The Greatest Favour
"My lady! My lady!" The portly maidservant's voice was breathless with excitement as she burst through the door of the dairy.
Elfhild looked up from where she was supervising the week's cheese making. "Bruna!" she laughed, her soft blue eyes twinkling, "Whatever is the matter?"
"Horsemen!" gasped the other, "Approaching from the West, it..," she paused to snatch a hasty breath, "it is the King!"
Elfhild straightened slowly, and her heart began to thud as the import of her maid's words sank in. Théoden. No longer the fine prince whose ready laugh had echoed so often round her father's table, nor the young knight of legendary horsemanship. Not even the softly spoken gallant whose lips had claimed hers more than once under the light of the stars. But King.
Could it be?
"Hurry, my lady!" Bruna tugged on her arm, a great grin on her rosy face, "You must wash and change."
Elfhild glanced down at her faded work clothes with a start, then tearing off her apron she followed Bruna at a run.
In her chamber Leora was already drawing water for bathing.
"It'll have to be cold," said Bruna, "there's no time to heat it."
Elfhild kicked off her shoes and fought her way out of her smock, heedless of torn fastenings. The water was freezing as she knelt in it.
"What gown shall you wear?" asked Bruna as she handed her mistress some soap.
"Oh!" Elfhild suddenly found herself paralysed by doubt. The dark red was her finest, but what if he was coming to see her father on some matter of business? She would look foolish. The pale green. No, no. He'd seen her in it too many times.
Bruna held up a deep blue gown that had been her mother's. "What about this one?"
It was a good choice, flattering without being too fancy. She nodded as she stood to rinse off, gasping at the cold water over her back. Shivering she stepped gratefully into the soft embrace of the warm towel that her maidservant held out.
"Leora," she called, "go and see what you can."
The girl hurried to obey. "They're coming up the pass! The Lord of the Mark is out in front, ten Riders follow him."
Elfhild felt her mouth begin to dry and her stomach to flutter.
Bruna handed her a clean shift, then held out the gown for her to step into, moving around to fasten the back, her plump fingers expert on the lacings. She handed her mistress a pair of soft slippers, guided her to sit on a stool and began to unbraid her hair and comb it out. The golden strands floated like threads of finest silk in the air.
The young woman wriggled her feet into the tight shoes. "How is he dressed?"
"Very fine, my lady!" cried Leora, clapping her hands with excitement. "His tunic and cloak are of dark green, thick with gold. The crown of Rohan is upon his brow."
Then his errand was not that of a soldier. Her heart beat faster.
"Have you not finished yet?!" she snapped at Bruna, drumming her heels impatiently. A sharp tug was her only answer.
"They're at the outer gate!"
"Bruna!" Elfhild's voice was anguished.
"Done." The maidservant stepped back. "Now just one moment longer…" She rummaged in a chest while her mistress wrung her hands with impatience, finally producing a fine gold girdle.
"Do you want jewellery?" she asked, settling the belt into place.
Elfhild touched her hand to the thin necklet of gold that already hung about her neck. His gift, that she wore always. It was enough. She shook her head.
"There." Bruna stepped back to look at her mistress. "Oh my lady," she whispered, a tear coming to her eye, "no queen was ever more beautiful." She darted forward to press a fond kiss to Elfhild's cheek. "Go now, your father awaits you."
The great hall was a flurry of activity as Elfhild entered by the side door. Women were gathering up their sewing and herding out squealing children. Long tables were being set out with food and wine; the fire in the pit stoked to a roaring blaze.
Her father stood waiting for her, already arrayed in his finest tunic, his white beard newly combed. His sun-beaten face crinkled into a broad smile as she entered.
"Elfhild." He opened his arms wide, and she hastened to receive his hearty embrace. "My daughter." He looked at her, pride brightening his faded eyes, "I have never seen you look so beautiful."
Elfhild blinked back a tear. "Father," she whispered.
"Come my child," he took her by the arm, "We must go and greet our guests."
Together they made their way to the open door of the hall, standing beneath the lintel to watch the king's party arrive. The wind from the plain brought with it the green smell of new spring grass, and above them white clouds raced over the bluest sky. At the foot of the steps Freador's steward and other members of the household gathered to welcome the new Lord of the Mark.
The sound of horses reached them just before the cry of the gatekeeper.
"Open the gate! Open for the Lord of the Mark!"
The gates were heaved apart just as the king reached them, and without breaking stride the horsemen rode through.
The sight of him snatched her breath away.
Théoden was mounted on a rangy bay, whose light foot and fresh eye belied the long miles from Edoras. Splendid embroidery adorned the fine tunic of the young king, his cloak snapping merrily from broad shoulders. His golden hair tossed in thick braids, and the light in his face outshone even the crown of Rohan that adorned his brow.
They drew to a stop and as Théoden sprang down from his mount, Freador's steward gave the call.
"All hail to the Lord of the Mark! Théoden King!"
The assembly knelt as one, from the lowliest spit boy through the steward, to the master of the hall.
"Théoden King." Elfhild echoed the salute as she knelt by her father's side, the implications of the words rushing over her, bringing her heart to her mouth as she dared to peek up from under her eyelids.
A familiar pair of booted feet took the steps two at a time to stand before them.
"Welcome, my lord," Love and fealty filled her father's voice. "I pledge myself to you as I did your father."
"Rise, Freador." The king's voice was fond and respectful, and the sound of it filled Elfhild with warmth. "I am honoured to accept you as my man."
The members of the household rose with their master and giving a great hurrah, welcomed their new king. Théoden stood a moment to acknowledge them, then turned to enter the great hall. And as he passed, his sparkling eyes met hers for a infinite tiny moment, causing her to tremble all over, and she knew she had not been wrong.
Stable lads hurried up to take the horses from the Riders of the Mark, who made their way after their lord, laughing and jesting. Servants followed and the hall was quickly filled with an excited clamour as food and wine were served, friends reunited, and speculation voiced.
"My lord," Freador guided Théoden to the seat of honour at the head of the hall.
"Ah, no." Théoden shook his head with a grin, "It is not fitting that I should take your place today, king or no. For I have come to ask you for the greatest favour that a man can bestow."
"Indeed." Freador attempted to adopt a grave face, but his eyes would not obey.
Théoden looked over to where Elfhild stood at her parent's shoulder. Her eyes were lowered demurely, befitting a maiden in her father's house, but her face shone, and she pressed her hands together tightly.
"Master Freador," Théoden's low voice was soft, but behind him the hall had hushed into expectant silence. "You have known me since I was a young lad, when first I rode out at my father's side. You know that I am steadfast in heart and brave in battle. Now it has pleased the gods to make me Lord of the Mark, which is a duty and honour that I am proud to bear. But I would fain not do it alone, and so I ask you for the brightest treasure of your house," he shifted his eyes, their blue depths bottomless in the firelight, towards Elfhild. "For your daughter, to be my bride, and my queen."
She felt her heart sing out and her feet yearn to leap with joy, but with a great effort she kept her eyes downward, waiting for her father to speak first.
"My Lord," Freador bowed his head, "You honour our house." He turned to his daughter, holding out his hand for her. "My child?"
Elfhild heard the question in her father's voice as she came forward to take his hand, but looking into the eyes of Théoden, seeing there his open heart, a great rush of feeling stopped her mouth and she could make no words to reply. Her smile and the brightness of love that shone in her face were all the answer she could muster.
With tears of pride and of joy, Freador placed his daughter's hand in that of the king. "She comes to you willingly, my lord, and with my blessing, though my house shall be the poorer for it."
Théoden closed his fingers gently about hers and drew Elfhild close to him, lifting her hand to his lips, and fixing all his gaze upon her, "Your loss is the gain of all Rohan, Master Freador," he continued, " and I will honour her with all I possess, guard her with all my strength and," his voice softened, "love her with all of my heart."
At that Elfhild found herself wrapped in his strong arms, and clasped to him in a warm embrace. Behind them the hall resounded with noise, as the servants shouted for joy, and the warriors roared their approval. But she had ears only for him. "My love," he whispered, as his lips brushed hers, "my lady and my wife to be."