Chapter 16 - Aftermath
The stinking weight lifted off my chest and I could breathe again, but I didn't try to move. It was so cold. And I was so tired. Wherever I passed to after dying, I hoped it would be somewhere I could rest for a long time.
Something shook me, hard, and I grumbled in protest. "Elfled! Wake up!" That chivvying voice was familiar… I opened my eyes and saw Sigrun's thin face hovering close over me. "Oh, child, I thought you were dead. Can you get up? Come now." With the old woman's sinewy arms lifting me, I managed to get to my feet and stand leaning heavily on her.
"Thought I was dead too," I mumbled. My lips would barely open wide enough to let words out. "Where's the orc?"
"Dead." She tightened her arm around my waist, and I whimpered. "I fear you've a rib cracked."
"It must have died before it could kill me." I tried to force my sluggish memories into some kind of sensible order. "I chopped at it with the axe, but it fell on top of me. It was biting me."
"I had to heave it off you," Sigrun said. "And your hands are torn something fierce, but they'll heal. I'm more worried about you losing a toe or two. You've been lying out here in the snow for near an hour."
I looked down and saw the limp body of the orc lying sprawled where Sigrun had pushed it. The axe was still stuck in its side. I shivered violently, suddenly feeling the bite of the wind, and Sigrun urged me to walk. "We've got to get you somewhere warm, my girl."
My feet felt like blocks of wood, but I managed to move them in a slow shuffle through the snow. I asked Sigrun more questions to keep my mind from the tingling pain that spread everywhere as blood began to flow through my veins again. "What happened to the wargs? And were there any more orcs?"
"After Sigelm killed one warg, the rest turned tail. There was one more orc near the gate. Francha threw her pot of coals at it, and it ran away half on fire." Sigrun huffed out a short laugh. "We've been searching for you since -- no-one knew what had happened to you."
I remembered why I had been alone in the first place. "And Wulfred?"
Sigun's lips tightened. "Dead too."
"What?" I had to stop and lean on Sigrun to catch my breath. It seemed my dying curse had taken hold, even though I hadn't died.
"A warg leapt on him and broke his neck. He wasn't watching his back..." She rattled on, and I didn't interrupt her. Although I hated to admit it, all I felt at Wulfred's death was relief. No need now to worry about how to make him pay for his dishonourable deed; he already had. Let it die with him. His daughters were only children. Why force them to carry their father's shame?
Sigrun thumped on the hall door, and it swung open letting out a beacon of light and warmth. We staggered over the threshold together, Sigrun half-carrying me. "I found her, so you can all stop looking so long-faced," she announced.
I needed her help to stay upright as what seemed like dozens of people rushed to the doorway to exclaim over me, embrace me -- gently, after I yelped at having my sides squeezed -- give thanks for me: Francha, Merewyn, Serulf, and all the rest.
"Give way, give way," Sigrun scolded. "Let the poor girl in by the fire. She's frozen solid." I shuffled forward, my eyes watering from the smoke of the blazing fire -- and from knowing that these people cared whether I loved or died.
Sigelm sat next to the hearth, cleaning my uncle's sword. He dropped it to the floor and stood up to hug me, carefully one-armed, before guiding me to a bench beside the fire. I sat down with a thud, shivering harder now that there was finally some warmth in the air around me. On the other side of the hall, I could see a long bundle wrapped in a coarse cloth. Blood had soaked through it to stain the flagstones underneath.
"Wulfred?" I asked hoarsely.
Sigelm nodded solemnly.
"Has anyone told Ulrika?"
Sigrun brought over a swath of blankets to wrap around me. She shook her head. "The poor mite's asleep. The morning will be soon enough to give her bad tidings."
And then I remembered the other child whose life hanging in the balance had absorbed me before the wargs invaded. I huddled further into the blankets, wishing I did not have to hear the answer to my question. "Is Hereward…?"
"I'm right here." A querulous voice rose from another pile of blankets settled by the hearth. "I wish everyone would stop talking about me as if I were sleeping."
I fell from the bench to my knees and pawed back the blankets to reveal Hereward: his face pale and clammy with blessed sweat. The fever had broken. "Oh, mother of mercy, thank you." I hugged him fiercely and even kissed him, much to his disgust.
"I missed all the excitement," Hereward grumbled. "It's no fair." I let him go finally and leaned back against the bench, gathering him under my right arm against my unbruised side. He was peevish and embarrassed to be the center of so much notice, but I didn't care.
Francha brought me a bowl of comfrey tea. I couldn't hold it steady and hot liquid slopped over the sides on to my numb fingers, but I sipped gratefully, feeling some warmth return to my belly. "Did you learn how the wargs got inside?"
"I think they jumped over the palisade," Serulf said. "There's a huge draft built up beside the gate, where the wind sweeps down from the cliff and piles the snow. When Sigelm and I went out to have a look, make sure the beasts were well and truly gone, we saw warg prints trampled all over it."
"We'll have to shovel that tomorrow." I yawned, cracking my jaw. "And send word to Erkenbrand that wargs are loose in the mountains."
It was almost dawn. In the daytime we would be safe enough, and now that the wargs had been driven off with tails between their legs, I didn't think they'd care to return to Fossdale. Still, we'd have to make sure the other nearby steadings were warned. Listing more things to do in my head, I fell asleep sitting up with Hereward tucked close under my arm.
It was a fresh, cool afternoon in late March when Hereward and I arrived at Edoras. On the morrow Eowyn was to wed her Stonelanding prince, and many of the great folk of both realms had gathered to witness the marriage. I was expecting to be housed in the servants' galleries, but we were given a tiny room in the eastern wing to ourselves.
I would have preferred to stay there and avoid the chance of seeing anyone I knew before the wedding, but Hereward had never been to Meduseld and begged me to take him through it. I showed him the gates by the fount of the Snowbourn and the Great Hall, its pillars garlanded with flowers for tomorrow's feast. He was more interested in the tapestries of battles and kings, and wanted me to tell him the stories behind all the great hangings from Cirion's Oath to Eorl's Ride.
But Eorl on Felarof was gone. In its place hung the last tapestry I had worked on before leaving: Theoden King standing on the wall of the Deep bidding defiance to Saruman's army.
Eowyn was lady of Meduseld now. If she wanted to remember her uncle by putting his tapestry in the place of honour, she was entitled to do so. That was her right and no-one could grudge it her; except for me. The hanging of Eorl's Ride was the last material memory I had of my mother and I wanted it to remain where it had been for so many years. I knew my anger was irrational, but I did not care.
Perhaps Eowyn had only moved it? Stepping back to check the other walls again, I careened into the lady herself, standing in the shadow of a pillar. I cursed my luck and made her a quick courtesy. "Lady Eowyn. I wish you joy on your wedding day."
Eowyn seemed taller and fairer than ever in an ice blue gown. I felt my face and neck burn red under her gaze; she stared at me as if I were a stranger. And in many ways, I was an entirely different creature than the refined woman of Meduseld I had once been, dressed in fine embroidered wool. The tunic and kirtle I wore were of coarse linsey, and to be honest, somewhat shabby -- I had saved my only clothes with any pretense of finery left to them for the wedding feast tomorrow.
Eowyn held out her hands in greeting. I took them reluctantly. "Elfled. Thank you for coming." Her chin stuck out stiffly, and circles of colour burned in her cheeks -- the familiar look I recalled from our childhood, whenever she was shamed for bad behaviour. "Eomer tells me that I owe you an apology."
"No need to offer me anything you do not wish to give," I said. I pulled my hands away and put them behind my back, conscious of the pink bite scars that still marred my arms.
Eowyn cleared her throat. "I am not saying this because Eomer told me to. I only meant that he was the one who made me see how discourteous I had been. You took on a hard task that was none of your responsibility, only because I had abandoned it."
I stared at Eowyn, searching her face for more signs of stubbornness, but she seemed sincere. "Thank you, Eowyn, but I know you too well to think that you would change any of your actions."
Her stiff shoulders relaxed and her mouth quirked up briefly at one corner. "I did not say that. If it were all to happen again I would surely make the same choice. Still, I hope I might be more gracious about it."
Eorl knew, that was as close as Eowyn would ever come to saying she had been in the wrong. "Then I accept your apology, and pardon you for any wrong you have done me."
Eowyn cleared her throat again. "May I ask your company for a moment? I have something for you."
"I suppose," I said cautiously. "Hereward, run along to the kitchens and ask Hilda for a scrap from the spit. I will find you there later."
I trailed behind Eowyn on the way to her bower, feeling small and grubby as I always did next to her. I could not imagine what she had for me. I hoped it was not some belonging of Halred's or Father's scavenged from the battlefield. I had made my peace with their ghosts, and I did not want any silent reminders of thir last moments. If I had been able to keep Moth, that would have been different… but I pushed that wish away from my thoughts.
Eowyn's bedchamber was a lovely one, lighter and airier than most rooms in Meduseld. Since it was on the sheltered corner of the upper floor above the hall, facing away from the winds that swept down from the mountains, it had windows on two sides. Already the heavy winter shutters had been taken away, and the linen hangings on her bed fluttered in the spring breeze.
Eowyn called to her women, asking them to bring out "Elfled's gift." I opened my mouth to protest that she need not give me anything to assuage her guilt; but practicality made me shut it. Payment might be insulting but it would still be very useful. Fossdale had weathered the winter without the loss of any more sheep, and I hoped that with the sale of the first shearing it would be secure again, but a cushion of support was always welcome. Nor did I want to antagonize Eowyn again before I had the chance to ask what she had done with my mother's tapestry.
Her maid Freja came out with a heavy cylinder wrapped in canvas and laid it on the bed. She untied the tapes that bound it closed and rolled it out to reveal water foaming around Felarof's feet, blazing white in the evening sunlight, followed by the rest of the tapestry of Eorl crossing the Silverlode. I gasped and pressed my hands to my mouth.
"Since your piece has taken pride of place now, I wished to give you this token in Elfrith's memory." Eowyn looked anxiously at me. "Do you want it? I thought it would be welcome, but if you would rather it stay here in Meduseld, I will see it re-hung--"
I reached a fingertip out to stroke Felarof's nubbled silk tail. My eyes watered and I had to swallow twice before I could manage to speak. "It was a good thought, Eowyn. There is nothing I would rather have than this. I thank you." I held out my hands again and we clasped them in friendship.
The wedding was quieter and more solemn than was usual for such occasions in the Riddermark. Theoden's absence was still sadly marked, although the King and Queen of Gondor graced Meduseld again to show their favour toward Eowyn and her new lord. Faramir was as courteous and fair as before, in the dark fashion of the men of the Stoningland, and much like the King in his manner of quiet strength. Eowyn was radiant in a green gown fresh as spring grass, her unbound hair streaming down her back.
The feast was more like the raucous occasions I remembered, especially as the evening wore on and the mead horns were emptied and filled faster and faster. Faces grew flushed and smoke from the braziers wreathed the ceiling beams, hazing the bright carvings there. The babble of voices grew into a roar and calls for song or story rose. I heard chants of "A riddle! A riddle!" from the bench of young Riders.
Garmund stood, raising his horn to the high table, and I groaned. Eowyn rolled her eyes and tugged at her lord's sleeve, urging him to stand and announce their departure. But Faramir did not understand, or else moved too slowly, and Garmund began to bellow out one of his endless store of bawdy wedding riddles.
We had heard them all before, of course, but tonight Garmund told the bread dough riddle with even more lascivious detail piled on than usual. Before he'd reached the second stave the hall was thundering with laughter. Even Eowyn lost her countenance and began to giggle. I did not think her lord understood our tongue, but his face was still reddening -- Garmund's gestures would make it clear to a deaf man what manner of riddle this was. I stole a glance at the King and Queen. They did not seem offended; indeed, the King was laughing harder than anyone.
I sighed and rose from my seat. I was in no mood for the churning riddle, which was sure to be next. And if I didn't leave soon, I'd be caught up in the rush to harry Eowyn and her lord to their bedchamber with more bawdy jests and songs.
As I had the last time I feasted in this chamber, I stole out through the kitchens and slipped past the guards of Meduseld to the Snowbourn's path through the city. I stopped at the first footbridge again. It was colder now; the poplars were not fully leafed, and last year's dead rushes rattled in the breeze. I shivered and wished that I had stopped by my chamber to fetch Elfhelm's green cloak.
Quiet footsteps and the prickling of the skin that accompanies being seen told me that someone else was approaching along the path. I knew who it would be, even before I turned my head.
Elfhelm stood at the end of the bridge. He made no move to join me, but stayed there. His face was grave and his hands were clenched tightly on his belt. I remembered what he had said at our last meeting -- I will look for you at Edoras in the spring -- and my heart began to speed.
"You seem to know all my favourite havens," I said, trying to speak lightly. "Will you sit down?"
He stepped on to the bridge, his boots thudding hollowly on the planks, and sat down with a careful distance between us. "It is good to see you, Elfled."
Elfhelm looked well, and was dressed as befit his station for once. Though his hair was still tied in a plain tail down his back, his belt was finely tooled and he wore a tunic of russet wool. I glanced at him sidewise, blushing when he caught me. I still could not decide whether he was handsome, but I liked the way the strong lines of his nose and jaw balanced each other.
"My uncle told me of the wargs at Fossdale," he said gruffly. "He said that without word from you he would not have known that there was a nest of them in the mountains. And orcs too." I saw him look down at the thin pink scars on my arms, marks from the orc that had attacked me. "I am glad to know that you are well." His tone made it half a question. Through the inches that separated us I could feel the tension in his body, like a rein held tight on a straining horse.
"I was not seriously hurt," I said quietly. "But it was a frightening thing. I am glad your uncle sent Riders to drive them out from their hiding places."
"Wulfred was killed, I hear?"
"Yes." I shivered, remembering how that coward had left me to the orc's mercy. "His daughters are staying with us for a little while, until their mother's brother can come to take care of Ulfdale for them." How ironic, that after trying so hard to gain Fossdale for himself, Wulfred had left his daughters prey to the same kind of fortune-hunter.
"It is a great trust," Elfhelm agreed at random.
I picked at the cushion of moss that had regrown on the planks. Here we both were. I knew what he wanted. Why did he not speak? Then I remembered what I had told him -- speak to me again when Hereward is of age -- and understood. He was doing as I had asked, and would not mention the matter again until the time that I had set.
If I wanted to change that, I would have to speak first. I shivered again.
"You are cold," he said, sounding distant and severe. "We should go in." He pushed up on his arms and began to rise. It was the cloak, I realized; because I was not wearing it, he thought that I had rejected him along with it. I seized his arm. "Elfhelm, do not leave. I need--I need to tell you something."
His arm shuddered with tension. I gasped for breath and forced out the words. "You said--your mind would not change. I hope that is so, because mine has. If--if your question still stands, I would like to answer it. Yes."
For a moment, I thought he had not understood me and gathered breath to speak again more plainly. Then he caught me to him and kissed me.
* * *
Author's note: I assure you I'm not making up the vulgar riddles. The custom of telling them at weddings is an extrapolation of mine, but given that wedding festivities have often been of a bawdy nature, it seemed like a natural assumption.
The particular riddles that Garmund tells are Numbers 23 and 43 from the Exeter Book of Anglo-Saxon riddles (http://www2.kenyon.edu/AngloSaxonRiddles/texts.htm).
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.