The night was dark and all was still, save for the occasional peeping of the chickens roosting in the window. The embers in the brazier softly glowed in the darkness of the house, and smoke slowly curled up through the hole in the top of the thatched roof. Mixing with the smell of wood smoke was the scent of dried herbs which were thrown down upon the straw-covered floor in an attempt to repel fleas and sweeten the stale air. Wrapped tightly in warm blankets, Athelthryth and her two daughters slept peacefully upon a large straw mat, Brúwann the hound nestled against Elffled's back. It was unseasonably cold this night in late May, for the light and heat of the sun was still obscured by the clouds from the East.
Life for the twins and their mother had been a hardship these past three months. To try to conserve their waning supplies, they ate little and often went hungry. The grasses and shrubs were dry from the drought, and they had to pasture the cow and her calf further and further away from the house, an unpleasant chore which everyone dreaded. The pig made do scavenging for roots, but seldom did he get any scraps from Athelthryth's table. Any remainders of a meal that were not consumed by the family were given to Brúwann, but he ate considerably less now, and his ribs showed beneath his dulled coat.
The creek had gone dry some time back, but Athelthryth and her daughters were too frightened to dig the well in the darkness. Her husband's undertaking remained abandoned, the pile of excess dirt from the digging left untouched like a burial mound set aside for the memory of better days. Instead, they obtained their water from Leofgifu, who had a well which went deep into the springs of the earth. Athelthryth and the twins often stayed with Leofgifu and her daughter, or with the family of Eadbald's brother, Egbert, for there was comfort in the closeness of family ties during this dark time.
There was little hope now that the men would return, except perhaps as wandering wraiths in the dead of night. The uncertainty was a withering blight upon the senses, for Athelthryth and the twins knew not whether to mourn for Eadbald and Eadfrid, or to imagine them alive and well, fighting somewhere in vague lands to the South. As times grew more desperate, tempers grew thinner, and the sisters often bickered with each other and their mother. Athelthryth struggled to keep her small family together, but it was growing more difficult. Every day she worried about the time when the food would run out. What then? She could go to her neighbors for help, but their cupboards were rapidly diminishing, too. Still, though, she never turned away any traveler who came begging for food or shelter. Somehow they would survive.
Elfhild tried not to think about the war and busied herself with other matters, for she dared not fall into despair. She had always tried to make the best of any situation - no matter how horrible - and find pleasant ways to distract herself and those around her from sorrow and grief. Now more than ever she needed to be strong like her mother. Yet she still felt like a frightened little girl who missed her father, brother and uncles most desperately.
The night wore on. Elfhild's dreams were of better times, and in her sleepy thoughts, she and her family lived their lives as they always had, tending to the animals and the garden. The grass was long and green, shimmering silver as it bent in the wind, and the land was lit with a misty, golden haze. She giggled and laughed as she rode Thunorlic at a canter, the tangled yellow mess of her hair bouncing up and down as the horse's hooves beat the dusty path towards the village. A stray chicken feather which had been caught in her hair dislodged itself from the unruly, knotted strands and blew away in the wind.
The sentry lay dead upon the withered grass; his horse, unnerved, ran to and fro in the darkness. Keen eyes pierced the gloom as many feet moved quickly and stealthily, darting around the great boles of the trees. "Halt! Who goes there?" the gruff voice of another sentry demanded before his life was snuffed out like a candle. An arrow twanged from a bowstring, and a body fell to the ground. A silent tension brewed like a spring storm in the still, heavy air.
The night wore on. Athelthryth murmured her husband's name in her sleep, her brow furrowing and her eyes twitching from beneath closed lids. She turned over on her side and then was still.
The horses were nervous; the riders could feel their bodies tense beneath the saddle. One steed snorted and then shied sideways. Struck by arrows, two men toppled from their skittish mounts. In response, their comrades blindly unleashed arrows into the darkness. Shadows stirred beneath the trees and soon took shape. There was fighting on the western eaves of the silent forest of Everholt, but the sounds of steel against steel did not whisper in the Whispering Wood.
The night wore on. Worsted in the fight, the riders were forced to retreat to the north and their enemies gave chase. No tidings of peril would reach the village that night. Heavy boots thudded against the dry ground. Elffled's sleep was restless and filled with vague dreams that were unmemorable but yet somehow troubling. She thought she felt Brúwann stirring, his body nudging against hers as he rose to his feet. He was restless and she sensed that he was pacing about the little hut. The hound whined every now and then, but soon he returned to the straw and lay down beside her with a sigh. Some time later, she heard him again, more distinctly this time, growling at something in a low, deep sound of warning.
Elffled turned over and rubbed her eyes. Brúwann continued to growl into the darkness. "Hild," she mumbled, pushing her sister slightly. "Wake up. The dog is upset."
Elfhild stirred and sat up. Brúwann growled even louder and began to pace before their straw bed, his steps quick and furtive, his brown eyes darting back and forth to the door. Something about his movements was very disconcerting, and Elfhild became alarmed. After three months lived in a state of almost constant fear, anything out of the ordinary frightened her. "Mother," she whispered urgently, shaking her mother's shoulder. "Something is wrong."
Athelthryth sensed danger in her daughter's tone and was instantly awake. Preparing to defend their home, she grabbed the iron-bladed sax which rested beside her pillow. "What is it?" she whispered back, her voice low and worried.
"I do not know," replied Elfhild. Brúwann began to snarl at the door. His fangs were bared, his ears were flat against his head and the hair on his neck and shoulders rose up in stiff bristles, giving him a most ferocious appearance. Never before had the gentle hound acted so strangely, and all three were taken aback. Even more frightening still were the thoughts of what had caused this sudden change.
With trembling hands, the twins fumbled through the straw to find their blades, and then they were quickly upon their feet, shrinking to their mother's side for protection. Licking her dry lips and keeping her eyes upon the door, Athelthryth stood at the ready, her hand tightly wrapped about the handle of her knife. She thought about grabbing her daughters' hands and then running, but her hopes were crushed when she remembered that both doors led to the same side of the house. To try to escape that way would only deliver them into the hands of what might be lurking outside. "The window," she thought desperately, but knew they would not get far if the house was surrounded. It would be out of the frying pan and into the fire, as the old saying went.
There was no choice but to hold her ground. A bead of sweat trickled down her brow; she clenched the handle of the sax, taking comfort in its weight. Athelthryth had no sisters, and so, when she was a child, she had played with her brother, pretending to be soldiers and sparring with wooden swords. She was actually rather good at it; at least in beating her brother and some of the village boys. She never thought that this skill would come in handy as an adult, but now it seemed that it might. At least she had possessed the good sense to practice sparring with her daughters during the long, weary nights of darkness. She had wanted to give them some way to defend themselves, should trouble find them.
Elfhild swallowed, her heart pounding and her limbs trembling. Her eyes darted to the door to the outside and the door to where the animals were kept. She could hear the sounds of the cow and her calf moving about restlessly in their stalls and the indignant cackling of the chickens, who were irritated at being roused from their slumber. Her sister had always found that sound amusing, but now it terrified her just as much as Brúwann's unrest.
Soon, the hound's snarling turned into furious barking. Elfhild's eyes darted to the window. The little black and white rooster was standing now upon his stubby legs, his feathery body quivering with the intensity of his cackling. The hens beside him were upset and shifted their positions upon the narrow sill.
"Open up in there!" Athelthryth and her daughters heard a harsh voice demand. The words were spoken in Common Speech, though the tongue was slaughtered by the speaker's gutteral voice, which sounded more animal than human.
"Oh, Mother!" A sob unbidden tore itself from Elffled's throat and she clung desperately to her mother's arm. "What are we going to do?"
"I am frightened," Elfhild whimpered fretfully.
"Get back," Athelthryth whispered, prying Elffled's fingers away and shoving her back against the wall.
Fists pounded upon the door. The three terrified women heard grunts as heavy bodies hurled themselves against the door, trying to tear it from its hinges. The door shook in its frame and then swung open, crashing against the side of the wall.
A band of orcs stormed into the room. Great Black Uruks of the Dark Land, they were almost as tall as men, with hunched backs and long arms. The = shrieked. A warm stream of urine trickled down Elfhild's thighs as her bladder released in terror. Squawking in alarm, the chickens flew from the windowsill, loose feathers fluttering down into the straw. Lowing frantically, the cow moved protectively between her calf and the stall door.
Brúwann lunged at the sword arm of one of the raiders, but was quickly thrown aside by a sideways swipe of a wicked blade. With a yelp of pain, the hound landed in the straw. Whimpering, he tried to stand but fell back on his side and lay there panting. Elfhild and Elffled screamed again, but poor Brúwann was to lie there helpless and dying. Athelthryth and her two daughters had their own troubles.
"Well, well, well, what do we have here? Three wenches pretending to be horse-boys with their silly little table knives!" chortled the uruk who seemed to be in command of the raiders. He was a mighty warrior whose prominent underbite made him look like a cross between a bulldog and an ogre. About his neck was a necklace made of bones from which hung the ghastly pendant of a human skull. Elfhild felt lightheaded when she saw this gruesome sight, for the tiny skull was much too small to be that of an adult.
"If you don't want to end up like your poor little doggy," the uruk growled menacingly, "then you'll lay down your weapons and come along with us peacefully." His eyes gleaming with an evil yellow light, he licked slowly over his lips with a thick, saliva-coated tongue. "Speak of diamonds in the rough!" he gloated to himself. This squalid little shack contained three beauties, all of whom were exquisite, although the eldest was truly delectable, with breasts as big as ripe melons. How they rose up and down as her chest heaved in terror! And hips! His eyes glittering with primal lust, he watched as her hips moved against the material of her shift. The wench had a comely face, too, but who really looked at that?
How he would like to tear off her flimsy garment, grab her with his taloned fingers, and sink his fleshly pike into her waiting cunny. She would provide him with a good bit of fun before he had the other two for dessert. But, alas, such pleasures were not to be. All three of the wenches would fetch a pretty price with the slavers, and his pockets would soon be bulging as much as his breeches were now.
Athelthryth saw the lust in the raiders' eyes and a chill went down her spine. Surrender meant nothing to these fiends, for they would surely rape her and her daughters before carrying them off their filthy lairs. They would receive no mercy at the foul, bloodstained hands of such beasts! Far better it was to fight and die than to endure such a fate!
Pressed against the wall behind their mother, the sisters looked beyond her to see a line of gleaming yellow eyes. The glow of the brazier reflecting upon their wicked blades, the invaders slowly advanced. Though her urine-soaked gown was unpleasantly cool against her thighs, Elfhild scarcely noticed it for she was too frightened to care. It was all she could do to keep from panicking and dropping her knife, convulsing into a quivering mass upon the floor. Her fingers trembling on the handle, Elffled almost dropped her weapon from her sweat-covered palm. Regaining her grip, she clutched it for comfort as though it were the arm of a favorite doll.
"Don't want to surrender, eh? There's nothing like a big-chested woman who wants to fight that'll make me prick shoot up straight and stiff!" Laughing uproariously, the big uruk rubbed his hand over his crotch. "Now stop resisting me before I tumble all three of you in the hay!"
"Har! Har! Har!" the other orcs joined in his laughter. "If he doesn't plant an imp in yer bellies, we will!"
"Never!" With a dreadful cry, Athelthryth charged the orcs with all the ferocity of a she-wolf defending her den. The orcs were taken aback, for when they had discovered that this hut contained only a woman and her two daughters, they had planned to lay hands on them and take them captive. But their prey was not so willing to be subdued and conquered. Nay, Athelthryth was a woman of Rohan, fey in her desperation, for all was indeed lost and there was no escape. No hero's death would she die, but little did it matter. There would be no more songs, no more deeds of great renown. The men had died upon the field and none would return. The end had come.
Her blade bit into the neck of one of the orcs, and with a gurgling scream, he fell to the ground, clutching his throat. The fight that ensued was fierce and frantic. Half of the band still wanted to capture the three Eorlings, but the other half wished to avenge their dead. Most viciously did they come at Athelthryth, but she was able to dodge or deflect their blows, and her daughters valiantly came to her aid. First there was an enemy to the right, and then to the left, and then in the front, and the twins slashed and stabbed with abandon, wondering if they had hit flesh but not having time enough to think upon the matter, for just as one enemy recoiled, another one replaced him.
The orcs became enraged and a few of those who first wished to capture now wanted to kill, for some of the wounds the mother and her two daughters inflicted upon their comrades were grevious ones. With dreadful cries, the orcs fought the fiercer, and whether the fight lasted for mere seconds or for long moments, no one could judge at the time. With howling screams and shrieks, Athelthryth fought like a wild thing, slashing out at the long, lumbering arms which groped and grabbed. Elfhild and Elffled were heartened by their mother's valor and fought on, crying and shouting curses and forgetting for a while their fear, for it had been replaced by a desperate fury.
Slowly they were driven back against the wall. Elfhild and Elffled were desperately trying to hold their own, but Athelthryth was locked in bitter combat with an orc just a little shorter than she. He was skilled with a blade, moreso than the others, and he was not timid in his fighting like some of his comrades. Athelthryth rushed at him, trying to take him by surprise, but she missed his throat and her blade slashed across his face. He bellowed in pain and thrust his own blade forward, driving it into her stomach and pinning her to the supporting beam of the house. Her fingers twitched in agony and the sax fell from her hands.
Elfhild and Elffled screamed. With a grunt, the orc pulled back his knife. Athelthryth's knees buckled and she slid down the wall, landing on her side in a heap upon the straw. She gasped for breath and clutched her stomach with a shaking hand, her quivering fingers clutching at the fabric of her blood-soaked shift.
"Mother!" Elffled screamed and dropped her knife. Abandoning the fight, she rushed to her mother's side. "Mother! Mother!" she cried, grasping her mother's hand tightly. The corners of Athelthryth’s mouth feebly twitched up into a weak smile, and Elffled felt the faint squeeze of her mother's hand. Then all went black as the hilt of a sword hit her over the head, and Elffled wandered in lands beyond the reckoning of time.
It all happened so quickly. Her mother now lay upon the ground, her eyes closed, and Elffled was slumped over her form. Elfhild could barely believe all that had transpired in a mere moment of time. Now fury burnt within her and with a shriek of blood and death, she twisted away from the grabbing arms of her attackers and leapt upon the orc who had slain her mother. Taken by surprise, the sword clattered out of the orc's hand and he fell backwards with a scream with Elfhild atop him.
Again and again Elfhild drove the blade into his face. Tears streamed down her cheeks and she wept in the great anguish of her heart. She felt her blade pierce flesh with each plunge, the orc's eyes and mouth soft and yielding to the iron, and heard the sickening crunch of bone when she struck his skull. Black blood spurted and gushed from riven flesh, and her knife swam in it, the heavy dark liquid splashing up on her hands like droplets of murky water.
But she saw naught of this, for a madness had taken her mind, and though little time passed, mere moments felt like an eternity to her. She saw the orc's face, leering at her and laughing. He laughed and laughed, no matter how many times she stabbed, and she became convinced that her foe was a fell demon gifted with life everlasting. She screamed in fury, and swore she would kill the damned fiend if she had to rip his throat out with her teeth. Great wrenching anguish tore at her heart and breathing was painful, but life was worse. She just wanted to die, to embrace death and end it all, to join her mother and sleep beside her in her bed. But what bed would they have? No mound, no marking stone; nothing would remain to remember them by. No weregild would there be for Athelthryth daughter of Athelstan, but her daughter would avenge her death. The bastard spawn of unholy demons would pay and pay dearly!
Her body quivered and her heart pounded. Great sobs racked her frame. She was vaguely aware that hands were upon her, and she found herself being pushed backwards. Soon she was lying upon her back, and a clawed hand held her arm in a grip of iron. Her wrist was beaten against a small wooden trunk along the wall, and she felt her fingers twitch and let go of the handle of the sax. She was hauled to her feet by her hair and a hand under her arm, and her cheek stung as her face was slapped. Then she felt herself being lifted and thrown over an armored shoulder, and she lay there and fought no more.
Elfhild felt cool air upon her face and no longer did she smell the scent of smoke and wood. The orc lowered her to the ground and set a guard around her and her sister. Elfhild sat there for a moment, then blearily opened her sandy eyes. The night was dark and she could hear harsh voices all around her. Some of the raiders were gathering up her family's possessions, while others were tending to their wounds. The cow and her calf bawled as they were led from the house, and the chickens squawked frantically as they fled into the darkness from the orcs. The pig, too, evaded them, darting to and fro as two of the raiders gave chase.
Beside her, Elfhild saw her sister; she was lying upon the ground and did not move. She reached for Elffled and drew her head up on her lap. She felt something moist upon her fingertips and knew that her sister must be bleeding, but it was too dark to see the wound. Bending her head, Elfhild wept softly over her, giving no heed to what was going on around them.
In and out of the house the orcs went, taking all that they could carry, which was not very much, for the Eadbaldings had little. The treasures of this horde were lowly pots and pans, tools, worn woolen clothing, dried food, and supplies. The only things of higher value were a few bronze brooches and a string of glass beads, and these baubles were worthless compared to the silver and gold of great halls. After the hut had been sacked, the raiders set it on fire and the flames shot up into the night sky and pierced the gloom with a bright amber glow.
Elfhild looked up and saw the blaze; all that she had known in her short life was burning in a great reek. She stared at the flames as though in a trance, her mind still struggling to comprehend all that had befallen in just one night. She wondered if it was all a dream, a nightmare from which she would awake; perhaps she had fallen and hit her head, and this was only a phantasmagoria which plagued her tormented sleep. Her mother was dead and her sister was unconscious; all was burning, burning, and naught would be left save ashes and memories. Yet no illusion or dream was this evil woe, but of the waking world, and therefore much more cruel. Elfhild bent her head and wept once more.