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Keepers of the Hearth
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Gasping … choking … death-wings beating … corpse-breath of decay. Cruel-clawed, the fell beast wheeled … stooped to rip open the house’s heart. Icy cries pierced her. Her limbs fear-frozen … she could not move. The fire sputtered … dimmed in the deadly blast. If she could only stretch out her hand … reach for the flames … keep them safe. But all her world was fading … falling into darkness …

“Ah, ‘tis hopeless!” Winfrith exclaimed, in frustration, as she sat up in the narrow bed. Resigned, she pulled the curtain aside to welcome a shaft of moonlight shining through the casement above. She well understood why her sleep was troubled, on this of all nights, but that was no comfort to her at all; and while part of her forgave herself for feeling such unease, the other part scolded for being such a fool. How will I do tomorrow’s duty if I don’t take proper rest tonight? She had to smile at that, despite it all. “So, now I’m even dry-nursing myself,” she chuckled. Old habits, it seemed, died hard, especially in this room.

She reached for the cup of water by her side to wash away that old taste of dread. Leaning back on her pillow with a sigh, she tried to pay no heed to the clamminess that clung to her skin, despite the coolness of the night. The urge was very great to check once again that the hearth-fire still burned safe, but she knew it for what it was, but a marker of a wider fear, and kept her body firmly in the bed - too short for her though it was.

“What’s the use of tramping all through the house at this hour, disturbing the guests,” she muttered, and indeed that was no small thing to bear in mind, for even though many, including the King and Queen of Gondor themselves, were camped on the grassland below, the house was full to bursting, and the slightest spark could have it blowing up into the night. But as she struggled to fit herself into the child-sized bed, she could not help longing for the comfort of her own, so cruelly close, just to the other side of that well-used connecting door. Still, guests are guests, she sighed, and I don’t expect it feels so large when you have to share it with another. Her usual space was now taken up by the two maids from Dol Amroth who waited on the Princess and the bride.

At least, for a while, all seems to be still! That thought alone was enough to give her some relief. And if I went gadding off to the Hall I’d have to be creeping past that Southron sleeping on the floor. She shivered a bit remembering his glitter sharp glance, though really she was more unnerved than scared for he was the first of his race that she had ever seen.

Customs differ, I must remember that, she thought as she tried to quell the wave of outrage that rose up in her at having to have them in the house at all. But does he really have to guard his master’s door like that - they are guests in the House of Eorl! And, worse, she had heard from one of the serving men, that this watchdog tasted every morsel of food before it was set before his lord. As if we were all out to poison him, indeed!

Yet, even she had to concede that such fears would not be entirely without some ground, for it was scarcely two years since the battle deaths on the Pelennor. Aye, if he must be having business with them, Éomer was wise enough to grant these outlandish envoys the King’s roof-protection.

And if someone did pass a knife through their ribs to avenge a dear-one dead, would that still be deemed an honest stroke? She was rather surprised she was even having such thoughts. “No, not for my own dear lord,” she said softly. “Gloriously he smote down their Serpent before his end!” She reminded herself firmly, that his wrongs, like his son’s, were at the hands of others, and he had been justly avenged. For had not his sword-thain, their own Meriadoc of the Shire, sent word that both the Worm and his Wizard were dead? Aye, Master Holdwine of the Mark, she thought with dour satisfaction, truly you are worthy of that name!

But as for these … Haradrim …even in her mind she found it hard to get her tongue around the word, she supposed they must be given such chances as they would take; for they were Men after all, not half-Orcs or Sorcerers – or even Dunlendings. And evil voices can worm their way into the will of any man in Horseland, Stoneland or Southland, she remembered grimly enough – aye and woman too.

At least her king had the grace to offer her a sorry smile when he had given her the news. “Prince Imrahil requests that I invite them,” Éomer had said, then chuckled, “I think he may have some reasons of his own.”

“No doubt, he has, my lord,” was all that she had said. But for the Eorlingas to consider having dealings with them? Surely that was a step too far, even in the interests of the Mark.

“Aragorn has been among them, long ago, and says they value horses - treat them as well as we would want.” But even Éomer had traded a doubtful look with her at that. “Of course that is something that we shall have to judge for ourselves,” he had continued, “ but he says that even in the days of the Deceiver they resisted paying them as tribute whenever they could.” His face had lit up. “Would it not be a fine thing, to see black horses running in our fields again, as they did when I was a child? These Haradrim still have some, smaller, lighter than our own, ’tis true, but well enough. I saw them for myself.”

Winfrith had sighed, stirred despite herself, but not entirely convinced. At least in the matter of horses I can be sure he will do what is best. For never in an age of the world could she dream that Éomer would ever harm a horse, even though she might consider he still had a lot to learn about many other things.

Yet here in the cool light of the moon, as she shifted in the narrow, uncomfortable bed, she could no longer put down that frightening little voice that piped up from somewhere in her head, “Are you entirely sure Winfrith, Winsige’s daughter, that you are not the one that might have a lot to learn?”

“Come, look at this!” he had exclaimed that sunny morning a little while after his betrothal. His expression had been so eager that she half expected him to grab her by the hand and pull her along as he had done as a child, but instead they had proceeded at a dignified pace to the Hall where he had opened the tooled leather tube that he held in his hand, a gift for the occasion, he explained, from Elessar King himself. When he had unrolled the vellum and spread it out on a table in the sunlight, she had seen it was a map. At least, she had assumed that was what it was, for it was the first that she had ever seen.

Winfrith was as good with her letters as any woman in the Mark but that did not mean she felt entirely comfortable with them, and this had seemed even stranger still. It is as if the world has suddenly shrunk and stretched all at the same time, she had thought feeling a little giddy. The mountains that had towered above her all her life, the timeless peaks marching on forever into the distance, were now nought but little pointed pen marks on a page, and roads that would have taken her two or three days to ride could suddenly be travelled in a single finger’s step. Yet the places that had always been but names, as unreal as any fancies told in hall, could now be seen in their place in spite of all natural barriers of the land.

“’Tis as if an eagle has suddenly took me up a-soaring over the heights!” she had exclaimed, then smiled a little at the comparison as she looked at the man at her side. Her king had been as absorbed as she had ever seen him, his eyes glittering and intense as he spied out places that he knew or hunted down others yet to be revealed. How he would love to soar along that great backbone of stone, seek out what lies beyond, even as far as the fading edge of the world! she had thought, seeing something of him for the first time.

And now she realised with a little jolt that, save for his duty, he could almost do just that, thanks to the legend that had risen up in front of him one day from out of the grass; who had turned out to be a friend as warm and real as any Rider from the Wold.

But then Éomer, his feet somewhat back on the ground, had suddenly remembered she was there. Smiling he had begun with what she knew, pointing out the familiar names of the Mark, her family’s holding, the place where her Léofric had fallen and the place where Théodred now lay. Then Helm’s Deep and Háma’s grave and Dunharrow, last refuge of their folk.

Then, step-by-step, he had coaxed her further north, to visit the legends who had travelled out of tales to be guests of the House of Eorl; even as far as the Holbytlan’s Shire where she had laughed to see the small drawing of a pipe that marked their home.

Then all of a sudden, with a giddying leap, they had come galloping back past the beacons to the Stoningland; to halt before the Gates of Mundberg where so many Riders lay, the brave hearth companions who had died beside their king. Then, he had guided her across the Great River to Ithilien where Folcred and Fastred rested, buried under one mound, and where his sister was building her new home.

“’Tis not too late for even you to make a journey should you wish it, Winfrith” he had teased. “Would you refuse to visit Éowyn? What if she were to send word she was with child?”

Then, serious once more, he had pointed out mountain peaks where new beacons might be built to link the Eorlingas to their distant kinfolk further north, and to make a faster line-of-sight from Dol Amroth in the south. “For now,” he had said, “aid could even travel, swiftly, through the Paths of the Dead.”

As her eyes strayed unwillingly to the Dimholt Door, Winfrith had been horrified by a sudden ill-omened thought. "Surely your bride will not take that road!” And even Éomer had paled.

“Indeed no! It is said the Dead now sleep, but still no man, from Gondor or the Mark, would take those Paths but in direst need! And he had quickly traced out the longer, brighter way, by sea and land, that his Lothíriel would come.

“Feel free to have a look at it any time you wish,” her lord had grinned, as he rolled up the world and slipped it carefully back into its case. He had stowed the map in a chest, to which she had a key, but she had not gone back.

Now in the uncertain darkness Winfrith felt that she was the one at sea, wallowing around on unsteady waves. They say, when it is rough, ‘tis best to keep your eye on the horizon, she thought, but that seems to be ever moving further and further away. In unsure times what was most needed was a refuge, did not she, of all folk, know that well enough?

In the night I would wake to find her standing, silent, by my bed, little body rigid with the cold. Winfrith sighed recalling that time of pain, when the house had done its best to welcome Éowyn, as yet scarce seven years old. But all she needed was to feel warm once more, safe within the circle of my arms. Then I could carry her back to her bed – this bed - and tell her tales to chase away the dark.

Tried and tested, that way works well enough, she thought, musing fondly on the latest fosterlings in the house. There had been a new, bittersweet, song to sing to brave Guthláf’s young sons; that gloriously their father rode with his lord to the battle plain; that, even in death, he kept the banner of Théoden King safe out of the mire! She wondered how the two lads were faring with their friends, for they had gleefully swapped their warm and comfortable room for the chance of sleeping out, in bedrolls, under the stars. Scaring each other stiff with ghostly stories, the lot of them, no doubt! she guessed, amused.

Indeed this room has seen it share of story telling down through the years, she thought. From her borrowed bed she could just make out the small wooden figures ranged on shelves along the wall; kings and heroes of the Mark, every one of them had their legend to tell; and how Éowyn had loved them all. And now it seemed she is a tale all of her own! For more than once, Winfrith had come across children, lads and lasses both, playing a new game; ‘The Lady of the Shield-arm’. If she had not known that heart-crushing horror, she would have laughed to see a small boy, blanket over his head, intoning as darkly as he could: “Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey!” as the tallest, brandishing a wooden sword had courageously put an end to the foul dwimmerlaik once and for all - aided by the smallest, dutifully stabbing the monster in the knee. But the memory, it seemed only made her more restless than ever.

Winfrith let out a defeated sigh, and gave up her battle to stay in the bed. Wrapping herself in a blanket she crossed the room to take a closer look at the well-worn children’s toys. Much to her approval the figures were all carefully arrayed in their proper order on the shelves. Except for the enemies of course. They were piled in their usual shameful heap at one end: orcs, wargs, trolls, Dunlendings, all justly scarred by many sound defeats. But at this deep hour of the night, one figure beckoned more brightly than the rest; clad all in white, Helm the Hammerhand, gaunt with hunger and grief, standing, stone dead in the snow, with his knees still unbowed.

Winfrith wrapped her blanket closer. That tale was much-loved, and she knew she told it well, but always she felt a horror that Helm had been driven to such a desperate end. Aye, but now I know that such despair would have had me grovelling in the dirt like a worm, she thought. Now, truly, in the cold light of the moon, she saw the great king glimmering with a generous strength and beauty all his own. But such a terrible price he paid! For in that Long Winter there had been no hand left to pull him out of the snow.

On a foolish impulse she opened her door and lit the children’s night-light from the torch burning in the hall. Chuckling wryly at herself she placed it where it cast a little warmth around the room. Then reaching to a shelf, set a bit apart, she took down the figure she still held most dear; Hild, Helm’s sister, safely hiding in Dunharrow with her son, that the Hall could be cleansed and a new line of kings begun. For hope remains while women endure, so she always told the tale, for it was right young warriors remembered what they were to be shielding from harm.

And ‘twas not a treasure but a talisman! Now she could laugh, remembering that terrible time and her lady’s stern command that no treasures were to go. Against all reason, Winfrith had slipped Hild into her pouch, ready in case she should also be forced to flee. But when the Bringer of Despair had come for her, and not even the white light of the wizard had been enough to stop her cowering in a corner of the Hall, she had found her hand grasping her tightly to drive away the fear.

Smiling now, Winfrith carefully returned Hild to stand next to her brother, where the night-light shed its little flickering gleam, and still chuckling at such foolishness, squeezed her body back into the bed and hoped that sleep might come.


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