The Circles - Book Two - Chapter 4 - Red Fell the Dew Like Tears

The Circles - Book Two - Journey of Sorrow
Chapter Four
Red Fell the Dew Like Tears
Written by Elfhild

Suddenly Elfhild was plunged into the stifling darkness of the slave pen. A surge of instinctive terror gripped her mind and she groped blindly ahead, her hands brushing against the back of the person in front of her. A flood of women and children streamed all around her, and the closeness of the other captives was suffocating. From all directions came hushed voices, sobs and the frightened cries of disoriented women calling to their children and relatives. Her eyes adjusting now to the dim light, Elfhild took her sister's hand and struggled out of the throng. She pulled Elffled to a corner near the entrance to the pen, a spot that had been neglected by the crowd. Frightened and confused, the two girls shrank against the wall, trying to keep out of the way.

As the last captive stepped inside the wooden pen, the door shut with a heavy thud. A key was heard turning in the lock, an evil doom manifesting itself in the form of sound. The guards walked away, sauntering back towards their pavilions. Though the uncertainty of their new surroundings had frightened many of the women and children, it was not long ere eyes well-adjusted to darkness were able to descry their surroundings. The filtered glow of the torches about the camp drifted in through the horizontal slats, brightening the gloom a little.

Though a prison, the pen did have its comforts. The journey had been a long one and for many days the captives had naught but the cold ground for a bed and the clouds above for a roof. Fresh straw was spread out upon the well-packed dirt, its sweet scent bringing to mind taunting reminders of home and brazier. Wonder struck Elfhild's mind – "Where upon all of Middengeard do fields grow freely and not wilt in darkness and in drought? And straw so early! Why, the wheat harvest would not be for two more months yet in Rohan..." – but the thought quickly flitted away and soon was forgotten.

The crowded pen was filled with a stir of movement and a hum of soft noise as women comforted each other and their children. At last, after almost a month, many were reunited with friends and kin who had been placed in different troops. Captivity had been cruel and the journey hard, especially for babies, small children, and the elderly. Breguswith was not the only woman who grieved for a child who had perished along the way.

Two figures moved towards the twins, and soon the girls were able to see their aunt Leofgifu and seven-year-old cousin Hunig. Their sad faces were softly illuminated by the torchlight which shone through the slats of the wooden prison. Hunig clung to her mother's skirt, hiding from the world in the soiled and tattered material. Soon mother and daughter were seated upon the straw beside Elfhild and Elffled. A heavy cloud of sorrow hung above them, ready to burst into a shower of salty tears.

"Mamma, did F-Father fight here?" Hunig asked tremulously.

"Yes, Hunig," Leofgifu replied solemnly. The words were spoken with a sense of finality that was so grim and dismal that their meaning seemed almost surreal.

"Is... is he coming back?"

Oh Gods. What should she tell her daughter? Should she fill her innocent mind with false hopes, or tell her the brutal truth that her father might be dead?

"I do not know," Leofgifu replied honestly.

"Father will come back," Hunig proclaimed defensively. Then her face fell, and her lips trembled. "But we will not be at home! How will he ever find us?"

Leofgifu said nothing, instead squeezing her daughter in a desperate embrace. The lack of response troubled Hunig greatly, for she was accustomed to her mother reassuring her and telling her that everything would be all right. Tears began to slide down Hunig's cheeks.

Leofgifu sighed as she stroked her daughter's hair, her fingers skimming over the knots in those unruly tresses. The little girl's tear-filled blue eyes looked up to her for comfort and protection. Unfortunately, these were two things which Leofgifu could not give. Before the war, she had imagined a wonderful future for her daughter, one filled with happiness and blessings, a good husband, and a loving family. Now the little girl's future depended upon the kindness of the one who bought her. What a horrible fate for a child to grow up in slavery!

A dark fear filled her heart with terror, a fear which had grown even stronger after Sergeant Utana's grim speech. What if the slave traders separated them? There would be no way that Leofgifu could protect her daughter then! Surely the slavers would not be so cruel as to tear a child so young from her mother's arms! Oh, how she prayed that they would both be bought by a kind person! It was their only hope. Leofgifu knew that she was no beauty, but she was a hard worker, and Hunig would follow in her footsteps. Together they could cook, clean, sew, weave, garden, take care of children, and do other such work around the house. Surely these skills would be desirable to the Easterlings and Southrons.

Her glance fell upon Elfhild and Elffled, who fidgeted nervously, their discomfort and worry obvious. They, too, wondered if their uncle were alive or dead. Not only did Leofgifu have to worry about Hunig's safety, but also that of her two nieces. "They have blossomed into such lovely young ladies," Leofgifu thought reflectively as she studied the identical oval faces, the slightly rounded noses, the rosy lips, the delicately pointed chins. If only she had been that pretty when she was their age!

Unfortunately, the enemy soldiers also noticed the beauty of the twin sisters and gawked at them with hungry, lecherous eyes. It was only natural that the Southrons and Easterlings, so used to the dark-tressed, tawny beauties of their own lands, would consider two such golden-haired maidens as unique and exotic. Though the thought made her mind recoil with shame and disgust, perhaps the twins were lucky. What man would not desire two charming, comely girls who were almost identical in appearance? If he had any brains inside his skull, he would cherish these two prizes and shower them with love and affection. Yes, their beauty assured them a future of comfort and wealth, a future which Leofgifu knew she would never have.

Perhaps she should encourage the girls to be friendlier to their captors? When the Khandian cavalrymen had been guarding the prisoners, many of the maids had flirted with the men and were rewarded with delicious candies, exotic music, and tales from faraway lands. Though the older women, Leofgifu included, thought that such outrageous behavior was scandalous, not to mention traitorous, no harm had come of it. Perhaps some of those men would come back and buy the pretty maids who had caught their fancy. Surely a master who was in love with his slave would be kinder than one who was not.

Yes, perhaps she should advise Elfhild and Elffled to try to win the hearts of their new guards. The captives had just been turned over to new masters, and perhaps among these men were a few decent fellows whose hearts were brimming over with kindness and compassion... No, no, encouraging the girls to fawn over some Easterling or Southron seemed wrong. Yet counseling the girls to remain defiant and hostile towards their enemies, as some women did, was utterly foolish.

Perhaps she should tell them to treat the men with the same respect and courtesy that they would have shown to the Riders of the Mark? Yes, yes... she could advise the girls to treat the men as their betters and carry themselves with the dignity that befitted proper young ladies of Rohan. Leofgifu almost chuckled in wry amusement. She could already hear Elfhild's outraged protests and adamant oaths that she would never, ever treat an enemy like a man of her own land... Oh, what was the right thing to do in a situation like this?

Ever since Athelthryth's death, Leofgifu had tried to be as a mother to the twins, giving them guidance and advice. Yet she felt woefully inadequate. How did one make the right choices in a situation as horrible as this? How did one obtain such wisdom, such knowledge? She wished she could protect the girls from all harm, but what protection could she offer, really, either to the twins or to her own daughter? What comfort could she give them, save for false words of hope which rang empty and hollow? She was about as helpless as the frailest of the captive children.

If only Athelthryth were still alive! Surely she would know what to do. Back in the Mark, whenever Leofgifu was troubled, she would always turn to her friend for advice. Being around Athelthryth made her feel better and helped her to put things into perspective. "Sometimes you just need a friend, but more importantly you need to be a friend to yourself," she had always said whenever Leofgifu was wallowing in self-pity and castigating herself for some trivial mistake. Unfortunately, Leofgifu's other friends were in different troops, and she had no one in whom she could confide her fears and uncertainties. She did not know Waerburh very well; Breguswith had been driven insane; and Goldwyn did not care for her family.

A faint mumble from Hunig brought Leofgifu's attention back to her daughter, who had fallen asleep with her cheek leaning against her bosom. Bending her face down, she kissed the girl on the top of the head and then gently eased her back on the straw. Hunig stirred long enough to complain about the unexpected movement, but was asleep once again the moment her head hit the straw. "The march always exhausts her," Leofgifu remarked softly as she drew her cloak over the slumbering girl.

Lost in their own thoughts, the sisters nodded in silent agreement. All around them, the din of the captives had subsided into a dull drone of soft-spoken voices. The weariness of the day had descended upon Leofgifu and her two nieces, just as it had upon Hunig. Elffled clamped her hand over her mouth to stifle a huge yawn. Suddenly Elfhild burst out into tears.

"What is the matter, dear?" Leofgifu asked, concern in her soft voice, as she reached her hand out and gently clasped Elfhild's shoulder.

"Yes, Elfhild, what is wrong?" urgently inquired a worried Elffled.

"Father and Eadfrid are dead!" Elfhild wailed as she threw herself into her aunt's arms. "They fell together on these fields!"

Elffled felt her heart well over with sorrow, for her sister's grief was her own. Just a few months ago, their father and brother had been alive and well, and now they were dead, their bones scattered among those of both comrade and enemy. Overcome by sadness, she began to weep softly.

"How do you know that they were slain, Elfhild?" Attempting to comfort her niece, Leofgifu rubbed her hands up and down the sobbing girl's back. "There is no way we have of knowing their fate, so let us assume that they survived the battle. Mayhap they now fight the enemy in distant lands, or perhaps the survivors of the war have taken shelter in the mountains."

Elfhild violently shook her head in objection and pulled away from her aunt. Her bleary eyes pleaded with hers for understanding. "No, no, they were slain by the orcs! I know... I saw... his skull... my - my father's..." Whimpering, she wrapped her arms around herself and began to rock back and forth.

"Oh, Elfhild, the sight of all the bones has left you distraught!" Leofgifu tried to keep the alarm out of her voice. Elfhild was talking strangely, as though she were delusional! "That could have been anyone's skull. Every man, rich or poor, looks the same when he is dead."

Elffled looked between her aunt and sister. Her aunt was correct; the skull could have belonged to any man who was unlucky enough to have been decapitated in the heat of battle. Yet those hollow eyes had called out to her as they had to her sister, pleading with her to cast her gaze upon all that was left of a man once hale and strong. Emanating from the skull itself and the space around it was a peculiar sense of familiarity which made her feel somehow comforted, though achingly sad. Perhaps the whole incident had only been a macabre fantasy created by their grief-stricken imaginations? Oh, Elffled prayed that this was so, for if it were not, then that meant their father was truly dead!

"No, it was Father's skull!" Elfhild proclaimed loudly, much to Leofgifu's dismay, for several women turned to look at them. "I - I do not know how I know, but I just do..." Her voice lowered to a whisper and her eyes glazed over. "I - I think the skull itself told me..." Burying her face in her hands, she burst out into another fit of weeping.

"Oh dear..." Leofgifu wondered if the girl was going mad. The sight of the gruesome battlefield alone was enough to drive anyone insane, and Elfhild had endured so much anguish and sorrow as it was. It was not easy for a young girl to see her mother murdered before her eyes, and to know not whether to mourn for her father and brother, or to pray for their safety. Leofgifu reached out a somewhat tentative hand and lightly placed it upon Elfhild's shoulder. "Skulls do not talk, Elfhild... Perhaps you should lie down and try to forget the horrors that you have seen. Take solace in sleep. Tomorrow we leave this dreadful place."

"Yes, Aunt. I... I think I will lie down... After all, tomorrow's journey will be a long one..." Elfhild knew that it was useless to try to convince her aunt of what she knew was true. No one would ever understand the silent exchange that had passed between her and the skull, except perhaps her sister. For one, they would think the skull itself had opened up its bony jaws and spoken, which would indeed be quite an unbelievable tale, especially since none of the other captives had witnessed the incident. No, she had just looked into those empty eye sockets and that was when she knew. She could not explain what had happened, only accept it.

The two girls kissed their aunt and wished her good-night. Leofgifu lay down beside her resting daughter, and then rolled over on her side. Sleep did not come easily to the three. The field of death and carnage continued to haunt their thoughts. Leofgifu worried about the twins, especially Elfhild, who was acting most bizarrely. Back in the Mark, the girl had sometimes spent hours meditating in the family graveyard, but she had never claimed that she had talked with ghosts. It was not that Leofgifu did not believe in the supernatural, for indeed she did. However, she had seen Breguswith's slow descent into madness, and she worried for the sake of her troubled niece. She even feared that the same fate might happen to her.

In the Mark, poor souls such as Breguswith would have been pitied, but, alas, they were no longer in the fair land of Rohan. Leofgifu dreaded to think of what would eventually happen to that poor woman once the captives reached Mordor. The merciless fiends would feel no pity in their black hearts for a distraught, insensible woman, unless they could put her to some vile or unpleasant use. Leofgifu shuddered to think of what it might be.

The gruesome sights she had seen that day were troubling enough; thoughts of the future would only plunge her further into despair. Leofgifu refused to think any more about what might happen in the days to come. The ghastly battlefield with its stark reminders of death and defeat had brought woe enough.


The title is inspired by the line in the Rohirric poem about the Battle of Pelennor Fields, as found in the chapter with the same said name. The actual line reads, "Red fell the dew in Rammas Echor."