17. A Glorious Folly
Chapter Written by Elfhild
After receiving the evening dole, the women clustered about in little circles and began to eat their supper. The freedom which the Southern slavers had granted them allowed for the reestablishment of the closeness that they had been denied for so long. No longer forced to stay in assigned troops, the women could walk freely among the other captives. However, a mood of unease had settled over the prisoners, tainting any slight solace they might have had. Their eyes searching the borders of the encampment, many kept vigil for Goldwyn and her sons, who had not yet returned. What ulterior motives had the slaver possessed when he asked Goldwyn and her boys to tour the ruins with him? What was taking them so long? Had the lecherous Southron raped her right in front of her sons? The image was morbid enough to be titillating, and sent many a tongue wagging in scandalized, outraged whispers.
As Leofgifu talked with an old acquaintance from her own village, she occasionally looked away, hoping to catch a glimpse of Goldwyn and her three sons returning to the camp safe and well. Being young girls, the twins found the subject of the older women's conversation very dull and tiresome. Their aunt's friend was one of those people who rambled on incessantly about their ailments. One could only take so much talk of bunions and ingrown toenails before the subject grew as old as stale, moldy bread. Excusing themselves, the girls wandered off in pursuit of a more interesting exchange.
The memory of the morning's dreadful tidings still vivid in her mind, Elffled turned to her sister and asked, "What did you think of the stories which Waerburh, Aeffe and Frithuswith told to the camp?"
"Oh, what happened to Waerburh was horrible!" Elfhild exclaimed softly, shuddering in outrage. As they walked, she stepped in close to her twin, so that they would not be overheard. "That poor woman did not deserve such torture! You know what Aunt Leofgifu said earlier today - only the mind of a Southron could devise such debauchery!"
"Yet no evil befell the two others," Elffled noted thoughtfully as they strolled on. "Aeffe was certainly filled with naught but praise for the Southrons." She leaned her face nearer to her sister, her voice dropping. "Now, I do not doubt Waerburh's tale for an instant, but the accounts of the two other women were so different from hers."
"I think that Aeffe was enchanted by some dread spell or potion," Elfhild countered, magic being her explanation for everything which she could not explain. "Oh!" she exclaimed, halting in her tracks and turning to face her twin. An idea had suddenly come to her. "Mayhap we should talk with these women and ask them more about what happened?"
A pensive expression clouded Elffled's face. "Are you sure that is our place?" She hesitated to ask mere acquaintances such intimate questions.
"If they take offense, we will not press the matter." Elfhild glanced towards the direction which they had come. "I do not think that we should bother Waerburh, though... our questions would only remind her of her pain."
"Oh, no, that would be unkind indeed," Elffled nodded in sincere agreement. "I would not wish to cause the poor woman any more suffering." She paused, thinking for a moment. "What about Frithuswith then? Or Aeffe?"
Elfhild's gaze fell to her feet, which she shuffled in the dirt. "I am not sure I want to bother Frithuswith... She is a lady from a wealthy family, and we are farm girls. She might laugh at us." Abruptly raising her head, she flipped her long blonde mane over her shoulder, as though the gesture could somehow dismiss the lack of confidence she felt about her low social standing. "Let us speak with Aeffe instead... she looks to be only a few years older than we are, and she did seem pleasant."
And so it was settled: the twins would seek out Aeffe and inquire of her what had really transpired in the slaver's tent. It was a way to pass the time, a way to distract themselves from the crushing despair of the camp and the stifling presence of the older women. A light diversion would prove refreshing to their overburdened minds. Both girls' thoughts were occupied with the escape which had been planned for that evening. In just a few hours, Goldwyn and a great number of the captives would make a mad dash for freedom. How many would manage to elude their captors? Only time would tell.
Fired up with the contagious enthusiasm which swept over the camp after Goldwyn's speech, Elfhild longed to be a part of the escape attempt. The cause was so hopeless and doomed to failure that it appealed to the young girl's romantic, idealistic nature. Visions of a courageous last stand against their enemies filled her childish imagination. Unfortunately, her more sensible aunt balked at such a foolhardy scheme. Would Leofgifu reconsider her decision not to challenge the rule of the slavers? Elfhild needed to talk with her aunt, but she dreaded the encounter with all her heart, for she feared she already knew the outcome of the debate. Leofgifu would refuse; she already had when Goldwyn first announced her drastic plan to flee. Yet Elfhild had made up her mind - she planned to escape, with or without her aunt!
It was a painful decision, yes, but a life of slavery terrified her, and she longed to do something to help her beleaguered country. Her sister seemed reluctant, but Elfhild knew she could talk her into making the attempt. After all, Elffled would follow her wherever she went, even to the ends of the earth. Oh, what would happen to them alone in the wilds of Gondor, if they did manage to elude their captors? She prayed with all her heart that Leofgifu would relent! They would need the guidance and wisdom of their sensible aunt on this journey back to their homeland!
Milling through the camp, pausing now and then to chat when they saw a familiar face, the twins at last spotted Aeffe. Perched upon a large, gray boulder, the older girl was all alone as she watched the crowd. When the twins had first seen her, the early morning gloom had obscured Aeffe's features, but now, in the light of the westering sun, the sisters could see her clearly. She was taller than they, which was not all that unusual, since the twins were somewhat petite. Her round face really was moon-shaped, just as the slaver had said, and a dark mole graced the right side of her mouth. Her most unique feature, however, was her hair; her wavy tresses were the color of buttercream tinted with strawberries, a shade which was considered desirable among the Rohirrim and often acquired by the use of dyes.
"Good evening," Elfhild greeted as she approached the older girl. "I am Elfhild, and this is my sister, Elffled." She gestured to the other girl, who waved and smiled shyly in salutation. "Do you mind if we sit here?"
"Oh, no, not at all," Aeffe smiled gregariously. "I was feeling a bit lonely sitting here all by myself." She studied each girl for a long moment, her eyes shifting from first one to the other, her bemused expression clearly showing her confusion. "How am I ever to tell you two apart?" she exclaimed helplessly. "You both look exactly alike!"
Laughing, Elfhild and Elffled sat down on the rock beside Aeffe. "Aye, we are often mistaken for each other," Elfhild told her, preparing to give the other girl the usual speech which she gave new acquaintances who found it confusing to tell the two sisters apart. "However, if one has known us for a while, it is easy to see the differences."
"I am the pretty one and she is the loud one who talks all the time," Elffled put in quickly. When Elfhild shot her a nasty glare, she returned the hostile gesture with a winning smile which dripped of false sweetness.
Amused, Aeffe giggled at the playful banter between the identical sisters, though she tried to stifle her laughter behind her fingers. Suddenly it occurred to her that she had been remiss in introductions. "Oh, I almost forgot to tell you!" she exclaimed, pressing her palm to her heart. "I am Aeffe of Dáburna."
"Oh!" Elfhild's eyes lit up in recognition. "That is close to Grenefeld, our village!"
"We are neighbors," Elffled laughed.
"Well... not exactly, but close enough," Aeffe remarked, chuckling.
"Say, I heard about what happened in the slaver's tent last night," Elfhild spoke up, broaching the subject which she was dying to talk about. "Were you not afraid?"
A thoughtful expression came over Aeffe's face as she considered the question. "At first I was, but after I drew upon the dragon's tail, I began to relax and appreciate the courtesy of the charming Southrons... and, of course, Inbir." A rosy blush tinting the apples of her cheeks, she looked down and sighed softly, a wistful smile upon her lips.
"How could you have any good words to say about the Southrons?" Elfhild gasped in astonishment. "And especially after what the slaver did to Waerburh!"
"Waerburh?" Aeffe repeated questioningly, her brows furrowing as she tried to sort through the hazy memories of the previous night. Bewitched by the fragrant, seductive smoke, she had been deaf to Waerburh's screams, hearing only the sound of Inbir's melodic voice. "As far as I know, he did naught to her." Flushing slightly, she turned her head away.
"Oh, I forgot, you were not there to hear Waerburh's tale," Elfhild replied somewhat sheepishly. Quickly recovering her dignity, she launched into a rant against the slaver. "That wicked, shameless lecher! What he did to her was abominable!"
"I - I cannot remember all of the evening... I did not know... Perhaps it was." Aeffe shifted uncomfortably upon her rock.
"Why can you not remember?" Elffled asked softly, sensing the other girl's unease. Riveting her gaze upon her twin, she narrowed her eyes, sending Elfhild a mental command to use some caution before she opened her yapping mouth again. Elffled feared that her sister would inadvertently hurt Aeffe's feelings with her endless questions and open disdain for the Haradrim.
"The dragon put a spell of sleepiness upon me, and I fell into a deep repose until Inbir," Aeffe's voice softened with sentiment as she said his name, "woke me from my slumbers. I can scarcely recall even walking back to the camp."
"Aeffe, are you sure that... thing... was really a dragon?" Elffled inquired with gentle skepticism. Though a wild tale appealed to her imagination, still there was something about the other girl's account which caused her to doubt its veracity. "Waerburh said it was some sort of device made of glass, out of which smoked besotting clouds of some enchanted vapor."
"Mayhap it was," Aeffe snapped. "I do not know! Perhaps I drank too much wine." Shrugging, she plucked a loose thread from her tattered dress and let it drop to the ground. "Did you come here to ridicule me?" she demanded, her temper flaring. "If such was your intention, you know I do not have to stay here and allow you to belittle me!" She lifted her head and glared defiantly at the sisters.
"No, no!" Elffled cried, rapidly shaking her hand back and forth in front of her in protest. Oh, she knew this was a bad idea from the beginning! They had no right to poke around in a stranger's affairs!
Aeffe shrugged one shoulder. "How was I to know what the thing was? There is nothing like it in the Mark and there are no accounts of it in any song or tale I ever heard."
"Probably just as well there are not," Elffled commented dryly. "One whiff of anything that potent would be like drinking a whole keg of mead, and would set many a strong rider back on his haunches!"
Aeffe's blue eyes glittered with anger as she glared imperiously down her nose at the twins. "A whole keg! No, not quite that strong." Her pretty lips pursed, she thought for a moment and then giggled. "How foolish to be arguing over anything so silly! To tell you the truth, it was more like drinking a whole tankard, and drinking it far too quickly!" With a sigh, she smiled kindly at the twins. "Since you asked about last night, I will tell you. It was wonderful, like nothing I have ever known in my entire lifetime! Of course, the two of you would never understand, for you are only children. How could you possibly comprehend the delicious feeling of experiencing forgetfulness for a while?" She shook her head, as though mystified by her own question. "I am only thankful that the opportunity came to me, for I was able to forget for a few hours the dreadful sight which we beheld a few days ago."
"Please tell us about what happened," Elfhild interjected quickly, attempting to steer the conversation away from a topic so morbid and morose as the bone field of Pelennor. Almost all of them had lost kin there, and constant reminders brought little solace.
Hugging her knees to her chest, Aeffe smiled enigmatically, a faraway look in her eyes. "You will not mock me, will you?"
"Oh, no, never," Elfhild exclaimed, hoping to reassure her.
"Of course not," Elffled added politely, trying to camouflage her eagerness. She was dying to hear some scandalous tale which would be shocking enough to distract her from the tedium of the long journey.
Taking a deep breath, Aeffe began. "When the slaver pointed that riding crop of his at me and summoned me to his tent, I could have died right there. My knees were actually shaking! I was certain that he would do horrible things to us all." Her eyes glowed with remembered excitement. "He and his men frightened me so! You know their skins are so dark... some of them are black, while others are light tan, as though they had been in the sun too long." Sighing, she rested her head on her knees, her expression dreamy. "And those eyes! Those beautiful eyes! And their scent! They always smell of perfume and mint... So strange they are... and exotic... Oh, how can I explain anything to you?" With a little giggle, she stretched her legs out and scooted back on the rock.
Clearing her throat, Elfhild asked hesitantly, "Did they harm you?"
"Oh, no! No, they were almost," Aeffe tapped a finger to her lips, searching her mind for a word, "formal, polite, courteous... dignified, I suppose you would call them. Reserved at first, but do not let that outward manner deceive you." She smiled mysteriously, as though remembering something quite pleasant.
"But the dragon," Elfhild interjected, eager to know more about the fantastical elements of Aeffe's story. "What about the dragon?"
"As I said, the smoke calmed my fears, and everything seemed so peaceful. My body felt as though it were floating luxuriously, yet when I tried to move, I found that my limbs were wrapped in a cocoon of heavy thread. It seemed as though the only thing that tied me to the earth was a thin strand of cobweb. Inbir held me in his arms so that I could not drift away." Giggling, Aeffe hugged herself, recalling the effervescent sensations she had experienced from the salubrious vapors. "My head was spinning like a top, but it was not a bad sort of spinning. As a matter of fact, I felt quite giddy!"
"That happened to us once when we drank too much mead during the Midsummer fair," Elffled chuckled dryly. "We retched a lot afterwards, though."
Elfhild giggled, recalling the incident. "Yes, and Mother broke off a willow limb and switched us all the way back to the wagon. She made us sit there until Father and Eadfrid - our brother - finally returned from the stall of a traveling metalsmith."
"Our brother laughed at us, but Father only silently fumed," Elffled elaborated. "When we returned home, he gave us a very solemn speech warning of the perils of imbibing too much. Mother was almost certain that we would become drunkards and end our days as derelicts!" The sisters' eyes met, and then their smiles faded as a shadow of shared pain passed between them. Now their closest family members were gone, and never again would they hear their father's booming laugh, or see their mother's blue eyes twinkling as she smiled, or their brother's ready grin as he thought up some new devilment.
"Please do not be sad!" Aeffe exclaimed, seeing the expressions of sorrow cross over the twins' faces. "I cannot bear any more sadness! I will pine away and die if there is any more!" Her voice caught in her throat. "Oh, please let us try to find some happiness while we can have it! It will be all right, I know it will be." She reached out for Elffled's hand, and Elffled leaned over and hugged the other girl. On the verge of tears, Aeffe's blue eyes misted over.
Elfhild patted her on the shoulder. "Yes, it will be all right," she soothed, suddenly feeling quite grown-up, almost motherly towards this girl who was older than both of them.
"Oh, I know it will be!" Aeffe's mouth twitched, sending the mole into a tremulous, fluttering dance. "Then you do understand, do you not? I know the rest of the women think I am foolish, deceived, or something. Oh, maybe I am, but I do not care anymore!" The words rushed from her mouth, as though she were so full of her thoughts that she would burst if she did not tell someone. "After so much sorrow and loneliness, I felt gloriously wonderful in Inbir's arms, happy, calm and at peace!" Her eyes flashed defiantly at the twins. "Laugh at me if you wish, say I am bewitched, that I am under a spell! What difference does it make? I was happy for the first time in months! Do you not understand?" She gripped Elfhild's hand in a tight hold.
"Oh, Aeffe, we are not making light of what you say," Elfhild murmured encouragingly. "Maybe we would like to be happy for a change, too!" Though she preferred her happiness to be natural, perhaps poor, deluded Aeffe was better off than they were. At least she had found some solace in the smoke of the dragon.
Aeffe's slender body relaxed as her lips curved into a smile. "Then do not be afraid of the Southrons, at least not of Inbir! I am unsure about the rest yet, but Inbir would never harm you. I - I believe he is attracted to me, and I know that I am certainly becoming fond of him," she murmured shyly, looking down at her lap. Suddenly she clasped the hands of both sisters in her own. "Please let us be friends! I do not have many here. There are none in my troop from my village and I have been so lonely, so very lonely."
"Of course, we will be your friends!" Elfhild exclaimed, squeezing Aeffe's hand.
"There is no one in our troop who is our age, only older women and children," Elffled admitted with regret. "They get boring after a while." She wrinkled her nose.
A look of sadness crossed over Elfhild's face. "My best friend is not among the captives, for she escaped when the orcs raided our village." For a moment, she thought wistfully of Swithwyn the miller's daughter, her old friend since childhood, and then she remembered Goldwyn's plan for the night. Should she ask Aeffe to go with them? And then, before she could ponder the answer, the words leapt from her mouth. "Escape, Aeffe! Think of it! I know you are fond of Inbir, but not all Southrons are like him! Many are evil and cruel, such as the head slaver, a debauched profligate who has no qualms against rape! In case you had not heard already, some of the women are planning to escape this night. My sister and I will be joining them." As Elffled was about to gasp out in protest, Elfhild elbowed her in the ribs to silence her. "Aeffe, will you not come with us?"
Aeffe's eyes darted from the face of one sister to the other. "Escape!" she exclaimed incredulously. "That is such a foolish notion! You can never get away from them, you know! They will just chase you down and bring you back. We are no longer little children who think we can pack a few possessions and run away and everything will be right!" Sighing, she looked away, her voice becoming soft and sad with the wisdom of experience. "I always had that idea when I was younger, to run away and leave everything behind. I attempted just that once, years ago, but I had the sense to go back to my home, and never, ever ran away after that. We are better off staying with the Southrons!" Aeffe exclaimed emphatically.
"I think that we can successfully elude the slavers and survive in the wilds." Elfhild looked the other girl in the eyes, her expression unwavering. She had made up her mind, and no one could dissuade her!
"Why did you run away?" Elffled asked, more intrigued by Aeffe's statement than she was with the endless debate about Goldwyn's foolish quest.
"After my father and mother fell sick to the fever and died, I had no one. Neighbor women cared for me until my grandfather and his manservant came to fetch me," Aeffe told them, her eyes gazing into the distance, as though seeing a vision of her unhappy past. "Few had been the times that I had seen him before. He had always frightened me, for he was a gruff old man with a rheumy eye, a puckered mouth and many teeth missing. He said very little, and when he did, each word seemed to me a criticism." She paused before gathering her thoughts and continuing.
"After a month in the old man's house, I could bear it no longer. One day when my grandfather went to talk to one of his tenants, I ran away, vowing to myself that I would walk back to my family's home. When he returned, his housekeeper informed him of my absence, and he set off on his old gray dapple." Aeffe's lower lip trembled as she recalled the events of that day long ago. "I was terrified when he found me, but I was a saucy little thing, and asked him why he even bothered looking for me. He said nothing, just lifted me up on the saddle and took his place behind me. We rode back in silence. I was certain he would beat me, but he never once raised his hand." She tilted her head downward, tucking a wayward strand of hair behind one ear. "I do not think he liked children very well. However, after he had brought me back, I think he tried to be a little kinder and gentler towards me. I stayed because of his change of manner, but I never really loved him. Perhaps I should have." Teardrops began to gather in her eyes, but she blinked them away.
"This spring, when the orcs raided his small farm, he took his old sword down from its place on the wall. I remember how he always kept it clean and polished until its steel gleamed with a bright lustre. He went out to fight the raiders, but it was no use. They fell upon him, stabbing him over and over. They were not content even after he was dead, for they mutilated his body horribly." Aeffe buried her head in her hands and softly sobbed.
"Oh, Aeffe, I am so sorry!" Elfhild exclaimed, giving the other girl a sympathetic hug. "Our mother tried to fight the orcs, too, and they murdered her just as they did your grandfather."
"Your grandfather must have been very brave," Elffled whispered, squeezing Aeffe's hand. She and Elfhild had much in common with this poor, melancholy girl. All three of them were orphans, having lost those dear to them either to the ravages of war or to the cruel hands of fate.
"Aye, he was very brave!" Aeffe's long lashes batted away tears as she looked up at the twins. "Please, let us not talk of this no longer! If I must hear aught more of sadness and despair, I will splinter into thousands of pieces!" She inhaled deeply, trying to compose herself before she spoke again. "Tell me where you will go if you run away. With whom will you abide?" Her tear-reddened eyes glanced curiously at each girl.
"To the mountains, I guess... maybe Dunharrow, if it has not been taken or besieged by the enemy. Who knows?" Elfhild shrugged. "Perhaps I shall meet Swithwyn there." An awkward grin pasted on her face, she shifted slightly, trying not to show her discomfort. Aeffe's question had taken her by surprise, for she had not really considered where they would go if they actually managed to escape. Holding her head high, she put on a false air of confidence, for she hoped to impress the older girl with her brilliant skills of planning.
"Well, 'tis a glorious folly, but one which I will not chance!" Aeffe shook her head, emphasizing her point. "I implore you to change your minds and do not attempt this adventure, for that is all it is, an adventure! I am older than you and I encourage you to be sensible. All you are doing is running back into the hands of the enemy army! Do you want to face them again, those repulsive brutes and the cruel, dark-eyed soldiers? Or... mayhap even those... bat things... which sometimes prowl the night skies." Aeffe cast a nervous glance to the heavens, wondering if the very mention of the Fell Riders would summon them forth to darken the lands with the shadow of death.
"Oh, I hope not!" Elffled shivered fearfully, rubbing her hands over her forearms as though she were cold in spite of the heat of the balmy summer evening. She had serious misgivings about the planned escape attempt; in fact, she did not want to escape at all! She did not want to think of the enemy companies which patrolled the road to Rohan, or about the fell creatures that soared through the heavens in the dark and lonely night. Whenever they passed above her, she would shake and chill as though she were burning with fever... and weep as though she were dying of heartbreak. She did not know which was worse... the fear that emanated from the Fell Riders, or the sadness.
"I cannot bear to stay here and become a slave," Elfhild cried desperately, her hands clenching into fists. "On this side of the river, there is hope for freedom, but once we cross the Anduin, there will be nothing." She gazed to the east, where the Mountains of Shadow loomed in the distance. "This is our only chance to escape! Please, Aeffe, will you not reconsider?" Her face filled with sincerity, Elfhild looked deeply into Aeffe's eyes.
"No, it is too dangerous!" Aeffe shook her head, her voice filled with agony. "Please, I beg you, do not attempt this foolish quest! I have an awful feeling about this!" She wrung her hands in despair.
"My mind is set, and I will not change it," Elfhild stated resolutely, her jaw set with stubborn determination. "Perhaps I will die in the wilderness, but at least it will not be in slavery. If you should have a change of heart, you are welcome to come with us." Rising to her feet, Elfhild stretched and straightened out the wrinkles in her skirt. "My sister and I need to return to our aunt. Like you, she feels the wisest course is to stay with the Southrons." The corner of her lips twitching into a wry smile, Elfhild uttered a humorless chuckle. "I pray that we can persuade her to accompany us on our journey... and that you will change your mind."
Aeffe stood up and brushed the dirt off her tattered garment. "No, I will remain here and leave wild escape attempts and desperate last stands to those more courageous than me." She looked sadly at the reckless, brave Elfhild, and her reluctant, frightened sister. "Someone has to be here to welcome you back when the Southrons recapture you."
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.