Chapter Written by Elfhild
The twins spied a path leading away from the mill through a grove of trees to the south. After following the meandering way for a short distance, they came to the wood's edge. Keeping to the cover of the trees, they surveyed the land before them. There, just beyond where they stood, lay a flat, cleared section of ground with a single-story cottage and small barn. To the western side of the house was a barren garden bordered by a stone fence. The sisters could see a few pens for chickens and other small stock between the garden and the cottage. Behind the pens were several wicker bee skeps made from long straw woven with blackberry briars, but it had been many long days since the industrious bees had carried back the pollen which would keep the colony alive. Gazing over the whole scene, the sisters saw a stretch of meadowland bordered by distant trees beyond the cottage.
Even though the whole farmstead looked well-tended, there was no livestock in the field, and no chickens scratched the barren soil for worms and insects. The silence seemed overwhelming, and as Elfhild looked at her sister, her voice was low and hushed. "It is deserted! Now let us see if there is anything remaining in the cottage. Probably everything there has been pilfered by the orcs."
The sisters walked closer to the cottage, gathering up their courage to step inside. The cheerful paleness of the house's whitewashed sides was divided into large sections by the sturdy bent boles which composed its cruck frame. The thatched roof of weatherbeaten straw, sagged in the middle, but the sight of a bowing roof was so commonplace that the sisters paid scant attention to it.
In contrast to the woe-begotten doors in the village, which were either in a state of ruin or swinging wide open on their hinges, the sturdy door to the cottage was shut. Feeling a prickle of uncertainty trouble their minds, the girls ventured a cautious peek through one of the small, narrow windows along the front wall. Both expected to see nothing more than an empty house filled with rubble, the broken conglomeration of ruined lives and dreams. However, there before their surprised eyes was a large room which put them pleasantly in mind of their old home back in the Mark. At the sight, the two smiled at each other, and then boldly opened the door and entered the house. At last they had found a building which had been untouched by the orcs; perhaps here they could find supplies which would aid them on their journey.
There was the familiar brazier in the center of the floor, the fire pit surrounded by a square border of stones. The iron tripod, used for suspending a pot or kettle over the fire pit, had been moved away to the side. A large kettle, which Elfhild imagined as being filled with a savory stew that bubbled merrily as it released delicious aromas, had been placed on a stone nearby. Shelves holding wooden dishes, spoons, knives, and a collection of small earthenware jars and pots hung on the neat whitewashed walls. All seemed to be waiting for their absent owner to return.
At both ends of the pitched roof, the gables had been left open by the builders and served as small triangular vents to allow the smoke to escape. Covering about a third of the ceiling, an exposed loft had been built at one end of the house. From where the sisters stood, they could see a quantity of kegs and barrels arrayed along on its floor. To the sides of the whitewashed room, there were jars, containers, barrels and boxes, all those necessities that are so indispensable in the lives of peasants and small landholders.
To one side was a large oaken trestle table, light golden in color and well-polished, with two sturdy benches on either side. Two stools completed the furnishings of the simple but comfortable room. A door was set into the back wall, its covering an old blue blanket. To the right side of the door, there was a series of hooks for hanging clothes, pouches, and other necessary items. Everything in the spacious room was laid out in neat order, all arranged to be as convenient as a pocket on a shirt. As the sisters' eyes roved the chamber, they both felt a chill of fear race down their spines when they beheld, hanging neatly upon two of the hooks, a well-worn old gray hat, and beside it a patched brown, woolen cloak.
"Elfhild, I think we ought to leave," Elffled whispered, her voice rising in panic. "Perhaps you did not notice, but the furniture and everything in this cottage is as clean as a hound's tooth. There is not a single cobweb or a speck of dust upon any of it! Someone lives here! We must leave before he comes back!"
"He has left his hat and cloak. I suppose it must be a man anyway, but possibly it could be a woman. Surely the owner must plan to come back for them," Elfhild replied, trying to keep her voice calm as her eyes darted about the room. She expected to see the householder barge through the door at any time. She took a deep breath and tried to steady her wildly beating heart. "But we have come this far safely enough, and surely we could venture a look into the other room. Perhaps we could find a pair of shoes for you. I know how those you are wearing pain your feet. Who knows the other things here that we might steal?"
"Steal?" Elffled gasped. "Elfhild, are we reduced now to petty thievery?" Gritting her teeth, her words came out in a hiss as she waved her arms frantically about the room. "What about the owner? Will not he or she object? If this place were mine, I would be very severe upon anyone whom I found pilfering my house!"
"Oh, 'Fled," Elfhild sighed dramatically. "The honest, upright householders who once occupied this dwelling left months ago, fleeing for their very lives from the fierce barbarian invaders! Whoever has taken up residence in this house is probably a deserter from the army of the Dark Land. An unscrupulous fiend who would sell his own mother into slavery if he could get a few pieces of gold out of her!" Her eyes grew wide, her voice impassioned. "The scoundrel stole all of these things from the Anórians anyway, and he does not deserve to have the ill-gotten gains derived from his knavery!" She paused, licked her lips and then continued, her voice taking on a conspiratorial tone. "When you take from the enemy, it is not considered stealing. It is called 'confiscating.'" As an afterthought, she added, "Besides, we will only take that which we need."
Elffled raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Did you learn that from listening to the orcs?"
"As a matter of fact, I learned it from the Easterlings." Her sparkling eyes lowering, Elfhild smiled sweetly, her dulcet voice filled with mischief. "Once on the journey east, I happened to be near to two of the Khandian cavalrymen and overheard them boasting about their exploits to some of the women."
"The Khandians!" Elffled exclaimed, horrified. "Hild, you are becoming corrupted!"
"At least I am not the one who wants to hear their warbling moans when they try to sing!"
"Oh, all right, Hild," Elffled returned sarcastically, "we will both become petty felons, engaging in a life of crime, and think no more of it! Then, if we become really accomplished at thievery, we can become pickpockets or outlaws in the Mark! Perhaps you see yourself as some romantic heroine who calls herself the 'Queen of the Outlaws.' I can just see some of your daring exploits!"
"Oh, nothing like that," Elfhild giggled. "We will just take enough to survive, and no more. Now let us look inside this room."
"I still do not like it," Elffled pouted, her lower lip protruding.
Walking over to the door, the two paused before it and drew back the blanket. The barrier loomed over them like a large wooden monolith, its large dark boards imposing. The sisters looked at each other. Elfhild swallowed, the saliva slowly sliding down her throat. Oh, this was ridiculous. It was not like they were stealing treasures from beneath the belly of a sleeping dragon. Taking a deep breath, she clasped the wooden door handle and jerked open the door.
"You first, Elfhild. You are the brave one!" Her sister's voice was edged with uncertainty. "I will be right behind you." She gave her sister's back a little shove.
"Oh, you are such a coward!" Elfhild grumbled as she rolled her eyes and then flounced through the doorway. She discovered that all her fears had been for naught. In fact, she was overjoyed by what she saw - a large bed illuminated in the dying light from the open window. Spread over a light quilt of dark blue was a magnificent covering of glossy gray fox furs sewn together. A pillow, inviting in its thickness, lay below the headboard. To Elfhild's eyes, it was the most marvelous bed she had ever seen in her life, but at this point, any bed would seem marvelous. As she gazed rapturously at its comfortable expanse, a wave of exhaustion swept over her. She wanted nothing more than to sink into its softness and give herself over to sweet slumber. Lifting a shaky hand to her forehead, she struggled to fight the sudden bout of lethargy.
"Elfhild," her twin asked in alarm, "are you well?"
She had almost forgotten about her sister, who was standing right behind her. "Yes, yes," she murmured distractedly, "just a little weakness."
"Elfhild?" Her sister lay a reassuring hand upon her shoulder. "Perhaps you should lie down a while; you are still weak from the sun sickness."
"No... no... I do not want to lie down. We must be leaving here soon. The owner might return. I am fine, just a little dizzy spell," Elfhild muttered as she sank down onto the welcoming softness of the bed. "It will pass. Just let me sit a while." She was glad for the touch of her sister's hand. That warm, comforting presence on her shoulder was like a stone weight which held down a thatched roof in windy weather; it held her down to earth and kept her from floating back into the lassitude of the sun sickness.
"Oh, Hilde, I have been so worried about you!" Elffled's voice was soft and filled with concern as she squeezed her sister's hand. "Ever since I found you sleepwalking this morning, you have seemed so unlike yourself. Then when you fell ill this afternoon and fainted dead away, I was so frightened!" Elffled paused, a wry smile flickering over her lips. "And all this time you were worried about your nightmare coming true. It seems the sun has done you far more damage!"
At the mention of the dream, Elfhild felt the color draining from her cheeks as cold dread slammed into her senses, leaving her shivering despite the warm stuffiness of the cottage. "Oh, Elffled, why did you have to mention that horrible nightmare? Once again I feel his powerful arms around me, the blade held poised above my heart..." She grasped Elffled's hand desperately as she relived the terrifying dream. "Please reassure me once again that there was no conjurer, no stranger, no man of the enemy who accosted us last evening!"
"Oh, dearest sister, I did not mean to bring you painful memories!" Elffled smiled reassuringly and brushed her sister's still-damp hair from the sides of her face. "Last night, we both had a dream in which we met a strange man in the forest, but yours ended in terror while mine ended in a magnificent palace. It was just a dream, though, for if it had been real, I would be strolling through a lovely garden right now and picking a bouquet of beautiful flowers instead of pilfering a stranger's house." She chuckled wryly. "I certainly wish my version of the dream had come true!"
"Still it seems strange that our minds could come up with two very different versions of the same dream." Elfhild frowned thoughtfully. "It - it seemed so very real to me. I can still feel the sting of the silvery blade as it raked across my chest." Closing her eyes, she shivered and drew closer to her sister.
"Weary, troubled minds sometimes imagine the direst of calamities, and in their distress think they are real," Elffled patiently explained. "I will admit that meeting the stranger in the forest was frightening, but when he kissed me, my fears melted into pleasure. I guess your mind interpreted the dream differently, and that is why it became a nightmare to you." She shrugged. "Sometimes two people can see the same thing differently."
"Oh, Elffled, you make this whole bizarre incident seem so very logical and mundane." Closing her eyes, Elfhild sighed in relief. The brief rest had done her a great deal of good, and she felt much better. Yet now she was beginning to feel mortified at the thought of her silly fears. Across her cheeks spread a flaming blush, and she wished she could melt like a puddle into the bed and be absorbed by the sheets. "I feel so very foolish now."
"You should not feel that way," Elffled reassured her gently. "I think all of us are the victims of strange thoughts, ideas or dreams from time to time." She was glad that her sister was beginning to see reason. She had feared that all of their combined woes had finally been too much for her sister, and Elfhild's brain had snapped in two like a dry, brittle twig.
"You are right, 'Fled. It was all only a very bad dream." Elfhild sighed. How could she have ever believed that her nightmare had really happened? The whole idea seemed absurd, and she was embarrassed to have ever imagined such a ridiculous thing. Now on the brink of womanhood, she should set aside her childish fears of ghosts and spirits, and relegate them to the world of fantasy where they belonged.
Shaking her head to clear her mind of these thoughts, Elfhild put on her best determined, tenacious expression. "Now I have rested long enough, and we need to return to our labors," she proclaimed resolutely as she sat up in the bed. "I will investigate the cupboard while you search through the trunks."
To the other side of the room were two chests, a stool, and a lovely, well-crafted oaken aumbrey. Eager to be away before the occupant of the house returned and just as eager to see what was inside the aumbrey, Elfhild hopped off the bed and quickly moved to the beautiful cabinet. She knew that householders often kept valuables stored away in these cabinets, and who knew what useful items she might discover inside? Perhaps - and she found herself trembling to think of it, for the thought had come upon her totally unexpected - there might be gold! Though she had never seen any of the priceless metal, she had heard enough about it to be able to recognize its shiny golden lustre. Perhaps on the journey to their northern homeland, they might meet some traveling peddler and could trade the precious metal for food. Intrigued, she tested the iron latch, and when it resisted her, she grew frustrated and angry. Pulling frantically on the latch, she tried to to shake the unyielding aumbrey door open.
"Damn it, it is locked!" Elfhild wailed, resisting the childish urge to kick the leg of the cabinet.
"Still determined to be a robber?" Grinning mischievously, Elffled looked up from the contents of the trunk which she had been searching. Her fears about her sister's unusual behavior had been almost completely assuaged. Whatever had been troubling Elfhild seemed to have passed, and she hoped that her sister had just been out of sorts because of her bad dreams and her recent sickness.
Flustered and feeling guilty at her greedy thoughts of gold, Elfhild sputtered, "I thought there might be weapons inside, and you have to admit, weapons could stand us in good stead!"
"Perhaps you are indeed turning into a brigand. I thought you were going to kick in the door! As degenerate as you are becoming, dear sister, I wondered if perhaps you might be looking for gold, jewelry, necklaces, brooches, rings, and other treasures," Elffled teased, arriving a little too close to the truth for Elfhild's comfort.
"What if I were looking for gold?" Elfhild snapped defensively. Vexed at her sister, she looked around for something to throw. Spying a shoe near the aumbrey, she reached down and angrily hurled it at Elffled.
Ducking aside just in time, her twin chortled, "You could not hit the privy house door at three paces! You need to practice more so that you can at least hit something." Grinning, she picked up the shoe that her sister had thrown at her and studied it. "Hmmmm... A little too large for me."
"Elffled, stop teasing me!" Elfhild frowned, enraged to the point of tears. Lifting up her foot, she kicked the aumbrey savagely and felt the shock of the impact shooting up her leg. "Oh!" she exclaimed, wincing as she hopped on one foot. "That hurt!"
"What do you expect when you kick something that is just as hard as your skull?" Elffled snickered. "I am finished with this trunk and, Hild, you will be disappointed. I found nothing in it except some bedding and old clothing."
"I give up on the aumbrey anyway." Angrily pushing back the wayward lock of hair which had strayed over her eye, Elfhild limped across the floor to Elffled. Bending down, she elbowed her sister aside and rummaged among the neatly folded garments in the trunk.
Elffled shot her sister a questioning look. "Hild, I already told you that there was nothing in this trunk but old clothing and bedding."
"Old clothing?" Elfhild asked incredulously. "While these might not be the finest of garments, they are far better than what we are wearing! Look, sister, there are some lads' clothing which look as though they could fit us. Let us exchange our threadbare dresses for these!" Quickly upon her feet, Elfhild tossed her cloak on the bed. Soon the voluptuous ivory curves of her budding young body were hidden beneath a tunic and breeches.
"Elfhild," her sister giggled, "no one will ever believe you are a lad!"
"I am not trying to make anyone think that I am! Now change your clothing and let us explore the other trunk."
A search of the second trunk revealed that there were only a few items inside and nothing which would be of use to them. Picking up a bundle wrapped in thin linen, they found a woman's dress the color of dark wine. Wrapped up in other sheets of linen were a small miniature of a pale, rather austere looking young woman with large, wistful dark eyes and glossy blue-black hair, along with a few infant's garments, which were yellowed from age.
Elffled picked up the portrait and gazed down at it pensively. "I have never seen a painted likeness before. I wonder who she was."
"Probably the lady of the house, but there is no way we will ever know." Disappointed that they had found no weapons or gold, Elfhild was in no mood for sentimentality.
"She was beautiful," Elffled murmured as she looked away from the portrait and to her sister. "Surely we are not going to take her dress!" Her expression and voice indicated that she thought the idea was an abhorrent one, far beneath what any decent person would do.
"'Fled, certainly not!" Elfhild exclaimed, aghast. "That would be like robbing the dead! Now we must put everything back where we found it in this trunk. After that, we will take all of the clothing and anything else we find of use in the other trunk and wrap it up in sheets. Whoever lives here has plenty of bedding and should not even miss what we take. Now we need to hurry! We have been here too long already!"
"Hild, as robbers, we will never be a success; we are far too soft-hearted to be rogues," Elffled grinned ruefully. Then walking over to the other trunk with the boys' clothing, she wrapped a patched cloak, several faded tunics and pairs of breeches, an old belt, and some well-patched sheets and blankets and tied the whole lot up in a sheet. She thought of taking the pair of shoes that her sister had thrown at her, but besides having an odious smell about them, they were far too long and narrow for her feet.
"Aye, though it seems that we were doomed to be the most inept of robbers, still let us congratulate ourselves on having some small success on our first venture. We might grow better at this with more practice," Elfhild chuckled.
"If we are going to make a trade out of this, I think we should stick to breaking and entering. It is far safer than highway robbery," Elffled commented wryly.
Elfhild smiled at her sister as she gathered up two blankets and a sheet in her arms. "Hurry so we can get back to the other room and search there. Do not forget," she added as an afterthought, "to look around and see if you can find a tinderbox."
"We have sunk quite low to considering stealing old shoes! Oh, sister," Elffled giggled, "I think I might take to this life of crime. After pilfering old clothing and bedding, who knows! We might become famous chicken thieves someday!"
Elfhild wrinkled her nose. "Chicken thieves! Oh, 'Fled, do not be so silly! Robbery is nothing to jest about, and we would never be doing it if we were not driven to it by our desperate plight."
The two girls stared at each other, and then they dissolved into peals of mirth at the absurdity of the situation. "Robber!" Elffled giggled. "Chicken thief!" Elfhild shoved her sister playfully. Waves of laughter rolled over them, washing away all of the stress and tension that had grown between them, like dirt is driven before the rain.
By the time they came to the door which led to the main chamber, their sides were aching from the strain of their laughter and tears streaked their cheeks. Another spasm of hilarity rolled over them as they walked through the doorway. Halting to catch her breath, Elffled brought a hand to her eyes to chase away the tears.
"Brigand, you!" Elfhild laughed, the grin on her face so big that her eyes were almost squeezed shut. She was on the verge of giving her sister another teasing jab in the ribs when her laughter froze in her throat, her merriment coming to an abrupt end.
To their horror, the twins heard a menacing, deep-throated growl outside the cottage, and then the door slowly swung open.
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.