18. Raise a Cup
"Well, child?" her mother asked, her voice shrill but firm.
"Well, what?" Æthelwyn managed to ask while trying to drink the water at the same time. Her hand shook as she gripped the cup, and she could not help but veil her eyes while pressing herself hard against the door.
"Pray, speak at once!" Alwunn urged her. "What has caused such a deadly paleness to come upon you? Do sit now, and tell the full tale from the beginning."
"Forgive me," she whispered as she lowered herself onto the chair. "But, it will be too hard to know where this tale begins, and of its end... none can tell now; not among the living."
"What is it you say?" Athelfled asked, unable to conceal her increasing distress. "Speak not of the dead and let them rest in peace. Do not meddle in such business, daughter!"
"It is true, mother," she said, trying to keep her voice steady but all the while fidgeting with the fabric of her skirt. "The heir of Kings rides away today, and the grey-eyed men from the North go with him... to Dwimorberg."
"Help us, Béma!" her grandmother cried, and her mother and sister both held their breaths.
"Is this so?" Athelfled asked at length, more to himself than to her. "How can you be certain of it? Does the lady Eowyn know?"
"Aye, she does, and I caught sight of her face from afar, both pale and grave."
"Much resembling yours, I should say," Alwunn whispered as she knelt beside her. "And, still I wish they would not go through that road. Only death lies beyond the Dark Door. The dead suffer none to pass!"
"That I know!" Æthelwyn leaned forward in eagerness, but quickly lowered her head when she felt a stinging sensation in her eyes, and a familiar heat rise through her cheeks. She was about to cry; but, a daughter of the Mark should be brave in face of danger and not weep for warriors' errands, lest their hearts failed and they returned not in honor. Pressing her hands against her lap, she took a deep breath ere she said, "Only death... yet they are so fair and noble. It would be but a shame that such kind men would meet their fates beyond the eaves of Dimholt..."
"Yet they have chosen their own road; there's no reason to lament now," her mother chided, but her voice was low and deep. "What think you, Leofwen?" she asked as she looked at the old lady who sat with her hands clenched in a knot in front of her. "And you say the lady Eowyn knows?"
"She does. I think she asked the lord not to go, but he heeded her not. Just ere I went away, she offered him a cup and he drank from it; a sign of his parting, or so I deem."
At those words, her grandmother sprang up from her chair. "A cup! Quickly, Athelfled, ere the sun climbs up! Bring more water and four cups, while I cover the chairs."
At once, the three women busied themselves, while Æthelwyn was left to wonder about their preparations. Her mother had run to fetch a pitcher and cups, whilst Alwunn and her grandmother placed blankets, books and other objects on the chairs that were empty.
"What is all this?" she asked as her mother placed a cup filled with cold water on her hand. "Why the chairs? What-"
"If the dead are to be woken, they shall not find seat on the chairs in our house, nor will we give them entrance or shelter. No evil spirit shall come while the chairs are covered," Athelfled said as she filled cups for the others. "As to the water, you know what that is for." Alas, for she did. Her mother had not yet finished, when Leofwen began to recite the words of a verse she had long known, so often had she sang it when her father, or brothers, or her own dear Oswine rode into battle. Holding the cup as firmly as she was able, her voice joined her grandmother's.
When a warrior goes away
raise a cup and drink his health
Sips of water and of ale
Will protect and speed his way.
If his leave is in the morning
water clear to ease his going;
If he takes road near the eve
ale his burdened heart relieves.
And thus, they drank. Her thoughts turned to Oswine and how she had seen him last, tall and fair as he waved his farewell before riding into battle. Not very different he was from those men of the North who rode to their dooms with uplifted faces and brave hearts. The war had brought such evil, grief and loss! Her heart wept inside of her for all those who would yet suffer, and her wishes went to the grey travelers for a safe journey. She took a sip, and the water felt cold in her throat, but nonetheless she drank on. Her prayers had saved Oswine before. If her prayers could also save those men, then she would raise her cup.
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.