1. Chapter 1
It was nearly three hours after dawn that the mighty wall and fence of Aldburg towered above them, the stout towers flanking the gates frowning down at the party from Gondor. Flaxen-haired men in bright mail admitted the procession into a wide courtyard of beaten earth, beyond which stretched houses of wood, climbing up the hill on either side of a broad, gritty path.
At the foot of the winding road were two riders; the elder – a shrewd-looking man in his middle years – nudged his horse forward.
"Arwen Queen, Steward Faramir, my lords, my ladies, welcome." He greeted the Gondorians in slow, careful Westron. "I am Holdrinc, chamberlain to the Lord Léofred. He and the Lady Déorwyn await you." He motioned and turned his horse about, starting up the gentle slope. The younger rider who had accompanied him fell back to the rear of the cavalcade with the soldiers of Gondor.
The progress towards the crown of the hill was leisurely, and, like many others, Idrin found herself studying the various houses and shops as they passed, admiring the carvings in doorposts and pillars and eaves, chiselled in the likeness of birds and wild animals. She brought to mind Sethryth's and Éothain's letters, describing their home; and as the upward climbing revealed a brilliant view below while a light breeze picked up, she recalled Éothain's written words on the winds sweeping the hill and the splendour of colours at the changing of seasons.
Now, after almost a year of learning so much about the first capital of Rohan through letters, and for the first time seeing it with her own eyes, it felt as though Aldburg was long familiar to her. The fortress-city had made a favourable impression on her brothers, when the company escorting the body of King Théoden had passed through it on their way to Edoras the previous summer. Of her siblings, only Arvinion was beside her this day – Damhir had stayed in Gondor to help his wife care for their ailing young son. Faramir rode ahead with Prince Imrahil and his children, conversing in low voices. Idrin's thoughts drifted for a moment – her cousin would be bound to this land of the Riders by marriage in less than six days;1 those who knew him best agreed he had never been more joyous than when he spoke of Éowyn of Rohan and their life together.
Crowning the hill, the great hall of the Lord of Aldburg loomed before them, a long and wide structure of stone and wood in the midst of a broad terrace. At their approach stablehands came and led the horses away to be fed and watered. The wagonloads of provisions were taken to storage-rooms and the carriages for the ladies were driven to the wainwright's. A tall man clad in green and white livery drew the Gondorian soldiers to a cluster of small buildings a little ways off, and the remaining company from Gondor ascended the well-laid steps.
Before the heavy double doors to the hall stood two guards; within, at the far end of the sunlit room, Léofred and Déorwyn rose from their ornate chairs to greet their guests.
"Welcome." The tall, bearded Lord of Aldburg was cordial as he looked at the party from Gondor, his light eyes smiling. His gaze sought Queen Arwen. "I trust your journey was uneventful?"
The sovereign of Gondor mirrored his warm expression. "Yes, the road was quiet."
"I am glad to hear that, my lady," Léofred said. "Baths have been prepared and you may rest before the noon meal is served, if you so wish. My people will show you to your rooms."
At his words, Holdrinc and a middle-aged, keen-eyed woman stepped forward. The Gondorians were then led through a door behind the right side of the dais, beyond the many-pillared great hall and into a wide corridor from where a great staircase ascended to the upper floor.
* * *
Idrin sank gratefully into the bath, closing her eyes and sighing in content. A pleasant breath of cool air drifted in through the open window, contrasting the sunshine outside. The young woman surveyed the clear blue sky her view offered as she scrubbed the dirt of travel from her skin. When she finally rose from the tepid water and dressed, the blue melded into the green and gold and brown stretching beyond the walls of Aldburg to the north-west.
Lost in the scenery, she was startled out of the quiet engulfing her as a curt knock on the bedroom door and a voice informed her that the noon meal was to be served soon. Glancing out of the window, Idrin realised he sun was indeed high in the sky. She looked briefly at her reflection in the mirror on the plain dressing table and left the room.
In those hours she had rested, the great hall had been transformed: long trestle tables and benches were set between the dais and the hearth in the midst of the hall. Léofred and Déorwyn stood conversing with the Queen Arwen and Prince Imrahil, the Lord of Aldburg supporting himself on a wooden stave. Looking about for her brothers, Idrin noted a flaxen-haired man watching her. As he approached, his face became familiar.
"Cénweald." A small smile curved her lips. Turning to the young woman with dark-golden loose curls beside him, she knew who she was, even though they had never met. "Sethryth."
Adjusting her grip on the baby in her arms, Éothain's sister clasped Idrin's hand with her own tightly, her hazel eyes warm and bright. "I have been so much looking forward to meeting you."
Idrin's face had lit up. "So have I." She then turned her attention to the babe whose blue eyes were fixed on her. "Cénhelm. Your mother has written much about you in her letters, little one." She smiled at the boy and he babbled happily at her.
"Come, let us sit." Sethryth led the way to the table nearest the one below the dais where the Lord and Lady of Aldburg, the Queen Arwen and the Princes of Gondor would be seated.
As they settled themselves on the long bench, Idrin took a moment to glance about. "Those branches in the clay pot on the dais, what are they?" Her attention was drawn to the tall reddish vessel set between the Lord and Lady's ornate chairs, holding several leafless, grey branches.
Sethryth followed her gaze. "It is customary in the Mark to keep branches of ash in the house. It is the tree we value most, for it holds its place firmly in the ground against all weather, and the ashen spear serves to defend the wielder's loved ones,"2 she explained.
Idrin looked at the contents of the clay vessel with new interest. "I see."
"Cénweald, lady Sethryth."
The male voice came from somewhere behind them. Idrin turned to see her brother, accompanied by the Prince Imrahil's youngest children.3 Arvinion addressed the Lord of Aldburg's daughter and his son-by-law: "I would like you to meet the Prince Imrahil's sons Erchirion and Amrothos and his daughter, Lothíriel."
"Please, sit with us." Cénweald motioned to the table.
As Imrahil's children and Arvinion joined them, a single clear note rang through the hall, marking the hour.
The keen-eyed housekeeper walked briskly to them, stopping at Sethryth's elbow. "I will take him, child." She reached to pick up Cénhelm.
Sethryth gave her the babe with an appreciative look. "Ic þancie þé."
Across from her, Lothíriel smiled at the sight of the woman slowly withdrawing and crooning softly to the boy in her arms. "It is quite nice to be away from the staidness often found in Gondorian court," she said as Sethryth glanced at her with passing curiosity.
"Such formality is present in the courts of the Mark, also, I fear," the golden-haired woman returned, "yet, Bóthild I have known my whole life, and she is become like an aunt to me."
Quiet began to descend in the hall around them, and they saw the Lord Léofred had risen from his chair, goblet in hand.
* * *
The low hum of many voices filled the great hall. The tables were cleared, and hosts and guests mingled to converse. A bright burst of sunlight came in as the oak doors rolled back to admit two men clad in green jackets and heavy leather leggings, and Idrin recognised Éothain and the Marshal Elfhelm. The pair strode across the hall to where Léofred stood, bending to whisper in his ear. The countenance of the Lord of Aldburg changed as he listened, his face clouding. Other men began to gather round them, and the whispered exchange became a gentle thrum.
After a few minutes, when Cénweald left their company to join Sethryth, his mother-by-law and the ladies from Gondor who were talking among themselves near the hearth, his wife was quick to address him: "What is it?"
His eyes flicked briefly to the Gondorian women. "The hunt for stag in the Firienholt became a hunt for Orcs," he replied. "There was a band of them hiding in the wood near the root of the Mountains – the proximity of grazing herds lured them there. The herdsmen said the last raid was two weeks ago." There was a small pause. "None of the foul creatures will ever lay hand on animal or man again."
"Have they ever reached Aldburg or Edoras?" The Prince Imrahil's raven-haired daughter turned curious grey eyes on Cénweald.
"No, lady," he answered. "The Folde and its borders have never been troubled by Orcs – they have never ventured so far inland."
As Lothíriel nodded comprehension, Déorwyn addressed her daughter's husband: "I saw my son and Elfhelm bore no visible injuries. What of the others?"
"There were only insignificant wounds, nothing to cause concern," Cénweald replied promptly.
The Lady of Aldburg nodded and her expression softened. "That is all good news." She turned to the women near her. "Let us go outside and enjoy the sunlight."
She led the way round the high house to a fenced expanse teeming with beds of flowers and green plants. Two benches stood side by side close to the wall, and nearby on a low stone pedestal was a basin filled with clear water. A sturdy wooden platform was built against a large tree with sprawling branches, a ladder climbing up to it. Two young boys ran about laughing, a fledgling raven fluttering at the elder boy's wrist.
"Your herb garden is lovely," the Prince Imrahil's wife, Rillien, commented as her daughter bent to skim a light hand over the feather-like leaves of a silvery-green growth of wormwood. Nearby, Idrin's attention was caught by a more remote bed of unfamiliar herbs, and she began making her way towards it. A fair distance from the women, the flaxen-haired children had climbed the platform and were skittering across it joyously.
"My husband's kinswoman-by-marriage, Théodwyn, made it all," said Déorwyn in reply to Rillien's remark. "She enjoyed gardening, but after her husband's and her passing, it was left untended. Reviving it was not easy."
"It has become quite beautiful," offered Arwen. "I hope our garden in Minas Tirith will be as full, yet time for leisure is little as even now council meetings are frequent." She turned, taking a moment to study the wooden platform embracing the distant tree. "And that?"
Déorwyn smiled. "It was built when Éomer and my son were children – they called it their watchtower. Since then it has become a play area for the children of those who work here." She looked over at it: the elder of the boys had climbed down the ladder, sending up a challenging cry at the other before taking off at a run. His playmate remained seated on the wooden floor.
Studying the unfamiliar plants near the tree, Idrin then saw the younger boy beside the platform's rail, watching the raven that had escaped its master's grasp. The bird hopped to the edge, cocking its head, and the boy scooted closer to it.
The Gondorian picked up her skirts and hurried to the narrow ladder, setting a hand it and crying out in broken Rohirric to draw the boy's attention. He continued to watch the raven, and as the young woman climbed a few steps, she heard Déorwyn's distant call. Paying no heed to it, the youngster crawled closer to the wooden rail. Idrin took another step upwards. Looking down, she stiffened and her face paled.
She heard the urgent voices of the other women come nearer. Averting her wide eyes from the ground nearly six feet below with a great effort, the young woman looked up to call feebly to the boy once more. Her knuckles had whitened as they gripped on the ladder. A quivering hand reached slowly towards the youngster.
The raven spread its wings and the boy dived to catch the leather thongs tied around its leg. He lost his balance and disappeared over the edge.
Idrin made a sharp motion to climb down but as she looked at the ground below, her limbs froze and her hands clutched tightly at the ladder. After what seemed like an age, she heard a strangled scream and felt a pair of hands lift her. As she was set on the ground, she saw a golden-haired woman kneeling by the boy's prostrate form, the hand of the Lady of Aldburg on her shoulder. Déorwyn's gentle voice was barely heard over the other's anguished broken sentences, and the young Gondorian felt her brother stiffen momentarily.
Her feet touching the ground, Idrin made to go forward just as the woman turned piercing eyes on her, but Arvinion checked her with a firm hand on her forearm.
"She is distressed." His voice was terse, his tone cautionary.
The expression on the golden-haired woman's face was bitter. Idrin understood and her stomach clenched.
"I couldn't..." Even as the words left her mouth, the healer knew how inadequate they were. Vaguely, she noted the familiar form of Éothain standing beside Déorwyn. She withdrew her gaze from the figures of boy and woman and didn't resist as Arvinion drew her aside. Her pounding heart made breathing difficult.
Behind them, Éothain bent to whisper in the woman's ear.
* * *
Idrin sat by the open window, watching the daylight fade and the sky darken. The vibrant sounds of afternoon were melting into the hushed murmurs of night. Aldburg was growing quiet, and the young woman reflected how dissimilar the old capital of Rohan was from Minas Tirith. She liked that differing quality, the subdued bustle of activity that a smaller city offered.
A knock on the door made her turn, and when she saw Sethryth her train of thought shifted. "The boy?"
"He has yet to stir or show any signs of waking," the golden-haired woman's voice was soft.
Idrin shut her eyes and let out a heavy breath before schooling her features and facing Sethryth again.
"You tried," her friend offered. "Everyone has disabling fears."
The Gondorian shook her head. "I should have caught him, I was the one nearest to him."
Sethryth made no return. After a few seconds, she spoke: "Supper will be served soon. We should go to the great hall."
Wordlessly, Idrin rose from her seat and followed Éothain's sister to the door.
1 '[I]n 3020 Éowyn Éomund's daughter wedded Faramir, last Steward of Gondor and first Prince of Ithilien, in the king's house of Rohan.' (The History of Middle-earth: The Peoples of Middle-earth, Chapter VIII: The Tale of Years of the Third Age)
2 This Rohirric practice is of my creation, influenced by an element of Anglo-Saxon culture: 'The ash is . . . dear to men, firmly it holds its place in the ground, even though many men make onslaught against it . . .' (Vilhelm Grönbech, The Culture of the Teutons)
3 The genealogical table of the ruling line of Dol Amroth in The Peoples of Middle-earth gives the following birth-dates for Imrahil's children: Elphir born in the year 2987 of the Third Age, Erchirion born in 2990, Amrothos born in 2994 and Lothíriel born in 2999. (The History of Middle-earth: The Peoples of Middle-earth, Chapter VII: The Heirs of Elendil, The Line of Dol Amroth)