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Unto the ending of the world: 29. Feast
Midsummer's Day, 3019
Erkenbrand's main feeling once Éowyn and Elfhelm finished their marital oaths was relief that it was done. Éowyn's stern, cold face was hardly that of a bride and Elfhelm looked as if he faced an Orc-troop in battle. Even so, Erkenbrand quickly shrugged off his doubts. It was for the weal of the Mark, and both Éowyn and Elfhelm abided by that. He wondered what Théoden would have made of it; likely, at least when his mind was still his own, the king would have been in favour, even without the necessity that now guided it.
Elfhelm had scarcely finished speaking when the guests started to cheer. Éowyn managed a smile at "Praise to the Queen," but when someone shouted, "Praise to the King," Elfhelm quickly stepped forward and raised a hand to demand silence, while Erkenbrand tried to see who it had been.
"King? I am no king," Elfhelm spoke. "I am but the Queen's first liegeman, and I will not hear otherwise." He then turned back towards Éowyn, and knelt before her. "My lady, lest any would doubt my loyalty, I pledge once more my fealty to my queen."
As Erkenbrand followed suit, silently praising Elfhelm's quick reaction and cursing knees that were no longer as young as they once were, he again glanced across the Hall, and caught one of Folcwine's retainers as he all but forced young Anlaf to his knees. So it had been Anlaf shouting… Meanwhile, everyone else rapidly followed Elfhelm's lead in paying homage to Éowyn. She appeared surprised, but recovered quickly. "I thank you all. Now rise and let the feast begin." The latter command resulted in another cheer as all rose again.
Erkenbrand was soon sitting with a mug of ale in hand as he considered the commotion and whether to seek more behind it than Anlaf being in his cups already. He was disturbed almost immediately by one of the doorwards.
"Lord Erkenbrand, the Queen's esquire said to speak to you. Herulf of Dunharrow is approaching with a party of Gondorians," the man said. "Master Meriadoc will take care that they are received properly when they arrive, but he thought you should know as well."
"Thank you, Leofric," Erkenbrand replied. These were likely – at last – the envoys who would travel north with him. After he had gone to Dwimordene on the Queen's business, the Council had not been overly pleased at sending him again. None of them had offered to go either, so Éowyn had prevailed in choosing her envoy to the Dúnedain and the Elves.
Erkenbrand had not said during the meeting that he also had his own reasons for wanting to visit the north. The things he had heard in Dwimordene – little and shrouded in mystery though they had been – confirmed what he had already understood upon first hearing about the Enemy's Ring: there was little chance that the Mark could weather the storm that was brewing in the East. Alone, they certainly would not stand. He was scarcely a lore-master, yet if his people were going to their doom, he at least wanted to know why. If either answers or help were to be found, it would be among the Dúnedain or in Rivendell.
At least Éowyn's bold move in marrying Elfhelm appeared to have achieved its first purpose, Erkenbrand thought. If the mood in Edoras was anything to go by, the people were keen on the match, and seemed to take it as a sign of hope even after so many Riders had been lost before Mundburg. Most lords of the Mark seemed to approve also, but whether they approved of Elfhelm's advancement or of Éowyn's response to the pressure the Council had put on her? Anlaf was drunk enough to speak unwisely, but that did not mean others did not also prefer to have a King rather than a Queen's consort. Either way, having taken the advantage of surprise, Éowyn and Elfhelm – and those who had, like him, tied their fate to them – could only continue to act boldly.
Erkenbrand took a fresh mug of ale from one of the serving men standing nearby, and moved out of the way of the servants who were setting out long trestle tables in preparation for the evening's feast. He wandered on towards the far end of the hall, where he spotted the holbytla…hobbit Meriadoc talking to a woman sitting next to him. As she turned her head, Erkenbrand saw it was his distant kinswoman Hild.
The hobbit – as Meriadoc had been at pains to remind everyone was the proper name for his kind – looked up to greet him with a smile. Holbytla might well be the right word in the speech of the Mark, but hobbit was somehow more fitting, Erkenbrand had to admit. He would have liked to know when and how the paths of their peoples had crossed, leaving little more than words as reminders, but the Mark had only vague tales of hobbits, and he doubted that the hobbits' own stories recalled more of their distant past.
"Greetings, Meriadoc, Hild," Erkenbrand said as he sat down next to him at one of the tables that had been set up already. "Well, master hobbit, what make you of our wedding customs?" he asked.
Before Meriadoc could answer, the hobbit was struck by a coughing fit, just as he was taking a sip of ale. Hild immediately gave him an enthusiastic pounding on the back to stop his coughing, and as Erkenbrand met her laughing gaze, it struck him that Hild and Master Meriadoc might be more familiar with each other than he thought. He considered the idea as he drank the last of his own ale. Hild was several years widowed, and none should speak ill of it if she chose to take either a lover or a new husband to her bed. The hobbit was a brave warrior and of sufficient rank both in his homeland and in the Mark that he made a good match. Or – and Erkenbrand had to make an effort to keep a grin off his face – he would if one put aside the need for a ladder; it was just as well Hild was not a very tall woman.
The hobbit was soon recovered from his coughing fit. "In some ways very like our own," he said, "The bride also puts flowers in her hair, and we too give a feast. But in the Shire the bride's father or another member of her family would walk with her, and place her hand in the groom's hand before they speak their vows and sign their names to the marriage contract, along with the signatures of witnesses."
Erkenbrand was about to explain the part the parents of bride and groom would normally have in the Mark, but Hild spoke before he could.
"A contract?" she asked. "Your people write contracts for marriage? And as for the bride's father putting the bride's hand... giving her to her husband? Have your womenfolk no will of their own?"
Meriadoc seemed taken aback at first, then snorted in laughing denial. "No will of their own? You would not say that if you knew any hobbit women. It is just the way we do things." From his pensive look he was not done yet, and he did indeed go on. "But no contracts; how then are disagreements dealt with if nothing is put down in writing?"
Now it was Hild's turn to be taken aback. "Is spoken word not binding? One who is faithless will not become less so because of some markings on paper. Besides, there are witnesses to the promises that are made, and the law will rule on what portion belongs to whom, and the rights of..."
Erkenbrand was starting to feel superfluous as the two continued comparing customs. Leaving them to their discussion, he had made his way to the side of the hall when he saw a guard come in to speak to the hobbit. Meriadoc stood up and followed the man to the entrance. That probably meant the Gondorians had arrived. Meanwhile, it should not be long either until the tables were set up and the feast could begin in truth.
Not long afterwards the hall's door opened and two dark-haired men entered, with master Meriadoc beside them. They paused to let their eyes adjust – the Hall might be brightly lit today, but it would still seem dark when one came in. Erkenbrand watched as the hobbit led them towards the dais. They looked weary, and while the younger of the two gazed about him curiously, the older barely looked aside, his expression proud, almost disdainful. They spoke briefly with the Queen and Elfhelm, before Meriadoc led them out again. If they returned to the hall, Erkenbrand would make sure to speak with them; if not... He shrugged. There was time enough; it was another week before he and they were to set off north.
Erkenbrand continued his round of the hall, talking to people here and there. Mostly he listened, gauging the mood of the guests. At least he did not hear Anlaf's foolishness repeated quite so openly, although there were a few who sniggered that it would be interesting to see just who wielded the sword in this marriage. Even so, people appeared genuinely pleased at the wedding, hoping that Elfhelm would curb and steady Éowyn's headstrong character, guiding one who was very young, and, as a woman, not raised to rule. He noticed some cautious looks at the delegation of Elves from Dwimordene who had arrived the previous day – they had not come especially for the wedding, but had been pleased to be invited to the feast – but even they were treated with wary curiosity rather than open hostility or fear. For a moment Erkenbrand wondered how people would have reacted had any Ents come to Edoras. Elves were one thing; uncanny as they could be, at least they looked like Men, but talking trees…?
Before long the Gondorians returned, along with Herulf. Erkenbrand quickly walked over, and after he had greeted Herulf, the lord of Dunharrow introduced the two to Erkenbrand. "Lord Erkenbrand, Lord Húrin of the Keys and Lord Amrothos, son of the Prince of Dol Amroth."
"Lord Erkenbrand? I understand that you will accompany us on the journey north?" the younger Gondorian, Amrothos, said after nodding his thanks at Herulf, and after Erkenbrand's confirmation he went on, "Have you ever been to the north? What is it like?"
"I have been some way into Dunland," Erkenbrand replied, "Though on the road we will travel, I have never gone beyond Greyflood."
"We have maps for the first part of our road," Húrin interrupted, loftily dismissing Erkenbrand's lack of information, "And there will be towns and villages where we can ask for information about the road if we need it. We spoke with the perian earlier and he confirmed that there is a good inn in a town called Bree where we can stop and rest before we journey on to the capital of the northern Dúnedain."
"Perian?" Erkenbrand repeated, not recognising the word; then he realised the Gondorian meant the Queen's esquire. "Oh, the holbytla, Meriadoc?"
"Holbytla? What a quaint word," the other said dismissively, "But yes, if 'holebuilder' is what you call his kind, he is whom I meant."
Erkenbrand took note that the Lord of the Keys knew the speech of the Mark at least somewhat. His own understanding from speaking to Meriadoc was that except for what help they might get from the Rangers, they would have to depend on themselves both before and after Bree. He said nothing; Húrin would find out for himself. Erkenbrand would merely make sure to prepare for a harder journey than the other seemed to expect. He dismissed the thought that if Húrin remained as pleasant as he was on first acquaintance, the journey would certainly appear much longer and harder.
Noticing the sidelong glances many of the women in the hall were giving the younger Gondorian, Erkenbrand considered that a renewal of the ties between Rohan and Dol Amroth would be welcome. There was already a connection, through Morwen of Lossarnach, but it would do no harm to strengthen those bonds again, either through Amrothos or through his sister. In a way it was a shame that the Council had been against an outsider as Éowyn's consort. With so many young men lost in the ride to Gondor there were enough lords with daughters who would welcome a Gondorian son-in-law, although Gondor had lost many as well. Erkenbrand laughed at himself. Perhaps he should have another mug of ale rather than try to play matchmaker, before he ended up trying to find a Rohirric bride for the Steward of Gondor's heir as well.
When the signal for dinner was given, Erkenbrand took his place at the high table; the Elves were across the table from him. Unfortunately he was also sitting next to Wigmund, who was accompanied by his eldest daughter, a sour-faced woman of forty or so. Since the Elves did not speak the tongue of the Mark, courtesy required that he, as one who knew Westron, give his attention to these guests. Since Wigmund did not speak the Common Tongue, it also meant he would be spared having to talk to the Councillor overmuch. It really was a pity that Wigmund could not have been removed from the Council along with Swithulf and Eadwig. And at least that fool Anlaf had been placed far down the seating, even if Folcwine was at the high table.
At first the Elves spoke mostly among themselves, though they occasionally asked him a question about the dishes that were served. After the first course Erkenbrand asked them how Dwimordene – Lothlórien, as they promptly corrected him – was doing in its defence against the Enemy's armies, and they were soon engaged in discussing numbers and tactics. Erkenbrand was relieved to hear that Dwi…Lothlórien was yet holding its own. The Elves were also able to give him news of his old travel companions, and Erkenbrand heard that the sons of Elrond were on their way to Rivendell, and that the Elf and the Dwarf had left for their homelands as well.
While they talked, time passed quickly, and so it did not seem long until the final course was served. Soon after, a space was cleared in front of the high table and a low-backed chair placed there. All remained silent in anticipation as the door of the hall opened and old Gléowine walked towards the dais, his apprentice following behind carrying the minstrel's great harp.
Gléowine bowed to the bridal pair before he sat down, quickly running his hands along the strings of his harp. He appeared pleased by what he heard, for he immediately started playing. As he sang of Eorl's Ride, Erkenbrand glanced at the Elves, wondering whether they recalled those days, and what tales they could tell. There were many other songs afterwards, both from Gléowine and from others, and the mood in the hall became ever more raucous as the guests became ever more drunk.
All fell silent, though, when one of the Elves got up and walked over to the performers' chair. He spoke briefly to tell the tale he was about to sing, of a lord of Lothlórien and an elf-maid who had been lost in the south many years ago. Erkenbrand smiled; he had heard that song in Lothlórien, and seen the river that bore the maid's name. He glanced over at the Gondorians; the elder looked bored, while the younger nodded in recognition at the tale, seemingly entranced. The story would be new to everyone else, and though they could not understand the words of the Elf's song, all listened in rapt silence.
The song over, at first the silence remained, until someone at one of the lower tables started to clap, and a thunderous applause swept the hall, louder even than the one given to Gléowine. The cheering went on even after the singer returned to his place, and Erkenbrand saw that Éowyn and Elfhelm had stood up. It was at last time for the witnessing of the bedding then; Erkenbrand wondered what had been prepared for bride and groom. The least that could be expected were bawdy jokes and bad singing.
Only about twenty people, led by Éothain and Meriadoc, came along, yet in the corridor outside Éowyn's bedchamber they still made a crowd. The songs in honour of the bridal couple were as awful as Erkenbrand expected. He was surprised that Meriadoc sang along with one song that was crude enough to make a Rider blush. When had the hobbit learned those words?
From her expression, Éowyn's hair might as well have borne a wreath of simbelmynë as a bright garland of wildflowers. By now, Elfhelm merely looked resigned to his fate, even if he did comment that Éothain seemed to be volunteering to muck out the royal stables by himself the next day.
Éothain only grinned at the suggestion, before raising his hand to request silence. Once he had it, he spoke. "We are gathered here to witness the most important part of today's wedding," he started.
"What, that part?" one of the Riders from Elfhelm's éored called out. Erkenbrand grinned; he had not known that Elfhelm could blush so deeply.
"Indeed," Éothain went on unperturbed, "To witness not that part, though it is our task to witness that the bride and groom enter the bedroom with no compulsion on them other than their own desire."
"They were together all the way to Gondor. Do you truly think..." someone muttered softly. Erkenbrand thought he recognised Wigmund's voice, and he started to turn to give the Councillor a withering glare.
Ignoring all comments, Éothain continued to speak. "My lady, my lord, if it be your wish, now enter the bedroom."
As Éowyn and Elfhelm stepped forward, Erkenbrand wondered what they would find. For his own wedding, everything had appeared undisturbed; it had not been until he and Leofgyth undressed and got into bed that they found that the mattress had been covered with stinging nettles. He glanced at the hobbit who was craning his neck in anticipation, then quickly looked back to see for himself as the door opened.
Inside, Éowyn's Windfola and Elfhelm's Blackfoot slowly raised their heads from their feed.
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