The twins spied a path leading away from the mill through a grove of trees to the south. After following the meandering way for a short distance, they came to the wood's edge. Keeping to the cover of the trees, they surveyed the land before them. There, just beyond where they stood, lay a flat, cleared section of ground with a single-story cottage and small barn. To the western side of the house was a barren garden bordered by a stone fence. The sisters could see a few pens for chickens and other small stock between the garden and the cottage. Behind the pens were several wicker bee skeps made from long straw woven with blackberry briars, but it had been many long days since the industrious bees had carried back the pollen which would keep the colony alive. Gazing over the whole scene, the sisters saw a stretch of meadowland bordered by distant trees beyond the cottage.
Even though the whole farmstead looked well-tended, there was no livestock in the field, and no chickens scratched the barren soil for worms and insects. The silence seemed overwhelming, and as Elfhild looked at her sister, her voice was low and hushed. "It is deserted! Now let us see if there is anything remaining in the cottage. Probably everything there has been pilfered by the orcs."
The sisters walked closer to the cottage, gathering up their courage to step inside. The cheerful paleness of the house's whitewashed sides was divided into large sections by the sturdy bent boles which composed its cruck frame. The thatched roof of weather-beaten straw sagged in the middle, but the sight of a bowing roof was so commonplace that the sisters paid scant attention to it.
In contrast to the woe-begotten doors in the village, which were either in a state of ruin or swinging wide open on their hinges, the sturdy door to the cottage was shut. Feeling a prickle of uncertainty trouble their minds, the girls ventured a cautious peek through one of the small, narrow windows along the front wall. Both expected to see nothing more than an empty house filled with rubble, the broken conglomeration of ruined lives and dreams. However, there before their surprised eyes was a large room which put them pleasantly in mind of their old home back in the Mark. At the sight, the two smiled at each other, and then boldly opened the door and entered the house. At last they had found a building which had been untouched by the orcs; perhaps here they could find supplies which would aid them on their journey.
There was the familiar brazier in the center of the floor, the fire pit surrounded by a square border of stones. The iron tripod, used for suspending a pot or kettle over the fire pit, had been moved away to the side. A large kettle, which Elfhild imagined as being filled with a savory stew that bubbled merrily as it released delicious aromas, had been placed on a stone nearby. Shelves holding wooden dishes, spoons, knives, and a collection of small earthenware jars and pots hung on the neat whitewashed walls. All seemed to be waiting for their absent owner to return.
At both ends of the pitched roof, the gables had been left open by the builders and served as small triangular vents to allow the smoke to escape. Covering about a third of the ceiling, an exposed loft had been built at one end of the house. From where the sisters stood, they could see a quantity of kegs and barrels arrayed along on its floor. To the sides of the whitewashed room, there were jars, containers, barrels and boxes, all those necessities that were so indispensable in the lives of peasants and small landholders.
To one side was a large oaken trestle table, light golden in color and well-polished, with two sturdy benches on either side. Two stools completed the furnishings of the simple but comfortable room. A door was set into the back wall, its covering an old blue blanket. To the right side of the door, there was a series of hooks for hanging clothes, pouches, and other necessary items. Everything in the spacious room was laid out in neat order, all arranged to be as convenient as a pocket on a shirt. As the sisters' eyes roved the chamber, they both felt a chill of fear race down their spines when they beheld, hanging neatly upon two of the hooks, a well-worn old gray hat, and beside it a patched brown woolen cloak.
"Elfhild, I think we ought to leave," Elffled whispered, her voice rising in panic. "Perhaps you did not notice, but the furniture and everything in this cottage is as clean as a hound's tooth. There is not a single cobweb or a speck of dust upon any of it! Someone lives here! We must leave before he comes back!"
"He has left his hat and cloak. I suppose it must be a man anyway, but possibly it could be a woman. Surely the owner must plan to come back for them," Elfhild replied, trying to keep her voice calm as her eyes darted about the room. She expected to see the householder barge through the door at any time. She took a deep breath and tried to steady her wildly beating heart. "But we have come this far safely enough, and surely we could venture a look into the other room. Perhaps we could find a pair of shoes for you. I know how those you are wearing pain your feet. Who knows the other things here that we might steal?"
"Steal?" Elffled gasped. "Elfhild, are we reduced now to petty thievery? Looting an abandoned house is one thing, but I am not sure I feel right about stealing from a living man or woman!" Gritting her teeth, her words came out in a hiss as she waved her arms frantically about the room. "What about the owner? Will not he or she object? If this place were mine, I would be very severe upon anyone whom I found pilfering my house!"
"Oh, 'Fled," Elfhild sighed dramatically, acting as though her sister was a simpleton. "I doubt very much that the original householder still lives here. The new owner is probably some deserter from the army of the Dark Land, an unscrupulous fiend who would sell his own mother into slavery if he could get a few pieces of gold out of her! I do not feel that such a man deserves to have the ill-gotten gains derived from his knavery. Besides," she added conspiratorially, "when you take from the enemy, it is not considered stealing; it is called 'confiscating.'"
Elffled raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Did you learn that from listening to the orcs?"
"As a matter of fact, I learned it from the Easterlings." Elfhild smiled sweetly, her dulcet voice filled with mischief. "Once on the journey east, I happened to be near to two of the Khandian cavalrymen and overheard them boasting about their exploits to some of the women."
"The Khandians!" Elffled exclaimed in mock horror. "Why, Hild, you are becoming corrupted!"
"At least I am not the one who wants to hear their warbling moans when they try to sing!"
"Hmph," Elffled muttered sourly. "Very well then. We will loot and pillage this house like a pair of orcs. Perhaps if we become accomplished at burglary, we can go on to become highwaymen, and strike terror into the hearts of travelers everywhere!"
"You are being silly," Elfhild giggled. "We will just take enough to survive, and no more. Now let us look inside this room."
Walking over to the door, the girls paused before it and drew back the blanket. The barrier loomed over them like a large wooden monolith, its large dark boards imposing. The sisters looked at each other. Elfhild swallowed, the saliva slowly sliding down her throat. Oh, this was ridiculous. It was not like they were stealing treasures from beneath the belly of a sleeping dragon. Taking a deep breath, she clasped the wooden door handle and jerked open the door.
"You go in first, Elfhild. You are the brave one!" Elffled's voice was edged with uncertainty. "I will be right behind you." She gave her sister's back a little shove.
"Oh, you are such a coward!" Elfhild grumbled as she rolled her eyes and then flounced through the doorway. She discovered that all her fears had been for naught. In fact, she was overjoyed by what she saw - a large bed illuminated in the dying light from the open window. Spread over a light quilt of dark blue was a magnificent covering of glossy gray fox furs sewn together. A pillow, inviting in its thickness, lay below the headboard. To Elfhild's eyes, it was the most marvelous bed she had ever seen in her life, but at this point, any bed would seem marvelous. As she gazed rapturously at its comfortable expanse, a wave of exhaustion swept over her. She wanted nothing more than to sink into its softness and give herself over to sweet slumber. Lifting a shaky hand to her forehead, she struggled to fight the sudden bout of lethargy.
"Elfhild," her twin asked in alarm, "are you well?"
She had almost forgotten about her sister, who was standing right behind her. "Yes, yes," she murmured distractedly, "just a little weakness."
Elffled lay a reassuring hand upon her shoulder. "Perhaps you should lie down a while; you are still weak from the heat sickness."
"No... no... I am fine, just a little dizzy spell," Elfhild muttered as she sank down onto the welcoming softness of the bed. "It will pass. Just let me sit a while." She was glad for the touch of her sister's hand. That warm, comforting presence on her shoulder was like a stone weight which held down a thatched roof in windy weather; it held her down to earth and kept her from floating back into a state of sickly lassitude. After she had rested several minutes, Elfhild gingerly rose to her feet. "We must hurry and take what we can ere the owner of the house returns to his domain. I will investigate the cupboard while you search through the trunks."
To the other side of the room were two chests, a stool, and a lovely, well-crafted oaken ambry. Eager to be away before the occupant of the house returned and just as eager to see what was inside the ambry, Elfhild hopped off the bed and quickly moved to the beautiful cabinet. She knew that householders often kept valuables stored away in these cabinets, and who knew what useful items she might discover inside? Perhaps - and her heart leapt to think of it - there might be chests filled with gold! Though she had never seen any of the priceless metal, she had heard enough about it to be able to recognize its shiny golden lustre. Perhaps on the journey to their northern homeland, they might meet some traveling peddler and could use the stolen coin to purchase food and supplies. Excited by this prospect, she tested the iron latch, and when it resisted her, she grew frustrated and angry. Pulling frantically on the latch, she tried to shake the unyielding ambry door open.
"Damn it, it is locked!" Elfhild wailed, resisting the childish urge to kick the leg of the cabinet.
"Still determined to be a robber?" Grinning mischievously, Elffled looked up from the contents of the trunk which she had been searching. "Perhaps you should try to master the fine art of lock picking first."
Flustered and embarrassed, Elfhild sputtered, "I thought there might be weapons inside, and you have to admit, weapons could stand us in good stead!"
"As degenerate as you are becoming, dear sister, I wondered if perhaps you might be looking for coins of silver and gold, jewelry, necklaces, brooches, rings, and other treasures," Elffled teased, arriving a little too close to the truth for Elfhild's comfort.
"So what if I were looking for gold?" Elfhild snapped defensively. Vexed at her sister, she looked around for something to throw. Spying a shoe near the ambry, she reached down and angrily hurled it at Elffled.
Ducking aside just in time, her twin chortled, "You could not hit the privy house door at three paces!" With a grin, she picked up the shoe that her sister had thrown at her and studied it. "Hmmmm... A little too large for me."
"Elffled, stop teasing me!" Elfhild frowned, enraged to the point of tears. Lifting up her foot, she kicked the ambry savagely and felt the shock of the impact shooting up her leg. "Oh!" she exclaimed, wincing as she hopped on one foot. "That hurt!"
"What do you expect when you kick something that is just as hard as your skull?" Elffled snickered. "I am finished with this trunk. Sadly you will be disappointed at the lack of golden coins and pretty baubles. There is nothing here except bed linens and old clothing."
"I give up on this wretched cabinet anyway." Angrily pushing back the wayward lock of hair which had strayed over her eye, Elfhild limped across the floor to Elffled. Bending down, she elbowed her sister aside and rummaged through the trunk. "It seems that the original owner of the house had a son, and his garments look small enough to fit us. Let us exchange our threadbare dresses for something better!" Gathering up a handful of musty-smelling clothing, Elfhild quickly undressed and was soon clad in a tunic and pair of breeches.
"Elfhild," her sister giggled, "no one will ever believe you are a lad!"
"I am not trying to make anyone think that I am! Now change your clothing and let us investigate the other trunk."
A search of the second trunk revealed that there were only a few items inside and nothing which would be of use to them. Picking up a bundle wrapped in thin linen, they found a woman's dress the color of dark wine. Wrapped up in other sheets of linen were a small miniature painting of a pale, rather austere looking young woman with large, wistful dark eyes and glossy blue-black hair, along with a few infant's garments, which were yellowed from age.
Elffled picked up the portrait and gazed down at it pensively. "I have never seen a painted likeness that was so similar to life." She ran a finger over the wooden frame. "I wonder who she was."
"Probably the lady of the house, but there is no way we will ever know." Disappointed that they had found no weapons or gold, Elfhild was in no mood for sentimentality.
"She was beautiful," Elffled murmured sadly as she studied the portrait. "She is probably dead now, and her family kept this chest of her belongings as a way of remembering her. I wonder what she would think of us rifling through her possessions."
"She would probably be more enraged at what the orcs and evil men have done to her country than she would be about a pair of homeless orphans looking at her things," Elfhild retorted, feeling somewhat offended by Elffled's comment. "Still, though, we will not take anything from this trunk; we have no need for the clothing of babies, and the lady's dress is far too long for either of us to wear without tripping over the hem. Now quit dawdling and change your clothes. We need to scour this place for food to take with us on the journey back to the Mark."
Walking over to the other trunk with the boys' clothing, Elffled pulled out a patched cloak, several faded tunics and pairs of breeches, an old belt, and some well-patched sheets and blankets and tied the whole lot up in a sheet. She thought of taking the pair of shoes that her sister had thrown at her, but besides having an odious smell about them, they were far too long and narrow for her feet.
"Though we might be new at this business of burglary, still let us congratulate ourselves on having some small success on our first venture," Elfhild remarked as she stooped down to retrieve a blanket and a stack of folded sheets from the first trunk.
"If we are going to make a trade out of this, I think we should stick to breaking and entering. I think it would be far less dangerous than highway robbery," Elffled commented wryly.
Elfhild smiled at her sister. "Now that we have new clothing and blankets, we need to gather up as much food as we can, as well as a few smaller pots and other supplies. Be sure to look for a tinderbox. With all our stolen food, we will soon have need of a cooking fire."
"Although I had reservations at first, I think I might take to this life of crime after all," Elffled giggled. "Perhaps we might even become famous chicken thieves someday!"
Elfhild wrinkled her nose. "Chicken thieves! Oh, 'Fled, do not be so silly! We never would be doing this if we were not driven to it by our desperate plight."
The two girls stared at each other, and then they dissolved into peals of mirth at the absurdity of the situation. "Robber!" Elffled giggled. "Chicken thief!" Elfhild shoved her sister playfully. Waves of laughter rolled over them, washing away all of the stress and tension that had grown between them, like dirt driven before the rain.
By the time they came to the door which led to the main chamber, their sides were aching from the strain of their laughter and tears streaked their cheeks. Another spasm of hilarity rolled over them as they walked through the doorway. Halting to catch her breath, Elffled brought a hand to her eyes to chase away the tears.
"Brigand, you!" Elfhild laughed, the grin on her face so big that her eyes were almost squeezed shut. She was on the verge of giving her sister another teasing jab in the ribs when her laughter froze in her throat, her merriment coming to an abrupt end.
To their horror, the twins heard a menacing, deep-throated growl outside the cottage, and then the door slowly swung open.