The sun was sinking behind the dark mountains to the west, and Elffled's stomach was sinking from want of food. By the way her belly was growling, she felt as though she had swallowed some sort of creature which was desperately trying to gnaw its way through the walls of her stomach. Her supper had consisted of a few torn up pieces of bread and some fishy tasting water from the Anduin – a far cry from a satisfying meal. Though she did not like it, she understood why they had to be very careful with their food. In order to make their meager supply last longer than a day, they had to be very cautious about what they ate... which meant going hungry most of the time.
"How silly is this whole plan," Elffled grumbled as she finished off the few crumbs which Elfhild had allocated for the evening meal. "How can we get back to the Mark with such little food? We cannot even raid some Gondorian's garden because the orcs destroyed everything back in the spring!"
"Elffled, you know as well as I do that we have to watch what we eat because we do not know when we will find food," Elfhild dutifully reminded her. "It is my prayer that we will find a village that was spared by the orcs and obtain adequate supplies for the journey there."
"But what if they all look like the one we saw earlier today? Naught but ruins and ashes, the dwelling places of ghosts." Elffled dreaded what they would see as they traveled west. The journey to Minas Tirith was made beneath the oppressive clouds of Mordor, and the darkness which filled the sky had restricted the range of vision. Now, though, they would see the extent of the devastation of Gondor in the light of day.
"Surely, in all the land of Anorien, there are at least a few survivors of the war. Not everyone has been murdered or taken captive. We just have to find those who remain and seek their aid." Though Elfhild had begun to despair after seeing the ruined village, talking like this made her feel more hopeful about the journey.
"Well, if we do not find food or help within the next day, we will starve to death." Elffled knew her words were filled with gloom and doom, but she did not feel like covering up the truth.
"I am certain we will find someone who will help us." Elfhild smiled reassuringly. "I just have a feeling."
"You know, if we had not run away, we could be eating good food right now and not be worrying about what we will eat tomorrow," Elffled grumbled. Shaken by the sight of the ruined village, unhappy at the prospects of wandering through a desolate wasteland on a hopeless quest, and tormented by hunger, her temper began to flare.
"We will get to the Mark, and we will not starve," Elfhild proclaimed, her voice filled with a resolution she did not feel.
Elffled felt her fists clench of their own accord. "You know, it took us over twenty days to walk from the ruins of our village to the ruins of Mundburg. And we have what? Scraps we managed to hide over the course of a single day without the guards noticing? Scraps, mind you, Elfhild - not even enough food to make a whole meal. Dear Lady Goldwyn is certainly a brilliant planner... She has about as much foresight as a five-year-old who decides to run away from home carrying naught but a chunk of bread wrapped up in a handkerchief." Her eyes blazing, Elffled laughed sarcastically.
"Goldwyn gave us hope when we had none before," Elfhild insisted, coming to the defense of the woman who masterminded the escape attempt. "We were all too downtrodden even to consider escape, but she showed us that, with planning and coordination, we could throw off the shackles of our oppressors and flee." Elffled's words were true, Elfhild realized with a sinking feeling. The escape attempt was hastily planned and little thought had been given to provisions and what the captives would do if they managed to evade their captors. But Elfhild did not want to admit the truth to herself, much less her twin.
"Hope is the thing that composes the dreams of fools," Elffled retorted, wondering for a brief moment how she became so jaded. "And Goldwyn is the biggest fool of all to have come up with this insane scheme." A childhood memory suddenly came to Elffled's mind, and she laughed bitterly at the appropriateness of it. "You know, this whole wretched situation reminds me of an old tale Grandmother used to tell us."
"Tell me the story; it will be better than hearing your never-ending complaining." Elfhild crossed her arms over her chest and gave her twin a look of annoyance.
Ignoring Elfhild's barbed words, Elffled began to speak. "There was once a traveling minstrel who wandered from village to village, playing songs for coin. One day, he came to a town which was suffering from a horrible infestation of rats. The minstrel, who was also a magician as well, offered to rid the town of the vermin. The thane readily agreed, and the minstrel began to play an enchanted melody upon his flute that caused all the rats to follow him out of the town. So besmitten with the song were they that all of the rodents hopped in the River Entwash and drowned. The minstrel returned to the thane for payment, but the thane, who was a dishonest ruler, instead exiled the man from the town. Enraged, the minstrel began to play a song on his magic flute, and all of the children of the town fell into a trance, leaving behind their families and homes to follow the minstrel wherever he went." Elffled paused for dramatic effect and to give her words a chance to penetrate her sister's thick head. "Goldwyn is like that minstrel; she poisoned the minds of women and children with her words of false hope and led the innocent away to die in the wilderness."
"How dare you say such cruel, horrible things about Goldwyn!" Elfhild cried, aghast.
"Every word of it is true!" Elffled's voice was loud and shrill. "You have to stop dreaming and face reality, Elfhild. We have to go back and turn ourselves in! It is either that or starve to death!"
"No! No! Not after we have come so far!" The thoughts of humiliating herself before the Southrons horrified Elfhild. "We must press onward! We cannot give up now!"
"Elfhild, you should really hear yourself talking! You sound as mad as that shrew Goldwyn! Anyone who would believe such rubbish as she spouted must be even madder than she is! I cannot believe I have a lunatic like you for a sister!" As soon as she saw the look of hurt on Elfhild's face, Elffled realized that she had made a mistake.
Stricken to the core by her sister's hurtful words, Elfhild stared blankly at the other girl for a long moment before she burst into tears. Sobbing, she leapt to her feet, turned on her heels, and fled into the gathering dusk.
"Run away!" Elffled shouted after her. "I hope the slavers catch you! You are too stupid to live out here on your own!"
Sighing heavily, Elffled slumped back upon the ground, lying there as though utterly exhausted. Let Elfhild pout like a bratty little child! She was a misguided fool, like all the rest of them.
Feeling quite sorry for herself, Elffled lay on the ground and stared for a long while at the deep blue of the evening sky. Soon guilt caught up with her, like an opponent in a brutal race. Perhaps she was wrong in condemning her sister. Elfhild did, after all, think she was doing the right thing by adventuring this quest. Maybe it was the right thing. Who was the judge of things like that? The Gods, perhaps, but they did not share their secrets. Would their ancestors have deemed her right or wrong? Who knew the thoughts of dead men from a defeated land?
It was getting darker by the minute, and still Elfhild had not returned. The sun had gone down, leaving behind only her memory in the form of a faint rosy glow which tinted the dark blue sky. Her anger cooling like the evening air, Elffled began to feel sad and lonely. She should not have been so harsh on the other girl and allowed her pent-up frustrations to get the best of her. Of course, Elfhild would never leave her, though that unsettling thought had crossed Elffled's mind. Elfhild was just in a pout and would return when she had come to her senses. Back at home, she would run off to the family burial ground to cry on her grandmother's barrow whenever she was upset. Other times, she would hide in the woods, giving everyone quite a fright when they came looking for her. Here in the wilderness, though, it was not safe to wander alone. Steeling herself, Elffled rose to her feet and walked into the forest in search of her sister.
Elfhild sat upon a fallen log, her chin resting in her hands. Her chest ached from the force of her coughing sobs and her eyes felt sandy from the flood of tears which had run down her cheeks. She stared into the mist which had slowly begun to rise along the line of skeletal trees by the waters of the Anduin. The gloominess of her surroundings complimented her mood quite well, and she almost welcomed the darkness of the gloaming as her spirit sank ever deeper into pensive melancholy.
She was being torn in twain, as though two strong men had seized her by each wrist and were pulling her in opposite directions. Elffled would have her turn back and beg mercy from their enemies, and Goldwyn would have her press relentlessly forward. Which one was right? Which one was wrong? What was the right decision? Or was there one?
She sighed heavily, her heart aching. She felt so lost without her father and mother there to guide her. Her birthday was in two days and she would be a year older, but she still felt much like a child. She was much too inexperienced to make such complicated decisions. What did she know of surviving in the wilderness and planning great journeys? She had never gone hunting and seldom went fishing, nor did she know aught of fighting. The skills at which she excelled - cooking, cleaning, weaving, spinning, sewing, gardening, gathering herbs, tending to animals, and taking care of a house - were virtually worthless out here in this wasteland, for nothing was growing and most of the animals had wandered off in search of greener pastures. At this stage in the journey, it was too dangerous even to risk starting a fire for warmth or cooking, for the smoke would be seen by the enemy.
When Goldwyn had first talked about escaping, Elfhild had imagined that she and her sister would be traveling with a large group of people. There would have been older women to offer leadership and advice, and doughty lads to help protect them. Actually, Elfhild's troop would have been the ideal arrangement - Goldwyn was an indomitable leader and Waerburh made a worthy second-in-command; Fródwine and Frumgár were strong and courageous boys with a wealth of knowledge in woodcraft and hunting; and Leofgifu was a giver of wise counsel. Elfhild and Elffled could help with cooking and gathering food; even fight if need called. The whole group could help protect little Fritha and Hunig and poor Breguswith.
Elfhild had never expected to journey alone. Of course, they might not have to; maybe they would meet some of the other captives and then they could flee back home together. She could hope... she did that a lot. Maybe that was a bad quality, for oft did her confidence that good fortune would always prevail make her blind to reality. Perhaps that was why she was in this mess in the first place; she had allowed herself to become too wrapped up in Goldwyn's impassioned speeches.
Ah, but she had felt such a powerful feeling of camaraderie then, as though she and the other women were united as one powerful, living, breathing entity. She looked up to the cobalt heavens above her, sighing wistfully as she recalled how brave and mighty she had felt. They were as riders the night before a battle, steeling themselves for the final charge! Honor and glory would be theirs, and their tales would be told in song for many long years to come.
A wavering little smile came to Elfhild's lips when she thought back to the night when she had listened with rapt attention to Goldwyn's bold conspiracy, as though the older woman were some golden goddess of war and she were an humble devotee. How honored and important she had felt when she had spread the word to the other captives! Goldwyn was such a strong and heroic woman, somewhat like Elfhild's own mother, but far more audacious and daring.
Her mother... Elfhild lightly pressed a hand to her grieving heart and struggled to keep the tears at bay. What would her mother have done, had she not been so ruthlessly murdered? Would she have accompanied her daughters on their flight, or would she have forbidden them from going? It was difficult to say. True, Athelthryth had fought like a warrior to defend her home, but would she have counseled her daughters to risk everything to escape?
Athelthryth and Leofgifu had been the best of friends, and the two women were much alike in their thinking. Would Athelthryth have also considered Goldwyn's plan to escape as foolish madness? A cruel, mocking thought flailed Elfhild's mind with agonizing guilt - would she have abandoned her mother as easily as she had done her aunt? Elfhild's fingers clenched the fabric of her dress as her body slumped forward slightly. No, no! That was unthinkable! Her head swam and she felt sick to her stomach.
"Oh no," she moaned piteously, "what have I done? I have forsaken my own aunt and cousin, and for what? I do not really know... I do not really know." Oh, never in her life had she felt so uncertain, so confused, so frightened!
Elfhild felt the wall of reckless bravado she had raised about herself begin to crumble, and she was a timid, fearful little girl once more. She must run back and beg her aunt's forgiveness! What was she doing here? Her breath was now coming in heavy pants, as though she had run a great race. The trees seemed to grow taller, the shadows deepening, becoming ominous and foreboding. Her fingers trembled and she clenched her fists in a futile effort to still them. Oh, what had she done? What had she done? She ran her fingers through her dirty hair, clutching at the tangled strands.
"I must not panic," she murmured, striving with herself. "I cannot panic! It will serve no use and only make the situation worse!" Closing her eyes tightly, Elfhild took a deep breath, held it, and then released it slowly. She was in control. Yes, she was in control. She and her sister would get back to the Mark. They would find their relatives in one of the refugee camps. Just when all seemed lost, somehow the enemy would be defeated and driven from their land. She would marry Osric, raise a family, and live to be a grandmother. Her tale would have a happy ending. Good always triumphed over evil! Yes... yes. That was it. Breathe slowly, deeply, pause between taking breaths. Yes, that was it.
Suddenly Elfhild heard a noise, the muffled sound of a foot stepping down upon a stick. She froze, then relaxed, realizing Elffled had come looking for her. Then the urge to flee came again. Her poor feelings had been raked over the coals by her dear sister, and she was in no mood to talk to the little witch. Springing to her feet, she began briskly walking away.
"Elfhild!" Elffled called, hurrying to catch up with her.