She dragged her finger through the ash of the village, drawing a long line through the black and grey flakes that had once been the meethouse.
The riders had taken everything they wanted and torched the rest. Aoife watched them until they were specks on the horizon. And then she watched the horizon until that, too, was gone, taken by the dark.
She would remember that name.
It was the only one she had, the only name that the lead rider had given as he stared down at her father with blue eyes and blond hair. He had given no name but that of his king.
The survivors had moved on. Dispersed. Thrown themselves upon the mercy of the other villages in the hills.
She had been taken in by one of the local farmers in the next village along. She had slept in the barn there, the warmth of the horses taking the chill from the air. She had even thought for a moment that it would be all right.
The riders came again. This time she left before the slaughter.
The riders were everywhere, it seemed, in every village. One after the other. Few of the Dunlending resisted. It didn’t seem to matter any more, some darkness had fallen upon them and would not leave.
Some of the villagers left their homes in time.
Those that did not, never left them again.
The strawheads drove the Dunlending from their homes. They relocated, to the caves, to the hills. A steady stream of refugees mixing. No longer did it matter which village you had been from originally. Now you were Dunlending. Wild.
“Here, darling.” Smiling eyes and mouth. A giant. A proffered gift.
That was all that Aoife remembered. Not the colour of her hair, or her smell, or the comfort of her arms… Just an outstretched hand and a small wooden box.
“This is for you. Something for precious things.”
Her mother had carved it from the heartwood of the tree. A small box, perhaps a few inches wide in each dimension and with a sliding top for keeping of jack-bones in. Aoife kept it with her, always.
She shared gossip with each new arrival, telling little, learning much. One of them said that her sister had said that her fiancée had heard that the strawheads were no longer content with meat and grain. That they said the Dunlending were wildfolk, and that they must be put down, lest like a dog with a taste for flesh they turn upon their masters rather than staying at the edge of the circle of firelight.
Put down like dogs.
Her belly was empty more often than not. But she was small, and stealthy. One of the old men took pity on her, taught her to hunt with the bow. It took her away from the rest of the Dunlending. She knew he wanted more, but she offered none. He never asked. Some days she wondered what she would have done if he had.
One of the refugees said that her father’s father’s father had journeyed to the North. There was a place there where justice survived. That once, long in the past, a Man had married an Elf, and that their descendant still lived. That he was just (if not necessarily kind). That his name was Elrond Halfelven, and he would give succour to those without hope. Sometimes.
She laughed at the time. “That I should see such, and that they would listen?”
The woman shrugged “I know what I know, and I tell what I tell,” she said. “You may listen or no, as the fancy takes you.”
That night she saw seven dark crows flying to the north, and she knew what she must do. She packed her bow and daggers and waited until the moon was full before speaking to Shandon by the river.
“Brother, I must leave you now,” she said. “I have heard that there may be help for us in the north against the Riders of Théoden, and I will take what chance I may there. But I have carried you with me long enough, and I will not let you see me perish.”
She opened him up, and poured him into the river where he spread and dispersed and was lost in the current.
She drew a line around him. The bone was pale yellow, shards in the ash.
Aoife gathered up what she could of her brother, and placed it next to her heart.