Chapter 14: The Merry Muses

Disclaimer: Still not mine, no profit being made.

Thanks as ever to Lady Peter, for her fabulous editing and suggestions, and also for introducing me to the letters of Abigail and John Adams (which, showing my British ignorance of the American Revolution, I was unaware of).

We ride up the narrow trail in single file, Cynefrid at the head of the line. The path is rocky, and carves its way in zig-zags up the fearsome slope. Pine woods and boulders cover the slopes, but the soil is so poor that the trees are sparse, and we get frequent views down a thousand or more feet to the meadows at the foot of the mountain side. The air smells of pine and dust, and in the midday sun, the air is warm despite the altitude. The grass by the track has been cropped short by grazing animals, and small alpine flowers cling to the earth, giving sparks of colour amid the dull green of the grass, the brown of the earth and the grey of the lichen-covered boulders. Occasionally we see the spoor of animals – traces of dung, tufts of hair caught in brambles. Even more rarely, we see a quick glimpse of a marmot venturing from its burrow, and once on a high outcrop above us, a fleeting sighting of a chamois.

It is nearly a month now since I returned to the Riddermark. Éomer eventually agreed, albeit reluctantly, to my plan to survey the countryside. Thus I have spent the last few weeks with my small group of Riders, led by Cynefrid, exploring the countryside. We have started in the Westfold, as it was hardest hit by Saruman's treachery. Today we travel through the foothills of the White Mountains.

In the broad valley far below us, there were once well-tended fields, but most have been laid waste by Saruman's troops. Here, on the high pastures, it has always been hard to scrape a living. As we crest the brow of the steep slope onto gentler ground, we see a cluster of huts, thatched roofs sagging, an air of decay clinging to them. The small hamlet clings to the slopes on alpine meadows. Above it, the rocky cliffs and boulder-strewn moraines give way to the snow fields of the White mountains. Life here has always been tenuous; a winter which comes early, or a spring thaw which comes late can mean life or death to the flocks of sheep, and that in turn can mean life or death to the people who herd them. But now, torn by the war and its aftermath, survival has become a desperate struggle against the odds.

I have become used to the pinched, drawn faces of women and children who are making do on short rations, their clothes hanging from their thin frames. But this hamlet shocks me beyond anything I have encountered thus far; the children's eyes are too large and their bellies swollen from hunger. The women are gaunt, faces lined with the pain of loss and fear for their future. The old folk sit listlessly in doorways as if lacking the strength to move. There seem to be no young or middle-aged men. I crouch beside the old man who now leads the people. He explains that all the men in the strength of their days have fallen at Pelennor or Cormallen. He adds that the villages in the main valley below have spared as much as they could from their grain stocks, and any more would leave them starving. Marauding Uruk Hai burned the barns with the winter fodder and the stores of grain for the spring planting. Barely any of the spring lambs survived the tail end of the winter without any hay to compensate for the grass which lay hidden beneath the last snows. And the fields now lie barren because there was not the seed to plant them.

I do what little I can. A rider is immediately dispatched back to Edoras, with a request for pack animals with flour and salted meat. I also request help for the villages below, in the form of men to help with tilling the fields and getting a winter barley crop sown. That is, if any men can be spared. We leave a portion of our own provisions behind, hoping to replenish them when we get to settlements on lower ground, further removed from the swath of desolation left by Saruman's army. I and the scribe make detailed notes of the number of people, houses and livestock. Then with heavy hearts we mount up and follow the winding path back down to the foot of the main valley.

We visit one more village that day, some ten miles away and lower. It is not in such a bad way, but still I fear that without help, the population will be decimated by winter. We ride till dusk, by which stage we have found our way back out onto the edge of the broad plains. There we make camp, lighting a fire to keep the chill spring night at bay. We make a meagre meal out of the provisions we have left.

"Bloody hell, what a day," says Cynefrid, shaking his head sadly.

"That village, high up in the hanging valley," adds Edric. "Never mind next winter, I'll be surprised if all of them make it to midsummer."

"I keep thinking that could have been Hereswið and my wee ones, if things had gone a bit differently." He gives a shiver.

"We'll have to hope that Éomer can spare some men with supplies on pack horses," I say. "With a bit of luck, Osred should get there with my message by noon tomorrow."

"Talking of tomorrow, where are we heading, my lady?" Cynefrid asks.

"Out East, across the plains." I realised early on in our trip that I could not make an exhaustive survey on my own. My current plan is to visit each part of the country, looking at a handful of settlements in the mountains, on the plains, by the Entwash, East towards Anduin, to try to get some sense of the overall picture. Then once back at Meduseld, I can organise several teams to cover the country properly.

Edric looks up at the darkening sky above us, stars scattered across the deep blue. "It'll be a cold night," he says.

In more normal times, we would stay in settlements, but we cannot demand hospitality from those who have nothing to spare, nay not even accept it if they offer freely. So we avoid the issue by camping far from habitation. We are travelling light and have no tents. I settle down in my bivouac, wrapped in my cloak and a blanket. After the sights I have seen today, I feel almost guilty that my stomach is filled, if only with waybread and salted pork. I toss and turn in my bed roll. Sleep does not come easily.

Éomer only agreed with great reluctance to let me ride out to carry out my survey of the villages and towns. I know he felt that I was playing at soldiers. But the more time I spend on this enterprise, the more I feel I was right to follow up Edric's idea. The country has been hard hit and only through knowing what stocks of food, livestock and seed we have, and how best to distribute them, will we be able to survive. The regions far from the depredations of the orcs and Dunlanders, where the local Lord survived the war, or where his wife was a strong chatelaine – these regions are secure and will make it through the winter. But the regions left without leadership, without any means of supporting the settlements like the hamlet we visited earlier, are in the direst of need.

I take some comfort from the fact that my brother has now come round to my way of thinking. The letters I have sent him, reporting on how I find things, have been answered thoughtfully and at length, and he has responded as quickly as he can to requests for urgent help of the sort I have sent him today. I think he also feels comforted by the fact that, three weeks into this task, I still have not encountered any danger. The remnants of the Uruk Hai seem to have taken shelter in the Misty Mountains to the north, and so far, the Dunlanders seem to be holding to their oath.

As I lie on the hard ground, my hand closes on the jewel that hangs round my neck. The jewel was a parting gift from Faramir, and I touch it as if it could bring him to me. I draw the blanket close around me, trying not to shiver, and pull the collar of my cloak tight round my neck. For this journey I wear a plain wool cloak suitable for hard riding and nights lying on equally hard ground. Running my fingertips over the facets of the jewel and gazing at the dull orange glow of our fire, I think of Faramir. And the coarse wool against my cheek makes me think of the beautiful cloak he gave me, which lies safely in a cedar-wood chest in Meduseld. My mind drifts back to the conversation we had, when he finally told me of its significance.

We stood on the walls of the city, a few days before I was due to leave to return to the Riddermark. Our imminent separation hung over us, and the hours we snatched together seemed bittersweet. I had been talking of what little I remembered of my parents, for I was only seven years old the year they died. I told Faramir of my father, Éomund, chief Marshal of the Mark and Lord of the Eastfold, a great bear of a man, full of life. Great was the warmth of his laughter, but great also was the heat of his wrath. As a father, he was gentle and loving. I recalled the times he would bear me on his back, pretending to be my trusty steed and carrying me into imaginary battles, for even then I copied my elder brother in everything, and my young head was filled with childish dreams of chivalry and bold quests. But as a warrior, my father was fell and dangerous. It was only much later, as I grew older, that I pieced together a more complete picture from the fragments of conversation I overheard: he was fell and dangerous, but at times his blood-lust bordered on, nay, tipped over into foolhardiness, often driving him to ride out in haste with but a handful of men. And thus he met his doom, taking his chances against the odds one time too many, fighting a raiding party of orcs, hopelessly outnumbered.

Faramir had taken me in his arms and comforted me as I told him of that dreadful year. My grief on losing my father was keen and piercing, all the worse because at such a young age I had no means to make sense of the events which had torn away the foundations of my world. But great as my grief was, it was small compared to that of my mother. Hers knew no bounds, and so deep was her woe that when a sickness came upon her some months later, it was as if she had no strength to fight it. Weakened already, she sickened and died. My brother and I were sent to Meduseld, where Théoden King brought us up as his own children. In Théodred, we had a cousin who was half way between elder brother and father figure, and so I grew up, a wild scrap of a girl, forever trailing after my brother, learning to fight and ride, with no mother to teach me a woman's role in life. My cousin and uncle were kind and loving, and my brother loving and fiercely protective. But still I missed my mother deeply.

"To me, the bitterest thing seems that I cannot remember the happy times with her that surely must have been been before my father's death. My brother was twelve when she died, and he could recall her kindness and laughter. But all I remember is her sadness, the way she seemed lost to us, unable to think of anything but the loss of our father," I whispered, my face buried in Faramir's tunic. He held me close, and the warmth of his body seemed to flow round me, comforting me. For a long time he was silent. Then at last he spoke.

"I was only five when my mother died." I looked up in surprise and found that his grey eyes were filled with sadness and yearning, but also with gentleness. "I have but dim memories of her. Just a sense of being safe and loved, and an image of her, wearing the cloak you now wear."

"This was your mother's cloak," I said, thunderstruck. "But you gave it to me before... before anything had passed between us. When I was but a passing acquaintance."

Faramir smiled, a strange smile where all at once a piercing sadness and a gentle happiness seemed somehow mixed, and stroked my cheek softly. "I loved you from the moment I first saw you," he said. I looked up at him, words failing me for a moment, and raised my hand to his cheek, stroking the soft stubble of his beard. Then I found my voice.

"You loved me then?" I said, in a tone of wonder, and of puzzlement.

"It was all I could do not to tell you all that I felt that first moment. But I sensed that to do so would be to add an intolerable burden to your grief. For you seemed so closed off from the world, so desperate. You told me you had ridden to war seeking death, and I felt as though my heart would break for you."

My breath caught in my throat at this, but I managed to speak. "I feared at first that you were yet another person come to offer pity, but you offered me compassion instead. I did not for an instant think you loved me, though, not then."

Faramir smiled again, grey eyes gazing on me. "I remember vividly what I thought. I thought that you were beautiful. It seemed to me that in the valleys of our hills there were flowers fair and bright, and maidens fairer still; but neither flower nor lady had I seen till then in Gondor so lovely and so sorrowful. And I wanted to tell you that though it might be that only a few days were left ere darkness fell upon our world, that nonetheless it would ease my heart if while the sun yet shone, I could see you."

"You wanted to say that? And yet you did not."

"I feared to tell you. It seemed to me that you were like a wild animal, frighted by my approach, who would have run from me in fear were I to approach too incautiously." He gave me a wry smile.

"You were right. You would have scared me half to death." Then I found myself smiling back at him. "So like anyone who knows animals, you kept still, made soft and gentle noises, and waited for me to come to you."

"You make it sound as if I clicked my tongue as I would to a horse," Faramir said, his voice filled with amusement

"For all I know of Quenya, you might as well have done," I replied. Then Faramir tightened his arms around me and kissed me with a gentle passion.

"My shieldmaiden," he murmured.

"Yours always, my lord. The shieldmaiden you tamed," I replied, and returned his kiss.

The sound of a bough on the fire crackling as the flames catch the resin in its wood brings me back to the present, but only for a moment, before I think back once more to the Houses of Healing. At the time, I thought myself guilty of throwing myself at Faramir in a most unmaidenly manner. And indeed I did throw myself at him. The thought makes me smile. But it was not one-sided. In his quiet way, Faramir pursued me, though I was in such a state of confusion I failed to notice. I feel a warmth deep inside at the memory of him reciting poetry to me. I think it was then that I realised his feelings went beyond friendship. Then I chuckle quietly at the thought of my behaviour later that night, when the same sudden impulsive streak that made me ride to battle moved me to invite myself into his bed. Béma, that was near disaster. And I remember realising he was in love with me, and thinking I had ruined everything by my precipitate haste. Thank the Hunter and the Mother of the Earth that Faramir was of a calmer, more even temperament than I, and could see past my confusion. And then my thoughts skip forward, nearer to the present, to the journey back to Edoras.

For the first few days after we parted, I felt Faramir's absence like a physical pain. Éomer and I rode side by side for much of the way. My brother, I think, sensed my sadness and was unusually gentle, seemingly knowing when to talk and when to remain silent. War, I think, has changed us. War, and in Éomer's case, the responsibilities of kingship, thrust upon him unexpectedly, unasked for, unwanted. He seemed to have grown into maturity, no longer the rash young man. The change elicited all sorts of conflicting feelings in me. I was saddened at the thought of the burdens he now bore. But he bore them without complaint, with a calm sense of duty. I realised that his youthful resemblance to my father in temperament was only skin-deep. He had inherited our father's capacity for fury: Eothain had painted a terrifying picture of him, thinking both Théoden and I lay dead upon the battlefield, crying out in a fell voice to the Rohirrim to follow him to death and the world's ruin. But somewhere in the course of Imrahil finding me to be alive, Éomer's anxious wait beside my bed, his ride to Cormallen, and the last desperate battle in which he had expected to die, my brother had learned patience, and the ability to control that fury.

It made me wonder how much I too had changed in the intervening months. Certainly, I had at last escaped the shadow that drove me to seek death. I had been filled with happiness beyond imagining by Faramir's love. But underneath it, how much had I changed? Try as I might, I still could not imagine myself living the life of a pampered court beauty in Minas Tirith, nor even sitting in my solar in a country house in Emyn Arnen, gossiping with the women folk as I embroidered. Faramir had tried to reassure me. Ithilien had suffered much, and its people would need strong leadership to guide them in rebuilding their country. And Faramir felt they would look to me as much as to him for that leadership. And yet I felt uncertain; I would be an unknown quantity, the sister of a King of a far-off realm, a mere woman. How I hated that phrase, "a mere woman."

About a week into the journey, my monthly courses started. I was taken aback by the wave of desolation which washed over me. I should have felt only relief, for my betrothal was yet to be announced and the wedding many months off. But in truth, I felt a deep sadness. I realised that some part of me hoped to be with child, if nothing else, as a corporeal reminder of my love. And no matter how much I told myself it was for the best, I felt a deep sadness within me.

With no-one on hand to share my sadness, I poured all my feelings into a letter to Faramir when I returned. No sooner had the messenger ridden off than I felt foolish for having written such nonsense. I fretted and fussed through the next few days, on edge. But Faramir's reply was full of understanding.

"Éowyn, my dearest love,

"I am not sure I can find the words to express how much it soothed my heart to receive your letter this morning. I took it at once to my study and barred the door so that I could read it without interruption. I too have missed you every moment of every day. Yes, I am busy, and my tasks fill the hours and distract me, but ever I find that my thoughts will return to you, my beloved, when I should be reading dispatches, or listening to yet another speech in the council chamber.

"You write that part of you is saddened to find that you are not with child, though you say that considered rationally you know it is for the best. But our feelings are not rational, are they, my sweetest love? The rational part of me knows this was the likeliest outcome by far, for we have tried our best to avoid that course. And that part of me also tells the rest of me very firmly that it is for the best. Furthermore, considered rationally, since we are not to be married for many months, it would be disastrous had you conceived. But the larger part of me, well, I fear it is not listening too carefully to counsels of common sense. For I find myself taken aback by my thoughts, but I too would have rejoiced at the thought of our child growing within you. And I am torn by the thought of your unhappiness. How I wish I was near you, to hold you close and comfort you, to soothe your sadness. I would hold your head against my shoulder and stroke your wondrous golden hair. And we could shed tears together, and love one another.

"I miss you in the evenings, when our passion would have been hot together. And I miss you in the dead of night when I awake with horrifying memories and long for your warmth to chase away the terrors. And I miss your beautiful face on waking. And most of all, I miss your company and conversation as I walk in the gardens. I keep your letter close to me at all times, as if it is a piece of you, as if it could somehow make up for your absence. But it is not you, and I long for you.

"I know that the months will pass – they must pass – and just after midsummer we will be betrothed. Then a few months after that, we will be married. Ah! how it fills me with joy just to write those words. But those months will feel like an eternity. I shall write to you as often as I can, and await your letters. If I cannot tell you to your face that I love you, I shall write the words a hundred, a thousand times.

"With all my love, your Faramir."

I have read this letter so many times I know its contents by heart. I shift uncomfortably, trying to find the best way of arranging myself between the tussocks that dig into my body. The embers are dying down now, and the cold penetrates my cloak. To distract myself, I think of all the letters that have passed. Since my return to the Golden Hall, we have written to one another as often as the speed of the messengers between Edoras and Minas Tirith allow. Our letters are an odd mixture: in part they are full of our love for one another, but they also discuss the politics of our two nations, the state of disarray after the war, our hopes for the future. His letters are a constant source of comfort. When I read them, I can see his grey eyes, full of love for me, feel him close to me, smell him. They are also full of details which mean that I must keep them private, keep them close to me, for he writes to me of our shared passion, of memories of our time together, of desire and heat and need.

But the other thing that makes his letters to me precious is his requests for my opinion. He asks me for advice, for reassurance that he has handled political situations in the best way, that he has thought of all the possible repercussions in opting for one course of action over another. When he writes of the problems he faces, so similar to those of our smaller realm – the need to feed the population, to rebuild towns and roads, to deal with orc bands or bands of disloyal, traitorous men (whom I sense he despises even more than the orcs) – it is not to tell me of his decisions, but to ask whether I feel he has thought of everything, whether I would have done things differently, whether there might be a better way of dealing with these problems. And in a similar vein I write to him, seeking advice, a wiser head than mine, his clear sighted sense of justice and his compassion.

Eventually, Cynefrid, noticing I am still awake, brings me an extra blanket (which smells strongly of horse) and I drift off to sleep.

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I wake before the dawn, the chill of that last hour of the night biting into my bones. Gradually, a thin grey streak forms across the eastern horizon, and the vault of the sky lightens. The first rays of the sun strike our camp at a shallow angle, bringing no warmth as yet. The breath of men and horses mists in the air.

"What plans for today?" asks Edric.

"There is a settlement just down the valley, and then the Manor House of Askburn. I thought we could check the state of the settlement, then see what state the Manor is in," I say.

"Askburn," says Cynefrid, sounding as though he is musing aloud. "That rings a bell. Something I should remember. Can't quite put my finger on it, though."

"I don't," says Edric. "I don't remember coming across anyone from there on the ride to Gondor."

"That's it," says Cynefrid. "I overheard Éothain and Elfhelm checking through the list of weregild for the fallen, and remarking how fortunate it was that none from Askburn and its surroundings had fallen."

"Lucky bastards," mutters Edric. The poor lad lost two of his brothers, one on the Pelennor fields, one at Cormallen. We ride on up the narrow valley. The base of the valley is a flat marshy plain, with a shallow river meandering over shale and boulders between close-cropped turf banks. Sheep graze on the patches of grass. After an hour or so, we come to the settlement, a handful of long-houses with low thatched roofs. Alerted by the sound of our hoofs on the stony path, the inhabitants appear, some from the houses, others from byres or the small strips of fields nearby.

They look better fed than most of the villages we have visited so far. But they seem strangely cagey and reluctant to talk as I ask them about the numbers of men, women and children, the old folk, the size of their flocks, how much seed they have in reserve for next season's planting. There is something about the atmosphere of the place that leaves me uneasy, and it is with some relief that the scribe and I finish our notes and we can continue up the valley to the Manor House.

It takes us another twenty minutes or so to reach the Manor, coming upon it round the shoulder of a low hill covered in gorse. It is a modest house, stone to mid-height, timber and plaster above, thatched as all buildings in my country are. There is a collection of barns and outbuildings adjacent to it, and a small number of houses close by. It would appear that someone has ridden ahead to bring news of our arrival, for the lord and lady of the Manor stand with a group of attendants on the terrace before the entrance. At my signal, the Riders form a close formation, lances held aloft. We will do this properly. We sweep up to the base of the terrace. I swing myself from Windfola's back, and hail the figures on the terrace.

"Westu hal, my lord and lady. I am Éowyn daughter of Éomund, King's Sister." The two bow to me, and invite me to join them. I nod to Cynefrid, who dismounts and accompanies me through the door.

The hall has a high ceiling with carved bosses and tapestries hanging from its wooden walls. The floor is covered with clean rushes, and the room smells fresh. Clearly the lady is an efficient chatelaine. They bid me sit at the head of the table, and I tell them not to stand on ceremony, but to sit also. I explain about the survey I am carrying out, and the need to help areas which have been hit hardest by the war. It could be my imagination, but I think they stiffen at the mention of help; do they fear that I will confiscate their seed stocks and flocks? I mention how fortunate their estate is to still have so many healthy men in their prime. And now they seem even more ill at ease. The lord haltingly explains that the messenger calling troops to the muster of Rohan must have suffered a misfortune, for they never received the call, and so none of their menfolk rode. As he says this, he looks at me, but it seems to me that it takes enormous effort for him to meet my gaze. His wife sits by his side, gazing down at her hands.

They invite Cynefrid and me to break bread with them, and provide a meal for the men outside, as well as allowing them to feed and water our horses. Details of the manor and its resources having been noted, we ride back down the valley.

"What did you make of them?" I ask Cynefrid.

"Exactly the same as you, my lady," says Cynefrid with a shrewd look. "You didn't think they were on the level, and nor do I. They got the call alright, they just didn't answer it. But proving it would be nigh on impossible."

"But why?" I ask.

"My guess is that if we asked around enough, we'd find they've feathered their nests nicely by preying like carrion birds on other peoples' misfortune, all while keeping enough menfolk on their land to defend their own property and make sure it was well husbanded."

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We spend the afternoon riding away from the mountains back onto the plains, visiting several more hamlets. We manage to find one quite sizeable village, and the farm land around seems in good shape, so there is enough surplus food that we are able to buy some and restock our supplies. As we ride, I think of the manor sitting in its wealth while so many good, brave men lie cold beneath the earth of their mounds at Pelennor. I realise I am grinding my teeth in rage. And if Cynefrid's suspicions are right, they may be worse than cowards - if they have taken advantage of their neighbours' weakened states after the war to grab land and livestock, they are the worst kind of villain. It also occurs to me that they may be yet worse; if they did indeed receive the messenger, it is possible that they killed him to avoid having to ride to war, which would make them traitors. I vow to talk to Éomer on my return to Meduseld. There is nothing I can do with but a handful of men.

Eventually, as the sun begins to sink, we make camp. Edric and one of the other Riders set about cooking our newly acquired meat. The resulting stew is hot and spicy – considerably better than I would be capable of producing. And Cynefrid produces several skins of ale which he seemingly acquired at the inn in the village. We sit round the fire, in the red glow, watching the sparks rise to the dark velvet sky, and eat and drink our fill. In fact, we drink more than our fill.

"Go on then, Edric, give us one of your songs," the Riders shout in chorus, and with a grin, Edric begins to sing:

"For Erwald swore a solemn oath,
By her fine hairy twat,
That he would win the battle there,
And stick the lass and all that.

His hairy bollocks side and wide,
Hung like a beggar's wallet;
His prick stood like a rollin' pin.
She sniggered when she saw that.

For all that, and all that,
And twice as much as all that,
The lassie got a well spanked arse
But won the day for all that!

Then she turned up her hairy c...

"EDRIC," bellows Cynefrid at the top of his voice. "Have a thought for the lady here."

I bury my head in my hands to stop them seeing my most unmaidenly laughter. Quite what Cynefrid is thinking I don't know. He knows that I have heard these songs before. More than that, from his barbs about my "dancing partner", I fear he suspects, nay, knows that I am no maid. Watching the men out of the corner of my eye, I begin to hum quietly.

"Ah, you fancy joining the singing, my lady?" asks Cynefrid, with a twinkle, taking the bait I dangle. "Does your song have words, then?"

"Oh, it's just a song the women sing at their spinning and weaving. I'm sure bold men of war wouldn't be interested," I say, with a smile.

"No, I think we need a nice ladies' song to raise the tone of things," says Cynefrid. He winks at me; he has heard me swear like a trooper. I take a hearty swig of the ale, and then start to sing.

"Helm Olafsson my man, Helm,
When first that you began
You had as good a tail tree
As any other man.
But now it dangles down, Helm,
For it has waxen wan.
I've two get ups for each go down,
Helm Olafsson my man.

For oh it is a fine thing
To see you hard at work.
But it's a muckle finer thing
To see your buttocks jerk.
For when I see your buttocks jerk
And feel you thrusting home,
'Tis then I like your chanter-pipe,
Helm Olafsson my man.

So when you want to swyve, Helm,
See that you do your best.
When you begin to fuck me,
See that you grip me fast.
See that you grip me fast, Helm,
Till I shout all I can!
Your back shall crack, e'er I cry slack,
Helm Olafsson my man.

Helm Olafsson my man, Helm,
You can fuck where'er you please,
Either in our warm bed,
Or else out on the lees;
Or you shall find the horns, Helm,
Upon your head to land;
And that's the cuckold's serenade,
Helm Olafsson my man.

By this stage the men are all helpless with laughter, clapping with the beat of the song, Cynefrid most of all. Eventually, brushing away tears of laughter, he manages to speak, quietly, just for my ears.

"Now surely you're not going to tell me that's a song about your young man? I'd have thought there'd be lots of going down, and no getting up and out of bed at all, if he's any sense."

I can't help myself: I look Cynefrid straight in the eye and answer him. "You said it yourself back in Minas Tirith: he may be a Gondorian pansy, but he's no poof!"

Cynefrid looks at me, serious for a moment. "I hope he's done right by you."

"Aye, there'll be no accidents, and we'll announce my betrothal after my Uncle's funeral."

"I never will understand the ways of the gentry," Cynefrid chuckles. "Why he couldn't just wrap you in his cloak and have done with it beats me."

"Oh, he did that, there just wasn't anyone around to witness it," I reply.

"You should have said, my lady. Me 'n' Edric would've done the job – we'd have carried Aldwulf in there an' all if it would've helped." It is clear from Cynefrid's wink that this is not meant as a serious suggestion.

Thank you as ever for the kind reviews. In answer to the question posed by my guest reviewer, I can only suggest that Faramir in fact answers it for you in the text (and perhaps suggest that if you have to ask, you probably aren't old enough to be reading M rated fics).

AN: The dirty songs are my "Rohirrised" versions of some of The Merry Muses of Caledonia (there is a creative commons edition of these on Wikisource). You may well recognise them from Robert Burns' bowdlerised re-writes (the wiki attributes the dirty versions to Burns too, but according to my Penguin Book of Scottish Poetry, the dirty versions are more likely to be pre-existing folk songs). Helm Olafsson is my re-write of the original folk song which Burns turned into John Anderson my Jo. But unlike Burns' version, which is a paen to male friendship, the folk song is as I've written it, about a woman taking her husband to task for not doing his marital duty.

Written with fond memories of my mother, who bequeathed me her edition of Scots Poetry which includes these (and also her copy of Catullus). I think she also bequeathed me her love of bawdy humour. I can still remember her unbridled glee on discovering that the Romans had a diminutive term for "penis" (mentulla, in case you're interested; she was much better at Latin than I ever was).