Elfhild lay floating in the strange place between slumber and dream, random visions lazily drifting through her mind like petals carried by the peaceful waters of a gentle brook. Scenes shifted like seasons changing and judgments made became muddled, only to transform into new ones which were deemed sound for that particular moment. Yet underlying all the central themes which composed the strange harmony in her head there was woven a note of discord: a sense of growing urgency. Subtly at first, it penetrated her addled thoughts and slowly heightened from vague unease to a compelling, commanding impulse.
They must rise! Soon they would be hearing the horns of the orcs announcing that another dreary day of captivity had begun. Elfhild opened her eyes, and, blinking, looked around, observing the world about her through blurred vision. To her great surprise, she saw not an orc in sight, neither an Easterling nor a Southron, nor any of the other captives. There was only the still form of her sister beside her, sleeping peacefully upon her side, her head resting upon the crook of her outstretched arm. They were still in the small grove of trees which they had chosen as a resting place early that morning, far from Osgiliath and the evil Southrons. Elfhild sank back upon the ground with a sigh, almost laughing in relief.
They were free!
They had actually done it! They had escaped!
She closed her eyes for a moment and reveled in that small victory, but the fullness of her joy was short-lived. She knew that they could not stay in one place for long, lest the slavers find them. They must journey on. Each step took them closer to their beloved homeland. What would they find there? What would befall them along the way? Excitement, hope and apprehension all swirled about inside her, as well as a crushing sense of loss when her thoughts returned to the family and friends whom she had left behind.
Gnawing on her bottom lip, Elfhild tried to push all thoughts of sadness into the back of her mind. It would do no good to grieve and worry. Instead, she would think of the future - not the immediate future, which was fraught with uncertainty, but the distant future which still dwelt in dreams and fantasies. Yes, that was the key, she thought resolutely. Her hopes would sustain her through the dark days to come. They would be like the strongest shirt of mail and sturdiest shield, for despair was an enemy far greater than any orc or man.
Ah, but enough of such serious ponderings. Now to rouse her sister. After pushing herself into a sitting position, she laid her hand upon the other girl's shoulder. "Elffled, wake up," she exclaimed cheerfully.
Elffled opened her eyes and blearily looked up at Elfhild, blinking from the intense light which flooded her vision. "What on earth could she want," she wondered, mumbling her displeasure at being awakened.
"'Tis our first day of freedom!" Elfhild explained, smiling at her sleepy sister. "Rise and enjoy this beautiful morning!"
"Aye, and I have traded one slave-driver for another, and a mad one at that," Elffled muttered crossly as she sat up. Such good cheer was not appreciated when one had been awakened unnecessarily from restful slumber and pleasant dreams. Both were hard to come by in such days.
"I am no slave-driver!" Elfhild protested defensively. "You are so surly in the mornings! If I were a real slave-driver, I would certainly lay the lash upon your back!" Laughing, she mussed her sister's tangled hair, making sure to dodge the retaliatory slaps of Elffled's hand.
"Damn her," Elffled thought, in no mood to put up with her sister's foolishness. Why was she so happy? Here they were, in the middle of nowhere, far from their aunt and cousin. What good had come from this ill-conceived escape attempt? By fleeing from the foe, they had deserted the only family they had left. Oh, how Elffled hated Goldwyn! She had done far more harm than the slavers ever had. The men of the South and East, though they were all savage barbarians, at least would have allowed the captives to stay together until the end of the journey. Now the great tragedy which loomed in the future like the clouds of a fell storm had come to pass prematurely, and what little time that Elffled had with her family and friends had been squandered. And for what? Naught but a foolish hope.
Never had she expected that Goldwyn's silly plan would actually be successful. She had counted on the vigilant guards to save her from the stupidity of the other captives, but the worthless Haradrim had failed her! Though it was absurd and made no sense at all, she felt just as angry at the Southrons as she did at Goldwyn. Now there was no going back. Or was there? If she and her sister surrendered to the slavers, would they be tortured for having tried to escape? Elffled did not know. Perhaps she was an evil traitor for even thinking such thoughts, but she could not help it! She was just a selfish girl whose only wish was to be back with her aunt and cousin.
Feeling utterly wretched, Elffled heaved out a sigh. Truly they had escaped, and she hated every moment of that so-called triumph. Oh, how she missed Leofgifu and Hunig, and all her other relations, friends and acquaintances! Even when she dwelt back in the Mark, she had seldom been more than a mile away from her family for any length of time. Her heart felt as though it were breaking, and it was a challenge to keep the tears at bay. Was not her sister even the slightest bit sad, or had Goldwyn's impassioned speech driven her little brain out of her skull? Oh, how she hoped this madness would pass, and pass soon!
The late morning sun shone down through the aborted leaflets which clung forlornly to the boughs of the trees, offering little shade below. Though it was the middle of June and the woods should have been filled with bright green foliage, to the trees the season was yet winter. Some would never see another summer again, for they now stood as still and solemn as stone memorials, and just as lifeless. It was a demented forest, hungry for light and rain after being buried alive in a grave of darkness.
Spring had come, but it had been blighted, and delicate buds had developed over time into elongated spurs, wan and sickly of color. The pale, bony fingers of the branches stretched out like hands, skeleton trees barely clinging to life. Since the war had broken out in the spring, the trees had fought their own battle against the billows of smoke and fumes which assailed them from the East. Tiny, silent mouths screamed for water and only choked upon the smothering filth which filled the air and coated deformed leaves in a film of suffocating grime. In this dreadful morass of sulfur and brimstone, the trees floundered in pain and anguish like blind men cast into a sea of poison.
At last, the rain had come and the clouds of Mordor had been driven back across the Mountains of Shadow, but it still would be some time ere the woods of Gondor and Rohan would fully recover. The spring in the West had been disrupted and utterly destroyed - just like another Spring long ago beyond the distant reaches of time.
The sisters breakfasted beneath the ailing trees. The continuing theme of Elfhild's conversation was the daring escape, of which she spoke about with great enthusiasm, much to her sister's annoyance. Oh, how Elffled wished she could get Elfhild’s gratingly cheerful voice to be still for a moment! Everything seemed so surreal, like some half-remembered recollection from a fever dream conjured up during a night of restless sleep. Elffled's mind struggled to comprehend all that had happened since last night, but it was as though a thousand ages had passed since then, and they were trapped in some madman's nightmare. "Or woman's," Elffled reflected spitefully, thinking of Goldwyn.
"Truly we are fortunate," Elfhild reminded her, the words seeming to mock Elffled, even though they contained no malice. "No more orders, no more leering faces, and not one Southron and Easterling in sight! I do not think that I shall miss them at all." Laughing, she added, "I can barely believe that we escaped! It seems so strange... I have to keep pinching myself to remind myself that this is not just a wishful dream."
"Now that we are free," Elffled inquired, turning a steely gaze upon her sister, "what do we do now?"
Elfhild stared at her for a moment in total disbelief. "Do? What do you expect us to do? Why, we will walk until our feet ache too much to carry us," she replied haughtily, stepping into her role as self-appointed leader. "Then we shall rest and walk some more. It is a two-day journey back to Minas Tirith and the Great West Road, but we must not go towards the city! I think our best course would be to head due west until we come to the road. If our luck holds up, we shall reach it tomorrow night or the next night. Then we will follow its path at a distance, so as not to be detected by any patrols. That way, we will be far north of the Mundburg and the vast numbers of enemies there. The road is the only sure landmark of which I am familiar, and I do not want to get us hopelessly lost."
"Do you realize that it will take us almost a month to get back to where our village once stood? And we have little food... and no weapons... and we shall be walking through territory now held by our enemies... Does not the realization yet dawn upon you that most people would think our plight hopeless?" Elffled clamped her mouth shut. Oh, who ever listened to her anyway?
"I prefer to worry about only one day at a time," Elfhild remarked, brushing aside all of her sister's concerns with a meaningless phrase meant to encourage. "We shall worry about that when we cross the Mering Stream and our feet tread across the blessed fields of the Eastfold."
Elffled shrugged, not wishing to press the matter. It would only make her feel even more woeful. This foolish escape attempt had been talked about incessantly, and she was sick to death of hearing great, heroic speeches. If she heard another one, she would surely scream!
"Since we are through eating, I will put the food away," Elfhild sighed. She was still hungry, but she would not eat any more. That was another worry which troubled her mind, much more than she let on. How would they obtain more food when their supply ran out? There would not be anything growing for quite some time. "Maybe a few people yet remain in Anórien," she reflected. "Surely the orcs did not destroy every village and capture every man, woman and child! If a village were located at a goodly distance from the road, then surely it would remain untouched... I only hope that there are a few people left to help us, and not all have fled into the mountains!"
As Elfhild returned the remnant of bread to her cloak, Elffled looked to the territory beyond the little grove. Stretching far to the north, south and west were barren fields and the brown blotches of even more leafless trees. Here, far from the other captives, Elffled felt keenly aware of the desolation which spread for miles and miles, the sense of total isolation, as though she and her sister were the sole survivors of some horrible calamity.
"I wonder if the land will ever be green and fruitful like it once was," she sighed, just to distract herself from the feeling of uttermost emptiness.
"At least the sun has returned." Elfhild's eyes darted up towards the golden orb in the sky. "Soon the land will recover, and all will be as it was before."
But how could it be? Elffled wondered. So much had changed. Even if time restored the Mark to its former glory, still it would never seem like home. All that they had known was gone; their village destroyed; their mother dead; their friends and relatives taken into captivity. What made home a home – the land itself, or the people who dwelt there? Though Grenefeld had been sacked, Elffled felt as though the whole village had traveled with them. Family, friends, and neighbors had suffered together on every step of the eastward journey, each woman sharing the fears and sorrows of all the others. Sometimes she had imagined them all as a clan of wandering herdsmen from the northern regions of Rohan, though they were not wanderers by choice.
But now Elffled and her sister were all alone. Oh, how she missed her aunt and cousin! What joy was there in returning to Rohan if their beloved kinswomen were not with them? Now they were sundered forever! She almost wished that her aunt had reconsidered her decision to stay behind and had accompanied them on their flight. She felt so lost, so frightened, so desperate.
Sensing her sister's unease, Elfhild asked gently, "What is wrong? You seem troubled... I know you are worried about the future, but we cannot fall prey to despair, lest we become so sorrowful that we just give up."
"Oh, I was just thinking about Aunt Leofgifu and Hunig... I wonder if they decided to escape." Elffled's fingers absently trailed along the ground, pensively tracing over the rough texture of a small stone.
"Last night everything happened so fast... I – I could not be certain what transpired after we said our farewells." Elfhild shook her head sadly. "Leofgifu was quite adamant about not going, but perhaps she changed her mind. Maybe they are making their way west, even as we now speak. Maybe we shall meet them along the way, and they will travel with us."
"That would be good," Elffled sighed, her words empty and hollow. Everything that could be said had been said, and she was tired of talking anyway. She sank into an uncomfortable silence. She missed her aunt and cousin so much that it felt as though they had died and she was grieving. Oh, how soon would it be ere Elfhild came to her senses and realized that they were doomed out here all by themselves? And how soon would it be ere the two of them were recaptured?
The two sisters walked on in silence beneath the canopy of stretching limbs. The sun filtered down through the boughs, making patterns of light and shadow upon the ground. The morning was a hot one, but the breeze felt refreshing and pleasant as it stirred their hair and gently pushed at their skirts. To their side, the Great River rolled on, ever flowing towards the Sea as it had for thousands of years.
Soon they had left the grove behind them and set their course upon a meandering path which led them beside a wide meadow. The ground was covered with tufts of dead grass which had sprouted up in the spring, but soon wavered and perished from drought. Where the ground was rougher, daisies and other flowers should have been blooming, but the land was barren, still healing from the Dark Lord's ruin.
Elfhild wondered if a farmer had lived there and if his daughters had once played in the field, weaving chains of flowers to wear as circlets and necklaces. That thought brought a smile to her face, but the expression soon faded. Far, far towards the west, she thought she saw tiny shapes moving.
"Elffled, I think I see something in the distance!" A small stream had its course a little ways north of the meadow, and upon its banks there rose up a line of trees and bushes. Pointing towards the thicket, Elfhild ordered, "Quick, climb one of the trees! Pick one with sturdy branches and climb as high as you can. Look out over the surrounding lands and see if there are enemies to the west! You know how I am afraid of high places!"
"Let us make haste," Elffled exclaimed, alarm making her heart beat faster. The twins sprinted across the path and towards the stream, taking cover within the thicket. Soon Elffled had located the tallest tree she could find, a large plane tree which dug its thick roots deep beneath the bed of the watercourse. Grasping the first stout branch which was within her reach, she carefully scaled up the wide bole and soon rested high above the ground between two massive limbs.
"Do you see anything?" Elfhild's hushed voice demanded.
"Unfortunately, yes," Elffled replied, looking down at her sister. "Men on horses... others on foot... maybe orcs. They appear to be heading northward."
"Oh, no! They will be scouring the land for those who escaped! We cannot go west, but we cannot stay here! We have to keep moving, lest we are found!"
Panic rose in Elffled's voice. "What do we do then?"
"I am afraid we will have to go back the way we came," Elfhild sighed, slumping against the tree in defeat. "Since we cannot go west, we must follow the Anduin for a while. As far as I can tell, it runs a straight course from north to south, almost identical to the path of the Great West Road. The river will not lead us wrong! We can use it as a guide, and then when the danger has passed, we head west again. Hopefully by tomorrow morning, the search parties will have gone elsewhere, and we can resume our journey."