15. A chapter of misfortune.
The cold bit hard. We did not leave until the sun emerged above the low line of clouds that defined the horizon, but as we cut down to the Great West Road the fresh wind whipped under cloaks until they billowed around us like un-sheeted sails on a poorly trimmed ship. Even the warmth from Lyftfætsceadu’s strong body filtered away into the chilly air. I shivered, wondering where Éomer had spent the night, and how uncomfortable it must be to sleep in a bedroll on hard rocky ground.
At the crossroads we turned southeast, and with the wind behind us my face started to feel as if it belonged to me again. The road now took us closer to the mountains. Hour after hour it seemed we cantered east, keeping up a relentless pace that tested strength and stiffened muscles. The Ered Nimrais, which had on our outward journey looked so beautiful, so majestic, now loomed over us hostile and menacing. Somewhere in that vastness a group of men were battling wits and strength with a pack of vile creatures that thrived on pain and destruction. However, I took my cue from the men of our escort, who, when we finally stopped to rest at midday, joked boldly amongst themselves about the fate of a few wargs. And Daegberht inspired confidence. A tall muscular man, somewhere between thirty and forty summers, who wore his pale flaxen hair in warrior braids. A determined chin showed through his fair beard and the depth in his light blue eyes drew one’s gaze away from his crooked nose.
As soon as word came that we could leave the previous evening, he had he gathered us together, reiterating Éomer’s instructions about heading out onto the plain in the unlikely event of any attack. But we saw nothing, except one of the scouts reported catching sight of Erkenbrand’s company traversing the edge of the plain, where one of the fast flowing streams plummeted down through broken rocks. Even so, he pressed us onward, seeking to reach our refuge well before dark.
At last, with the westering sun, we turned our backs on the open grasslands and wearily I urged Sceadu onto the track that wound up into the Héacoomb valley. Looking behind me as we eased into a walk, I saw Aerin slumped in the saddle, her horse plodding along inline with little help from its rider. The two women from Rohan still sat straight, only a slight tension in their faces betraying their tiredness.
As dusk fell the cultivated fields gave way to clusters of houses and small paddocks, but these were empty. No horses or any other livestock grazed outside. As we moved through the village it became evident that we, or rather me, could be considered to be the object of a great deal of excitement. Virtually every cottage door stood wide open, whole families crowding in lamp-lit porches. Children, who would normally be settling down for the night, peeped from behind their mother’s skirts, or stood, importantly, holding the collars of barking dogs. But as soon as we passed they were ushered in. Lights went out, shutters quickly fastened together and doors shut tight, the threat of wargs taken seriously by these people who had already suffered much from Saruman’s treachery.
Guided by one of the Westfold men we took a cart track up to where a sturdily built farmhouse stood on a plateau, hard into the cliff-face. Immediately we clattered into the courtyard the main door of the building opened and three or four figures came out with lamps. The largest one spoke briefly with Daegberht, and then came towards me holding his lamp high so that I could see his face. I beheld a man about the same age, and nearly as tall, as Éomer, with kind eyes and a puckered scar that ran diagonally across one cheek, disappearing into a copious beard.
“My lady Queen, welcome to my home.” He bowed and the lamp bobbed, sweeping light behind him to where a woman waited. I am Eadweard,” he indicated to the woman who moved forward into the glow, “you have met my wife.”
Bathilde bobbed a curtsey and look genuinely pleased to see me.
“Of, course. It is nice to see you again Bathilde.” I smiled, her pleasant face held the same sincerity as her mother’s.
Eadweard looked down on his wife from his considerable height; almost unthinkingly he touched her arm, the gesture one of obvious affection. “Bathilde will show you to your sleeping quarters, my lady. I’ll take your horse. She will be well looked after.”
I knew I had to get off, and I dreaded it. My legs felt like jelly. Carefully, I eased my booted feet from my stirrups, wishing Éomer were here. There was something to be said for the way he would sometimes pluck me from the saddle. I just hoped I would not buckle at the knees when my feet hit the floor. To the side of me I saw one of the men reach up to Aerin. She put her arms around his neck and collapsed against him as he lifted her down. So much easier – not to be a queen.
“Let, me help you, my lady.”
“Oh, Daegberht, thank you. I do feel a bit weak.”
“I am not surprised, my lady. I am sorry you had to endure such a hard ride, but I didn’t want us out there after dark.” Eadweard, went to Sceadu’s head and I brought one leg cautiously over her withers so Daegberht could lift me down, He held on to me for a few moments until my legs began to work. “It will not be so bad tomorrow as we can cut off some of the road.”
I nodded, preferring not to think about tomorrow.
The heat, and the smell of peat, hit me the moment we entered into the large flagged hall. Bathilde led me straight up some worn stone stairs and along a dark corridor, opening the door onto a large room, also blessedly warm. A four poster bed dominated the space and something immediately told me it was her bed, hers and Eadweard’s. The protest that leapt to my lips died before I could utter it. Generosity should not be rebuffed.
“What a lovely room, Lady Bathilde, I imagine there is a wonderful view.”
“Yes, my lady, most of the rooms look down the valley and across the plains. Luckily this house survived the raids.” Now,” she went on, forestalling any further conversation on the subject, “there is a short time before supper, would you like some tea and a bath?”
“Some tea please. I do not need a bath, just a bowl of hot water.” I imagined there would be enough to do with all the visitors, without the extra work of preparing a bath for me.
“Are you sure, my lady? It is no trouble.”
“No, I will be back in Meduseld tomorrow. It’s not necessary.”
She smiled. “Very well, then I will find your maid…” A knock interrupted her before I could say that I rather doubted Aerin would be fit for duty. The door opened to Hroddwyn, the young widow who had come with us from Edoras.
A slight bow to Bathilde and a bob to me brought her into the room. “I have your night things, my lady. With your permission I will attend to you. Aerin is exhausted.”
Just as I opened my mouth to say I could manage, I remembered my mail shirt. It fastened down the back. “Thank you, Hroddwyn. I appreciate that.”
The girl nodded and put the bag she held down on the bed. “Is there a dress in here, my lady?”
“There is, a red wool one. It’s probably very creased and needs hanging up.”
“Oh, give it to me Hroddwyn. I’ll get it pressed.” Bathilde said, moving to the bed to peer in the bag.
Hroddwyn, pulled out the dress - which although having been carefully folded and put on the top of the pack, now looked well travelled - shook it out and handed it to Bathilde. My hostess folded the dress carefully over her arm, and looked around as if to check the room one more time. “I will send up the hot water, my lady, and I will add some hawthorn to the blackberry and nettle tea. That will help with the stiff muscles and relax you.”
The door closed behind the little bustling woman and I was left alone with Hroddwyn. I felt slightly uncomfortable as, although we had been travelling together for the past few days, we were still strangers. Our different ranks kept us apart most of the time, but also because she was so obviously unhappy and shunned intimate conversation. But mostly, I admit, because Aerin had told me she was in some way related to Elfgyuu which accounted for her inclusion in the party. However, looking into her eyes now, I saw no hostility, only an underlying sadness. “Aerin only learnt to ride this summer.” I said, somehow feeling I needed to justify my maid’s exhaustion, or, more probably, make excuses for a Gondorian.
Hroddwyn smiled. The first real smile I had seen cross her face. “She has done well, my lady, for one not born in the saddle. And so have you.”
“Oh,” I said, surprised at the comment, “but I have ridden since I could walk.”
“I didn’t just mean that my lady. I meant how well you have coped with everything. The camping, Éomer King leaving you in the Hornburg to return to Meduseld alone when….” I stared dumbfounded, and her cheeks stained red. “I apologize; I am speaking out of turn.”
“No, no you’re not. You surprised me, that’s all.” I grinned and her face relaxed slightly. “I am getting used to the people of Rohan saying what they think.”
“In that case, my lady, let me tell you that many are coming to think Éomer King chose his wife well.” She turned back to my bag as if she did not expect any answer, “I will find your robe, my lady, and then we can get those clothes off.”
Hroddwyn quickly undid the fastenings at the back of my mail shirt, and then I sat on a chair and she pulled off my boots. Just as she got up the hot water arrived, carried by a servant girl whose hands shook so much that water slopped over the bucket. Bathilde followed, tutting, and carrying a tray with jug of tea and a small pottery pot. “The Queen will not bite you, Adith. Put the water behind the screen.” The girl hurried, catching her foot on the edge of a rug, spilling more water and causing Bathilde’s eyes to shoot skywards. “Here we are, my lady drink this while it’s hot. I have brought some salve made from thyme leaves; you might like to rub it into your legs. Your dress will be back soon,” she said, hardly pausing for breath.
“Oh yes, that’s good.” Hroddwyn plucked the pot from the tray and took off the lid, sniffing deeply. “I often used this on Ealdred when he came back from a long patrol.”
Bathilde stayed whilst I sipped my tea, asking a few questions about her mother, then remembering something she hadn’t done, she suddenly rushed out of the room. Left alone with Hroddwyn again, I went behind the screen to strip off my leggings and the rest of my clothing. The warmth of the room made it pleasant to wash myself all over and I emerged to find my temporary maid hanging up my dress from the bed post. “Oh, I didn’t hear a knock.”
“A mouse would have made more noise.”
Gathering that the timid serving girl must have come with the dress, I decided that I liked Hroddwyn, and a thought flitted through my mind – she would make a good maid when Aerin’s three months were up. But maybe she had other plans.
“If you would like to sit down on that chair, my lady, I will massage some salve into your legs.”
“Are you sure, Hroddwyn?” I did not want to upset her, reviving memories of her tending to her husband, but she shook her head, her eyes telling me she recognised my concern.
“I can’t live in the past, my lady. I can only be thankful for the time we had.”
The time we had- the cold clutch of fear made a grab for my heart. What if something happened to Éomer when I had only just discovered that I loved him? And before I had even told him. Suddenly all the reassurances were as nothing: the jokes from the men; Wilflede’s optimistic words; Erkenbrand’s vigilance. Just because Éomer had come through the Ring-war unscathed it did not mean he held a charmed life…and whatever he said – he did not have his full armour….
“Are you all right, my lady? You have gone quite white.”
“Yes…yes, I am fine, thank you.” Hroddwyn took my arm pulling me gently towards the chair.
“Sit down, my lady. You must not worry. Nothing will happen to the King.”
Hroddwyn poured me some more tea and in a few moments I regained my composure enough to continue dressing. Strangely, I felt no embarrassment at my lack of self control knowing that this woman understood my fears.
A cheerful meal in the company of my escort, Bathilde’s and Eadweard’s young family and a handful of farm workers restored my confidence. The talk at the meal convinced me that the man, who famously had raised his sword in total defiance at the coming of the Black Ships, was not destined to meet his end through a pack of wargs, however evil and malevolent they turned out to be.
We ate in a large barn, where enough tables had been set up to accommodate all the household and visitors in true Rohírric tradition. Thankfully charcoal braziers turned the semi-outdoor eating area into a warm cosy space. When we entered, Bathilde thrust forward her two young children who were waiting to greet me before going to their beds. The little girl managed a wobbly curtsey and her small son a creditable bow. She whispered that they had been practising all day. Eadweard stood proudly alongside the spit on which a large pig had been roasted to a rich golden brown. Evidently the pig had met its end immediately the messenger had arrived the previous evening with news of my visit. It was impossible not to be heartened by the welcome I received in that house, so spite of my tiredness I did not seek my bed straight after the meal, but stayed for some time listening to stories of the glory of the Riddermark.
With my heart considerably lighter, I took leave of my hosts the next morning and followed Daegberht back through the village. This time the children were out on the road and many times they had to be shooed from our path, but they would laugh and grin and run behind us, shouting to the warriors to – ‘batter, thrash, slaughter’ and just about anything else they could think of – ‘the wargs’. Passing me, they momentarily stopped, honoured me with a quick bow, and then carried on shouting. We could still hear their excited voices calling as we left the houses behind and headed down the valley.
When we reached the road the wind had eased. The temperature had risen slightly, with a layer of low cloud obscuring the tops of the mountains. Within the hour we reached the place where we had made our camp on the outward journey. Then, the huge boulders gave shelter but now their dark forms loomed menacingly above us and the mountain stretched out onto the plain like an iron-clad hand reaching for an unprotected neck. But we were not unprotected, I told myself, some of the Westfold’s best men rode with us. Almost before I could complete my thoughts, Daegberht swung left and led us out onto the grassland. The horses picked up pace, galloping through the yellowing meadow on a track that cut off a sweeping bend in the road and took us far from the tumbled rocks.
We made our midday break well out on the plain, far from the mountains. But the general feeling from the men was that we were now far past any danger from wargs. The Westfold contingent was leaving us, returning to boost Erkenbrand’s blockade. First though, we wanted to give them a good meal, knowing they would not be joining their Marshall until well after dark. As I helped pass out the food I thought of Eadric, wondering if at that moment he was producing one of his outdoor culinary marvels or tending to a wounded Rider.
Our numbers were few now: Daegberht; six men, two leading packhorses; the two Rohírric women, Egelfled and Hroddwyn; Aerin and me. Back on the road and only a few hours from Edoras, but the pace did not slacken. Thoughts of unlimited hot baths pushed away worries about wargs. I blessed my husband and his Gondorian water boiler when I took an opportunity to stretch out first one leg and then the other. Lyftfætsceadu, probably sensing her stable within reach, was content to follow the leaders.
Another few leagues and once more we swung left, taking a track that cut straight across the grassland. Two hours from Edoras and the paths were known well. The wind suddenly returned and with it the sun, picking up the tops of the drying seed heads and turning the plain into a carpet of shimmering gold. A few times my eyes were in danger of closing. The beat of the hooves and the swish of the grasses proving soporific to a tired body, but then one of the men would lift up in the saddle and scan the horizons. The slight movement being enough to wake me from my stupor and I would gather Sceadu together keeping her well up to her bit and in the middle of the track. Maybe it was that, or the fact that Éomer had schooled her so well, that she barely faltered when a large group of pheasants took to the air. Their raucous staccato calls, and the peculiar whirring flight they favoured were enough to spook the most reliable of mounts. The warhorses in front of me did not miss a stride but from behind me I heard an anguished cry and a thump. Daegberht put up his hand but I had already sat back and sunk deep into the saddle, easing Sceadu to a halt.
I turned my head to look over my shoulder, barely able to stifle my own cry as I saw Aerin lying motionless in the grass to the side of the track. Before I could react further, one of the Riders jumped down beside her. Swiftwind, the gelding she rode, had come to a halt. He looked unhurt but embarrassed, shaking his head and neighing softly. Rohírric horses did not usually lose their riders. I turned Sceadu and trotted back, removing my gloves and wiping first one hand and then the other on my cloak – shaking hands, clammy with the sweat of fear.
When I reached Aerin she was unconscious. Egelfled knelt down bedside her before I had the chance to dismount. Unsure what to do, only having bathed the odd family injury, I slipped off Sceadu but hesitated for a moment. “Leave it to Egelfled, my lady; she has had lots of experience.” Daegberht said as he trotted up beside me and jumped from his horse in one easy fluid movement. I nodded. Of course, a long-time warrior’s wife, one would expect her to be used to injuries. One of the men took Sceadu from me and I moved closer to the awful tableau.
After an anxious time, during which Egelfled ran her hands gently up and down Aerin’s limbs, whilst Hroddwyn bathed her forehead, my maid’s eyelids began to flutter. “Good,” Daegberht murmured, “she’s coming round.”
Aerin awoke groaning with pain, immediately trying to clutch at her shoulder. Egelfled reached into her saddle bag and pulled out a small leather bottle, then tipped some of the contents into Aerin’s mouth. My maid spluttered a bit but most went down.
“Come and sit down, my lady. Rest when you can. It will be a while before we can move her.” Daegberht took my arm and led me to a small hump where he had spread a cloak. I sat down thankfully and he offered me a drink of watered wine.
“Just a little,” I said, smiling gratefully and taking the cup from his hand. “It’s funny, Daegberht, one expects trouble from one direction and it comes from another.”
“It often does, my lady. But it’s my fault, I should have realised how tired she was.”
“No, Daegberht, not your fault. A combination of circumstances: her lack of experience; the birds…”
“Oh, Egelfled,” I got up quickly, “how is she?”
“Could be worse, my lady. She seems to have broken a bone in her shoulder. She landed on it, but she also hit her head on a small rock – they lie all over the plains. I don’t think it’s serious but sometimes people are ill a few days after they’ve hit their heads. She must rest. I have strapped up her shoulder but,” she looked towards Daegberht, “we need to discuss what to do.”
I stood quietly waiting, catching only the odd Rohírric word from the conversation between Daegberht and Egelfled and making no attempt to offer my opinion. I might be Queen, but in these circumstances I happily relinquished such decisions to those who had intimate knowledge of this land. Finally, with a sharp nod of agreement to Egelfled, Daegberht came towards me and Egelfled returned to her patient.
“My lady,” Daegberht’s firm voice had inspired confidence from the beginning. Éomer had chosen my protector well. Whatever decision had been made, I would not argue. “We are still a two hour ride from Edoras. My first duty is to you and I wish you to be safe behind the city walls before dusk. Egelfled says that Aerin will be put in danger if she is tossed about on the back of a cantering horse. She must be transported slowly. If we take her back to Edoras at a walk then it will a few hours after dark before we get there.”
I nodded slowly, wondering if he meant to camp. Hours in the cold would do her no good either.
Putting an end to my musing, Daegberht pointed back the way we had come “There is a village not far from where we left the road. I am sending her there, with Egelfled and an escort of two. The rest of us will carry on with all speed. The horses have rested and we should make good time.”
I knew Egelfled had children waiting for her to return, but could see no other way, unless we all went to the village and that would serve no useful purpose as well as causing a lot of upheaval. But a selfish thought intruded into my concern for her: I would be the only Gondorian in Meduseld. I pushed it aside. “Yes, that sounds sensible, Daegberht. I imagine a cart can be found to bring Aerin back to Edoras as soon as she is well enough.”
With nothing much else to say, I walked back to where Aerin lay propped up against a pack and covered by a Rider’s cloak. Crouching down, I gently pushed some stray hair from her eyes. She had regained total consciousness, but her face showed her pain. “I am sorry, my lady.” The tiny voice bore no resemblance to her normal chirpy tone.
“There’s no need,” I tried to reassure her. “Just concentrate on getting well. They are taking you to back to that village we passed. It’s not far.”
“Don’t worry, my lady. I will look after her. Hopefully we can return in a couple of days.”
“What about your children, Egelfled?” I asked standing up and smiling appreciation to the Rohírric woman. “They will be expecting you?”
“Don’t forget my lady, we were returning a day or so earlier than expected. My mother enjoys having them.”
We stayed long enough to see Aerin safely tucked up in the arms of one of her escort. The manoeuvre caused her many grimaces, but, once settled, Egelfled administered another dose of White-Willow and assured her they would go slowly.
Cantering Sceadu back along the track, I tried to keep positive. Aerin would mend; soon she would be back in Edoras. Léod would be home along with Éomer and there would be a wedding at Yule-tide. I just had to spend the next week or so trying to prove my worth to the people of Edoras. I eased my mare alongside Daegberht’s stallion.
“Are you sending someone ahead, Daegberht, to let them know we are coming?”
Before replying Daegberht looked west to where the sun just touched the peaks of the mountains. “No, my lady. I will not diminish our numbers any further, even this close to home. If the clouds keep away they will pick us out, and someone with keen eyes will see the flutter of the banner.”
I looked up, and over to my left: it was the first time I had ridden under the hooves of the White Horse of Rohan without Éomer by my side. Memories stirred of other times when the liveries were Blue and Silver and the Swan of Dol Amroth flew high in the salt air: and to those days when I would perhaps return with my father from some visit to a welcome of trumpets and a guard of smart soldiers.
Smiling to myself at the vision of Gondorian pageantry I fixed my eyes ahead. The last rays of the winter sun brought Meduseld into relief for a short moment. A brief glimpse of the gold of legend before the roof became a black shadow against the sky behind.
Edoras loomed up before us. A hill to climb and a challenge I needed to face. Well, this swan may have temporarily lost her mate but she still ruled the pond.
Someone must have run up to the hall from the gate because by the time Daegberht and I emerged from the path to the stables and ascended the first few steps, Elfgyuu arrived in the doorway with the welcome mead-cup. Her usual cheery self, I observed as she greeted us with the traditional phrases. The words maybe convivial but her face was pinched so sharp it would crack an egg.
“Thank you Elfgyuu,” Taking the cup from her hand, I acknowledged her slight bob with a smile and put the cup to my lips. My other hand petted Hasopad who, although excited to see me, still looked anxiously in the directions of the stables. “Your master will be back, soon,” I soothed the dog. “We will have to keep each other company until he returns.” A few drops of mead went down before I had to turn away in order not to choke. The outraged expression on Elfgyuu’s face only wanted to make me giggle.
Daegberht tossed off his drink – probably noticing nothing or maybe used to her way – and put the wooden cup back on the tray. “If you will excuse me, my lady, I will return to the stables.”
“Of course, Daegberht,” I said, touching the warrior on the arm briefly to convey my gratitude. “Thank you for your care.”
“It has been a pleasure, my lady.” Daegberht bowed and with a nod to Elfgyuu turned and strode purposefully away. Leaving the housekeeper and me staring at one another.
Sipping slowly at the sweet liquid, determined not to be intimidated by her antagonism, a thought suddenly struck me, “Is Lady Byrhtwyn not here this evening, Elfgyuu?
“No, my lady, she’s not.”
“Not here, then where is she.”
“She went to Aldburg yesterday. Her eldest daughter has given birth a few weeks early Lady Byrhtwyn has gone to tend to the other children. I imagine she will be away some time.”
“Oh, I see.” I swallowed, trying to hide my anxiety. I would miss her unbiased counsel, and although it always been expected she would move to Aldburg when I got in the way of things, I did not expect to cope without her and Éomer quite so soon.
“Well, there are things I need to discuss, I must go and talk to Lord Bertwald.”
“You can’t do that my lady, Lord Bertwald is ill.”
“Ill?” No, I could not believe it. “Oh dear, I hope it’s nothing serious.”
“As to that my lady, it’s not my position to say, but it does not look good. He had some kind of seizure this morning and can neither speak nor move.”
A jolt hit me somewhere between my breastbone and my stomach: not only did I very much like and respect the elderly man, but he had been my staunch ally from the beginning. Allies were retreating fast. If I had known this, then would I have been so compliant with Éomer going off to hunt wargs? I thought not. “I imagine Lord Bertwald is receiving all care, Elfgyuu?”
“The healers are with him, but there is little they can do. Lord Cereth is in charge now. At least he was,” she said eyeing me disfavourably.
I sighed at the hostility in her eyes. But I could live with it, since she had no say in anything other than the domestic arrangements, her authority coming only from long service. It was a pity her loyalty to Éomer did not extend to her treatment of me. A shudder ran through me at the thought of the next week or two without, not only him, but also Byrhtwyn and possibly Lord Bertwald, to support me. As though she read my thoughts Elfgyuu’s eyes searched my face.
“Why have you come back alone, my lady? Where is the King?”
I might have been more sympathetic if I suspected she thought something had happened to Éomer, but I could not really believe she imagined that. I would hardly be standing around trying to make polite conversation if it had.
“If you send a message to Lord Cereth, I will explain the matter to him,” I said, intending to step past her and put the cup down on the tray, but as Elfgyuu’s thin lips compressed together in response to my snub, her head moved slightly to look over my shoulder. I turned and saw Lord Cereth hurrying up the steps towards me.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.