10. A Way Opens
At last I was able to return to work on the great tapestry of Helm's Deep; Goda and I still had much to do if it were to be finished before Théoden's funeral feast and the acclamation of Éomer as King. Thankfully the task filled my long days, and wearied my hands and mind.
* * *
"There's a messenger from the Westemnet here to see you, mistress," Hilda announced. "He asked for you by name."
What would a messenger want with me? It must be some matter of housekeeping; perhaps Erkenbrand's stores were low, after feeding all the refugees in the Deeping. I made sure the cook had all she needed for the evening meal and locked the spice chest before making my way to the stableyard. A tall young man with tawny hair stood there, gawking up at the richly carved eaves of Meduseld.
"Sigelm!" I picked up my skirts and ran to him. "I thought you were dead! Were you on the high pastures then, when the Dunlendings came?"
"Aye. I saw the smoke from there, and left the sheep with Hereward while I went down to see what had happened. But by the time I reached it, the raiders were gone, and only the stable still burned."
"I did that," I interrupted. "It was all I could do after I found... everyone else. Hereward was with you? Oh, that gladdens my heart. I could not find him, and I had not enough time to search. And why did you not come and find me sooner -- but you are making me forget all my courtesy to a guest. Come in and have a draught of ale as a reward for telling me all the news of the Westfold and how you and Hereward have fared."
"Gladly, Mistress Elfled, and if you have a moment to sit and talk, that's all to the good. The plain truth is, I've come to beg a favour of you."
So after I'd drawn him a mug of small ale, we found seats in the firecorner. The great hearth was cold and empty since the summer kitchens were now in use, and in the lull before supper the room was quiet and private. "Now, what service do you want of me?" I prompted Sigelm. "If you seek a place in the household, you must talk to the Steward, for he sees to all the King's herds and flocks. But any good word I can speak for you, I will."
"It's not that." He turned his mug around and around, leaving overlapping damp circles on the table.
I waited a moment, but he spoke no further. "Well then, tell me of Hereward, if you will. How does he? And where did you go?"
Sigelm brightened. "Aye, that's the beginning of the tale, anyroad." And so Sigelm told me how he and Hereward escaped the bloodshed at Fossdale. Hereward had begged again and again to come with the shepherd to the high pastures for a day; Sigelm had finally given in and allowed him to tag along on that last peaceful morning. When Sigelm discovered the destruction of the steading, he had decided to take Hereward south for safety rather than chance the northern paths to Helm's Deep.
"You did rightly," I reassured him. "I barely reached the Deeping in time, and I went faster than you could have travelled with a herd of sheep."
So Sigelm, Hereward, Collenfirth the sheepdog, and forty ewes and lambs had sought shelter two vales to the south at the steading of a man named Wulfred. Sigelm was fairly confident of a welcome there, for Wulfred was of some stature in the Westfold and he had seemed open-handed and hospitable at first. "But now I'm worried, mistress Elfled. I think that Wulfred means to cheat Hereward of Fossdale somehow."
"How could he? Everyone knows that Elric adopted Hereward as his heir."
"Aye, but all of the oathwitnesses are dead now."
I began to see what Sigelm was hinting. "But Hereward is still the only choice to inherit. He's Elric's stepson and closest kin. How could Wulfred get around that?"
"Hereward's still naught but a boy, and Wulfred could keep him from getting Fossdale back on any terms but his. I've said once or twice already that it's time for us to be going home, but each time Wulfred insists that we wait. He says he'll send some of his own folk with us in the spring."
"So they'll aid you while Hereward is young, and when he's grown he'll owe Wulfred for everything. Is that what you fear?"
Sigelm nodded. "And he's got a couple of daughters near Hereward's age. I think he'll suggest one of them as a match in a year or so, and then – well, there'd be no doubt who the steading belongs to, even if Hereward is the one living there. We need you, mistress Elfled."
"Come back with us to Fossdale. You're the closest kin Hereward has left, and you're Elric's sister-daughter, the only one who could make a claim to the place out of bloodright. If you show that you're standing behind Hereward, I think Wulfred would back down."
"But Sigelm, think. Where will we find people to work the farm without accepting Wulfred's offer? Just the three of us – you, me, and a half-grown boy – we'd never be able to do it all. And the outbuildings and stables will need repairing too. Perhaps you'd be better off taking Wulfred's help. I'm sure he doesn't mean you that ill."
"You haven't seen the Eastfold since the fighting ended, have you, mistress? Believe me, there are lots of folk at loose ends who'd be only too happy to find a place in Fossdale. And I'm sure my aunt Sigrun would come home as well. My father's sister," he added, "she grew up in Fossdale but left when she married an Eastmarch man. He was killed by orcs last year and she's been looking to come back ever west since."
I stared at the scarred wooden table in front of me without really seeing it. Now that a chance to leave Edoras had fallen from the sky just as I had wished so many times, I feared to seize it. Life here might be empty, but at least it was a comfortable servitude. Yet thinking of all the withered, useless days and nights that lay ahead of me, I shivered. With a jolt of clear foresight I realized that if I did not grasp this chance of escape I would never leave. It would be so much easier to stay and dwindle into the bitter decline the Lady Arwen had warned me against. I clenched my hands together tightly on the tabletop. "Very well, Sigelm, I will come to Fossdale."
Sigelm looked as if he wanted to jump up from the bench and embrace me, but contented himself with grabbing my hands and squeezing them painfully tight. "Thank you, thank you, mistress Elfled."
"Not immediately," I added hastily, "for I shall have to beg leave to go from the Lady Éowyn. But before the end of the summer, I should be ready to depart. I will send a message to you at Ulfdale when I do."
* * *
There was much to do first, for many of the things I used in Edoras would be worse than useless in Fossdale. I bartered my embroidered clothes of fine-woven wool and linen for coarser tunics and skirts. I traded my second horse, that was no patch on my poor slain Faeger anyways, for a sturdy cob of good farmstock who was none too smooth-gaited but could pull a wagon in a pinch.
Rebuilding Fossdale would take ready money as well, especially if Wulfred were as greedy as Sigelm feared. I had little enough that was valuable, but what I had I sold, even the silver seagull broach that Queen Morwen had given to my mother and she had passed down to me. It was a lovely thing wrought of silver with green and clear gems that had come all the way from Lossarnach – but I told myself it was merely a piece of metal and sold it to the wife of the new Doorward for a handsome price.
I sold my father's horses too, even Moth, to an Eastfold horsebreeder whose stock had been sorely depleted by orc raids before the war. I made sure that all three were well-groomed on the day he came to collect them. Foxface and Banner were handsome beasts, yet Moth outshone both of them with her coat like burnished steel in the sunlight. She was too well-mannered to balk as her new master led her away, but as she turned her head towards me in confusion I nearly begged the man to stop and bring her back. "Goodbye, Moth," I whispered. "May you bear your new master to better fortune. I only wish I could see one of your foals."