The 6th day of March in the year 3019 of the Third Age under the Sun
The eastern sky was afire in golden white light as the sun began her daily journey across the wide girth of the heavens, ever looking down upon the endless leagues of the world. Everywhere in the Eastfold of the fair land of the Riddermark were the harbingers of spring: the once barren branches of trees were laden with buds and the endless sea of grasslands began to rise and become steadily greener, snowy flowers dotting the emerald meads like the hoary caps of waves. The air was filled with the smell of growing things and the sounds of birds singing their welcome praises to the sun, who had finally chased away the dark and dreary night of winter. The warm shafts of liquid gold spread out as the moments of dawn passed, touching gently upon the endless plains and rolling hills, the silent forest of Everholt to the east and the wooded hills to the south which rose steadily higher until they became the vague dark snow-capped shapes of the White Mountains far in the distance.
The straw-thatched roof of the little house shone golden yellow in the soft light of the early morning, and all around the garth, chickens scratched the ground, cocks crowing proudly and hens cackling happily. Beneath a large oak tree beside the house, a yellow-haired maiden milked a cow. The sound of two streams of fresh milk rhythmically hitting the bucket created a lively tune in that early March morning. Every now and then, the cow would look back towards the little house, fretting about her calf, which remained in a small pen inside. Lost in daydreams which flitted through her mind like butterflies in a flower-filled meadow, the girl dreamily hummed the strains of a cheerful melody as she milked, her head leaning against the cow.
He was a tall young man, strapping and brawny, with a chest like a stone wall and arms as strong as the anvil upon which he pounded red hot iron into tools and knives, sending up showers of white sparks. His skin was ruddy, that is when it was not covered with soot and perspiration, and he had wavy hair of burnished gold which he wore in braids. His eyes were blue, and not just light blue, but a piercing shade of azure, like the crisp and defined color of the autumn sky. Indeed, his face reminded her of October, for his bright eyes shone out from his ruddy face like the brilliance of the sky peering out amid the flaming leaves of autumn. She sighed deeply, her heart feeling as though it would burst, and even if it did, she would not care, for she would be borne away to the halls of her fathers on a gentle breeze made of pure bliss.
A sharp tug to the loose, messy braid that hung down her back brought her back to the waking world. "Elfhild! At the rate you are going, the milk will be curdled ere you ever finish!" exclaimed the voice of a youth in the language of the Rohirrim, a tongue deep and rich. "Thinking about the Isensmith's son again? You shall not make Osric a good wife, for you would gawk at him all day like that and he would surely starve to death!"
Her freckled cheeks rosy with embarrassment, Elfhild quickly turned around and glared at her older brother. "Eadfrid! 'Tis not polite to sneak up on people! And quit talking about Osric your heart is like a cold stone and you know naught of the matters of love!" she scolded sternly. Her response was in the same sonorous language in which her brother had spoken, for the people of the Riddermark seldom used the Common Tongue of the West except when they had dealings with Gondorians or men from other lands.
Eadfrid stood looking down at her, his features set in a teasingly arrogant expression. "Ha! If I were as addle-brained about all the pretty girls as you are about Osric, I will spend my time daydreaming on the battlefield and surely an orc arrow would find my heart!" Though he had never even seen a battlefield, he imagined himself as a brave warrior just aching to be tried in the heat of the fight.
"How very somber and gloomy!" Elfhild remarked. "You speak as does an old man! Where has your spirit gone? The fancies and joys of youth?" she asked, her blue eyes squinting slightly as she spoke, her voice filled with passion. "You fill your mind with thoughts of death and battles, but I prefer to think about love and peace." Though the threat of war was always upon the Rohirrim and when there was battle, they delighted in it, considering it sport, Elfhild preferred not to think about such things, for when there was fighting, the men rode away and the women were left alone.
"Talking neither gets the cow milked nor the well dug," a quiet voice murmured drolly. Elfhild and Eadfrid both turned towards the direction of the house. From out of the dim recesses of the partition in which the animals slept and supplies and tools were stored another girl appeared, carrying a basket half-filled with eggs. She was identical to Elfhild in appearance for they were twins, and just like her older sister, Elffled had straight hair the color of straw, sky blue eyes and a heart-shaped face with a splash of ginger-colored freckles across her nose and cheeks.
However, despite their identical appearances, Elffled and her sister had very difficult personalities. Elffled was a quiet, shy girl, while Elfhild had a more gregarious disposition. She was fond of talking, and doing so often. This trait, matched with a strong stubborn streak, often got her in trouble with her parents. It was during these times that Elffled sat back and gloated at her sister's displeasure, all the while smiling sweetly at Mother and Father. Though their parents loved all three of their children equally, both sisters vied for their parents' attention, Elfhild by hard work and diligence, and Elffled by dulcet words spoken from a honeyed tongue. The two squabbled as much as they gossiped with each other, and were enemies as much as friends.
"I am off to the woodpile to fetch the eggs laid by that silly hen who has made her nest between it and the scraggly bush," Elffled said smugly as she left her sister and brother, a certain subtle lightness in her steps at the self-righteous thoughts of catching sluggards busy in their idleness.
Eadfrid shrugged and the handle of the pick slung against his shoulder shifted slightly. "Well, Father is probably in a quandary no doubt as to where I am, wondering if he is to dig our well all by himself. I go now to do an honest man's work," he grinned proudly, looking remarkably similar to one of the roosters who strutted over to scratch beneath the oak tree, "not sit around and daydream like certain silly maids." He eyed Elfhild sternly, and she made a face, sticking out her tongue. Shaking his head, he sauntered off. "Sisters! Bah!" he spat with disgust.
In the past, the family had gotten their water from a spring between the two small hills behind the house, but the small stream often became a mere trickle during the hottest weeks of an uncommonly dry summer. Therefore, Elfhild's father had decided to dig a well near the house so they would always have an abundant supply of water. The largest creek nearby was a short distance away, running out from between two larger hills and traveling towards the Mering Stream.
Elfhild and her family were poor peasants and did not own much; not even their own lands. However, this lack of wealth hampered their happiness little. They had a horse, a cow, several chickens and a pig. They always had plenty of milk and eggs, and the twins' father and brother would hunt small game and deer. In the fall, the pig would be slaughtered, and the calf might find that fate as well, or be perhaps traded for something else at one of the market days in the nearby village of Grenefeld.
A small orchard of a few scattered fruit trees grew in the fields on either side of the lane that led to the little thatched-roof house. In the late summer and fall, the apples would become ripe, their green skin turning to spotty red, the sour bitterness of earlier in the season being replaced by a sweet and delicious flavor. Bees always buzzed about the bases of the trees, attracted by the fallen apples, and oft a bare foot was stung if one was not careful. Vegetables, milk, cheese and butter were stored in the root cellar that had been dug in the side of the hill behind the house.
The twins' father and brother would help other peasant farmers tend to their crops in payment for allowing them to borrow oxen to plough their fields, and for use of the farmers' bulls when the cow was in heat. The family would often work for others in exchange for wool, thread, thimbles and other things which they needed, and chickens and vegetables were traded for other supplies. The sisters and their mother would spin the wool into thread and weave clothing for the family, and the girls often gathered herbs in the copses of trees which grew upon one of the two small hills behind the house; some herbs to add seasoning to broths, some such as yarrow to staunch the blood from a cut or to relieve the pain of a toothache, and others such as lady's bedstraw and lavender to ward off fleas in their house and make the straw smell sweeter.
Life so far had been good to the twins. Their parents loved them and they had many friends in the small village. Their father, Eadbald, was a man serious and sensible by nature, but his blue eyes would crinkle up in laughter when his heart was filled with mirth. Though he could be stern at times, his daughters were rather skilled at wheedling and usually got their own way. There was nothing that Eadbald would not do for his beloved daughters, and, consequentially, they were rather spoilt. The girls idolized their father. He was their hero and there was nothing that he could not do, at least in their eyes.
His wife was Athelthryth, a hard-working woman who was good-natured, cheerful and kind. She had a fiery temper, though, and they often quarreled with each other. However, their love for each other had never diminished in the years of their marriage. Having wed at a rather young age, she had always treated her children as friends, never belittling them as some adults are wont to do. When they were younger, she had played with them after all of the farm chores were finished. She made the girls soft, sweet-faced dolls and crafted dresses for them from leftover scraps of material. Using wooden swords which Eadbald had whittled, she sparred with Eadfrid just like one of the boys. When the children had grown older, she advised them and gave them encouragement when they were sad.
Eadfrid was, well... Eadfrid. Like most older brothers, he loved to tease, taunt, torment and terrorize his little sisters. They were an endless source of amusement. How comical they looked when they were indignant and outraged about some heinous "crime" that he had committed, like sneaking up behind one of them and pushing her into a stream, or pulling their braids, or dropping a slimy, squirmy earthworm down the back of their dresses! Like most siblings, the three fought like cats and dogs. However, Eadfrid truly loved his little sisters and would never hesitate to protect them if they were in danger or avenge them if someone hurt or slandered them.
Her milking finished, Elfhild rose from her stool, a section of log from a tree which had been hewn down from one of the hills behind their home and made into firewood. Walking back to the house, she set the milk bucket upon the straw-covered floor of well-packed dirt and retrieved a crock and a piece of muslin. After straining the milk by pouring it through the cloth, Elfhild carried the now full crock out of the house and into the root cellar. Closing the door behind her, she stepped back out into the warm sunlight.
The birds sang and the sun shone and all the world was bright and cheerful with the sudden birth of spring and the promise of summer. Then the light of the sun was dimmed slightly by a passing cloud and a chill breeze blew from the east. Elfhild shivered and her footsteps hastened towards the house. Her mother was working on the plant bed, and Elfhild knew she would want her and her sister to help.
The faint sound of hoof-beats could be heard - a horse was coming steadily nearer upon the road, galloping at a fast pace. Elfhild lingered by the oak tree, her eyes studying the north. Soon, she was able to espy a fast-moving horse. Strange, she thought, for their household was the furthest east upon this road. Perhaps it was a lost kinsman of one of the families who lived towards the west, she reasoned, but then the rider turned into the lane leading to the home of the Eadbaldings.
The rider was soon lost to her sight, for from this vantage point, she could not see the front of the house. The man's arrival was greeted by the sound of the barking of Brúwann, the family's brown and white spotted hound, but the dog's voice seemed happy and not fearful or protective. Curious, Elfhild abandoned the tree and walked around the side, where she saw her mother and sister speaking with the rider. The man was one of her own people; perhaps one of the young men from the village. Elfhild breathed a sigh of relief - for a moment she had felt anxious, because in the summer of the year before, there had been rumors of fell black riders thundering through the Wold and East Emnet. No one had known what they were, and all had fled before their coming, fearing that war with the East followed in the wake of their galloping steeds.
Elfhild emerged from the side of the house and began to walk over to where her mother and sister were standing, but when her mother saw her, she bid her stop and fetch Eadbald and Eadfrid. Her mind trying to sort out this strange new mystery, Elfhild turned and retraced her footsteps to the tree, where she saw her father and brother walking towards her, haste in their steps. She called out to them, telling them that her mother had summoned them and that a rider had stopped at their house. They told her that they had heard the sound of an approaching horse and then silence and soon after had abandoned the well to see what the matter was.
Elfhild followed her father and brother, and soon the whole family was gathered together to listen to the news this rider brought. "I bring tidings from the West!" the young man proclaimed. "Saruman declared war upon the Mark, but has been defeated! Ten days ago, on the 25th of February, there was battle at the Fords with orc-men from Isengard and in this battle Théodred was slain. Then four days ago, King Théoden and the men of Edoras rode out from the city to assail Saruman, but a great force set out from Isengard and the men holding the Fords were worsted. Hearing word of this, the King and his men then rode to Helm's Deep. The orc-men of Isengard and the Dunlendings advanced, burning the Westfold and soon besieging the Deep. Then two days ago, Théoden led a charge out of the Deep and Erkenbrand's men attacked from the side."
The man paused to catch his breath, and then began to speak again, looking somewhat skeptical. "This is the message the king's herald bid me to take, strange though it may be," he said with a tone of disbelief in his voice. "It is said that during the siege, a forest of giant trees grew up in the Deeping Coomb, and the retreating orc-men sought shelter beneath their boughs. This unusual forest disappeared as quickly as it had come, and with it went all the orc-men."
The Eadbaldings looked amongst themselves. Elfhild and her mother glanced at each other with wide eyes, both recalling the legends of old which told of giant tree-people. Eadfrid and Elffled did not quite believe the story and regarded it with raised eyebrows and doubt like the rider. Eadbald, however, waited with anticipation for the rider to continue so he could learn more of the happenings in the west. When her thoughts returned back to the tidings which the young man had brought, Elfhild shook her head in disgust at the betrayal of the White Wizard. Saruman was once a friend of the Mark! The trust of an entire land was broken by a double-minded wizard of wicked heart.
The rider cleared his throat, and all attention was turned back towards him. "After the battle," the man began again, "the king and his escort went to Isengard to parley with Saruman. Messengers were sent out to bring news of the victory and to bid all able-bodied men to assemble in Edoras the second day after the full moon, the 10th of March. An éored composed of men from Grenefeld and the surrounding lands and villages is being mustered at the thegn's manor in preparation to ride to Edoras."
"Assembly in Edoras!" exclaimed Eadbald. "Do you know if war stirs in the East, as it did in the West?"
An apologetic look came over the young man's face. "I regret to say that I do not know. All I know is what the king's herald told the thegn, and what the thegn told me. But perhaps when we ride to Edoras, we shall learn more."
Eadbald and the rider exchanged a few words, and then the rider gave his farewells, bid the family good day, and then was off just as quickly as he had come.
When the retreating form of the rider grew small upon the horizon, Athelthryth turned to Eadbald, asking with concern in her voice, "What do you think of this? Do you think there will be war with the East?" Her brow wrinkled in concern, she worried her lower lip.
"Oh, I hope not!" cried Elfhild, horrified. "Perhaps the King only wants to take number of his men, for there was just a war," she suggested hopefully, but doubt filled her heart.
"I do not know," Eadbald said sadly, shaking his head, "but it seems the threat grows more and more. We have defeated one foe, but another more perilous encroaches upon our borders. Many of the wandering tribes to the North have abandoned the East Emnet because of the forays of the orcs from across the river. They steal our horses and take captive our people, yet we are not at open war with the Enemy. Perhaps this is a harbinger of evil to come, and our lands shall be attacked - or those of Gondor. But perhaps naught will come to pass, and after the assembly, I shall return in peace."
"Oh, Father!" Elfhild cried, and she ran to embrace him, clutching him tightly about the middle.
Eadbald gently stroked his daughter's hair and rubbed her back comfortingly. "Oh, Elfhild, do not worry - whatever shall be, I will come back," he tried reassure her, but there was a slight quaver in his voice.
Elfhild raised her head, looking up into her father's face. Tears were in her eyes, and she held him even tighter. "I love you," she whispered, laying her head on his chest.
Elffled slipped around to her sister's side. "Please come back to us," she pleaded softly, embracing both father and sister.
"I will, my daughters," he repeated. "When the King gives us all leave to return to our homes, I will ride back like the wind!" He chuckled lightly and squeezed his daughters in a tight embrace, and they smiled amid their tears.
When his sisters had stepped away from their father, Eadfrid approached him, his face tense with determination. "Father, pray let me ride with you!" he begged earnestly. "I am good with bow and blade, and mayhap one of the villagers would allow me to borrow one of their horses, for we have only Thunorlic, and he is too old to carry two."
"Aye, my son, you shall ride with me," Eadbald beamed in pride and put his arm around the youth's shoulders, drawing him to himself. "Come, let us saddle up Thunorlic, and then we shall go to the village!" He patted his son's back affectionately and then stepped away.
"Oh, Eadfrid!" the sisters cried, almost in unison. The pair rushed towards Eadfrid, each in her turn hugging him; Elffled smothering his face with kisses when she got her chance.
"Why, I have not even returned in victory and already the maidens throw themselves upon me!" Eadfrid laughed as he mussed his sisters' hair, yet his eyes glittered with tears which he could not hide.
Whilst their children laughed and cried, Eadbald and Athelthryth stood slightly apart from them and talked with one another in hushed tones, expressing the worries they had, whispering softly lest their children overhear and become afraid. They withheld the fullness of their fear from one another, even though they both knew the terrified thoughts which raced through each other's minds just as clearly as they would had the words been spoken out loud. Eadbald and his son could both fall upon the field or along the way, and dread of this slowly seeped into the hearts of all present like an evil creeping murk. Yet though they were filled with doubt and trepidation, Eadbald and Atheltryth spoke not of the matter, lest the mere mentioning of such dire things would bring ill fortune.
After embracing and kissing his wife for long moments, Eadbald turned away from her, but her hand upon his shoulder stayed his feet. "Pray allow us to go with you and watch as the men ride away to answer the summons of the King," she entreated, looking upon him with pleading eyes.
"Aye, please take us with you!" cried Elfhild, hopping from one foot to the other in her excitement.
"We shall cheer as our two fine knights ride away." Elffled smiled one of the sweetest smiles she had ever smiled in her life, a smile calculated to melt her father's heart and thus allow her to get her way.
"Any boon would I grant such a wonderful wife and two blessed daughters! But the next thing I expect to hear is that you will also wish to ride with us into battle as well!" Eadbald laughed.
"You know if I could, I would follow you," Athelthryth's voice lowered and a look of stern determination came over her face.
"And we would too," Elfhild proclaimed, speaking for both herself and her sister.
"By Helm! A family of Shieldmaidens," Eadbald shook his head, chuckling, "and with tempers as fiery as a dragon's breath as well! The orcs would turn tail and run like the wretched curs they are back to the Deorcland if they were to face you three in a battle, thus robbing us men of sport and leaving us naught to fight!" The two sisters and their mother laughed heartily, their spirits glad for a change in the somber mood, though the mirthful diversion would only last but a little while.
When the laughter and jesting had stilled, Eadbald turned to his wife. "My beloved," he brushed away a stray lock of light straw-colored hair which had escaped her kerchief, "be not afraid, for we shall return to you and the twins."
"I shall watch for your return every day, and look to the East with more than just the hope of the coming of dawn." Tears glistening in her eyes, Athelthryth leaned her face against the touch of his hand. Her world was crumbling apart, and she was helpless to do anything about it.
"And you shall see us coming from the distance, lest the sun fail to shine and Middengeard be plunged into darkness," Eadbald murmured, pulling his wife into a tight embrace and kissing her almost desperately. A timorous smile flickered across her face and her cheeks glittered with light reflected off newly shed tears. Eadbald smiled back at her, kissing her brow and squeezing her hands, then turned to leave. His son was soon at his side and the two went to saddle up the old farm horse and gather what weapons they had.
Soon Athelthryth stood alone upon
the lane with only her two daughters by either side. They drew
close to their mother and their hands slipped around hers as they
looked to her face with worry and concern. She could only embrace
them tightly and whisper the same empty words of promises that
their father had done, but naught could assuage the fears that
consumed the hearts of all three like the black blight of some
evil plague that leaches health and hope away and replaces them
with emptiness and despair.
Though this is an alternative universe story, this chapter would fit in with the Canon. On March 4, 3019, "The King then chose men that were unhurt and had swift horses and he sent them forth with tidings of the victory into every vale of the Mark: and they bore his summons also bidding all men, young and old, to come in haste to Edoras." -The Muster of Rohan, The Two Towers, p.149-150. Since it would take a while to get the word out to every village and Eadbald's family lives close to Gondor, I allowed two days for the spread of information to get around to them.
Everholt - The Firien Wood.
Grenefeld - A fictional village in the Eastfold (grene = green; feld = field in Old English.)
Isensmith - "Iron smith" in Old English; a blacksmith.
Brúwann - Meaning "brown" in Old English.
Middengeard - Middle-earth (or this world in which we live) in Old English.
Deorcland - "Dark Land" in Old English.
Thunorlic - Adjective meaning "of thunder" in Old English.
Elfhild - A variation of the Old English name Ælfhild. It means "elf battle." Théoden's wife was also named this name.
Elffled - A variation of the Old English name Ælffled. It means "elf beauty."
Eadbald - An Old English name that means happy and bold.
Eadfrid - An Old English name. The first part means "happy" but "frid" is unknown. One source says it might be related to the Old English word "frith" which means "peace."
Athelthryth - A variation of the Old English name Æthelthryth. It means "noble strength," and is probably pronounced "Athelthruth," since "y" sounds like "u" (ie. "Stybba" the stubby pony), though no one today knows the exact pronunciation of Old English.
Osric - An Old English name that means "godly ruler."
It should be noted that Old English names with the runic symbols of "thorn" or "eth" have been converted to "th," just as Tolkien did with names like Théoden.