Anxiety tightened my grip on the reins and the cob jibbed, throwing his head up at my poor handling. I halted him at the last bend in the river before the steading and tried to calm both of us. The slow pace of the King's party had fretted me, but now I could hardly make myself take the last few steps of my journey.
Such a large group had not ridden in haste; it had taken us three days to reach Fossdale. Occasionally Holdwine rode next to me as we talked of his Shire-land in the far North; more often I was left alone to wonder what I might find at the end of my road, or remember the brother and father I had travelled this road with many times. I do not think any of my fellow travellers but Holdwine learned my name. They were too caught up in this last journey together before they must take leave of each other. It was plain to see that they were linked by a bond as strong as blood – something akin to the brotherhood of warriors. The holbytlas rode merrily, talking and singing, except for the Ringbearer; he seemed older, and there were lines on his face that told of much pain. I spoke only a few times to the King, who said few words ever and those quietly, but always well-chosen. He was indeed a ruler of Men. The Elves still unnerved me, and I avoided them as much as I could until the morning of the fourth day, when after bidding farewell to Holdwine and paying my courtesies to the King I turned aside at the bridge below over the swift river that flowed out of the dale.
I reminded myself that I would not see Fossdale as I had left it, a smouldering shell full of the dead, for Riders from the Deep had been sent out on burial detail through the Westfold all summer. And Sigelm and Hereward would be there awaiting me. I took one more deep breath and urged the cob forward.
Nothing seemed different from the day half a year ago that I had arrived in my brother's company. I slid down from the saddle and stared. The palisade still stood. The gate was fast shut. But the longer I looked, the more I saw things awry. The home fields should have been waist high with barley and rye sown in the spring; they were choked with thistles and hawkweed. There were no goats nibbling at the brush, no ducks or geese in the water meadow. I could not see the high pastures from here, of course, but I doubted there were many sheep up there. A cairn of stones close to the mountainside marked where the dead of Fossdale lay.
The gate's hinges squealed as Hereward shoved it back just far enough to let his scrawny form slip through, followed by Sigelm's stockier one. "Elfled!" Hereward's body struck me in the chest like a hunting spear and his arms wrapped about me tight enough to hinder my breathing. I patted his back gingerly, surprised at the enthusiasm of his greeting. "All the folk at Wulfred's steading said you must have been carried off to Dunland and you'd never come back! How did you escape?"
"Much the same way as you. I was outside the wall when the raiders came, and I managed to make it to the Deeping before it was under siege," I said, raising an eyebrow at Sigelm, who'd mentioned nothing about the whole of the Westmarch giving me up as a Dunlending's bedslave. He shuffled his feet and mumbled that he hadn't wanted to offend me.
"I was sad to hear that your father and your brother died," Hereward added quickly. "Mother told me they were two of the King's bravest Riders."
"They were. And I am sorry, too, that Leofwyn is gone. She was a wise and loving woman, Hereward. I know that she would be proud to see you take up your inheritance."
"Come and see the place," Sigelm broke in. "We need to get working as quickly as we can."
I stood in the kitchen storeroom and tried not to let dismay show on my face; but my hopes had slowly sunk along with my heart as Sigelm showed me about the steading. The hall was more or less sound, if damp. Patches of mud on the flagstone floor showed where the thatch was leaking. The broken benches and tables were heaped in a corner. Sigelm had rehung the wall hangings that had been torn down and trampled, but they were speckled with mildew and moth-holes.
Where the stable had been there was now nothing but a bare patch of earth. The rubble had been cleared away by the Riders who took up the bones to be buried in the mound outside. The pigsty and sheepfold barely stood; they sagged together like drunkards propping each other up. The sour reek of spoilage filled the dairyhouse from the cream pans encrusted with the stinking scum of the last milking, six months ago.
Weather and animals together had made the kitchen a shambles. I had hoped that some of the stores might remain, but the door was ajar, and so whatever the Dunlendings had not ransacked, the mice and squirrels had feasted on. Shards of crockery, scraps of sacking, spilled honey and preserves and oats had fallen to the floor and hardened into a sticky mass, filmy with mold. Some flour stored in the copper-lined bin had evaded the little beasts and I didn’t find any weevils when I sifted a handful though my fingers, so I could bake bread - or I could have, if the chimneys had not been blocked by bird's nests – both chimneys, the hearth within and the bread oven in the yard.
I rubbed my face with dusty hands, trying to scrub away the tears I felt prickling in my eyes. What a fool I'd been, picturing disorder that could be tidied in an afternoon. Setting the household to rights would take weeks of labour, and I hadn't even seen the fields and flocks yet.
"Well." I looked around for Sigelm. "I think we should see how soon your aunt can come, and whether any others want to come with her. This will take all the hands we can muster."
* * *
I shook my skirts out again and checked the pins holding my braids in place. Beside me, Hereward hopped from foot to foot. "Look – there they are!"
"I see them, Hereward, I see them. Be still a moment," I snapped. My hands rose to smooth my hair again and I forced them down, clasping them tightly in front of me. So much depended on this woman I knew nothing of. If she and I could not stomach each other, if she were too old or weak... we needed her help desperately, or Fossdale might never be reclaimed from ruin.
The riders were close enough now for me to see Sigrun's face. She was tall – taller than I, of course – and strong-featured, resembling her brother closely. The same hooked nose her brother Siglaf had had divided her face and made her gaze seem piercing and fierce. I stepped forward as she dismounted from her horse, an old and canny hammer-headed gelding. "Be welcome to this house, mistress Sigrun. I hope you will decide to make it your home."
Hereward bounded up and down again. "It's my holding, Elfled, let me finish—" He went on importantly. "My door shall always be open to you."
Sigrun's eyes softened slightly. "Thank you, young master." Then they turned to me, raking me up and down, and I could feel every loose thread and stray hair drawing notice to itself. "I hope I'll be at home here too, girl, but it's early days yet. Still, Sigelm says you're a sensible sort, and I knew your mother when she was a chit younger than you. If you take after her we should be right enough."
I closed my mouth, which had fallen open at the thought of anyone describing my poised mother as a "chit," and suggested that Sigrun might like to look around the hall and the steading and see what needed to be done. After an hour of exhaustive inquiry into every corner of the house and under every blade of straw in the yard, she pronouced herself satisfied: "It's clear as spring water you've no idea how to run a farm instead of a lord's house, but you've a head on your shoulders. You could have done worse."
I was too grateful to bristle at her plain speech, even had what she said not been perfectly true. "Can we do it, mistress Sigrun? Restore Fossdale to keeping itself?"
"Aye, we can. Whether we can do it fast enough to keep that sharp trader Wulfred from snapping it up is another question. We'll need more hands, for a start."
"I know," I said wearily. "But where can we find them? And how can we know whether they're trustworthy?"
Sigun snorted. "A few good dogs will keep thieves off, and any rogue will leave fast as his horse can go after he sees what kind of work needs doing here. That kind generally aren't fond of getting their hands in manure."
I stifled a laugh, feeling marginally more cheerful. Perhaps things weren’t quite as impossible as they seemed.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.