The Circles - Book One - Chapter Twelve - Of Valor and Sorrow

The Circles - Book One - The Triumph of the Shadow
Chapter Twelve
Of Valor and Sorrow
Written by Elfhild

The soft, ever-changing amber glow of flickering campfires pierced the darkness at the side of the road where the orcs and their captives had set up camp for the night in a grassy field. This would be the first night that many of the prisoners had spent outside of their own realm, for now they had come to Anórien and the Riddermark lay behind them. Though the lands east of the Mering Stream had once belonged to Gondor, the Firien Wood had been considered for long years as the domain of the kings of Rohan.

To keep their charges corralled and under thumb, the orcish guards had forbidden the women and children to mingle with those outside of their own troops. As they ate the evening meal, Elfhild and Elffled looked around at their fellow captives. There was Breguswith, a tall woman, plain yet pleasant of face, and her five-month-old babe. She and her husband had lived to the west of Grenefeld, but the twins knew little about that family. Their son, the first child of their marriage, had only been three months old when the muster had been called. Breguswith grieved for her husband and called herself a widow, for she was convinced that he had fallen somewhere in the South. The twins prayed that he yet lived, though in truth they both feared that the forces of both Gondor and Rohan had been utterly worsted in the South, and all save a few men had been either killed or captured.

The tiny lad seldom was allowed to nurse for very long on the journey, and the poor child was often ill-tempered from hunger. All the women thought that both Breguswith and the baby looked too thin, and so they had torn off sections of their own bread and given them to her when the orcs were not looking. Elfhild had gladly given Breguswith the extra bread and meat which she had received that evening. She felt she did not need such a large portion, and she resented the reason why the orcs had doled out so much to her. "Fat rumps and big breasts, indeed!" Elfhild had huffed. "Perhaps I should starve myself just to spite the orcs and the Higher Ups!"

Goldwyn hailed from the village of Grenefeld, where she had enjoyed a life of prosperity as the wife of Fasthelm, a woodworker of great renown. Fasthelm came from a long line of skilled carpenters and cabinetmakers who, over the years, had developed a reputation as being among the most skilled artisans in the Eastfold. Everyone in Grenefeld knew of Fasthelm the Woodworker, and the war had caused the fame of this illustrious family to grow even more. Despite his advanced age, Fasthelm's father, Old Man Fastred, had mounted up his old gray horse and ridden off to battle back in the spring.

Earlier that day, Goldwyn's youngest son had been taunted by Sergeant Glokal. Though all the captives in the troop despised the tall, scar-faced orc, perhaps she was one of the ones who hated him the most, for he had frightened her son into humiliating himself. She had three sons in all: Fritha, who was five; Frumgár, who was eight; and Fródwine, who was eleven.

Waerburh was a married lady who was in her thirties. She had no children like Breguswith or Goldwyn, which perhaps was a good thing, for no one, much less children, deserved to face the perils of captivity and slavery. Waerburh and her husband once lived on the southern outskirts of Grenefeld, but like the other two women, their family had only been acquaintances of the Eadbaldings, and neither Elfhild nor Elffled knew them well.

The women in Elfhild's troop told tales of sorrow and woe, recounting their losses and small triumphs against the orcs. A fierce pride flamed up in the hearts of the captives, for they felt like Riders who had been sorely tried in battle and passed all tests of a true warrior. However, only two days had they spent in captivity, and their fiery spirits had not yet been completely cowed by the creeping, withering plague of despair.

Goldwyn had just finished telling of the struggle her young sons put up against the orcs when their home had been raided. The lads had balled up their small fists and struck at the raiders, dodging their grasping hands and kicking them in the shins. When at last the fiends were to seize their small, clever-footed assailants, they had bit the hands and arms of their captors. All the women praised Goldwyn's sons for their acts of bravery. The boys beamed, their faces flushed with pride.

"Oh... 'twas nothing; any Rider would have done the same," Fródwine, the eldest boy, said at last, dismissing the praises modestly, but a grin was upon his face. Hunig looked to him and his younger brothers with wide eyes filled with awe.

"Aye, they would have kept fighting if I had not pleaded for them to stop." The smile upon Goldwyn's face slowly faded as her thoughts became grim and somber. Yet she forced herself to smile once again, for she did not want to give in to despair before her sons and the other women. "I fear they are not yet men, though they think it," she chuckled.

"But I am not far from manhood," protested Fródwine. "I am eleven, and I know that some of the lads who went off to battle back in the spring were barely thirteen."

Goldwyn laughed again and teased her eldest son, as though they were back at home and not being held prisoner by the orcs. Though there was no hope, still the captives tried to keep heart, until the bitter lonely night darkened and no solace could be found for their troubles. More praises were given by the women, and the boys felt like heroes of old, more like knights than lads. At last the excitement began to slow and gradually a thoughtful silence descended upon the troop. Soon the only sounds that could be heard were the soft noises of bread being chewed and swallowed.

"We have all told our tales, but you, Elfhild and Elffled, have yet to speak," commented Waerburh. "What brings you to our sorry lot?"

“The orcs killed our mother and took us captive,” Elfhild replied sadly. “We tried to fight them off, but there were just too many. At least Mother was able to kill one before she was struck down.” She faltered as her eyes began to fill with tears at the dreadful memory. Clutching her arms tightly to her chest, she shivered and rubbed her limbs as though she were cold. Trying to comfort her niece, Leofgifu patted her back and drew her close.

"I am sorry," Waerburh murmured.

"My mother died bravely," Elfhild smiled through her tears.

Elffled sat a little distance away from her sister, watching her as she spoke with Waerburh. Her shoulders sagged as a keen sense of longing filled her heart. For a moment, she felt as though she were home again, sitting around the brazier with friends and relatives, but she knew that this was only a pleasant delusion. The plight of the captives was dire indeed. Where were they being taken? The orc sergeant had called them slave wenches, and Elffled knew from rumors that both horses and people taken in raids upon the East Emnet were forced to toil in thralldom in the Dark Land. No one knew, really, what befell them there, for few dared to venture into that evil realm, and no one who was taken there as a prisoner ever escaped. The orc sergeant had said that the only use of the captives was to bring pleasure to the lords and nobles of the Dark Land and its many vassal states. Tears began to sting Elffled's eyes. She did not want to spend the rest of her unlucky days as some Easterling's whore!

Trying to distract herself, Elffled looked to Goldwyn's three sons. Their bread quickly eaten and long gone, they sat together on the damp grass at a slight distance from the women. Hunig had joined them, and the four children tried to amuse themselves with softly spoken word games. Elffled smiled slightly to herself as she watched the children, her heart aching with a bittersweet yearning. Lately she had found herself missing her own childhood, for it had been a simple time of blissful peace and happiness, surrounded by the warmth and love of her family. Each passing year had been filled with endless days of wonder which seemed to last for long ages of the earth. Yet in truth they passed all too quickly, as dandelion seeds sent fluttering wildly through the air after being stirred by the slightest puff of breath. Now the days of her childhood were naught but a broken, barren plant wilting in her hand.

Feeling much older than she really was, Elffled turned her gaze away from the children and looked back towards her troop. Her eyes fell upon Waerburh, who was listening to Elfhild tell of the attack upon their home.

"Greatly have our folk have suffered at the hands of the invaders," Waerburh sighed. "Others were slain by the orcs – just as your mother – when they fought back, even little children. I heard that the orcs slew many of the old and infirm, for the murderers deemed them too feeble to make a long journey. Such wicked, cruel folk, and we find ourselves at their mercy!"

"Elfhild and Elffled, both you and your mother were so brave!" Breguswith's voice was soft, her eyes wide with awe. "I could not fight, for it would have brought peril to my son's life." She looked down to the small, sleeping baby upon her lap and then back to the women.

"They gave me no time to fight," Waerburh commented ruefully. "I was sleeping soundly and could do little more than scream ere those fiends were upon me, dragging me from my home."

"I am quite proud of Elfhild and Elffled." Leofgifu looked to the twins and gave them an encouraging smile. "Athelthryth slew one of the accursed fiends, and Elfhild avenged her mother’s death by killing her murderer. Many others were wounded by their hands."

"I would trade any victory for Mother to be alive and the world to be as it once was," Elfhild said in a soft, sad voice.

"I do not believe anything shall be as it once was," Waerburh lamented. "The world has been changed forever, I believe, and we look now at the end of all things which we held dear."

"The men have all died in honor and we women are left to die in slavery," Elfhild complained bitterly. "Would that I could have died like my mother, my body consumed by the fires so that no fiend could defile it!"

Elffled looked to her sister, her moist eyes warm with compassion. She took Elfhild's hand in her own, her calloused fingers stroking around the scratches which streaked her sister's flesh.

"Ah, Athelthryth!" murmured Leofgifu, shaking her head sadly. "She would never have been able to abide slavery, for her spirit was too wild and fiery to be tamed. Greatly did I love her, though we were not kin, and perhaps I admire her moreso now than ever."

The twins beamed at their aunt, their hearts swelling with emotion. "I could just imagine if Mother had been taken captive," Elfhild mused, seeing the scene in her mind. "The orcs would have to tie her to a tree to keep her from fighting, for she would be upon them in a moment."

"And even then they would have to listen to her screams and curses," Elffled added with a little smirk. She knew full well the power her mother's voice had wielded, and how intimidating it could be. Both she and her sister had been the targets of many a tongue lashing, as had their brother and father.

Elfhild sighed deeply. "She would have done anything to protect us," she murmured, thinking back to her childhood, and how protective her mother and father had been of her and her siblings. "She died trying to defend us, and greatly do we mourn for her. Her deeds deserve to be remembered in song, but I have been too weary from the march to craft but a few lines.”

“Could you tell us what they are?” Leofgifu gently prodded, and Elfhild shyly recited what she could remember of the eulogy she had been drafting in her head.

O for Athelthryth, Athelstan's daughter
Bravely did she fight, dying in honor
A shieldmaiden's death, death of a warrior

"Perhaps more words shall come to me, but naught can truly describe Mother's bravery, or our sorrow," Elfhild lamented.

"I think that these words honor your mother quite well," said Breguswith, her voice tender and comforting.

"A hundred years could pass and our hearts would still be in mourning," Elffled sighed, her voice filled with sadness. Were her father, brother, uncle, and friends dead as well? How many would she have to mourn? Her aunt? Her cousin? Elfhild? No, no, she could not dare let her thoughts stray there!

Breguswith nodded. "I know." She thought of her husband. "I think we all do."

Leofgifu looked around at the group of captives who sat near her. "We have all suffered much," she lamented, sorrowing for the evil lot of the women and children. Yet she knew she must be strong and brave for the sake of her daughter and herself. And was it not the tradition of her people always, no matter how dire the days might be, to remain firm and steadfast? Yet she felt neither strength nor valor, but instead a strong sense of ominous doom. Still, it was never good to give vent to the fears that lay submerged in the heart and in the mind, for once they were allowed to escape, they would destroy as surely as an enemy.

"Look at us!" she exclaimed, a derisive tone to her voice. "What a woeful lot we are! We sit around as though we were thieves caught with our hands upon a clutch of stolen eggs. Let us not dwell upon our plights! Do not let our captors see us sink so low."

Hunig, who lay with the side of her head nestled upon her mother's thigh, was close to tears, but she stifled the whimper that came to her lips. "Mother," her voice trembled, and her sluggish tongue stumbled over her words, "I am afraid!"

"We are all frightened, my little one." Leofgifu looked down to her daughter's face and gently tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear.

Hunig twisted her head so she could look up at her mother. "But I never stole eggs in my life!"

This brought a deep chuckle to her mother's throat. "No, you never did, thankfully, and I do not think that you would find any eggs here to steal even if you wished."

The women and children could not stifle laughter at those words. Fródwine, who sat near Hunig with his brothers and mother, snorted in amusement. "You look like an egg thief to me."

Hunig raised herself up into a sitting position and turned to glare at Fródwine. "What do you know?" she asked contemptuously. "You are just a lad!"

"Maids," he commented, as though he were a wise sage, "are flimsy things. What can they do of any use? They cannot fight. They can wield neither sword nor spear. All they do every day is sit and play with their dolls!" He made a face.

Hunig was growing angry, and as it always did when she was excited, her tongue began stumbling over her words. "And what do boys do, Thodwine?" she countered, mispronouncing his name. Thrusting her head and shoulders back, she gave him a burning stare. "Boys can only boast and do naught else!" She tossed her head with a haughty shake, her hair flowing the way an angered horse twists its tail.

Fródwine rose to his feet and stood in front of her, looking down at her arrogantly as though he considered her slow and foolish. "You did not say my name correctly. Are you mocking me? My name," he declared pompously, annunciating his words firmly and clearly, "is Fród-wine!"

Hunig stood up and faced him, her hands upon her hips in a saucy manner. "You do not deserve that name, silly boy! Tádewine shall be your name. Tádewine, a toad's friend, for you are nothing but a slimy toad and a boor! The way your tongue darts in and out of your mouth, always talking, always boasting, you could use it to catch flies! At least there, you would have some good use!" Looking at him triumphantly, a smile flickering upon her lips, she folded her arms and held her head high, a contemptuous smirk upon her face.

"You are silly, Hunig," Fródwine's youngest brother proclaimed, squaring himself up for battle, "very silly. My brother is not a toad."

"You are sillier than I am, Fritha!" Hunig was defiant, daring the younger boy to meet her in battle.

"Stay your temper, Fritha!" Fródwine ordered importantly. "I will handle this matter!" Then turning back to Hunig, he retaliated, "Maybe I am a toad, but you are the one who has the warts! You have them all over your hands, and I daresay that next you will have a long ugly one dangling from your nose."

Hunig looked at him as though she had been struck with a hammer in the middle of her forehead. "You are evil, rotten, like an apple that has gone sour in the bottom of the barrel!" she retorted. "You are vile, beastly, and definitely not a gentleman!" Indeed, Fródwine's words had been true, for her hands were covered with unsightly warts which she had caught from milking the family cow. Hunig’s lower lip trembled, her small face puckering up into a frown, though she tried to hold the tears at bay. Her honor had been sullied and she was dreadfully humiliated. She hid her wart-covered hands behind her back and glared at Fródwine.

"Maids," Fródwine spat in disgust. "Say one word to them and their faces turn into a rushing river of tears. There is simply no understanding them. All of them have heads that are hollow like a drum, good for nothing except to make noise!"

The women, in spite of themselves, roared in laughter at this childish tournament. The children's argument had broken the feeling of tension, and the women were glad of this most welcome diversion.

"My head is not a drum!" Hunig exclaimed hotly, trying not to be outdone.

With that, Fródwine stood there, shaking in laughter, while his younger brothers laughed so wildly that they pounded their fists upon the ground.

Frumgár, the middle brother, refusing to be left out of the fray, taunted, "Drumhead, drumhead!"

Fródwine had laughed so hard that he was out of breath and held himself around his middle, gasping for air. "Let us beat her!" he cried when he finally stopped laughing, "and we shall see if she makes a good drum!"

Teasing her, he lunged towards her. As she backed away, trying to evade his grasp, she squealed, "Mother!"

"Lads," Goldwyn spoke calmly and quietly, "let her be. Do not torment her so!"

"Mother, I was only jesting," Fródwine protested, his voice defensive. He then looked at Hunig, a mischievous grin on his face. "But I shall make amends." With that, he bowed to her, a graceful, sweeping bow, causing her to glare at him all the more.

"She still has warts," Fritha muttered under his breath, looking quite innocent.

"Mother!" Hunig howled.

The orcs lolling about their campfire and enjoying their orc draught soon became irritated with the laughter and childish banter. The sergeant swaggered over to the group of captives and snarled at them. "Keep your yapping traps shut! You will drive us all mad with your jabbering! If I hear one more loud voice from this quarter of the camp, the offenders shall be punished. Mark my word!" he threatened, looking down at the little group and shaking his fist at them. "Not another peep out of you! Go to sleep all of you, you gaggle of squawking geese and your brood!" He gave them a disdainful growl and bared his teeth. Then he turned away and walked back to the radiating glow of the orcs' campfire.

More out of fear of punishment than reluctant obedience did the captives follow the order of the orc sergeant. With talk forbidden, the women and children had little to distract themselves from their woes, and they keenly felt the weariness of the day's march. Limbs were stiff and aching and many of the captives willingly sought relief in sleep.

In the stillness of the night, fear, sorrow and despair became living, breathing things, like shadow-creatures which lurked about, seeking their prey among those without hope. Tears welled up in Elfhild and Elffled's eyes, and they quietly wept until their eyes became too heavy and filled with sand to stay open any longer. Then they slept the deep and dreamless slumber of the weary upon this desolate field so far from home.

Above the clouds, the icy beauty of the stars Varda had placed in the sky long ago shone brightly, though their light was veiled. Those far away who still dwelt in safety and freedom had received tidings of the war and were afraid. They murmured a prayer of protection, but the emerging stars only looked down at them, cold in their high seats in the heavens, immovable, unimpassioned, uncaring. Still the Elves prayed and sought out with their sharp eyes the Valacirca, the Sickle of Doom.