She stood shocked into stillness - I knew it, I knew it -
Rowanna gasped and whirled, shaking; for a moment as she turned from the dark of the doorway back to the bright street she was blinded, and then the whisper came again and she placed it, in the alleyway which branched off opposite.
"Mistress Rowanna! Over here, quickly!"
She could barely make out the figure in the shadows; but the urgency of the tone convinced her, and before caution had time to check her steps she was across the street. A hand reached out to draw her swiftly under the overhanging eaves and a little deeper into the alley.
"Who is that? I can't - "
"Don't you know me, mistress?" A solid, square hand went up to put back a hood; and then face and voice and gesture put themselves together, and she recognised Edyth, who had kept house for her mother ever since Míranna had first brought her bewildered little girl to Edoras.
"Edyth! Oh, Edyth, what's happened? Where's Mother?..."
"Quickly now," the older woman responded in a hurried whisper, taking Rowanna by the arm and marching her down the alley and left into another street, "you shall hear all, my dear, but not here - you never do know who's listening, these days, and best we not be seen hanging about before your dear mother's door, the gods bless and keep her. That's right, down this way - " as they worked their way back down the hill and once more into the more crowded lower streets - "I've been with my son since the house was shut up, over in Silver Street, it's smaller than you're used to and even more crowded now that his wife's sister and her children are in from the Eastemnet, but at least it's upwind of the tanners' alley most days and no-one will question another face coming and going when everyone down here has so many extra mouths to feed just now..."
"But what's happened to Mother? Is she sick? Where is she?..."
"All in good time, mistress, we'll be there in two shakes of a colt's tail - see, here we are, under the sign of the silver fish - "
Indeed, a beautifully carved sign in the shape of a leaping salmon, painted with silver, marked the house out. It was smaller than Rowanna's mother's, its thatched eaves lower so that Rowanna had to stoop to follow Edyth as the older woman pushed the door ajar and called " 'Tis only me," before ducking inside. Rowanna blinked, eyes smarting from the hearthsmoke which was gusted across the room by the door's draught. Slowly she made out the figures of two children sitting on stools close to the fireplace, and realised from the scuffling and whispers that several more had dived into hiding as the door opened.
"This is the lady I told you of, Meghan," Edyth said firmly. "Have you got the stew on for supper, there, as I asked you? That's my good girl - and your mother's still out at the market?" The little one nodded, eyes round as she stared at the stranger.
"Good day, Meghan," Rowanna offered, but this merely caused the child to blush and look hastily away as her sister dug her in the ribs.
"Come through, mistress," Edyth urged, "through here to the workshop, my son's out about a bit of business of his own and we can talk there, and it's lighter too for that's the room with the window, he made sure of that when he took the house for he needs good light for his work -" Bustling across the room moving stools and children out of the way, past the row of pans hanging up by the hearth which gleamed in the firelight, Edyth ushered Rowanna over another threshold. "Wulf, have you fed the hens yet?" she called back over her shoulder. "Well, get you out into the yard and do it at once, you idle lad, and get Drefan to help you instead of fooling about and getting under your sisters' feet - " and she shut the door firmly behind her.
"That should keep them out of mischief, instead of larking around trying to listen at the door because they're convinced their grandam's up to some mystery they want to be poking their fingers into," she announced. "Sit down, Mistress Rowanna, I pray you, and here - Teon always has a pitcher of water fresh for the dust does get into his throat so, let me pour you a beaker - "
Sitting down heavily herself on the other end of the bench with a gusty sigh, she poured out water for each of them and set the pitcher down on her son's worktable with a thud. Rowanna, who felt as though she had barely drawn breath in the last half hour, took a few grateful gulps of water and, as Edyth lifted her own beaker, seized her chance.
"Edyth, please, just tell me - what has happened? Where's Mother? Is she all right?"
"Well, now, my dear, you mustn't fret, we've no reason not to think your lady mother's well enough, for all that what happened was dreadful - I never thought I should have cause to be ashamed of the Eorlingas but the way she was treated - "
"Ill-treated?" Rowanna looked up sharply. "Who by?"
"Oh, it was all just silly rumour at first, nothing to get worked up about, and of course your mother laughed it off; back before the year's turning it started, really. A few murmurings about strangers in the city; hard to say where these things come from, but folk began talking about dark times, and needing to look to ourselves. There was a trading party from somewhere down South turned away from the gates with a flea in their ears, and not long after that a family over in Wheelwrights' Street, though they'd been in Edoras for years it was always said they had a Dunlendish look to them - their door was smashed in one night, and the next day they were packed up and gone..."
"But - Mother chose Rohan, over her own land!" Rowanna felt the blood flare in her cheeks. "How could anyone think she would not be loyal? And Gondor is Rohan's ally, besides! -"
"You needn't tell me, child - did I say there was any sense to any of it?" Edyth took a deep draught of water and replaced her beaker with an indignant thump. "It wasn't so much being born of Gondor that folk took a misliking to; but there were sly tongues about - I swear that merchant's wife Hild who paid your mother so late once for a gown had something to do with it - who remembered her Northern blood, and there was wild talk about sorcery and -"
She stopped short, hand to her mouth.
"And it was rumoured that her daughter had vanished in the middle of the night and gone to the Elves?" Rowanna's mouth was a hard line. My fault. This - whatever it is - all happened because Mother tried to save me...
"She pretended to take no heed at first, of course," Edyth went on stoutly, "you know your mother - she'd rather die, bless her, than let anyone know nonsense like that was working its way under her skin. But I'd swear she wasn't sleeping: she started looking pale, and worn out as I hadn't seen her since all those nights she sat up with you last summer. And then - oh, mistress, I'm ashamed to say it, I feel to blame -"
"Edyth, please! I promise I'll not blame you - what?"
"There were stones thrown at the house," said Edyth with a heavy sigh. "Just lads horsing around, we thought, and paid no heed - till one night I opened the door to empty a slop-pail, and one caught me on the head..."
"They hit you?" Rowanna's rising incredulity caught in her throat and choked her off. "Oh, Edyth, they could have killed you! How could anyone - "
"Well, that was the end, I fear, child," the older woman concluded sadly. "Rumour and silliness and even a bit of daubing on the door your mother could ignore, for pride like hers will take plenty of knocks; but having someone else hurt on her account - "
"Would be more than she could abide." Rowanna's chest tightened and she swallowed hard on the lump in her throat. "Was - was she angry, Edyth?"
"That was the worst thing of all." Edyth bowed her head a moment, and when she looked up again her eyes glittered in the one window's light. "I would have been glad to see her angry - not on my account, you know that, I wasn't badly hurt, just my ears ringing for a little - but for hers. But all the fight went out of her that night as surely as a stallion when he's cut. She just gave in; and the next morning she set about shutting up the house..."
"When was this?" Rowanna asked, feeling a sudden strange prickling running down her spine.
"Oh -" Edyth frowned - "a month ago, a little more? Four sennights or so after the year's turning - "
The night I had the worst dreams. Rowanna slowly became aware of a sharp pain in her right palm; only when she lifted the hand to look at it did she realise she had been clutching the edge of the workbench so hard that she had driven a splinter right into the flesh. I did know; she was in trouble, and afraid... oh, Mother! I came as fast as I could, I swear!
Lifting her chin, she looked Edyth squarely in the eye. "And where has she gone, Edyth?" she asked, even as she had an uncanny feeling she could guess the answer.
"The last place in the world you might think, given all she'd said over the years," Edyth retorted. "But she said if the Riddermark would no longer give her shelter, she'd but one choice; to go to the only other home she'd ever known, and see if there were any yet left there who would own her..."
"To the White City."
"Aye, you have it, my dear. She packed up what little she needed, and asked leave of Lady Éowyn to ride with a pair of messengers to the Steward, and back she went. Back to Mundburg."
Rowanna let out a long, slow sigh as though she had not breathed for the last hour. What should I do? I barely know where to begin - Absurdly, she heard herself ask:
"How did you know I was here?"
"Ah, well." Edyth glanced at Rowanna's beaker, and leant to refill it. "I told you what a place Edoras has become for gossip - not that it wasn't always, mind, but it's different now somehow: everyone watching everyone else, taking care of their steps, and never being sure quite who you can trust and who will carry tales to the wrong side of the Golden Hall - anyway, one of the lads who mucks out in the West-wall stables recognised you. Do you remember Swithun? he used to help bring beasts to and fro for you and Master Aelstan when you were out in the Eastfold? - anyway, he knew you, and being a good lad with a sharp head on his shoulders, he guessed where you'd be bound as soon as you had your horse settled. He said he tried to speak to you there, but he couldn't do it without being overheard; so he left you rubbing down, and ran to me. And I hope he wasn't missed and clouted for it after - "
She broke off as the creak and thump of a door without was followed by scufflings and children's excited cries. "There now; that'll be Nelda back from market - "
But it was not Nelda; for a moment later the workshop door was flung open, and a great tow-headed frame filled the doorway as a voice much deeper than Edyth's called:
"Mother! Mother, have you heard - it's all over the City, my lord Éomer - "
He came up short as his clear blue eyes fell on Rowanna; he flushed with that suddenness she knew so well in the open faces of the Eorlingas, and with a glare over his shoulder back into the house banged the workshop door shut again and hissed:
"Who is this?"
"Oh come, Teon, surely you know the lady! This is Mistress Rowanna, daughter of my lady Míranna - "
"You brought her here? Are you mad? With half the city spying on the other half, and the sky by the sound of it about to fall in on us - " Teon's face lost none of its flush. Rowanna gasped one sharp inbreath.
"Teon! Now you watch your tongue, my lad, or big as you are I'll give you a clout! How can you speak so of a guest, and one whose kin always showed you such kindness!" Edyth was half up from her seat, and growing red in the face too, when Rowanna cut in icily:
"I have no wish to remain where I am not wanted, Master Teon, any more than had my mother." Heavens forgive me, but I could not keep that back! "If I am unwelcome or endanger you here - though I confess that for the life of me I still do not understand why - then I ask your pardon, and I shall be gone at once."
She made to rise herself; but Teon extended a hand to stop her, shaking his great shaggy head.
"Nay, mistress, it is I who must ask pardon." He moved around the workroom to fall onto the bench beside his mother. "The city's half crazed these days with rumour and murmurings, every man wanting someone to turn against and no longer knowing friend from foe, and it makes us all jumpy as half-trained colts. Mother is right, it's a shame against kin and people to be ungentle to a stranger so, and you are no stranger!" Picking up one of his small hammers from the end of the worktable where his tools were neatly ranged, he began turning it over and over in his fingers with a sigh.
"And to end all, this news from Meduseld -"
"What is it?" Both women shifted to face him, holding their breath.
"You'd not heard, then? It was the talk of the wrights' street when I was down there; one of the hallwards who lodges there had come running - my lord Éomer's taken prisoner, and thrown in a cell beneath the Golden Hall, some say for treason!"
"Éomer? But I rode in with him this morning! - "
"B-but," Edyth stammered, "who could give such an order? To arrest a Marshal?"
"Who but the king himself?" said Teon heavily. "And this, they're saying, surely is proof that Théoden King has lost his mind at last for grief, to cast his own sister-son in the dungeon; and if that's so then it's a sore day for the Riddermark, for now we'll be ruled by none but the Worm."
For a moment no-one spoke; then there was bustle without once again, as Nelda and her sister Ardith came in from market and the children rushed around their skirts. Rowanna had to be taken out and introductions made, though Edyth made no mention of her mother nor journeys from the Elves in the North: "you remember, my lady worked with Master Aelstan out in the Eastfold, and so now she's back in the city with everyone else, and will stay with us a day or two while she gets matters in order."
Not until supper was cleared away, and the children sleeping all in a tangle in their bed behind the hide curtains at the far end of the room, could anything more of import be said; as they were finishing their meal a young lass had come knocking for Ardith, asking could the midwife please come to her mother two streets away, who was at her time? So Ardith had hastily tied her shawl on and bid her children be good for their aunt and uncle, and wished them goodnight, and now it was Edyth, Teon and Nelda who gathered with Rowanna around the hearth and talked in low murmurs.
"And that's as luck would have it, perhaps," Edyth had whispered to Rowanna as Nelda was seeing the children into bed, "for although I'd not say it to Nelda, who's sensible enough and won't breathe a word of anything she knows is not to be spoken of, Ardith is a good deal too fond of gossiping to remember what she should be telling and what not, and we're safer without her for tonight."
Asked by Teon what she planned to do, Rowanna was adamant.
"To go to Minas Tirith, of course, and find Mother. I am all she has in the world now; how could I not go to her?..."
"But you can't go alone!" broke in Nelda. "It's more than a hundred leagues!"
"And war's brewing," Teon added. "For all we know there could be orcs swarming all over the West-road before long - "
Rowanna grimaced as memory caught at her. What did I say to Elrond? That I would go to Mother though every orc in Mordor stood between? And he said we had not reached such straits! Well, perhaps we will yet...
"I know all that," she insisted. "Yet I must go! Edyth, you tell them - if it were Mother, what would she do?"
Edyth shook her head and chuckled. "She has you there, son, I can't deny it. I never yet knew Lady Míranna leave off a thing she'd decided she must do, not for fear of orcs or worse!"
"And yet it's not so simple," Teon pointed out. "You know the edict that went out, Mother - no strangers to roam in our land without express permission of the King. And now that even my lord Éomer's suspect - do you truly think Mistress Rowanna will just be let ride out of the gates? Every way from the city is guarded and watched; by day you'd be seen and by night all is barred..."
Rowanna felt her heart sink. Can the poison really have spread so deep? Will the land that raised me hold me prisoner now? "There must be a way!" she implored Edyth.
"There's but one, I'd say, can get you out of the city as things stand, if Lord Éomer's in hold," the older woman said firmly. "Somehow, we must get word to my lady Éowyn. Let me think..."
She sat unusually quiet for a few moments, then got up from her stool and reached for her shawl where it hung on its peg. "I won't be gone long," she announced. "No, Teon, stay you here, I can go quieter and quicker without a great lump of a lad like you on my heels. If anyone asks, I've gone up to see that old Widow Goody in Straight Street isn't worse with her fever, and I'll be back before the candle's burned down." And with that, easing the door to behind her with barely a creak, she was gone.
An anxious hour passed. Nelda brewed a tisane over the fire, and the scent of camomile and lavender calmed Rowanna's frayed nerves a little as she gratefully sipped it; they talked a little in whispers of matters in Edoras, the sickness of Théoden King and the treachery of of Grima Gálmodsson.
"'Tis he for sure has poisoned the mind of the King," Teon insisted - "no, Nelda, I will say what's right by my own hearth though there are those would have me hung for it if they heard me - and if the mutterings are true, it's more than Théoden's mind the Worm has made sick. When did you last see the King? A year or more gone? Then you would not know him, lady, in truth, for he's aged a score of years since the winter alone."
"And no longer seems to know left from right, nor care," added Nelda indignantly. "He had always such care for the common folk, did the King - but the way the city is now, with everyone in from the Eastfold hugger-mugger, with no thought for how to manage the lodging or food save what folks' own kin can manage - "
"And if it weren't for my lord Éomer, Ardith and all the rest would still be out there at the mercy of whatever Mordor sends, if you ask me," Teon pointed out. "Days they said he was in and out of the Golden Hall arguing with his uncle that the Eastfold must be emptied, and my lady Éowyn asking what was to be done for she must take thought for board and lodging for so many folk, and nothing ordered-"
"Till in the end they all came in in a panic, and were left to fend for themselves and the city bursting at the seams," his wife finished with a sigh. "Still, folk are safe now after a fashion, I suppose-"
She broke off as a soft click marked the lifting of the iron latch. A moment later, Edyth had slipped back in through the shadows of the doorway and was hanging up her shawl.
"All's well," she announced a little louder than Rowanna expected, "Widow Goody's sleeping peacefully, poor soul." With that, she eased the door shut, came over to the hearth and added in softer tones,
"And you're to be at the bakehouse below Meduseld at dawn tomorrow, my lady, for the Lady Éowyn would speak with you about that bit of extra provisioning you had need of. Fear not, I'll wake you, for I shall be up before the sun myself in any case; old bones need little rest."
They made up a straw pallet for Rowanna close to the hearth after they had banked down the fire, and Teon and Nelda bid her goodnight; but she lay staring into the dying firelight for hours, straining her ears for the slightest sound from the sleeping city, and felt she had barely dozed off when the first grey light and the muffled sounds of Edyth poking the fire told her it was time to rise.
Shivering with cold, she gratefully accepted a steaming mug, but declined bread; with this dry mouth I'd choke on lembas! She splashed icy water on her face at the backyard pump, and tried to take in Edyth's murmured instructions:
"Go to the back door of the bakehouse - you know where it is, behind the Golden Hall where the hill slopes away? - and say you've come to see the Lady Éowyn if she has a moment, for she'd promised you a little extra bread to help feed your kin. Keep your hood up; and say nothing of what you really want unless my lady speaks of it first, for she'll know better than you whether the wrong ears are pricked anywhere about. Do not give your true name - you're Nelda's cousin Annis, if anyone asks - and whatever you do, say nothing of orcs, or Mundburg, or above all of Elves!"
Rowanna nodded. "I'll remember. Edyth - thank you." She ducked her head hastily to kiss the older woman's cheek; then took a deep breath, eased the door softly open, and stepped out into the dewy chill of dawn.
All the new original character names in this chapter come from the Anglo-Saxon Girls' and Anglo-Saxon Boys' Names pages listed in the HASA URL Library.