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2
Chapter 1 - The High Symbel

This is a simplified version of Chapter 1, without all the weird Old English phrases and expressions. The original version, which is also several paragraphs longer, can be seen on the edhellondawards LJ community.

A few remarks before you start reading (boring, I know, but maybe helpful):

1) The religion of the Rohirrim is entirely my creation, made up on the basis of the pagan Anglo-Saxon beliefs. The Angelseaxisce website was a great help with the rituals.

2) Frána son of Gálmód was a name first considered (and then rejected) by Tolkien for Wormtongue. I found it in the HoME-books and created the character.

3) Idis, Théoden’s daughter existed shortly aside (or, at some point, instead) of Éowyn. Since it is explicitly said that Queen Elfhild died in childbirth, I made Idis a bastard child, who was acknowledged by her father nevertheless.

4) The Lady Aud, Théodred’s wife and the rest of Erkenbrand’s family are my OCs. About Aud’s fate see: “Ice Blossom”.


~~~

CHAPTER ONE: THE HIGH SYMBEL

[Edoras – the 4th day of Eostre-monath (1), in the year 3014 of the Third Age]


It was late noon when Elfhelm son of Hengest, the Marshal of the garrison of Edoras and that of the Household Guard of Théoden-King, finally managed to set out for the golden hall of Meduseld. He would have come earlier, but he had to break up a short but ugly fight between a few warriors under his command, who already had celebrated the return of spring with a few tankards of mead beyond their endurance (and that meant a lot among the Riders of the Mark). Then he had to regroup the next watch, as one of the wounded had been supposed to be on duty within the next cycle.

Truth be told, he could have had his second-in-command to deal with his men. Not only was Ahaewan twelve summers older than Elfhelm and fully capable of keeping an éored of more or less drunken warriors under control, he had also been appointed to celebrate the feast of Eostre with them in the garrison, while the ealdormen and the King’s thegens were called to the royal table in Meduseld. Usually, Elfhelm would have left things in Ahaewan’s most capable hands. But today he felt somewhat restless, and – strangely enough – getting in the middle of a brawl helped to set his mind at ease.

Unfortunately, this also meant that he had to return to the town house of his own family, on the other side of Edoras, to put on something more appropriate than his mail shirt and the tunic that had got stained with the blood of his fighting, drunk warriors. To his relief, his kin had already left for the feast; the last thing he wanted was his father seeing him in this shape. He washed himself quickly, put on some finer clothes, and hurried off to climb all those endless steps up to the doors of the Golden Hall. ‘Twas a wonder in itself that he did not come too late.

Which would have been a very bad thing indeed. This was the night of the High Symbel, held in the Golden Hall by Théoden King himself – one of the greatest feasts of the year, and Elfhelm had been invited by his King to celebrate Eostre at the royal table, as he was the son of one of the most powerful ealdormen of the Mark, aside from being the Marshal of Edoras.

The festivities had already begun in the early morning. A procession by torchlight had been held around the whole city. The boundaries had been beaten with besoms and birch sticks, to drive away ill wishing wights that might cause illness by man and horse, playfully swatting at the laughing and shrieking children in the process. Unwed lads had been chasing the maidens to pour buckets of water all over them ensuring this way that they would remain beautiful and fertile for their future husbands.

Now quite a few hours later, the same children were still roaming the streets, wearing wreaths of new green upon their heads, begging for eggs on the doorsteps of the houses or seeking for hidden eggs in the gardens. The maidens, now in dry clothes again, were singing in the houses, while making their own preparations for the feast. The lads were standing in small groups, talking, jesting and drinking, or wandering from house to house, so that each and every one could sing a self-made song under the window of his beloved.

The whole town was full of music and laughter and mouth-watering scents, and Elfhelm smiled in delight, seeing the happiness of the people he was oath-bound to protect. They might be living in dark times, but Eostre had returned to the Éothéod, and mayhap, just mayhap, the upcoming year would be better than the previous one had been.

The Marshal quickened his steps and finally reached the stone-paved terrace at the head of the long stairway that led from the gates of Edoras to the doors of Meduseld. There he stood for a moment, looking straight in the laughing blue eyes of Háma, the Doorward of the King and also the doorward of the High Symbel – meaning, that during the feast it was not only his duty to guard the doors, but also to welcome the guests as they arrived, and to prevent the uninvited from entering.

Elfhelm found that Háma was the perfect choice for all those tasks. The man could only be described as… imposing. The men of the Mark were all tall and strong, but Háma could only be compared with the ice giants of the old sagas. He towered over the Marshal, who was no Dwarf himself, looking twice as big in his polished armour as a common Rider, his heavy braids flowing down his broad back like molten gold. He barely fit under the doorway with the high helmet upon his head.

“Welcome,” the Doorward said with a broad grin almost splitting his handsome face in two, using the traditional words of the rarely spoken old dialect. “Théoden-King greets his knights in friendship. Welcome, my Lord. Be thou hale.’

“Be thou hale,” replied Elfhelm in kind and clasped forearms with the Doorward in warrior fashion. “I hope I am not late,” he then added, switching back to the common dialect spoken in these late days.

“Almost… but not quite,” answered Háma, stepping aside to allow him entrance. “The blowhorn has not sounded yet. But you need to hurry up.”

Elfhelm nodded his thanks and entered the Golden Hall. It was brightly lit with torches, the long tables arranged in a U-shape, the open end to the doors, and already set. Théoden King sat on his usual place, in a great, gilded chair upon the dais at the far end of the Hall. The guests were still standing along the walls, on both sides, waiting for the horn-call that would signalise the beginning of the symbel.

A young esquire came forth with a wide copper bow and a white cloth, bowed to Elfhelm and held the bowl before him, so that he could was his hands according to custom. He did so and thanked the lad; and barely had he finished, when another esquire stepped forth and blew a beautifully-crafted ceremonial horn.

At this sign, a thin, dark-haired and pale-faced man in rich garment – Gríma son of Gálmód, the chief counsellor of the King – rose from the steps of the dais where he had been sitting at Théoden’s feet and took upon the task to get the guests seated. Sternly seen, this was a little… unusual, as the symbelgifa – the host of the feast – was supposed to do that. But Théoden’s health had not been what it used to be lately, and it seemed only reasonable that he would be spared this small task, so that he could save his strength for the later, more important one. Still, Elfhelm felt strangely uncomfortable to see the counsellor act in the King’s stead. He knew not for certain, why, but it made him feel… uneasy.

In the meantime, the celebrants were seated at the King’s table, according to their rank and seniority in the gathering. Thus Prince Théodred the Brave was seated to the right of his sire’s chair, while Théoden’s sister-son, Éomer son of Éomund, barely old enough to sit among the grown warriors, sat to his left.

On Prince Théodred’s other side sat his wife, Aud of the deep eyes, with her father Erkenbrand, the Master of the Westfold and lord of the Hornburg, while to Éomer’s left his sister, the Lady Éowyn sat – tall and slender and proud, called Steelsheen among the men of the Mark. She was clad in flawless white, and a blackened silver clasp, adorned with the likeness of the White Tree of Mundburg – an old family heirloom from her grandmother, Morwen of Lossarnach – fastened her cloak on one shoulder.

She had been officially introduced to the court during the latest Yuletide feast and still seemed a little uncertain about her place among the noble women. Elfhelm smiled fondly, remembering a long-limbed and very determined little girl who had wanted naught else but to be taught how to wield a sword – and learned she had it, marvellously. There were few Riders who could have matched the skills of Éowyn Éomundsdaughter, shieldmaiden of the Mark.

Gríma stepped up to Elfhelm’s side now and escorted him to the table where his kin had already been seated. His father, the maegtheow(2) of Clan Éowain and Lord of the Eastfold, sat opposite Erkenbrand, next to the Lady Éowyn, with his firstborn and second-born sons and their wives, and there was also a seat left free for Elfhelm, on the side of Idis, his brother Adhemar’s wife.

The seating order, dictated by rank and age, was a time-honoured custom and therefore never questioned. For his part, though, Elfhelm wished now that there had been a way to change that order. Even after two years, it still hurt him to be so close to the golden princess who had chosen his second-eldest brother above him.

For a princess the golden Idis was, not given the name “the Lady” without reason, albeit born in the wrong bed. Ever since Queen Elfhild had died in childbirth, four times ten years ago, Théoden-King had steadfastly refused to take a second wife. And yet the time had come when the burden of loneliness proved to too heavy for him, and he succumbed the charm of a fair common maid. He had fallen in love with her whom he could not wed nor make his new Queen, and from their tender love Idis had been born, a daughter of great beauty and the golden light of the King’s heart.

Only two summers after her birth, however, sunny young Ebba – her mother – had caught some strange fewer and died slowly and painfully during the next winter, to the never-ending grief of the King. Idis had been sent to Aldburg, to the sister of her sire, and there she had been raised by gentle Lady Théodwyn, until the Lady, too, had died.

Idis had then returned to Edoras with Éowyn and Éomer, and there she had remained and had been raised and taught as any princess would; and she was beloved by the people of the court. Then, nearly ten years ago, young Elfhelm had been sent to Edoras, to serve in the éored of the King’s knights, had met the princess and fallen in love with a passion only a youth of barely twenty summers could love with. That Idis was two years his elder bothered him not – unlike the people of Mundburg, who had the disgusting custom to wed their daughters to gnarled old men that could have been their fathers thrice over – the men of the Mark often bond themselves to slightly older women. Prince Théodred, too, was three years younger than the Lady Aud.

But Idis returned Elfhelm’s passionate feelings not, though she never was aught but friendly to him. Yet when – three summers later – he had finally dared to offer her his heart, she gently but firmly rejected him. Telling him that she already had been promised – to Adhemar, his own brother, no less –, and that even if she were not, she never had seen and never would see aught but a brother in him.

That had hit Elfhelm hard, and he had been glad that shortly thereafter he had beem sent out to the Gap with the troops that guarded the Fords of Isen. Later he had been sent to Mundburg, for he spoke Westron flawlessly, and served near the garrison of Cair Andros, where cavalry was desperately needed. Finally, two years ago, Théoden-King had chosen him for the difficult post of the Marshal of Edoras. He became the chief protector of the heahburg(3) and the King’s Lands – the most important officer in the Edoras, aside from Háma, the Captain of the Household Guard. What was more, at times of war even Háma and his Guards stood under Elfhelm’s command.

That was a great honour for a third-born son and such a young man at that. It showed clearly Théoden King’s trust in his loyalty and his abilities, and Elfhelm was, indeed, very proud of his King’s trust. Only his heart had been ultimately broken; for on the very Midsummer Feast that marked the beginning of his new duties, Idis finally had accepted Adhemar’s proposal, married him and left Edoras to live with her new husband’s family in Stowburg, Elfhelm’s home of old.

Long had they waited for this day to come; for Adhemar, too, had served on perilous places, then had caught a long and painful illness, and it had taken him years to fully recover. But now they were married for two full years – and that was the very length of time that Elfhelm had not seen the princess, avoiding the rare chances to go home. He had not even seen his little brother-sons, the younger of which had been born during last winter.

In all that time he had hoped that one day his heart would heal; that he would be able to look at Idis as one should look at a sister and a dear friend only. And yet it was not so. His passion had all but burned out during these years, but the pain was still sharp and bitter upon seeing her again, and it proved nigh impossible to keep his shaking hands under control. Yet hide his feelings he had to, not for his brother’s sake alone but because he felt the cold, almost colourless eyes of Gríma Gálmódsson upon himself as he was escorted to his seat. The last thing he wanted to allow was that man getting wind of his inner turmoil.

“Marshal,” murmured the counsellor in a voice too low for anyone but Elfhelm to hear, “am I assuming rightly that you would make a béot before the King again, as it is custom among the knights of the court during a High Symbel?”

“You are,” answered Elfhelm, although he was uncertain what to promise his King, save trying to keep Edoras safe even harder. “Why would you want to know that wise man of the King?”

“The King might ask you something after the symbel,” whispered Gríma. “He is of two hearts whether to speak his request or not, though, as the quest he needs to send you out on is a perilous one. You… might want to assure him of your willingness in advance.”

With that, the counsellor smoothly withdrew to take care for the other guests, ere Elfhelm could have asked him more. The young Marshal shivered, as if he had touched something cold and slimy. There had been a time when he had respected and admired the scholarly advisor for his great wisdom and knowledge – lore-masters were rare and highly valued in the Mark, and Gríma had been a good and loyal counsellor, keeping in the background and never forcing his advice upon the King.

And this had been so until his brother Frána, Théoden’s most trusted friend and the chief of his thegens had been slain in a battle against the Easterlings. Gríma could not fully take over his brother’s duties, as he had been born with a somewhat crippled leg, but he had risen to the rank of the Chief Advisor, and since then his power and influence had slowly but steadily grown. Soon he might have become the King’s only advisor, as Théoden seemed to value his opinion more with every passing year.

Lately, Elfhelm – who had frequent dealings with the counsellor, due to his duties – had begun to feel uncomfortable around Gríma. He knew not why. But his instincts warned him of something he could not quite put his finger upon, every time he had to be in the company of the counsellor. And the feeling grew as slowly and steadily as Gríma’s power did.

He shook his head and exchanged a few casual words with his family and with Erkenbrand, while the other guests were being seated. Then the blowhorn sounded again, and the Golden Hall became silent at once.

The old King – acting as the host of the feast – rose from his seat and opened the High Symbel with the traditional words.

“Sit now to symbel and unwind your measures, victory hearted heroes,(9)” he said in a strong voice that belied his age, and then he sat down again. The gathering murmured the customary answer.

When the King was comfortably seated once more, the ealubora entered, the ale-bearer, with the great horn full of mead in her hand. This most important task always fell to the lady of the house in which the symbel was hosted, and it was considered the greatest honour possible during a feast. In case of the royal family the ladies shared the honour, and while in most occasions ‘twas the Lady Aud who carried out the task, this time the honour had been given to the Lady Aelfgifu, the granddaughter of the King’s oldest sister.

Twenty-and-five summers had she seen, the fair Aelfgifu, a scholarly princess and gifted musician, whose skills with the harp exceeded even those of Gléowine, the head minstrel of the King. A long gown of grass-green silk she wore, above that a sideless surcoat of heavy, dark-green velvet, richly embroidered with gold, her hair hidden under the thin white veil of a seeress that was kept firmly in place by a thin silver circle adorned with small, white gems.

A true daughter of the Mark, as strong as she was lovely, she carried the heavy drinking horn easily across the hall – greeting the guests with light-hearted rhymes as she went – and presented the King with it, saying, “Take this full, my lord dryhten, hoard sharer, be thou happy, warriors' golden friend, and speak to the Geats with mild words...” (10)

And with that, she poured the King – the host of this feast – the first drink of mead. The King drank and made the obligatory boast in honour of Eostre, golden-haired goddess of dawn, spring and new life. The ealubora then took the symbelhorn to each guest by arung, starting with Prince Théodred, so that they, too, could make their boasts to Eostre or any other deity they wanted.

When the first full was completed, Lady Aelfgifu took her seat at the royal table, next to the Lady Aud, and the coup-bearers took over the task of carrying the symbelhorn around. The small drinking horns were refilled, as this was the time for the minni – a chance for each celebrant to speak of and drink to their dead kinsmen and friends.

This took quite some time, which the servants used to carry in the gifts that had been prepared for the gift-giving ceremony that followed the minni. No High Symbel was imaginable without gift-giving, even less one hosted by the King himself, and the ealdormen, as usual, were eager to outdo each other. Generosity was a trait deeply rooted in the men and women of the Mark, thus the gift-giving usually took just as much time as the boasts and oaths that followed.

As a rule, ‘twas the host who began to give out his gifts, first to his own cynn, then to his guests, according to their status and rank, followed by gifts given to him, personally. Then came the gifts given by the guests to heir kin and friends. ‘Twas a long and joyous process, spiked with jests and funny little rhymes recited with the one or other gift.

Elfhelm, however, could not get into the spirit of festivities. He sat morosely, wishing he were at home with his mother and younger siblings and gave short, clipped answers to Erkenbrand’s younger daughter, Déorwyn, who was seated opposite him, hoping desperately that the feast would be over, soon. He found Idis’ closeness painful, was anxious about what the King might want from him and what sort of béot should he made. Gríma’s remark had not helped to calm him – he knew the counsellor had a hidden agenda with that warning, but he could not imagine what that could be.

Fortunately, to make the waiting more pleasurable, Gléowine the minstrel came forth to sing a léod in praise of Eostre first, the King second and finally in that of the folk. The guests momentarily not involved in the exchange of gifts leaned back in their seats in anticipation. Gléowine might have begun his career as a simple storyteller, travelling from village to village, telling tales in exchange for food, lodging and coin – there was no shame in that. But he had become a Master Singer and a court poet many years ago, and he rarely sung alone anymore. Usually, he performed in the company of several other musicians, each of which played a different instrument.

The musicians formed a half-circle at the open end of the tables, and servants brought in a low stool for the Lady Aelfgifu. Unlike Gléowine, who preferred a twelve-string gut-strung harp, the fair lady owned a great, 24-string standing harp, one of those made in Dol Amroth – the kind that needed to be put firmly on the floor and even so reached above the head of a sitting player.

This particular instrument had once belonged to Queen Morwen, the late mother of Théoden-King and had been brought by her to the Mark, as the Queen was a Dúnadan lady of Lossarnach, a province of Gondor and knew many skills the women of the Mark did not. After her death, the harp was given to Aelfgifu, as soon as she had grown tall enough to play it, for the other ladies of the royal family showed no talent nor interest in this particular art. Of course, she only played publicly at court – anything else would have been inappropriate for her as the granddaughter of a King and a seeress.

She came forth now, joining the other musicians, and took her seat at the great hearpe, and even those not yet done with the gift-giving became silent and waited eagerly. Gléowine plucked a few strings of his harp, to give the others the theme, and they picked it up immediately, readjusting their instruments so that their tones matched. They played the melody for a few moments, then Gléowine raised the song with a clear voice that echoed from the walls of the Golden Hall like a horn-call in the hills, in perfect harmony with the sweet tone of the instruments.

He bore the title of a Master Singer with right, indeed. Most skilfully he sang, weaving the words together fluently to tell the tale of Eostre’s awakening, and after the first verse, the Lady Aelfgifu joined him, her voice sweet and smooth like the spring rain. Even Elfhelm forgot about his worries for a moment while listening.

More songs followed, ‘til the gift-giving was finished. Then the musicians retreated and Lady Aelfgifu took on her role as the ealubora again, for ‘twas time for the bragaful, when the boasts and oaths were to be made. For today’s High Symbel, Erkenbrand had been selected to act as the thyle – the one to challenge the others’ béots with the traditional teasings, testing their resolve, and ability to keep their oaths.

Those not of the Éothéod often misunderstood the nature of the bragaful. They believed the boast to be simple or false bragging, although in truth it was a truthful recitation of one's past deeds that had resulted in something good for one's self or the folk, preceded by a proud counting of one's forebearers. Similarly, a vow was not a mere promise, but a holy oath enforced with the most powerful of obligations to complete.

For a folk like the Éothéod that had no high regards for written treaties this was the simplest way to bind an ealdorman to the King and the free warriors to their Clan leaders – and it had worked just finely from way back when they lived in the far North, at the sources of Anduin, from the times of Fram the Dragon Slayer on, to this very day. And it had worked better than any written treaty could have. The men of the Mark believed that no-one could escape their sacred duties and their fate with false oaths or idle boasts and that it was in their best interest to be truthful in such matters – so they were truthful. This was their way of life.

According to custom it would have been the King’s due to make the first boast, but to everyone’s surprise, he let his son and Heir make the honours in his stead. And Prince Théodred went great lengths to impress the guests. After having counted his forefathers back to Eorl the Young and beyond, to Fram the Dragon Slayer and his father Frumgar, he unexpectedly launched into telling the tale how Meduseld had been built.

“Then was given to Brego-King success against the Eastmen, honour in war, by driving his foes out of the Wold, so that his retainers fervently served him, until the young éoreds grew into a mighty army, and the Mark was not attacked again for many years. Then it came into the mind of Baldor Bregoson that a hall-house, he wished to command, as sign of their victory – a great mead-hall, be built by men, which the sons of the Éothéod should hear of forever, and there within share out all to young and old, such as the gods gave him, save the common land and the lives of men. Then, ‘tis told, widely was the work commissioned from many people throughout the Mark, to furnish this hall of the folk. For him in time it came to pass, early, through the men, that it was fully finished, the best of royal halls; he named it Meduseld, he whose words weight had everywhere; he did not lie when he boasted; rings he dealt out, riches at his feasts. The hall towered, high and horn-gabled, upon the hill in the middle of Edoras, showing the strength and wealth and open-handedness of the Kings to everyone who might have rode this way.”(6)

Théodred here paused, emptying his drinking horn that had been filled by the cup-bringers, and people looked at him in rapt attention, as he was one of the best story-tellers among the ealdormen of the Mark. Then he continued with reminding the feasting crowd of the lightly-taken oath of Baldor son of Brego; that he would tread the Paths of the Dead, and of how he had never been seen in the Mark again.

“This old and sad tale should show us that no sacred oath should be taken lightly,” he finished. “And yet I swear to you, my brethren, by Béma, protector of horses and Riders, by whom the glory and honour is given to the warriors, that I shall tread the same path myself, should the need arise, to protect my King, my people and our homes.”

The gathering answered the Prince’s boast and his oath with thumping their fists on the long tables enthusiastically. Not even the thyle thought of challenging Théodred’s boast – the Prince wore the byname of ‘the Brave’ for a good reason, and no-one doubted that he would, indeed, walk that cursed path, if there was no other way to defend the Mark. The King gazed at his son with love and pride, and the deep eyes of the Lady Aud were full of admiration.

But Lady Aelfgifu just shook her head and stated in a low but firm voice that only could be heard by a few people who sat near, “That path would not be yours to walk, my Prince. The one who is chosen to go there shall have the power to master that which dwells under Dúnharg the Dark – but ‘tis not you; nor any of your kin.”

Young Éomer was next, counting his forefathers back to Éofor, the third son of Brego Eorlsson and reciting his own deeds in the bloody skirmishes against the Orcs that had been foraying into the Eastmark more and more frequently in the recent years. The thyle did challenge him this time, but his teasing was more playful than truly insulting, and Éomer replied condignly, making a sacred oath that he would keep the fell creatures out of the Mark, and should try to stay in his way friend or foe or even close kin, he would fulfil his oath nevertheless.

‘Twas an uncommonly solemn oath for a warrior this young, but Éomer was the scion of great Kings of the Mark, strong in body and shrewd in mind, and no-one would imagine to question his honesty and devotion to his people, to his land or to his King. His whole family smiled at him in fond appreciation and haeled him as the cup-bearer once again took the symbelhorn around and poured more mead for everyone.

Now the Lady Éowyn rose, and everyone became silent, for though the bragaful was usually a business of men, shieldmaidens had the privilege and the right to make their own boasts and oaths, and they never hesitated to do so. Thus the daughter of Éomund raised her clear voice and re-counted Éofor’s line, telling the tale of how she had earned the right of wearing a chain mail, a shield and a sword and of riding to battle along the Riders of the Mark.

“Back to the beginning of the Éothéod the roots of our order reach,” she finished her boast, “to the times when our people still dwelt at the Langflood and the Greyflood, the far northern sources of Anduin, where Fram slew Scatha the Worm in defence of his folk. And I, Éowyn Éomundsdaughter, who I am called Steelsheen among the Men of the Mark, swear this sacred oath before you all: never shall my hand waver when I raise my sword to defend my Lord and King. For whether living or dark undead, I shall smite whoever might stand between me and him and dare to touch him.”

“Young and of the blood of Kings you are, shieldmaiden of the Mark,” said Erkenbrand, although unable to hide his admiration completely. “There may be many years yet ere you shall have to prove the strength of your sword-arm against the foes of the King.”

“That may be so, my good Lord,” she replied, “yet this is my oath to him and to you all, and naught shall keep me from fulfilling it – no darkness nor death, not even my love for him or his love for me.”

There she stood, her face pale and her eyes blazing with blue fire, and Elfhelm’s heart went out for her. So brave she was, so strong and so devoted, not a mite less than her brother. Had she not been born in the body of a maiden, she could have become a Marshal of the Mark one day. But so, being a daughter of Kings and of great importance for her Lord, she might spend her entire life at court, without a chance to raise her sword against any foe. The battle-fire of the Éothéod burned brightly in her heart, kindled by the pride and honour of her forebearers, and for a moment Elfhelm felt something akin concern, for a fire like that could not remain contained in the golden cage of Meduseld for long without consuming its bearer from the inside. And in his heart Elfhelm swore secretly that should he ever get the chance to free that fire from its prison, he would do so.

But the Lady Aelfgifu only looked at Éowyn in sympathy and said, “Fear not, daughter of Kings, for you shall prove that your oath was a truthful one.”

Éowyn blushed and sat down, and Elfhelm got a little distracted during the boasts of his own father and brothers and those of Hereward son of Erkenbrand. But then his turn finally came, and ere he rose to make his own boast, the Lady Aelfgifu suddenly looked him straight in the eyes and said in that strange voice she always spoke with when a sudden sight overcame her, “Remember, Marshal, the words of the worm’s tongue and the task that awaits you.”

This startled Elfhelm more than a little, as ‘Wormtongue’ was the name people had been calling Gríma behind his back ever since he had risen to the power of Chief Advisor. Of course, the words of a seeress were always double-edged, never taking away a man’s freedom of choice. Elfhelm could or could not follow Gríma’s hint to swear an oath concerning whatever the King might have been planning to ask him. Aelfgifu’s words could have been a warning as much as a demand – there was no way to tell.

But the counsellor had already manipulated Elfhelm into a corner with the given hint – a corner from where the young Marshal could not escape with his honour intact. His choices had already been limited.

Thus he rose and spoke, “Hear me, ealdormen, and you, noble ladies of the Mark, for I am Elfhelm Hengestsson of the line of Éofor, of the blood of Eorl. From the founding of the Mark on have my forefathers served the throne faithfully, and so have I, ever since I grew strong enough to wield a sword. At the Gap and in Mundburg have I fought the fell beasts of Mordor and the foes from Dunland and the East. For two years by now have I protected Edoras, the seat of the Kings from all perils that might have come our way. Proud I am of the trust my Lord and King gifted upon me, and I swear to go wherever he wishes to send me, be it even Rhûn or Harad, where the stars are strange.”

He was surprised to see the King stiffen in the great chair when he finished his oath – ‘twas an old phrase, after all, often used when one wanted to describe the ends of the world in a flowery manner. He also saw the pale eyes of Gríma glitter in a fashion that made him more than a little wary, getting the uncomfortable feeling that the counsellor had him on the very place he had wanted him to be. ‘Twas highly unsettling, to tell the truth.

But he had no time to ponder this, as he had to answer Erkenbrand’s challenge; and after that, he got caught up listening to the boasts of the others, and forgot about the issue for a while.

When all eight ealdormen and their sons from each region of the Mark had made their boasts, finally the time for the sacred feast came. The animals – given that this was a spring symbel in the honour of Eostre, they were chickens, rabbits and hares – had already been slaughtered in the hof, outside the walls, their meat boiled or roasted, and now the procession was taking place: garlanded servers escorted the food with much revelry from the kitchens to the feasting tables, in a manner of slow dance, while the musicians played in the shadowed corners of the hall.

Once again, the Lady Aelfgifu came forth, carrying the sacred fire in a wide iron bowl. She circled the entire hall with it, to drive away any evil spirits or disease that might lurk in the shadows, and chanting the ancient charm of making the peace of the feast sacred.

Fire I bear around this sacred site
And bid all men to make peace
Flame I bear to enclose
And bid evil spirits to flee.


After having made a full circle, she placed the fire bowl before the King, so that the hallowing could take place. The food and drink carried by the servers were then passed over the flame, and the King blessed it ere speaking his prayer to Eostre and beginning to symbolically carve the first roast hare and to send his guests bits of choice as the sign of his appreciation.

“My Lady Eostre, bringer of dawn, bringer of spring, bringer of new life,” he invoked solemnly. “I ask you now, make wealth and bliss wax, grant us growing yield that every kind of corn may come to us for our use. Make wealth increase to make life easier.”

And the gathering answered, “Hael thou, Eostre.”

The hallowing complete, the fire bowl was taken away, and the saex, the ceremonial knife was offered to the King, who accepted it and began with the carving of the roast. Soon, the servers were bringing the bits of his choice to the guests – the feast could only begin after those had been consumed.

Elfhelm was not feeling hungry, and not even the mastery of the King’s cooks could stir his appetite, although they had outdone themselves creating the meal for this feast. There was onion-ale soup served over bread, with stuffed and boiled eggs. There was roasted hare, enough to feed half the garrison. There was rabbit cooked in broth, rabbit in wine-currant sauce, tartes (pie filled with rabbit and chicken meat), lamb stewed with sage and parsley, pork and egg pie seasoned with honey and pepper, batter-fried carrots, parsnips and apples dressed in almond milk, pastries boasted in honey… he ceased to count after a while. His own father set a good table back in Stowburg, but no feast of theirs could be compared with the High Symbel of the King at one of the Holy Tides.

‘Twas a feast like no other, and thus was expected from the guests to eat, drink and have a good time, singing and jesting and reciting merry poems as the feasted. Elfhelm tried to force himself to due merriment, he honestly did. But his gloomy mood lifted not, and he sat with downcast eyes, picking on his food and sipping from his ale, wishing that the whole thing would be over, soon. Watching Aeldamar feeding particularly tasty bits to Idis was amost more than he could bear.

Which was an idle wish, of course. The feast of a High Symbel was a serious matter, which usually lasted ‘til the next morn – besides, everyone but he seemed to enjoy themselves greatly. Even young Lady Éowyn, usually much too grave for her tender age, giggled delightedly with her family. The smile only froze on her lovely face when she happened to meet the pale eyes of Gríma. In those moments she almost seemed to whither like a flower in a sudden frost.

Elfhelm found this strange – not to mention a reason to worry, as the Lady Éowyn had seen less than twenty summers, and her brother was still too young to protect her properly. Thus the Marshal decided to speak to the Crown Prince as soon as he could find the chance; or to the lady Aud. For he liked not what he had seen.

When everyone was sated, the servers collected the leftovers and – together with the parts already promised to Eostre – took them to the hof, the sacred place outside the walls. There the offerings to Eostre were burned and the ashes strewn into the sacred well, while the leftovers were given to the poor who could not afford a feast of their own. Thusly demanded the old custom of yielding, which the Éothéod had brought with them from the far North. And the penniless ceorls and their families sat along the buttred outer walls of the hof, eating the fine dishes they could never have dreamed of otherwise and blessed the name and generosity of their King.

Théoden himself rose from his great chair again and led his guests out of the Golden Hall, out to the pawed terrace before his doors. There they stood, waiting for the new dawn, for Eostre’s return. When the first reddish light appeared on the horizon, the old King raised his arms and chanted in a powerful voice that echoed from the hillside.

Wassail Eostre – Mankind’s mother
be thou growing – in god’s embrace.
With food filled – for men to us
Bright blossoming – thou blessed worth.
In that holy name – that the heaven shaped
and that of the earth – that we live in
that god – that the grounds wrought
grant us – growing yield
that every kind of corn to us – comes to use.(7)


Dawn broke in the very moment in which the King finished his bede; and he spoke the words of leave and his guests returned to their own homes. When Elfhelm readied himself to follow his father, though, he felt the cold hand of Gríma upon his forearm again.

“The King musts need to rest,” whispered the counsellor, “but he expects you to come before him in the ninth hour. And you would do well to remember the sacred oath you have sworn at the symbel, son of Hengest.”

He bowed and vanished in the crowd, leaving a worried and very unhappy Elfhelm behind.

~~~

(1) Approximately April.
(2) Maegtheow = Clan-Master – the highest authority among Clan Éowain. I consider Éomund, Éomer’s father as a member of this Clan, though from another House. Further references to Elfhelm’s family can be found in chapter 3 of “The White Lady of Rohan”.
(3) heahburg = capital; burgsteal = city, also called burgstede, burgturn or eard
(4) Quoted from Beowulf, lines 489-490.
(5) Quoted from Beowulf, lines 1169-1175.
(6) See: Beowulf, lines 64-82. Théodred’s boast is a paraphrasing of those lines.
(7) Source: the AEcer-Bót, and Anglo-Saxon rite found in the manuscript known as the Lacnunga. I only added Eostre’s name.


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