Even from a distance, the sisters were struck by the total silence that lay heavily upon the landscape. Nothing moved upon the highway or within the village itself. All living creatures seemed to have vanished as though a plague had swept through the streets, killing everyone and everything and leaving only the empty buildings. As they studied the village from afar, the sisters were struck by the frightening absence of any sound, for there was nothing to lighten the burden of silence. An air of sorrow hovered over the town, as though it were a shrine dedicated to perpetual mourning.
Elffled halted and turned to her sister. "Hild, no purpose will be served by venturing into yet another wretched, burnt out settlement destroyed by war! What can we hope to gain?" she asked, gesturing with her hand. "There is nothing here for refugees like us! Let us just circle around the town and seek the western road!"
"Elffled, you should not be so downhearted all the time!" Sighing, Elfhild shook her head. "Though we have not been able to find any food or anything of use to us in the other places, perhaps we will be lucky here. At least we ought to be able to find a well with fresh, cool water so we can quench our thirst. The day has been very hot, and it has been long since we left the river." Attempting to buoy up the spirits of both of them, Elfhild forced her voice to be as cheerful as she could make it. The unnatural gladness reminded Elffled of some overly cheerful magpie, and she frowned. With a little snort of disapproval, Elfhild tramped on, her grumbling sister lagging behind, each footstep raising puffs of dust on the dry roadbed.
"Elfhild, this place is just as bad as the other village! Look!" Elffled pointed a condemning finger ahead. "Even from here, we can see there has been a fire! Though I am thirsty, I am not going inside this settlement! It is an evil place!" Planting her feet firmly, she crossed her arms over her bosom and glared at her sister.
"Well, just stand here in the middle of the road, never knowing what you missed by your stubbornness!" Elfhild tossed her head saucily. "I am going to explore!"
Elffled held her chin high and turned up her nose defiantly. "Go on then! Just go on! I do not care! You will find out I am right!"
"Oh, be a complainer if you want to be!" Elfhild spat out, her hands on her hips. "Stand out here in the hot sun and pout all day for all I care! I will be back as soon as I finish looking around." She turned on her heel and flounced away towards the village.
"If Elfhild had never listened to that foolish, goose-brained Goldwyn, we would not be in this present fix," Elffled silently fumed to herself as she watched her sister's form rapidly receding towards the village. "Goldwyn always thought that she was better than everyone else and far wiser, too. Just because her family was well-to-do and could read and write gave her reason to think that she could put on airs. Anyone would have thought that she was a noblewoman, but, oh no, she most certainly was not!"
Her eyelashes lowering halfway over her icy blue eyes, Elffled smirked contemptuously. "Even though her husband was a landholder, she was the same as the rest of us, a peasant! Hmmm... Well, maybe Goldwyn was a little different," she thought wickedly, chortling to herself. "Her precious feet always had shoes on them, while ours were often bare-shod. She never blundered into runny, stinking piles of hen manure the way we did. Might have done her some good if she had! Some chicken dung squishing between her bare toes might have brought her down from her great high horse to the same level as the rest of us!"
Elffled could see that her sister was nearing the buildings at the outer limits of the village, and she had not glanced back at her once! Elffled had never believed that her sister would just go and abandon her. They had always been inseparable. This was not like Elfhild at all. What had gotten into her lately? She had been acting odd ever since she had dreamt that strange dream and wandered off in her sleep. "But, yes," Elffled reflected sourly, "Elfhild is just going to leave me standing here! The days are dark when you cannot even depend upon your own sister!"
A sudden thought came to her, sharp in its intensity and dire in its portent. What if someone should come riding down the road? What if there were orcs lurking in the buildings? Elffled looked around fretfully, and though there was nothing moving in all of the broad sweep of meadow and pastureland, she did not feel safe. She felt naked and very vulnerable, as though she were a tiny ant on a broad, flat platter, and the cook, an enormous giant, loomed above her, a thumb poised to crush her. There was no place to hide in this great open expanse, not a tree, not a bush, not a shrub, not even so much as a hole in the ground!
Licking her lips, she swallowed nervously. Was that the sound of hoof-beats she heard; was the dark shape of a bush in the distance actually an approaching rider? Panic coursed through her. "Elfhild!" she shouted as she raced off to catch up with her. "Wait for me!"
Behind her, Elfhild heard the slapping of her sister's wet skirt as her rapid strides brought her closer. "I thought you did not want to see the town," she remarked superciliously, not even turning her head to glance at the other girl.
"I changed my mind," Elffled puffed as she fell into step beside her sister.
At the outskirts of the silent village, the sisters had their first close look at the mournful reminders of the conflagration which had swept through this part of the town. The first building that they came to was a large square structure on the right of the road. Though its thatched roof had been destroyed in the blaze, its badly scorched walls were still standing. The wording still legible, a partly charred sign over the front door hung askew, suspended by a single rusting chain. The forlorn-looking sign gave evidence that the lord who had named the village long ago believed that the place held good promise, for he had optimistically named it Ivrenlaer, which translates loosely as "Fruitful Meadow." Of course, since neither one of the sisters could read, the name was meaningless to them, but had they been able, both girls would have quickly seen the wry irony.
"Elfhild, look!" Elffled exclaimed, pointing at the sign. "It was a tavern! See the two tankards which touch rim to rim in a toast?"
"No more toasts will be raised here." Elfhild's smile was bittersweet. "Even though we have a terrible thirst, there will be no draught for us, for the bar has closed forever."
The next building on the right was also missing its thatched roof. Blackened and burnt, the supporting posts rose out of the ground like rotten teeth. The roof rafters which had escaped the blaze were charred and hung twisted and askance. The building beside it was a buckled ruin filled with assorted debris and surrounded by a random collection of rubbish.
"Perhaps it was a toy maker's shop?" Elffled, her emotions close to spilling over, fell into silence and stared at the mournful scene for a while. When she finally regained the fortitude to speak, her voice cracked. "See all the toy soldiers lying around in front of the building, either burnt or broken?"
Elfhild bent down and picked up a woebegone tin horse. "Poor thing! Blind in both eyes, its mane and tail burnt off, and missing a front leg! The knight who owned this proud steed can no longer give his lady love a ride upon its back, nor can he gallop into battle upon his destrier!"
Elffled turned on her sister. "Elfhild! You have the most irritating habit of being facetious at the most inappropriate times! This is not the occasion to be light and witty. Think!" she exclaimed, holding her arms out, palms open. "Where are all the children? What has become of them? Laugh at me if you will, but these wretched, ruined toys have upset me as much as anything could! They were made for children who will never play with them now! How horrible!" she exclaimed, nervously clenching her fingers together.
"Oh, 'Fled, I know it is terrible, and perhaps I am wrong for trying to be light, but if I think about all the tragedies of these days for too long, I shall shrivel up and die!" Elfhild looked down at the broken toy horse in her hand. At one time, it would have been quite grand, destined to be the prized possession of some fortunate child, the lucky son of a prosperous townsman. Neither Elfhild nor her brother or sister had ever owned a toy so fancy; all their playthings were made either of wood or cloth. Slowly she let the horse slip from her fingers to fall with a metallic clang upon the cobblestones.
"Oh, I know that you put on a good show, just like you did back at home when we put on plays for Father and Mother." Elffled's lips twitched in a weak little smile. "But these toys! We found that horrible piece of bone in the other village, and in this one, we find these pathetic toys, and both are equally tragic! The children who would have played with these little horses are now dead or languishing in some miserable slave camp! Oh, Hild!" she cried out, her face clouding up with tears. "My heart is heavy within me! Every place we journey, it is the same - burnt out villages, abandoned buildings, utter and total desolation! If we find any bodies or bones here, I think I shall go mad! The world has been plunged into grief and despair! Can you not see it? The Dark Enemy has won!"
Elffled fell into her sister's waiting arms and buried her head on her shoulder. "I want it all to go away!" she sobbed miserably as she clenched the back of her sister's dress. "Just close my eyes and it will all vanish as though it never was!"
A comforting arm about her sister's waist, Elfhild stroked the other girl's hair with her other hand and waited for the storm of sorrow to spend itself. "Just calm down now. You cannot bring them back by crying." Close to tears herself, she looked up into the heavens for strength.
Her hair disheveled, her face ruddy, Elffled opened her swollen lids and looked at her sister. She brought a hand up to her runny nose, wiped it with her fingers, and then hiccuped. "Do I look terrible?" she sniffed, blinking away tears.
"Aye, you do." Elfhild smiled sympathetically.
"All right, I have had my cry." Elffled pulled a rag from her sleeve and, blowing her nose loudly, she mumbled, "I am ready to go on now. I know I behaved terribly, but when I saw those ruined toys, everything just toppled in on me. After that, I think I can face almost anything." Sniffling loudly, she wiped her nose again and attempted a brave smile. "Come now," she sniffed again as she slipped her hand into Elfhild's.
As they followed the road towards the center of town, the devastation became worse. On either side of the street were the stark skeletons of two buildings. The destruction was so thorough that the sisters could not even guess the sorts of shops the structures might once have contained. Silent now, overwhelmed with the tragedy, the sisters walked, viewing the wreckage all about them. Facing each other across the road, two more gutted buildings came into view. Glass lay strewn in front of the structures, glinting in the light of the sun. A few more steps down the road took them to a crossroads in the center of the burnt part of the village.
"Look, Elffled, there is the village well, there, near the trees!" Elfhild exclaimed, pointing to a vacant lot where the stone enclosed base of the well stood. Behind the well was a row of neatly planted fruit trees, all barren and leafless now. "Surely we are in luck! There is even a pail hanging from the windlass!"
Hurrying over to the well, Elfhild reached for the pail. As she was about to lower the bucket into the dark interior, she saw to her horror that the shaft had been filled with dirt, charred debris, and broken stone. From the damp chamber below, a foul, putrid stench, reeking of rot and decay, wafted up to assault her nostrils.
"The damned orcs have been at work here! They have destroyed the well!" She turned disappointed eyes to her sister. "It smells like they must have thrown something dead into it to profane it even more! I feel like crying!" Coughing, she turned from the well and walked towards the street.
Sighing, Elffled licked her lips as she caught up with her. "Oh, Elfhild, I am so thirsty! If I do not have a drink soon, I am going to dry up like a flower in a drought!" she muttered as she wiped her sweat-dampened brow with her sleeve. "My throat is as dry as the dust on this road! What are we to do? Surely there must be a stream around here someplace! They could not have destroyed everything!"
"A draught of water would be every bit as welcome to me as it would be to you! Let me think..." Elfhild cradled her chin in her hand, her brow furrowed in thought. "Remember when we were swimming upstream and saw a stream emptying into the Anduin about a furlong or so below the dock? My guess is that if we follow this road that leads south, we are sure to come upon it. Though it would be out of our way and we will be forced to backtrack to the crossroads, it would be our best chance to find water."
"Then let us find the stream! I hate this dreary place!" Elffled exclaimed petulantly, sucking her lower lip into her mouth.
"Wait - look across the road!" Elfhild exclaimed, pointing at a building across the way. "The sign of the anvil proclaims that this was once a blacksmith's forge. Though the building has sustained some damage from the fire, perhaps we can find some scrap of metal that we could use as a weapon!"
In spite of Elfhild's hopes, an inspection of the shop revealed that everything of any worth had long been carried away.
"That was disappointing," Elffled muttered, kicking a charred chip of wood out of her path as they came out of the shop. "But everything is dismal and disappointing anymore," she declared moodily. "Do you know something? I feel like an old woman, and I am still young!"
"Maybe that is because you are acting like a whining old crone! Be quiet for a while! Look, what is that?" Elfhild exclaimed energetically, pointing towards a long, low one-story structure. "A building that is not burnt!" She dashed past her sister and then stopped and looked at the sign. "This was a barbershop. See the scissors? Let us go in and take a look."
"Elfhild, you sound like a child on her first trip to the market. Have you not learned anything yet?" Elffled grumbled, jogging up to her sister. "It is not worth our time to look into any of these buildings. Do you not realize by now what has not burnt has been looted?"
"You certainly are cheerful today," Elfhild smiled sweetly as she ventured into the building. She was not in the shop long before she returned, muttering dismally. "You were right."
"Told you so," Elffled returned triumphantly. "Look over there! Something that has not wholly gone to wrack and ruin!" She pointed across the street at a collection of stalls and kiosks which stretched towards the south.
"The fire never reached this far. This must have been the marketplace of the village," Elfhild told her after studying the rundown looking grounds.
"This must have been a bustling little village to support such a large market. How exciting it must have been here on market day!" Elffled exclaimed, her mood brightening when she saw that the fire had not destroyed all of the village. "I can just see all the farmers bringing their horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, and geese to be sold at the livestock auction. Remember the horse sales back home, and how Father would take us all to see them?" The smile on her face faded away as she was hit with the deepest of sorrows at the bittersweet memories. Choking back the lump in her throat, she surveyed the abandoned stalls and kiosks, trying to forget, at least for a while, the sorrows of the past and present. "I can just imagine their wives and daughters selling delicious pies, cakes, pastries, and other wonderful things to eat. Oh, I can just taste a delectable piece of cake drenched with cream and topped with plums and cherries!"
"Since we are feasting upon imaginary food, I would like to have a piece of roast beef with some succulent boiled vegetables." Falling back to her usual hopeful mood, Elfhild licked her lips. "Hmmm... carrots, cabbage, onions... No, I have changed my mind. I want a roast duck or goose... and a delicious salad of fresh greens, green onions, and burnet, topped with some dressing made from vinegar, honey and linseed oil. For desert, strawberries and fresh cream, and some red pudding made from currants... I am not particular, just so it is sweet and juicy."
"You forgot the bread and cheese," Elffled giggled, getting into the spirit of the fantasy, eager as youth always is to escape the grim realities of existence and wander into the realms of make-believe. "I must have freshly churned butter with my bread and rolls. Oh! And some sweet berry wine! As long as we are eating food that we do not have, we might as well make a great feast of it!"
"At least we do not have to wash the nonexistent dishes," Elfhild giggled. "Now let us hurry along to the stream. But - look - there is another unburnt building just up ahead!" Trotting briskly, she came to the sign above the door. "A wainwright," she pointed to the miniature wagon wheel hanging above the door. "Nothing in there either. I can see through the open doorway," she remarked glumly.
"And this next one is going to be as empty as all the rest." Elffled pronounced as they walked towards the next building. "This shop belonged to a leather worker. See the boot on the sign? Oh, how I wish this shop were still in operation! I could certainly use a new pair of shoes!"
"And what would you use for money to pay for them?" Elfhild grinned ruefully. "Of course, since we are eating imaginary food, we might as well buy imaginary things. You want shoes, but why be content at that? While you are at it, perhaps a richly crafted bag, belt or pouch would suit you. However, I would advise something far more practical for us - oil-skins and blankets. Then we could sleep on one and cover ourselves with the other and dream the night away without fear of being drenched by rain or dew."
"Then since we are buying and paying with imaginary money, I will have some of everything!" Elffled giggled. "New clothes, new shoes, and a generous meal washed down with wine!"
"'Fled, quit thinking about food and finery for the time. We have come to the last of the buildings on this street. See the image of the pot?" Elfhild waved to the sign. "The man who ran this shop was a potter. Oh, and look, Elffled! You can see the stream from here! What a glorious sight! I will race you to it!" she shouted as she took off at a sprint towards the creek.
"No fair, Hilde! My feet hurt too much! I can barely walk!" Elffled groaned, watching her sister as she headed towards the stream.
"But you surely can complain!" Elfhild taunted as she left her sister standing behind at the potter's shop. She could taste the cool water already!
Soon she came to a fine stone bridge over the stream. There she paused, breathing heavily and resting her arms on the stone railing of the bridge. Downstream along the northern banks of the watercourse, she could see a large grove of trees. On the southern side of the stream were wide fields bordered by a section of woods a goodly distance away. Her eyes followed the course of the clear flowing stream until they rested on a large three-story building with a few outbuildings nearby. "A mill!" she thought, jubilant with the discovery. "What a pity it would have been had it been destroyed!"
At last catching up with her sister, Elffled stood beside her on the bridge. She could not believe her eyes and questioned whether the mill were only an illusion, a trick of her distraught mind. Her eyes shining, she turned to Elfhild. "Do you see it, too? Is there a mill really there?"
"Aye, it is really there." Unwilling to take her gaze from the mill, Elfhild smiled to her sister out of the corner of her eye.
"What a fine mill, and set in such a pretty place with the trees all about it! How I would like to see the miller grinding grain! But alas, the mill wheel no longer turns!" Elffled looked to her sister, her eyes pleading. "Oh, please, let us explore it! I would like to see the wheel up close and go inside and see the stones that grind the meal. Remember when we used to watch the miller grind grain at the mill back at home? Let us explore!" She tugged at Elfhild's sleeve like an excited child at a fair.
"No," Elfhild stated firmly, shaking her head. "The mill will be just as empty as the other buildings were. Now we are going quench our thirst and then we are going to return to the crossroads, where we will head west. We do not have time to tarry for anything, no matter how refreshing to the eyes it might be."
"Go ahead," Elffled shrugged, releasing her sleeve. "Go wherever you want. I am tired of following your orders all the time! I am hungry, thirsty, sweaty, filthy, and no matter what you say, I am going to see the mill!" Their tempers flaring once again, the sisters scowled at each other until at last Elffled spun around and stormed off.
Elfhild was flabbergasted at her sister's mutiny. She started to protest but could only stare after her twin as she flounced across the bridge. Open-mouthed, she watched as Elffled gingerly made her way down the short, steep slope which led off the road. Never glancing back, Elffled stopped to drink a few handfuls of water at the stream's edge. Then she rose to her feet and strode purposely towards the mill.
"Oh, damn it, Elffled, wait for me!"