Serrick hit Eolina like a catapulted boulder, knocking her and Gaelen both to the ground. Momentarily stunned from the fall, Eolina became lucid again as Serrick pounced on top of her and wrenched up her skirts.

She bucked and screamed. "Get off me! Get off!"

"You'd rather your beast, bitch, but today you're going to feel a Man. Can you even tell the difference… you… you filthy… whore?" The soldier was breathless with desire now, but the woman was fighting too hard for his liking. Serrick drew his gauntlet-covered hand back and issued three hard slaps across Eolina's face, busting her lip open.

"Leave her alone!" Gaelen shouted, throwing himself onto Serrick's back. The boy had never known rage before; now it pumped through him. Having no weapons at his disposal he punched the soldier in the neck beneath his helmet, he dug his knees into Serrick's back. He grabbed the soldier by his hair and tried to pull him off, ripping out a fistful of lank, pale locks.

"Devil imp!" Serrick howled, leaping up to face the young Uruk-hai. He punched Gaelen hard in the jaw and the little boy rocked back into darkness. Then he fell on Eolina again, wondering for a half a moment why her bright blue eyes had seemed to go grey and foggy.

Eolina was no longer in the tall grasses at the border of Fangorn. She was in the pits of Isengard, her head ringing from sharp blows, a male on top of her, her cringing helpless anticipating the horror of what was to come. Serrick didn't mind that she had gone limp. It was better for his purpose, as long as she saw what he did. He ran his foul tongue along her cheek and relished the woman shrinking away from him. "Only like the devils, eh? No matter, I'll teach you better!"

It was coming in flashes: the biting, the clawing, the growling laughter. The trees overhead had become dank earthen tunnels. Eolina twisted her head away, trying to hide her face. A rough knee split her legs apart. There could be no resistance.

But then, incredibly, her son's face appeared through Eolina's terror, confusing her. Gaelen? Eolina saw dark blood running over the boy's face, she saw his closed eyes. And then she felt the Man's hand ripping at the laces of her britches, and terror snapped into fury. Her sight returned, hazed now with red fury, but clear enough to see the good sized rock near her hand.

He was murmuring filth to her, pressing his wet mouth all over her, his erection jabbing against her, moments away from entering her. All thought left Eolina and she grabbed the rock and started bashing it against the bright shiny helm over Serrick's head.

The first blow stunned him, but Eolina didn't stop. Blood began to leak down his face and his body went limp, and Eolina kicked him off her, fell on his chest, pummeling his face with the bloody rock. She couldn't hear her own screaming, couldn't feel the tears pouring down her face, couldn't stop hitting her attacker though his face was now beyond recognition.

Until a hard set of arms grabbed her and pulled her back. Wild with rage, Eolina swung her arm about, desperate to land another blow. "Lina! Stop it! You're safe, you're safe, little Lina, oh…"

Rakhan's trusted voice ripped her back to reality, and Eolina realized what she had done. She threw the rock away in horror, stammering, "What have I done?"

"You defended yourself and your baby," Rakhan said steadily. "And did a damned good job of it."

"Gaelen!"

Rakhan released her, and she ran to her unconscious son. Rakhan was a step behind her, his rough strong hands touching the boy tenderly. "Got hit in the face?"

"He tried to save me," Eolina said urgently.

A cursory examination told Rakhan that Gaelen had been knocked out, as he himself had been a thousand times. "He'll be all right. Might be a little sick when he wakes up, might be a little dizzy, but no more. Uruk-hai have thick skulls." Rakhan brushed his fingers over the bloody hank of Serrick's hair still tangled in Gaelen's grasp. "Little warrior," he breathed affectionately, and then he scooped the boy up in his arms. He looked to Eolina urgently. "Did he—the Man?"

"No," she said, shaking her head.

"Can you walk? I suppose I could carry you both…"

"I'll be—I'm—I killed him, Rakhan…"

"If he hadn't attacked you, he wouldn't be dead. That's all there is to it." Rakhan looked up as Eomer and Legolas galloped up, Gimli riding behind Legolas.

"Are you harmed, Eolina?" Eomer demanded urgently. Then his eyes flickered to Serrick, flat on his back, his face beaten to a pulp.

"No," Eolina said quietly, shame in her voice. "He didn't… achieve his desire…"

The king stared on her with hard eyes for so long Eolina feared he would condemn her. But when he finally spoke he said, "You are a shield-maiden, Eolina. There is no shame in defeating one who wishes to destroy you. This day has brought me much sadness, but worst of all is that I've brought all of these troubles to you, madam. I vow to you that you are under my protection henceforth, as will be all creatures of any race who live in peace. Truly, this day for me is the end of the War and all its suffering. Forgive me, madam. I had no just cause to attack you, nor you, Rakhan."

Eolina bowed her head. "There is no need, my lord. But—Thank you."

"Not to cut it short, Eomer King," Rakhan said, "but I'd best get my son home."

"We'll help you," Legolas offered. "I have some healing skill. I won't be able to rest until I see Gaelen up and well again. He's an incredible boy."

Rakhan eyed the Elf curiously. All of a sudden, he heard, for the first time since Saruman's fall, the stirrings of another's consciousness intruding upon his own. Bewildered, Rakhan strained to make sense of the faint whispers.

Can you hear me?

Rakhan was stunned. His former master had told him of his making, but Rakhan had assumed—in this new life—that that was a lie. But how else could the Elf break into his mind in such a way? And might Rakhan speak back, to the Elf? And what would it mean for Rakhan—for all of his people!—if indeed they were kin to Elves?

"We'd appreciate your help," Rakhan said. "And we'll have our pheasant dinner. Just don't expect me to start calling you brother, Elf."

Rakhan bid the king farewell. Then he led his family, and his strange new friends, deep into the Forest, towards his home.