I had thought I was used to hard work. Even in the Golden Hall I had set my hand to tasks other than weaving, and at Dunharrow there were so few men that the women had done most of the heavy chores like chopping firewood. But I had never been so weary in all my life. The work at Fossdale was tedious, back-breaking, and seemingly never-ending. At dawn we dragged ourselves off straw mattresses that were lumpy because we could not spare the fodder to re-stuff them. After swallowing a bowl of barley groats, thick from being left on the kitchen hearth all night, we went out into the grey light to mend hurdles and fences, repair the barns and outbuildings, and hoe the weed-choked fields trying to eke out a small harvest. Our midday meal was thin bean soup with a chunk of panbread or an apple from one of the few trees that had escaped destruction; then it was back to work until the sun set. After that we did what sewing or furniture-mending we could indoors by the dull light of tallow lamps and the fire. Supper was much the same as lunch, without the soup.
We were always hungry. Winter wheat and barley had been sowed in the cleared fields, of course, but that would not feed us until the spring. I used some of the coins I had to buy flour and meal at the Westfolde market. Otherwise, our bellies would have been empty indeed; there were more mouths to feed as more and more people found their way to Fossdale. Most were related in some distant fashion to Sigelm and Sigrun. A few were strangers, suddenly alone in the world like Hereward and me, who had heard in Westfolde or the Deeping of a farm that needed rebuilding. I worried about taking in these folk of whom we know nothing, but as Sigrun had pointed out, we had little enough to tempt thieves or knaves, and it was true that the ones with no stomach for hard work soon drifted away again.
By the end of September we numbered twelve in all. Sigelm and his second cousin Serulf were the only young men. Most of the household were women my age or older, widowed in the war and without other family to turn to for some reason. There were a few children -- Francha's two young sons and Edwyn's daughter; they were all younger than Hereward.
I was curious about Wulfred, who had sent kindly, encouraging messages with Sigelm and, what was much more helpful, the gift of a new axe. I asked Sigelm whether he might have been mistaken in Wulfred's intentions; he shrugged and said that he could not see men's thoughts, only their deeds, and that Wulfred's would show. Sigrun would not speak of him; she only hmphed and set to working faster whenever I asked. But it was not long before I had the chance to satisfy my curiosity: Wulfred came to Fossdale in early October.
He gave us no notice of his visit, and we'd have had no warning if he had not encountered Sigelm by the Fossbrook early one morning. They came through the farmstead gate together, talking amiably of sheep and pasturage while Collenfirth barked and circled dangerously close to his horse's heels. I called off the dog and shut him in the barn, not realizing who this stranger was until I heard him offer to send his ram over from Ulfdale later in the fall. Fortunately Sigrun must have seen and recognized him, for when I turned toward the hall in a panic she was already there, stepping quickly forward with our bronze cup -- it was the best we had to offer a guest since the Dunlendings had taken my uncle's chased silver one -- filled with ale.
Wulfred dismounted from his showy, dapple-grey stallion and came towards us smiling broadly. I was used to being overshadowed, but he was tall even for a man of the Mark; my head barely reached his chin. He was also the handsomest man I’d ever seen, like the figure of Eorl on the tapestry come to life. Though younger than I’d expected a man with half-grown daughters to be, he wore his shining hair in the old-fashioned manner, bound into two long braids.
“Be welcome to this hall, Master Wulfred,” I said as I offered him the guest cup. The words felt strange in my mouth – it seemed like years rather than months since I'd greeted anyone with ceremony.
He took it and drank. “No need to be so formal; I have guested in Fossdale many a time.”
“But not since I became mistress here,” I pointed out sweetly, meaning to let him know that I had no intention of being shifted from my ground. It was good to feel Sigrun's silent presence at my back.
“True,” he said amiably, but his eyes narrowed slightly. "It is good to see life here again; you've done much in a short while, Mistress Elfled. And now I see that you are not only good and wise, but lovely as well."
"It is thanks to Sigelm and Sigrun that we've accomplished so much," I said. "And thank you for your generous gift; 'tis a fine axe."
"My girls have been asking after young Hereward; they miss him. Where is he this morning?"
"Out with the sheep," I said shortly. In truth, I had no idea; Hereward was as disinclined to work as most boys his age. He was supposed to be helping Serulf mend fences, but he was just as likely to be swimming in the pond.
"It is good of you to do so much for a lad who's none of your kin," he remarked. "Not many would, especially if they had the better claim to the land. With such a dowry, a maiden could marry very well." The obvious lure should have been laughable, but it made me feel queasy. I held still as a shudder tried to climb up my spine.
"Will it please you to come inside?" I did not want him to stay longer, but to omit an invitation would be too close to a deliberate insult.
"No, no, I am on my way to Westfolde in haste. I rode up just to meet you briefly. Such near neighbours as we are should be on good terms."
"Let us not keep you from your journey, then," I said. He handed back the guest cup, deliberately brushing my fingers and letting his eyes linger on me longer than was polite. I returned his stare, determined not to let my unease show, and took refuge in cold courtesy. "May you ride in health, Master Wulfred."
He smiled. "I shall be sure to return again soon. I would like to see more of your hard work and progress. And remember that Wulfdale is not far; be sure to ask if there is anything that you need." He lifted himself lightly back into the saddle and gathered up his restive horse.
I walked alongside him to the gate. I would have preferred to see him offf Fossdale land altogether, but that would have been too blatant a sign of mistrust. Instead I caught Sigelm's eye and managed to make him understand what I wanted. He slipped out the gate behind Wulfred to keep a discreet watch on him until he was truly on his way out of the dale.
I handed the guest-cup to Sigrun and wiped the hand Wulfred had touched on my skirt. "Faugh! He reminds me of Grima Wormtongue, always soft-spoken but a sly sting in every word."
She looked grim. "Aye, he's a nasty piece of work. Looks fair and feels foul, as my grand-dam would have said. I didn't like the way he took to you. Maybe he thinks to get Fossdale through you now, if he can turn your head."
I shuddered. "I'd sooner wed a real snake. But he doesn't seem like a man who'll give up his aim easily. If he wants Fossdale so badly, how can we fend him off?"
Sigrun considered. "The best advice I have is to keep on as we are. You were a clever girl, to bring some ready money. We can buy seed and food to see us through this winter, and come next harvest we might just have enough to survive another year without being beholden to anyone."
I sighed. Poor Moth, the source of most of my carefully hoarded coins. I still thought I had done right to sell her, but I missed her.
* * *
After more than a month of isolation, Fossdale was suddenly busy as a waystation for travellers. Two days after Wulfred's visit, I was in the dairyhouse with Sigrun, scraping curds into the cheesemolds -- we hoped to make soft goat cheese to sell or trade at the autumn fair in Westfolde -- when Hereward ran into the farmyard, his gangly limbs flailing, and interrupted my scolding about startling the hens. "There are riders coming up the dale – almost thirty!"
"Riders?" I said sharply. "Do you mean King's men? Did they bear any banner?"
"One had a sort of flag tied to his spear. Blue, with a white mountain peak."
What in Eorl's name…? "That's the sign of the Westmark, though I've no notion why Erkenbrand should be coming here. Sigrun, find Sigelm and tell him to broach a new cask of the small ale. Gather the mugs yourself. Hereward, shut the dogs in the barn, and–"
"Hail the farmstead!" a voice shouted from outside the palisade, and sweated horses began trooping in through the open gate, one after another after another, each bearing a Rider in half armor and horse-tailed helm. The farm dogs set off a storm of barking and growling, though they kept a prudent distance from the warhorses' shod hooves.
"Hereward, deal with those curs! And Sigrun – the ale, now!" I snapped, and they scuttled off in opposite directions across the packed earth of the yard. I shut my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose in frustration. Didn't Erkenbrand have enough sense not to descend on a farm in the midst of shearing? And, of course, for cheesemaking I was in my shabbiest gown. All I could do to improve my appearance was take off my apron and the cloth tied over my hair before I emerged from the cool dairyhouse into the bright sun.
Hereward had counted accurately enough. There were twenty-five mounted men in the yard, drawn up in a loose bunch just within the gate. One Rider sat his horse a little forward from the rest, and I stepped before him. "Hail, Lord of the Eastmark, and be welcome to this hall. Will you and your Riders take a cup of ale?"
"Gladly, mistress. It is a thirsty ride up the dale in the sun." That was not Erkenbrand. I knew the voice even before the Rider pulled off his white-plumed helm, revealing Elfhelm's face.
My eyes flicked from him to the blue flag. "You are riding under a banner not your own, Marshal Elfhelm."
He dismounted and bowed. "I am here on my uncle's behalf, and since I ride on Erkenbrand's errand I carry his sign." One of Francha's sons came to take the mare's reins, and I gestured for Elfhelm to precede me into the hall. When Sigrun brought forth the full guest cup, I passed it on to him with little ceremony before waving her out into the yard to give the Riders their stirrup cups.
I leaned against one of the great timbers supporting the room beams. "Now, my lord Marshal, what brings you to this steading? If you've come to levy men for Erkenbrand, only two on this farm are of fighting age, and we cannot spare them in the midst of shearing."
"I am not looking to raise a muster." He dropped loosely onto the bench against the wall and stretched his legs out, raising the cup to me in salute before gulping down a mouthful of ale. "I have two other errands. First, I want to know whether you have seen anything that seems out of place, any sign of orcs or Dunlendings."
I shrugged one shoulder. "We've seen naught but wolves, but they grow bolder as the days draw in. If the winter is hard we may lose a good many sheep. Why? Have there been attacks on other dales? I thought the Dunlendings had sued for peace."
"Yes, and some of their clan chiefs are travelling to Edoras to swear to the treaty. My uncle is still suspicious, but I believe they are sincere; they lost more than we at Helm's Deep, and they can ill afford to anger the Mark again now that their protector Saruman is gone."
"Then why do you ask about them?"
"The Dunlendings may not be a threat any longer, but I am still uneasy, and I can't put my finger on why. I took some men of my uncle's household to ride the outlying dales in hopes that I'd find something to prove my fears or put them at rest. So far all the farmsteads we've stopped at, like yourself, report only wolves." Elfhelm rubbed his forehead, looking suddenly weary. "Perhaps it's only that I've been at war too long and cannot stop searching for enemies, even now that we have peace."
"I don't believe that. You are no yearling, to be shying at shadows." I could not resist adding in a dry tone, "Self-pity does not become you, Elfhelm."
Startled, he looked up with a smile lurking in the corner of his mouth. "I suppose I deserved that. In fact, I should be glad that I received the courtesy of a guest-cup in Fossdale, after the way that we parted." He thumped the cup down on the bench and stood up. "I misspoke then, Elfled, and I ask your pardon for it. You've done well by Fossdale, and I can see that you've more scope for yourself here than in Edoras. Do you enjoy farm life?"
I laughed. "I haven't the time to worry about whether I enjoy it or not. I am kept running from pillar to post all day long."
"I suppose it is your country, and you prefer it to any other. I feel the same about the lands of the Entwash."
I said honestly, "I have seen little of the Mark; only Westfolde and Fossdale in my childhood, and then Edoras. I have little to compare it with. I have heard you speak of the Entwash fens, and thought that they sounded bare and lonely, but you clearly loved them."
Elfhelm looked away at the bright sunlight of the open door. "Perhaps someday you will see them and decide for yourself."
"Perhaps. Now, what is your second errand?"
He chuckled. "I feared to bring it up, but I suppose since I have not been chased away with a horsewhip yet, it may not be too dangerous to mention. I rode through Edoras on my way to the Westmark. Eowyn and Faramir are to wed at Meduseld on the twenty-fifth of March, and Eowyn bade me ask if you would come to witness it."
I had no idea what to say. "That is… unexpected."
"You need not answer right away; you can send her a message through my uncle any time before the spring. If you care to know my opinion, I think she was sincere in wishing to see you again." He drew his helm back on. "In any case, I must ride. I plan to loop round some of the dales to the south before turning back to Westfolde."
* * *
So Eowyn wished me to attend her wedding -- what a strange thought. Thinking of it, and seeing Elfhelm, brought back memories of my life at Meduseld and I managed a small laugh at all the luxuries I had once taken for granted. Now I owned two woolen gowns, instead of a fine linen one for each day of the week, and I considered myself lucky when I had the chance to bathe in hot water. My hands were no longer white and soft, but sunbrowned and calloused, the nails cut closely for midwifing lambs. I couldn't remember when I'd last looked in a mirror, or trimmed my hair – each morning I simply redid the single plait hanging down my back by touch.
And yet, I realized, I was almost content. Certainly, I was happier than I had been those last months in Edoras, feeling like an unacknowledged ghost; happier than I remembered being since -- well, since Mother had died.
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