Aldburg stood on the tallest of a line of three hills rising abruptly from the plain south of the Road. Several villages could be seen, tucked into their folds, but Aldburg itself was invisible behind a massive stockade of gigantic tree trunks weathered grey as stone. Kneeling in the front of the coach and looking over the horses backs Ellevain saw the gates of polished oak bound with gleaming bronze open to reveal a cobbled street running directly towards a great timber hall set high on a squared mound of earth, green with grass. A dozen or more halls and houses of age darkened wood brightened with green, red and yellow paint lined the street and clustered around the mound.

The coach followed Father past clumps of cheering Rohirrim to the foot of the steps leading up to the great hall. A golden haired Man, very richly dressed after the Rohirric fashion in bright colors and much gold, waited there to greet Father with an embrace the moment he dismounted.

"Thengel! It has been too long."

"That's what I keep telling him." Aunt Fastraed said drily.

The Man shook his head. "No, Cousin, it was better that he stayed away. Safer. I am only sorry for the necessity."

"It is good to see you again Eoric." Father said.

Mother gathered her skirts to descend from the coach, signaling for the children to follow. Father took her hand as she came to his side and introduced her: "My wife Morwen of Lossarnach. And our children; Elfflaed, Theoden and little Flaeda. My dears, this is Eoric, Lord of the Eastfold and our kinsman."

But not a near one as Ellevain knew from her 'History of Cirion and Eorl'. The Lords of the Eastfold were descended from Eofor, the third and youngest son of Brego second King of the Mark. which would have made them very distant cousins indeed if not for the several generations of princesses who'd married into that line. 1

They were greeted at the top of the stair by Eoric's wife, Lady Osburga, and his cluster of golden haired sons and daughters. The Lady offered the welcome cup as they stood on the great porch beneath wooden pillars carved in a pattern of interlocking rings painted red and green, then she and her husband led their guests inside.

The great hall at Aldburg was much larger than any of the thanes' halls they'd guested at with a polished wooden floor and a double row of massive, carved and painted columns upholding the roof. A shaft of daylight fell through the open smoke hole onto the cold hearth and long windows in the end walls and smaller ones in the aisles showed the walls were not hung with the usual tapestries but coated with plaster and painted with frescoes. And unlike the thanes' halls there was a dais at the far end of this one, flanked by two chambers formed by walling off the upper ends of the side aisles.

On the dais there was a table laid with cold meats, bread and fruit and pitchers of ale with chairs and settles, not benches, to sit on. As they ate and drank Ellevain sorted out Lord Eoric and Lady Osburga's several children: The eldest, Eobald, was almost of age 2 and his next brother Eodred and sister Eoswith were also nearly grown. Then came the fifteen or sixteen year old twins, a boy Eohere and girl Eohild, and finally a third daughter not much older than Ellevain herself whose name was Eogyth. The last shot many curious looks at the new King's children but didn't speak so Ellevain's attention drifted to the painted walls. Mother was looking too and Lady Osburga noticed it.

"Aren't our pictures beautiful?" she asked proudly. "They say Mundburg itself has none finer."

That was an exaggeration but it was true the frescoes were superb examples of the Morchaint school of painting - so called for its characteristic use of light and shadow. 3 Ellevain recognized the life of Eorl as the subject of the paintings around the dais. She saw the taming of Felarof; The great ride; his arrival on the field of Celebrant; the oath of Cirion and Eorl; and finally the new King of Rohan crowned and enthroned with his thanes around him. Between the scenes were portrait panels of Leod, father of Eorl the Young; Borondir Udalraph the messenger who had carried Cirion's appeal; Eorl himself and his son Brego. On the side walls of the hall Ellevain could see other heroes and legends portrayed, including some of Dunedain origin. There was Turin facing Glaurung; Hurin and Huor covering Turgon's retreat; the great migration; and even the wave overwhelming Numenor. 4

"My company may strain even your hospitality, Eoric," Father was saying to the master of the hall. "I seem to be mustering an army. Am I like to need one?"

"Yes and no." Lord Eoric replied. "The more Men you have at your back the more likely you are to enter peacefully into your heritage."

Father raised his eyebrows. "Or to provoke Cutha into making a fight of it?"

Eoric shook his head. "No. Cutha is a coward at heart, show him force and he will flee."

"I hope you are right." Father said grimly. "I would rather not kill my sister's husband."

"I doubt Theodraed would grieve if you did." Aunt said flatly. "She never wanted that match any more than Folcraed or I wanted those Father had planned for us. But unlike her elders she had not courage to resist."

"She would not leave the Queen bereft of all her children." Lady Osburga said in mild reproof.

Fastraed snorted. "So she marries at Father's behest and breeds a litter of distaff Eorlingas to bedevil the rightful heirs. Mark my words, Thengel, you may well overawe Cutha, who is indeed a coward as Eoric says, but his sons are not and they will forget neither their blood nor the ambition their father has bred into them. Theodraed has given us three Frecas 5 and a daughter to breed more if her brothers fall."

"Yet Freca's grandson returned to his proper allegiance." Father pointed out mildly. "You yourself serve his heir, Fastraed. Perhaps if I treat Cutha's sons as generously as Frealaf treated Heorulf I will have the same fortune." 6

Aunt Fastraed snorted her disbelief but said nothing more.

They were lodged that night in the two chambers off the hall. They were very large, as large as their withdrawing room back home, though longer and narrower, and very well furnished by Rohirrim standards with wolfskin rugs instead of rushes on the floor and green hangings on the walls and the big carved bed, big enough for all three children to share.

Ellevain lay awake next to the peacefully slumbering babies, worrying. What if there was a war? What if Father were killed? That would make Aranuir King of Rohan but he was just a baby. Anything could happen to them - they could all be murdered as poor Prince Ornendil had been! Oh why had they come to this awful country, who cared who ruled in Rohan?

The answer came back, stern and inexorable; Gondor cared. Rohan was the realm's oldest and best ally, a bad King could change that - apparently wicked Grandfather had meant to - and Gondor could not afford to lose that alliance, not with the Enemy back in his old stronghold and up to his old tricks. And Father cared too; Rohan was his heritage and his responsibility - and his children's. Ellevain had been raised as a Gondorian noblewoman, not a princess of Rohan, but that meant she had trained to duty. She was a Daughter of the Mark - as they kept calling her - the King's daughter and Heir's sister. She no less than they had a duty to put Rohan's good before her own, and before her wishes too, and she knew it.

Ellevain blinked back tears. They could not go back to Minas Tirith, Rohan would have to be home now. If there was a war and Father fell Mother would have to carry on the fight in Aranuir's name. It sounded like the great Lords of Rohan would side with them and protect them. And she had read about strongholds in the White Mountains, the Hornburg and Dunharrow, that were safe from any attack.

Besides Father wouldn't die, she told herself, he'd fought in many campaigns and lived through them all - and won them too! And Gondor would send help if they needed it. And maybe there wouldn't be any fighting at all. Maybe everything would be all right. It could be - surely it would be.

They departed the next morning with not only Eoric and his sons and three hundred horsemen added to their army but theLady Osburga and her daughters as well, to do honor to their new Queen. The four of them rode astride like the Men, Osburga and the two older girls on tall horses, grey and dappled and white, and Eogyth on a bright gold pony whose coat almost matched her hair, flying long and loose in the sunlight.

Ellevain was watching the other girl ride merry circles around the slow moving coach, and trying to decide whether or not she would like riding like that herself, when suddenly Aunt Fastraed addressed her in quite the kindest tone her niece had ever heard her use.

"Don't worry, Brother-daughter, there is nothing to fear for now. Cutha is a coward, he will take one look at the rightful King with the Men of the Westmark at his back and flee just as Eoric said."

Ellevain looked gravely out the window of the coach at her aunt riding beside. "Where will Cutha go and will he take Aunt Theodraed and their children with him?"

Fastraed gave the girl a look of approval, the first she'd received from that quarter. "So you are clever at more than book learning, Brother-daughter, those are both very good questions." she thought. "Where Cutha will go depends on how frightened he is. He might simply withdraw to his lands in the Wold, or he could flee to his friends among the Easterlings." Aunt Fastraed grimaced. "I can't decide which I would prefer, either would leave him free to make mischief if he gets the chance.

"Theodraed will not flee with him, of that much I am sure, but what their children will do...." Aunt shook her head, "that depends on whether it is Cutha's blood or Eorl's that runs most strongly in their veins."

The tight knot in Ellevain's stomach loosened. "So we're all right for now but we must be watchful."

"Exactly." her Aunt agreed. "Thengel is clever, and far more patient than I. Perhaps he can win over the Cuthingas as he hopes."

Ellevain hoped so too.

Note:

1. Originally this read 'Eofor second son of Eorl'. Thanks to Donna Lyn for pointing out the error.

2. Eobald is Eomer and Eowyn's grandfather, he is twenty-four in 2953.

3. We would call this chiaroscuro. The wall paintings of Aldburg were inspired by the famous frescoes of Tamworth, capital of the Mercian Kings.

4. And that's where Movie!Eowyn gets the image from ;-)

5. Freca was the ambitious and treacherous thane who challenged Helm Hammerhand, thus bringing on the Winter War. (Canon not Fanon).

6. Freca's son Wulf took Edoras and married Helm's daughter to shore up his claim to the throne. Wulf was slain by Frealaf Hildsson Helm's nephew and successor but his wife bore a son, Heorulf, who might have become a danger to the new royal line. But Frealaf raised the boy with his own sons and when he was grown restored to him the heritage of Freca, (the lands of the Angle) and gave him the stronghold of Helm's Deep and the Westfold as well. Heorulf magnificently vindicated his foster father's trust and founded the line of hereditary Lords of Westfold, represented at the time of the WR by Erkenbrand. (Fanon! not Canon)