I approached cautiously, first through the forest and then hugging the cliff wall where gorse thickets clung to the rock. By the time I reached the open ground before the steading gate, I felt certain the raiders had gone - no sound came from within except the rustle of fire. Smoke and the stink of burnt meat hung heavy on the air. Blood from one of the scratches on my forehead kept trickling into my eyes. I wiped it away again and squinted into the shadows behind the open gate. Nothing moved within the farmyard but currents of smoke.
How had the raiders gotten in? The wall still stood, and the gate was ajar but intact, with no signs of force. Then I remembered Siglaf's casual words to me as I left. The Dunlendings had simply walked in with no need to force the gate, and all my uncle's forethought was undone, a bitter jest.
* * *
They had not even taken much. A couple of the pigs and sheep were gone, no doubt killed and carried off to be roasted over a campfire tonight; the rest were a charred and smoking pile under the fallen roof timbers of the sty and sheepfolds. They had tried to fire the woolshed too, but it is not easy to set densely packed fleeces alight. One corner of the stack was smouldering – likely the source of the heavy black smoke I'd seen - and I pulled it off and kicked at it until the red coals faded, then went searching for anything that might still live.
I began in the stables. The Dunlendings love not horses as we do, and use them little - the farm's one draft horse had been taken, the few others, including my Faeger, killed. Elric's mare, heavy with foal, had been slashed across the belly and left to bleed to death. As I slipped past her body to peer into the last stall, her ear twitched, and I leapt back like a pony startled by a snake. For a moment I stood with my eyes shut, repeating over and over it was only a fly
It wasn't. When I finally nerved myself to look again, I saw that despite the sticky pool of blood soaking the dirt, she was still alive; her filmed eyes followed my movements.
Strangely, the steel kitchen knife Fossdale's cook was so proud of had not been looted, likely because the raiders had surprised Eadgifa before she could reach for it. I had to step over her body to fetch it from its case, suppressing a mad urge to apologize for taking it without her permission.
After I killed the maimed mare, I turned my thought to the human bodies. I did not want to leave them for the crows and foxes, but I had not the time or strength to bury them. The only thing I could do alone was use fire, and so I searched the steading and dragged all I found into the mostly intact stable. My uncle had fallen defending Leofwyn; both their bodies lay in her small chamber at the rear of the hall. A few folk were missing. I could find neither Hereward nor Sigelm, nor their bodies. Remembering Siglaf's words, I hoped that his son might have already climbed high enough on the mountainside to escape the raiders' notice. And Hereward - could he have hidden in the hollow pine?
When I had done, seventeen bodies lay on the dirt floor - Elric, Leofwyn, and most of their kin and household. The oldest was Siglaf; the youngest was Eadgifa's baby son. I tried to nestle him in the crook of her arm so that his cracked skull could not be seen. With so much tinder to hand, kindling the pyre was easy. I thrust a smouldering chunk of the sheepfold fence into the straw on the floor and stood watching until the flames had bitten deep into the roof beams.
I threw water from the pump over the stinging scratches on my face, then went looking for something to replace my torn, muddy, and bloodstained dress. But the clothes presses had been tipped out onto the floor and most of their contents stolen, for the Dunlendings do not weave linen, nor spin wool finely; they wear mostly leather, and whatever they take from us. My warm blue cloak was gone, and so were the two spare tunics I had brought with me. I snatched up an threadbare old striped shawl that had been thrown aside, and made another hasty visit to the kitchen to bundle cheese, bread, and a few of last year's apples into the shawl. After a moment's hesitation, I tossed the kitchen knife in as well. Then I ran past the blazing stables, out the gate, and away from Fossdale without looking back.
* * *
The hollow tree was empty. I stood and stared at the dark crevice in the wood. Was there anywhere else Hereward might have hidden? Had he been here, and left? There were scuffmarks in the thick carpet of pine needles, but they held no message for me, unskilled as I was at reading tracks and trails. I whistled softly a few times, hoping to draw Hereward out of hiding if he were near. Nothing answered but a lone blackbird.
The sun was already nearly at its height on this short day of early spring. To have any hope of reaching Helm's Deep before full night, I would have to set out on the mountain paths now, without searching for Hereward. With the kitchen knife, I scored an arrow pointing to the north into the bark, and beside it the rune for E. Leaving only this feeble attempt at a message, I tied the shawl bundle across my shoulders and made for the trail up the northern face of the dale.
When I reached the top of the ridge, I turned back. From this vantage, the steading was hidden under the cliff wall; only the thin trail of smoke from the burning stable marked where it lay. I looked east, and my breath caught as I realized that the dim blots I could see far out on the plain were moving too swiftly to be cloud shadows. And a strange haze was rising in the northeast – where Isengard lay. Was Saruman openly attacking the Mark at last?
* * *
The sun had fallen well below the other side of the White Mountains, and darkness was pooling in the valleys by the time I reached the southern ridge of the Deeping-coomb. The high paths had been as lonely and quiet as always. Nothing stirred on the mountainside but the wind over pine and heath. Only when I looked to the east and saw the darker haze that still hung over the Fords of Isen could I tell that all was not perfectly normal.
As the twilight deepened, points of fire sprang up far out on the plains, like stars fallen to earth. My dulled wits did not recognize them as torches until they began to move in slow arcs, sweeping up the valley towards the Hornburg. The sight put spurs to my aching body, and I struggled down the last slope into the coomb, recklessly taking the straightest path down despite the darkness. I had to get within the walls of the Dike before that torchlit army reached them.
A stone slipped from beneath my shoe, and I stumbled and fell - only a few feet, but the hard stones of the paved horseroad that swept up to the Hornburg scraped my hands as I landed with a thump. Now at last I could make more haste, and I gathered my bruised self and fled up the broad ramp to the Dike. The sound of my own hoarse, panting breath was so loud in my ears that it almost drowned out the sentinel's challenge. I called out in answer, "I come seeking refuge in the Deep. Let me pass!"
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.