Return and Departure; or, True Journey is Return

I looked around at everyone gathered in a loose circle, their faces fair and fresh or old and weathered: Sigrun, Merewyn, all of these folk whose lives had become twined with mine over the past year. A smile broadened my cheeks, and I saw my happiness mirrored on the faces of everyone there. Even Ulrika and her sister seemed a little more cheerful now that their mother's brother had come to stay with them.

Midsummer's day had dawned fair and bright, with banners of cloud moving swiftly in a breeze that combed the willows by the stream like horses' streaming manes. Sigelm had driven a spear to mark the ground where we were to gather and Francha had tied red ribbons to its shaft. They flirted with the wind and flicked out to brush my cheek as I took my place beside the spear.

"People of Fossdale, friends, and neighbours. Most of you have seen but one winter here, but some have seen more." I stepped forward and drew Hereward out of the group by one hand. "You know by my witness that my uncle Elric intended to settle Fossdale on Hereward, his wife Leofwyn's son, upon his death. For this was his steading to pass to whomever he chose, kin or stranger."

I stood behind Hereward and set my hands on his shoulders. Goodness, the lad was growing! I could barely see over his unruly hair, and the beginning of his man's braid stuck out more like a stumpy pig's tail. "Hereward stands before you. Having reached his fourteenth year today, he is of manly age, able to hold Fossdale in his own name and by his own right. Would anyone here speak against my uncle's choice of heir?"

Sigelm stepped forward. "I knew Elric and Leofwyn. I worked with them and served them as my father Siglaf did before me, and I say that there is no-one else I would rather see this land pass to."

Hereward's ears turned red and he ducked his head. My smile spread so wide that my cheeks ached. "Then, Hereward son of Heruwulf, as my uncle Elric son of Elred would do were he here, I entrust you with the holding of Fossdale."

I stooped to one knee, pulled out my belt knife, and stabbed it deep into the sod. Sigelm had chosen well; here the ground was neither too stony nor too dry and after a moment of sawing and twisting with the knife I rose with a solid clod of earth in my right hand.

I slapped the handful of earth into Hereward's outstretched palm and held it there with my own. "Fossdale is in your hands now, Hereward, to sow and reap, to protect and to use. Seize it and hold what you take." I bent to give him a ceremonial kiss on each cheek and let go of his hand, leaving the soil resting there. He clasped it firmly in both hands and raised them above his head for all to see. Shouts and cheers rose to the sky.

As soon as Hereward carefully replaced the divot of earth, the celebration began. Someone had brought out a drum and a pipe, and an impromptu dance started up. Hereward lost all his new-found dignity and whirled round and round with Ashwyn until they fell into a laughing heap on the grass. It lightened my heart to see him play like a boy again.

We had been fortunate this spring, and thanks to rich fleeces and fertile ewes Fossdale had nearly returned to its former prosperity. With Sigrun and Sigelm staying here to watch over Hereward, I could depart for my new home in the Eastmark without any worries for my old one -- if, that is, the man I was betrothed to ever arrived… I rolled my eyes at my own nervousness. Wasn't I too old to be fluttering with anxiety? Elfhelm had promised to come today, and he kept his promises.

I grew more and more distracted as the day wore on and still he did not come. The sun had passed its noontide peak before I saw Elfhelm at last. He was on foot, weaving his way through the crowd toward me. Caught between wanting to run to him and severe shyness that everyone around us knew why he had come, I managed to hold my head high as he reached me, though I could feel my face turning scarlet.

Elfhelm evidently felt no such diffidence, for he set his hands at my waist, picked me up – I gasped and, I'm afraid, giggled like a silly girl – and swung me about in a half-circle. "Are you ready to leave, lady Elfled?"

"I am, sir Marshal," I said, matching his grave mock courtesy.

He grinned at me. "Good. Eomer says we are welcome to break our journey at Meduseld, and to marry there if we wish."

Our wedding was not a matter of state as it had been for Eowyn and her husband. We had pledged ourselves before our friends, as most people of the Mark did, and that was what truly mattered. I did not greatly care where or when we married, and I told him so.

"My sister Elswitha would prefer it if I brought you home to be married," Elfhelm said. "Don't worry," he added hastily. "She lives with her husband in Folde; you shall be mistress of your own household."

I laughed. "I am not concerned about that. I would be happy to let someone else manage the household for a time while I learn the Entwash country and its ways. I will spend my time dressing in finery and arranging my hair," I teased him.

Elfhelm smiled again and trailed his fingers down the braid that hung over my shoulder. "Then I shall be your lady's maid." I shivered as he played with the tassel of hair at the end.

"The sooner we are there, the better," I whispered.

"One more thing," Elfhelm said. He looked past me and signaled with his hand to someone I could not see. "I brought a bridegift for the journey. Close your eyes."

I smiled and closed my eyes, expecting perhaps another rich cloak for summer wear. But my hands remained empty and Elfhelm took me by the shoulders to turn me about. When he told me to open my eyes, I did -- and saw Hereward holding a leading rope at the end of which a grey mare danced.

It was Moth.

My throat closed and I could not speak. Moth frisked up to my side and butted me in the ribs with her head, shaking her mane braided with blue ribbons and slobbering down the front of my tunic. She looked wonderful, well-groomed and sleek, even a little too well-fed… "She is in foal!" I turned back to Elfhelm, who seemed extremely pleased with himself. "However did you persuade the horsebreeder to sell her back?"

"I promised to put Moth to his stud again, and to give him her next filly foal." He hesitated. "If that is agreeable to you. I did warn him that she was not mine--"

"Of course it is agreeable. Thank you, thank you." I threw my arms around Elfhelm and, forgetting everyone around us, kissed him on the mouth. A roar of laughter and shouts broke out. Hereward whistled. I blushed and pulled away to swat at him.

Elfhelm kept an arm about my waist. "Can we leave now?" he whispered, his warm breath brushing my ear.

I could barely gather enough air to speak. "As soon as I ready Moth."

I buckled the small saddlebag I had ready for the journey to the mare's harness. Sigrun had promised to send my clothes press by cart soon. The only belonging I had that was too precious to leave behind for even a day was Mother's tapestry. I made it fast behind the saddle, wrapped in its canvas cover, and went to say my farewells.

Hereward's eyes were red and his voice cracked as he I pulled him into a tight embrace and told him to take good care of Fossdale in case I came back for a visit. I didn't dare embrace Sigrun, but she kissed my cheek and I thought she might even have had a few tears in her eyes, though she swore it was thanks to smoke from the cooking spits. Sigelm, Francha, all the children: so many goodbyes to say, hands to clasp, kisses to give.

When there was no more to be said, I swung into Moth's saddle. She jinked and bounded in excitement. I laughed and let her have her head.

Elfhelm kneed his own gelding beside Moth. With more waves and calls of farewell, and promises to ride and visit soon on both sides, we set the horses on the path downstream. I turned my face toward the east and rode away to my new home.

Afterword

The title comes from Aragorn's and Eowyn's debate (LOTR Bk. 5 Ch. 2), in which he says to her:

"A time may come soon … when none will return. Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised."

And she answered: "All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more…"

I wanted to write a story reflecting the experience that an ordinary woman, one whose place was "in the house," would have been likely to have during the War of the Ring. As compelling a character as Eowyn is, she is a member of the elite -- and her fighting skills set her even farther apart from the majority of women in Middle-Earth.

This was one of the first pieces of fanfiction I ever started, shortly after the first Peter Jackson movie came out in December 2001, and the first novella I ever wrote. It's taken five years (!?!) but I finally completed it, learning a lot along the way. As my writing skills developed, I didn't go back and revise earlier chapters to reflect that, so there are things in it now that embarrass me. If I were to begin it today, it would be a completely different story; but that's true of everything we write, so I've chosen not to revise it heavily.

Thank you to all who read & reviewed. Some of you have (very flatteringly) asked about a sequel. I don't foresee writing one; much as I loved Elfled, her story feels complete to me at this point.

But if you want to know what happened, I think she lived contentedly in the Eastmarch, raising foals and children. At some point she & Elfhelm came back to the Westmarch (in this universe, remember, Elfhelm is Erkenbrand's sister-son and heir). Fossdale continued to recover and became prosperous under Hereward. And, to coin a phrase, they lived happily ever after.