11. Mysteries and Promises
Chapter Written by Elfhild
Though the dark rider and his lieutenant had passed and once again the orcs had allowed their captives freedom to move about, Elfhild continued to stare in the direction in which the two riders had gone. Cold chills still rippled throughout her body, the lingering remnants of a shadowy and inexplicable fear. There was an evil air about the tall man clad in black, one of veiled power and might. His coming was as a shadow of withering winter, deep and dark and full of dread, prickling the skin and chilling the bone. He left fear in his wake, and many of the captives were still tense and shaken, though the Road was now filled with a column of prancing horses.
All were black and handsome steeds; fine creatures of gleaming shadow with neatly combed and braided manes and tails. The riders' helms and halberks were black and their livery was of sable unblazoned, though not as rich and splendid as that of their lord, the mysterious kingly rider. His escort these riders were, riding ahead of the dreadful host which sought to do battle against a land mostly filled with women and children.
Yet while her glazed eyes were affixed upon the Road, Elfhild noticed little of the splendor of the enemy cavalry, for she was deep in her own thoughts, her mind a muddled mixture of fear, grief, anger and worry. And now there was even more to fill her tormented thoughts, for the words of the dark rider still echoed in her head:
"I will remember."
And in the back of her mind, slowly infiltrating her thoughts like hazy fragments of a dream mostly forgotten in waking, like the seductive sway of a slithering serpent, was a strange sense of creeping mystery and darkness both dreadful and alluring. Despite all dread, despite all fear, she had felt compelled to raise her head and gaze upon the approaching rider, to see the one whose very presence summoned forth shadows beneath the trees and rendered the air cold and chill. Why had she adventured her life on a bold impulse to satisfy mere curiosity?
Elffled watched the procession with her sister, looking on as row after row of horses trotted by. The sight of such beautiful horseflesh being ridden by men of the enemy filled Elffled with resentment, for she knew the horses had been taken from the herds of her own land. Now she knew how those horses felt, to be stolen from the fields they loved and taken to toil in servitude to enemy masters. "Poor, dear things," she thought. "At least they are seeing their old land again, but alas! now they are forced to bear the proud Easterlings and Southrons upon their backs and go to war against the folk who once cherished their sires like their own children."
The beasts did appear to be faring well, though, bedecked in their fancy trappings and shining in the bloom of health. That was encouraging, for Elffled had always heard that it was an evil fate for a horse to be taken to the Dark Land. Unbeknownst to her, many of the horses came from other lands beside Rohan - -the many vassal states of Mordor - but of this she had no way of knowing, for she was only an unlettered and untutored peasant maid. The black breeching straps made diamond shapes across the horses' backs; silvery steel disks adorned each intersection of the leather and silver tassels hung from the ends. More tassels hung from their reins and at the center of their breast collars was the heraldry device of a gleaming crescent moon. Soon the escort passed, followed by riders of lower rank. Ordinary riders these were, and both horse and man alike were clad in plain, somber black.
A harsh, angry voice startled both Elfhild and Elffled from their thoughts. They both flinched, almost cringing at the sudden burst of sound. "Why did you tell that man of the enemy your name?" Leofgifu demanded, looking at Elfhild.
"I... I do not know," she stammered, intimidated by the brisk tone in her kinswoman's voice. The words were the truth, for Elfhild was still pondering the matter of why she had looked at the Rider in the first place.
"This bodes ill," Elffled thought, frowning. "Why must they argue at a time like this?" Her head began to hurt again.
"Foolish maid! Do you not know how perilous it is to reveal yourself before one of the enemy?" Leofgifu cried angerily, waving her hand about in the air. "He was one of those accursed Easterlings or mayhaps a Southron; a dangerous, evil man, not a wandering peddler or a traveling bard!"
Elfhild's face flushed. "I know that," she said briskly. Her eyes darted to her sister, who sat beside her. Elffled looked away, glancing at the army upon the Road. She did not want to be a part of this quarrel, for she was weary and her head had ached since late morning.
"Foolish!" Leofgifu cried again. The older woman's eyes were wide with dread and desperation and her hastily-spoken words angry and filled with fear. Many of the captives turned their heads to see who was quarreling and what the commotion was about. Elfhild glared at her aunt. Through the dim haze of the evening, she descried that many of her friends from the village were staring at her as they sat in little circles with their mothers and elder kinswomen. The heavy air was filled with the soft hum of whispers and Elfhild knew everyone must be talking about her.
"People are looking at us," Elfhild hissed, her eyes flashing.
"You seemed to care little about that when you raised your head and gawked at that man," Leofgifu accused. "Mayhaps you angered him by your uncouth staring, and he shall remember your name so he may punish you. I pray your foolishness has not doomed us all!"
Despite her growing irritation, Elfhild felt prickles of fear in her heart and her skin began to rise in little bumps. What if she had indeed greatly offended a high lord of the enemy by her innocent act of impertinence? Her eyes darted to the side; she expected to see the looming figures of several tall man-orcs storming towards her to take her away, never to be seen again. "Oh, I hope not!" she exclaimed.
"I hope not either, Elfhild," Leofgifu said gravely. "The man looked like a king or a high lord; a man of great power. They told us to kneel to him and bow our heads. Why did you have to raise your head and look to see who was coming? That was a foolish thing to do! What possessed you, Elfhild?"
"I am sorry," Elfhild muttered dismissively. "I hate these accursed murdering orcs and I hate following their orders. It was not long ago when there were no orders to follow and my mother was yet alive."
"We all hate the orcs but sometimes there is wisdom in obeying their commands, especially when they have swords and we have naught," Leofgifu replied.
There was a moment of silence. Elfhild could not deny the truth in her aunt's words, but she was too proud to admit it. Hunig began to fidget restlessly. Elffled sniffed, something she often did when she felt uncomfortable.
"Still it was foolish for you to have stared at that man, much less talk to him." Leofgifu's voice lowered. "Did you not sense something peculiar about him? The very sight of him from afar filled me with fear and dread!"
"He frightened me, Mother," Hunig interjected timidly.
"Aye," Leofgifu said softly. "Everything became darker when he came, like it does when a fierce storm approaches, and then when he left, the light returned, what little there is of it."
Elfhild looked down. She knew full well the perils of revealing her true name, and she shuddered to think of the woes she may have brought upon herself and what was left of her family. But it frightened her even more to think of what could have befallen them had she refused to talk to the Rider. Mayhap there was no resisting his questions; if he was so powerful, then he could just force her voice to speak against her will. She shivered at that thought.
"He frightened me, too," Elfhild admitted quietly.
"So why did you look at him like a fool?" Leofgifu demanded again.
The words stung her; she had not been expecting them. Though Elfhild knew her aunt was right, pride and indignation stirred in her heart once again. She did not like being called a fool and she opened her mouth to protest, but her aunt did not give her the chance.
"You were as a child, trusting and innocent," Leofgifu rebuked. "Did fear render you senseless and leave you a simpleton?"
"Of course not!" Elfhild cried indignantly. She wished a hole in the earth would open up beneath her feet and swallow her up. Her heart was already filled with worry and woe, and she did not need her aunt to add to the dismal sum of sorrows. Her fists clenched and she fumed at the injustice of such unfair accusations. Her aunt was making her seem like an irresponsible fool who had little control over her own tongue! Bitter tears stung her eyes but she willed herself not to cry and whine like a child.
"Why then did you look at him? What if he was a sorcerer, practiced in the arts of dark magick? This is not one of those tales about wraiths, wights or witches that you love so much. You were in real danger and in front of a whole army, Elfhild, not sitting around the brazier at home."
Elfhild flushed. "Of course not! I know that. I know full well the peril that I was in, but I did not purposely go looking for danger. It just happened that way."
"It just happened? What does that mean?" Leofgifu remarked in disbelief. "Why, you stared as one awestruck and enchanted. Did you find the splendor of the dark knight and his prancing charger so utterly bewitching? You were gawking at him like you do all the lads!"
Elfhild gasped in utter horror and humiliation at these words and her cheeks flamed a crimson red. She had tried not to do that in Osric's presence, but a trip to the village was always a cause for excitement, and she could not help but study everything which she saw. More keenly than ever she felt the presence of friends and kin about her, listening to her every word, and she blushed even more.
"Aunt Leofgifu!" Elfhild cried hoarsely. "I was doing no such thing! I am not some silly maid who gawks at every man in armor. I hate the Dark Land and all the folk who serve the Nameless Enemy, whether they are orc or man. All are fiends, murderers and thieves, barbarians and savages, including that dark rider, no matter how lordly or kingly he was!"
Elffled cleared her throat loudly. Two sets of glaring blue eyes quickly turned in her direction. "The orcs are watching and you are providing their amusement for this eve," the younger twin stated quietly, nodding her head back towards the edge of the camp closest to the Road. Falling silent now, Elfhild and Leofgifu saw that indeed a band of orcs had gathered there. The brutes were laughing and talking amongst themselves, pointing at Elfhild and her aunt and then snickering at some crude jest of their fellows.
"Curse them!" Elfhild hissed under her breath, clenching her fists.
"'Tis indeed most fortunate that they do not know our language, for doubtless we would suffer if they knew we were speaking ill of their dark rider," Leofgifu whispered, her voice suddenly sober and solemn.
"Aye, especially if they were ordered to watch us. The rider said he would remember me, after all," Elfhild whispered, suddenly fearful. She cast furtive glances to the woods about herself, expecting to see spies and watchers lurking among the trees.
"Well, we have certainly given them enough to watch," Elffled remarked dryly. "The Enemy would be pleased. Strife among kin - He delights in such things."
"Aye, this is true," Leofgifu nodded.
Elfhild sighed heavily. Being reminded of the now ever-constant presence of orcs and fell men had cooled her anger and now she felt frightened and weary. She looked to her aunt. Though they were not related by blood, Leofgifu was older and knew far more than she. Her aunt had been right; to disobey the orders of the orcs and gawk at the rider was perilous folly. Elfhild prayed that no one would suffer for her lack of good judgment and restraint, and if punishment was inescapable, she hoped that she would be the only one to pay the cost.
"Aunt Leofgifu, I... I am sorry," Elfhild said slowly, the heat rising to her cheeks. "Truly I am. Mayhap indeed I was bewitched, for I was filled with a great curiosity and only desired to see what great person or creature was coming. But," she protested, "I did not mean any harm by it!"
"Oh, Elfhild," Leofgifu muttered softly, shaking her head, "you are hopeless."
Elffled looked to her sister and nodded in agreement. Elfhild glared at her.
"When the rider stopped, so did the army," Elfhild continued, her voice low and hushed. "Terror seized me and I was sorely afraid. Then he spoke, and I knew there was no resisting him. He would have surely killed me right there had I lied about my name and he perceived my falsehood, or if I refused to answer his question altogether!"
"You did the wisest thing you could, I guess," Leofgifu sighed.
"I hope so," Elfhild said uncertainly. "Maybe the rider's words were an idle threat. We are but peasants, no one of great importance. We would be less than dirt in his eyes. He probably forgot my name just as soon as he rode by me. I certainly pray that he did."
This seemed reasonable to Elfhild. There was no reason why the man should remember her. There was nothing any different or unique about her than there was about the other captives. True, she was considered by many to be pretty, but she did not think her beauty was enough to charm a king. Royalty tended to favor royalty; she was just another nameless peasant girl. Yes, the rider's words were only an idle threat and nothing would become of the matter.
"I suppose we will find out soon enough. There is naught we can do about it now," Leofgifu said with resignation. Elfhild and Elffled nodded. There was a pause and then both maidens and their aunt fell silent, deep in their own thoughts.
Leofgifu wanted to believe that her husband's sister-daughter was only being fanciful when she said that she wondered if she had been enchanted. The maid was was quite enamored with tales and songs, especially those which were frightening. The kingly rider was some lord of the enemy with vast hordes of men under his command; that made him a fell and fearsome enough foe as it was. But he was as a figure of pure darkness, darker than the livery which he wore upon his earthly body, yea, blacker even than the shadow of dread which seemed to emanate from his very being. Mayhap he was indeed a sorcerer - or a demon. Just what exactly had Elfhild provoked by her foolishness; what sort of horrors had she unwittingly brought upon them all?
Elffled's head still ached and thinking deeply made it throb with a fury. Yet it was hard not to ponder and fret about what had happened. She had not seen the black rider, for she knew it was not wise to unduly anger the orcs, but she had felt increasingly cold and frightened as his horse drew nigh. True, it was unseasonably cold for the sun could not warm the land, but this was more than the dismal weather; it was a chill which went to the marrow and turned it into crystals of ice. There was something very unnatural about it all, some dark dwimmer-craft or foul art of the Enemy. She knew a glimmering about such matters from the tales her family told around the brazier, legends from the distant Mountains, where her mother's kin had once dwelt, or stories out of Edoras, where her father's brothers lived. Her sister always liked those types of tales almost as she did ones of battle and love. It would be Elfhild who would anger a sorcerer or a spirit because of some wild notion of curiosity, a desire to find out the unknown.
Time passed, the evening meal was served and tensions calmed somewhat from the food, plain and painfully inadequate though it was. Soon the loudest noises in the camp were soft whispers, weeping and the sound of gentle breathing. The dull hum of foul orc-speech was all about them. Occasionally, there would be a loud, raucous laugh, but the lads were almost peaceful this eve. Mayhap they were still reeling from the revelry and dagger sport of the night before.
The darkness deepened and weary eyes began to slip shut. Perhaps the orcs would allow them to rest and sleep in peace this night. Yawning, the twin sisters wished goodnight to their aunt and cousin. This was Elfhild's solemn tradition ere bedtime and she seldom broke it, for she had been weary one evening when she was ten and had fallen asleep early without wishing her grandmother well. Her grandmother had died in her sleep that night.
The captives were spreading out their cloaks upon the dewy ground to shield their bodies from the cold dampness. Elfhild bent down over her sister, who was lying upon her cloak, and kissed her forehead. "May your dreams be pleasant and free of worry. I hope to find your head feeling better in the morning," she whispered as Elffled's eyelids fluttered open; she had already fallen asleep. Elffled smiled up at her, mumbling something indiscernible, and then her eyes closed again.
Moving to her aunt, Elfhild kissed her cheek. "And your dreams as well," she whispered. "Again, I am sorry for my foolishness."
Leofgifu smiled softly. "Let us not think about it now, for thoughts of darkness and fear will turn pleasant dreams into nightmares."
Elfhild nodded and after kissing and wishing a sleepy Hunig goodnight, she returned her sister's side. Lying down upon her cloak and wrapping herself in it, Elfhild closed her eyes, but her mind was too filled with thoughts to sleep.
"I will remember."
Her muscles tensed as the rider's words echoed again and again in her head. Her fingers began to tremble when she recalled the words of their short conversation, and how frightened she had felt in his presence. She clenched her fists and turned over on her other side, closing her eyes tightly. She did not want that man to remember her and prayed he would forget!
Yet still she wondered about him. What sort of man was he? He was the tallest man she had ever seen, a towering figure with broad shoulders and a powerfully built form. His voice was cold and distinguished, and his articulated manner of speaking was heavy-laden with a strange accent which sent a shiver down her spine. It filled her both with fright and with intrigue; it was as mysterious as he, both perilous and alluring at the same time. He was a king or of royal blood, for a lofty crown rested atop his head and he was wrapped in sable dark as the night shot with silver which glittered like starlight and moonbeams. There was something mystical about him, something arcane and forbidden, and it beckoned to her, calling to her with soft, seductive promises of hidden things dark and unknown.
What did he look like beneath the hood which obscured his face? She had seen only a cavern of darkness and felt the steady intensity of his eyes upon her. They seemed to pierce through her flesh and see into her mind and heart, leaving her naked and helpless before him. There was no escape from his questions; there never had been. If she had lied, she sensed he would have divined her secret thoughts, and if she had been silent, he would have constrained her to speak.
Such power swathed in shadows, shrouded in mystery, veiled in unlight. What did that hood hide that light would reveal? She dared to envision his face in her mind. He was probably swarthy with raven hair and eyes like pools of murky darkness, for she had heard that the folk from the South and East possessed those features. Perhaps he braided small strands of his hair and beard as did the men of the Mark. Was his dark face stern and handsome with shining white teeth that glittered between his beard and mustache when he smiled?
And what would it feel like if those lips touched hers as he held her in his strong arms and gently stroked her hair? Would the ice in his voice melt into warm honey as he whispered sweet words into her ear, softly spoken dewdrops of speech in between showers of kisses? She would giggle and writhe in his grasp, for the soft puffs of air from his mouth would tickle her skin and send shivers rippling from the spots where he touched her. A lingering sensation, chilled from the air and tingling still from the gentle pressure of his lips; she longed to touch her cheek, her ear, her neck, but, oh, her hands were roaming over his back, fingertips dancing lightly upon strong shoulders, and then moving up to his hair, where she wrapped her fingers about the wavy strands.
And what would it feel like if he made love to her?
Elfhild's cheeks were on fire and her heart was pounding. Her thoughts were racing wildly and she desperately tried to rein them in. Why was she thinking such things? And about an enemy, no less! Cruel, swarthy savages could never compare to the valiant men of the Mark and their strong muscles, broad chests, ruddy skin and golden hair. Had it been so long since she had seen a man that she now desired one of the wild men of the Dark Lands? Alas for Osric! He would feel betrayed and surely think that her thoughts were most lewd. If they knew, her father, mother, brother, uncle, all of her kinsmen and kinswomen and every last one of her ancestors would be ashamed of her and castigate her greatly. She felt both guilty and a traitor for thinking such base thoughts.
She had always tried to maintain her purity, both in mind and in body. Dreams and daydreams of an intimate nature both embarrassed her greatly and aroused her curiosity, for she was but a maiden and knew little of the secrets of the physical expression of love. She did not like to let her mind dwell upon such matters, though, for maids who thought of naught but flesh and frolic were wanton and simpleminded, dull-witted and uninteresting. Wenches such as those would lay with any man, caring little of broken hearts or homes. They were no more than whores, though little payment did they ask for their favors save their own pleasure.
Elfhild was nothing like them. Though she often admired the lads of her village from afar and took great delight in their attentions, anything more than a kiss or an embrace was reserved for maidenly conjecture and the marriage bed. She did not understand why her thoughts had strayed so far beyond the hobbles she had placed upon her own mind to avoid the temptations of the flesh and the shameful consequences of failing to restrain the passions whilst unwed. Was she going mad from the horrors that had befallen her and her sister?
She turned over onto her back and stared up at the dark canopy of spidery branches above her. What had she gotten herself into? Sighing heavily, she closed her eyes and tried to will herself to think no more of the dark rider or his promise. Sleep was slow in coming.
"I will remember."
The words repeated themselves over and over, a strange lullaby easing her into a dreamless oblivion.