All around the thegn's hall a great number of men and horses were gathered; tall, sturdy men with grim, solemn faces and varying shades of yellow hair, and horses with coats, tails and manes of many different hues of brown, gray and white. A few Riders, men of greater wealth than most, wore bright shirts of mail and possessed fine swords of cunning workmanship which hung from their belts. There were shields of bold colors and bows and arrows, many men carrying instruments that they had used to hunt game for dinner. Other men wielded axes used for hewing timber and knives for everyday use. All, whether poor or wealthy, could afford spears cut from ash, the ends of some carved into wicked points and others topped with a bright head of steel or iron.
Many of the men whose wives and daughters owned horses or who lived within walking distance of the hall brought their families with them, and there were quite a few women, maidens and children who milled about the grounds, talking to their menfolk or to friends and relatives. It had been a while since many of the people had seen their friends and kinsman who lived far away, for seldom did they leave their farms. Though many matters of both small and grave import were discussed, always did the talk of the people return to the King's assembly and the threat of war and battle in far distant lands and as well as their own.
The very air that spring morning seemed charged with excitement, as though a storm were brewing over the fair fields of the Mark. And indeed a storm was brewing, for the black clouds of war had gathered, driven by a baleful wind from the East; showers of arrows and fire would fall from the heavens, and blood would splash upon the ground like rain. As men talked of dire matters grave and deep, many a furtive glance from darkened eyes was cast towards the East.
Anórien lay that way, but beyond it lay the Nameless Land. The first strike would fall against Gondor, many deemed, for that realm was so close to the Mountains of Shadow. The Riders would probably come to the aid of the Gondorians as they always had done, and many thought that after the assembly in Edoras, the Riders would travel to Gondor. But if Gondor fell, then Rohan would be overrun by the endless hordes of the Dark Land. Did the clawed hand of the Enemy now stretch out to wrest the land of the Rohirrim away from them in one fell and bloody stroke?
The people of all free lands feared the Foe of the East, and many were loath to say the Enemy's name or the name of His land, especially in the darkness of the black and lonely night, as though the words would invoke a mighty spell of evil that would be the undoing of all. Orcs were ever encroaching upon the eastern borders of Rohan, assailing the wandering herdsmen, slaughtering the men and taking the women and children captive. Above all the horses that they stole, they found the black ones most desirable, and many were the rumors spoken in hushed whispers of what horrors befell these beloved animals when they were taken to the Dark Land.
No one wanted to wage war against the Enemy of the East, but all feared that war was coming, and the choice was either to fight or be slaughtered. The Dark Lord would smite them as one crushes a vexing and troublesome insect under foot, destroying freedom and bringing all under the yoke of slavery. This knowledge weighed heavily upon the minds of the Riders, filling some with the cold peace that comes when one resigns one's self to dreadful doom, while others were stern and determined, vowing to be courageous and valiant at all times. Some men were frightened and dreaded the worst, and though they tried to hide it and appear brave, their dismay was evident in their fearful eyes and worried glances.
Eadbald led his wife and daughters to the shade beneath a stately old oak and bade them wait for him while he and Eadfrid went to report to their captain and see about obtaining a horse for Eadfrid so he could ride with his father to the assembly. After Eadbald and Eadfrid embraced their family, they took their leave from them. The twins and their mother were once again left alone, though again for only a short while. The last and perhaps final parting was coming soon they knew, and they held back the tears which longed to stream down their cheeks in great rivulets.
To distract their dismal thoughts, Elfhild and Elffled gazed upon all of the men and horses assembling upon the grounds, for never had they seen this many Riders before. Pride and awe filled their hearts and they talked softly amongst themselves about how fine and grand the gallant knights looked upon their magnificent chargers. But these were not the Riders of the King's household; these were ordinary men and boys from their part of the Eastfold, which made them seem all that much more dashing.
Leofgifu, the wife of Athelthryth's brother, approached them, followed by her young daughter, Athelwyn, a lass of around seven. Soon, the two women were deep in conversation with one another about their families, and what all had transpired since last they had spoken. Elfhild joined the conversation, laughing and smiling, while Elffled talked with her little cousin. The rich voices of the women were filled with the excitement of seeing one another again, and they clucked and cackled like happy hens scratching in newly tilled earth. Then their thoughts became troubled and they walked around to the other side of the tree and then a ways. Talking in low voices lest their daughters hear and become alarmed, they spoke to one another about the news that the heralds had brought to their husbands that morning.
As the two women talked, Elfhild and Elffled turned their attentions completely to their cousin, sometimes trying to divine the meaning of what the child was attempting to say, for despite her age, her tongue did not yet have complete mastery of words. Though she had been named Athelwyn, she was often called Hunig, for her hair was the color of honey, and she was a sweet little maid. Soon Athelthryth and Leofgifu returned, and after wishing her husband's family good day, Leofgifu and her daughter vanished across the grass in search of their own kin. Elfhild and Elffled watched them as their forms became smaller and the two maidens wondered if they would see their uncles before the men rode away.
It was as the three sat on the grass beneath the oak that Swithwyn, the daughter of the miller, hailed Elfhild and Elffled from afar, and they rose to greet her. Soon Swithwyn and a small band of other girls, some of them cousins of the twins, stood beneath the tree. A few of the maidens were the same age as the sisters, but most were a few years older. Laughing and smiling, the little group of friends shared tidings of each other's families, and in more hushed tones, Swithwyn and her friends told Elfhild and Elffled all the latest gossip. Then the conversation took on a gloomy note and they asked each other if there would definitely be war with the East, and how would fare the Riders. With heavy sighs, they all shook their heads sadly, for none knew the answer. Yet they dared to hope for the best and put away fears of the worst, for they could not bear the thoughts of their fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, friends and swains never returning to them.
Although Elfhild and Elffled were glad to see their friends, they inwardly fretted about their father and brother. Elfhild's hands nervously fumbled with her skirts and she constantly watched for their return. Then when she espied them from afar, leading both Thunorlic and another horse, her face lit up with joy. Delighted, she bragged about Father and Eadfrid to her friends, and Elffled eagerly joined her in exclamations of praise, the two sisters’ eyes shining brightly as they spoke.
Swithwyn and the other maids greeted Eadbald and Eadfrid, and a few of them smiled shyly at Eadfrid, then quickly averted their eyes. After a few moments, the girls excused themselves and said their farewells, wishing the twins’ father and brother the best of fortunes. Then they meandered back towards the way they had come, seeking their own families.
Eadbald sighed heavily, looking upon each member of his family with sorrow - his beloved wife; his sweet daughters; and his brave son. It was with great hesitation that he spoke, but speak he must, for ever does time pass, though the heart would wish it stand still. "The men will be riding away soon, going off to Edoras," he began, swallowing hard to force the lump in his throat to leave. "We... we came to say farewell." Eadfrid looked to his mother and sisters and nodded gravely.
"Oh, my husband and son...!" Athelthryth clasped her hand to her heart as tears shimmered against the light blue of her eyes. There had been so little time for them to be together, and now it was time for them to part. She felt as though her heart were being torn to pieces.
Eadbald reached for his wife’s hand and squeezed it gently. He struggled for words - something, anything to say that would comfort his family - but words failed him. "These are dark times, but I dare to hope for the best. It brings me comfort to know that Leofgifu and my brother's family live so close; they shall help you, should you need it." Eadbald looked into his wife's eyes and squeezed her hand tighter. How horrible he felt, leaving his wife and daughters behind! "And you have kin who live in the mountains to the south of here... You could go there, if war comes to the Eastfold."
"Hush, do not think of such things!" Athelthryth brought his hands to her lips and kissed them softly. "For if Gondor falls and the Mark is invaded, then all is lost. Please do not talk in such a fashion, lest what you say comes to pass!"
"No," Eadbald abruptly cleared his throat, "we should not dwell overlong on the possibility of defeat. It would give the Enemy much delight to see us lose hope and despair."
"Aye, and we do not willingly grant Him boons!" exclaimed Eadfrid, attempting to look steadfast and brave. The twins smiled, though there were tears in their eyes. How they admired their elder brother in this moment! How courageous he was, how noble!
Eadbald cast a glance at the men and horses assembled upon the grounds. "We must go," he said sadly as he turned back to his family. Athelthryth threw her arms around her husband, and they embraced each other tightly, whispering their love and affection for one another. "Farewell, my beloved," she choked out. "May good fortune be with you in all your ways, as will be my love."
"Oh Father! Eadfrid!" Elfhild and Elffled embraced both their father and brother and kissed them upon their cheeks and foreheads. "We love you so much!" Elfhild exclaimed. "I pray all your journeys be safe and you have victory always in battle, should there be war!"
Elffled brushed away her tears with her fingers. "Farewell and come back to us quickly!" she sniffled.
The twins and their mother gave Eadbald and Eadfrid their handkerchiefs so that they would have familiar keepsakes to remind them of home and give them comfort in the dark days to come. Then after many embraces and tear-filled goodbyes, Eadbald and Eadfrid led their horses across the ground and fell in with the rest of the men.
Athelthryth and her two daughters left the shade beneath the tree and headed towards the crowd of women who had gathered to see the Riders off. As they walked over the grass, a tall Rider mounted upon a great gray horse hailed them as he drew nigh. He was a young man, a few years older than the twins. The sun glinted off hair the color of burnished gold and his mail shirt shone bright silver in the brilliant light. Elfhild's heart skipped a beat, and when it steadied itself, it was beating much faster than it had before. "Osric the Isensmith's son," she thought to herself with a sigh.
The young man alighted from his horse and bowed with a flourish. Elfhild’s heart pounded in her chest like a drummer beating wildly. "Elfhild, sweet maiden of Grenefeld, would you so kindly bestow upon me, Osric the humble son of Oswald the Isensmith, a favor by which I could remember you by and I could take with me into battle?"
"I... I... I would be glad," she choked out, her heart beating so fast that she feared it might explode. Osric smiled at her, and his smile was warm and friendly, and though it was mid-day, Elfhild saw stars shimmering around the form of the Rider. "Osric the Isensmith's son," she thought to herself with a sigh. "Perhaps this shall be the last time I shall ever lay eyes upon him. What favor do I have to give him, for I gave my handkerchief to my father?" Then she remembered the woven ribbon that tied off the end of her braid.
"Here," she said, her cheeks a rosy shade of pink, "take this token into battle with you and may it bring you good fortune.” Her hand trembled as she extended the ribbon to Osric.
"The smallest gift from you would bring the greatest happiness to my heart,” Osric said as he took the ribbon from her hand. “Thank you most kindly, my good lady.” He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it. "And now I must be off. A good day to you and your wonderful family!"
Elfhild floated in a world filled with stars that sparkled in the light of day and spun around her at a dizzying pace. She stammered out a farewell, her hand still tingling from the touch of his lips, as Osric mounted his horse and joined the rest of the Riders. Then she burst out into a fit of embarrassed giggles, her cheeks blushing furiously.
Soon an orderly column of mounted men stood upon the grounds. Captains gave speeches, and the voices of the men rose up into the heavens as they cheered and yelled, shaking their spears in the air. Then a horn was blown and a great cry to go forward was uttered. The hearts of the old men, women, and children swelled with pride as they saw their beloved Riders depart with stern faces and spears held high. Athelthryth and the twins waved to them as they went by, cheering for Eadbald and Eadfrid, Uncle Athelwine, Osric the Isensmith's son, and other close friends and family members.
There went the horse and the rider and the horn that blew, but as to whether there would yet be a harvest in the autumn no one yet knew. Tears filled the women's eyes and sorrow filled their hearts, for they feared that the sun would go down in the West forevermore and all would be covered with shadow, and those who were born in freedom would die as thralls.
Elfhild slowly walked with reverence up the well-worn path that led to the top of the hill behind the little thatch-roof hut. Though the beautiful spring landscape was filled with a sense of peace and tranquility, the pleasant surroundings felt hallowed and commanded a solemn respect. The hill was like Halfirien in the quiet forest of Everholt to the east, though within its green howe had never slept one so high as Elendil. The light of the setting sun shone upon small, rounded mounds covered with flowers, causing the white petals of their blossoms to be touched with bright copper. Lowering herself beside one of the mounds, Elfhild sat with her knees drawn up to her chest, her chin resting atop them.
"All of the men went off to the assembly in Edoras, Grandmother," she whispered at last, pulling her legs closer to herself. "Even Father and Eadfrid, Uncle Athelwine, and Uncle Egbert. I think there shall be war."
There was no reply, of course; Elfhild had gotten used to that long ago. Her grandmother had passed on when Elfhild was only ten, and she still missed her very much. Visiting her grandmother's grave brought her a strange sense of comfort, and she came here many times when she was troubled. Sometimes she would come here to tell her grandmother of a joyous occasion that had happened or was about to happen, or merely when she just wanted to be alone. Her hand gently stroked the cool, rough surface of the marking stone, and she sighed deeply, a great sense of bittersweet melancholy filling her spirit.
"I... I... wonder what shall happen," she stammered, and struggled to say the words out loud. Then at last the tears that had threatened to pour all day streamed down her cheeks like water bursting forth from a break in a dam. Great wailing gasps tore themselves out of her throat and she flung herself upon the mound, the noise of her weeping muffled by the grass and simbelmynë flowers.
Dimly she perceived two presences standing above her. How long they had been there, she did not know, for it seemed that she had spent an eternity weeping in the flowers. Slowly she pushed herself up and sat beside her grandmother’s resting place, looking up blearily at the figures of her mother and sister. Wiping her face with a dirty sleeve, she started to rise, but they sat down beside her. Brúwann the dog lay down at her side, resting his head on her leg as though to comfort her. The three remained there, sitting in silent contemplation, beside the snowy green mound until the sun sank behind the hills in the West and hazy blue twilight gently swept across the land.
On the evening of March 9th, the third day after the men had left, a great heaviness burdened Elfhild's heart and she desired to be alone. The twins and their mother were seated at the table and had just finished eating the evening meal when Elfhild excused herself, saying she was going outside to take some air. She leaned against the side of the house and for a long while she looked west in the direction of Edoras, where her beloved father, brother, uncles, dear Osric, and all the other men had gone. Then her gaze shifted and she looked east, the direction of Gondor, and beyond it the abominable hells of the Dark Land. In her mind's eye, she saw the destruction of all that she held dear, and, trembling, her heart became sorely afraid.
It was at that moment that a black cloud emerged upon the eastern horizon, slowly yet steadily unfolding as a shroud, sealing and entombing in darkness the fair fields of the Mark. The few flickering stars of twilight above faded into nothingness beneath the rolling clouds, and soon a somber, heavy gloom hung above the land. What little light remained of the day was now completely obscured by the evil clouds which belched forth from the fiery mountain in the distant land of Mordor.
Elfhild screamed in horror. War there would be and war was coming; the Lord of the Nameless Land had declared it, and all would be lost.
Tolkien tells us of the military ordering of the Mark, but he does not give us insight on how individual villages were ordered. The northern peoples of Rohan were wandering herdsmen, so the elders of different clans would probably have the highest political/military rank. However, it seems that the people who lived closer to the mountains had structured villages. Since Tolkien was so vague, I borrowed from the Anglo-Saxons here. A thegn would live in a manor and have rule over the surrounding lands and in turn be answerable to another thegn above him, and all would be answerable to the king. Though the Rohirrim are a simple and primitive people, the villages in the south would probably have some form of social/military ordering, though probably far less structured than the Anglo-Saxons. I do not think that Tolkien would have taken too much offense to my artistic license.
Yes, Elfhild is witness to the volcanic cloud from Mt. Doom which went all the way from Mordor to Rohan, and the folk of Eastfold would have been the first to have seen it. "[The cloud] began last night at sunset. From the hills in the Eastfold of your realm I saw it rise and creep across the sky, and all night as I rode it came behind eating up the stars. Now the great cloud hangs over all the land between here and the Mountains of Shadow; and it is deepening. War has already begun." - The Muster of Rohan, Return of the King, p. 74
Leofgifu - A name in Old English meaning "dear gift."
Athelwyn - A name in Old English meaning "noble joy."
Hunig - "Honey" in Old English. When before or after an "i" or "e," "g" becomes soft and sounds like "y."
Oswald - A name in Old English meaning "godly ruler."
Swithwyn - A name in Old English meaning "strong joy." Not a historical name, but my own creation using the "rules" of Old English women's names.