Why in Arda did I come north? Inaris wondered, pressing her palm against her cold nose. Three weeks had passed since she’d arrived in the backwater town of Bree. Intending to follow the road west to see the sea, a snow storm had forced her to hole-up in the croweded inn that smelled of farmers, bad ale, and drunk dwarves.
Slipping in a side door of The Pony, Inaris stomped the mud from her boots and wove her way through the crowd to the bar. Teasing a hand through her short, pale blonde hair, she snagged a hot cup of cider. To her relief one table sat unoccupied. Claiming it for herself, Inaris set down her mug and plopped down into one of the wooden chairs.
Reaching into her small satchel, she pulled out the tattered copy of Ariaduialeleth and the Orc that had been recommended by a young woman the night before. Flipping to an unmarked page in the middle, Inaris began to read.
Three years ago . . .
An unsettling quiet set in on the sprawling camp. Rain had turned the ground to mush, and Inaris was glad that the tents for Companions had been set up on a small rise. A breeze flowing down the valley from the north stirred the firey red, and orange tent flaps. Each lazy wave of cloth allowed enough room for her and the few women with her to see out to the fading daylight, and the bodies that littered the camp.
A few of the women cried softly, sitting huddled together between the makeshift cots. Inaris sat alone. Elbows resting on her knees she twirled the butchered ends of her pale golden hair as she watched the lifeless body of her Keeper. The young girl noted that the crimson corners of tent canvas did not change in color as they soaked up the Easterling’s blood.
Serves you right, she thought, narrowed eyes brimming with spite.
Falling quiet, the last of the frightened women ceased their crying, all their heads turning to listen. The sound of heavy feet drew near, and the soft clink of armored bodies were too numerous for Inaris to guess their number. She had heard tales about the men of The Mark and, seeing as they were told by the Keepers to put fear into the girls, Inaris could only assume they were lies.
Shadows filed up beside the tent, blocking out the light. Crossbows entered first, but it was not the weapons that caused the women to shrink back. Tall, broad men entered the tent, covered in mud and blood. All right, all right. Half lies. Unlike the swarthy Easterling hoard that had brought her and the others west, Inaris noted that every single Rohir sported long, blonde hair and full beards. Dozens of blue eyes combed through the number of dirty and frightened females. She didn’t know if she was relieved or unsettled that there was only pity in those looks. Well, in most of them.
The piercing gaze of the tallest man finally settled on her. Inaris was the odd man out among the Companions; all the others having brown or black hair and dark eyes. Unflinching, she stared right back at him. It was not a daring gaze, nor did it hold any fear. Nothing could be worse than the past few years.
“Broþor,” spoke the man in a deep, authoritative voice, motioning for the women to rise even as he turned to look to a rider behind him, “round up extra horses, and send a rider back to the fort to have room made for them.”
“Sir?” asked a younger man tentatively, giving the colorfully dressed group of females a distrustful glance.
The horse lord in charge gave the man a look that shrunk the lad at least a foot. “We’re not going to leave them all the way out here. Now, go.” The younger man practically scampered away, most of the onlookers following after. Pulling off his plumed helm, the tall, Rohirric man pressed two fingers against his eyes before turning back to face the women.
Inaris had not stood with the others, but she sensed the ‘no nonsense’ policy that lingered about the man. Tugging the remnants of her hair further over her face she stood, peering out at him through the feathery veil.
“Are there any more of you we should know about?” All the women’s heads swiveled to Inaris as the man spoke in Common.
“No,” she said flatly. “We are all that’s left.”
The towering man of The Mark stepped forward and lifted a massive hand to brush her bangs to the side. She did not move away as he inspected the bruise that had blossomed over her left temple. Retreating without a word, his thumb left a streak of mud on her cheek.
“Take these ladies down to the horses,” the man rumbled, turning to the cohort that waited in the opening of the tent. “Check them for weapons then escort them back. See that they are not harassed. We will ride on.”
Ushered outside, Inaris led the dozen or so women down the hill, flanked on either side by armored men. Hundreds of pairs of eyes followed them, but she fixed her gaze ahead, not caring about the bodies of Easterlings that littered the path. Inaris had wondered when the fighting began two days before, but now she knew. They were free. They could go back; go wherever they choose. But it felt too surreal. Was not freedom supposed to fill her with relief, and other overwhelming emotions?
Brushed down for any weapons, Inaris accepted the hand that was offered, and swung up into the saddle of a spare horse. To be honest, she felt nothing at all.