...and all these he had and loved them less
than a maiden once in Elfinesse...
--The Lay of Leithian
Éadwyn of the Riddermark, eldest daughter of Thengel King, had never been considered a remarkable beauty. That honor was bestowed upon her younger sisters, who shared their Gondorian mother's exotic dark hair, slender build and ethereal grace. Éadwyn was in every respect her father's child: stocky, fair-headed and prone to fits of temper.
So it was that when she entered the practice yard on a cool, bright morning of early spring, very few of the men paused in their armswork to spare her a glance. Nor did they take note when she grabbed a practice sword from the rack. It was the time of day when the Riders in training, young men still unblooded, like Éadwyn's younger brother Théoden, practiced their armswork under the tutelage of the more experienced men-at-arms.
Théoden would have been greatly alarmed by her presence, had he realized she was there. But he was deeply engrossed in a sparring match with his friend Éomund, and she was careful to keep well out of her brother's sight.
Éomund did finally notice her approach, as evidenced by the telltale widening of his eyes, but he was not quick enough to help his friend. By the time had cried a warning, Éadwyn was already swinging with all of her considerable strength.
The flat of the blade hit Théoden in the ribs, just beneath his right arm. She had timed the blow well and it took him off his balance and sent him tumbling into the dirt. Before he could recover, Éadwyn was standing over him, her sword point aimed menacingly at his groin.
"Sister!" he cried.
She silenced him with a murderous glare.
A quiet had fallen over the practice yard. The men had all taken notice of Éadwyn now, and watched the confrontation between the heir and his older sister in amused anticipation.
"A snake," she said through clenched teeth. Éomund was doing a very poor job of suppressing a grin, and it fueled her anger further. "A dead snake."
"I can see you are angry," said Théoden, starting to scramble backward.
"Don't," warned Éadwyn. She moved the point of the sword so that it was nearly touching the fabric of her brother's pants. It was just a practice sword, but still sharp enough to cause a great deal of discomfort if applied to certain parts of his anatomy.
Théoden attempted a placating gesture. "I do not know what you think I have done, Éadwyn, but--"
"You left a dead snake in my bed!"
"Better a dead snake than a live one," offered Éomund unwisely.
She directed a lethal glare at her brother's friend. "Were you a part of this, as well?"
"No," said Théoden quickly. "No, it was just me."
He was obviously lying, but she was proud of him for shielding his friend from her wrath. Théoden was still young and foolish, but he was growing into a man, a leader of men. One day he would be Lord of the Mark. At this moment, however, he was still her infuriating little brother.
She glared at him angrily. "It was the middle of the night, it was dark, and I did not see the vile thing until I had already laid down upon it!"
Éomund's shoulders were shaking now with suppressed amusement.
A devilish glint came into her brother's eye. "Tell me, sister, why is it that you retired to your chamber so long after the other women were abed? What--or should I say who--could have detained you so late at night?"
Éadwyn shook with rage and indignation; she was on the verge of losing the restraint that kept her from doing real injury to her brother. The unmarried women of the Riddermark were as free to take lovers as the men, but how she chose to spent her nights was her own business, not something to be bandied about the practice yard.
"Enough!" said a stern voice behind Éadwyn. She felt a firm hand on her arm, restraining her.
Thorongil, a fierce-looking captain of her father's Household Guard, took the sword from Éadwyn's now-shaking hand and fixed a grave look on the King's heir. "You would do well, Théoden, not to antagonize your opponent when she has you so completely at her mercy."
"Yes, sir," said Théoden contritely.
"Now back to work, all of you," barked Thorongil, casting a disapproving glare around the yard.
When the air was once more ringing with the satisfying clang of swords and shields, he turned back to Éadwyn. "Perhaps next time, my lady, you might chastise your brother in a manner that does not endanger the prospect of the Mark's future heirs." A smile quirked the corner of his mouth.
"I will strive to remember that," said Éadwyn. She turned on her heel and strode out of the practice yard.
She had regained most of her composure, but not all of her good humor, by the time King's household gathered for the evening meal in the Golden Hall of Meduseld. That night Thengel, Lord of the Mark, announced that in two days' time he would make a brief journey into the Westfold, bearing gifts and congratulations to his old friend Gálmód upon the birth of another son. He would be attended by twelve Riders hand-picked from his Household Guard, and by his eldest daughter, Éadwyn.
When he'd finished his announcement, Thengel looked to his wife for her approval. Morwen of Lossarnach, named Steelsheen by the people of her husband's homeland, nodded almost imperceptibly, her dark eyes glinting in the firelight from the hearth.
Éadwyn knew the real reason she was being granted the gift of this journey, and it had less to do with Gálmód's new baby boy than with her sister's recent betrothal. Immric, son of Osric, who controlled many of the finest horse herds in the Eastfold, had ridden to Edoras at the beginning of spring and asked Thengel for the hand of his second daughter. The King had gladly consented, but ever since, Thengel would sometimes turn his attention from Félewyn's excited chatter about the upcoming wedding to gaze at Éadwyn, his eyes full of pity. Because she was the eldest, and because no one had yet asked for her hand.
Éadwyn wanted no one's pity, nor did she feel she had earned it. She was genuinely pleased for her sister, but for her own part she was in no hurry to marry. And she certainly harbored no desire for Immric of Eastfold herself; if he had asked her she would have refused. Her heart told her that she was waiting for something else. She did not know what, exactly, but she was certain she would know it when she found it.
She caught her brother directing a murderous glare at her from his seat beside the King. Éadwyn smiled smugly back. She wanted no one's pity, but she was happy to revel in Théoden's envy. It served him right.
Her sister Théodwyn, the youngest of the king's daughters, sighed unhappily beside her. "Why do you have all the fun, Éadwyn? I want to travel, too, but Father never takes me anywhere."
Éadwyn pulled the child into her lap and placed an affectionate kiss upon the crown of her head. "Never fear, little one. You will have your time in the sun when you are older."
She looked past her sister to find Thorongil watching her intently from across the hall. When their eyes met he raised his cup in salute. She smiled mildly, but did not return the gesture. Soon after, the Queen rose and left the hall. Éadwyn and her sisters dutifully followed after, leaving the men to their revelries.
Hours later, beneath a starlit sky, Éadwyn slipped into the walled kitchen garden tucked behind the King's House. It was a tranquil, secluded spot, well removed from the noise and lights of the Great Hall. It had long been one of her favorite spots in all Edoras, a place she had been coming since she was a girl, whenever she needed a release from the close confines and endless chatter of the women's quarters.
She had not come seeking solitude tonight, however. Drawing her arms about her against the chill night air, she waited. The moon had not yet risen and the seven stars of the Sickle were bright in the northern sky. In Gondor they were named Valacirca and it was said their coming had presaged the awakening of the Elves. Éadwyn's parents had dwelt in Lossarnach for many years and the speech of Gondor was still used in the King's house. She had been born in Gondor, along with Théoden and Félewyn, though she retained only a few memories of her mother's homeland.
Before long she heard a faint creak as the gate opened behind her. A moment later two familiar arms slipped around her waist from behind.
"You're late," she said. "I'd despaired of your coming at all."
"I was unavoidably detained," replied Thorongil. His breath was warm against her ear and sent a trail of shivers down her spine.
"I have a long waiting list of suitors," she said playfully. "There are many who would step up to take your place if you are not up to the challenge."
"I do not doubt it," he said. "How shall I make it up to you, my lady?"
"Tell me what business detained you and I may be forgiving of your transgression."
"A meeting with the First Marshal. It seems I am to accompany the King’s party to the Westfold two days hence."
Éadwyn smiled and nestled into the warmth of his embrace. "My father favors you."
"And you as well," he said, drawing her hair aside and kissing the skin of her neck. "Your brother was sick with envy."
"Must we speak of my brother tonight?"
She felt him smile against her throat. "No, indeed."
She spun around in his arms so that she could look into his eyes, which were as sharp and grey as steel. Thorongil was a stern man, unusually grim of face for one so young, and not highly favored by the women of Edoras. A mercenary from somewhere far to the north, he had joined her father's Éored some five years past. Éadwyn had been drawn to him despite his strangeness--or perhaps, more precisely, because of it.
He was a safe choice of lover, for she knew that he would never seek to tie her down or make a claim upon her troth. Even if he wished it, a common mercenary would never be granted consent to wed a daughter of the King. There was a measure of freedom in that, for both of them. Neither would ever place demands upon the other, or aspire to a greater bond than actually existed between them.
"There will be no opportunity for an assignation on the journey," he said, tracing a finger along the curve of her jaw.
"No?" she replied lightly. "I thought we'd spread a cloak upon the ground before my father's tent."
"Perhaps not," he said, smiling. "We will simply have to make the most of the time we have now."
He cradled her face in his hands tenderly, as if she were something very fragile, or very precious, and lowered his mouth to hers. His kiss stole the breath from her chest; it was always so, with Thorongil.
They reached for each other beneath Varda's stars, making for themselves a quiet, sheltering place where darkness could be forgotten, if only for a little while. In him she found relief from loneliness and the constraints of duty. And though she knew it not, for him she was a temporary respite from loss, and dread, and the haunting presentiment of doom.
The journey to Westfold started out damp and grey, but by noon the clouds had broken and the sun shone bright and warm in the bluest of skies. Flowers of crimson and gold colored the slopes of the foothills to their left and the grasslands of the vale to their right.
Eadwyn rode most of the morning beside her father, but after the midday repast she found herself alongside Thorongil. He acknowledged her presence with detached courtesy, as any of her father's Riders might.
She spied a slender white bird standing in a grassy field ahead on stilt-like legs and pointed at it in wonder. "Look at that strange bird there. I have never seen its like in the Riddermark before."
"That is no wonder, for it is an egret," said Thorongil. "A sea bird."
"Then it is very far from home," she said.
"They have been known at times to follow the storms upriver, far inland, and may sometimes lose their way back."
"How very sad. Will it survive, do you think?"
He smiled at her. "Do not lose hope. Your bird may yet make his own way home."
She gazed at him, thinking of the odd bouts of melancholy that came over him sometimes unexpectedly. "That bird is much like you, I think."
The smile faded from his countenance. "Not all who wander are lost. I know which way the sea lies." His expression was grave and thoughtful, yet even so a light shone in his eyes, keen and clear.
"Have you ever seen the sea in your travels?" she ventured.
He shook his head. "I have never yet seen the sea, though I have been to the ruined haven at Tharbad, and seen the gulls and egrets there winging over the Greyflood."
Éadwyn gazed a while at the beautiful white bird. "My mother spent many years in Belfalas when she was a girl and she speaks often of the beauty of the sea. I do not think the wonder of it has ever left her. I, too, lived in Gondor as a child, but I have no memory the sea."
The egret, finally alarmed by the approaching caravan, spread wide its white wings and launched itself into the sky. Éadwyn's eyes followed the course of the bird's flight until it was lost to her in the brightness of the sun.
"I have heard that in Minas Tirith," said Thorongil, "the helms of the Citadel guards are winged in the likeness of a sea bird, a reminder of the kings who came over the Great Sea on the wings of the wind." A faraway look came over him as he spoke, something akin to yearning mingled with sorrow. It was a look she had seen in his face before, but only now did she begin to understand it.
"You are going there, aren't you?" she said. "To Gondor?"
He looked at her, and though he said nothing, she could read the answer in the glint of his grey eyes.
"Soon?" she asked.
"Soon," he answered.
They rode the rest of the afternoon in silence. Often, Eadwyn's eyes returned to the wide skies above, hoping for another glimpse of the lonely egret. But she did not see the bird again.
It should have been an uneventful visit. It was, after all, a time of relative peace in the Riddermark.
Gálmód was a prominent and wealthy landowner in the Westfold, controlling many acres of farm and pasture land and a number of the region's finest horse herds. Éadwyn cuddled and cooed over the baby Gríma while the King pronounced him to be a very fine-looking boy indeed. Then Gálmód feasted the King's party in the great hall of his house. His household was distinguished by its own minstrel and an exceptional cook so there was plenty of music and wine and food to make the evening enjoyable.
Éadwyn bedded with Gálmód's daughter Emhild, a gregarious girl of fourteen summers who kept her up long into the night with youthful chatter and questions about her life in Edoras. Long after Emhild had finally succumbed to sleep Éadwyn lay awake, unable to find her own rest in a strange house.
Some time later--how long, she could not say--she awoke from an uneasy sleep with an awareness that the horses were restless in their pen outside. Emhild slept soundly beside her and looked as if she would sleep through a stampede.
Éadwyn rose and felt for her cloak in the dark before treading, barefoot, out of the bedchamber and into the corridor. Her father's men were asleep on pallets laid out in the main hall of the house. Blindly, she made her way in the opposite direction, toward the kitchen. It was a moonless night and the lights in the house had all been extinguished. She didn't see Thorongil until he loomed up suddenly out of the darkness of the corridor.
"You should not be here," he whispered harshly.
"The horses woke me," she said.
Outside, a dog began barking frantically; she sensed Thorongil tense beside her.
A ragged scream cut through the night and the yard erupted with the wild yells of Dunlendings, the cries of panicked horses and fire.
Even before Thorongil had drawn his sword Éadwyn was running back the way she had come. Back to Emhild, alone in her bedchamber. She found the girl awake and terrified. Éadwyn looked around the sparse chamber in frustration. They had no weapons in here, nothing with which to protect themselves. And the windows, she realized belatedly, were still open. She hurried to draw the heavy wooden shutters.
The world outside had become a nightmare. Men running and shouting. Screaming. The sound of clashing steel and the smells of smoke and of blood.
An axe came through the window from outside, shattering the shutter and only narrowly missing her in its descent. She flinched away from the spray of splintered wood. The axe withdrew and an instant later one of the raiders crashed in through the broken window frame. She heard Emhild scream behind her.
The Dunlending seized Éadwyn and wrenched her backwards out of the room and into the chaos of the yard. She struggled against her captor, kicking out her legs and writhing in his grasp, but he was a large man, with a barrel chest and arms the size of tree trunks. She was like a child's doll in his grip.
An outbuilding was aflame and by the harsh orange light she caught glimpses of the carnage that had been wrought in the yard. People were moving all around her, but they were only vague forms, oddly blurred to her perceptions. Éadwyn's awareness was entirely consumed by the force of the man who held her, the sour smell of him, mingled with the sharp tang of blood.
"Hold!" commanded a voice nearby in the Common Speech.
Her captor ceased his movements, but renewed his grip on Éadwyn. They were flanked by four men of the King's Éored, spears leveled menacingly.
"You are surrounded," said one of the Riders, a man she recognized by the name of Cearl. "Release the woman."
Éadwyn felt the bite of an axe blade pressed against her throat. "Stay back," growled the Dunlending in heavily accented Common Speech, "or I will kill your Strawhead whore."
She saw uncertainty cloud the faces of the Riders. They were fighting men, used to facing their enemies on a field of battle. Casualties were to be expected as a matter of course. But this was the King's daughter at stake. It was not a situation for which their training had prepared them.
"Get back!" shouted the Dunlending again, and to her dismay she saw two of the Riders retreat a step.
"Do not let him take me!" she cried.
"I will cut her open before your eyes," rasped the Dunlending.
"Then do it," she said. "But there will be no escape for you." She aimed a level look at Cearl and said, in the strongest, coldest voice she could muster: "Kill him."
"My lady..." said Cearl helplessly.
She felt the axe blade move against her skin. Blood was pooling on the front of her gown. But truly she would rather die than be taken captive by the wild men of Dunland.
"You are ordered to kill this man," said Éadwyn, daughter of Thengal King. "Do it!"
She felt a sudden rush of air as something flew past her head, followed by a strangled, bubbling gasp. Something warm sprayed across the side of her face and neck. The Dunlending stumbled and fell backwards, a knife protruding from his throat in a fountain of blood.
Thorongil stepped forward and retrieved the knife he had just thrown with chilling precision. His eyes, grave but calm, fixed on Éadwyn. "Are you injured, my lady?"
"No," she said, clenching her fists to hide the tremors in her hands. "No, I'm perfectly fine. Thank you."
Her father appeared then, red-faced with both anger and exertion. He was barefoot, wearing only a gore-spattered undertunic. His eyes were wide and hollowed with fear as he spoke his daughter's name. Thengel, Lord of the Mark, opened his arms wide and Éadwyn moved into the safe, protected fold of her father's embrace. "My child," he murmured. "My precious girl."
The battle had ended almost as quickly as it began. One of the outbuildings had burned, but the fire had been extinguished before it could spread. The small band of Dunlending raiders had been no match for the force of men quartered here, even with surprise on their side. It was meant to be a simple raid on a remote farmstead. Instead they'd come up against a dozen well-armed and highly-trained Riders of Thengel's own Éored, in addition to the hardy men of Gálmód's household.
Gálmód's wife Ecgfrid embraced Éadwyn warmly and offered a prayer of thanks that she was safe; Emhild helped her to clean the Dunlending blood from her face and hair. Éadwyn did not bother to change clothes, because there was bloody work yet to be done tonight.
The farmhouse was awash with light now and bustling with activity. The girls joined Ecgfrid and the other women of the household tending the injured in the main hall. Long into the night they labored cleansing and binding wounds, offering words of comfort and encouragement, and fetching clean water and fresh linens.
Four of Gálmód's men had perished in the fighting. Two of her father's Riders, men she had known since childhood, were laid out with them, awaiting the rituals of burial. Many others had suffered injuries, some minor and others grave. A Rider named Burgred had taken a grievous wound to his gut. He was generous man with a ready smile. When Éadwyn was a child he had taught her to whistle the long, high-pitched note Riders used to summon their mounts. Now he died slowly before her eyes, crying out in pain and agony as his lifeblood slipped away. When his last battle was finally ended the men came and carried him away, to be placed beside the others who had fallen. Éadwyn carefully washed the blood from her hands in a basin of cool clean water from the pump before fleeing the confines of the house.
It was still full dark, but dawn hovered, unseen, just below the horizon. At the end of this night of grief and death she was almost surprised to see that the stars still shone brightly and as serene as ever in the black of the sky. A birdsong portended the approach of the new day, its cheerfulness a shocking contrast to the grim events just past.
Éadwyn's steps took her away from the the house and away from the barn where the dead lay, out to the dark quiet of the horse pasture. She sank down upon the dew-soaked grass and tried very hard not to weep.
A moment later she started violently at the sound of a footstep nearby.
"I'm sorry," said Thorongil. "But you should not be out here alone." His sharp gaze fell upon the place where the Dunlending's axe had marked her throat; Éadwyn's hand instinctively moved to cover the wound.
"I owe you my life," she said.
He sat down beside her on the grass. "You were very brave tonight," he said. "Truly you are a daughter of kings and a credit to the House of Eorl."
She laid her head against his shoulder. Together they watched the coming of the day, the golden light spilling out of the east and reaching clear across the sky. She thought about the egret they had seen, its broad snowy wings spreading out as it took wing.
She raised her head and looked at Thorongil. His dark face was utterly still as his eyes, keen as stars, looked toward the dawn. "You will be the greatest captain Gondor has ever known," she said.
Something dark and sad flickered for an instant across his face. Then he leaned over and kissed her upon her brow. "Come," he said, rising. "Let me take you back to your father."
Two weeks later he left Edoras on a horse that was a parting gift of the Lord of the Mark, bearing a letter recommending him to the service of the Steward of Gondor. Éadwyn never saw him again, nor did she ever see another egret, though she often searched the skies in hope.