The Circles - Book Two - Chapter 21 - Will We Ever Meet Again?

The Circles - Book Two - Journey of Sorrow
Chapter Twenty-one
Will We Ever Meet Again?
Written by Elfhild

At last the commotion in the camp had settled into a soft whisper of last debates, desperate pleas, and final goodbyes. Those who planned to escape took inventory of their hastily compiled hoard of food. There was little of it to fill their pockets, only the leftovers from the day before, and the more generous quantities which had been taken from that day's dole. The meager supply could be stretched out for only a few days, but they prayed fortune would be with them after that.

Now came the hours of waiting. Impatience rose like a fever, burning at the minds of the women. They were like the horses of their land, chomping at the bits, muscles tense and ready for the final charge, every sense alert and aware. Far above the camp, the stars twinkled in the night sky, pulsing with energy and light, throbbing like the steady thumping of hearts determined to do or die. The very air seemed charged, as though at any moment lightning could rip through the darkness, the maddening silence shattered by a crash of thunder.

After her mind had been destroyed by grief and sorrow, Breguswith had oft been the charge of Leofgifu, Waerburh or Goldwyn, but tonight she was in the care of her family. Because of the dismal state of Breguswith's senses, her kinswomen knew that her future as a slave would be a grim one. Her madness had caught the scrutinizing eye of the slave merchant, Shakh Awidan, who was sorely displeased at the flawed merchandise that the orcs were attempting to sell him. Oh, truly were these Southrons heartless!

If Breguswith were left behind, she would be completely at the mercy of her captors. Who knew what horrors would befall her? The Southrons might consider her too much of a burden and kill her! No, no, that must never happen! Breguswith's kinswomen vowed they would protect her to the end. She would go with them on their desperate journey. They told her they were taking her home; that seemed to satisfy her, and she was content.

Elfhild and Elffled milled about the camp, seeking old friends from Grenefeld. Hastily formed plans were made with those who wanted to escape – "Try to find us in the darkness, and we can run away together" – and sorrowful farewells were given to the ones who had decided to stay behind. With great sadness the twins said goodbye once more to Aeffe, whom they had just met that day. Alas! Indeed it was a pity that their newfound friendship should last for so short a while.

In silent resignation, Elffled listened to each one of her twin's attempts to paraphrase Goldwyn's impassioned speech. When the captives were allowed to move about freely within their encampment, Elffled had hoped to reunite with cousins and old friends... maybe even make new friends, like Aeffe. What would be the ramifications of this rebellion if it were crushed before it even began? Would the captives be watched even more closely than they had when the army orcs had been their guards? Would all who attempted to escape be punished -- even put to death? Her mind was filled with a tempest of misgivings, but she would not embarrass her sister and herself by challenging her in front of the other girls!

When the twins returned to the spot where their aunt had chosen to rest, they saw that she was trying to persuade Hunig to go back to sleep. The child had been awakened by the commotion sparked by Goldwyn's return and the impassioned speech and turbulent debate which followed. Unsettled by all she had heard, Hunig chafed against the prospect of resting and pestered her mother with endless questions.

"Why are we not going home like all the others?" she asked with all the curiosity of a seven-year-old. "I want to go home!"

Leofgifu sighed, her words coming out in a monotone. For the past two days, she had felt she was trying to reason with mad women, and now she had to deal with the foolish prattle of children. "...The journey home is long and dangerous," she droned on. "We cannot attempt it."

"Why not?" Hunig demanded impatiently, putting her hands on her hips. "Everyone else is going. We will be left here all alone!"

"Not everyone is going on this foolish quest!" Leofgifu snapped. She was at her wit's end with all this wild and foolish talk. "I am not going, and neither are you, Athelwyn. We will stay right here and wait for the others to be returned to us."

"Y-yes, Mother," Hunig whimpered, taken aback by her mother's harsh words and the use of her given name.

A great sigh of weariness escaping her chest, Leofgifu put a hand to her aching forehead. "Hunig, we have to be up in just a few hours. You best go to sleep, lest you be too exhausted to help. Remember, you are supposed to scream when I do, claiming that you are hurt."

Elfhild watched the exchange and tried not to allow sadness to creep into her heart. The tiny confrontation between mother and daughter brought comfort, for it was so commonplace and ordinary. It also brought anguish, for she was reminded of her own mother. What did this escape really mean? Freedom, aye, but separation from her small, fragmented family, the only ones she had left in this cruel world.

Waiting until Hunig lay blanketed in Leofgifu's soft woolen cloak, Elfhild beckoned her aunt over to where she and her sister sat. Elffled turned soft eyes upon the approaching figure. She knew what the ensuing debate would be about, and what would be its outcome before anyone spoke a word. She felt winter's chill creeping into her heart, the hopeless sense of apathy one feels when faced with the inability to alter a course set into motion by others.

When Leofgifu was seated, Elfhild cleared her throat hesitantly and looked from her sister to her aunt. "We must talk, all three of us..." She halted, the lump in her throat making it difficult to speak. How does one put such emotion into mere words? How does a little breeze cause a strong oak to bend? How does a single droplet of water carve out a river's course in the unrelenting earth? How could Elfhild get her aunt to listen?

"When we cross the Great River, there will be no going back..." Tears surged beneath Elfhild's lower eyelids, and she fought with all her might to keep them at bay. "Oh, please, will you not reconsider your decision?" Desperation crept into her voice, and her words came out in a rush.

In the subtle gleam of many small campfires, Elffled gazed into the face of her sister; the quivering lips, the glistening eyes, the tremulous, jerky movements of her body as she nervously shifted her weight on the ground. Perhaps Leofgifu could talk some sense into the girl. Perhaps there was still hope...

"No," Leofgifu shook her head gravely. "I have said many times already that I will not adventure this folly. My mind is set; there is no changing it."

A tiny smile curved the corners of Elffled's lips. "Oh, please talk my sister out of this!" she silently pleaded. "Please, oh, please!"

"Please, Aunt!" Elfhild begged, slamming her fist into her thigh. "Were you not listening when Waerburh told her story? What if the same fate happens to you?" Bringing her fists to her mouth, she gnawed upon her knuckles. "Oh, we have heard only a little of the cruelty of this Southron, this Esarhaddon uHuzziya, but his heart is a dark one, and I would wager his savagery knows no limits!" A shudder of fear and disgust rocked her body from head to toe. "Oh, how I hate him!"

"You have scarcely spoken with the man, and yet he is the instigator of all the evils in the world?" Leofgifu raised a sandy eyebrow. "Why, with the way everyone is speaking, he is more powerful than the Dark Lord Himself!" She chuckled grimly. "We cannot lash out against the true Enemy whose designs and stratagems have cost us our villages, kinsfolk and freedom, so we direct all our hatred towards this one Southron."

Elfhild stared in disbelief at her aunt, her mouth almost dropping open. "Aunt, are you actually defending this wicked man?"

"No," Leofgifu answered solemnly, shaking her head and raising her hand in protest. "Anyone who is in the immoral business of selling innocent men, women and children into slavery is unscrupulous and has little or no conscience. A scoundrel he is, indeed, and what he did to Waerburh is unforgivable. But we are allowing wild panic to command our minds."

"Strange it was that few feared those ruffian cavalrymen from Khand," Elffled commented snidely, mocking eyes turned upon her sister. "I thought that I might get crushed in the mad rush for candy and sweetmeats."

True, the remark was petty, but Elffled did not want to have any part in this foolish, dangerous venture. She wanted to stay with her aunt and cousin as long as she could. Oh, why was Elfhild trying to tear what remained of their family apart? Her stubbornness would destroy any happiness that they could find in the brief time they had left together. These might be the last memories they would ever have of one another.

Oh, how Elffled hated Goldwyn! This madness was all her fault! Always a gossip and a busybody, now the woman had turned her hand to rabble-rousing. Oh, how Elffled wished this were all just some bad dream!

Ignoring her niece's inappropriate comment, Leofgifu went on. "Look around us." She made a broad, sweeping gesture towards their surroundings. "All the land is barren and drought-stricken. How will we fare without food? What if the darkness comes back, and with it more famine? Even before the dreadful night Grenefeld was raided, we constantly feared that our food supply would run out. With every day being an unending evening, the crops became sickly and wilted away, and we were forced to rely upon dwindling supplies left over from last winter. Tell me, Elfhild and Elffled, where do you expect to find food enough for the journey?"

Elfhild glared at her aunt, for she had the audacity to challenge the brave quest for freedom. "Surely in the mountains, there will be those of Gondor and the Mark who have hidden away enough supplies to last for a long while."

Oh, why could Leofgifu not be more like her mother? Brave and steadfast had been Athelthryth. Surely she would agree to Goldwyn's plans! Elfhild had never before realized how much Goldwyn was like her mother. Oh, what would Athelthryth have thought of her daughter's contemplating such things! She and Goldwyn had despised each other. Now Elfhild held Goldwyn in much higher regard. No longer was she a petty woman who looked upon the twins' family with scorn, but rather a brave leader, much like Athelthryth herself. Elfhild's heart was stirred with admiration and affection. She only wished she could be so strong and valiant.

As her sister spoke of vain hopes, Elffled felt like saying, "And what will sustain us on the journey to the mountains? Ah, take heart and do not despair: maybe we can eat pebbles... you know, pebble soup, pebble stew, pebble porridge, pebble bread... and when we become weary of that, we can eat dirt instead, or maybe bark and dried out moss." However, her mouth remained clamped tightly shut, and she kept her thoughts to herself.

"And what of the winter, Elfhild?" Leofgifu questioned sagely. "Even if you could find someone who would give you succor, there will be little harvest when autumn comes. I am loath to say this, but if we wish to live, we must remain with the Southrons. It seems that the lands allied with the Enemy did not suffer from the dark dearth, for these slavers never want for anything."

"But that would mean willingly going into slavery!" Elfhild cried, reeling back with dismay.

Leofgifu set her jaw grimly. "It is either that or starve to death."

"But if we are to be slaves, then we have no control over our fates! What if we are separated when we are sold?" Elfhild's eyes were wide with fear.

Flinching, Elffled bit her tongue to keep from speaking. "And you want to divide us before then?" her thoughts raged. "You, my dear sister, are far crueler than any of the Southrons!"

"I hold to this one hope and this hope alone - that the two of you and my daughter might live," Leofgifu spoke quietly. "Other than that, I am resigned to whatever happens to me." With alarm the twins noticed that the lines of care seemed riven more deeply in her face, and she appeared to have grown much older, but perhaps this was only a trick of the dim firelight. All of them had paid the price for this journey; some more than others.

"What solace is that!" Elfhild cried, desperately. "We might never see each other again!"

"You are both beautiful girls... if you keep from angering the men too greatly, I have no doubt that you will be bought by a wealthy lord." Leofgifu smiled wanly. "All of the men who have looked upon you have noticed your loveliness and marveled that there could be two such attractive maidens so identical in appearance. If Esarhaddon uHuzziya is a..." she almost choked upon the words, "a sensible merchant, he would sell you together, for, separated, you would lack the charm of comely twins who hail from a faraway land."

"But I do not want to be a slave!" Elfhild wailed, on the verge of tearing out her hair. How could her aunt so casually condemn her to a life of carnal servitude to her enemies, as though she were speaking of a matter of no more import than the length of a sow's tail if it were stretched straight?

"Sometimes we must do things in life that we would fain not do," Leofgifu explained gently. "When your mother and I were young, there was a poor tenant farmer who tilled a parcel of land owned by the thane. One spring day, the farmer was called to do service with the Riders, and he never returned. His wife, now a widow with a babe and no close kin, was unable to work the land herself. Though some neighbors helped as well as they could, there was never enough. She was close to despairing for herself and her child, but one evening, nigh to dusk, the thane rode to her hut. He brought her some food and an offer."

Leofgifu rubbed one work-calloused palm against the other. "'Twas said that he did not leave until morning. After that, the woman was always well provided for, and never wanted for aught. The thane soon found other men to work the land, but she was left the use of the cottage. She was a very pretty woman with sparkling blue eyes and long, golden blonde hair - much like the two of you. Probably she would have abided under this... arrangement for as long as she lived... but the thane died - for he was not a young man. One of the miller's sons took a great fancy to her and wed her in spite of what she had been and done."

Sighing deeply, Leofgifu looked down at her hands and then back up to the twins. "My dears, sometimes we must compromise in order to survive. The woman did not want to besmirch her honor, but what else could she do! Let her child starve while she congratulated herself upon her piety and respectability? In the village, they called her a harlot behind her back. Perhaps that was what she was - but I could never pass judgment upon her, for should I have been faced with the same circumstances," she drew out her words, "I would have done the same!"

Leofgifu paused for a moment to rest her voice, then resumed speaking. "What I am saying - and be neither shocked nor offended - is that there is nothing else for the two of you... no other hope... and if I understand things, there is some man - even though he may be a Southron or an Easterling - who would be more than willing to give you everything you need and want. He would treat you right, perhaps someday even make you his pampered favorites. A rich man, a lord," she laughed wryly, "maybe even a king."

Elfhild looked down, tears in her eyes. She did not want this life which it seemed that fate had chosen for her. She wanted to be the honorable wife of a kind man - a man of the Mark - who loved her, not the mistress of an enemy lord, nor his wife, nor a whore in a brothel. She had not even known that such houses of sin existed until she had heard the orcs speak of them, and she lamented the loss of her innocence in such matters. Oh, how she wanted to be home, among her own people, far from this place of misery!

"Aunt," Elffled's soft voice broke the gloomy silence, "what will happen to you?"

Leofgifu's shoulders slumped. Elffled would have to ask that! "Well," she managed a grim chuckle, "I am not the most comely or the youngest woman in all of Middengeard. Just look at this hair!" She reached up and tugged a section of the fuzzy mass of spiral curls which crowned her head. "It looks like the matted wool of a long-haired sheep! And my teeth!" Making a disgusted face, she wrinkled her nose. "Although they are sound, some of them are crooked." Sighing, she shook her head sadly. "No, I do not think that a lord shall lavish his attentions upon me the way he would upon the two of you. I will probably spend my days as a servant in a wealthy household. Maybe my duties shall be taking care of the children, or perhaps cleaning or cooking. Those tasks are hardly offensive. In fact, I think I might rather enjoy them."

"What about Hunig?" Elffled asked, concerned for her little cousin.

A spasm of darkest worry abruptly transformed Leofgifu's face into a mask of anguish, but she forced herself not to dwell upon her worst fears, lest the twins become alarmed. The expression of dread quickly faded away, replaced by the usual wearied concern. "She is so young," Leofgifu murmured softly. "Surely they will allow her to stay with me. She could help me in my tasks."

Sensing the fears that haunted her aunt's nightmares and waking thought, Elfhild seized the moment with an unanticipated outburst of frantic emotion. "What if they sell us all separately - you and Hunig, and Elffled and me!" she cried, her voice filled with panic. "These men are evil and cruel, and I would wager that a good number of them are completely insane! What if we are bought by men such as these? Oh, we shall all die in agony!" Shivering in fright, she closed her eyes tightly and wrapped her arms around herself. "Oh, do you not see why we should make this escape attempt together!" Opening her eyes, she looked her aunt straight in the face. "Let us not be sundered forever! I am going," she declared staunchly, "and Elffled is going with me!"

Slowly and with great care, Elffled exhaled, letting out her breath in one long, prolonged sigh. Oh, why could her sister not listen to the voice of reason? A sudden impulse seized Elffled, and she felt like attacking her twin with an axe, cutting off the top of her silly little head, and pouring in an ample dose of common sense and wisdom. She hid her clenched fists in the folds of her skirt and fumed silently, a wicked little smile curling her lips as she thought with morbid glee of how she would reattach the bloody top of her sister's skull to the bottom.

Of course, she would go. Refusal had never been an option. "I do have a choice, I know," Elffled thought with a wry sense of tranquility. "I could stay behind and let her go ahead and undertake her own marvelous adventure all by herself. She would learn her lesson soon enough! But I cannot do that. I will go with her, even if we should starve to death, or die at the hands of our enemies. But, oh, I vow that I shall have the last word, for I shall tell her in my last breath that this whole idea was the utmost of folly!"

Obviously unimpressed with her niece's hysterical theatrics, Leofgifu gave Elfhild a kind, pitying look. "We will not be separated for long," she stated flatly, sure of the truth in her words. "They will set their orc trackers upon your trail, and 'tis said that they are better than hunting dogs at finding their quarry. No matter how frightened you are, do not struggle against them, for their masters, the slavers, would not be likely to allow them to harm you. They will bring you back, I hope, no worse off than when you set out. I will be waiting for you when you return. That is my only value now - to tend the fires of welcome." Resigned to sadness, she dropped her gaze and stared down at her folded hands resting in her lap.

The resolve which had kept her emotions in check now crumbling, Elfhild began to weep. "Oh, Aunt! I will miss you!" she cried, her voice shrill and wavering.

"May Béma keep you safe," Leofgifu whispered, reaching out her arms as Elfhild leaned forward to embrace her.

"Will we ever meet again?" Elfhild sobbed quietly.

Leofgifu gently patted her back. "Someday, my dear child, we will be reunited..." Perhaps sooner than you think, she thought to herself.

The remaining time was spent in tears and quiet contemplation. Sleep was not welcome in these last moments together, for soon they would face the prospect of being parted forever.