12. Land of the Dead
Chapter Written by Elfhild
After sighting the enemy patrol, the twins became keenly aware of their desperate need for weapons in these desolate wilds. Without any way to defend themselves, they were easy prey for wild animals or enemy patrols. Even with weapons, the journey would still be one fraught with peril, but at least the odds would be evened somewhat. Not much, but at least somewhat.
But what could they use for weapons? Fallen tree limbs would have to serve for clubs and spears; rocks in lieu of bow and arrow. Searching for branches light enough to carry yet stout enough to give a foe a nasty blow to the head, the twins found what they needed beneath the spreading boughs of a plane tree. The winds which came with the rains four days before had broken away several of the long, gray limbs and sent them crashing to the ground. The sisters chose two sturdy looking staves and went on their way. They prayed they would not have to use them. Such primitive weapons could hardly match iron in a fight.
Mid-afternoon brought Elfhild and Elffled to a ruined fishing village by the Anduin. Once one of many prosperous and bustling river towns in Anórien, the little village now was only another reminder of the desolation which the war had brought. By the water's edge, there was a long wharf where boats had once loaded and unloaded. In better days, ducks, geese and other birds lighted upon the weathered boards to eat the scraps that people threw to them. On both sides of a thoroughfare leading westward, buildings had been reduced to forlorn heaps of charred wood and soot-blackened stone. The gray hued rubble was a mournful sight to see as it lay in piles on the brown earth; a fading reminder of a people so recently vanquished.
"Grenefeld must look like this now," Elffled moaned despondently.
Elfhild stared at the rubble, her body held stiff and rigid, her mind taking her far from this small river town – to the North – to Rohan. A faint breeze picked up the strands of her straight, straw-colored hair and tossed them to the side. The musty smell of damp ashes clung to the air. Though it was summer, there was a chill in the wind, and it sent prickles along her spine. Still, she stood there, as though she had been turned to stone. Grenefeld – her village – she had seen the ruddy glow of the fires that night, smelled the acrid stench of smoke on the spring air. Her village – just another which fell to the hand of the enemy, so much like this one in this alien land.
A tug on her rolled-up sleeve pried Elfhild's attention away from the ruined town, and she turned her head to the side. There stood her sister, who looked at her uncertainly.
"What is the plan?" Elffled asked softly. "Head west on the road that goes through this village, or keep on going north?" She glanced towards the town. "Should we search these ruins for anything that we might be able to use on our journey?" Though Elffled was vehemently opposed to this quest, she was a practical girl, and no matter how much she sulked, some shred of common sense always seemed to have a way of worming back into her brain. She would give this foolish venture a chance, but if one thing went wrong - just one thing - she would protest it highly!
"I do not feel it would be wise to take the road," Elfhild replied, shaking her head. "What if we met that patrol we saw earlier?" She shivered, imagining their recapture by the cruel soldiers.
"But the ruins?" Elffled asked again, gesturing towards their surroundings. "Should we not search them? Maybe the flames did not spoil everything."
Her brow furrowed in thought, Elfhild surveyed the fishing village with scrutinizing eyes. "All right," she finally nodded. "We will explore the village, but let us make haste... If that patrol rides down the road, we are doomed."
The sisters wandered through the deserted streets, through the barren garths where gardens had once bloomed. With every step, their spirits sank lower and lower, sodden with sorrow like the mounded ashes which lay round in heaps. No words were said. A funereal hush hung over them like black clouds, gray and foreboding. Though they were there to scout out whatever plunder might still be left to take, neither girl felt much like exploring the blackened hulks of what once had been houses. Huddling together as though it were winter, the two yet among the living shuffled onward through this village of the dead.
"Well, there is no use just milling about with no purpose," Elfhild tittered, somewhat nervously, her voice disrupting the quietude as sharply as a raven's cry. "We have not done so much as approach any of these ruined buildings. As you were saying, who knows what we might find, unharmed by the fire?"
Elffled followed behind her sister as she walked towards the foundation stones of a large house. Chunks of the daub that had cracked away during the blaze lay in dirty piles upon the ground. Coming to the ruined doorway, Elfhild cautiously ventured forward, stepping over the stone threshold. There was no one living to tell the sisters what had happened to the village, but they surmised that the dreadful occurrence had been much like that which had befallen Grenefeld. Their men away at war, the women and children had been easy prey, with only a few having courage to challenge the orcs. These brave ones had either been bested in their struggles, or slain on the spot and left to die in their houses. Then the meeker ones who would not fight were quickly herded outside by the brutes and put in chains.
Screaming like maddened things, the orcs had hurled lighted torches onto the thatched roofs, which went up like dry tinder. Soon the flames were roaring through the houses like demons at play. At the height of the conflagration, the ceiling had crashed into the inferno, followed in its course by the walls of the building, there to crackle and burn in a fiery mound which gradually smoldered away. Though the intensity of the fire had been furious, not everything had been destroyed. The mud that had gone into the construction of the walls and the stone blocks around the foundation had spread a protective cloak over some things...
Scattered over the blackened rubble on the ground were shards of pottery, metal which had melted into curious-looking lumps, and various other misshapen items which had not been consumed in the flames. Nothing stirred except a sleepy lizard which had been resting atop a blackened foundation stone. Now even that was gone, for the arrival of the sisters frightened the small creature and sent it scurrying away to safety.
As the girls walked gingerly about the interior, their feet crunched down on lumps of burnt wood, sending up soot that blackened their shoes. They looked about themselves, imagining how the house might have been arranged. Had it looked something like their home? Possibly it had much finer furnishings, they considered enviously. Only the wealthy would have had the means to enjoy such a large house. Had this been the home of someone important, a village elder, perhaps? Elfhild and Elffled would never know. Their lives destroyed as their home had been, the survivors were now absent, suffering in captivity somewhere at the hands of the Southern slavers.
"There is nothing here to see but sadness," murmured Elfhild. "Though your idea to search the ruins was a good one, unfortunately there is nothing that we might find that would aid us in any way."
"Wait, I see something!" Elffled exclaimed as she caught the glimpse of a partially buried object which protruded from under a dreary heap of dirt and ashes. "Perhaps luck will be with us, after all..." Walking over to the rubble, she studied the long, pale object for a while. What was it? A broken shard of pottery... a ruined drinking horn, the antler of a deer... Then – as sudden as a strike of lightning - she realized what she beheld. Her breath halted in mid-inhalation; her heart seemed to shoot up in her chest like an arrow and then plunge back down into the confines of her bosom. She froze in place, as though she had been turned into a pillar of ice. Extending out of the rubble was a long, scorched thigh bone.
Dreadful images flooded unbidden into her mind... She could hear the uruks screaming their war songs of death and carnage as they broke down the door and poured inside... Their scimitars swinging, they cut down any who opposed them... The woman screamed as they threw her down to the floor and took their turns with her as her terrified children were forced to watch... Black smoke and flames rose up, hiding the mutilated body. Elffled felt the fear, the pain as though it were her own. Gasping, she forced her eyes from the charred, fragmented bone.
"Elfhild," she wailed, her voice high and wavering, approaching hysteria. "Come here. Please, come here!"
Hearing the alarm in her sister's voice, Elfhild was quickly by her side. "What is wrong? Oh," she gasped as her eyes dropped down to the object of Elffled's gaze.
"Let us get out of here!" Elffled tugged her sister's sleeve frantically, attempting to urge her into action.
Giving in to some morbid impulse, Elfhild shrugged her away and knelt down to get a closer look at the bone. "How sad," she murmured, the expression on her face one of torture and anguish. "O, how horrible!"
"Then why are you staring at it?" Elffled demanded, reeling back in dismay. "Please, let us leave!"
Why did Elffled always have to whine about everything? Her words were as annoying as the steady drone of green flies buzzing around the privy! Had she no respect for this poor, innocent wretch who had been slain by the heartless enemy? Powered by a surge of resentment, Elfhild was quickly upon her feet. "What is wrong with you?" she demanded irritably. "You see the remains of one of the enemy's victims, and your senses leave you? We have seen much worse than this mournful sight! We have seen a whole field of bones and rotting corpses. We have seen our own mother's death," she added, her angry voice dropping to a whisper.
"That is why I am so troubled," Elffled confided quietly. "I can feel the presence of the woman who was killed here! Do you not hear her blood calling out for vengeance? The stones mourn her death, so much like that of our own mother's. At least the orcs did not defile her and leave her to be consumed by the flames."
"Damn the orcs!" With a cry of rage, Elfhild stomped her foot down, grinding it into the charred earth. Her heart leaped up within the chamber of her chest; her fingers twitched and quivered as she rolled them up into fists. She hated what the enemy had done to this village; she hated what they had done to her own home. Once again, she felt the hard wooden handle of the knife in her hands as she plunged the blade again and again into the orc's face. "Every last one of them should be killed! The earth should be wiped clean of their evil!"
Again and again Elffled's eyes returned to the bone, as though it were some dread talisman which had cast a dark spell over her. Was this as her mother was now, charred bones left to weather in the somber wreckage of her home? No, no, that was too horrible a thought even to contemplate! But was that not how everyone appeared after death had claimed them and time stripped away the temporal cloak of flesh which covered the stark foundations of their bodies? Would she not look the same one day? Oh, she did not want to be tormented by such dreadful thoughts! She wanted to remember her mother the way she had looked in life, not as a corpse or a skeleton!
Overcome by emotion, Elffled burst out into tears. "Oh, Elfhild!" she moaned, sobbing. "I cannot even remember her death!"
Her expression softening, Elfhild drew her sister into her embrace. "Perhaps you are blessed," she whispered as she rubbed the other girl's back soothingly. "I will never forget the horror of her death, nor the face of her murderer as I plunged the knife into his eyes. The scene plays itself over and over in my dreams, as though it were being performed upon a stage."
Elffled drew away from her sister and wiped her wet nose upon her sleeve. "I guess that war is not as heroic and exciting as the old songs make it out to be, yes?" She managed a lopsided grin, making a feeble attempt at humor.
"No, I guess not," Elfhild smiled tearfully.
The two girls gathered stones and heaped them over the gristly memento and the surrounding rubble, constructing a makeshift cairn to protect the body from further desecration. After both she and her sister had said a few words to honor the dead, Elffled stood in respectful silence as Elfhild softly sang an old dirge. Here this victim of war would lie, buried in a shallow grave of rubble with the remains of those possessions which she had held dear in life. There was no time for a proper funeral, and no one to attend it save for wild animals and birds. With sorrow in their hearts, both for their own woes and for the dire fates which had befallen the residents of the village, the twins quietly departed from the house and made their way towards a dense section of woods which bordered the village.
There they sat amid the tall trees, looking wistfully towards the west. They needed time to recover from the nightmarish sights which they had seen. Their senses were as scorched as the village, their minds bombarded by the gruesome memories of their capture. And so they waited until horror dulled to mere discomfiture, and discomfiture faded to a lingering sense of melancholy, much like the way that the flesh of a corpse rots away to leave bare bones, which time eventually turns to dust.
With the westward route deemed too dangerous to pursue that day, there was not really much that the sisters could do, save for exploring the woods about them or just sitting and talking to pass the time. Even if the way were safe and the enemy had long since left the area, evening was approaching and night would soon follow. They just had to bide their time until the morrow, tiresome as that might be. Surprisingly, after all the excitement of a successful escape had faded away, it was rather boring out here in the wilderness.
Her knees drawn up to her chest, her arms draped about her upper calves, Elfhild sat and contemplated the future. The future! How she once had thought that she held it in her hands! When her father deemed the time right, she would marry Osric the Isensmith's son. She had already planned their wedding... it would be during Midsummer, after her birthday. A crown made from straw and wheat and then woven round with honeysuckle, daisies and other wildflowers would adorn her head. The handsome groom would be quite a dashing sight attired in his best clothing.
Prior to the ceremony, Osric would entrust the sword of his forefathers to her; later, she would return the weapon to him and they would exchange rings over the hilt of the sword. Clasping their hands upon the pommel, they would look into each other's eyes and recite their vows. The day would be one filled with festivity and merriment as both families celebrated the union. The feasting and celebration would continue for a few more days, and then life would settle back down to its gentle pace.
There would be children... how many, she did not know, for childbirth took a great toll on a woman's body. She did not want to perish like her namesake, King Théoden's wife, but live to be a grandmother. In idle moments, Elfhild loved to daydream about the future, imagining pleasant adventures for herself and her family. But when the war had come, her whole world had been destroyed, and all her dreams had gone up in smoke. She did not even know if Osric was alive or if he had joined her father and brother in death. But marriage was the farthest thing from her mind now. She felt a wistful ache whenever she thought about it, but she knew her pain would probably never be assuaged. Survival was her primary interest at this time.
Why had they escaped? Was it really worth it? Yes, of course! She had heard naught but horrors concerning the Land of Darkness. Oh, it was a dreadful place, filled with demons and monsters, ruled by a Dark Lord so horrifying that few even dared to speak His name! An icy chill slithered down her spine as her eyes were inadvertently drawn to the Anduin, and to the fell shadows which lay beyond. What evils lurked within the ravines of the imprisoning fence of the black mountains? She had overheard the orcs speak of a pass which led to the mysterious interior, but even those brutes regarded it with no little trepidation! What a wretched fate it would be to be taken to such an evil place!
Would it be any worse to be taken to Harad or to Khand? She knew little of those lands, only that one lay to the south and one lay in the east. She knew only of their people, who were warlike and barbaric. Oh, how arrogant and pompous were these wretched Haradrim and Khandians! Since they had bested the men of the West in southern Gondor, they considered that the women of Gondor and Rohan were rightfully theirs, spoils of war to do with as they pleased. Elfhild shivered, her thoughts turning dark. If she and her sister had not escaped, they would be at the mercy of the man who bought them. What if his mind were so warped by cruelty that he would find enjoyment in torturing them simply because they were of the conquered people?
It was from these evils that Elfhild and her sister were fleeing. The thought occurred to her that, because she knew so little about these people, she really could not be a fair judge of every last man, woman and child. How could so many people be evil? Could a whole race be wicked? Goldwyn and many others certainly thought so. The men whom Elfhild had met were loathsome, but there were a few exceptions... Captain Kourosh was one, and so was the man from Rhûn. That was another place unknown to her, though perhaps not so unfamiliar to her ancestors, for the Northmen had been oppressed by the men of that land.
Well, the Rhûnian was safe behind the lines, but Captain Kourosh... she prayed that all was still well with him. That seemed a strange wish to have about an enemy soldier. She really should have been more courteous to him, though, but she had been distraught and had forgotten her manners. It seemed so different now, looking back. Doubtless Captain Kourosh was a wealthy man; maybe a nobleman or even a thane of some sort, for only a man of renown or of gentle birth could hold the position of captain. Now she felt ashamed of her actions, for she had behaved in a most churlish way towards one of far higher rank than she.
One of far higher rank... Now that she had escaped, Elfhild wondered what would become of the promise of the Kingly Rider. She almost regretted that she had run away, for surely she would never see him again. Unless he scoured the countryside, he could never find her in the Mark. Or could he? Somehow she knew instinctively that he could find her wherever she went, if he so wished, and if he truly remembered her. That thought frightened her, and, strangely enough, it excited her as well. She was but a peasant girl, and the thoughts of such a high lord desiring her were quite flattering. Once again, she wondered about his appearance; what handsome mysteries did that dark hood conceal?
How silly and foolish were her thoughts! Kings never fell in love with peasant girls. The closest royalty ever came to acknowledging a common woman was to take her as his leman. No, the lordly rider had only been trying to frighten her because of her audacity to look up at him. She should forsake such fantasies and think sensible things. No handsome knight in shining armor would ever rescue her from evil doom, and, besides, she did not need any man to save her; she was going to save herself!
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.