13. Desperate Measures
Chapter Written by Elfhild
A dark cloud of unease hovered over the women's hearts as they watched the Southron slaver's men lead Waerburh, Aeffe and Frithuswith away. This was the first time that any of them had been seized and carried off to appease the savage lusts of the men of the enemy. Before the captives had been turned over to the command of the Haradric slavers, the army Directives had been their only salvation from such shame. Now they had no protection at all. This Esarhaddon uHuzziya was, in all truth, their master, at least for the remainder of their journey to Nurn. As their master, it was his just right to commit any atrocity he pleased against them.
Now the captives had a whole new set of captors to whom they must become accustomed. Gone were the hideous orc soldiers and the Khandian cavalrymen, replaced by Haradric slavers and their employees who had altogether different goals and motives and who were not held subject to the military Directives. The captives were confused and disoriented by the upheaval caused by Esarhaddon uHuzziya's arrival. Oh, curse this horrible Southron who had dared challenge the delicate balance of things!
It was inevitable that this day would come, but the women had not expected it to arrive so soon. During the days of the military Directives, they had thought that they would be left untouched until they arrived in this strange land of Nurn, so far away from their own. None of the captives had realized that their fears would come to pass so quickly. The long journey had lulled their minds into a tenuous complacency, and they had taken a strange sense of comfort in the repetitiveness of each miserably long day upon the trail. At least they knew what to expect. Some had even grown accustomed to the orcs, and the snarled orders which every morning brought - "Rise, you damned sluggardly wenches!" - were just as familiar as the cock singing out his dawn-song. Like Leofgifu, other women took solace that each day on the journey meant another day with their loved ones, and they counted themselves as blessed to have only that much.
Though it was indeed most peculiar for the proud-hearted people of Rohan, a goodly number of the captives actually looked forward to the future. The arrival in Nurn would at last bring an end to this seemingly endless journey, and then their fates would have some resolution. Even though this would mean separation from their kin and friends, their minds could not help but make an attempt to adjust to this grim reality. Many of the women and maids had begun fantasizing about their future masters.
What would these men be like? The masters of their dreams were superbly handsome and shamefully wealthy, the lords of great halls and the owners of many herds of horses, cattle and sheep. Some were strong and brawny warriors with kind hearts made of solid gold, while others were soft-spoken poets who were well-versed with the art of words and the intricacies of the matters of the heart. Of course, in these fantasies, the women designed the masters to their own specifications, and they commanded the will of their lords as queens rule lowly servants.
Many a maid pined for the Khandian cavalrymen, those dashing riders who now made their way, ironically enough, to the northern front, where they would engage in battle with the young ladies' own kinsmen. These girls consoled themselves with the promises of their tawny-skinned swains that someday they would come back to rescue them from their lovesick anguish.
Were these ladies committing irrevocable transgressions by harboring such notions? Were they damning their immortal souls to some ignoble fate for possessing sentiments other than hatred for their enemies? Were they to be counted as traitors, betrayers of king and country? But, really, what had they done? What oaths had they broken, what secrets had they revealed? They knew nothing, and nothing was asked of them. Their own submission would do naught to aid the enemy, only make life more pleasant for them.
Was it wrong to feel confused and disoriented at the absence of the horde of army orcs who had driven them so far eastward, and miss the gruesome faces of their tormentors? Was it unforgivable to miss the riders of Khand, who guarded them so vigilantly, keeping the wild tempers of the unruly uruks calm and cool? Was it evil to feel security in subjugation, to feel an unspoken bond with one's captors, to feel affection for them... even love?
Or perhaps these strange fancies went beyond loyalty to country and family, and were instead instinctive urges to survive, which had been ingrained in the minds of men since they first awoke in the East? Was not the primary urge to survive, to live, in spite of everything else, a quality that transcended national or tribal loyalties? Great battles waged between the immortal powers of Good and Evil seemed far away when viewed on the everyday plane of pain and existence.
Such concepts of "enemies," "lesser men," and "barbarians" seemed to fade away when captors showed mercy to their helpless charges. Deep in their hearts, the captives knew there would never be any return to the old ways; they had only today, and maybe tomorrow. Their very existence depended upon how they appeased their captors. These sentiments were especially true among the young, who had their whole lives before them. Their short years had not given them enough time to be completely inculcated into the intransigency of cultural mores and political beliefs.
How many children over the countless centuries had been kidnapped in raids by rival tribes, and in time grew to be just like their enemies, looking to their former captors as fathers and elder brothers? How many women had been taken hostage in raids, forced to become the wives or mistresses of the men of the enemy tribe? Among some peoples, capturing a bride was even part of the established wedding ritual, for the abduction severed the bonds between the woman and her people and gave her a new people to consider as family.
Still, there were those among the captives who remained defiant, those who had not given wholly over to despair or the hope of a future beyond all this. Some held to rigid ideals of good and evil, and in their minds, they considered themselves as among the righteous because of their unyielding resistance. Others simply hated every man or orc of the enemy because of the ruin which had befallen their land.
Goldwyn, the widow of Fasthelm of Grenefeld and the mother of three sons, hated the orcs and the men of the dark lands with a deep and abiding hatred. They had robbed her of her husband, a crime and loss which she would neither forgive nor forget. She had little sympathy for those whom she considered weak. The girls who had been so eager to accept the treats and conversation from the Khandian cavalrymen were silly little fools worthy of nothing except scorn. She had expected then that more than one of them would fall victim to the seductions of the cavalrymen, but any such follies had been prevented with the departure of the cavalrymen.
Now three of their number had been forcibly seized to spend the evening with the slaver and his men. None of the women - save for Breguswith, who was beyond any rational thought now - had any doubts in their minds as to what vile use to which they would be put. They would all be ravished and brought back in disgrace, and the next night he would pick three more, and the next night... If the plans she was beginning to formulate in her mind yielded fruit, there would be no next night - at least not for some of them.
She looked across her troop's campfire and saw many fires glowing in the night darkness. Fritha, her youngest, lay with his head in her lap, while Frumgár, the second, tossed small twigs into the crackling fire under the watchful gaze of his elder brother, Fródwine.
"Mother," Fritha looked up at her solemnly, studying the shadows along the side of her face and under her chin, "why did the bad men take those three ladies away? Will they hurt them?"
"Be quiet, Fritha," Fródwine interrupted. "You ask foolish questions." Often his youngest brother's questions did not irritate him that much, but Fródwine knew that his mother was upset about the abduction of the three women. He did not want Fritha's idle questions to worry her any more than she already was.
"Not so foolish, son," came Goldwyn's quiet words. "You have seen what the evil men are capable of doing. They might very well hurt those ladies terribly!" How could she explain the concept of evil to a child so young as Fritha? Did she even want to attempt to make sense of a concept that baffled the wisest? But sometimes the young comprehended instinctively far more than the wisest did in their deepest contemplations.
Frumgár tossed another twig into the fire and turned to his mother and brothers. "There is no use in fighting them, is there, Mother?"
"Of course there is!" Fródwine shot back, scowling. "But you have to do that when you have a stout sword in your hands!"
"We do not have swords." Fritha rolled off his mother's lap and into a sitting position. Looking up at her, he leaned his head against her shoulder.
"We have legs," Goldwyn reminded her sons.
"We are going to kick them?" Fritha asked, puzzled.
"No, son," Goldwyn whispered. "We are going to use our legs to run!"
"I cannot hear you over here. What did you say?" Frumgár turned his attention away from the fire.
"Sons, it is time for you to go to bed. I will tell you a secret then."
"A secret, Mother!" Fritha exclaimed eagerly as he looked up at her.
"Yes, a secret just among the four of us, but we will have to be very quiet while we talk."
"We will, Mother, we will!" Frumgár and Fritha echoed in chorus. Fródwine glanced at his mother, doubt and questions written on his face.
Fritha moved aside from his mother as she rose to her feet. Brushing away the dirt that clung to her skirts, Goldwyn took the hands of her youngest sons and walked away in the direction of the slaves' sleeping area. Though she told only a part of her plan to the two younger ones, she related the full conspiracy to Fródwine. When she had finished speaking, she returned to the fire and sought out Leofgifu. If her plan were to work, she needed the support of the other women. Since she had spent the past month in close quarters with Leofgifu, she decided she would consult with her first.
"Hunig is already asleep?" Goldwyn asked softly as she took a seat beside the other woman. Her gaze went to the little girl who lay beside her mother, her slight form wrapped up in a light coverlet.
"Aye, the child was exhausted and never complained when it was time to sleep. Yet I cannot find rest!" Leofgifu wrung her hands in despair as she looked to Goldwyn. "My thoughts are filled with worry for Waerburh and the other women. How could any of us rest when three of our number are being raped right as we speak?"
"How could any of us have rest when our country is being reduced to rubble?" Goldwyn asked, carefully playing upon Leofgifu's statement. "Sleep eludes us when we must sit here helplessly and watch as we are disgraced one by one!" She noted with some annoyance that the Eadbalding twins, who were perched on a large, flat stone nearby, had stopped their idle chattering to eavesdrop on the conversation.
"But what can we do about it?" Leofgifu looked to Goldwyn, her words almost a challenge. She did not really want to become the second party in yet another purposeless conversation filled with woe and self-pity over their dismal plight. Nothing good ever came of such talks; they only made the situation worse and wasted time.
"We can attempt to escape!" Goldwyn's voice was just a little above a whisper.
Excited at the prospects of escape, Elfhild looked eagerly between the two women as they spoke. Oh, could they really break free of their captors after so long? Her heart leapt in her chest, but she kept a respectful silence, waiting with baited breath.
"That is impossible!" Leofgifu exclaimed, drawing back in horror, her slate blue eyes revealing her alarm. "They will kill us! There is no cover under which to hide, for the months of darkness blighted all the trees. We would have little to sustain us on the journey; not even a single berry grows in that wasteland. And if we were able to return to the Mark, we would be walking into the midst of the enemy's army!" She could not believe what she was hearing. Had captivity been so devastating for Goldwyn that she had gone insane, losing all reason? She was no fortune teller, but she knew that nothing good would come of this absurd scheme.
"No, they will not kill us," Goldwyn admonished, shaking her head. "The worst they will do is beat us, for we are far too valuable to kill, and even if we die in the attempt, it is better than to live in slavery!" She held her head high, her chin set resolutely.
"Goldwyn," Leofgifu's voice trembled, "this is madness! We would be endangering ourselves and our children, and for nothing. I cannot be a part in this!" Bringing a trembling hand to her temple, she shook her head slowly back and forth.
Goldwyn grasped Leofgifu's arm as her eyes searched hers. "I have counted ten of the green-clad guards and about thirty half-breed orcs. There might be others that I have missed. I am uncertain how many drivers and other servants there are, but even considering them, there are far more of us than there are of our enemies. If we work together, at least some of us might be able to escape."
"Even if some could manage to escape, they would die of starvation in the wilderness," Leofgifu warned gravely. "It is better to stay here where there is food, and be thankful for the remaining days we have with our families and friends."
"Leofgifu," Goldwyn growled, her voice urgent, "I have thought of nothing but escape ever since we were captured, but whilst we were so heavily guarded, there was never an opportunity. My sons and I have been hoarding every scrap of food that we could spare. The recent rains will soon bring forth the wild onions and greens, and we can live on that, even mushrooms."
"Please do not do this, Goldwyn!" Leofgifu's eyes pled with hers, but when she saw the wild, unreasoning zeal in Goldwyn's turquoise orbs, she knew she could never dissuade her.
"My course is already set, and whoever is courageous enough to go with me and my sons, I welcome." Goldwyn's voice was filled with ice. She was disgusted with Leofgifu, whom she considered had given into the hated enemy. How could she be so complacent, so accepting of her fate? She drew her hand away from Leofgifu as she looked past her towards the twins. "Are you game to hazard this, Elfhild and Elffled?" She raised a haughty eyebrow.
"This will never succeed," Leofgifu shook her head sadly, her gaze pleading with the twins not to listen to Goldwyn.
"I think it could," Elfhild proclaimed boldly. She had been listening intently to every word which had been exchanged between the two women, and her heart beat faster as each one of Goldwyn's words conjured up visions of daring escapes and grand adventures. Oh, how she wanted to help! She hoped that her aunt would change her mind and agree to this brave plan!
"But what if we are caught?" Elffled ventured timidly. "Are you sure they will grant us mercy? The cruelty of the Haradrim is known by all!" A shudder of dread ran down her spine and she rubbed her shoulders as though she were cold.
"Only a fool is harsh to a horse that leaves the pasture to search for greener fields, and these men are no fools," Goldwyn admonished, her voice condescending, for she despised cowards. "They plan to sell us for profit."
"How do you propose that we escape?" Elfhild asked eagerly.
"Remember what the slaver told us this evening." Goldwyn looked into the face of each of the three women, her eyes boring into theirs. "Tomorrow we reach the Anduin and the next day we cross over to the eastern shore. Once we pass over the River, there will be no return. Tomorrow night after the slaver and his men are asleep - for even devils must slumber - we will flee, each one and her children. After we have eluded our captors, we must journey west towards the mountains, for doubtless many of Gondor have taken refuge there, far from the reach of the enemy. Perhaps we can find friendly folk who will aid us in our plight and guide us back towards our homeland." Her gaze settled on Leofgifu. "Those who do not wish to attempt this journey will raise a great hue and cry. When the guards are distracted, the rest of us will flee in different directions. Leofgifu, though you are not going with us, will you help us in our escape?"
"Aye, that I will do," Leofgifu assured her. Though she did not approve of Goldwyn's plan, she would never betray her and turn her over to the slavers, although she probably should for Goldwyn's own good and that of the other captives. "I will let out such a scream that it would wake the dead, and then I will pull my hair and race about as though I were mad! I know many will reject the idea of escaping out of fear of repercussions, but still they will be sympathetic. Before you make your attempt, I will see that word reaches the other women and they will put on a show such as these Southrons have never seen. They will be unrecognized in the dark and do not stand so great a chance of persecution."
"Thank you, Leofgifu," Goldwyn smiled and patted her shoulder. At least such weak women would have some use in her scheme.
"But I fear you will fail," Leofgifu spoke dourly as she looked up at the night sky. "The moon is in the first quarter, and his light is far too bright for comfort."
"Perhaps the skies will be cloudy," Goldwyn replied undauntedly. "This is our last chance." She turned to the twins. "Elfhild and Elffled, I have noticed all evening that many of the women have been allowed to move about freely in the camp. The slavers do not exercise such a careful watch as did the soldiers. I am going to tell the other women. Will you go with me and spread the word?"
"I would do so gladly," Elfhild replied eagerly. Turning to her aunt, she added, "With your permission, of course." She gave her a pleading look.
Leofgifu sighed heavily, her breath rushing out in a loud gush which seemed to make her thin frame appear even more gaunt. "Well, you will be safe within the bounds of the camp, and this would give you a chance to see old friends once again. You may go, but I still think that this venture is folly."
"Thank you," Elfhild exclaimed, pouncing on her aunt with a sudden hug and a kiss on the cheek. "Please reconsider your decision not to adventure this attempt," she pled gently. "I do not want to think of you and Hunig being led off into slavery while we go free!"
"I will think upon it," Leofgifu murmured softly. Oh, by the Gods, no! This was not happening; Elfhild was not actually thinking about running away! Surely she would come back to her senses!
"I will talk to you later about this matter, and try to convince you then," Elfhild exclaimed, the cheerful sound grating in her worried aunt's ears. "We both need your advice and help as we travel towards our homeland!" Smiling, she rose and looked down at her sister. "Elffled, are you coming with Goldwyn and me?"
"My mind is unsettled about this whole affair," Elffled mumbled glumly as she flicked a piece of dirt from the underside of her boot. Everything was happening so fast. She could barely comprehend it all. She just felt numb... and nauseated.
"Please come along, Fleda," Elfhild begged impatiently. "Let us take advantage of these new freedoms which have been bestowed upon us. It has been ages since we saw any of our friends!" Her lower lip quivering, she looked to her twin with large, pathetic eyes which were filled with pleading.
"Oh, very well." Elffled shrugged her shoulders despondently and then slowly stood up. This was not how she wanted to reunite with old friends from the village... she would much rather talk and gossip than plot foolish escapades.
"I will go to those troops positioned to the south and east of us," Goldwyn explained, pointing about the camp like one of the marshals of the Riddermark. "You, Elfhild, go to the north, and Elffled to the west. Talk to those women whom you know to be leaders in the troops, and when you do not know who they are, ask. Tell them that this will be the first and only time this plan will be announced and they must decide amongst themselves who will go and who will stay. Press upon them that Leofgifu has promised that she and other women who will not be making the escape attempt will raise a stir and a distraction, screaming and pretending to be mad."
The sisters nodded in acknowledgement that they had absorbed this information, and then the three set off on their quest. Elffled was loath to approach total strangers and announce to them the intricate details of a conspiracy about which she had many fears and doubts. What if everyone laughed at her and scorned her for even talking about such a foolhardy plot? What if they started asking complicated questions which only Goldwyn could answer? Grumbling to herself, she mumbled out the details of the escape plan. Finally, another woman far more brave than she volunteered to be the messenger, and Elffled gladly relinquished the unwanted task to her.
It was with excited anticipation and breathless tones, though, that Elfhild relayed these tidings to the women. She took delight in being the bearer of such important news and thrived in the sense of danger and intrigue. This was a perilous quest, doomed, perhaps, to failure, but she felt more alive than she had in months, her senses besotted by pure terror and the thrill of escape. A rush of exhilaration coursed through her body as though in her veins wildly blazed a fire, burning away the withering taint of despair and captivity. She only prayed that her aunt would relent and agree to flee with her and the other women.
Far in the east lay the vague outline of the looming Mountains of Shadow, undiscernible in the darkness but still ever present. On the other side of those craggy peaks lay the Nameless Land, the realm of Mordor, an evil place so dreadful that most in the West would not dare to call it by name. Only a few nights remained ere the captives entered that realm of horror and slavery, perhaps to disappear forever.
Desperation and fear drove the captives, and for quite a few, fool's hopes overpowered wisdom and sensible thought. There would be only one chance to escape, to try to flee to freedom, ere they crossed the Great River and the black mountains swallowed them up forever. Many of the women would adventure such an attempt, whether their decision would prove in the end to be for good or for ill.
Two hours before dawn, sleep-starved eyes turned questioning glances towards the flickering torch which approached through the darkness. Led by a swarthy guard, the three who had been taken held to each other, murmuring and sobbing. Two staggered slightly as they walked, their gait wayward. A male voice, almost jaunty, spoke too loudly...
"Look upon your companions, women of Rohan! They return to you unharmed, only bettered by their experience. The Shakh trusts the remainder of your night will be spent pleasantly!"
The man turned and the torch flickered away in the darkness towards the slaver's pavilion.
The unasked question - "What happened?" - created a mighty soundless roar that echoed throughout the camp, but the sound was choked by tears.
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.