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Chapter 11 – Return Beyond All Hope
The rest of the day was spent dealing with the aftermath of battle. Seven of the soldiers of Rohan had died, and another dozen were wounded, along with the two wounded women. The men of the eored raised a mound over their fallen. They dragged the dead orcs into a pile and set them burning. One of Theodred’s men was trained as a battle surgeon, and he recruited several of the women to help tend the injuries. None of them were mortal, although it seemed the woman who’d been whipped would probably lose the sight in one eye.
By unspoken agreement, they made camp a fair distance from the entrance to the underground lair. Though the tunnels and rooms would have provided shelter, not one of the women could bear to spend one more night down there, even though the night was chilly and supplies were short, with the eored suddenly having to provide for half again its number. The orc tunnels were searched, but no trace of the belongings the women had arrived with was found, nor much else of value. The warren was deep and complex, and though no living orcs could be found anywhere the men searched, the number of dead didn’t seem to the women to be quite enough to account for all they knew to have inhabited the stronghold. And there was no clue where all the half-orc babies or their orc foster mothers might be. Theodred feared that secret tunnels must lead off to other sections they’d been unable to locate, and that some of the orcs must have escaped that way. He set a heavy guard that night, and planned to ride at first light, before a counterattack could be mustered against them.
Theodred briefly considered taking all the women back to Edoras, but discarded the idea. The women wanted nothing but to return to their homes, many of which were far closer than the capital city. The ride to Edoras was long and hard, and the women were ill equipped for a long journey. They had nothing but the skimpy shifts the orcs had clothed them in, though now the men of the eored had shared out what cloaks and extra garments could be found. And he certainly hadn’t brought enough provisions to feed an extra fifty bodies. So he set Grimbold, his second in command, to grouping the women by where their homes lay, deciding that he would send a dozen or so men with each group to convey the women swiftly to their homes.
The next morning Theodred chose to ride with the group heading south, toward Elana and Roswyn’s homes. He invited Elana to ride with him. Elana approached his magnificent steed with great appreciation. Surely this was a fit mount for the prince of Rohan! His burnished chestnut coat gleamed golden in the first rays of the dawn, four pure white socks and white blaze on his face almost seeming to sparkle. “Silverfoot,” Theodred introduced him. Elana mounted, and Theodred swung up behind her. Though riding double was awkward, it felt wonderful to be astride again, and on a horse finer than any she’d ever ridden.
As they rode away, Elana turned back for a last look. Even though she knew where to look, the entrance to the orc tunnels was barely visible. The vast, windy plain stretched to the horizon on every side, with only a bare hint of mountains far in the distance. Somewhere out there, probably deep under the earth, was a child who had been born from her body. What cruelty and torture would he endure? Was his very nature evil, as surely all orcs’ must be? Would Elana ever know of his fate? She tore her eyes away from the hazy distance, and turned resolutely forward. Were any of the other women troubled by such thoughts? None of them, to Elana’s knowledge, had ever indicated any emotion other than revulsion or resignation towards the infants they bore. Elana felt very alone. But she pushed her loneliness deep to the bottom of her heart, and breathed deep of the fresh morning air, laughing as Silverfoot surged forward and her hair whipped her face.
They set out on a meandering trail that would take them by each of the villages and towns the women called home. They reached the first village midmorning. There was much joy and commotion as the first woman’s family welcomed back the daughter they’d thought dead. The scene was repeated at each stop, and by the end of the day their voices were hoarse with repeating their story over and over. Elana felt tired and drained. Her body was reminding her that it was heavy with pregnancy, and that she hadn’t ridden for a year and a half. But at last only she and Roswyn were left, and her spirit leaped as she recognized her surroundings, realizing that they were drawing close to Grassymede.
Her brother Gareden was the first to recognize Elana. He was among the group of villagers who heard the horses and came out to gawk at the group of soldiers, seeming to have grown a foot since last she’d seen him. He was all gangly long arms and legs. The expression on his face when he recognized his lost sister riding at the head of the troupe was comical – mouth dropped open, eyes bugged out, utterly speechless. Then he was racing toward their cottage, bellowing in a voice far deeper than Elana remembered for the rest of the family.
Elana dismounted, her shaky legs reluctant to hold her up after the long day of riding. She turned, only to be swept up in a crushing hug by her father. She was passed to her mother, their tears mingling. Her siblings surrounded her, all so much older now. Could that lovely young woman be Renewyn? And Beona, hanging back shyly from the sister she barely remembered. And the baby – he’d not even been walking, and now he was a sturdy toddler, beginning to get very upset with all the noise and intense emotions he could sense but not understand. She sobbed, with equal parts grief for all she had lost, and joy and relief for the return beyond all hope.
Theodred was speaking with her father. Elana knew he was relating a brief version of events, as he had at each of their previous stops, and giving his personal pledge of aid if it was necessary to adjust to the unexpected return.
Elana broke away from her family for a minute, and dragged Roswyn over from where she had dismounted from her shared horse. “This is Roswyn, my dearest friend,” she told them all. “I couldn’t have survived without her.” She made the introductions all around. Her mother and father welcomed Roswyn graciously, and invited her to stay the night and journey on to Waymeet in the morning. But Elana could see that Roswyn was anxious to return to her own family, and wasn’t surprised when her friend refused, preferring to ride the extra hours that night.
She embraced Roswyn with tears, and they promised each other they’d visit often. She turned to Theodred, hugging him too, thanking him again for the rescue. Then she was watching them ride away, Roswyn’s back straight and proud, her eyes turned toward her own home.
For a while Elana was surrounded by people from the village, full of questions and excited chatter. She tried to answer them all. Soon her parents steered her firmly toward home, putting aside the neighbors with promises all would be answered later, after Elana had had a chance to get settled in. She was swept into the kitchen, where Marbrona had been in the middle of fixing supper. She breathed deeply the warm, rich smells of home. She started telling everyone all that had happened since the dreadful night of her abduction. She glossed over the most terrible parts for the sake of the young ones, but she described in full the heroics of Theodred and his company. She kept talking, only stopping occasionally to take a few more bites of the wonderful food, until she had told everything. Then it was her turn to question, eager for every little detail of the life of family and village while she’d been away.
They kept talking far into the night, as one by one the younger children dropped off to sleep and were transferred to beds. At last Elana could barely keep her eyes open. Marbrona fussed about finding her a place to sleep with some privacy, but Elana assured her that she wanted nothing better than to sleep in her own old bed she shared with her sisters. Marbrona looked doubtfully at her round form, but consented. True, the bed didn’t seem as roomy as before, but the sweet warm presence of her sisters on either side more than made up for that. Elana felt profoundly happy. She drifted off into the best sleep she’d had in years. All her dreams were pleasant.
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