I heard my father's voice in the hall and rose from my seat at the loom. His presence in the workroom was unusual enough; the question he asked me next was even more surprising. "Elfled, can you travel to Fossdale?"
"I would need to speak to Goda about the tapestry loom, and I have a length warped on my own as well," I said. "Why do you ask? What's amiss?"
He drew me aside into the corner. "Your uncle has sent to ask for you. Leofwyn is ill with shaking fever, and with the shearing and lambing none of the household is free to nurse her."
I hesitated, torn between affection for my uncle's wife and the need for every pair of hands here. "I could leave in the morning," I said slowly, calculating how long it should take to finish my work. "But you know we are behindhand with the weaving, since so many of the women have left Edoras. Are you certain that Leofwyn needs me?"
"Speak to the man Elric sent, and judge for yourself. But for my own sake, daughter, I wish you to go there where it is safer."
"Safer? Truly? You have warned oft enough that Saruman may no longer be trustworthy, and Fossdale lies close to Isengard."
My father shook his head. "I do not know whether any part of the Mark will remain safe for much longer; but even if Saruman does betray us, in the end our true enemy is in the East. The heaviest stroke will come from there, and it will fall on Edoras. I want to see you far from here before that day comes."
"I would far rather stay, and face whatever fate may come with you and Halred. Edoras is a strong place, and has seen many battles."
"It has, yet all strong places may be overthrown. Your brother and I must ride out to defend the Mark in the last battle, whenever and wherever it comes; it would comfort our hearts and strengthen our arms to know that you were safe elsewhere. You are no longer of an age to be commanded, Elfled. I can only ask. Will you go to Fossdale, and stay there until I summon you to return?"
To hear Hàma, Doorward of Edoras, plead in such a tone was unknown; I could not stand against my father's wishes any longer. "Since you ask it, I will go in the morn. If Leofwyn has the shaking fever, at least I shall be of some use there."
"It is hard to send you away, Elfled." He gripped my shoulders and pulled me into a fierce, brief embrace. "I would that you could remain with us too, but the world cannot always go as we would wish. Give my greetings to your uncle and aunt. Farewell, take care, and may we yet live to see the Mark at peace and the King's honour restored."
* * *
I worked late into the evening before my task was done, for I was too far into the length of wool I was weaving to let another finish; the line where hands had changed would look unseemly and so I hurried to complete it before the lamp guttered out. Then I untied the warp from the top beam, folded the length and set it aside with the other woolen cloths waiting to be fulled. The great tapestry loom I could not unwarp, but that task must wait anyways; everyone would be far too busy with plain weaving to spare it a moment for many weeks to come. Only the ice-blue sky and the snow-covered peaks of the mountains were visible yet; but when finished the cloth would show Helm Hammerhand standing frozen on the Dike. I yawned and picked up the lamp to light me to my chamber.
Passing through the great hall, I slowed as always to brush my fingers across the tapestry of Eorl crossing the Silverlode. This was the last hanging that my mother had wrought before her death, the first that I had helped her with. Together we had drawn the pattern, woven it, and chosen the best place in the hall for it, where the afternoon sunlight illuminated but would not fade it. I stroked Felarof's streaming tail again and went to pack my saddlebag for tomorrow.
It seems passing strange to me now that the Great War entered my life with a simple request and a short journey; at the time I thought it more of an inconvenience than anything else.
* * *
And so I was ahorse early the next morning, riding for Fossdale with my brother and Siglaf, my uncle's messenger. Though the Eastern marches were much troubled by Orcs, an uneasy peace still held in the Westemnet, so that a woman and an old man could travel safely with but one armed companion. We rode at a steady pace all that day, following the horse road that hugged the slopes of the White Mountains on its way north to the Deeping and Westfolde, and stopped at a lonely farmhouse for the night.
On the second day, a few hours after noon, we reached a broad wooden bridge over a quick-running stream flowing down onto the plains. Here we turned aside from the road, and followed the water upstream on the left bank. Now we rode more slowly, with loose reins, giving our horses the freedom to pick their own footing on the trail. Though well beaten, it became narrow and rocky as we rode higher, where the stream had bored and twisted its way through outcrops of granite. So early in February, spring had not yet come to these lands, higher in the mountains than Edoras. Dark pine forests clad the upper slopes, but the birch trees growing beside the stream were still bare of branch. The pale snowdrops starring the ground beneath them were the only sign that a milder season was on its way.
We followed one more bend in the stream, and at last the narrow walls of the dale opened out into a wider valley. There was uncle's steading, tucked under the mountainside; I could see kitchen smoke rising from behind the palisade, and people passing back and forth across the open gateway. Before us, the sun had turned towards its setting, and as we came to the gate its light shot past the mountain peaks in a last burst of fire, kindling the smoke and the farmyard dust into a burning haze before my eyes.
My uncle Elric greeted us briefly before handing me down from my horse and ushering me into the farmhouse so quickly that I had little time to note any changes to the farm. New thatch on the stables and a pump by the watering trough in addition to the old well seemed to be the only details that my six-year-old self would not have recognized. We passed through the hall, my riding boots drumming a quick pattern on the flagstones as I tried to keep up with Elric. Nothing at all had changed inside; the same hangings on the walls, the same wooden trestles and benches polished by long use sat next to the hearth. Then we passed into the rear chamber, where a low bed pulled close to the fire was layered with blankets and coverlets, and the illusion of timelessness vanished the moment I saw my aunt's face.
Leofwyn was well-named, for everyone loved her, and in her youth she had been accounted the beauty of the Westemnet. My uncle thought himself fortunate indeed when she agreed to marry him, though as a young widow with a son she might have been considered a less desirable bride. When I first met her, she had been a statuesque woman, crowned with a wreath of braided hair the colour of ripe wheat. Now she was so thin that her body barely lifted the covers; her cheeks were gaunt and there were blue hollows under her eyes. I had to bend close to hear her voice, weak and raspy from the racking bouts of coughing. "Elfled… thank you, child. I wish your visit could be happier… How long will you stay with us?"
Taking Leofwyn's thin hands in mine, I smiled at her, hoping the shock I felt was not visible. "Halred must go on in the morn, but I'll stay until you've tired of me, aunt. What can I bring you? I think a little comfrey tea would soothe your throat."
* * *
In the morning I rose early to bid farewell to Halred, who was in the saddle and eager to be off. This was the first long journey he'd been fit to make since being wounded in the Eastemnet three weeks ago. "Ride warily," I told him, clasping his knee. "Your shoulder is still healing – you cannot wield a blade for long."
Halred laughed. "You are too anxious, Elfled. I bear messages, not arms, on this journey. I'll be back at Edoras without drawing sword from sheath, worse luck."
Automatically I crossed my fingers to avert ill-wishing. "May you speak truly. Give father our uncle's greetings, and tell him I shall stay at Fossdale until I hear from him."
Halred lowered his voice. "Will Leofwyn live?"
"I trust so," I answered as quietly. "She is very weak, but she does not have the worst kind of the shaking sickness, or she would have died ere Elric had time to send to us." I lifted my hand from his leg and stood back. "Ride in health and honour, Halred."
"Farewell, sister!" Halred urged his horse forward at a quick trot, raising his uninjured arm in salute without looking back. I stood and watched until he disappeared behind the trees.
Leofwyn is an Anglo-Saxon name which translates roughly to "loved one".
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.