8. East Away
Chapter Written by Elfhild
The two maidens marched through the darkness, their leather shoes sinking softly into the carpet of dried grass. They feared they would stumble and fall in the heavy gloom, for the ground was uneven and they could not use their arms to steady themselves. Elfhild's mind was a battlefield where sorrow vied with anger and fear vied with bravery, and she reeled from the intensity of her troubled thoughts which came at her like arrow fire. Her mother had been slain; her sister had been wounded; Brúwann their hound had been killed; and their home had been sacked and destroyed. For the first time, she had felt the fury of battle and the angry flames of bitter passion; her blade had tasted blood and all her limbs had trembled with wrath and vegance. But now she felt helpless and alone, a grieving maiden who mourned for a whole world laid to ruin in a single night.
Soon she saw the flames of another blazing house and smelled the reek of burning straw and wood. Her heart sank further into despair and she winced at the sight; that was where her Uncle Athelwine and Aunt Leofgifu lived. She cast a fearful glance to her sister but Elffled only gazed ahead into the darkness with staring eyes. No comfort could be found in that impassive face, and Elfhild wondered if she was silently suffering or if the blow upon her head had rendered her insensible. Soon several orcs approached their guards and Barzkhûral ordered his lads to hasten to meet the newcomers. These orcs fell in with Barzkhûral's band and Elfhild and Elffled were soon joined by more captives, their aunt Leofgifu and her daughter Hunig, who was sobbing and clinging to her mother's skirts.
"Elfhild! Elffled!" Leofgifu cried, fear and worry upon her face. "What--"
"Silence!" one of the orcs bellowed. "Keep your legs moving and your mouths quiet!"
Elfhild looked at her aunt sadly and began to trudge forward. Dread was in Leofgifu's eyes as they met the sorrowful gaze of her husband's eldest niece and saw the bandaged head and strange stare of indifference upon the face of the younger. In that moment, she perceived all that had befallen them, or at least a part of it, and great was the anguish in her heart. Athelthryth's absence was painfully obvious and her daughters' faces told the whole tale. Though no words were spoken, the grievous tidings were conveyed. Leofgifu closed her eyes tightly and moaned softly in sorrow.
"She was slain," Elfhild whispered. She turned her head, not wanting to meet her aunt's eyes.
"Oh, my dear child, I had guessed as much," Leofgifu replied quietly. "This night is most evil." She and Athletryth had been friends since childhood and she had always admired the younger woman. Athelthryth possessed the confidence that she never had, as well as the beauty. Leofgifu had always been uncertain of herself and despised her own appearance, for she was tall and plain, with a head full of unruly blonde curls and an unmemorable face. Often as they were growing up, she dreamed of somehow trading places with her friend. However, in reality, she would not have wished such a fate on anyone, because of her worthless father. That was another thing she admired about Atheltryth - her father was a good man, not a drunkard who spent all his days in the alehouse. But now her dear friend was dead. Tears welled up in Leofgifu's eyes.
"All is lost," Elfhild choked out. "There is no hope. All is as dark as the night, and the sun shall never rise again."
Elffled looked down at the earth as it sped by her feet, a blur of gray in the gloom. Her sense of time had been distorted and the fight was a dim memory of chaos and fear, more like something that had happened in years past rather than about two hours before. She could not remember how her mother had been slain, and whenever she tried to recall it to mind, her head throbbed all the more. Her mind was floundering in a sea of pain and confusion, and she was uncomfortably reminded of her dreams in which the Mering Stream flooded. Yet at times everything felt dreadfully clear, and it was as though her heart had been turned to ice, for she could reflect upon all that had happened without weeping. Guilt chipped away at her benumbed senses, but she knew that the tears would come soon enough. They always did; it was only a matter of time.
Yet the four were not allowed to mourn or to give solace to one another, for the orcs began to march again, and dragging footsteps were encouraged into swiftness by the points of spears. Behind them they could hear the frantic, guttural bawling of their cattle as the orcs strained to pull the frightened, stubborn animals ahead. Soon the small group reached the Road and there they were joined by a great procession traveling eastward.
There was a large number of orcs, many of whom were as tall as men, and this bewildered Elfhild and Elffled, for in all the songs and tales they had ever heard orcs were described as being short and small. Some of the large creatures were carrying ill-gotten goods while others dragged reluctant beasts. The long arms of a few were laden with blankets, clothing and other supplies piled into great stacks so high that the bearers could barely see where they were going. Occasionally some heavy object would slip and fall and come crashing down upon an unsuspecting foot, and then there would be a yelp of pain followed by curses and threats.
Other orcs herded the women, maidens and children along, guarding them closely and prodding them forward with spears. The hands of the women and girls were bound behind their backs, save for those who had to carry babies or small children. The hands of the children, too, were left unbound, for they would stay close to their mothers and kinsfolk and were too small and scared to cause the orcs much trouble. Some of the captives were frightened and cringing, but others were defiant and struggled against their captors, vexing them in any way they could. Elfhild recognized all of the faces, whether they were kin, close friend or distant acquaintance.
She looked away from this sorrowful sight and her eyes beheld one just as dire. To the west, she saw the orange glow of many different fires scattered out along the landscape; burning houses and outbuildings which the raiders had torched. All of Grenefeld was burning and those who had not escaped had either been taken captive or killed. What had happened to the scouts who patrolled the borders? Why had no one been warned of this attack? Elfhild bit her lip and tears stung her eyes. They must have been worsted, either utterly destroyed or driven far away to the north! But still the big orc, the one called Barzkhûral, had been concerned that if he and his band did not hurry back to the Black Army that the Riders would come and catch them unawares.
Hope surged in Elfhild's heart. Maybe the Riders would indeed return in greater strength and deliver the captives from their enemies. Her heart skipped a beat as she imagined valiant warriors galloping on their great war steeds, screaming mighty battle cries and charging at the orcs. The raiders would be driven away in fear, and the captives could then flee into the mountains or to Dunharrow or maybe even further west and there wait out the war. What would happen then? She prayed that the West would prove the victor and that her father, brother and uncles would return safely and, of course, dear Osric and all the other fellows of Grenefeld. Then, perhaps, life would resume some semblance of what it had been before, though she knew nothing would ever really be the same again. But maybe--
"Hai! Hai! Gus thak! Maubûr frapog!" an orc bellowed and the orcs began to march once again, prodding their captives along. There must have been over two hundred of the monsters, all wearing thick armor of metal rings or fishes' scales and carrying sharp spears. Elfhild plunged from lofty hopes and giddy fantasies back into deep despair. She had been daydreaming again and ignoring the truthfulness of her plight. All was lost and the end of the free world had come. She felt a stabbing, searing pain in her heart, and she could not stifle a sob as the tears flowed freely down her face once again.
But though her mother had been slain, she still had her sister, aunt and cousin, and she felt closer to them now than she ever had before, though few words had been said and no embraces had been shared. She wondered how fared poor Elffled, for the orcs had not allowed them to talk. Now she would have to shout to make her voice be heard over the sound of foul orc-speech, raucous laughter and snatches of bawdy songs which were sung off-key, and she did not really want these brutes to be party to her conversation. At least the draught that their captors had given her sister seemed to have helped, but Elfhild highly doubted that the healing powers of these creatures had any lasting effect. Maybe when the orcs allowed them to rest, she would be able to ask her sister how she felt.
They marched on and on at a slow yet constant pace with frequent stops to rest, for the raiders had to humor the young and the old. The weeping of the captives blended with the songs and laughter of the orcs, creating a discordant melody of sorrow and strife, malice and mourning: the song of a world marred in its making. After they had traveled about two miles, Elffled fell in a heap upon the dusty road. Sobbing and wailing, she refused to get back up and her weeping was inconsolable. Elfhild feared that she was dying or had gone mad in her grief, but her desperate cries were drowned out by the cruel laughter of their captors. An orc had to throw Elffled over his shoulder and carry her for a good distance, but though her weary legs were saved from walking, the blood rushed to her head and made it throb and spin. To make matters worse, the brute who was carrying her kept pinching her rump or slapping it to the lively tune of ribald songs, much to the two maidens' dismay and the amusement of the rest of the orcs.
Onward they marched on the Great West Road. As they traveled eastward, they were met by more orcs and more captives and great was the spoil, for the lands west of the Mering Stream were poorly guarded. 'Twas true that the eastern border along the Entwash and Mering Stream from the Falls of the Rauros to the White Mountains was easy to defend, for the only path between swamp-lands to the north and forests and mountains to the south was where the Road went through Everholt over the Mering Stream. However, war waged in the northern marches. Here was the strength of the home guard, for forces from Dol Guldur beleaguered the Wold and East Emnet. Yet another army of the Dark Land traveled upon the Road, and the first feelers of that mighty force had struck the lands of the Horse-lords while the Riders were striving with the enemy in the South or fighting in the northern marches.
The rest of the night dragged by in dreary misery and the hours seemed to last for long ages of the earth. The silent forest of Everholt to the right loomed above them with ominous foreboding, and even the vile voices of the orcs were stilled. The Firien Wood this place was also called; the Whispering Wood in the Common Speech, for a great silence lay under those dense branches and few could withstand it. The raiders and their captives passed row after row of oaks and birches with long, sparsely covered branches reaching out to the heavens like the bony hands of starving men begging for release from their hunger. The air was heavy with a sense of baleful condemnation, as though the stern, dour shade of Elendil had returned to stand above his old mound upon the hill of Halfirien and look down upon the enemy with reproach and rebuke. Yet in truth his shade was to be counted impotent and utterly defeated for the realm of his descendants had perished, and soon, it seemed, would also fall their old ally.
Dawn came and the sun rose but she was merely a faint pale glow in the shadowy sky, like the icy radiance of the moon covered by veils of billowy clouds. A few hours after the dim dawn, the orcs called another halt to the march and left the Road, retreating once again into the uncomfortable sanctuary of the hallowed forest. After a short distance, they allowed their captives to take a short rest in the deep shade that lay beneath the trees. All was dark in the camp and not even the flickering glow of a single campfire pierced the shadows cast by the thick web of branches overhead and the unnatural twilight caused by the suffocating clouds. Orcs were everywhere, some sitting down to rest, others standing around in clustered groups or milling about. Vigilant guards patrolled the perimeter of the camp and others were posted along the road and to the west. The captives had not one bit of privacy, and the women and children were even guarded when they had to answer a call of nature. So it would be for the rest of the journey.
Beneath a large oak, Elfhild and Elffled sat down and stretched out their tired legs upon the dry, sandy ground. They were a short distance away from the rest of the prisoners, but still within the hearing range of a loud whisper. Leofgifu sat down near her husband's twin sister-daughters, and they took what ease they could with hands tied behind their backs. Hunig sat down beside her mother, seeking comfort and protection at her side, her small arms clutching at her mother's form. The orcs gave little heed to them, for they were weary from the march and the frightened speech of captives had become tedious to their ears, and so for a time the prisoners had a moment of solace amid the trees of the still forest.
"How are you two faring?" whispered Leofgifu, the lamentation of the other captives muffling the quiet noise of her voice. "Especially you, Elffled." She looked with concern at the bandage wrapped around her niece's head.
"Yes, Elffled - how is your head?" Elfhild asked, squeezing her sister's arm. "You have been very quiet this whole night. You were bleeding when the journey began, but in this darkness I cannot see how badly you were hurt."
"I do not think the blow was that evil." Elffled smiled weakly. "My head still feels a little queer: like I am besotted upon too much mead and have the sickness that comes afterwards at the same time."
Leofgifu's brow wrinkled with worry. "But that is what you said earlier, Elffled. Mayhap you should lie back and rest a while." Hunig looked over to her cousins with unspoken anxiety.
"I will be fine," Elffled assured the others. "The orcs treated the wound and it will heal soon enough." Though her words were meant to ease the fears of her kin, in truth she worried about the blow which she had been dealt. Never before had her head hurt so badly, nor had her senses been so bewildered, even when she had taken one too many sips from the drinking horn.
"How were you wounded anyway?" Leofgifu softly inquired. They had been given little time to talk, even during rests. The orcs seemed at last to have lost interest in the conversation of their prisoners, and for that the captives were glad.
"Well, um," Elffled began but trailed off, blushing sheepishly. "I must have been hit pretty hard on the head, because I cannot remember. Elfhild, could you help me?" She turned pleading eyes to her sister.
Elfhild wondered how she, who fancied herself a bit of a storyteller, would fare in the telling of the tragic tale, but still she took a deep breath and began. "When the orcs raided our home, they wanted to take us captive, but Mother would not let those fiends capture us without a struggle. Even Brúwann joined the fray, but alas! he was felled by one of the brutes. Mother slew two of the fiends and you and I fought our best. Oh, I hope we wounded some of the monsters!"
Her voice cracked and wavered as her face contorted from the travails of newborn tears and her heart was wrenched by sorrow. "It all happened so quickly," Elfhild continued between sobs. "Mother was thrown against the wall by one of those accursed demons and he stabbed her in the stomach. She fell to the floor and Elffled rushed to her side. Gloating at what he had done, that foul devil hit my sister atop the head with the heavy hilt of his sword. She was knocked senseless and slumped over Mother, and I feared that she, too, had been killed."
"So that was how it happened," Elffled remarked dully. She sat there, her limbs feeling as leaden as a heavy log. She had the wits, too, of a piece of wood or a rock: impassive, indifferent and uncaring. This lack of concern terrified her and she twisted her hands painfully against her bonds, both to punish herself and so she could feel something besides numbness. She wondered if her mother had felt so confused and heartless when her own mother had died, though she had died in childbirth and not at the hands of her enemies.
Elfhild's weeping gradually subsided and her eyes felt sandy and tired. Yet she herself was not weary, for a hot anger began to boil up inside her heart and her sorrow was slowly replaced by fury. Her eyes glittered and there was a touch of lingering madness and bloodlust in her voice. "No weregild in gold would an orc ever pay for a daughter of Eorl, but payment can be extracted by other means. I leapt at that devil's spawn and wrestled him to the ground. The blade of my sax drank of his blood many times ere his fellows laid hands upon me and dragged me out of the house. Sweet and bitter was the taste of blood and the iron drank deeply of it, savoring every drop. Alas that my blade could not have imbibed until it was drunken and utterly besotted with the wine of death!"
"You two and your mother were very brave and fought just as fiercely as any Rider of the Mark. War is indeed a most horrible thing," Leofgifu shook her head sadly, the behavior of the normally cheerful Elfhild alarming her. Cruel indeed was fate, for it had forced a sweet girl to become a killer. Oh, curse these orcs! Curse the Dark Enemy!
Elfhild trembled. No remorse or sorrow did she feel for having slain the orc and neither pity nor mercy tempered her rage. She had heard tales of young Riders who had been so overcome by confusion and guilt after their first battle that they lost the heart to fight for a time. Many thought fellows such as these were weak, for the folk of the Mark loved a fearless warrior who knew many tales of battle. But no delight did Elfhild take in slaying and her heart felt no joy.
"Mother never wanted to be a shieldmaiden," Elfhild sobbed. "She never wanted to fight against the enemy. Neither did I. But the war came to us, and we fought it as best as we could. Oh, what does it matter anyway? The end has come. There is nothing left but death, and for that I am glad! Death would bring freedom from this crushing sorrow, this cruel torment, this accursed darkness. O, would that I had fallen beside my mother!" Her voice trailed off into anguished wails and her body shook with her sobbing as though she had been seized by a demon of sorrow.
An uneasy silence descended upon the four. The night was still and quiet, save for the murmuring of the captives and the harsh voices of the orcs. Hunig squeezed her mother tightly and buried her face into the crook of her bound arm. Elfhild sank to the ground and lay there, her shoulder throbbing from her weight and from the small pebbles and clods of dirt which dug into her flesh. The air was chill and the dampness of the captives' sweat-drenched hair and clothing made them shiver and tremble, for they sat in the shade and there was little light to warm their weary bones. The silence in the forest seemed to hum and reverberate off the boles of the trees, creating a somber feeling of foreboding which originated from someplace deep within the forest and spread outward, like the ripples in a pond. The sorrowful sounds of weeping and wailing slowly dulled to a soft noise of lamentation, a whisper in the silent woods where few dared to tread.
Elffled looked up. Though her head felt like a devil was drumming on it, she was able to perceive that something had upset the orcs and there was a great stir in the camp. "Rûkal! Rûkal!" several orcs cried, turning and pointing back towards the west. "Skaatug taalan-ghaara, gus maubûr ash!" The orc-chieftains who held the highest ranks in the lot were alarmed, and many of the orcs who had been sitting down and taking their ease rose to their feet and listened intently. The camp quickly became a swarm of about two hundred orcs whose foul voices buzzed angrily like the flies of the Dark Land.
Orders were barked and weapons were hastily picked up from where they had been propped against tree trunks or cast carelessly upon the ground. A tall orc with a broad chest and heavy armor stormed into the midst of the captives and bellowed out the order: "All right, you strawhead sows and your squealing little runts, on your feet NOW! Your accursed horse-boys have returned and we've got to leg it ere they catch us. Don't try to scream or struggle, for though our orders say no spoiling, they also say we are to slay all captives rather than allow them to be rescued by our enemies."
Elfhild's heart skipped a beat. A chance of rescue! Her thoughts became wild and her hopes unruly. In her mind she saw the faintly luminescent clouds of dust stirred up by the pounding hooves of the horses as the Riders charged the orcs, their swords swinging as they slew, singing the songs of war. She would shout and cry and tears of joy would flow down her face and though her hands were bound, she would find herself dancing in the madness of the moment. But then her vision was tainted by darkness and doubt, and she saw herself falling to the ground, pierced through the heart by the spear of an orc. How cruel was fate! That the only hope of the captives could also end in their deaths. Spirits had soared like eagles but quickly plummeted back down to the earth as though shot by arrows.
After they had passed the forest, the orcs and their prisoners were marching once again upon the Road through the dusky haze of blighted morning. Impatient, cursing orcs pulled upon the lead ropes of unwilling animals and as iron boots beat upon the dusty road, stolen loot tumbled from heavily laden arms. There tools, cooking utensils and articles of clothing lay forgotten upon the ground, for there was little time to be spent retrieving what had fallen. Cross from weariness and lack of sleep, young children began to cry and sob anew, either frightened or resentful of their captors. Babies wailed from the sudden and abrupt movements and mothers desperately tried to give what comfort they could.
The orcs were not as lenient as they had been when the eastward journey began, and the captives were ordered to march ever faster, encouraged onward by the sharp pricks of spears and the bitter stings of the lash. Fear and desperation filled their hearts, for they were constrained to flee from their own people and the only hope of rescue. Yet if they slowed their pace, they were punished for their lack of haste, and they knew that they would surely be slain if the Riders were to catch up with them. The morning air was filled with the sounds of anguish and suffering as each step the captives were forced to take took them further and further away from the place of their birth and into an uncertain future.
"Hai! Hai! Gus thak! Maubûr frapog!" - "About face! Company march!"
"Rûkal! Rûkal! Skaatug taalan-ghaara, gus maubûr ash." - "Riders Riders! Coming from the north, about one company."