Théodred cantered up the main road through the city, his Riders behind him. He had grown to dread these visits. His mother had died bringing him into this world and it pained him to see his father suffer and dwindle until only a fraction of his true character remained. His illness and the growing influence of the leech Gríma cast a dark shadow over the Golden Hall and the City below.
His Riders passed a girl walking up the street; to his surprise she neither stood aside nor flinched when the horses thundered by. He turned in his saddle to look at her. She was wearing a dress that was plain but of a good quality, her hair held back off her face by a scarf. Her face was down-turned so that from his high angle he could not properly see her but, from the even swing of the basket in her hands, she appeared to be relatively at peace.
He turned to face the front and his mind brought forward the smiling face of Ailith. He had once thought to court her with the intention of one day making her his Queen but some cruel fate had taken her back to her home in the North. Almost a decade had passed since he last saw her. His duties as Second Marshal kept him in the West but his cousin Éomer, the Third Marshal, had wider ranging duties and last he heard, his father, or most likely Gríma, had found some reason for Éomer to ride North. For that, Théodred was slightly envious of his cousin. He would have liked to have had the opportunity to see Ailith again.
However, any feelings of resentment vanished when he rode up to Meduseld and saw his cousin sitting on the steps of the Hall. He was speaking with Gamling, a veteran who was like an uncle to them both.
"Théodred!" Éomer shouted in greeting. "How fares the Hornburg?"
"It is good. The wildmen of Dunland appear to be getting restless but it is nothing we cannot handle. How was the North?"
"Fine. Their ways are different but life works."
"And Ailith?" the Prince asked casually, dismounting. Gamling chuckled and exchanged a look with Éomer.
"My lord can ask her himself," the veteran grinned. Théodred's brow furrowed. He turned to look.
The girl from the street had reached the small area in front of the court. Now he could see her face; her blue eyes, her slightly up-turned nose, the freckles across her nose and cheeks. She noticed the three of them and her face lit up when she was Théodred. She crossed to meet them, dodging between Riders and horses, and suddenly Théodred found himself face to face with the girl who had dogged his thoughts for almost ten years.
"Ailith," he said, his eyes raking across her face.
"Prince Théodred," she smiled. "Are you well?"
"Very," he replied. They stood awkwardly for a moment. Ailith glanced away from Théodred's intense gaze.
"Excuse me. I have duties to get on with," she said and walked away.
"Shut your mouth before a bug flies in there," Éomer said jokingly.
"She is a fine woman," Théodred said, still staring after her.
"She is a terrifying woman," Gamling said. "All those spats she has with Gríma. Not a day goes by when they aren't trading snide comments; no-one else would dare."
"You didn't see her on the Wold," Éomer added. "She ran that place more efficiently than I have ever seen. And when she wears her armour; I would give her a wide berth on the battlefield."
"She wears armour?" the Prince exclaimed.
"Aye, milord. Lady Ailith has taken the Oath of the Riders and bears the title of Shieldmaiden," Gamling told him.
"How do you think she got that scar on her face?" Éomer asked. He grinned. "She's more feisty than your usual girls."
Théodred reddened. "Tavern wenches cannot hold a flame to her," he said hotly, causing Gamling and Éomer to bark with laughter.
"I do believe our prince has a romantic streak!" Éomer laughed, standing up and clapping a hand on his cousin's shoulder.