Across the crackling campfire, Linett watched as Arethryth silently polished the smooth wooden handle of her spear to a fine sheen. It had been another fruitless day in her ongoing search for Grace Redfern, scouring the wilds around Bree for such clues as might have drawn her mother south.
Linett stirred the pot over the fire one more time, then ladled the stew into a bowl and handed it to her comrade. “Here; it’s not much, but it’ll keep body and soul together to pass the night, I hope. I know a Hobbit lass, a tinkerer that comes to Bree now and then to sell her wares, who could cook a meal over a fire like this that’d make you think it was Yule already, such a feast she makes of it. But alas, she’s off in the Shire or somewhere now, and you’ll have to make do with my cooking.”
Arethryth smiled and accepted the meal. “Nothing wrong with simple fare.”
“Well, you’ve earned better. My treat at the Pony, soon as we’re back to Bree. ‘Twas kind of you to join me in my search.”
Arethryth waved off this thanks. “I’m sorry we didn’t find anything more.”
“Someday we will. Or—I will, I should say. I don’t mean to assume your help without asking.”
“Perhaps we will, indeed. Ask anytime. I am glad to help you search.”
“Yes.” Linett quirked an eyebrow and regarded the warden thoughtfully. “Why?”
“Pardon?” Arethryth glanced up at Linett, then returned to her stew.
“I appreciate your help, but it’s a bit puzzling. I only just met you a few weeks ago. You’re barely settled in Bree, you’ve a new post in the town Watch and little enough time to yourself, you don’t know my mother, or me, really, so why are you out here in the wild with me, eating questionable stew over a campfire instead of worrying about your own troubles?”
Arethryth frowned and looked away. “Perhaps—my own troubles being as they are, I would rather mind someone else’s.” She hesitated. Linett discerned a shift in that hesitancy, something rising behind the warden’s wall of silence, and waited. A few minutes passed before her patience was rewarded; Arethryth continued: “Pellandir has been kind to me. So have you, and you’re his cousin—the first friends I’ve made in the North, so of course I wish to be helpful.”
“And to forget your own troubles?” Linett prompted gently.
Arethryth nodded. “At first there was no forgetting them, but now….Now, I think I’ve made a beginning.”
“Leaving them behind enough, perhaps, to tell of them?” Linett smiled and shrugged. “I won’t pretend I’m not curious. Pellandir won’t tell me anything, if indeed he knows anything beyond his time on the road with you; he just says you prefer not to speak of the past and so neither will he. But of course he never leaves off speaking of your feats in battle. I do believe he’s quite awestruck. A fine judge of ability, though—that’s how I’ve learned to trust my cousin’s judgment, now that I’ve seen you fight and can see that his assessment was spot on. But come now—tell me what brings you to Bree, a woman of Rohan so skilled with the spear.”
Arethryth fidgeted, then nodded. “Can you keep secrets?”
Linett smiled. “I’m a Lore-master. Secrets are my job.”
“Yes, but I thought that was more about uncovering secrets in musty old books, not keeping them.”
“And so I’m trying to uncover secrets in my interesting new friend. Humor me.”
“Well, just don’t tell Pellandir then. He doesn’t know all my story yet.”
“It is yours to tell, Arethryth, when and to whom and however you will. I won’t make gossip of you.”
Then Arethryth nodded, and sat up straighter, settling in to tell her tale, and began:
I am a shield-maiden of Rohan. I was not raised to be a warrior, but a wife. Yet in these perilous times, even wives must stand ready to defend Rohan from the Orcs to one side and the Dunlendings to another. So I learned to use sword, spear, and shield well enough to protect my home, when my husband should be away with the herds.
Déor, my husband, bred horses for the king’s own stables in the Westemnet where we made our home. How I miss that home now—only a cottage, it was, with room just for the two of us, but that only made it sweeter to dream and talk of the rooms Déor would build on to it when children came. Every day I would stand before the cottage door at sunset to see my beloved stride in from the fields, his pack slung over his back, whistling a tune till he would see me there and run to meet me. How the falling sun behind him would set a fire in his hair, how his smile would shine out brighter than the sun—that was the image of him always in my mind’s eye during the day when I was alone, minding the chores of the home. Still that is how I see him, as often as my mind turns to him, as often as I miss him: striding in from the fields, with the sun in his fair hair.
We lived not near the borders of Rohan, so mostly we had peace, but we heard rumors of Orcs and wild men, crops burned, homes razed. Then there came a day when Déor did not return home one night, nor the night after that. I was frightened, but if it fell to me to defend the home, I was ready. I took down my spear and my shield from the rafters; I practiced the old movements while I waited for him to return. On the third day, the Orcs came. Only a small scouting party; three of them came from the fields at sunset when I would have looked for my husband’s returning. I was not in the house; I’d been shelling pease in the garden, so when I heard them, I set down the basket and took up my spear, hid behind a tree, and took them by surprise. Those three never reported back to their masters, and the next morning, Déor came home.
There had been an attack on the herd, he said. Orcs had fallen upon the herdsmen, engaged them and then retreated. In the confusion of battle, all the hands had gone after the enemy, leaving the horses in their pasture. Two herdsmen fell to the Orcs, and when the others returned to the herd, they saw that the attack had been but a feint. While the men chased the first party of Orcs, another had come and laid waste to the herd. More than a third of the king’s horses lay dead in the field. Many more had been stolen away.
Déor believed the Orcs could not have taken the horses for their own use, for when ever did a horse suffer their foul kind to ride? So he had trailed after them to see to whom the Orcs would deliver their plunder. That was how we discovered it—the treachery of Saruman, our northward neighbor, master of high Orthanc. To Isengard the tracks led, and my husband drew the dreadful and inevitable conclusion. Saruman had stolen and slain the horses of Rohan; Saruman sent Orcs to do his bidding against Rohan; it was no less than an act of war.
No sooner did I have my husband back with me than I had to leave behind our little home. To Edoras we rode that same day, to bear sad tidings to the king. But alas, our warnings would fall on deaf ears, for the king listens now only to Gríma, his counsellor, and Gríma would not hear of the treachery of Saruman, but defended him and named my husband a traitor. My husband, who had risked life and limb against the Orcs and dared go even to Saruman’s doorstep to defend the king’s herds! But Gríma prevailed. At his urging, the king stripped my husband of rank and rights and banished us from the realm.
So we set out from Rohan for the first and last time. My husband bore his arms; mine I had left at home, and we were not allowed to return for any of our goods, but must needs set out on the road that same hour. Not even our steeds were left to us, for they were of the king’s herds. By chance, as we made our way warily through the Gap of Rohan, we fell in with a caravan of merchants, bolder than most, to make that journey in these days when the Dunlendings are so restless and Orcs and bandits prey on travellers. The merchants found safety in their numbers, but they were glad to let us travel with them, augmenting their own small band of guards with Déor’s prowess; for they did not know my own skill, and only my husband bore arms. It was near the Gap also that Pellandir joined our party, likewise augmenting the merchants’ guards with his sword. It was well for them to have a Man of Rohan and of Gondor defending the caravan, for few were the days that we did not sight bandits or goblins in the distance, and on several occasions the larger bands of them would try our defences. At first we held them off easily, but one day Orcs fell upon us in greater numbers, and we were sore pressed. My husband, my Déor, fell there at last, swarmed by the Orcs. Pellandir, beset by Orcs himself, was cutting a path to Déor’s side, but I—I reached him first. He was dying, or already dead; I could not hold him then, but I could not leave him to the Orcs for sport. I took up his weapons and fought on in his stead, till Pellandir reached me and together we turned the enemy back. By the time I could return to him, my husband was dead, and since then, it fell to me to take his place as caravan-guard. We buried him beside the Greyflood, and marched on to Bree.
That is how I came to leave Rohan, and to become a shieldmaiden and no longer a wife. That is the grief that I bear, and will ever bear though time shall temper it, till the memory of his death is faint beside the memory of his smile and the sun in his hair at end of day.