The next morning came with no dawn, and that dark day would later be known to all who hailed from Rohan and Gondor as the Dawnless Day, though there would be no dawn the next morning or the next morning after that. On the second day after the sun had failed to rise, a great sound of men and horses was heard by all the folk in the village late in the afternoon. The women ventured out of their homes where they had cringed fearfully for two gloomy days and a night, and behind them followed frightened children who clung to their skirts. The womenfolk stood beside the road and watched as the dim forms of many Riders swiftly passed by, gasping in awe when they beheld King Théoden and the knights of his house.
Pride flamed up in their hearts, for the riding of the Eorlingas was such a grand and glorious procession, and they had seen naught like it before. Their king was a very likeness of Béma, the god of horses and hunting, and his horse was almost as beautiful as the golden-hooved steed of that god of old. The fierce and fell warriors who followed him seemed like heroes of song and lay, riding upon mighty war chargers who were akin to the great horse-sires which came out of the West in the days of yore. Elfhild and Elffled knelt and bowed their heads as Théoden and his knights passed by, overwhelmed and humbled at the majestic sight of their ruler. Lowly peasants such as they seldom saw any nobility higher than thanes, and even then it was often only from afar. What an honor it was to be in the presence of the King... if only for a few short moments!
The Riders had great need of speed and so their passing was swift, but some of the men slowed a little and called to the women of Grenefeld, giving them tidings of the riding. Gondor had summoned the help of the Mark, for all that land was heavy with the rumor of war, and skirmishes were breaking out all along its borders. An errand rider, 'twas said, had been sent to speak to the King, and he presented him with the Red Arrow.
Their pride soon replaced by fear, the women watched with eyes filled with sorrow and despair as the Riders hastened by them, for they were certain that the men were riding to their doom and all was lost. None of the women, even the eldest, could recall when last Gondor had so desperately sought the aid of the Riddermark, and the fear they had felt since their men first left for Edoras increased tenfold. If Gondor fell and could not hold back the armies of the Black Land, then the Mark would be the next to fall, and then there would be no escape.
An ache deep and intense filled the hearts of Elfhild and Elffled, for they seldom had been sundered from their father and brother for long. Their distress had been great enough when they had gone to Edoras, and now the two men were going to fight in a land the twins considered strange and alien, though its people were friends with theirs and its western border lay less than five miles away. Their hearts were filled to the brink with sorrow, and their pain was so great the feeling was akin to great birds ripping at their chests with piercing talons. The two girls clung to their mother and all three looked eastward with fearful glances whither their Riders had gone.
Every day after was spent in fear and dread, and the twins and their mother seldom strayed far from the house. Then came the morning of the fifth day after the sun was blotted out by the clouds of Mordor, somber and gloomy and as dawnless as all the others before it. Elfhild leaned slightly forward, her hands resting upon the rough surface of the rock wall that surrounded the garth, as she gazed thoughtfully into the darkness. The hill behind the house stood out as a shape of deeper black in the dim light, and Elfhild could not see the path which led to the burial mounds of her grandmother and other kinsmen.
"Hilde?" asked a soft voice and Elfhild turned around. Her sister was there. Somewhere in the gloom, a rooster flew to the top of the stone fence, flapped his wings and bellowed out a lusty crow. "Will you not come in and eat the morning meal?" Elffled implored.
"Very well. I was just struggling to see the sunrise in this accursed darkness," Elfhild sighed.
Elffled bit her bottom lip. She knew the dark murk that covered the skies preyed upon her sister's mind; it troubled all of them. They walked back towards their home. Soft golden light radiated out of the narrow windows of the house, and it was a comforting sight amid the chill gloom. Yet only small solace home and hearth brought, for inside was filled with a great aching emptiness, thick and heavy like the smoke from the brazier; a wistful feeling, as though friends or kinsmen who had sojourned there for a time had just departed for their own homes, or a loved one had recently died and went onto the Halls of the Dead. They missed their father, brother and uncles terribly, but they did not wholly fall into despair, and the numbing grief was mixed with impatient anticipation, for they had hope that Eadbald and Eadfrid and their uncles yet lived and would come back alive.
As the twins reached the door to the house, a breeze began to pick up, gently lifting their hair and blowing it towards the east. The two sisters stood there a while, heedless of the meal which waited inside, for they perceived that some change was about to occur. The skies slowly began to lighten, for the western wind was rolling the clouds back, and shafts of sunlight burst forth from out of the darkness.
"The sun! The sun!" Elfhild gasped breathlessly. "She is shining again! O Mother!" she cried and ran through the door, her sister at her heels.
But yet their mother, overhearing Elfhild's cries, had hastened to the doorway, just in time to meet her two daughters as they rushed through. For the first time since Eadbald and Eadfrid had left, the fear and worry in her mother's eyes was lessened, and her features lit up in relief and happiness. "What joy is this...!" she remarked in wonder.
"The sun is coming back!" Elffled shouted.
Elfhild clasped her mother's arm and jumped up and down. "Something wonderful has happened! The evil clouds in the heavens are being driven away!"
"Then let us go outside and see this joyous thing!" A beaming smile adorned Athelthryth's face, and the three rushed out the door, almost stumbling over each other. Surely this was the miracle for which they had all been praying!
They stood looking up and saw the steady movement of the clouds being driven ever eastward. They were dark wisps now, like black spider webs, tattered and torn, clinging but having nothing to which to cling. Behind them was a pale blue sky, and it was like a new thing to the three. The breeze was pleasant and felt clean and new, a change from the stale air beneath the murk, and the land seemed to breathe a great sigh of relief. Now the sun shone clearly, free of the shroud which had been laid over the heavens, and once more her beams began to warm a land which had lain five days in darkness.
"Come," cried Elfhild, "let us dance!" She took her sister's hand in one of hers and her mother's hand in the other. Her mother and sister joined hands and they danced upon the grass, singing joyously at the return of the sun.
Somewhere, perhaps, battle waged on far distant fields before the dark gates of a White City, which Elfhild called Mundburg in her own tongue. But now all shadows had been chased away by the blessed light of the sun, and with the return of her light, Elfhild was certain that the tides had turned and mayhap Gondor and Rohan could vanquish their fearsome foe at last. She thought it glorious, for battles to her were the exciting adventures told about in songs and lays, for she was young and knew not the true sorrow and horror of war. She broke away from her sister and mother's grasp, spinning and twirling over the grass until she became dizzy.
"Elfhild!" Athelthryth laid a hand against the door frame for support. "Be careful, lest you fall!"
"I think--" Elfhild gasped for breath, "I think something wonderful has happened. This must be a sign, an omen. Perhaps the Riders have been victorious!" She looked at her mother and sister, her eyes shining and slightly crossed as she tried to focus on their spinning forms.
"I believe they have been, Hild," Athelthryth smiled, "or at least I hope so. I, too, shall take this sunlight as a sign that all is not lost as we had feared. See?" She pointed up at the sky. "The west wind strives with the east wind, and the west has won the battle."
"Aye," Elfhild exclaimed, "and the battle which the Eorlingas fought in the Stoneland will be remembered for many years to come in song and legend. There will be tale after tale of brave deed upon the field of battle--"
"And, oh," Elffled blurted out, interrupting her sister, "we shall all sit around the brazier as Father and Eadfrid tell them to us when they return!"
"Aye!" exclaimed Elfhild. "The Riders will return, victorious and triumphant, and the sounds of the heralds blowing their horns and shouting the tidings of the victory shall be heard from afar. The banners shall be lifted high and proudly, and the white horse shall flap and flutter in the wind like a bird on a sky of green, and around the necks of the Riders and the saddles of their horses shall be garlands of flowers, placed there by the grateful folk of the Stoneland!"
"Oh, how glorious it sounds!" cried Elffled.
Her mother clapped her hands in joy and leaned up against the side of the house. "Hear, hear! May what you say indeed come true, Elfhild!"
"Father and Eadfrid shall return as heroes and warriors, and with them shall be all the men and lads in the village; Osric and his brother Oslaf and their father Oswald, Old Man Fastred and his old gray horse, Swithulf the Miller's son, Cuthwine the Dark-Haired, Herebold and his father, and all the other fellows and their kin, and even poor old Wini the Simple shall be accounted among the brave. Oh, I know this will be true! I just know it!" With that, Elfhild burst into tears and sat down heavily upon the ground, holding her head in her hands and weeping both from joy and sorrow.
A smile spread across Elffled's face at her sister's words, and soon she and her mother were sitting on the grass beside Elfhild. Wini was one of the sons of a neighboring farmer, and the lad had always been fond of Elffled, though he was dreadfully bashful and prone to stuttering. He was not a bright fellow; dull-witted in fact, for when he was a small lad he had been kicked in the head by a horse, and he had not been right ever since. Though he was a hard worker, he was always slow and clumsy. Ánfald he was called, that is "simple"; and other names as well, some far less kind. Elffled liked Wini and felt pity for him, but she loved him only as a friend, though she suspected he held a deeper affection for her.
Elffled had never felt strongly for any young man in Grenefeld, for she felt that they were all rather dull. Sure, many a youth had told her that she was pretty and gave her rakish winks, but she had never felt the stirrings of love in her heart for any of them. They would probably make good husbands and fathers, but they simply did not interest her. None of these simple peasant boys seemed like the fascinating lovers whom she conjured up in her daydreams. Then, too, none of them were as handsome or strong as Osric, but her sister had her heart set on marrying him.
Elffled often fantasized about marrying a man from a distant and more interesting village, or better still, one from a great city like Edoras or Aldburg. Doubtless such a man would be absolutely fascinating, and he could tell her of things which lay far beyond the little village of Grenefeld. The fellow would be even more appealing if he were rich, too, but a poor girl such as she had little chance of finding a wealthy husband. Ultimately she would probably just marry whomever her parents suggested, and settle down into a placid, boring life as a farmer's wife.
Elfhild's thoughts were far different from those of her sister and she daydreamed of when Osric would come back to the village, the victorious warrior returning from the field. Oh, how she prayed for Osric's safety! She longed to see him again, to hear his pleasant voice tell her tales of the battle, to see his ruddy face light up with laughter. Maybe her father would allow them to wed when he came back.
A marriage between the two would be beneficial for everyone, for Osric's family had more wealth, and the union would form an alliance between the two families. Elfhild did not think that the brideprice would be too expensive, for her family was fond of the Oswaldings, and she doubted her father would have any objections to such a proposal. In her mind, she had already set a date for the marriage - Midsummer Day, just after her birthday.
But Osric had not yet returned, and Elfhild dared not consider the possibility that he might not, for she felt such dire thoughts would bring him ill fortune. He would return to his village and so would her father and brother, or so she had convinced herself. Elfhild's heart swelled and she sighed deeply as she sat with her chin in her hands, her eyes glistening.
The three sat upon the grass in silence, each thinking her own thoughts, whether they were pleasant daydreams or worried cogitations filled with fear and sadness. Perhaps their happiness was in vain, but they had to do something to keep from falling into despair, and so they dared to harbor precarious hopes, whether they were true or false.
At last Athelthryth broke the silence. "This sunlight is indeed a blessing; one oft overlooked in times of peace," she commented, a wry smile upon her face. "Our hearts have been lightened, but now the time of celebrating draws to a close, for we must tend to the animals and the garden."
The three rose to their feet, and it felt as though a great burden was lifted from their hearts. But suddenly doubt fell over Elffled and a wave of vague and unknown dread passed over her. Yet the sun still shone, and it seemed that hope was kindled once again. She smiled and followed her mother even though her heart was still ill at ease.
The day passed in a golden haze of heady bliss. The chickens were lively again, shaking off the lazy sluggishness that had set in due to lack of light. A young black and red cockerel and an old and short rooster of black and white feathers both desired the same hen, a slender gray bird with a buff breast. She was more like a rooster, for her comb was tall and her wattles long, and sharp spurs she had grown upon her bluish gray ankles. When angered at another hen whom she thought was lesser, her hackle feathers would rise and she would fight just like a rooster.
The two roosters were sparring now, locked in conflict, but the black and white one was a gentle bird whereas the other was fierce, and so the big rooster soon took flight on his short little legs. The sleek red and black cockerel pursued him for a short distance, then crowed triumphantly and returned to claim his prize for winning the fight. Eadbald was especially proud of this rooster, and had thought about fighting him, but he was young and small, and his strength would be the lesser should any man possess one of the fierce fighting cocks which had to be staked out by tethers on their ankles lest they slay all other roosters whom they perceived as threats.
Elffled sighed as she thought of her father, and looked towards where he had planned to dig their new well. Feeling the pangs of tears in her eyes, she quickly rose from her seat upon one of the logs in the woodpile. Briskly she moved to where the hen had her nest between the logs and a scraggly bush. Her hand shot out like a striking snake and quickly grasped the feathers on the back of the chicken's neck, so the bird would not peck her while she fetched the egg beneath her warm body. After she released the hen, the chicken clucked angrily and her yellow-red eyes seemed to glare as she readjusted her position upon her nest. Elffled began to walk back to the house, but she paused in her journey. Her gaze was drawn eastward, and she squinted into the distance. Somewhere many leagues far to the east 'twas said stood a sparkling White City. But she could not see that far, and only saw rolling hills and endless fields broken by rows of trees.
The next morning, she had awakened before dawn, her sleep troubled by dreams of a dreadful storm. Through eyes still bleary with weariness, Elffled turned and saw that her mother and sister had already risen. Yet no light trickled in through the windows, and all was dark in the house, save for the soft glow of the brazier. "What is wrong?" she mumbled, rubbing the sand from her eyes.
"The darkness has returned, Elffled," her mother replied quietly, her voice grave.
"What?" Suddenly Elffled was wide awake.
Athelthryth stood before the window, her arms across her chest. "Your ears do not deceive you. Come, and see for yourself!"
Elffled rose and walked over to the window. Her mother moved aside so she could see. All was dark, and though it was morning, once again the lands lay under murky twilight. She remembered the feeling of unease she had the day before, and knew that some great evil had come to pass.
"What do you think has happened, Mother?" she asked fearfully, looking to her. "Should we flee to the mountains?"
"I do not know." Athelthryth's voice wavered when she spoke.
"Perhaps the clouds will go away again, as they did yestermorn," suggested Elfhild, the perpetual optimist.
"Perhaps not." Athelthryth shook her head. "I fear something horrible has befallen, some great doom. The clouds are gathering. The storm will soon follow." Her voice broke and her tone sounded hoarse. "The hope of yesterday was false, and we have been betrayed."
A shiver ran down Elfhild's spine and Elffled shuddered, remembering the fell storm in her dream; the winds howled balefully as blinding walls of rain fell and drenched the earth, and the crack of thunder had been like mighty drums of war, the lightning like explosions of white fire.
"Do you think Father and Eadfrid are safe?" Elfhild asked, her voice soft and filled with worry.
Athelthryth bit her lower lip and put a shaky hand to her forehead "I pray that they are," she sighed. But hope seemed an impossible thing in the darkness which crept over both the heavens and the heart, and despair clung to the spirit like inky drops of oil.
This chapter, just like the two before it, is deeply rooted in canon. After the Dawnless Day (March 10), all the land from Mordor to Rohan lay under a black cloud from the East until the morning of March 15, the day of the Battle of Pelennor Fields. However, in this alternative universe, even though the western wind blows away the clouds which obscure the sun, Pelennor is still won by Mordor, for Éowyn and Merry fail to kill the Witch-King of Angmar. From this chapter onward, the story becomes complete alternative universe.
Oslaf - An Old English name meaning "godly/divine" and "survivor/legacy/sword" (the meaning of láf is uncertain).
Fastred - One of Tolkien's names meaning "firm/steadfast" and "counsel/wisdom."
Swithulf - An Old English name meaning "strong wolf."
Cuthwine - An Old English name meaning "known friend."
Herebold - An Old English name meaning "army bold."
Wini - An Old English name meaning "friend."
Ánfald - "Simple" in Old English.