30. The Hamlet by the Wharf
Chapter Written By Elfhild
"Oh, Elfhild, we have made a terrible mistake by coming here!" Elffled moaned dolefully as she surveyed their surroundings. The pier had faded into a weathered gray, and the shabby buildings on the wharf scowled out at the river. The scene was a picture of loneliness, of sad and bitter spirits. Elffled shuffled her feet uneasily. "Save for a few skulking ghosts, we are utterly alone, like two wayward sheep which were carried away in a flood and cast up on a distant shore." Gnawing the inside of her cheek, she turned pleading eyes to her sister. "Perhaps we should go back to the river which brought us here! Surely that would be more promising than this dreary place!"
"I do not know about you, Elffled, but I am certainly not a stupid sheep!" Exasperated at her perpetually whining sister, she vented her frustration by stomping on the plank beneath her foot. Unbeknownst to her, the wood was rotten, and with a loud crash, the board collapsed under the strain. She shrieked as her foot disappeared through the newly opened rent in the wood. "Help!" she screamed, her leg stuck fast in the hole. Stifling a snicker, Elffled rushed over to pull her out.
"Go away! If I wanted your assistance, I would have asked for it!" Elfhild spat as she lifted up her hand and shoved her sister back.
"I was only trying to help," Elffled exclaimed, her lips twitching from suppressed mirth.
Once again on solid footing, Elfhild glared at her twin, as though she were somehow responsible for the board's collapse. Eying Elffled reproachfully, she made a great show of brushing wood dust and splinters from her dress. "Look at that, will you! I have scraped up my leg and torn a great rip in my stocking!"
Elffled had to press both hands to her mouth to keep from convulsing in a fit of laughter. "Why did you stop with just one board? With all that clomping and stomping, I am surprised that you did not destroy the entire dock!" A few giggles managed to escape. "So you say you are not a lost sheep... You seem to be in desperate need of a shepherd to keep you from getting into trouble! Baa! Baa!"
Clenching her fists, Elfhild let loose a loud growling groan of exasperation. Then a quick flicker of mischief gleamed in her aquamarine eyes.
"No, Elfhild! No! Do not do it!" Elffled wailed as the other girl stalked towards her. Just before she reached her, Elfhild lunged forward and shoved Elffled backwards over the edge of the wharf. Shrieking, Elffled landed in the river with a loud splash, sending sprays of water flying up to rain down upon the wharf. Elfhild walked to the side and looked down at her. Swimming to the surface, a soaked Elffled spat out a stream of greenish water and screamed, "Are you just going to stand there and not help me?"
"No! I am going to explore the hamlet, just the way you wanted! After all, you were the one who wanted to come here in the first place, not me!" Elfhild huffed. "Whenever you are finished playing in the water, you may follow me!" Turning away from the dock, she flounced towards the buildings, casting a quick glance over her shoulder only to stick her tongue out at her. She knew that if she had reached a hand down to pull her sister up, the other girl would have given her hand a mighty jerk and pulled her down into the river with her. Elfhild wanted to leave the riverbank safely behind before her sister could have an opportunity to wreak her vengeance.
Using her hand to shield her eyes from the sun's glare, Elfhild stared fixedly at a dirt road which led away from the waterfront and through the little hamlet. After the road passed through the settlement, it continued on towards the west - towards Rohan, their home. Without looking back, she knew from the sloshing sounds behind her that Elffled had managed to extract herself from the river.
"Well, you have successfully ruined these shoes," Elffled remarked vindictively, a certain perverse satisfaction in her tone. "They never fit my feet right in the first place, and now when the leather dries--" She was on a tirade, and would probably continue on for the next hour, expounding upon the terrible mistreatment she had received at the hands of her "vicious, cruel and spiteful sister," and how Elfhild had always bullied her because she was the younger of the two.
"I am not listening to a single word," Elfhild exclaimed in a singsong voice as she clamped her hands over her ears. "Whine, whine, whine is all you ever do!"
"Would you not complain, too, if your poor feet were forced to slip and slide over wet, ruined leather in a pair of shoes that never fit them in the first place?" Elffled muttered until she lapsed into a sullen silence.
And so the two intrepid adventuresses set off - Elfhild, her nose held imperiously high in the air, her bearing regal and proud; and behind her came a silent and sullen Elffled, sloshing water from her shoes with every step.
The village was little more than a boat landing with a small cluster of buildings facing the Anduin. Directly in front of them stood the largest of the structures, a three-story building, a plain waddle and daub affair. Its windows were missing their shutters, apparently ripped off at some time in the past by vandals, and its wooden doors stood ajar, some torn off their hinges. Between the thick timbers which composed its frame, the building's sides were whitewashed. However, their clean white surface had been marred by obscene drawings scribbled by orcish hands. Elfhild blushed hotly and turned her offended gaze away from a blackly humorous representation of a cyclops with one large red eye and a gigantic phallus.
"What is that, Elfhild?" her sister asked innocently, finally breaking her silence.
"The Dark Lord, I think, although I do not want to dwell upon that vile image too long," Elfhild replied with a shudder, both of disgust and fear.
"Do you think He really looks like that?" Elffled whispered, walking closer to get a better view. "How does He talk? He does not even have a mouth -- only a flaming eye... and that other... thing!"
"Quit looking at that atrocious monstrosity!" Elfhild snapped, roughly grabbing her by the shoulder and pulling her back.
"My, but He is big--in height!" Elffled quickly added, trying to keep from rekindling her sister's righteous indignation.
"I do not want to hear anything more about it, Elffled! Such things are unseemly for anyone to dwell upon, and they give the Great Enemy more power!"
"Ohhhh, is that the source of the Enemy's power?" Elffled giggled.
"Not another word! Not one! Not one!" Elfhild shot her a scathing look.
"Well, if you insist, I will try to purge my mind and stop thinking about that... big... long... thing." She waved her hand towards the drawing. After falling silent a few moments, she spoke up again. "You should know that one cannot help what one thinks about... At least thinking about the Dark Lord's... thing... is better than thinking about my poor, miserable, aching feet!"
"I do not want to hear any more about this matter! This whole subject has become quite tedious and it is getting out of hand! Now take off your shoes and be quiet! You can carry them!"
"But, Elfhild, you have to admit, it stuck out like a sore thumb," Elffled added dryly, determined to have the last word. "One cannot help but notice... things... like that..."
"Oh, shut up!" Elfhild shouted and turned on her heel.
Beside the desecrated building nestled a nondescript structure, perhaps serving at one time as an office for a shipping clerk. The other buildings arrayed along the wharf appeared to be warehouses, storage sheds, offices or stables for animals.
"Not exactly the center of a prosperous and thriving city, is it," Elfhild commented wryly, glad at last that the discussion of the loathsome drawing had concluded. "My guess is that sometime before the war, this was a boat landing where some prosperous lord kept his goods before they were shipped down the Anduin. This big building might have been a warehouse where grain or other produce was stored," she remarked with an air of superior knowledge which she surely did not possess.
"Probably," Elffled shrugged disinterestedly. All of the talk about masculine attributes had started her thinking once again about the unknown singer who had stirred her soul with his haunting melodies. Gazing up the hill, she hoped that the barbarian singer might soon ride into view and save her from her sister, who tormented her constantly. "At least," she thought, "when we were with the other captives, I had a degree of peace. There, under the threat of rebuke by the elder women, Elfhild knew better than to try to boss me around all the time." Back when they were at home, she sometimes had wished that their father would agree to a brideprice from some young man, any young man, just so long as one of them would leave home.
Wandering over to the large three-story building, Elfhild noticed a sign above the large double doors. Sadly in need of painting, the sign sported letters and an elaborate coat of arms - a golden eagle on a field of red. "There are times when I could cry because I cannot read!" Sighing, Elfhild looked down at the ground before raising her head to gaze mournfully at her sister.
"Well, Hild, we cannot read a word of anything, and we never will learn how," Elffled stated flatly. "Peasants are not meant to read, but there is no point in fretting about something you cannot do anything about. That would be as silly as crying over spilled milk... no, that is the wrong way of putting it. More akin to weeping over milk that had never been taken out of the cow." Pausing a moment, she added, "Though if we are going to start wishing for things, I would wish for a new pair of shoes. These miserable things are ruined!"
"I know, I know! You have told me that over and over!" Elfhild snapped. "More spilled milk. Do not keep crying over it!" Turning back to the building, she eyed the dim interior, hoping that none of the ghosts would take offense to their snooping. "Maybe we can find something in here we can use, if we do not find orcs instead."
"What?" Elffled asked skeptically. "A rabid kobold?" As she bent down, she rubbed a hand over her sore, blister-covered foot. When she glanced up, she saw her sister's back disappearing into the building. "Wait for me!" she exclaimed as she hurried to catch up.
Standing in the center of the large structure, her hands on her hips, Elfhild frowned as she surveyed the chaotic clutter within the building. The muted light from the windows along the sides revealed overturned barrels, boxes, chests and crates, along with a jumbled gallimaufry of odds and ends, lying scattered about in disorder. "There is nothing here of any value," she muttered as she turned to leave, "not so much as a handful of wheat!"
"Maybe we might have better luck in the other buildings," Elffled suggested hopefully. "Perhaps if the kobold is in a generous mood, it will give us a piece of cake."
"Can you not be quiet?" Elfhild growled. "You are making my ears hurt!"
A search of the other structures fronting the wharf turned up more ransacked interiors and nothing of any use to them. The sisters discussed what might have happened, and concluded that the inhabitants of the hamlet had probably fled hurriedly at the beginning of the war. Taking everything with them that they could carry, they had left nothing behind for the invaders. At some later point, the orcs had come through, and, angered at finding nothing, disgraced the buildings with their foul scribblings and obscene art.
"But, Elfhild," her twin asked, a puzzled expression on her face, "why did the orcs not torch it?"
"I asked myself that question. My guess is their officers would not let them. Perhaps the invaders planned to use the facilities here for their own purposes. Who knows?" she shrugged.
"Oh, I do not think it was that way at all," Elffled replied mischievously. "I do not think they could bear to destroy their crowning masterpiece."
Bending down, Elfhild picked up a piece of pottery and hurled it at her sister, but Elffled scampered away just in time.
"We might as well look around the back of the buildings," Elfhild suggested after they had concluded their search of the buildings along the wharf. Walking to the corner of the row of structures, the sisters found a side street. They made their cautious way down the alley until they came to a slatted wooden fence around a small hut and garden. A lean-to was attached to the back of the cottage, perhaps serving as a shed for a cow or horse. The garden had long been left untended, with not even a weed poking its homely head through the barren ground. Another unimposing single-story building sat nearby. Everything about the place looked rundown and shabby.
"Oh, Elfhild, when I think of all the delightful vegetables that this garden must have grown at one time, I feel famished! Beans, peas, lettuce, onions, turnips, cabbage, beets, radishes. Then with a few fruit trees... Oh, what is the use of even thinking about it? We are going to starve out here! We will be two more ghosts in a land of the dead!" Clutching her stomach, Elffled moaned piteously.
Elfhild rolled her eyes. "Elffled, when you are not thinking about your feet, you are thinking about your stomach! Let us look around this cottage and the outbuildings. Perhaps we might be fortunate enough to find some grain or dried lentils or beans or crocks of pickled food that the former residents forgot in their haste to flee. And please stop complaining all the time about nothing to eat! I am just as hungry as you are!" With that, Elfhild stormed over to the cottage and gave the door latch a violent tug. She jumped back with a frightened squeak as one of the hinges broke and the door slumped sideways.
Shaking her head, Elffled put her hands upon her hips. "Yet another thing which you have broken today!"
When the sisters emerged from the adjacent shed a short time later, Elfhild held her nostrils pinched shut, her other hand brushing cobwebs from her hair. "Whew! That was a terrible mistake!" she wailed. "Oh, Elffled, why did you have to nose around in that dark, musty corner?"
"I scarcely see why you are making so much of it, Hild," Elffled replied stiffly. "How was I to know that a hen once made her nest there, laid her eggs, but had to leave before they could hatch? Poor hen! All that effort and nothing to show for it but a nest of rotten eggs!" She shook her head, sighed and chuckled softly. "Things could have been much worse, you know. I could have sat on the nest instead of stepping on the smelly thing."
"Could you not have been more careful?" Elfhild chided, fixing her sister with a disapproving frown. "When the eggs blew up, the noise frightened me so much that I nearly fainted! And the stench!" She vigorously fanned herself. "What a foul, putrid smell you unleashed! And we were so clean after our swim in the river. At least I was not the one who broke something this time!"
"The mess is only on my foot, and I have stepped in things back home that were almost as bad," Elffled assured her as she dragged her foot along the ground, trying to wipe away the filth. Grunting a little, she splayed her toes and dug them deeper into the earth in an attempt to rid herself of the smelly mess.
"Hurry up and clean off your foot; then go with me back to the dock. We will not be needing the raft anymore, so we should get rid of it. If the slavers find it, they will know that we have come this way," Elfhild muttered before turning and heading back towards the Anduin.
Elffled's eyebrows rose in surprise. "You mean we are not going to travel any farther upstream? I was under the impression you were against striking inland here and wanted to head upriver again."
Sighing in vexation, Elfhild stopped and turned around to face her sister. "Though I had planned for us to continue up the river farther, it appears that we no longer need to do that. I believe we have finally lost our pursuers." Sighing, she closed her eyes and balled her hands into fists. "Oh, curse those wretched Southrons anyway!" she cried angrily and stamped her foot upon the ground. "I never wanted to travel along the river for so long! Now we are horribly off course," she muttered glumly, her shoulders slumping.
For a brief moment of impish impetuosity, Elffled considered reminding her sister of what had happened the last time that she had stomped her foot in a fit of anger, but decided better of it. Her sister was in the midst of one of her emotional speeches and now was not the time to bring up that unpleasant incident. Usually, she did not have the heart to interrupt her when Elfhild was overcome with her own dramatic oratory. "Let her make her pretty speeches; they are harmless anyway, and she feels better after she has finished talking to herself. She is her own audience after all. I seldom listen to anything she says." Elffled could not resist a blithe smile. Her sister had begun speaking again, and Elffled made a conscious effort to listen.
"Perhaps I have been too cautious, but how was I to know what to do?" Elfhild asked rhetorically, her voice apologetic. "I have no idea where the Anduin even goes! Perhaps it might lead us to some horrible place, teeming with dragons and a horde of monsters. All I know for certain is that home lies to the west, and that is the way which we must go. Now hurry up and help me dismantle the raft!" Turning on her heel, Elfhild walked briskly back towards the wharf.
"Wait for me! I am almost done!" Elffled shouted as she scraped the last of the smelly residue from her foot. Catching up with her sister, she fell in step beside her. "Will the orcs pick up our scent from where we left the river?"
"I do not think we have to worry about orc trackers anymore. We left them far behind to the south. The brutes are so dull-witted that they would never think to follow us upriver. They probably believe that we killed ourselves by jumping in the river and drowning," Elfhild smirked in haughty self-satisfaction.
"What about those two Southrons whom we saw down river? If it were not from that big tree which blocked his view, the head slaver would have seen us! Certainly, the unknown singer must have caught sight of us!" Pausing, Elffled considered, "I wonder if he was handsome... his voice surely was!"
"Elffled!" her sister gasped. "Stop thinking about that accursed Southron! You call him a singer! Why, he was out of tune and sounded like an ass braying! I will wager if you saw him up close, you would probably find that he has broken teeth and foul breath that reeks of garlic and onions!"
Tossing her head, Elffled glared at her sister and put her hands on her hips. "But do you not think that he will follow us?"
"Perhaps you hope that he might," Elfhild retorted acidly. "My guess is that after he searched the riverbank, he rode as fast as he could back to the head slaver. We traveled so far after we saw him that we certainly must have outdistanced him."
"Then why bother to destroy the raft?"
"Because I could be wrong. Let us get on with it!" Elfhild increased her pace.
When they reached the wharf, the sisters worked together to strip the soggy strips of cloth away from the wood which composed the raft. After freeing all the sticks, they tossed them into the water. Elfhild kept the two plane-wood staffs, however. "Never know when we might need them," she considered prudently, "whether for weapons, or for walking sticks - though they are probably far better for the latter rather than the former."
For a moment, she watched the pieces of the raft drift down the river before turning to Elffled. Inhaling deeply, she let out her breath in a long sigh. "We might as well get started then."
"But my feet are killing me! Some of that nasty rotten egg has gotten into the blisters on my feet and is burning up my skin! I am afraid my feet will rot off!" Elffled began shuffling slowly with an exaggerated limp. "I might be crippled forever!"
Thoroughly exasperated with her sister's constant complaining and whining, Elfhild scowled and then broke into a trot up the small hill.
"You are going too fast!" Elffled wailed mournfully.
In spite of Elffled's aching feet, the sisters soon passed the outskirts of the small hamlet. Elfhild could not resist the urge to look back at the hamlet and the river beyond. Perhaps they should have traveled upstream a few more furlongs just to be safe, she thought, but home did not lie in that direction.
The land around them stretched away into fallow fields marked off by stone fences and broken by patches of scattered woodland. This country had once boasted rich grazing lands where fat sheep and cattle had feasted upon the tender, succulent grass. Now, though, save for an occasional flock of birds, nothing moved across the great, rolling plain.
The mid-afternoon sun reflected upon the harsh ground and glared into the twins' eyes as they tramped down the dusty, winding thoroughfare. Beads of perspiration shone upon their foreheads, moisture soaked their shoulders and backs and seeped down the valleys of their buttocks. Their damp thighs rubbed uncomfortably together as they plodded along. Both girls licked their lips, the road dust parching their throats.
Rising ahead them was a thick grove of cedars and juniper. Though many of the branches had lost their needles, still enough had clung to the trees to offer much appreciated shade. The cool shadows of the grove were too tempting to resist, and so they turned away from the road and walked deeper into the trees. The sisters plopped down in the shade, and ate their meager meal. They had nothing with which to wash the food down, however, for since taking to the road, they had discovered no streams. Too exhausted to renew the journey yet, they decided to rest for a while.
After a half an hour, Elfhild was on her feet again. "You were falling asleep, were you not?" she asked accusingly.
"Of course not," Elffled countered irritably, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
"We need to be on the road again, and travel as far as we can before nightfall."
"Elfhild, you should have a flail as do the orcs. Then when you see your poor sister, her body stinging from a hundred aches and pains, her feet bloody and blistered, you can simply beat me into dragging my weary body forward, and I will try to hobble on a few more steps before I drop." Rising to her feet, Elffled melodramatically flung her arm over her brow and moaned piteously, her eyes rolling back in her head. Finally seeing that her game did not impress her sister, she gathered up her cloak and plane-wood walking stick. Grumbling, she leaned heavily on the stick and began limping back towards the road.
"Oh, do be quiet!" Elfhild growled as she picked up her possessions and walking stick. "You carp on and on like an old woman!"
The girls had walked almost two furlongs when they came to the edge of the woods. Elfhild motioned her sister to halt as she scanned the countryside ahead for sign of anything moving. They both sighed in relief when they saw none. The land this side of the forest appeared to be just as deserted as the countryside through which they had just passed. Far in the distance, they saw the whitewashed houses of a village of Anórien.
The twins looked at each other, the unvoiced question passing soundlessly between them: "What will we find there?"
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.