Ellevain was sitting in her bedroom window reading the day they came from Rohan. She heard voices through the open window lattice and looked out. Several people barbarically dressed in brightly dyed leather and wool and a great deal of gold were being ushered by the porter through the cobbled courtyard, with its potted shrubs and fountain bubbling against the side wall, towards the marble stair that led up to the door of the reception hall. Ellevain put aside her book, climbed down from the window seat and went into her little anteroom to open its window and lean out for a better view.

There were five of the strangers and their long fair hair no less than their gaudy clothes proclaimed them Rohirrim, foreigners but Ellevain's distant kin through her father who'd been born a prince of Rohan.

Ingilda, her nurse, joined her at the window, a half stitched shift in her hands. "What is it, little lady?"

"People from Rohan come to see my father." she answered. Though she had not spoken loudly the leader of the Rohirrim seemed to hear her and turned to look up at the window. Ellevain was startled to see that it was not a Man at all, as she had assumed, but a Woman though dressed manlike in a leather corselet inlaid with swirls of yellow gold and a green robe divided for riding. Keen blue eyes met Ellevain's startled grey ones for a moment. Then the Woman nodded greeting and continued on up the stair and into the house.

Ellevain ran to the door that led from her rooms to the reception hall but Ingilda, astonishingly, blocked her. "No, Ellevain. I recognize that lady; she is Fastraed Fengel's daughter, your father's eldest sister. It can be no light matter that brings her here, and not one meant for little girl's ears. Wait until you are sent for."

The girl pouted a little but she saw the sense of obeying. Curious as she was it would be too humiliating to be sent away like a little child. And if this really was one of her Rohirrim aunts she would surely be presented once the grown-ups had finished talking business. "Very well, Ingilda." she turned and went back into her bedroom.

It was a small, square chamber whose pale yellow walls, all painted with flowering and fruited vines, made it seem bright and sunny despite the one window facing onto a court overshadowed by the tall blocks of building that surrounded it. Her big bed of carved fruitwood stood against the back wall hung, like the window, with green curtains and the coverlet was a richly hued tapestry of flowers and birds. The green and yellow cushions from the window seat lay scattered on the floor, she picked them up and restored them to their places then took up the book lying face down on the sill and started to read again, but her mind kept wandering from the intricate philosophies of Master Nolendil.

Why had her aunt come? Had her wicked grandfather done something? But what could he do off in Rohan that could hurt them here in Gondor? Maybe Aunt Fastraed had run away from him too and come to live with them. Ellevain frowned a little at the thought. Their third of the sprawling old mansion was barely large enough to contain both family and servants. She hoped she wouldn't have to give up her rooms to this aunt and go back to the nursery with the two infants.

Finally Ingilda opened the door. "The Lord Captain asks for you, m'Lady."

Ellevain closed her book on the strip of needlework she used for a place mark and laid it carefully on the lectern in her study corner. She stood still as Ingilda fussed briefly over hair and dress, just as a matter of form, Ellevain was always neat and tidy.

Master Gelmir, Father's chamberlain, was waiting at the door to her rooms to conduct her, an unaccustomed bit of ceremony, and Ingilda followed respectfully behind rather than holding Ellevain by the hand as she usually did. The little girl began to feel nervous. The reception hall was full of her mother's gentlewomen whispering with the under-chamberlains and squires, but not loudly enough for Ellevain to make out what they were saying.

Gelmir opened the door to the withdrawing room and stood aside so the girl and her nurse could enter. "The Lady Ellevain, my Lord."

Father was standing in front of fireplace looking morosely into the flames, Ellevain wanted to run to him and ask what was happening but restrained herself. The strange aunt, Fastraed, was sitting in Mother's chair to the right of the fireplace with a crystal gilt goblet of wine in her hand. The four Men who'd come with her were standing behind the chair and Mother had seated herself out of the way on one of the cushioned benches against the wall.

Ellevain approached her father and made him a courtesy then stood silent, hands primly folded and eyes downcast until she was spoken to. But it was the aunt, not Father who spoke. "Ellevain?" she said, a lift of question in her voice.

"Elfflaed in your tongue, Sister." said Mother from her place by the wall.

"Sweeting," Ellevain looked up to see her father give her a rather forced smile, "this is your Aunt Fastraed, my eldest sister, who has come to tell us my father is dead."

She'd cried when Lord Turgon died and still felt sad whenever she thought about him. But she couldn't possibly cry for the wicked grandfather she'd never seen and never heard anyone speak a single good word about - not even her father, his own son! "May the Valar receive his soul." she said formally.

"You are what, ten years old, Ellevain?" the aunt asked, slightly mispronouncing the name.

"Only eight, my Lady." she answered.

"Our Ellevain is forward for her age." Father said with his usual touch of pride.

"And tall for it as well, but that's to be expected with Dunedain blood," Fastraed mispronounced that word too. "I saw you watching us from the window, brother-daughter."

"Yes, my Lady, I was reading with my window lattice open and heard your voices in the courtyard."

Aunt Fastraed's eyebrows rose sharply. "Reading? Are you fond of reading, Ellevain?"

"Oh very!" she answered, a touch of enthusiasm for the first time warming her polite little voice. "I'm reading Nolendil's 'Thoughts on Truth' it's very hard but quite interesting." she was showing off a little, Nolendil was far too advanced for most children her age.

But the aunt didn't seem in the least impressed. "And what do you do besides read, brother-daughter?"

"I study literature and history with one tutor, and mathematics and natural science with another, and take dancing and music lessons with the Orothonioni children..." Aunt Fastraed was not only unimpressed but looked positively disapproving. Ellevain fell silent abashed and a little resentful. Grown-ups always approved of her; Her manners were perfect and she was both clever and forward for her age. Maybe Fastraed just didn't like children.

The door to the hall opened again and Gelmir announced: "The Lord Aranuir and the Lady Vanawen, my Lord."

The little ones came in holding tightly to either hand of their nurse, scrubbed and dressed in green and yellow. Aranuir was five and golden haired like Father, Vanawen was a year younger and dark like Mother and Ellevain herself. They were very pretty children, and too overawed by their best clothes and the strangers to misbehave, but Aunt Fastraed clearly liked them no better than Ellevain. It must be that she disliked children.

"And what would those grand Stoniglander names be in our tongue?" she asked acidly.

"Theoden and Flaeda." said Father.

Fastraed turned abruptly to Ellevain. "Do you understand the speech of your fathers', Elfflaeda Eorlinga?" she demanded in the language of Rohan.

"Yes, father-sister, my nurse Ingilda speaks it with me." the girl answered in the same tongue.

"But not your father?"

"From time to time." said Father, in Westron..

She ignored him. "And has your father told you who he is?" she asked still in the language of the Mark.

"He is Thengel son of Fengel." Ellevain answered, feeling her temper rise. What was this very rude aunt of hers driving at?

"That is right. He is Fengel King's only son - and now that our father is dead King of the Riddermark!"

Ellevain blinked, startled. "Oh!" and looked at Father.

He was staring into the fire again. "If he chooses to return and claim the crown." he said to the flames, still in Westron, then turned to his sister. "I have lived in Gondor since I was twenty, I have taken a wife and had children here, why should I return to a land that has become strange to me?"

"Because you are its King!" she answered, switching back to Westron.

"And what kind of a King will I be, a stranger from a strange land?" he retorted.

"Then you would leave the crown to Cutha?" his sister spat.

"What?" he frowned. "Folcraed's eldest son is heir after me."

"Cutha too is wed to a daughter of Fengel, and he holds Edoras. If you do not return, Brother, we will either see Cuthwulf on the throne with Cutha behind it - or civil war in the Mark!"

Mother got up and went to take Father by the arm. "Thengel wants only to do what is best for his people, Sister. And you must help us to decide what that is." she said to Fastraed. Then turned to the babies' nanny. "You may take the little ones away Elfgifu." her grey Dunedain glance shifted downward to her elder daughter. "Sit down Ellevain, this concerns you too - Ingilda you may go."

Ellevain sat down uneasily on her usual stool as the nurses led the children out. The door shut behind them and Mother turned back to Fastraed. "Now, Sister, calmly; who exactly is this Cutha?"

"Our father's favorite and crony and First Marshal of the Mark," she shot a venomous look at Ellevain's father. "The true heir not being there to contest him for the place."

"Do you really think it would have made any difference if I had been, Fastraed?" he demanded angrily.

"We shall never know shall we." she answered grimly. "Cutha is also married to Theodraed, our youngest sister, and has no less than three sons with Eorl's blood in their veins and a good claim to his throne."

"Folcraed's oldest boy's is better." Father said flatly. "And his father is Herubrand Helminga!"

"Herubrand cannot fight all of the Mark, and there are many who would accept Cuthwulf, however reluctantly, rather than risk another Winter War."

"And yet you believe Cutha will tamely forget his ambitions and submit to me?" Father snapped.

"You are the direct heir." Aunt Fastraed answered. "Cutha has his following, but the true King would have all the Mark behind him - not just the west or east. Cutha is nothing if not a realist. He will try to make terms with you rather than gamble all against such poor odds."

Ellevain sat tensely on her stool, she knew enough history to understand what the grown-ups were talking about; if Father didn't go back to Rohan there'd be a kin-strife and so he had to go - and take his family with him.

But he didn't want to go. "If Gondor backs Herugar -" he began.

"As Wulf won the throne with Dunlending help?" the aunt snapped. "You are Eorl's heir Thengel, will you deny your blood and heritage?"

"My father denied me my heritage." he said bitterly.

"Father is dead!" her voice softened. "Time to come home, Brother."

He turned to Mother almost in despair. "Do you understand what this will mean for you, Morwen? You will have to leave your country and all your kin for a strange land -"

She smiled up at him. "What of it? I love a Man of Rohan, no doubt I will learn to love his land just as dearly."

"And what of the children? their education -"

"Judging by this daughter of yours they are already educated and over educated." Aunt Fastraed said acidly.

Father looked at Ellevain as if he'd forgotten she was there, then crossed the floor to kneel in front of her stool. "Rohan will be very different from what you're used to, Sweeting." he said gently and uhappily.

But they had to go, Ellevain could see that plain enough, and she wasn't going to make poor Father feel one bit worse about it than he already did. She forced a smile. "That will make it interesting. I'm sure I will like it very much."