The time between the ending of the hand-fasting and the evening’s feasting had been full of hustle and bustle for Winfrith, for which she had been glad as it left her scarcely any time to think. Her best attire covered by an apron, she had divided herself between the kitchens, where there was roasting and baking to oversee, and the storerooms, where a sharp eye needed to be kept lest more than the allotted provisions, and in particular the wrong number of beer barrels, found their way down the hill to feed the hearty appetites of the common folk below. Not that my king would mind, she had thought warmly, for he is indeed openhanded to a fault – as a great lord should be. But at last there had come a time when there was nothing further to do but return to her room to gather her thoughts.
Dusk had deepened to full dark when she walked across the high platform to the main doors of the Hall. Sounds of revels drifted up from lower down the hill but otherwise the air was quiet and still. Far below she could see the bonfires and torches burning in celebration while little pin-pricks of light moved across the grassland and circled the burial mounds of the kings. Many others were now honouring the dead in such a time of joy. Looking up she saw the day had indeed ended with a cloudless sky that was now welcoming the countless stars.
As she approached, the tallest of the door-wardens that stood there stepped forward to greet her, torchlight glinting off the gold of his mail. He bowed to her solemnly. “All is ready, they are waiting,” he said as he moved to throw back the doors. Then spoiling the dignity of the moment he stooped to give her a quick, whiskery kiss on the cheek. She laughed, feeling very pleased, and reached up to give his face an affectionate pat.
“Thank you, Éothain,” she smiled. She had a soft spot for the lad. Éomer’s playmate and faithful shadow since before they came together to Edoras, he could always be relied on for his steadiness and sense. They grow up so quickly, she thought. The voices change but the vows remain the same. Aye, Háma, I think you may safely go ahead and seek your rest in peace. Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves she stepped over the threshold into the Golden Hall.
She knew it was foolish but her knees suddenly felt locked in place and she feared she might never take another step. ‘Tis so quiet! All I can hear is my heart! She fervently hoped she had not exclaimed the words out loud. Side pillars shimmered a little in the light of one or two torches set around the walls but otherwise all was in darkness. That did little to hide the simple truth that all the greatest folk, from several different lands, were pressed together waiting, in silent respect, for her to play her part. She could just make out Éomer standing at the front of the crowd, which merely made her fear the more; she couldn’t be failing in her duty now! But then she saw her lord was smiling at her, and she remembered how he had smiled when only just old enough to say her name. Her knees unlocked and she almost laughed at the thought that, all of them, even the Elvish Queen of Gondor herself, had once been nought but babes mewling and plucking at the breast.
Gathering up her wits, she remembered what she must do. The louver above the hearth was wide open and through it she could see the stars, now sharp and bright against the black. Alone in the centre of the Hall her new queen waited, and Winfrith caught her breath to see how fine and stately she stood, outlined by their light as it glinted on silver, crystal and pearl. But, truly she must be feeling just as a-feared as me, she thought, though brave lass that she is, she’s determined it will not show. Then her heart went out to the newcomer and all her fears were forgotten in a desire to make her welcome.
Quickly she lit the brand from the brazier by the door and walked towards the hearth. The two women exchanged smiles as Winfrith grasped her hand and together they held the torch above the well-primed tinder; gnarled, blue veined fingers on slender ones, strong and white. Winfrith heard her take a steadying breath then both their voices were firm as together they said the words that had come down to them, the same words Winfrith had last spoken with Léofric’s mother all those many years ago:
Keeper of the Hearth kindle us
Gather us up under your mantle
And restore to us remembering.
Mothers of our mother remind us how
Foremothers strong show us the way
To kindle the hearth keep it bright
Preserve the flame’s flicker in darkness.
Your hands upon ours our hands within yours
Day and night now keep light kindled.
There was a moment of stillness and then Meduseld erupted with applause as the flames leapt into life. Torches and candles where quickly lit all around the Hall and everywhere there was laughter and music as the merriment began in earnest. The two women busied themselves hanging the bowls of marriage-mead to mull above the fire and did their best to look askance at some over-bold comments tossed their way.
Aye, she looks radiant indeed at the heart of it all, Winfrith thought, after a while, as she watched her queen great the guests, hand in hand with her husband. And even the Southrons, with their backs to the wall, had drinking cups in their hands. Yes, everything is as it should be. Except that it seems the company might start the singing and the dancing before the food is ever brought to the board. She stepped quickly back through the crowd and signalled to the servers that they should stop their gaping and get a move on, for that really would not do at all.
~The verse for kindling the hearth has been adapted from a Celtic blessing which can be found here: http://mysite.freeserve.com/silurian/page6.html
~The Ithilien Ranger’s grandmother would have been forced from her home sixty-seven years ago.
~In Old English Winfrith means ‘lover of peace’.