9. Fair Folk
Éowyn was strangely quiet and subdued, which might have been due to her injury, yet she also seemed less forceful than before. She was still proud enough to be unabashed by any reminders that she had deserted her charge - and there were many, both open and veiled, from those who had been at Dunharrow, though I did what I could to keep the women's tongues between their teeth. They were far angrier with Éowyn than the Riders; her valourous deed had made her a favourite, and already they called her the Lady of the Shieldarm. I remembered vaguely my own fury with Éowyn, but now I could not summon up the spirit to rail at her. What would be the use? No deed of hers had doomed Halred, or could have saved him.
Éowyn called me to her the day following her return, and asked me to continue keeping the King's household for a time. "For I am still recovering from my wounds," she said, "and I would need your help in any case, for the King's bride is to break her journey here on her way to Mundburg, and she will be accompanied by many of her folk."
"Is she a woman of the North, then?"
"She is an Elf," Éowyn said, "daughter to the Master of Rivendell. She also has kin from the Golden Wood, or so I have heard."
I blinked. "How in Eorl's name are we to entertain a party of the Fair Folk? I have no idea what they eat, or drink, or do to amuse themselves!" And half the serving maids will be too frightened to go near them, I thought.
"I rode with the Lady Arwen's brothers on the way from Mundburg, and they did not seem passing strange," Éowyn said dismissively. "They ate and drank what we all did, and as for entertaining them, they will be here for a day or two only. I do not think they expect a summer fair." I gritted my teeth but kept silence as Éowyn rose and took the keys of the household from her belt. "Take these for now, Elfled, with my thanks for what you did while I was gone." She hesitated a moment. "And my sympathies for your brother's fall. Halred was a brave lad."
"Thank you, Lady Éowyn." I bowed my head and made my own stiff speech of condolence. "Théoden was a great king, and a kind man. I will always remember him for the honour he showed my family."
Cold comfort to both of us, I am sure. It had always been thus between Éowyn and I; polite words enough but never true friendship. At that moment I missed my mother and Leofwyn more than I could say, for now there was no one in the wide world who I could mourn with, or lean on for an instant.
* * *
Though the Mark had escaped lightly enough considering how ill things might have gone, much still needed to be re-ordered and mended. The storerooms of Meduseld alone would have furnished us with work for months; there were many things hoarded by Gríma that no one recognized, and much that should have been there was not. The accounts were tangled worse than a yearling's mane, for there again Gríma had had a free hand and used it to dip for his own purse. Then there was the need to find new maids and men for the household to replace those who were marrying or returning to their homes. Most of this Hilda and I saw to, while Éowyn helped take on the burdens her brother could not bear alone. There were many meetings these days, as Éomer called together the lords and wise men of the Mark to ask their counsel, and to let them take his measure - for they knew him less well than they had Théodred, and though respected as a warrior, he was still an untried King. Éowyn helped to lend him countenance and gravity; strange as it still seemed to me, she was now the less impetuous of the two.
I had no time to take up my own weaving again, but each time I passed the workroom I looked in on Goda's progress on the tapestry of Helm's Deep. I had asked her to work on that alone, for it would make a fine gift to Éomer when he took the throne if only it was finished in time. Together we had revised the design so that it showed not Helm Hammerhand, but Théoden King standing on the wall of the Deep offering defiance to the host of Saruman.
We had more than enough work to do before taking on the hosting of a royal riding of Elves, but having had the charge laid on me I was determined not to fail. The King of Gondor's bride should not see Meduseld as Wormtongue had so often slandered it, a hovel where drunken bandits rolled in dirty straw. On the other hand, I did not wish to ape the grand ways of Mundburg as Morwen had described them to Éowyn and me; we had neither the means nor the manners for that. Plain and simple courtesy, I thought, would fit us best. So the best guest chambers were aired and a meadow in the fields above the city prepared for those who might prefer to sleep in the open air, as some said the Elves did. Linens were boiled and bleached in the sun, the halls scoured, and fresh rushes cut for the floors. The kitchen stores were ransacked as we wondered what to feed beings out of legend. For a week we hardly sat down from dawn till nightfall.
* * *
Éowyn might insist that there was nothing fey about the Elves, but the mere sight of them left me awestruck and tongue-tied. Fortunately no speech was required of me and I was able to hang back and attend to household matters unnoticed, or so I thought.
The King's betrothed was lovely indeed; she seemed like a maid of fewer summers than I until you looked more closely and saw the ages of wisdom in her eyes. Even so, she was not as frightening as some of the other Fair Folk - especially the Lady of the Golden Wood. I stole quick glances at her, unable to believe this slim youthful woman was the sorceress who had sent a white mist to speed Eorl on his ride south more than five hundred years ago. And if the whispers I heard were true, she was so unimaginably old that even that span of time was no more to her than the length of a breath to me.
At least they were all, if unearthly, also unfailingly courteous. The lady Arwen even sought me out once to praise the tapestry of Eorl; she said that she had asked of Éowyn who the weaver was. We talked for some little space of dyes and weaves, wool and linen, and I nearly forgot that I was speaking with an immortal. She had the gift of showing genuine, uncontrived interest in whatever her companion knew most of. Yet though she seemed less fey than some of the others, she had in full measure their uncanny knowledge, as I learned on the last morning of their stay.
Arwen's own attendant waited on her at daybreak, but I had taken on the task of bringing them a light morning meal. As I set down the tray, she thanked me and when I turned to leave touched my arm. "Elfled?"
"Yes, my lady?"
"Your name - what does it mean in the tongue of the Rohirrim?"
My cheeks heated red with embarassment. "It signifies Elf-fairness, so they say, though I have no claim to that."
She smiled. "You are fairer than you will accept praise for, Elfled." Her eyes met mine in the small mirror hanging on the wall, and I could not look away. "Would it offend you if I gave you a word of counsel?"
I swallowed. It was equally dangerous to pay heed to Elvish advice or to disdain it, all knew. But how could I refuse the future Queen? "I would be glad of it."
"Anyone can see that your heart is weighed down with much sorrow, Elfled. Try not to fall even deeper into despair. I know how hard it can be to see beyond the shadow that darkens us, but the sun is there still, and someday its light will shine on you again."
I stood silently listening to her lovely voice. I knew that she was right, yet it made no difference to my frozen heart; I could not see beyond the blackness that surrounded me. Forcing a smile to my lips, I curtsied. "I will bear your words in mind, my lady." She bid me farewell kindly and let me go, though I felt certain she knew what I had been thinking.
I escaped the room as hastily as I could, and, though I was shamed to admit it, watched the Queen and her train ride away later that morning with relief. I could see now why so many mistrusted the Elves. They were uncomfortable companions indeed.
* * *
Elfhelm found me in the kitchen gardens that evening. I was so distracted by the ruin wrought on the vegetable plot by three days of feeding twenty guests that by the time I saw him striding over the muddy furrows, it was too late to flee unseen. I straightened up, took a deep breath, and wiped my hands on my skirts. "My greetings to you, lord Marshal." For a moment something about him seemed very strange; then I realized he wore just a simple tunic and breeches - no helm, mail, nor sword. I had never seen Elfhelm unarmed before, except at high feasts.
"Lady Elfled, I wished to speak with you before I set out for the Eastemnet." He hesitated for a long moment, while I clenched my hands tightly and waited for him to continue. "It seems to be my fate to see you only when there are ill tidings of your family, and I am sorry for it. Is there anything of Halred's death that you wish to know?"
I let out a slow breath. "Only this: where does he lie?"
"In a mound between the Road and the Great River, with the other Riders who fell in that battle. If ever you travel to Mundburg now that peace has come, you shall see it for yourself." I did not think that very likely, but it was a kind thought. I hoped that now Elfhelm would feel he had done his duty and leave me, but he was not finished yet. "There is also the matter of Halred's horses. The bay was killed in battle. His spare mount - the blue roan that was your father's - was unhurt. I have brought her back for you to do with as you wish."
"You brought back Moth? Is she here in Edoras?"
"Yes, with the King's herd for now- "
I left Elfhelm standing there in the mud and ran to the stableyard. The King's horses had been brought in from pasture for the night already. As soon I was close enough to Moth's stall for her to catch sight and scent of me she let out a great bugling call, stirring her stablemates to restlessness. I opened the stall door and slipped inside. "Oh, Moth." I ran my hands over her legs, but they were smooth and sound. Elfhelm had spoken truly; she was nearly unscathed. A few shallow cuts marred her flanks, but they were already scabbed over and healing well.
I heard footsteps on the packed earth of the stable aisle; Elfhelm had followed me. "Thank you, lord Marshal." I pressed my face into Moth's silky neck as she turned her head and blew hot, hay-scented breath into my hair.
"It was little enough. If there is any other service I can do for you, you need only ask."
"There is nothing else," I said without lifting my head. He lingered as if he wished to speak again, twisting the laces of his belt, but I would not meet his eyes and he walked away without saying anything else.
"So he left you behind too, Moth." Throwing my arms around her neck I sobbed into her coarse mane. "Why didn't he listen to me? I know you would have protected him." The mare stood patiently until her coat was darkly streaked with tears.
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