2. Gathering Fernheads
The first few days of my free time I reacquainted myself with the farmstead and its people. I remembered old Siglaf as one of my uncle's shepherds, taking the flocks up the mountainside every summer. Now he was too old and bent to sleep in the high pastures; his son, my old playmate Sigelm, had taken his place. Another day I spent watching the men work on the steading's wall. Fossdale had been peaceful as long as I had known it, for it lay close enough to Helm's Deep to be sheltered from the raids the Dunlendings indulged in near every summer. But my uncle did not intend to rely on the Deep's protection alone, now that there were rumours of a full Dunland army on the move. Every moment that could be spared from the shearing and baling of fleeces, he and the farm men worked on the palisade. New pine logs were felled, stripped, and driven in to replace weak posts and strengthen key points. The cut ends at the top were rough-hewn into harsh, splintery spikes. The gate had been reinforced, and now it was kept shut even during the day, something I had never seen before.
The next day I was at loose ends, my feet fell onto the path upstream, and I wandered far beyond the small home fields and pastures to the wilder, wooded end of the dale. Here there was a small glade where the dark stream ran chuckling over stones in its shallow bed, then fell silent as the water widened into a deep brown pool. The sound of the high falls at the head of the dale was a constant presence in the background, like a strong wind rushing through the trees even on a still day. This had been my favourite place as a child, and I was glad to see little change. The white birches that lined the pool were taller, of course, and a lightning-struck fir tree had fallen to lie aslant the bank.
I sat down on the dead tree, sifting my fingers through the thick drifts of dead brown needles that had fallen from its branches. Spring was coming at last. The narrow blades of iris leaves were beginning to poke out from the earth, and the buds on the ash trees were soft and black as a horse's muzzle. I closed my eyes and let the silence sink into my bones. It was so hushed that the sudden sound of sobbing seemed as loud as a shout.
I looked over my shoulder. The sound seemed to be coming from my old hiding place – who might have discovered it? Stepping quietly on the layered pine needles, I approached the wall of the dale.
Close against the cliff, a massive pine had died and rotted slowly away from the center, still standing but only as a shell of bark. The hollow trunk had been my childhood stronghold, where I could lay hidden from everyone, especially my younger brother. Now I could hear more muffled sobs coming from within. I hesitated, unsure whether to disturb whoever was inside. After all, I had come here in the past for solitude; whoever had sought out this bolthole now surely didn't wish for company or sympathy.
While I debated, the choice was made for me. A small face popped out from the dark opening in the bark and I saw that it was Hereward, Leofwyn's son.
"Hello, Hereward. This used to be my hiding place a long time ago, when my family lived here every summer." I could see that he had been crying from the clean streaks down his dirty face, but I had never been at ease with children, and didn't know whether I should ask what was troubling him. "I'm going to sit by the water for a little while. You're welcome to join me if you wish." I turned back, but before I reached the pool I heard the crash of someone hurtling through the brush behind me.
"My mother's dying, isn't she?" He glared at me. "Isn't that why you're here?"
I stopped. "Hereward, no! Your mother's been very ill, but truly, she is recovering. She needs rest now, that is all."
His face crumpled. "I didn't know what was wrong. All the women kept shooing me away from her room – I heard them whispering – and, and I couldn't ask Elric–" He turned away from me, his back heaving.
Treating him like a skittish, half-broken colt, I laid my hand very lightly on his shoulder. "Elric loves you, Hereward, and he should have told you about Leofwyn without your asking, but his days have been full busy. I'm sorry that you were frightened for your mother. Believe me when I tell you that she is in no danger of dying now."
"But they all said – it's the same thing Elfrith had. I heard them."
I took a deep breath. "Yes, my mother died of this sickness when it passed through Edoras five winters ago, and so did many others. But many people recovered from it too– my brother, my father, even the King, all took ill and lived to be healthy again." Though Théoden, at least, never fully recovered… but that was nothing Hereward need be concerned about.
He twisted around to look at me, more clean patches showing on his cheeks where he'd rubbed off grime along with the tears. "What about you? Did you not get sick?"
I shrugged. "No, some folk never did. I was one of them, and the King's sister-daughter another. A good thing, too, or there'd have been no-one to empty the slop buckets – which is what you are supposed to be doing right now, isn't it?" Hereward grimaced in disgust, distracted from his fears as I'd hoped. "After supper and your chores this evening, come to your mother's room. I promise she will be well enough, and very happy to see you."
* * *
The next day, I awoke before dawn for the first time since coming to Fossdale. Late nights spent at Leofwyn's bedside had left me sluggish and slow to wake in the mornings ere now, but today I felt as fresh as water bubbling up from a spring. The air was brisk but not cold, and I decided it was a fine opportunity to search for the first fern shoots of the year in hopes of tempting Leofwyn's recovering appetite. I was about so early that not even the man posted at the gate was awake yet; smiling at the sight of Siglaf snoring on a stool beside the wall, I gently shook him awake. "I'm going to gather fernheads, Siglaf. If anyone asks, I'll be back in time to see to Leofwyn's breakfast. Do you need my help to close the gate?"
"Nay, mistress Elfled, we'll leave the gate be for now. Any moment Sigelm and his dog'll be along to take the shorn ewes and their lambs up the mountain."
I found a damp and shady spot I knew of far upstream, where the water ran close to a great brake of blackthorn bushes. Beneath their spines, the tight spirals I was in search of grew sheltered from the farm's roving goats and other hungry grazers. I had to pluck the tender shoots directly into my gathered skirt, for I'd forgotten to bring a basket. I had almost filled my makeshift bag when the odd quiet in the dale struck me; there was no sound but the rush of the water over the falls. Surely by now the sheep ought to be bawling as they were herded into the shearing pen? The ewes always set up a din in futile protest at being separated from their new lambs.
I straightened up and looked down the dale, shading my eyes against the rising sun with my free hand, and felt sickness churn in the pit of my stomach. A thick ribbon of black smoke twisted slowly into the sky from the place where Fossdale stood, hidden by trees. Fire? How could the steading so suddenly be alight?
I heard the bleating of animals at last, coming closer, before the small herd of brown-spotted goats my aunt kept for milk burst over the hill and scrambled up the streambank towards me. How in the world had they gotten loose? Then a runner burst into view, chasing them up the dale. He stopped short as soon as he saw me standing between the thornbrake and the stream. My grip on my skirt loosened as I stared back at him stupidly, and the fern shoots scattered on the ground at my feet.
He was a Dunlending, by the dark hair and eyes and the blue tattoos spiralling around his bare arms, and he was looking for spoils. He carried a long knife at his belt and a spear in his hand, and his whole face below the eyes was blackened, in the manner of their warriors when they go raiding. My whole body shuddered from head to toe, as if I were feverish. The raider saw my fear and grinned, his teeth flashing white between the dark painted lips. Clearly he'd decided that the goats weren't worth pursuing any further. He said something that sounded like Cha isnyik forgoilya and made little herding motions at me with his spear, shooing me away from the stream. I stared at him, frozen into stillness like a deer who hears the hunter's footfall. He came almost within a spear length of me before I suddenly woke from my stupor and flung myself to the left. Caught off balance, the Dunlander hesitated for one thumping heartbeat – barely enough time for me to dive headfirst under the tangle of thorn bushes.
A hand clamped around my ankle, and my breath escaped in a sharp shriek. I flailed further into the stabbing hedge of thorns, kicking and twisting, trying to scrape off that implacable grip. Here at ground level, most of the branches were dry and dead with hardened thorns as sharp as steel needles. I tore off the longest one I could reach and lashed out behind me blindly, too terrified to look back and see how close he was. I must have hit him somewhere, for he shouted and released my ankle, and I shot forward into the midst of the thicket. As I crouched panting in the tiny hollow in the centre of the bushes, thorns bit into my arms and tore my skirt. I could hear the man's harsh breathing and frantically tried to remember whether he had carried an axe as well. Surely he wouldn't blunt his knife trying to cut through the tough brambles? I ducked my head, trying to see underneath the branches, and bit my tongue as my head was jerked back – my braid had caught fast in a tangle of thorns. Sobbing and whispering curses, I yanked at it until a clump of hair tore away and I was free to lay my chin on the earth and peer through the lowest branches.
There were his dirty leather boots. Some of the mud looked strangely red, and glistened. I shut my eyes and swallowed. He kicked at the ground and shouted, "Forgoil bitch!" Then he trailed off, muttering Dunlendish under his breath, mixed with oaths in the tongue of the Mark.
I waited just long enough to make sure that he had not merely feigned to leave in order to draw me out. Much as I wanted to hide in the thicket's relative safety, I could not stay, like a shaking rabbit in a snare, to see whether he would return – perhaps with more raiders – to burn me out. I dropped flat to the ground and squirmed out on the other side of the thicket. Passage in this direction was slightly easier, but my hands and face were still painfully stabbed by dozens of little needle thorns. Once out of the blackthorn brake, I ran into the shelter of the deeper woods and dropped behind a fallen log to gain a space to think.
I did not know what to do. Even were I a shieldmaiden, one against a Dunlending reiver band would be a hopeless stand, and the solid black pillar of smoke meant that the whole steading was likely on fire by now. Yet I had to know whether any of the farmfolk still lived.
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.