14. An Argument Between Sisters
Chapter Written by Elfhild
The sun was sinking behind the dark mountains to the west as the sisters finished their evening meal. As she popped the last piece of bread into her mouth, Elfhild felt her sister's eyes burning into her, regarding her with envious scrutiny. Famished from the day's journey, Elffled had hastily wolfed down her own food and then spent the remainder of the meal staring at Elfhild. The look of greedy hunger upon her twin's face was quite intimidating, and Elfhild almost wondered if her sister were eying her as the next course.
"If we want to make our food supply last," she dutifully reminded, "we must be niggardly with it." Such words, though, hardly brought comfort to a protesting stomach.
"You know, we could be eating good food now, not these lint-covered leftovers, which, eaten all together, could barely fill a kitten," Elffled growled sullenly. Shaken by the sight of the ruined village, unhappy at the prospects of wandering through a desolate wasteland on a hopeless quest, and tormented by hunger, her temper began to flare.
Elfhild was at a loss for words. Suddenly she felt as helpless as a mother with a hungry child and no way to feed it. But, honestly, what could she do? She was hardly some sorceress who could make food appear by magic! Elffled had no right to complain about their lack of provisions, especially since neither one of them could do anything about it. "Well, get used to it," she snapped, chafing with resentment at her sister's implied criticism. "We are going back to the Mark, not to the slavers' camp to wait in line for food."
"Ah, and starve to death along the way," came Elffled's sardonic rejoinder.
Elfhild glared at the other girl, and when she spoke, her voice was filled with ugly, mocking acrimony. "For someone who refused even to go near the Easterlings to ask for a few pathetic pieces of candy, you certainly seem to have developed a fondness for their cooking."
"I do not care for strangers ramming their tongues down my throat, but I have no qualms about eating food, even if it does come from the hands of our enemies," Elffled replied coolly, but her eyes blazed in challenge. Though it was only their first day on the trail, the hours spent in solitude were beginning to wear upon her. Being forced to endure the constant presence of her sister had not seemed so bad when they were with the rest of the captives, for then she had her aunt when she needed comfort or company.
Elfhild blushed and turned her head, embarrassed by her twin's bold choice of wording and taken off guard by the ice in her voice. Elffled's point was valid. Who could blame her for wanting food? Elfhild's own stomach growled, the meager rations serving only as a mocking temptation. Suddenly she felt very awkward, as though she had been sleepwalking and awoke to find herself standing naked in the midst of the village marketplace during a crowded fair. She tried to think of an appropriate retort, but her mind went blank.
"We will get to the Mark, and we will not starve," she replied quietly, her voice filled with a resolution she did not feel.
"Suppose we do reach the Mark," Elffled demanded, gesturing about with her hand. "What do we do then? I know your plan is to take refuge at Dunharrow, but what if the mountain stronghold has been taken? Where will we go?"
Elfhild sighed heavily. "We will just have to keep traveling until we find some enclave of our own people. Surely there are some survivors still left! The enemy could not have captured or killed them all!" She tried to keep the desperation and uncertainty from creeping into her voice. "Before the darkness, many from our village and the surrounding villages fled for the west. I hope we can find our cousins among the refugees." Picking up a small twig from the ground, she nervously peeled off the loose, dry bark. "If not, then I fear that we must live upon the mercy of others."
Elffled cocked an eyebrow. "What do you mean?" Were they to prostitute themselves for a crust of bread?
Sighing, Elfhild looked down at the now denuded twig. "We have no other choice than to become servants and pay for our bread and board with our labor."
"After risking our lives for freedom, we are to become lowly servants?" Elffled exclaimed in exaggerated astonishment, her eyes widening to large circles. The lowest class of Rohan, that of the bond servant, was comprised of those who had fallen into heavy debt; petty criminals who had been condemned to servitude; Dunlending raiders who had been taken captive; and impoverished people who had relinquished their rights in exchange for provisions and shelter.
"If we wish to continue eating," Elfhild replied sharply.
"But we were never servants back at home," Elffled pointed out haughtily with an arrogant shake of her head to add further emphasis to her words. "Though the thane owned our lands, our father was a freeman, as were his father and his father before him. I thought we ran away from servitude, not to exchange one thralldom for another." What a twist of irony this was! She felt like laughing, but feared that it would soon sound hysterical.
Elfhild's eyes widened and then narrowed. How dare she compare honorable servitude to enslavement by a cruel and merciless enemy! "There is no shame in serving in the house of a lord or lady," she sniffed. "Actually, it would probably be lively and exciting, with feasts and celebrations and all sorts of new things to see and do. In time, we could earn our freedom, or perhaps our master or mistress would take pity upon us and free us. 'Tis not so bad, Elffled," she explained reassuringly. "During hard times, others have done the same."
"I have a better idea," Elffled snapped peevishly. "Why do you want to run all the way to the Mark when you could stay here and be the slave of the Haradrim and Easterlings? Let us turn back and surrender ourselves to the slavers. One form of servitude is as good as another."
Elfhild looked at her sister as though she had desecrated a sacred fane or urinated upon the barrow of Helm Hammerhand. "Oh, Elffled, what silly nonsense!" Elfhild retorted. "If I did not know better, I would think you were enamored of them! That Daungha with his kisses must have stolen your heart!"
Elffled flushed with crimson heat. "That bastard can freeze in the ice pits of Hel for all I care. I just want to eat," she replied sullenly. Every time that horrible man's name was mentioned, she relived her humiliation at his hands.
"I am not so sure of that," Elfhild taunted, raking her brain for an appropriate insult. "Maybe that is why you want to go back... so you can be there waiting for the handsome Khandian cavalryman when he returns from the war. I am sure he would be glad to see you again!"
"Elfhild, you idiot, how many times do I have to say that he holds no interest for me?" Bristling like an angry hen, Elffled crossed her arms over her chest and glared at her sister. "What does he have to do with this anyway? He is not the one who talked us into escaping. Oh, no," she fumed, her voice rising. "It was that shrew Goldwyn who filled your head with wild schemes. Anyone who would believe such rubbish as she spouted must be even madder than she is! I cannot believe I have a lunatic like you for a sister!" As soon as she saw the look of hurt on Elfhild's face, Elffled realized that she had made a mistake, but she had heard enough of absurd dualities and twisted logic.
Stricken to the core by her sister's hateful words, Elfhild stared blankly at the other girl for a long moment before she burst into tears. Wild panic surged up inside her, compelling her to obey a primal urge to flee. Her face burning and tears streaming down her cheeks, she leapt to her feet, turned on her heels and fled into the gathering dusk.
Elffled laughed cynically as she watched her sister run away. Let her pout like a bratty little child! She was a misguided fool, like all the rest of them.
In truth, Elffled had no qualms about forfeiting their freedom to be bond servants. She only argued with her sister in an attempt to show her how absurd her thinking was. A life of servitude might be their only chance of survival, should worse come to worse. Earning their keep by hard labor was far better than disgracing themselves and dishonoring their family by turning to less than honorable means of employment. Right now, though, her thoughts were far from her homeland. Instead they lingered sadly upon her aunt and cousin, who were journeying in the opposite direction.
Sighing heavily, Elffled slumped back upon the ground, lying there as though utterly exhausted. She considered muttering a rather colorful curse, but decided it took too much effort. How could Goldwyn possibly think that they could accomplish anything by running away? They had no weapons and they were not trained in the ways of war. Perhaps if they had the skill and knowledge of the Riders, then things would have been much different. Unfortunately, that was not the case, and they would surely starve upon this senseless campaign. If only Goldwyn had kept her rabble-rousing mouth shut! Then none of this would have ever happened!
Clasping her face with her hands, Elffled dragged her fingers over her forehead and cheeks, stretching the skin downward and letting it spring back up. Guilt was catching up with her, like an opponent in a brutal race. Perhaps she was wrong in condemning her sister. Elfhild did, after all, think she was doing the right thing by adventuring this quest. Maybe it was the right thing. Who was the judge of things like that? The Gods, perhaps, but they did not share their secrets. Would their ancestors have deemed her right or wrong? Who knew the thoughts of dead men from a defeated land?
It was getting darker by the minute, and still Elfhild had not returned. The sun had gone down, leaving behind only her memory in the form of a faint rosy glow which tinted the dark blue sky. Her anger cooling like the evening air, Elffled began to feel sad and lonely. She should not have been so harsh on the other girl and allowed her pent-up frustrations to get the best of her. Of course, Elfhild would never leave her, though that unsettling thought had crossed her mind. Elfhild was just in a pout and would return when she had come to her senses. Back at home, she would run to her grandmother's barrow or hide in the woods when she was upset giving everyone quite a fright when they came looking for her. Here in the wilderness, though, it was not safe to wander alone. Steeling herself, Elffled rose to her feet and walked into the forest in search of her sister.
Elfhild sat upon a fallen log, her elbows digging uncomfortably into her knees, her chin resting in her hands. Her chest ached from the force of her coughing sobs and her eyes felt sandy from the flood of tears which had run down her cheeks. She stared into the mist which had slowly begun to rise along the line of skeletal trees by the waters of the Anduin. The gloominess of her surroundings complimented her mood quite well, and she almost welcomed the darkness of the gloaming as her spirit sank ever deeper into pensive melancholy.
She was being torn in twain, as though two strong men had seized her by each wrist and proceeded to pull her in opposite directions. Elffled would have her turn back and beg mercy from their enemies, and Goldwyn would have her press relentlessly forward. Which one was right? What was the right decision? Or was there one?
She sighed heavily, her heart aching. She felt so lost without her father and mother there to guide her. Though her body had blossomed into that of a young woman, still she felt much like a child. What did she know of surviving in the wilderness and planning great journeys? She had never gone hunting and seldom went fishing, nor did she know aught of fighting. The skills at which she excelled - cooking, cleaning, weaving, spinning, sewing, gardening, gathering herbs, raising hay and wheat, tending to animals, and taking care of a house - were virtually worthless out here in this wasteland, for nothing was growing and most of the animals had wandered off in search of greener pastures. At this stage in the journey, it was too dangerous even to risk starting a fire for warmth or cooking, for the smoke would be seen by the enemy.
When Goldwyn had first talked about escaping, Elfhild had imagined that she and her sister would be traveling with a large group of people. There would have been older women to offer leadership and advice, and doughty lads to help protect them. Actually, Elfhild's troop would have been the ideal arrangement - Goldwyn was an indomitable leader and Waerburh made a worthy second-in-command; Fródwine and Frumgár were strong and courageous boys with a wealth of knowledge in woodcraft and hunting; and Leofgifu was a giver of wise counsel. Elfhild and Elffled could help with cooking and gathering food; even fight if need called. The whole group could help protect little Fritha and Hunig and poor Breguswith.
Elfhild had never expected to journey alone. Of course, they might not have to; maybe they would meet some of the other captives and then they could flee back home together. She could hope... she did that a lot. Maybe that was a bad quality, for oft did her confidence that good fortune would always prevail make her blind to reality. Perhaps that was why she was in this mess in the first place; she had allowed herself to become too wrapped up in Goldwyn's impassioned speeches.
Ah, but she had felt such a powerful feeling of camaraderie then, as though she and the other women were united as one powerful, living, breathing entity. She looked up to the cobalt heavens above her, sighing wistfully as she recalled how brave and mighty she had felt. They were as riders the night before a battle, steeling themselves for the final charge! Honor and glory would be theirs, and their tales would be told in song for many long years to come.
A wavering little smile came to Elfhild's lips when she thought back to the nights when she had listened with rapt attention to Goldwyn's bold conspiracy, as though the older woman were some golden goddess of war and she were an humble devotee. How honored and important she had felt when she had spread the word to the other captives! Goldwyn was such a strong and heroic woman, somewhat like Elfhild's own mother, but far more audacious and daring.
Her mother... Elfhild lightly pressed a hand to her grieving heart and struggled to keep the tears at bay. What would her mother have done, had she not been so ruthlessly murdered? Would she have accompanied her daughters on their flight, or would she have forbidden them from going? It was difficult to say. True, Athelthryth had fought like a warrior to defend her home, but would she have counseled her daughters to risk everything to escape?
Athelthryth and Leofgifu had been the best of friends, and the two women were much alike in their thinking. Would Athelthryth have also considered Goldwyn's plan to escape as foolish madness? A cruel, mocking thought flailed Elfhild's mind with agonizing guilt - would she have abandoned her mother as easily as she had done her aunt? Elfhild's fingers clenched the fabric of her dress as her body slumped forward slightly. No, no! That was unthinkable! Her head swam and she felt sick to her stomach.
"Oh no," she moaned piteously, "what have I done? I have forsaken my own aunt and cousin, and for what? I do not really know... I do not really know." Oh, never in her life had she felt so uncertain, so confused, so frightened!
Elfhild felt the wall of reckless bravado she had raised about herself begin to crumble, and she was a timid, fearful little girl once more. She must run back and beg her aunt's forgiveness! What was she doing here? Her breath was now coming in heavy pants, as though she had run a great race. The trees seemed to grow taller, the shadows deepening, becoming ominous and foreboding. Her fingers trembled and she clenched her fists in a futile effort to still them. Oh, what had she done? What had she done? She ran her fingers through her dirty hair, clutching at the tangled strands.
"I must not panic," she murmured, striving with herself. "I cannot panic! It will serve no use and only make the situation worse!" Closing her eyes tightly, Elfhild took a deep breath, held it, and then released it slowly. She was in control. Yes, she was in control. She and her sister would get back to the Mark. They would find their relatives in one of the refugee camps. Just when all seemed lost, somehow the enemy would be defeated and driven from their land. She would marry Osric, raise a family and live to be a grandmother. Her tale would have a happy ending. Good always triumphed over evil! Yes... yes. That was it. Breathe slowly, deeply, pause between taking breaths. Yes, that was it.
Suddenly Elfhild heard a noise, the muffled sound of a foot stepping down upon a stick. She froze, then relaxed, realizing Elffled had come looking for her. Then the urge to flee came again. Her poor feelings had been raked over the coals by her dear sister, and she was in no mood to talk to the little witch. Springing to her feet, she began briskly walking away.
"Elfhild!" Elffled called, hurrying to catch up with her.
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.