5. The Clouds of War
Chapter Written by Elfhild
Unbeknownst to Athelthryth and her two daughters, war waged in the land of Gondor and armies still clashed against each other, though the gates of the Mundburg had been split asunder by battering ram and blasting spell the day before. The Eorlingas came to the aid of Gondor as the sun shone that day, the 15th day of March, and the hooves of their horses thundered over the land beneath the newfound beams of light as the clouds rolled back. Then the Dark King descended from the heavens and Théoden King was slain, crushed beneath his great white horse, and both king and steed lay beneath the one who felled them. The Lord of Death, though, almost met his own death on the battlefield, but Fate, strange and unknowable, took a different course, and thus his life was spared. The fields of Pelennor were strewn with bodies; fair man and horse and foul creature of the Dark Land all lay together in the bloody, trampled grass.
The dark and evil murk from the East came back late that night whilst all were sleeping, but now it once again obscured the light of the sun and taunted all below with baleful foreboding and despair. The morning of the 16th, Elfhild and Elffled had watched the darkened sky in growing fear and their trembling forms drew nigh unto their mother, and they had clung to her like young children seeking comfort. But there was little solace to be found, for they lived in an evil time, and the days would become yet grimmer still.
A little past the middle of that dark month of March two small figures - Holbytlan, the little folk spoken of in the legends of the Eorlingas - labored across a rocky plain beneath a smoke-filled sky, clad in the mail of orcs. They were on an errand to seek a fiery Mountain in the midst of a land of ash and shadows, but they never arrived at their destination. They were discovered along the way and were thus captured and taken to the Dark Tower, and so in the end their quest had been in vain. However, this tale is mainly concerned with the twin daughters of Eadbald and those with whom they were acquainted, and so little is told of what dooms befell the Holbytlan in the Great Tower of the East.
The rest of March passed by in a dreary haze and soon came the month of April. Little rain had fallen since the fifteenth of March and the land suffered from drought and lack of light. The ground was cracked like a piece of pottery from want of water, and the plants in fields and gardens took on a sickly, yellow hew, their leaves growing long and spindly, desperately seeking what little light there was to be found. In Gondor, the folk forsook their farms and gardens and fled from the armies of the Dark Land, but in Rohan which had not yet been assailed, the people toiled in their dying gardens beneath even skies at noon-day.
Times were dire and a dearth was upon that land. Gone were the fresh spring breezes filled with the sweet, intoxicating fragrance of apple and plum blossoms and the scents of other growing things, for the air was as still and stale as the air in a sealed tomb of stone. It was unseasonably chilly for the sun was denied from the land, and in the nights the people would huddle around their braziers as though it were mid-fall instead of spring. A little rain fell in that month and the people rejoiced greatly, running out of their huts and dancing with abandon as blinding sheets of water pelted their bodies, but just as soon as the rains departed, the clouds from the East returned.
No one knew how long the darkness would beleaguer the land and fear grew by the day. The folk of the Mark lived in uncertainty and the women gathered their knives, daggers, and what other weapons they could find. Mothers forbade their children from leaving the garth and when evening fell, only the simplest fool would dare go outside, and everyone kept their doors locked and barred. Even in the dim light of day, traveling across a wide stretch of field to a neighbor's house seemed like a quest into peril and death. Whenever the women were forced to leave their huts, a dagger or a sax - a long farm knife - was always by their side.
Elfhild now only tread the winding path to her grandmother's mound if her mother and sister would go with her, for though the hill of the barrows still felt hallowed though murky mists covered the land, Elfhild was frightened to walk such a distance alone. The most terrifying of all the tales that her family loved to tell around the brazier came back to haunt her mind, and she would cast fearful glances into the trees, imagining that she saw their leaves move though no breeze was blowing and caught a glimpse of ghostly shapes flitting about beneath the shadowy limbs. Then she would move closer to her mother and sister and nigh to her grandmother's grave, for it brought her comfort. She knew in her heart that should any phantom of the nightshade dare harm them in this holy place, a dreadful cry would issue from out of the barrow and her grandmother's spectral form would emerge from the symblemynë-covered earth and drive their enemies away.
But in their hut far from the hill, Elfhild could not draw upon the comforting thoughts of her grandmother's wraith, and morbid fantasies preyed upon her mind. Lurking within the darkness of the night she fancied there were fell creatures who circled about the little thatched-roof house, encroaching ever closer, waiting for the right moment in which they would spring and devour their prey. Sometimes, too, she was convinced that she could sense hostile presences which flitted through the shadowy recesses of their hut, passing through on their way to keep a tryst of great evil, but perhaps it was just the fancies of her imagination. Sleep was hard to find those cold spring nights, and when the two maidens and their mother found it, it was often troubled and filled with nightmares.
The days crept by. No word had been heard from the South and none knew what had befallen the Riders. Four thousand men had been left to guard the strongholds of the Mark, but four thousand was nothing compared to the tens of thousands of the Dark Land. If the Enemy did not utterly destroy Rohan by summer, the people feared famine and drought would slay them first. Gardens withered and died from lack of water and sunlight, root crops were small and stunted and fresh greens tasted foul. There were still dried foods and grains, though, and in greater supply than was usual for that time of year for the men and boys were not there to eat them. Families rationed their supplies and helped out those in need, but seldom were bellies filled to anyone's liking.
Many of the people of Anórien had fled into the mountains, but a few traveled the Great West Road, seeking sanctuary in Rohan. The press of the newcomers taxed the food supplies, for the Rohirrim had enough trouble feeding their own people, much less Gondorian refugees. Whole villages in the Eastfold were abandoned when their people became too frightened to live so close to the East anymore. They joined the Anórian exiles and made their way west, seeking food and shelter. Others spent the long, slow, miserable days waiting for death, for they feared that the end of the world was upon them.
Why did Athelthryth stay? Even she wondered. Perhaps it was because the thought of traveling through the gloom was so imposing. Though she had kin in the mountains, they were distant relatives and she had never met any of them. For that matter, she had never been more than a few miles away from the village in her whole lifetime. It was terrifying even to consider embarking upon a journey without even knowing where she was going! Robbers could be lurking about, taking advantage of the blackened skies to rob frightened travelers.
Then, too, she still held hope that the men would come back and the darkness would pass. If she fled, Eadbald might never be able to find her again. How horrible that would be! No, she would stay, at least until their food supply ran precariously low. She and her daughters were in no imminent danger now, however, and she would not plunge them all into peril by fleeing in senseless panic. Even if the enemy did manage to make encroachments into Rohan, the home guard would protect the village and warn the people if there was an attack. Then and only then would she abandon her home - under the protection of strong warriors.
But there was no sense in bringing misfortune upon her family herself by thinking gloomy thoughts. Rohan and Gondor would be victorious, and the sun would shine once again. All she had to do was wait for King Théoden and the Riders of Rohan to return victorious.
She kept waiting.
Nine Riders mounted upon carrion-birds flew in the skies over Gondor that dismal spring and the hearts of men quailed and minds darkened with terror whenever the shadows of the great shapes passed over them. The Eorlingas had not been utterly defeated, though, as many of the folk back at home had feared. 'Twas true the Rohirrim forsook the defense of their own land for a time and aided the Gondorians, but even if they wished to break the Oath of Eorl and return to the green plains of the Mark, they could not. There was no way back to that land unless it was by passes over the White Mountains, for Minas Tirith was held by the Enemy and new forces from the Dark Land arrived almost every day.
Many were the losses of all armies in those early days of the war, and many a doughty man and brave lad would never return to the fair fields and hills of the Eastfold. Wini Ánfald fell upon the fields of Pelennor, impaled by a pike as he valiantly charged into a ring of orcs who had surrounded his unhorsed captain, and never would he return to the land of his birth or to the maiden whom he shyly loved. Herebold and his brother both were pulled off their horses, their bodies hewn by the axes of the orcs, and their father died a few weeks later when an arrow pierced his throat. In the years to come, the songs sung by the folk of that part of the Eastfold were filled with names and deeds, and the fallen were immortalized forever by the rich, sorrowful voices of the Mark.
Throughout the months of March and April, battle waged beneath dreary skies, and the fighting was intense as the war traveled southward through Lossarnach and over the fords of Erui, and across the Sirith into Lebennin. Villages were burnt and cities besieged, and swords clashed from the eaves of the White Mountains to the Anduin and the sea. There was fierce fighting at the Ford of Ethring over the River Ringló, and many were slain in this struggle. Cuthwine the Dark-Haired was unhorsed when his steed tumbled in a fall and the Rider fell to the ground rolling. Springing to his feet, he drew his sword as the orcs came at him, snarling and baring their fangs. He stood there, his legs braced wide apart, and dared them to come closer, and indeed they did, growling in their anger at the challenge. He slew at least five of them before they at last dragged him beneath their swarm, and so fell Cuthwine of the Dark-Haired.
After that bloody battle at the Fords of Ethring, the tides began to turn in favor for the West, for the valor of the Gondorians and Riders of Rohan had won the battle and saved the day. For a time, the forces of the Enemy were loath to continue fighting, for the Gondorians proved to be dour-handed warriors who would not willingly surrender the lands that were dear to them and the Rohirrim were no less valiant a foe. But yet the Mind of the Dark Lord was set upon conquering, and so His armies were driven ever onward both by His will and the lash of the whip. Just as the Gondorians were determined to defend their land, He was determined to take it.
Lorien had been taken and Dale had been destroyed. There was still strife in Mirkwood and about the Lonely Mountain just as there was in Gondor, but it mattered little, for all lands would eventually be His. He always enjoyed a challenge, whether in conquering by force or by seduction. Stroking the Great Ring, He smiled to Himself and then cast a glance down to the small prisoner who was chained to the leg of His great throne. His smile became even wider and He began to chuckle softly to himself. Then His laughter began to grow, becoming ever louder until it echoed like thunder against the walls of the tower, shaking the stone and filling all with fear.
Then came the month of May. The city of Tarnost in the northern eaves of the Hills of Tarnost was captured after much struggle, and then the war turned west towards Edhellond and then to Dol Amroth. The fighting was fierce before that grand city by the sea and the blood shed by both sides ran deep like the waters of Cabas Haven below the hill upon which Dol Amroth stood. Yet though they struggled and strove with all their might, the forces of the West were overwhelmed and were forced to retreat into the safety behind the stone walls of the city.
Then they were trapped, besieged by their enemies, and their plight was indeed dire, though their colorful flags were raised proudly in defiance. Some then lost hope and fell into utter despair in that dark hour, for great were the black hordes that swarmed around the white gates. One mother turned to the ways of the heathen kings of old, but instead of burning herself and her children upon pyres, she gave them poisoned draughts and then drank deeply of the bitter cup herself. A few men willingly put themselves in the way of the arrows of the attackers, preferring to die rather than be captured, and some even threw themselves from the seaward wall and their bodies were dashed upon the rocks below.
However, most of the folk mustered their courage and remained brave, keeping their vows to fight to the bitter end, even when all seemed lost. Not willingly would they surrender the chief city and port of Belfallas, or let the tower of Tirith Aear fall to the enemy! Proudly would the blue flag with its swan ship of silver fly, until it was crushed under the iron boots of the foe. Many were the feats of bravery in those days, and the tales tell of one fey Gondorian who killed sixty orcs as he stood back to back with his comrade at the siege, the bodies of their enemies heaped about them in a ring. Many of the women and children even took up kitchen utensils and whatever else they could use as weapons to defend the walls, and old men fought as well, tottering out of their stone houses with ancient swords and forgetting for a while their infirmity. It was at this siege that Old Man Fastred met Tuoronen the Gondorian, a man of great age even in the reckoning of those of Númenórean descent, and the two formed a friendship which lasted even into the years after the war.
Barrage after barrage of arrow fire rained down upon the attackers who besieged Dol Amroth, and cauldrons of boiling water and oil were emptied upon those who swarmed at the base of the walls. Many a man and orc were burned alive in the steaming downpour, and few dared go where the water and oil had seared the ground. The city became known as a place of dread to the forces of Mordor and they began to fear it as though it were accursed and inhabited by demons. The men of the West were heartened by the dismay of their enemies and fought on the fiercer, fey and fell in their wild fury and not even the horror caused by the Nazgûl who wheeled and shrieked overhead could tame the passion of their wrath. Mordor's own forces became even harder to control, for the orcs and men would fain be beaten by their captains than die at the hands of the mad Tarks and Strawheads.
Great was the slaughter until at last the forces of the Enemy lost heart in the middle of that month and let Dol Amroth be for a time. The people cheered from the walls of the city, and great was the rejoicing for all were besotted by the sweetness of their victory. A great number of Riders and men on foot came out and chased the black horde as it retreated, slaying all whose legs did not carry them fast enough. They laughed and sang as they swung their swords, almost fey in their delight, for they had triumphed over their enemies.
But there is a time for gladness, and this was not it, for the West had only won a battle and not the war. Even as the people rejoiced in their triumph at Dol Amroth, a great host of orcs and fell men was traveling towards the eastern border of the Riddermark, a land which lay almost defenseless against the onslaught of the black hordes.
In the South, it seemed that the Dark Power had been weakened for the time, but that was not so; nay, this was just the first phase of His attack. There would be many more ere the end. Sauron sat long in deep thought, brooding upon the past, His mind pondering a great evil. Not only darkness could be borne upon an east wind. The Dark Lord smiled and chuckled softly.
Sax (also spelled saex, saexe) - A short sword or long knife. Interestingly enough, Pippin's barrow-blade was called a sax by Denethor in an older version of Lord of the Rings. "Denethor says of Pippin's sword: Surely it is a sax wrought by our own folk in the North in the deep past?', where RK has 'blade' and 'kindred.' The word sax (Old English seax, dagger, short sword) was the final choice in the draft after rejection of 'blade,' 'knife' and 'dagger.'" - Notes on Minas Tirith, The War of the Ring, History of Middle-earth Volumn VIII edited by Christopher Tolkien.
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