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Keepers of the Hearth
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If she goes on like this, she deserves to win my heart, through hard work alone, Winfrith thought after a while, a little unsure whether to be touched or annoyed. Of course it helps, she is so clearly in love – and so young. The two women were sitting together in the best guest room a little while before the wedding was to begin. Lothíriel, it seemed, was resolved to speak her new tongue from the start and had greeted her most courteously saying all the right things. Winfrith had been impressed, despite herself, that she already spoke so well. Then she had pleaded for help in a last run through of her words, so they had gone over them together though, Winfrith had to admit, there really was no need.

Afterwards they had spoken a little stiffly, just to fill the time, of Dol Amroth and her journey to the Mark, until the younger woman had suddenly asked, with true feeling in her voice, “Are you never sorry you left your home?”

Winfrith, taken a little aback, had paused a while to gather her thoughts. “Nay, my lady,” she had finally said, “I am not. For a home is a place for children and with my man dead there was no hope for that. So ‘twas best I left it in the care of another and my husband-brother’s wife has kept it well. Theirs is a fine family, fruitful and fair, as we say, and it is less than a day’s ride if I want to call – though, recently, my bones are telling me ‘tis twice as far.” And Winfrith had to concede that her new lady’s interest in the place, where in truth she had only spent a short time of her life, had seemed to be as real as her smile.

“’Tis a fine holding,” she had found herself saying, unexpectedly warming to the task. “Good home-fields, good grazing. The steading itself is small,” she had allowed, “but it is strong and well built enough to have stood its ground since almost the time of Eorl.”

“And you could have gone back once Lord Théodred was grown?”

“Aye, that I could,” she had mused, “but by then Edoras was my home, and besides, there was always another child needing my care. Nor does a household suddenly run itself.”

She had not seen fit to add that, before she left to wed her Éomund, Théodwyn had asked her to stay at the house. That even then she had been concerned for her brother’s well being, lonely after the death of his queen. That memory had come with another little prick of pain, but she had shrugged it off as best she could. For today is a day for joy and she would not wish for me to grieve. Aye and it is an honour I share with Éowyn to stand in for her this day, and I must do the best I can. And almost with amusement she had felt her heart melting just another drop.

And the thaw continues, she thought wryly as the lass made a point of showing her how much she honoured the ways of the Eorlingas. ‘Old, new, borrowed, blue’ those were the things that brought luck to a hand-fasting from time beyond memory, but the heirloom that Lothíriel laid out upon the bed was something precious indeed. And all the more so for it was Éowyn who was the lender.

Winfrith fingered the rich blue cloth that felt unlike anything she was used to in the Mark and ran a shrewd eye over the silver embroidery set with crystal stars at neck and hem. She could find nothing to fault, the garment was in every way beautiful but she found herself strangely drawn by a faint air of sadness that was part of it as well. So much so she almost did not notice the bride was telling her its tale.

It seemed it had come from the Prince Faramir and had belonged to his mother, the Lady Finduilas, Lothíriel’s own aunt. “People always say how much I look like her,” Lothíriel was saying quietly, “though I did not know her, she died before I was born. They say she faded in the face of the Shadow, far from the sound of the sea. Few chances in Minas Tirith, I suppose, to blow it out of her mind. Father says my uncle, was never the same after he lost her; it was as if his light had gone out.” She paused for a while before going on, thoughtfully, “Mother thinks it is ill-omened for me to wear it, but I feel it is only right that we should remember her. And now it has come to Éowyn, and to her it is a sign that darkness passes away. And it is my hand-fasting after all.” She paused again then surprised Winfrith by fixing her with her eye. “I don’t think Mother likes to spend time away from the sea, but I know I will prefer riding the Riddermark to the waves.”

Winfrith, swallowed a snort and could almost feel Théodwyn’s breath on the back of her neck. Aye, aye, my lady, no need to say more. It seems she might do well enough after all. With a resigned smile, she gently settled the mantle over Lothíriel’s shoulders and thought she looked lovely indeed, dressed otherwise in simple white, with a girdle of blue ships and silver swans, and her glossy raven hair hanging loose under a fine net of Dol Amroth pearls.

Her own preparations had been somewhat hurried as it was late before she could take a moment for herself. Dressed in her best attire, she had stared at her old looking glass in a spirit of frankness. “Well, it seems I still look fair enough,” she had declared, not un-pleased with what she saw. The dress was the one she had made for Théoden’s barrowing and Éowyn’s trothplighting. She had smiled at the memory of her lady speaking to her of clothes for what must have been the first time ever.

“’Twill be an excuse for you to have a new dress, Winfrith.” She had laughed. “Really, when was the last time you treated yourself to one?” And indeed she could scarce remember. It had been long years since she had even thought about such things. “It needn’t be black, either you know,” her lady had coaxed.

“Well of course it needn’t be black – but it will be,” she had replied. Black she had worn since the day her Léofric was killed and black she would wear until she followed him to the grave. So black it had been but very finely cut and she had embroidered the borders with red, green and gold to match the tassels on her soft indoor boots. She had quickly pinned her hair in place, the braids still thick though now they were entirely grey, before hurrying off to the wait upon the bride.

Now she stood side by side with her, gazing out from the finest mirror she could ever have imagined; a treasure that had travelled all the way from Dol Amroth, safely cradled in its own case stuffed with straw. But before she could glimpse a like clear picture of her thoughts, the Prince and Princess arrived. As both were clearly much moved to see their daughter, Winfrith bowed respectfully and slipped out of the door.

* * *

Well, any ill-omened thoughts seem to have been cleared away, Winfrith thought with relief as she watched the bride’s party arrive from her place among the household. She felt her heart ease to see Lothíriel and her parents smiling happily together again. With nothing to do during the hand-fasting, except keep half an eye on the bridegroom’s foster-sons, she was free to enjoy the sights.

From where she stood to the side of the high platform before Meduseld, she could look right down the hill, packed tight as it was with folk all craning to get a view. Nearer the top the crowd became more mixed with many dark heads standing in groups among the fair. The green terrace in front of the Hall seemed a sea of bright colour as clothing and banners mingled together; the green and white of the Mark, the black and silver of Gondor and the bright blue and silver of Dol Amroth. She even spied the black and blood-red of the Southrons safely fenced behind a few of the Household-men.

Éowyn she thought looked lovely and quite at home in the part she was to play as Éomer’s closest kinswoman. Dressed in green, white and gold to match her brother she smiled every now and then at her husband where he stood, in the midst of his Dol Amroth kinsfolk under their own banner of unfigured white. Still undecided on a device for Ithilien, I see, Winfrith smiled, knowing well that both the Prince and his White Lady were content enough to still bear the standard of the Stewards.

Erkenbrand of Westfold was also to stand with his king and his striking bearing and silver hair lent a dignity to the scene which Winfrith could only approve. Éomer himself looked splendid and kingly and a little solemn but not enough to be grave. The bright midday sun shone warmly on the circlet on his brow and everywhere on the great house behind him was the glint of gold. The ancient Hall, washed clean by the recent rain, prepared itself to bear witness once again.

Éomer had asked his friend, the King Elessar, to hear their vows, using the speech of both Gondor and the Mark, but any uneasiness that Winfrith had felt about the rightness of that choice was banished the moment he began. For he spoke her tongue with such word-feeling, without fault or flaw, that if she had closed her eyes, she would never have known that he was not an Eorling born. And again she wondered how he had fared at first, another dark-haired stranger in the House of Eorl. Yet the Hall had welcomed him as its own, and right generously had it been repaid. That was indeed a hopeful thought.

The ceremony continued on without a hitch and Lothíriel remembered her words very well. Almost before Winfrith knew it, Éomer was placing the Queen’s circlet upon his wife’s brow and kissing her most heartily before them all, as the great horns of the Mark sang out and the crowd burst into a riot of noisy cheers.


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