The winter felt especially harsh this season. The sting of the failures at Stony Ford and the passing of Irime the elf maiden into shadow bit harder with the miserable snow and wind. The worsening weather did little to encourage visitors to the Easterly Inn – and those few that did make their custom there were ill-inclined towards merriment or stayed much longer than it took for the conditions to abate long enough that they might continue their journeys.
Khorum, that noted dwarf, took his evening meal in the commons as was his habit – a bowl of hearty stew, heavy with salted beef and broth, and a flagon of warm cider – powerful stuff to those without dwarven stomachs. Dog and Bill had taken up their seats near the hearth – Dog whittling absent-mindedly at a piece of wood, Bill snoozing noisily at his feet. Neither man nor dwarf spoke – the mood had been a dolorous one – leaving each to their own thoughts – and those had not been particularly good company, either.
The night threatened to continue in such a manner until there came a thunderous pounding at the Inn’s door. The knocking was loud enough to wake even Dog from his mental wanderings – and the paintings on the walls shook with each hammering. Falco, who had just been on his way down the stairs, skittered towards the door in a flurry. “Is that a guest or an army with a ram?” The flustered hobbit reached the door and was about to turn the handle at the very moment when the portal slammed open with a final, powerful knock. Were Falco not Falco – and one of the most nimble dodgers this side of the mountains – he’d have become part of the wall decor, flattened by the heavy oaken door. As he recovered his wits, the small hobbit drew up a breath to half-welcome and half-reprimand this brutish newcomer to his inn.
Standing there, half-covered in snow and draped in a heavy coat of wolf furs, loomed a giant figure. So tall, they had to stoop nearly bent double to enter the modest door of the Easterly Inn. Falco took three steps backwards so as to be able to take in the entirety of his newest guest. “Welcome to the Easterly Inn – I am Falco, formerly of the Shire – full partner to this establishment. Forgive the door – it thought you were an invading army.” The hobbit turned a nervous, but good-natured laugh at his own joke as a way of polite introduction. But such niceties were lost on his new guest, who doffed her heavy coats in an unceremonious and – notably to Falco – highly discourteous pile there at the door. A woman (for girls are so rarely nigh seven feet tall) with handsome features and all of the bearing of some tribal princess – her fair skin turned a rosy red with a mixture of frostbite and anger. Her form spoke of Beorning blood – ropey muscles and shoulders that could carry the weight of the world – but her hair was fair like that of some of the Woodsmen further to the north. She turned to the hobbit, her movements slow and deliberate as if some great predator that didn’t want to frighten a rabbit.
“I come for the dwarf – Khorum – I hear he is called. He stays here at this inn, so it was told to me.”
“Master Khorum? Oh! Yes, well – that’s him over there but why….” but the woman didn’t wait to hear what more Falco had to say. All in all, considered the hobbit, it seemed that it hadn’t been worth the effort of coming down the stairs in the first place. He busied himself trying to gather up the discarded furs – but when they proved to be too big to practically move, he gave up and went behind the bar.
The giantess strode over to the small round table where Khorum was taking his quiet meal, in three strides she covered the distance – deliberate and sure. Her hands clinched in tight, ham-sized fists at her sides. She towered over the seated dwarf as he slowly masticated the stringy beef of the stew. “You are Khorum,” asked the woman.
“Aye,” answered Khorum – not looking up from his meal.
“Brother to Bifur, Son of Vidar? Sometimes friend to Beorn?”
“Aye. And Aye again, lass.”
“And you were there, at Stony Ford?”
A moment of tense silence passed as the words hung heavily in the air. Bill whimpered from under Dog’s chair. Falco stopped polishing the mug he’d been cleaning behind the bar. Khorum’s face turned a deeper shade of somber – but he gave no answer.
“You were all there,” the wild woman threw accusatory looks around the room at the three, but came again to focus on the dwarf, “But you were the one that swung the last blow. Admit it! You were the one that killed the King of the Forest! Answer me!”
“Aye,” whispered Khorum in a voice free of boast or pride.
The blow came out of nowhere and carried the impact of a charging bull. A great ham-fisted uppercut took the dwarf from his seat and sent him sprawling backwards out of his chair. In that moment Falco had produced a club from behind the bar and Dog was already reaching for the axe by the fireplace when the dwarf, rubbing his jaw shouted for them to stop.
“None of that lads… I can fight my own battles,” Khorum drew himself up and looked at the large woman for the first time. His jaw ached – and fiercely – but not so much as his pride hurt for being caught by such a cheap blow.
“Now listen here, Miss, I’ve never had need to strike a woman. But I reckon I could learn. Aye, I killed that bastard – and I spit on his crow-feasted corpse. What’s it to you? One of his murderous lot come for revenge, have ye? Well it’ll be hard earned!”
And that’s when the hobnailed boot of Khorum crunched right into the shin of the giant woman’s right leg, sending her wobbling long enough for the crafty dwarf to deal a knife-handed blow to the back of her left knee. Dwarves have long fought foes taller than them – and the saying amongst them goes ‘The bigger they are, the harder they fall.’ As she crashed to the floor, though, she proved not to be just some dumb brute – and angled herself into a roll that had her back on her feet and charging down at the dwarf again. Scooping Khorum up as the heavy dwarf lord was little more than a child’s doll, the woman pressed the dwarf in a giant bear-hug. Khorum kicked and struggled but found his arms bound tightly in her steely grip, “I’m not one of the King’s folk -” she grumbled angrily but was stopped short in her speech by the dwarf applying his forehead to her nose.
With an almighty clatter, the pair tumbled once more to the ground – the dwarf finding himself fortuitously on top of the pile. He shuddered at the though of being pinned beneath the angry woman – with all of her furious strength. “If yer not one of them – then why in the blazes did you come hunting me down for?” The dwarf poised, straddling the fallen giant – ready to strike should she struggle further.
“The King of the Forest was mine,” snorted Heva – which was her name, though she hadn’t introduced herself as such just yet. The blood streamed readily from her nose, which was surely broken, stifling the speech somewhat.
“What do you mean ‘yours’? Surely you’re not his widow!” the thought scared Khorum, for if she was his widow then he might have to fight for his life. He had heard of the rage of someone who had lost their love – and he had no want to taste any of that. His fears abated as she actually laughed, then coughed – the weight of the dwarf sitting on your chest will do that to even the strongest of lungs.
“Married? Hah! No, you damned fool – he was mine – to kill! I should have avenged my family that night at Stony Ford, but YOU – you stole what was mine by right – the head of the King of the Forest!”
“You’re from Stony Ford?” and with that Khorum understood – and quickly stood, composing himself and as the adrenaline of the rumble faded, his somber mood quickly took over his face once more. “I … we … I’m sorry, lass.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of what happened – the fellowship of ‘The Five’ that was meant to help my people. Some have it in their minds that you failed – I have heard even Beorn himself was none too pleased with your doings…” She gave an overlong stare at Dog – who seemed to shrink at the look.
“Some believe that we were better off without the help of your little company,” she drew herself up a little unsteadily – head still spinning from the encounter with the dwarf’s thick skull.
“Oh yes, there’s even some that say that we ought to run you lot back to the Mirkwood and beyond…” she dabbed at her nose with a grimace.
“Good luck there, Missy,” grumbled the dwarf – for though he was abashed from painful memories of that terrible night, dwarves are not known for ever giving up and running away from a fight.
“I said some. But those that think so are fools, says I. And I am Heva, daughter of Belarn the Elder… first of the fallen of Stony Ford that night,” said Heva – finally introduced. “I say thank you – for those that walked away from Stony Ford alive have you lot to thank. But the head of the King of the Forest was mine – for he killed my father, and it was my right to avenge him. But now, that’s impossible.”
The woman named Heva sat heavily on a large chair, the legs creaking noisily as she did. She seemed deflated, and somehow smaller than before. A girl, lost, alone. Khorum, still rubbing his jaw, approached.
“I didn’t have much choice, lass. It was him or my friends that night. But, if you’ve a mind to rid the world of evil – why not turn those fierce arms of yours to protecting folk … instead of walloping people just trying to finish supper in peace?”
She laughed, “No company is forming out of Stony Ford. My people are broken – and I have no friends there that I’d trust with my life who still live. And it’s fools work to go alone against the evil of the world.”
The dwarf came up next to her, his mug in hand, “Who said ye had to do it alone?”