It was more than a week before Oslaf came again with more news to flesh out the clean-picked bones of the eagle's tidings. There had indeed been a great battle before the gates of Mordor, though in the end victory was won not by the sword but by the deed of another holbytla who had brought down the Dark Lord's tower by destroying his Ring. The armies of the West were now encamped in Ithilien, waiting for the Ringbearer to be well again. The King had striven long and hard to heal him of his hurts. For there was a King of Gondor again, Oslaf said, a Ranger out of the North – the same Lord Aragorn who had fought at Helm's Deep. I ransacked my memory trying to recall what the new King looked like, but could only picture a tall, lean figure wrapped in a grey cloak. Oslaf said that the King had healed Éowyn, too, for she had been sore wounded in her combat with the Enemy's shadow wight. Though she was now recovering, she remained in Mundburg and would not return to Edoras until her brother did.
Last came Oslaf's saddest tidings; he bore a partial reckoning of those of the Mark who had died. "It is not complete," he warned us, "and the full count of the dead will not be known until Éomer King returns, if ever; for some of those now wounded may not recover, and some of the slain were so maimed they could not easily be recognized." Like my father, I thought, and shivered.
Before he could dismount from his horse, Oslaf was besieged again by a sea of anxious parents and wives begging to know if a certain Rider was among the dead or living. I took one step closer to the throng asking for news; but I could not bring myself to ask what I was desperate to know. Instead I turned about and fled to my – our – rooms, finding comfort in the familiar tokens of Halred's life. Soon enough, I told myself as I paced back and forth, I would know. If Oslaf did not seek me out within a short time, Halred must be safe. As the slow minutes passed, I began to feel somewhat calmer. Surely, surely if he had ill news for me, Oslaf would have delivered it by now.
Then came the rap on the door. I knew before I opened it what the message would be and Oslaf must have read that knowledge on my face, for he spoke forth plainly with no attempt to soften his news. "Halred is dead."
I had no breath to speak. I sat down on a stool by the hearth and motioned Oslaf to continue.
"All I know, my lady, is that he was slain in the fight to win back the north road from the Orcs. Elfhelm can tell you more, for he was there; ask of him when he returns from Mundburg."
I nodded and told Oslaf to go. His thankless task was not done; he had many more families to give such ill news. I felt a moment's pity for him before a wave of anger overwhelmed it. Why should he be here? Why could not it have been my brother lightly wounded, and spared to carry messages? The mute witnesses of Halred's possessions surrounded me, waiting for an owner who would never return again. I seized the fox and hounds board, scattering pieces over the floor, and tried to smash it over my knee, but it was too strong to break in that fashion. Flinging it into the fire, I sank down on to the floor and pressed my hands into my eyes in a useless attempt to stop the burning tears from spilling over.
* * *
April passed. Lush new grass spread out from the foothills onto the plain like green dye staining cloth and the weather only became lovelier. Enough rain fell to keep the plains fresh so that there was no danger of wildfire, yet never so much as to make the Snowbourn rise in flood. None even of the oldest Eorlingas had seen a fairer spring, they said. And every day I longed to ride as far away from Edoras as I could, and never return.
At night I lay on my bed and stared at the angle of the roof-beams – there were cobwebs up there, I would have to speak to Hilda – or at the thin slices of starred sky I could see through the window shutters. After a while, I watched stripes of rosy light slowly climb up the western wall of my chamber as the sun rose. I took to rising earlier and earlier. In the end the kitchen maids and I were up at the same time, and I began scrubbing floors with them. The other women of the household were faintly scandalized, but accepted it without much comment, for we were short of help already. There were many marriages that spring, as the men began returning from the south in small groups or now and then an éored. Every week it seemed some young woman of the household came to me, her face flushed with sly pride, telling me of her plans to wed some Rider or other and raise a passel of brats and could she please be dismissed from service. I smiled and nodded and said Yes, indeed, he is a fine man and You must speak with the lady Éowyn when she returns, but I am sure she will not object. And then I stood at the trothplighting in place of the King's house, since none of them were there, and gave the loving-cup to the grinning couple.
Perhaps I should have turned to the most obvious way to begin a new life and looked for a husband myself. I was older than most brides among my people, but not unusually so, and passably fair if one discounted my brown eyes. But I was too craven to exchange a familiar misery for the uncertain chance of an improvement in my lot. When I considered it, too, I saw that the men who might have wedded me had I encouraged them would do so because I could run a household well and my father had been a favourite of the King's house. That hardly seemed reason enough to uproot myself from the only home I had ever known – even if it would never be home to me again.
* * *
Éomer returned to the Mark at last in mid-May. It was a close-run thing; the scouts did not bring the news of a party of riders bearing the White Horse until it had nearly reached the Barrowfield. I hastily called together the household, and managed to gather everyone at the doors of Meduseld just as Éomer's company rode up. "Hail Éomer King!" we shouted, as the garrison grounded their spears and knelt to him. His eyes were concealed under the shadow of his helm, but I heard a catch in his voice as he bade them rise. I remembered Théoden and Théodred, and hoped that Éomer would prove as strong and wise as they Both Éowyn and Elfhelm were in the King's company, I saw; Éowyn's left arm was in a sling, but Elfhelm seemed untouched. Bitterness rose in my throat and I bit my lip to keep silent.
As soon as the formal greetings were dispensed with, and the stirrup-cup had been given, I left the court of the Gate in such haste that it was nearly unseemly. All that day I avoided Elfhelm's presence with determination. I did not want to learn any more of Halred's death – why should I? What good would it do to know whether he had died like our father, alone on the field of battle, and been mauled by Orcs? My brother was dead, and I was sure that he had not died dishonourably; beyond that, nothing mattered.
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.