Using a long stick, Fródwine shoved the ends of the burnt off logs into the center of the fire and tossed in a few more logs to revive the blaze. Over the leaping flames, he saw the approach of two figures as they neared the edge of the slave camp. "Mother!" he cried, his heart leaping in his chest. Tossing the stick into the fire, he ran towards her. The guard escorting Goldwyn barely acknowledged the boy's presence. Turning without a word, the man strode back in the direction which they had come. Fródwine allowed his mother to hug him, even though he considered himself far too old for such things.
"Frumgár and Fritha?" she asked, a mother's concern in her voice.
"Fritha cried himself to sleep, and Frumgár fell asleep soon after."
Goldwyn gave him a wan smile, another squeeze, and then released him. "Come, let us sit with the others by the fire. You should hear all that we have to discuss. After all, you are the last of our warriors, the oldest boy left to us."
Fródwine allowed her to lead them back towards the fire. He knew she was trying to say all the correct things and make him feel better, but her words only made him feel worse. Even if he was only eleven years old, he had sense enough now to know that the best course was simply to humor her. Sometimes that was the only way he could deal with adults. He would not tell his mother that he did not consider himself as all that brave. Let her think whatever she wanted. He had felt lost all the time that she had been gone, but there was no reason to admit that to anyone. Words like that would only add more worry to what she already had to bear.
"I will do the best I can, Mother." He managed a smile that he did not feel. There, that sounded right. At least maybe comforting.
"That is all any of us can do." Her smile was as false as his.
"What did that man want with you?" he asked suspiciously.
"That is unimportant now... what you must concentrate upon is escaping."
"All my thoughts are directed towards that end, but I have no real plans. Just run, I guess, and trust to chance." Fródwine sighed heavily, his shoulders slumping. "Not very good, is it?"
"Mine is not much better," Goldwyn confessed with a brave smile. "If the women who are staying can cause enough distraction, at least some of us might be able to escape in the confusion. Both of us must take care of your brothers." She put her hand on his shoulder. "I am going to be relying a great deal upon you to help me keep them safe. Will you do that?"
"I will try my best, Mother." Fródwine gulped self-consciously, his throat bobbing. He hoped she did not notice his nervousness, but she would; she always noticed things like that.
As they neared the fire, the other captives who had gathered there looked towards them. "It is a chance, an opportunity... our last one," Goldwyn whispered. "Now we should visit with the others." Mother and son shared a glance that went beyond words, that spoke of love, family ties and loyalties, memories and times shared.
Her son beside her, Goldwyn warmed her hands over the fire. She had expected the other women to rush up to her and ask their incessant questions. She was pleased that they had given Fródwine and her some time to talk first. Now the questions would come.
"Goldwyn! We were all so worried!" Leofgifu moved closer to her, sharing the warmth of the fire. Soon other women and girls drew nearer, the shadows hiding their faces and the fear and apprehension they all felt.
"Leofgifu, we will not talk about what happened in... his... tent tonight; there are too many other things that must be said, and little time to say them." Goldwyn spoke in Rohirric, confident that the patrolling guard who passed occasionally was ignorant of the language.
"I wish that I could persuade you not to go." Leofgifu scarcely knew what to say. This could well be the last time that she would ever see her friends and her nieces. How does one say goodbye forever? "Do not go," she whispered when she wanted to scream. "Please do not go!" She knew that when strong minds were fixed on a course, they seldom could be turned aside. Even if her words rang as true as a hammer striking metal and her simple speech could be magically transformed into impassioned rhetoric, still the others would not listen. Her shoulders slumped in defeat.
"Leofgifu, why can you not see the wisdom of our leaving?" Why did Leofgifu have to be so stubborn? Goldwyn wondered. The woman had no more courage than an old hen! "The slaver has already raped Waerburh in the most obscene and cruel of ways! Is that not justification enough for this attempt to escape? Do we want to stay here and be left to his mercy?" She paused, looking around at the women gathered about the campfire. "Though you did not say it, I know what you were all wondering." Her eyes flashed. "Yes, if you want to know, his intent was to ravish me tonight!"
As a murmur of outrage went up from the crowd, Goldwyn walked to a nearby rock outcropping and stood atop it so that all could see her. The flames burnished her hair with gold and shadows, as though a burning crown sat upon her head. Waerburh left her place at the edge of the gathering and stood beside her. As the two women looked into the other's eyes, they knew they were united.
Goldwyn raised her voice, for what would it matter if a patrolling guard should come near and hear them? He would not know their language. "My sisters! Too long have we sat idling and dreaming that we were back at our homes. We dawdle as old women, befuddled as we mourn for the days that are past. Eorl and his men are long dead, and their strength has faded." She looked around at the shaded faces of the other women, and could read nothing there for the darkness.
Goldwyn inhaled deeply. "Our braziers are cold and dead and there is no hand to tend them. The halls are silent; the music stilled. The fields lie fallow and no one guards the flocks that now run wild upon the hillside. The cradle is smashed and empty, and the sword and shield lie rusting in a far away field." She bowed her head, and when she raised it, there was fury in her eyes.
"Aye, aye," the women murmured in low voices.
"Yet we still cling to the vain hope that someone will rescue us ere it is too late. Do you not realize by now that it is already too late!" Goldwyn was breathing harder, the power of conviction in her voice. She raised her hand in a clenched fist. "Do not wait for help to arrive! There is no one now left to rescue us. We are alone!"
"'Tis hopeless," Leofgifu muttered, shaking her head as the timid ones echoed her words in somber chorus.
"Alone, but not hopeless." Goldwyn turned to face Leofgifu. "Where before there was only darkness, hope now lights the skies! Why do we tarry? The sun has shone for three days. Can you not see?" She shook her fist. "Are you so blind that you cannot know an omen when you see one? The reborn sun is the sign that our venture is smiled upon!"
"By whom, Goldwyn?" Leofgifu asked quietly. Surely she did not think that her quest was now divinely ordained.
"By our ancestors who sit in the halls of the dead and look down upon us!" Goldwyn was close to shouting. "Shall we go to them in disgrace, saying that we were too cowardly to act? Will you go to them in mortification, your head hanging down in shame? Tell me you have the gall to face these brave men and women and say, 'I was too afraid even to try!'" Angrily, she shook her tresses of gold as she raised her fist higher. "How will you explain that to them when you face them? Will you deny that you are their daughters, their kinswomen? Will you turn your heads aside and mock the legacy which they have bestowed upon us?"
Speechless and in awe, Fródwine looked up at his mother. She seemed to have grown taller in the firelight, transformed into a great golden goddess from days long forgotten. He could see her arrayed in bright shining armor, a shield to her side, a great gleaming sword in her hand. The devouring blade dipped down like a sickle, cutting wide swaths through the ranks of the enemy, casting the dead to the side as though they were heaps of blighted weeds.
Her heart swelling with pride and a desperate fervor, Elfhild cast a pleading glance towards her aunt, begging her to understand. Though in the past their families had oft been at odds with each other, at this moment, the hearts of both Goldwyn and Elfhild beat in one accord. Elffled, though, stared down at the ground, her mind struggling to comprehend the frenzy which swirled around her like the churning waves of a flooding river. Curse Goldwyn! She had filled the women's minds with so much fear that she had driven them mad!
"Nay, nay, we will not go ashamed to the halls of the dead! We are with you, Goldwyn!" many of the younger women cried, while the older ones held back and thought of their children.
The guard on duty halted in his rounds and looked askance at the women. "Why are you up at such a late hour? Is there some disagreement amongst you?"
Goldwyn turned on him, her blue eyes blazing. "Nay!" she spat angrily. "How could we sleep? You make too damn much noise!"
Momentarily taken aback, the guard retreated a few paces. "Women!" he thought, shaking his head. "Who can understand them? Damn such work anyway! I feel like a eunuch guarding a harem of surly slave girls!" Glaring at the captives, he retaliated with a warning. "Well, I will let you off this time, but you must go to sleep soon. We leave early upon the morrow." Muttering under his breath, the guard walked away.
When she was certain that the guard was out of hearing range, Goldwyn spat to the side. "I do not wish to live the rest of my life under the control of savages like that! They are petty men, barbarians, little above orcs!"
Frithuswith stepped forward into the light of the fire. "We are only women! What else can we do?" she asked, uncertain of the wisdom of defying the slavers.
"Try! Dare to attempt! You can do that!" Goldwyn drew in a deep breath. "You can put one foot in front of the other and flee! Defy them! Show them that we are not the daughters of slaves, but of free men! Show them that we are free women, the daughters of brave warriors, not simpering fools who kiss the feet of their bloated masters! Show them that we will fight! Do not let your children grow up under the yoke of slavery and eat the bitter fruits of bondage!"
"Goldwyn, I am with you!" Her features infused with a frenzy approaching battle lust, Waerburh raised her clenched fist into the air. "I would die gladly if it were in honor and go to the halls of the fathers with head unbowed!"
"Swear with me then! Swear upon the sword of Eorl the Young and the bones and memory of our fallen warriors! Swear!" Goldwyn screamed into the night. "Swear that you will defy them until your last breath!"
Waerburh, the tears streaming down her cheeks, clasped Goldwyn by the hand. "I swear by this oath and more I swear! I will take death before I will submit again!"
"It is done. We are united!" Goldwyn murmured as she clenched Waerburh's hand tightly.
"You are mad!" Leofgifu cried, unable to believe all that she had heard that evening.
Goldwyn and Waerburh turned and looked at her in scorn. "While you may not want to join us," Goldwyn exclaimed, "at least do not be against us!"
"Where insanity reigns, reasoning flees," Leofgifu told her quietly. "I will aid you, but I will not be part of this folly. Risk all for hope and gain nothing. I cannot bless this!" With a sad shake of her head, she moved away from the bright glare of the fire.
"My sisters!" Goldwyn addressed the rest of the women. "We will now pretend to sleep, and when the fire has burnt to the embers, we will act. Let silence in the camp be the signal. Aeffe," she turned to the quiet girl, "since you will not join us, are you brave enough to raise the alarm?"
"Aye, I can do that," Aeffe replied without hesitation.
"Then scream and cry out, 'Help me! Help me! I am hurt!' When those of us who are attempting this venture hear your voice, we will all run in different directions, scatter out, and perchance some will escape."
"I will scream very loudly... I am a good screamer." Aeffe smiled brightly.
"Good. Then it is settled." Goldwyn looked to Fródwine. "Come, son. We will wait with your brothers."
"I am ready, Mother." His voice broke as he took her arm in his.
"My little boy is becoming a man," she murmured proudly. "I think his voice is cracking with the coming of age."
"I am not yet a man, Mother." Fródwine blushed as he led her away from the fire.
"There is still plenty of time for growing up," Goldwyn chuckled. "Now let us prepare for the journey home."