Danyelle’s eyes fluttered open.
A cool breeze blew through the air. Calm silence surrounded her, a sharp contrast to the cacophony of battle which last filled her ears.
Her entire body ached.
She turned he head and saw her mother sitting next to her. The heavy armour of the Hytbold Defender creaked as their eyes met. Danyelle reached out to take her hand, and her vision blurred.
Blinking the haze away, Danyelle saw some of the worry melt away from Cayleigh’s brow, and she smiled as best she could.
She lay on a litter in the shade beneath a great birch tree. To her left and right lay other wounded Free Peoples.
“Are we dead?” Danyelle asked feebly.
“Not today,” Cayleigh replied gently. “Neither Calebril nor Angelos would give you permission to die.”
“Did we hold Tirith Rhaw?”
“Yes. We also took Tol Ascarnan, Grimwood and the Tol Ascarnan bridges.” Cayleigh said, the triumph in her voice was weighed down by sadness. And anger. “But we paid a heavy price. The command under Angelos bore the brunt of the attack by the creeps. If not for Calebril, our losses would have been horrific.”
“Where were you?”
“Capturing the relic at Dâr-gazag with Mirabella. Despite our losses, all in all, it was a good day.”
“Where are my friends?”
“They’re fine.” Cayleigh held a cup of cool water to her sister’s lips. “They’re taking the outposts back while the monster forces are in disarray. The creeps will feel the sting of today for a long while.”
“But they’ll be back,” Danyelle frowned.
Her sister only frowned. Both girls new that any victory in the Ettenmoors for either side was only temporary.
“I see our young Red Eagle is awake!” A voice rang from across the clearing.
Danyelle turned to see an old dwarf approach. His robes were covered in runes and sigils. He smiled broadly beneath the beard and scars that adorned his weather-beaten face.
“How do ye feel, lass?” he asked in a kind, grandfatherly voice.
“It hurts to move.”
“That’s ‘cause ye took a nasty blow to the head from a big ‘ole orc!” He began to poke and prod her body to make sure none of the damage was permanent. “It’s a good thing the arrows missed yer knees, or yer days as an adventurer would be over.”
Danyelle lifted her arms and legs and found she could still count to twenty. Sitting up made her dizzy.
“Ye’ve got the thick Osgood skull,” the dwarf laughed. “I shoulda known ye’d want back to the fight!”
He and Cayleigh caught her and lay her back on the litter.
“We can nae have our newest hero fall again so quickly,” he said gently. “This war ain’t over an’ there will be lots more fighting for ye to come, lass.”
“Why don’t I remember the end of the battle?”
“It’s a good thing ye don’t, young lady,” The dwarf leaned over to examine her forehead and shoulder. “Some times it’s best ye ferget how nasty the fighting can get. I heard ye gave better than ye got, an’ that counts fer something. We’ll get ye rested and then ye’ll be back in the saddle soon enough.”
The patted her on the shoulder and went on to attend the other wounded soldiers.
“What did he call me?” Danyelle asked, once the sky stopped spinning.
Cayleigh laughed despite herself. “You are now the ‘Red Eagle’. The minstrels are already writing songs about the captain with the eagle crest who killed a giant orc warleader in single combat. ‘Covered in blood she fought/Wounded in body but not in spirit/Carrying the flag and holding the line/The Eagle soared ‘til victory was won’.”
With her ears still ringing, Danyelle had to check that she wasn’t hallucinating. Did someone really write a song about me?
“Aeron Rea said you put on quite a show.” Through her concern, Cayleigh’s pride shone through. But she still took the chance to needle her little sister. “Maybe you should let him court you; it seems you are almost as reckless and foolish as he.”
The pair spent the rest of the afternoon in the shade of the birch tree at Glân Vraig. The war seemed so far away. Her friends returned that evening, recounting their adventures and telling the story of a battle she barely remembered. In the morning, the wounded were loaded on to wagons and returned to their homes.
Danyelle awoke in her bed, her body nestled in the soft down mattress and beneath the warm comforter.
Angelos sat in a chair next to her. His eyes were closed and his breathing regular, even as he sat bolt-upright.
He awakened as she stirred.
“How do you feel?” he reached over to help her sit up.
“Like I was trampled by an oliphaunt,” Danyelle muttered. The room did not spin this time. “We won, didn’t we?”
“Aye,” Angelos breathed. “That we did. At least for now. The wargs and orcs will lick their wounds for a time, then they’ll come back for more.”
“Was the price too high?”
He took a deep breath, and for the first time that she could remember, Angelos looked tired. And old.
“The price is always too high.” He closed his eye for a long moment, as if trying to wash away some private grief. “Of the Free Peoples who took the field for me—”
Me. Not “us”. Me. As if Angelos were responsible for each one individually.
“One in ten are either dead or will not fight again. A quarter were injured enough to be taken to a field hospital . . .and that includes you. Most will live, but some will die of Sauron’s pox or their wounds.”
His gaze settled on her.
“Duck next time,” he admonished her, the look in his eye somewhere between a good-natured ribbing and the worry of a concerned parent. “I do not want to bury any more of my children.”
He handed her a glass of tea from the nightstand. Moonlight shone through the windows.
“You will command this army one day,” he said softly. “If that is what you want. They will follow you.”
“They will follow you.”
“I know they will,” Angelos sighed. “But I am too old to take the field for much longer. My body cannot fight like it used to.”
“It’s more than that,” Danyelle said softly. In the candlelight, she could see the truth etched in each crease of Angelos’s brow.
“Aye.” Silence hung over the two for a long time. “There are other forces at work in Middle-Earth. Saruman marched on the Hornburg and his army was destroyed. Sauron’s forces have taken Osgiliath and they are laying siege to Minas Tirith. There are stories of another white wizard taking the field for the Free Peoples. If we win this war, maybe we can finally lay down our swords.”
There was a wistful tone in his voice, but both of them knew that even if Sauron were defeated, the world was still rife with dangers.
“I am tired of giving orders which get young soldiers killed.” Angelos’s voice was little more than a whisper. “That is the burden of command. You pray that every man who dies has given his life that others may live. But one day, you wake up and realise that hundreds of people are dead because they followed you into battle.”
“But they followed you, Angelos,” Danyelle said. “No one forced them to. That is what makes us free. And how many thousands are alive because the forces of Sauron are kept at bay?”
“And that is why you must lead them. You and the other young field commanders.” The big man smiled gently. Bitterly. “I should be doting on grandchildren, dispensing advice no one will heed and telling grand embellished war stories down at the tavern. Not chasing reavers or wargs across Eriador. Or burying my friends.”
Neither spoke for another moment.
“Calebril and the other commanders know my intentions. And they have seen you fight and lead firsthand. They will bring you along until you are ready . . . and based on your renown from this battle, that won’t be too far into the future. I will always be here if you need me, but I have taken the field for the last time.”
As he said the words, it seemed as if a great weight were being lifted from his shoulders. And on to hers.
Danyelle didn’t mind, though. Her life was given purpose. Given clarity. More than being an orphan from the streets of Gondor. More than being Angelos and Mirabella’s ward. More than being Cayleigh’s sister. More than being a foot soldier in the army of the Free People.
Some men are born to follow. Others are born to lead. And a few are meant to ride out in front of the charge, shining a light into the shadows for all to see.
Many years later, Captain-General Danyelle’s Osgood’s body was buried in the crypts beneath the family manor.
Her son Renton lay her next to her sister and all the other Osgoods who came before them. Danyelle’s passing was mourned by her children and grandchildren. Her honour guard hailed from Gondor to Lothlórien to Forochel to Moria, and points in-between.
Before he sealed her sarcophagus, Calebril Isarawyn entombed his swords to rest with her, for he would not need them in the Undying Lands.
In place of his blades, he carried her banner across the sea to Valinor, so that those who stayed behind would know that the watchful eyes and fierce talons of the eagle would live on forever.
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