12. Land of the Dead
Chapter Written by Elfhild
After sighting the enemy patrol, the twins became keenly aware of their desperate need for weapons in these desolate wilds. Without any way to defend themselves, they were easy prey for wild animals or enemy patrols. Even with weapons, the journey would still be one fraught with peril, but at least the odds would be evened somewhat. Not much, but at least somewhat.
But what could they use for weapons? Fallen tree limbs would have to serve for clubs and spears; rocks in lieu of bow and arrow. Searching for branches light enough to carry yet stout enough to give a foe a nasty blow to the head, the twins found what they needed beneath the spreading boughs of a plane tree. The winds which came with the rains four days before had broken away several of the long, gray limbs and sent them crashing to the ground. The sisters chose two sturdy looking staves and went on their way. They prayed they would not have to use them. Such primitive weapons could hardly match iron in a fight.
Mid-afternoon brought Elfhild and Elffled to a ruined fishing village by the Anduin. Once one of many prosperous and bustling river towns in Anórien, the little village now was only another reminder of the desolation which the war had brought. By the water's edge, there was a long wharf where boats had once loaded and unloaded. In better days, ducks, geese and other birds lighted upon the weathered boards to eat the scraps that people threw to them. On both sides of a thoroughfare leading westward, buildings had been reduced to forlorn heaps of charred wood and soot-blackened stone. The gray hued rubble was a mournful sight to see as it lay in piles on the brown earth; a fading reminder of a people so recently vanquished.
"Grenefeld must look like this now," Elffled moaned despondently.
Elfhild stared at the rubble, her body held stiff and rigid, her mind taking her far from this small river town – to the North – to Rohan. A faint breeze picked up the strands of her straight, straw-colored hair and tossed them to the side. The musty smell of damp ashes clung to the air. Though it was summer, there was a chill in the wind, and it sent prickles along her spine. Still, she stood there, as though she had been turned to stone. Grenefeld – her village – she had seen the ruddy glow of the fires that night, smelled the acrid stench of smoke on the spring air. Her village – just another which fell to the hand of the enemy, so much like this one in Anórien.
A tug on her rolled-up sleeve pried Elfhild's attention away from the ruined town, and she turned her head to the side. There stood her sister, who looked at her uncertainly.
"What should we do now?" Elffled asked softly. "Head west on the road that goes through this village, or keep on going north?"
"I do not feel it would be wise to take the road," Elfhild replied, shaking her head. "What if we met that patrol we saw earlier?" She shivered, imagining their recapture by the cruel soldiers. "I think it would be best to wait before continuing onward."
Elffled glanced towards the town. "What about searching these ruins for anything that we might be able to use on our journey?" Though Elffled was vehemently opposed to this quest, she was a practical girl, and no matter how much she sulked, some shred of common sense always seemed to have a way of worming back into her brain. She would give this foolish venture a chance, but if one thing went wrong - just one thing - she would protest it highly!
Her brow furrowed in thought, Elfhild cast a scrutinizing glance around at the fishing village. "All right," she finally nodded. "We will explore the village, but keep a wary eye out for scouts."
The sisters wandered through the deserted streets, through the barren garths where gardens had once bloomed. With every step, their spirits sank lower and lower, sodden with sorrow like the mounded ashes which lay round in heaps. No words were said. A funereal hush hung over them like black clouds, gray and foreboding. Though they were there to scout out whatever plunder might still be left to take, neither girl felt much like exploring the blackened hulks of what once had been houses. Huddling together as though it were winter, the two yet among the living shuffled onward through this village of the dead.
"Well, there is no use just milling about with no purpose," Elfhild tittered, somewhat nervously, her voice disrupting the quietude as sharply as a raven's cry. "We have not done so much as approach any of these ruined buildings. As you were saying, who knows what we might find, unharmed by the fire?"
Elffled followed behind her sister as she walked towards the foundation stones of a large house. Chunks of the daub that had cracked away during the blaze lay in dirty piles upon the ground. Coming to the ruined doorway, Elfhild cautiously ventured forward, stepping over the stone threshold. There was no one living to tell the sisters what had happened to the village, but they surmised that the dreadful occurrence had been much like that which had befallen Grenefeld. Their men away at war, the women and children had been easy prey, with only a few having courage to challenge the orcs. These brave ones had either been bested in their struggles, or slain on the spot and left to die in their houses. Then the meeker ones who would not fight were quickly herded outside by the brutes and put in chains.
After the orcs had rounded up all the captives, they hurled lighted torches onto the thatched roofs, the straw igniting like dry tinder. Soon the flames were roaring through the houses like demons at play. At the height of the conflagration, the ceiling had crashed into the inferno, followed in its course by the walls of the building, there to crackle and burn in a fiery mound which gradually smoldered away. Though the intensity of the fire had been furious, not everything had been destroyed. The mud that had gone into the construction of the walls and the stone blocks around the foundation had spread a protective cloak over things left forlorn and abandoned...
Scattered over the blackened rubble on the ground were shards of pottery, metal which had melted into curious-looking lumps, and various other misshapen items which had not been consumed in the flames. Nothing stirred except a sleepy lizard which had been resting atop a blackened foundation stone. Now even that was gone, for the arrival of the sisters frightened the small creature and sent it scurrying away to safety.
As the girls walked gingerly about the interior, their feet crunched down on lumps of burnt wood, sending up soot that blackened their shoes. They looked about themselves, imagining how the house might have been arranged. Had it looked something like their home? Possibly it had much finer furnishings, they considered wistfully. Only the wealthy would have had the means to enjoy such a large house. Had this been the home of someone important, a village elder, perhaps? Elfhild and Elffled would never know. Their lives destroyed as their home had been, the survivors were now absent, suffering in captivity somewhere at the hands of the Southern slavers.
"There is nothing here to see but sadness," Elfhild muttered despondently.
"Wait, I see something!" Elffled exclaimed as she caught the glimpse of a partially buried object which protruded from under a dreary heap of dirt and ashes. "I wonder what this is... " Walking over to the rubble, she studied the long, pale object for a while, trying to determine what it might be. A broken shard of pottery... a ruined drinking horn, the antler of a deer... Then - as sudden as a strike of lightning - she realized what she beheld. Her breath halted in mid-inhalation; her heart seemed to shoot up in her chest like an arrow and then plunge back down into the confines of her bosom. She froze in place, as though she had been turned into a pillar of ice. Extending out of the rubble was a long, scorched thigh bone.
Dreadful images flooded unbidden into her mind... She could hear the uruks screaming their war songs of death and carnage as they broke down the door and poured inside... Their scimitars swinging, they cut down any who opposed them... The woman screamed as they threw her down to the floor and took their turns with her as her terrified children were forced to watch... Black smoke and flames rose up, hiding the mutilated body. Elffled felt the fear, the pain as though it were her own. Gasping, she forced her eyes from the charred, fragmented bone and wailed hysterically.
Alarmed by her sister's scream, Elfhild was instantly by her side. "What is wrong? Oh, I see," she gasped as her eyes dropped down to the object of Elffled's gaze.
"Let us get out of here!" Elffled tugged her sister's sleeve frantically, her eyes welling up with tears.
Elfhild knelt down to take a closer look at the bone. "How horrible," she murmured, the expression on her face one of sorrow.
"Please, let us leave this awful place!" Elffled cried.
Elfhild slowly rose to her feet. "No – not until we have buried this victim of the enemy. There was no one to bury our mother after the orcs murdered her. I want to give this poor Gondorian what our mother never had."
"I can feel the presence of the woman who was killed here," Elffled whimpered. "Do you not hear her blood calling out for vengeance?"
"Yes, I can sense her anger and pain; it stains the ground like her blood," Elfhild replied, her voice sounding hollow to her ears. "But we cannot avenge her. All we can do is bury what remains of her body."
Elffled's gaze returned to the bone, as though it were some dread talisman which had cast a dark spell over her. "Oh, Elfhild, I do not want to think of our mother like this, naught but charred bones buried in the ashes of our home." Her eyes welling up with tears, she looked away, unable to speak.
"Then think of her as she was, back when she was alive." Elfhild's voice was soft and tender. "Think of her smile, her face, the sound of her laughter. Remember how she played games with us when we were children and told us stories as she tucked us into bed at night. Remember how proud she was of her cooking and weaving, and how overjoyed she was whenever she won the pie contest at the midsummer fair." Her throat constricting with emotion, Elfhild attempted a wan smile and squeezed her sister's hand reassuringly. "This is how our mother would have wanted us to remember her, alive and happy. Now come and let us give this poor soul a decent burial."
The two girls gathered stones from the ruined foundation and heaped them over the bone, constructing a makeshift cairn to protect what remained of the body from further desecration. After the twins had said a few words to honor the dead, they softly sang an old dirge and then stood in respectful silence for a few moments. Here this victim of war would lie, buried in a shallow grave of rubble with the remains of those possessions which she had held dear in life. There was no time for a proper funeral, and no one to attend it save wild animals and birds, but the girls did their best. They could not even leave an offering of food for the dead because they could not spare a crumb of their meager larder. With sorrow in their hearts, both for their own woes and for the dire fates which had befallen the residents of the village, Elfhild and Elffled quietly departed from the house and made their way towards a dense section of woods which bordered the village.
There they sat amid the tall trees, looking wistfully towards the west. Their senses as scorched as the village, they needed time to recover from the nightmarish sights which they had seen. The enemy patrol they had seen on the Great West Road had left both girls feeling skittish, and they were afraid to venture too close to the thoroughfare. With the path to the west blocked, there was not much the girls could do but wander aimlessly along the Anduin. They would have to bide their time and wait until the enemy patrol was long gone before continuing on their way. How long should they delay? Neither girl knew, and both were afraid to make an ill-timed move. As the day dragged on, the horror of the village dulled to mere discomfiture, and discomfiture faded to a lingering sense of melancholy, much like the way that the flesh of a corpse rots away to leave bare bones. How many more tragedies would they witness as they traveled through this war ravaged land?
With nothing much to do but wander and wait, the twins fell into an uneasy silence as they brooded upon their troubled thoughts. Hugging her knees to her chest, Elfhild sat beneath an oak tree and worried about what would become of her sister and her. She had never used to feel such doubt and uncertainty before the war. Up until that spring, she had thought she knew what her future would hold. In a year or so when she was old enough, she would marry Osric, the blacksmith's son. She had liked him since she was ten, and every time her family went to the village, she would always find some excuse to stop by the blacksmith's shop so she could see him. She had often daydreamed about their wedding, which she wanted to take place on Midsummer Day, right after her birthday. A bittersweet melancholy came over her as she remembered those sweet, innocent fantasies that had so often filled her head...
A crown made from straw and wheat and woven round with honeysuckle, daisies and other wildflowers would adorn her head, and the handsome groom would be quite the dashing sight attired in his best clothing. Prior to the ceremony, Osric would entrust the sword of his forefathers to her; later, she would return the weapon to him and they would exchange rings over the hilt of the sword. Clasping their hands upon the pommel, they would look into each other's eyes and recite their vows. The day would be one filled with festivity and merriment as both families celebrated the union. Elfhild always loved ceremonies, whether happy ones like weddings and festivals, or sad ones like funerals.
But when the war had come, her whole world had been destroyed, and all her dreams had gone up in smoke. She did not even know if Osric was alive or if he had joined her father and brother in death. A lump rose up in her throat as she thought about the hair ribbon she had given him ere he rode out with the muster that sunny day back in March. She prayed that the small token had brought him luck, and he escaped the barbs and blades of his enemies.
What would happen to Elfhild and her sister when – if – they made it back to the Mark? Did any of their family yet live? What of childhood friends and neighbors? The Mark to which they would return would be naught like the Mark which they once knew. Did their country yet stand, or was it now a vassal of Mordor? Perhaps when they reached the border, they would be greeted by a welcoming party of orcs. She remembered the high lord who rode triumphantly through the Firien Wood, clad all in black and riding a steed of ebony. Mayhap he dwelt in Edoras now, holding court inside the Golden Hall. Such thoughts filled her heart with sorrow and dread. In a few days, she would know for sure what remained of her beloved homeland. Until then, she would have to spend her time both fearing and anticipating that moment of truth.
She and Elffled were venturing into the heart of the fire. She prayed they would not get burnt.