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Keepers of the Hearth
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“I knew I’d be paying for it in the morning,” Winfrith muttered, limping slightly as the pre-dawn chill played havoc with her knees. She felt a twinge of envy too, as she arrived outside Éowyn’s door just in time to see her come edging through as supple and straight as a mountain ash. As she closed the door behind her, with an over-obvious quietness, there was a smirk on her lady’s face, that Winfrith knew too well. The smirk could not resist becoming a smile as Éowyn turned to greet her. “Still not used to our beer,” she whispered, an explanation that needed no further comment as the women walked out of the house towards the stables, as they had done many times before.

By the time they had saddled up and lead their horses into the yard, dawn was breaking in the sky. They could just make out great banks of skidding clouds and there was more than a hint of rain in the air. “Looks as though we might get wet, my lady,” she said, not really bothered at the thought.

“Not worried by a little rain, Winfrith?” Éowyn grinned as she swung lithely up into the saddle.

“Best it rains now and gets it over with, I suppose. Wouldn’t do for us all to get soaked later in the day.” Winfrith tried to pay no heed to the eyes on her back as she lead her horse towards the mounting block. “And there’s no need to give me that look either, my lady. Old age comes to us all, as you’ll learn soon enough.”

“Bracken doesn’t seem to think so,” the younger woman remarked as they moved off down the hill towards the Gate. And indeed her elderly mare was prancing around like a filly delighted to be in such exciting company as Windfola once again.

It really is unnaturally quiet, she realised after a while. Even the cocks seem still to be asleep. In all the many times she had taken this ride with her lady in the dawning light, she did not think she had ever seen Edoras as quiet as this. All the more remarkable for the town was crammed as chock full as the house. She looked up at the rain clouds, standing out more darkly as the sky began to pale and thought, Truly this must be the quiet before the storm.

For nearly a week now Edoras had been a hive of activity, every stallholder and householder making the most of the folk that swarmed in from every corner of the Mark to see their king take his bride. But today had been declared a holiday, so the stalls were not preparing to open and many took the chance to stay tucked up in beds, saving their strength for the revelry to come. Only a few were abroad, letting out chickens, milking cows and attending to other unavoidable chores.

She gazed out over the fields ahead dotted with tents of every sort. The main encampment was a fine sight, indeed, with all its banners and many coloured pavilions. Again all was very still, shrouded a little by mist, but over the past few days the sounds of merriment could be heard even at the top of the hill. It seemed that no sooner did a crowd of Riders gather together than the contests began – archery, racing, wrestling. Aye and every kind of horse-trading too, she thought, wryly. Still ‘tis how it should be done, out in the sunshine over a draft of ale and a wager - not huddled together in some miserable shadow. No doubt the visitors from Gondor took pleasure in that too.

At least the gate guards are not asleep, Winfrith approved as they leapt to their feet in good time and bowed as the women passed through.

My lady’s right, she thought, as Bracken picked up her heels and took off joyfully in the tracks of her leader, it seems there is still some life in the old girl yet. Mind you, she’s always had a swift turn of foot. Aye that had been a generous gift! Théoden had been unable to deny his little sister-daughter anything if she worked on him long enough. Her complaints had indeed been pitiful that she was ever held back by Winfrith’s ‘snail of a nag’, so Winfrith had found herself in possession of a fine chestnut mare the better to keep up on their daily rides. Rides that had only ceased in the darkest days of the Worm.

Now as they raced together over the grassland and the rain began to fall in force, Winfrith felt the old stirring in her blood as the wind sang in her ears. As they gathered speed, Bracken rose to the occasion and even inched her nose in front for a while as they thundered over the springy turf.

After a time, faces glowing with wind and laughter, they slowed and cantered over to the Barrowfield, as was their wont. They did not need to speak as they rode around the mounds, the stillness only broken by rain pattering on the pale swathes of simbelmynë. For the first time in a while, Winfrith found herself pausing in front of Helm’s remains. Then they sat quietly together in front of the long-home of Théoden King where he lay, his queen now at his side, each remembering him silently in their own way.

Aye, he was indeed a great king at the last! The tale now told itself clearly in her mind. Her grief had yet been green for Théodred and Háma and the land was shrouded in Shadow from the east, but she had stayed at the house to serve her lord. Then her king had come home to his empty Hall cleared of all its treasures – not hoarded in the hills but left in the storerooms as an example to his folk. But Théoden King had said, “Treasures, that cannot be let go, are as millstones round the neck. Do not think too much of them Winfrith, and do not tarry to be burned in the house, even if all seems lost. If news reaches you that enemies have crossed the Entwash take your horse and leave at once, for the hearth-fire must stay safe.” And, indeed, the dark lantern had already been prepared and was standing by the stone. Then she had filled the stirrup cup from the mulling bowl and served it to him, and when he had drunk, she had kissed his hand, and he had bidden her farewell. Kingly and unbowed, at the head of the host, he had faded at last from her sight. Then she had allowed herself to weep, but only for a while …

Slowly she became aware, wandering back up the road of memory, that they were no longer alone; that there was another quiet figure, hood drawn up, sitting a horse on the edge of the mist. Nothing to mark, on such a day as this, if it were not to Thengel King he pays his respects, Winfrith thought, and did not need her lady’s whisper to know this was the Lord Aragorn himself. For few now remember Fengel’s son outside of song, she realised sadly and found herself wondering, not for the first time, that this man was thrice the age of Éomer, yet he looked, at first glance, not so much older than her king. Except about the eyes, she mused, they show only the wisdom that age can bring, aye and the knowledge that he is born to be a king of men. That surely marks a man from his youth. And again she felt a surge of sorrow that her own dear Théodred did not lie among his fellows in this place. But among the Eorlingas it had never been less of an honour to rest where they had fallen, and his fame would now ever guard the passage to his land. And in time a new line will be started, she made herself think more brightly, looking at the shape of the earth and where those barrows might be best raised. Though, Béma willing I’ll be long gone by then!

Presently they turned away, without giving greeting as was custom, and headed back towards the town at an easy pace to cool the horses. “He told me once that Thengel would ever have his thanks,” her lady commented when they were out of reach of even a Ranger’s ears. “He was young, a stranger but found in him a wise lord - and a kind one.”

Aye if the tales were true Thengel knew what it was to live among strangers; and his wife also. Winfrith felt a touch of unease that she feared might be something more than the clear concerns now flooding her mind. “So, when will you be moving to your new house, my lady, it must be almost finished by now?” She found she was slightly annoyed at Éowyn’s knowing smile, though her lady was happy to set her mind at rest.

“’Tis ready now, Winfrith, and has been for a while but, as ever, we must take a lead.” She sighed and Winfrith could read well enough the memories in her mind. “For in this we are not alone. There are many families eager to move back to their old homes, and many new settlers as well, but the rule has been strictly enforced that all must wait. It may seem harsh, I know, but the homesteads in Ithilien are scattered, most now in ruins, and many of the roads destroyed. The Destroyer had many long years to defile the place. More horrors are brought to light every day.”

Winfrith shuddered, guessing well what they might be, as her lady continued angrily, “And as if that isn’t enough, they have left behind cruel devices, traps, hidden in the undergrowth, and even poisoned some of the wells. There has been much cleaning and preparing to do.” She took a deep breath. “But at last the end is in sight, at the year’s turn the people will start returning too, in an orderly way, and we shall be free to move to Emyn Arnen as well.”

Ever that one pulls at the bit, she smiled, at least some things will never change.

“You can’t imagine how much planning there must be, Winfrith, with the King and our uncle giving us their support,” she was continuing earnestly. “They will be lending us men from other posts, as many of our Rangers must have leave to see their families settled before winter returns. Everyone will need supplying through the first few seasons and there will be much to do for many years to come. But it will be done,” she said firmly, “and, in spite of everything, it is such a very beautiful place, Winfrith, a place worth fighting for and working for, and soon it will be full of fine people to care for it as well.”

Aye what is a land without its people, she thought, but houses need their blessings too. “What of our customs, my lady, will you be saying the words? Do they do such things in that land?”

“Not until now I think,” she grinned. “Though they do have a custom, close to ours in heart, at the turning of the year. Those who have lived beneath the Mountains of Shadow have long held it dear. This year, in our new home, we will hold that rite as usual, and with it we will hold our own.”

“Ah, that is well! And who will stand with you? A kinswoman of your husband?”

“No, no, don’t you see Winni, it must be a woman of Ithilien.” She laughed a little remembering. “One of our Rangers has a grandmother, very old indeed but remarkably hale. She was one of the last to be forced from that place and she is ever hopeful to be first back. I have spoken to her and we have agreed. If she is spared, and she is most determined that she will be, we will say our words together, but in her tongue, as is only right.”

And Winfrith found that she did see, and it did feel right. For what matter the tongue so long as the meaning is clear?

They made their way up through the wakening town and, grudgingly left their horses to be tended by another. Winfrith’s mind began to fill with the many tasks she still had left to do. “Well maybe ‘tis set to be a fine day after all,” she said looking up. And, as my king requests, I suppose I will ‘only give her a chance’. But still the unease that nagged at her would not entirely disperse as the rain clouds clearing overhead.


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