe, swallowing her mortification. So he meant to leave her right away! Would he even tell her where he was going? Would he even say goodbye?
She was determined not to let things begin this way. After helping to snatch eggs from the fat anxious hens, and taking a bite of bread and cup of fresh milk in the kitchen, Halla announced, "I will bring my husband his breakfast, Blythe."
" 'Ere it is, then," Blythe replied, not a suspicion in her plain friendly face. Halla took the tray of scrambled eggs and bread and butter, and Blythe placed a tankard of warm small ale beside the plate. Halla marched off, and then she cringed, wondering how a new bride ought to walk the morning after her wedding. She'd no idea how she was supposed to feel, and no way to feign it but by shortening her stride, her gate stiffening self-consciously.
She found Finnan seated at the table in the hall, with two other Riders beside him.
"Good morning, husband!" Halla said boldly, setting his breakfast before him. "I trust you slept well?"
Finnan blanched, giving her his cold, accusing eyes. Halla felt as if he'd spat on her. She smiled politely to her guests, then backed away in horror. He would not even try! He'd shamed her before his own friends! What did they think of her?
Halla had to summon all her strength not to run from the room in tears, like a little girl slapped away by an impatient older brother. She thought to take refuge in the barn, but arrived just in time to see the stable boy bringing out Finnan's roan charger. The horse was prepared for a long ride. Not only were their bags attacked to the sturdy wood and leather saddle, but a pallet rolled and tucked behind it. How long was he leaving for? She could hardly ask the freckle-faced stable boy!
She ducked into the tack room, her stomach twisting with shame and rejection, and a good dose of hot fury. How dared he treat her so miserably? So what if he was a Rider, a man of wealth and standing? At the very least, that would usually imply he'd have honor! So he did not want her, didn't like her, could he not at least be gracious? Could he not bid her good day? Could he not have put off this trip, so that the whole village need not know how lowly he thought of his new bride?
"Sumthin the matter, Mistress?"
Halla thought she'd die of shame. What was his name—Ailen?—was staring at her with big, curious blue eyes. "Nothing at all. I cannot find my horse's tack."
"Silverfire, right? I thought you might like to take him for a ride this morning. I know I would, if I had such a colt given to me! I brought him in first thing this morning. He'll be ready in just a few moments."
"Thank you," she said quickly, glad he had a reason to go away. I won't hide in this barn! Halla thought bitterly. She went to the entranceway, watching as her new husband, no husband at all, swung onto his charger's back and rode out the gate without a backwards glance.
Halla had to get away. She hadn't felt so out of place since her parents had died, so long ago she could hardly remember anything but the fear and the loss, and the sense that nothing would ever be right in the world again.
But it was all right, Halla thought. Aunt Hilda gave me hot soup and told me stories of the great Maeras, and made me forget the fire and the screams. They kept me safe for all those years, and I learned to like their farm. And I will learn to like this place, if it's the last thing I do.
She swung lightly into her own saddle, stroking his snowy neck, talking softly to him as he danced in anticipation. Halla felt the same way, almost unable to restrain herself from galloping off, leaping the fence and running into the mountains. But she was a good rider, and she put the colt through his paces, keeping his mouth soft in her hands and his body responsive to her light seat and slim legs. When she finally let him run, it erased all the shame and fear and doubt, if only for a few moments. The fog was burning of the meadow and the wind was fresh. She cantered past the tree line, into the forest that was far safer now than it had ever been before. Ferns and carpets of violets lined the old path into the mountains, and Halla followed it up and up, to where the little river that bordered her own dowry lands ran swift and cold from the peaks below. There was a waterfall still a ways higher, and a shallow ford where the rocks broke up the current and Silverfire could have some water. She slowed him to a walk so that he could cool off first, riding up the trail with no other sound around her than the thumping of her swift colt's hooves, and the chattering of birds.
As soon as Halla approached the ford, her colt's gate changed, dipping low each time his left foreleg struck the ground. Halla reined him in and hopped down, drawing braided leather reins over his head. She knelt spryly beside him, running her hands down his mud-flecked leg to check for heat or swelling. Finding none she clucked softly and leaned against his leg, lifting his hoof up. It was packed with mud and rocks, and even digging most of it out with her fingers she couldn't see if he'd picked up a stone in his shoe or not. "Come on, boy," she called softly, leading him into the shallow water. Cupping a handful, she rinsed the mud away and saw, sure enough, a sharp stone wedged between his hoof and the iron. She pat him on the flank and took her small work-knife from its sheath at her belt.
As soon as she set the knife to his hoof, trying to wiggle the stone out, the colt snorted and stomped his hoof down. His tail swished, and his ears pinned against his head. "What is it? Got a bruise already? Just hold still, it's almost out…"
She flicked her knife and the stone went flying. "There," she soothed. "All better now…"
Silverfire snorted and yanked away from her. His eyes were white around the edges, white with terror. He ripped the reins from her hands and spun, and no matter that she shouted his name he was gone in an instant, running hard for home.
Halla stared after the horse in shock, a chill creeping up her spine. She looked wildly around, up to the cliffs above the river, into the stands of tall pines, and saw nothing amiss. Calmed a little, she felt the stinging welt left by the reins. She touched her palm gingerly, cursing softly. Halla went back to the stream and stuck her hand into the water, wincing as it rushed cold over the raw skin. Of all the cursed luck, Halla thought. Now I have to walk back!
She had just glanced up when her eyes caught sight of something moving in the clutch of ferns across the ford. Frowning, Halla stood. The old fears came rushing back to her: fear of being alone, fear of monsters streaming out of the mountains, fears that the end of the War should have banished. Halla refused to run from shadows and memories. Whatever it was, it was close to the ground, too small or injured to be a threat to her.
A wounded animal?
It wasn't uncommon. There were wolves and lynx in the alpine forest, and rockslides now from the impact of the Enemy's destruction, and of course the villagers hunted here, now that the threat was gone from Isengard. Halla wouldn't be able to turn away from a wounded deer, or even a lynx. If it was a predator, she'd walk back for Ailen, and the two of them together could try to give the creature a chance.
Halla crossed the ford. These things happened, she thought. Seeming accidents that were in fact a sending of Bema, who guarded the hunter and hunted both in the balance of life. Halla might be meant to help. The thought comforted her, after her husband's stinging, baffling rejection. She might not be pretty to her own husband, but at least she could do some good.
She heard a low, harsh breathing, the scratching of a weak growl. Certainly a predator, Halla thought, no doubt why SIlverfire ran off. The colt was too green to stand calm before danger as the great warhorses would. Halla slipped her knife out again. She'd tended a predator herself before, when her uncle had shot a yearling wolf with his bow. But Halla had not only failed to save the soft shadowy grey hunter, she'd taken a good whipping from her uncle for trying to do it in the first place. It was obvious to her that this creature, whatever it was, had been trying to get to the water before it fell. Likely it was in bad shape then, and Halla steeled herself to see carnage, a living creature at its end.
She crept cautiously towards the weak sound, seeing again the shadow of deep grey behind green. She stepped lightly, as silent as she could, and even still as soon as she got close the creature stirred in panic, shaking the ferns, claws scraping weakly along rock.
Halla took one last step, and then she stopped in cold, gripping terror.
An Uruk-hai warrior lay on the forest floor, belly and ground slicked with his black blood and his leg bent near backwards. His breath was shallow and fast and his yellow eyes wild. He eyed her up and down and snorted—in resignation, it seemed like, with a touch of irony that shocked Halla, as if he was sentient, as if he found a dark humor in it all. He tried to pull himself up again, his hand weakly scrabbling over the rocks. When it proved too hard he dropped onto his back again, gasping. The Uruk-hai shut his eyes. "Do it…" he growled, shocking her that he could speak her tongue. "Fast… be best…"
Halla squeezed the knife in her hands. I should do it. I should kill him. It would only be fair.
Halla had lived under the terror of the Uruk-hai for as long as she'd been alive. She had lost cousins and friends to their brutality, those who'd been massacred outright—the lucky ones—and those who'd been carried off on the shoulders of a beast, never to be seen again. They were monsters, butchers, rapists, baby-killers who ate the dead raw. They slaughtered horses for pleasure, taking almost as much joy in that as in killing villagers, as if they somehow understood that the horse was sacred to Halla's people. How many women, in her place, would not plunge in the knife, or pound its skull with stones? Or better yet… just walk away. Let the wolves feast, let the Uruk die of thirst a stones-throw from water. Let it suffer, as it had made so many of Halla's kin suffer. It would be no less than the monster deserved. For a moment, Halla was overwhelmed with the heady thirst for revenge, and her knowledge of absolute power over an enemy. His life was utterly in her hands.
Halla drew a short breath, her fingers worrying the hilt of her knife. It would be like when Uncle Aelfred slaughters the hogs. She could picture it clearly, one of her first memories of her new home. A scent of blood in the cold autumn air, the high squealing, the cowering of the others towards the back of the pen. Halla had sobbed violently and childishly sworn that Aelfred was a beast. It had reminded her, somehow, of the thing she had at one locked into a dark corner of memory, never to be revisited: the death of her parents. It would be better to walk away. Halla didn't think she could kill… at least not without the immediate threat of danger.
She grimaced: Isn't he dangerous? Of course! She took in his sharp, black claws, his heavy crushing muscles, the tips of sharp fangs that were visible between his parted lips as his weak panting filled the air. His eyes were shut, as if he didn't fear the killing blow, was just ready for it. Maybe he wanted her to kill him. Surely he knew he'd be worse off if she did walk away.
Halla leaned over him a little, wondering how she'd best do it. Downed as he was, Halla didn't want anywhere near his reach. Or his fangs. He didn't have a weapon… but then, he didn't need one, did he? He could kill her with his hands… Or with other parts, mixing shame and terror.
Not this one, a small voice said. Couldn't kill a lamb like the way he is.
He opened his eyes, squinting at her. "What? …Go, kill! …Lucky… day for you."
"I don't think it's lucky to kill anything lying on its back!" Halla said sharply.
He snorted, a pitifully weak sound. "Don't… know how… do you?"
"What-? Well, I suppose I don't! I don't go around killing folks like you do!"
"Little knife… neck… belly… got one… there already… Cut the rest up… inside." He said it matter of fact, as if he was talking of dressing a chicken.
Halla covered her mouth, thinking she'd vomit. "I'll just give it to you," She said. "You do it. Since you're such a master of it."
The Uruk hissed softly. "Tryin'… for the water. Not… the nothin'. Kill me… or go away."
"You'll die before you get to the river," Halla said sharply.
He rolled his head to the side, looking at her full on. "Don't want to kill…enemy?"
Halla, stunned, couldn't respond. Why didn't she want to kill him?
"Get water then," he said, fixing her with his feral yellow eyes.
A breathly laugh of shock escaped her. "What?"
"Need water… too many… days. Water to drink…and to wash. Maybe I live."
Halla brushed her fingers over her lips. She shook her head. "Why should I help you?"
The Uruk frowned. He seemed thoughtful. Halla wondered if she'd in fact fallen off of Silverfire and cracked her skull. She couldn't be conversing with an Uruk-hai!
He took a shaky breath. "Not gonna kill me… help me. War's over. Help you back… one day. Say how."
"I can trust you?" she scoffed.
The Uruk nodded, eyes low with pain. "Yeah. War's over. Don't want… trouble… with your kin. Got... enough trouble."
"Who did that, then?" Halla asked, nodding to his broken body.
"Wild men… Then the cliff."
"Damn," she whispered softly. "Damn." She was trapped by her own conscience, by her inability to kill, or to walk away. By rights she should have, and if their places were reversed and he'd come upon her in the forest… Halla shuddered to think it. "More of you around?"
He arched his smooth, sweaty brow and nodded severely. "Not telling where. But no trouble with the Riders… or their women. Right? Been here a while… see your Menfolk huntin… No trouble."
"How do you speak my language?" Halla asked, amazed, slightly horrified but amazed. They had been living in peace beside a pack of Uruk-hai all spring?
"Got four languages," he said, a touch of pride in his raspy voice.
"You won't have much of a chance anyway," Halla told him, trying to be cold. "Not unless your… your fellows come to bring you home. You need medicine, bandages, food, and shelter. Not just water."
He arched his brow again, training his eyes on her, shrugging lightly though it made him cringe with pain. "I'll wait here for you," he said. Was that dry humor now? Was that a smile at the corners of his lips? "Don't need shelter, tho… Don't take chills so much. Don't mind the rain."
"You think I'm going to save you," Halla breathed, shaking her head.
The Uruk nodded. Halla realized his expression wasn't just sentient, but sharp and clever. Also bold. He was surely broken, but he didn't seem the slightest bit afraid, even if it was to go into the nothing, as he called the place he thought he'd go in death. But he definitely had no wish to die.
"Damn," she swore again. She looked around the forest until she saw a maple with broad, flat leaves. She hurried to the tree, and ripped a leaf off. She rolled it into a funnel and folded the bottom tip up, and filled it with cool water from the stream. When she stood over the Uruk again she asked softly, "You going to trick me? Grab me and… and hurt me?"
He snorted incredulously, and shook his head slowly. "Just want my life," he said quietly.
Halla's heart pounded until she was dizzy, but she knelt down beside the Uruk's face. The way he held her eyes was deeply disturbing; such a hot, gripping stare, as if he saw right into her. She looked away before she carefully put her hand behind his head, feeling his thick, warm hair, bound back at the nape of his neck with a simple leather cord. She lifted his head, feeling his neck strain as he helped himself up enough to drink, relying as little as he could on her assistance. But his bold, calm demeanor was stripped away as the cool water touched his parched lips. He seized at the water with all his being: tipping his head back to open his throat, swallowing deep and hard. He reached a weak arm up and clasped at Halla's hand, and she gasped in fear. But he was only trying to tip the green cone all the way, to get at the last drops. He released her immediately, leaving a heat on her skin that wouldn't go away. She brought him water three more times, seeing that some of the feverishness in his eyes seemed to dissipate. She felt sorry for him then, the way she'd felt sorry for the wolf. It couldn't help what it was any more than the Uruk could, and though she was sure she'd gone mad, she believed him when he said he wouldn't hurt her. His discomforting gaze also allowed Halla to judge his intent, quite clearly.
"I must walk back my village. My horse ran off. But I will ride him back later on, with some things to help you. And you… you just remember with this woman did for you."
"Always," he said, giving Halla the anxious, certain feeling he was committing each detail of her to memory.
Shaken by that thought, Hall turned on her heel and walked away, sure that she'd get home and lose her courage—or her folly—and never return.