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KEEPERS OF THE HEARTH
'Too often have I heard of duty,' she cried. 'But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse?' Éowyn "The Passing of the Grey Company"
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"It sets my mind at rest to know you will be welcoming her," Éomer had said, the day before his wedding, his face fair aglow with happiness. "She knows the words well enough but frets she will forget them when it comes to the point."
"Aye," Winfrith had found herself muttering, somewhat against her will, "she may know the words but does she understand them?"
Her king had only chuckled at that and gently grasped her chin, turning her face until she looked him in the eye. "Poor Winni," he had laughed, "I do believe you're jealous, but I'll wager you'll like her well enough when you only give her a chance."
No doubt he expected me to melt in a puddle on the floor, she thought, but such winning ways had no effect on her. "Perish the thought that I should fail to give anyone a chance, my lord," she had retorted frostily, which had only had him laughing all the more as he strode away about his tasks and she had gone about her own, goodness knows there were enough of them to do.
Of course, in truth, they both knew well enough how greatly he had honoured her. Near as long as the Riddermark had lived the Golden Hall had beat at the heart of it. Joy it had seen in its time - and sorrow. Births, hand-fastings, funeral feasts, one ever followed the other in endless round, and Winfrith had seen her share of them all.
In the final rush of preparation there had been little time to stop and think, for all must be in order for the coming of the new queen, the first that Meduseld had seen since before her lord was born. But now as she oversaw the final cleaning she looked inside a little, as her mother used to say, and fell to wondering whether indeed she was not a little jealous after all.
No, not jealous, she decided after a while, but more than a little worried. After all what did she really know of this woman from beyond the mountains that had always edged her life? From this strange land of ships and swans?
Éowyn, gusting into the house with her husband like a keen breeze off the heights, had sought to blow the cobwebs from her mind. "They truly love each other, Winfrith," she had said, as she gave her a hug. And indeed she only had to look at her young king when he spoke of his bride to know, at least for him, that was the truth. "Why should she leave the land of her birth if not for love of my brother - and of the Mark?" her lady had added. It seemed, then, here was another of those lasses who loved freedom and fresh air, to run and ride over the grassland in the sunlight.
"Éowyn understands these things, I must remember that," Winfrith muttered as she gave the last of the drinking cups its final burnishing. And this Lady Lothíriel seems wide-hipped and well enough – that's all to the good, her sensible side had to approve. For if there was one thing she could not bear it was that Éomer should endure the long pain and loneliness that had been his uncle's fate – and her own. Aye, hers had been a double blow. When a woman loses a child it is not just the heart that hurts but the body too, for the unneeded breast aches that it can give comfort no more. Even though more than forty years had passed she still remembered that pain. Has it really been that long? She was startled by the thought.
That day she first entered the house the bustle had been for sorrow rather than for joy, though, as often, there was some mingling of the two. She had thought her own life had ended when she lost the babe, all that remained to her of Léofric. Shot in the back! No time even to look his enemy in the eye, for all it was an orc! The anger still lingered even now, but then the shock had been such that she gave birth before her time. The babe, brave little thing, held on to life for almost a month before losing the fight, the same day as Queen Elfhild herself. How could she have refused to nurse her child?
My Théodred, my joy, I could ne'er have loved you more had you been my own. Impatiently she swiped at her eyes, heedless of the ashy marks she left behind. Two times now she had visited him where he lay, still keeping the Fords. Each time she had taken with her a handful of this hearth dust to cast upon his grave so he still might remember his home.
"And we must remember the good times," she said firmly, out loud. And truly there had been many such times, when the Hall had seen its full share of laughter. Bent to her work she glimpsed, out the corner of memory, a wet afternoon and her little atheling giggling mightily as he played hide and seek with other children in the shadows of the pillars. Yet, even now, she could not escape some dark thoughts, for that was a time before games of that sort were tainted with fear and threat.
Not that she had been frightened of the Wormtongue for herself. No indeed, for what could he have possibly taken from her except her life, which she held but lightly in her hand? But she had greatly feared what he might do to others that she loved, especially her lady who had been forced to bear the worst of his wiles. That hateful voice, false-fair and cunning, weaving its webs to smother them all. "My lord, is not your sister-daughter well of the age to wed? Surely she should have the running of the household wholly in her hands?" How she had loathed him that he could make all she held sacred and honourable seem nought but a cage! Still Gálmód's son had not been able to get rid of Winfrith so easily, for even in the worst of his dotage Théoden had remembered he had made his hearth her home.
"And I did my best to keep it safe for you, my lord, rest now in peace." She sighed, trying to remember him only as he truly was, the king that returned in the end. Not that old man, crouched over the fire as if it would never give him the warmth he craved, who would have paid no mind even if it smoked and sputtered instead of burning clear and clean.
Aye, but those were dangerous times to try and save what honour we could, she recalled. With Théodred and Éomer often away and Elfhelm forced to play the watching game, Háma, bless him, had helped as much as he was able, but such were the days that even the Captain of the Household had to be careful of his deeds. Then as the treasures had started to disappear it was Éomer who managed to sneak others away. The lad's always been brave, I'll give him that, she thought gratefully, though he was a fool. For things would have gone ill if he had been discovered 'stealing' from his uncle's hoard. Though, truly, if things had gone on much longer Meduseld was like to have been stripped entirely bare.
"But 'tis all in the past," she said with a satisfied smile as she ran her eyes over the splendour of the Hall before her now. Now it looked fine indeed with everything back as it should be. Every wall hanging and banner in its place, every horn and drinking cup burnished to perfection and the wood faultlessly laid upon the hearth.
But, for the first time that she could remember, there was no fire burning upon that stone.
She knew, it was something that must happen, for the proper blessing of the house, yet she could not help but feel uneasy. To assure herself that all was well she walked to the charcoal brazier set by the doors. Aye, all was safe. The flame she had taken from the old fire still burnt slow and steady, waiting the time when it would return to its home. To be sure it would feel welcome, she had left behind some of the ashes and returned some of the old, half-burned logs, to lie alongside the new. Silver birch they were, tinder dry, the curling slivers of bark eager for the torches touch.
She let out a last gusty breath as she left the Hall. "Well, I've done the best I can, now 'tis up to her."