Daughter of Kings

by Evermind

Chapter Twenty Nine: The Fall of the Westfold.

Morwen's rough hands worked fast. Swiftly she slung the saddle over Guthlaf's withers and smoothed it into place. She risked a momentary glance upwards. All about her was chaos, women screaming, children wailing, soldiers attempting to keep in check the rising tide of hysteria. The normally placid Guthlaf raised his head and snorted, the whites of his eyes showing in his fear. Hurriedly Morwen pulled the horse's head down, jamming the bit into his mouth. Distractedly she brushed her hair out of her face, glancing about her for her son.

"Haldar!" She yelled, trying to keep the panic from her voice. "Haldar!"

To Morwen's immense releif, she noticed the stocky tow-headed figure of her son dodging his way towards her through the confusion of rushing bodies.

"Haldar!" Morwen cried, in relief this time. "Find thy sister! Hurry!" Her son nodded, his face pale. "And bring thy father's sword!"

Haldar ducked quickly through the open doorway away from the chaos outside. The remains of a meal were scattered across the low table, and the cupboard doors hung open where his mother had snatched things hastily out. A stray chicken clucked angrily at him, scuttering to take refuge beneath an upturned wash basin.

"Aerin?" Haldar called uncertainly. "Aerin, come quick. Mama says we must go."

There was no answer. Scrambling over a collapsed chair, Haldar reached the door to his parent's chamber. He felt a moment of panic as he pushed ineffectually against it, but then the heavy wooden door yeilded to him, and he stumbled forwards into the low whitewashed room.

His little sister Aerin was curled in a terrified ball at the foot of the bed. Haldar crossed the room in two strides and gathered her into his arms. Aerin was sobbing. Her little hands were balled into fists and her eyes were wide and frightened.

"Hush baern." Haldar whispered, using the name their father had called her.

"Quiet now." He cradled his little sister in his arms, gently stroking her hair to calm her like his father did with restless horses.

"Come," Haldar told her "We must go to Mama. Can you walk?" Aerin nodded, gulping back tears.

"I am so afraid Haldar!" she whispered, clutching at his tunic. "Are they coming?"

"Yes. They are coming. The fords of Isen have fallen." Her brother whispered back. He did not tell her that he was afraid too.

Beside the door stood a wooden chest, richly carved from dark wood. Letting go his sister's hand, Haldar knelt beside it. It was old, and the wood grain swirled across it's surface in carven likenessess of running horses. He needed both hands to raise the heavy lid. Inside was a collection of various treasures, left undisturbed for long years. But there was one other thing. Something that looked out of place among the moth eaten finery and tarnished bronze. It was a great sword in a leathern scabbard, and there was no dust upon it, as if it had only recently been placed there for safe keeping. Haldar swallowed slightly. His father's sword.

"Papa says you're not allowed...." Aerin began, but she fell silent suddenly as her brother turned to her. His expression was unreadable, but he looked suddenly older than his eleven years. Silently Haldar reached out and lifted the weapon from the great chest.

"Now come," he whispered, "We have wasted enough time."

Taking her by the hand, Haldar led his sister swiftly from the chamber.

When they reached the kitchen, Haldar paused again, just long enough to snatch a small shinning object from the wooden table.

"Here." He pressed the object into his sister's hand, and looking down Aerin cried aloud in horror.

"I don't want..." she cried, but wordlessly her brother pressed the dagger blade into her hand until the blood ran, and she gasped at the sharp pain. For a moment a child's eyes looked back at him, and then Aerin closed her tiny fist about the ornate hilt of the dagger. They ran then, hearing outside the noise of running feet, the controlled panic of before turning suddenly to unmistakeable fear.

Then they were outside and could see for themselves the black tide flooding at last down towards them from the north. A horse came galloping riderless towards them and Haldar lost his grip upon Aerin's hand as they were knocked flying.

Then mercifully their mother was there. Morwen appeared out of nowhere, Guthlaf's reins in her hand. Swiftly she snatched Aerin from the ground, reaching out a hand to Haldar as he scrambled to his feet.

From her vantage point high in Morwen's arms, Aerin could see the black flood sweeping forwards to engulf them. Above the torrent swayed great banners of tattered black, and as the wind caught them they bellyed out and blazoned upon them the ghastly hand of death seemed to swell, huge and menacing as if it were a living thing. Aerin screamed.

"Mama!" she cried, "They are coming Mama!"

Morwen swore under her breath. Hoisting Aerin high she swung her into Guthlaf's saddle. Instinctively Aerin grabbed for the horse's reins, her legs clutching tightly to the saddle.

"Haldar." Morwen instructed steadily. "Take thy sister. You will go faster with just two."

"Papa says..." Aerin began again, he small face crumpled with tears.

"Thy Papa is dead!" her mother yelled savagely. "Now go!"

She hoisted Haldar into the saddle behind his sister, ignoring her daughter's terrified sobs.

"Listen to me!" Morwen said, her voice taught with urgency. "Thou must ride to Edoras and raise the alarm! Dost thou understand me?"

"Yes Mama."

"Tell the Lady Eowyn that the Westfold is fallen. Dost thou understand Haldar? Tell the Lady Eowyn or her brother, if he yet lives, but no one else! "

"Not even Aunt Idis?"

Morwen's face was hard and emotionless.

"No. Tell nothing to anyone save the Lady Eowyn. Not to thy aunt, and especially not to the King or his advisor."

Morwen turned the horse about, urging them to go.

"I don't want to leave!" Aerin sobbed, reaching out for her mother. "I don't want to go!"

Morwen reached up, cradling her small daughter's face.

"Aerin," she whispered gently, "Aerin, I will find thee again." She kissed her daughter's crumpled little face, and gently pushed the child away. There was time for one brief touch of Haldar's hand as he passed her the great sword. Then he touched his heels to Guthlaf's sides and the great horse sprang away, running with the speed of fear. Morwen had a last glimpse of her son's pale, suddenly responsible face, and then they were gone.

Morwen looked up and saw the dark figures rushing towards her, torches in their hands. A cottage beside caught, and the flames held, growing higher up the walls to reach the golden thatch. Casting aside the leathern scabbard, Morwen drew the great sword of her dead husband. Wielding it like the shieldmaiden she was born, Morwen the wife of Ceorl stood at bay before the burning houses, the light of the inferno glinting in her eyes, as it had once shone in the eyes of Morwen Steelsheen her namesake.

Smoke billowed from the burning houses, the flames leapt and danced, turning to ash upon the wind. Beside her stood others of the village, and Morwen knew that they would never flee. Not while they could yet stand and buy perhaps another minute of time for their children, and for Rohan.

For a moment Ceorl's face shone before Morwen's eyes, and he smiled upon her, safe in the knowledge that they would be together soon. Silently, Morwen daughter of Freawine swung the bright sword high to meet the oncoming dark.