Winter closed its cold fist on us soon. Fossdale lay higher in the mountains than sheltered Edoras, and by mid-November a thin coverlet of white down lay over the dale while the high meadows were buried in thigh-deep snow. Hereward and the other children reveled in it; I shivered in my heaviest cloak and dreamed of the warm childhood summers I had spent here, never knowing what a Westfold winter was.
"This is nothing, child." Sigrun snorted as she watched me spin one afternoon in the weak sunlight by the hall door, my chapped hands shaking. "It's too soon yet to tell if the winter will be a hard one. And the worst never comes until after the new year."
At least the pace of our work slowed as the days shortened. We had already gleaned what oats and barley we could from the untended fields and dug up the few year-old, wizened turnips to feed the stock or use for seed next spring. We had felled old trees, dragged them to the steading, and chopped them into piles of firewood now tightly stacked to dry. Animals we couldn't feed through the winter had been slaughtered and their meat cured. Sigelm and the dogs brought the remaining sheep down to the sheltered meadows below the steading; in the deep snow on the higher slopes they made easy prey for the wolves driven down the mountain by hunger.
I had time now to begin weaving the year's wool, though given our small herd of sheep there was little enough of it. Sigrun taught me something she called sprang stitch, a way of knotting thick yarn together into a loose, stretchy weave. Serulf and Hereward hammered together crooked new benches and bedsteads.
And still the snow fell. I was colder than I had ever been before, and glad of Sigrun's presence in the small room we shared at the back of the hall, the one that had been Elric and Leofwyn's. Though one wall radiated deep warmth from the back of the chimneypiece, the other three were icy to the touch, and the bed would have been frostbound without another body sleeping in it. The rest of the household slept upstairs in the long loft room, though we spent our days together in the great hall for the company and warmth we craved.
That Yuletide was scanty, with none of the sweetmeats, nuts, or richly spiced cakes and wine with which Meduseld celebrated the season. Still, after months of bean soup, our meal of ham, venison, and soft cider seemed like a kingly feast. Together we waked the longest night and went out to sing the carol of sun's return at dawn. The voices ringing out from the frozen dale into the eastern sky sounded pure and magical, and our mingled breath made soft white plumes in the air. I huddled into my cloak and felt that winter in Fossdale might be bearable after all.
On the second day of Yule, Wulfred visited again. This time he brought his daughters, as well as lavish gifts of provender -- spices, dried fruit, and a small cask of rich mead from the honey of the Ulfdale hives. Beggars such as we were could not afford pride, so I swallowed the refusal I wanted to give him and offered gracious thanks instead. I wondered if this would be the occasion he chose to make his interest clear. At first it did not seem likely, for Wulfred did not pay me any special attention; but at the very end of his visit, he asked if he might speak with me alone.
I sent Sigrun to find the girls, who had disappeared to play in the snow with Hereward, and she gave me a sympathetic nod as she went. "Serulf shall saddle your horses," I said, and waited for Wulfred to take advantage of our limited privacy.
He did not disappoint me, but he was more subtle than I had expected. This time he talked of how his young girls needed a mother, rather than hinting at my stronger claim to Fossdale as he had before. Keeping my eyes modestly lowered, I heard him out with rising impatience; it reminded me too much of last summer at Edoras, and all the matches that had been made then. I was no more interested in marriage now than I had been then. As soon as I could reasonably be thought to have sensed the drift of his speech I interrupted him. "Master Wulfred, I understand that marriage might be to the advantage of us both, but I came here to help my cousin, not to look for a husband."
"And what of your own future? Will you stay here as servant to Hereward's wife, whenever he takes one, and nursemaid to her children?"
"Why not?" I could think of many worse fates.
"It is not what your mother would have wished for you, I am sure."
Who was Wulfred, to speak of my mother so familiarly? I decided that only bluntness would rid me of him quickly enough. "I intend to see that Hereward has Fossdale for his own, when he comes of age. A marriage between the two of us would only confuse the matter."
"Of course Hereward shall be seized of this steading," Wulfred said, in a tone of faint surprise. "I am asking for your hand because I respect you, Elfled. You are a brave and sensible girl. Together we could make Fossdale into a truly fine inheritance for Hereward, and you would have your own home at Ulfdale."
"No. I am sorry, Master Wulfred, but my answer is the same. Please do not ask again. Let us remain good neighbours and friends, if no more." I smiled stiffly and offered him my hand to clasp.
"Is it that horse-boy of Eomer's you want instead? I've heard he came sniffing around like a dog when the bitch is in heat." Wulfred did not raise his voice, or even sound particularly angry, but the sting in his voice was like a snake striking.
I drew my hand back. "Who do you speak of? If you mean Elfhelm, he was sent by his uncle to look over the Westfold dales. He has certainly never said anything so insolent to me -- not that it is any business of yours."
His two daughters came running up from the sheepfold then, chivvied by Sigrun, and our confrontation was interrupted. Wulfred thanked us for the Yule hospitality courteously enough before he and his daughters rode away. But I could not forget the vivid fury I had glimpsed in his eyes for an instant, before he locked it away.
He had not taken my hand, either, and sworn friendship.
On the eve of the New Year, the clouds glowed with the eerie wolflight that comes before a winter storm. When Hereward and I went out to give the animals their small feast-day measure of grain we needed no lantern. And the sky fulfilled its threat; clots of snow like clumps of uncarded wool fell all night. By morning snow coated the roofs, the fences and hurdles, the palisade, and everything else within sight. The sun was a dull circle behind iron-grey clouds, and the snow went on falling so thickly that we could not see from the hall door to the gate. It was almost like the dawnless days in Harrowdale during the war.
The household exchanged New Year's gifts, useful little things that we had made. Sigelm had whittled tokens for us all: a new shuttle for my loom, a whistle for Hereward, a ladle for Sigrun. I had made mittens or mufflers for everyone using the sprang stitch that Sigrun had taught me, though they were somewhat small for lack of wool to spare.
Hereward gave me a tiny needlecase he'd carved out of ashwood under Sigelm's tutelage. "Is it the right size?" he asked, and I showed him how the little roll of flannel I pinned my needles in fit exactly. "It's perfect," I told him, and watched his proud grin widen.
Thinking that the cold would keep away any travellers, well-intentioned or not, we had shut the gate but posted no lookout other than the dogs. In mid-afternoon, they set to barking just before we heard a shout and a thumping at the gate. Sigelm and Serulf went out warily, and in a moment Serulf came back to report that our visitor was the Marshall of the Eastmark. Sigelm was helping him stable his horse.
"Elfhelm?" I repeated. "Again?" Wulfred's ill-mannered remark came into my mind, making my cheeks flush, but I refused to believe it. Elfhelm had never hinted at such a thing. I did not know the Lord of Westfold well, but I knew my father and Elric had both served as Riders under Erkenbrand's command; perhaps he felt some responsibility for me and Hereward and had asked Elfhelm to look in on us.
The Marshall himself stamped the snow from his boots and came into the hall behind Sigelm, smiling. "I come with New Year's gifts, that's all."
"Thank you, Marshall Elfhelm. That is very kind of you." Sigrun ushered him to the seat closest to the hearth, and I brought him the guest-cup of warmed cider.
I was still puzzled by his arrival, but whatever brought him, Elfhelm was a gracious guest. For the household he had a handsome new iron pot; for Hereward, a short steel beltknife. The boy ran off to strop its already gleaming edge, too excited to acknowledge the gift properly. I rolled my eyes and thanked Elfhelm in his place. "I have a gift for you as well," he said, and held out a bundle wrapped in fine green wool.
As I took it from him, it loosened of its own weight and unfolded into a cloak: the outer side of green wool, the inner lined with thick, silky marten fur the shade of a ripe chestnut. I stared at the unthinkably rich gift draping from my hands and puddling on the floor, and said the first thing that came into my head. "Is this a courting gift?"
Elfhelm turned my question back again. "What would you say if it were?" He seemed almost -- was it possible? -- anxious. I looked about for Sigrun, hoping for rescue, but she had discreetly withdrawn into our bedchamber. Forced to face another suitor alone, I waited for the familiar shudder of tired disgust to sweep over me; but it did not come.
"I would say," I said slowly, "that I have had no thought of marriage yet. And even if I wished to wed, I must see Hereward established in his inheritance first. The only answer I could give you now, my Lord Marshall, is to wait." And I pushed the armful of cloak back at him.
He stood, taking my hands and folding them over it. "The cloak is yours, Elfled, to wear or not as you wish. There are no obligations attached to it. I am content to wait on your decision. But let me ask one more question--is there any other seeking your hand?"
I laughed. "Wulfred favoured me with an offer, but there was no danger of my agreeing to it."
Elfhelm's hands tightened on mine, squeezing them briefly. "That is good. He is not spoken well of in the Westfold."
"I know that, but no-one will tell me why."
"I do not know the full tale myself. Uncle says only that he wanted Leofwyn for himself, and when she married Elric he was wroth." He looked down at the flagstones between our feet. "But do not fear to tell me all of your heart, Elfled. If there is someone else you would turn to, I will stand aside."
"There is no other man," I said, and drew in a deep breath as I realized it was the truth. I was still uncertain if I would ever marry, but I could not imagine taking any husband but Elfhelm.
I had never liked a man better. Some of the maids of Edoras called him sullen, but they had not seen his quiet kindness to Theoden and Eowyn. I had watched more Riders drink in the Golden Hall than I cared to remember, and I had never seen Elfhelm do anything dishonourable--even in Grima's time, when many men used his evil deeds as an excuse for their own.
I looked at him sidelong, wondering if other women thought him handsome. He was not as well-favoured as Wulfred, certainly, nor as tall. He wore his hair in the simplest fashion, tied into a horsetail at the back of his neck with a leather thong. Nothing about him caught the eye, from his unadorned beltknife to his plain clothes. Had he no mother or sister to embroider even one holiday tunic for him? Someone should.
Elfhelm was still waiting for me to finish speaking. I took another breath and plunged ahead. "If you are still of the same mind, Marshall Elfhelm, ask me again when Hereward is of age and confirmed in his holding."
His gaze met mine directly. "My mind will be the same. I hope that yours may change. Will I see you at Eowyn's wedding feast?"
I hesitated. "Perhaps."
"Then I will look for you at Edoras in the spring." His hands slid away from mine, and with a word of farewell to the whole household he was gone. I clasped the green cloak to me and buried my face in its soft fur lining. For the first time in weeks, I felt truly warm.
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.