Britheue’s chambers were an anomaly in hard, grey Wulfmunt. Set high on a mountain ridge accessible only by a razor-thin path, it was a home suited more for eagles than men. Strong granite walls surrounded the strong granite keep, and the same granite served to make up the houses. The blocks were sealed thick with plaster, but still somehow the howling, mournful winds found their whistling way into the hallways and rooms where glittering weapons and jeweled relics compensated for warmth with wealth.
Not so here. Lord Aldred had sent for plaster-painters from Meduseld when he took his young bride from her Eastfold gardens and rolling farmland. He bade them paint the walls with sun-drenched fruits, fields of soft garden flowers, and blue summer skies. Real glass windows had been carried pane by pane to be fitted to the casements that she might have sunlight without chill drafts. A whole bank of lozenge-shaped panes faced the Eastern exposure full-on, and this one room was always warm enough. Furniture too was brought, then gilded and enameled with the best Aldred’s mines could offer. The floor had no rushes, but soft, plush rugs that were said to come from far-off Gondor. Her harp was bigger than she, and her embroidery would glitter with the gold and silver threads her doting husband brought for her. To her only son, it was a different world.
Today, she was abed. Coltish, awkward Iestyn came to her with a newly purchased treasure clasped to his breast. She lay abed again, as she did when her pains grew too much and her muscles clenched too hard to let her move. She had the only featherbed in Wulfmunt since the knots that formed in normal goat-fleece bedding pressed too hard into her tender flesh. At the time she protested, only to have Aldred sneak the thing in one day when she went riding along the smooth green meadows of the lower fortress tiers.
“You spoil me,” she was said to have chided.
“Poor Lord would I be if I insisted that the weak among us suffer more than they must.”
His subjects repeated the story to Lord Aldred’s credit, but to Britheue’s shame. “If the power of will could heal the body, I’d be a woman with a man’s strength by now,” she’d said later to her sleeping babe, flaxen as she in his furry bundled swaddling.
But this was today. Iestyn asked hopefully, “Are you well enough to read, Mother? Father bought me a book of my very own, and I’ve saved it for us.”
A grimace fled across her plump cheeks and she moved creakily to sit.
“No, no.” Her son said hastily as he pulled up a chair. “Not today.”
“I’m sorry, love,” she said as she sank back into her feathered nest. “I wish I could.”
He took her hand, barely gripping the swollen fingers that he knew were painful to touch. “No need. Why apologize for what can’t be helped?”
“Come now, son. It is shameful for a woman of Rohan to be so useless.”
His voice cracked a bit with the force of saying, “Useless? Hardly. Father and I would be lost without your wisdom. How many times have you insisted we pay out of the treasury for the comfort of the steadings? And were you not correct, where we were not? The thanes say they get far more from the mines now the steadings are better built and watered. And this only one example from many. Wisdom needs no strength.”
She colored a little to say fondly, “You’re a good son to say so.” They sat quietly a while while the yellow bird she kept as a pet sang warbling notes in its gilded cage. Other days, he would help her puzzle out the book’s letters, or take her for one of her short walks. Not today, though. Not when her eyes tightened with pain and she tried to keep still. Then, he told her of Meduseld and the cousins he’d seen there. The dancing and feasting, the skalds so bless that their very tuning chords could tempt eyes to weeping, the stables of the Mearas, and the stall where a foreign man had books. He showed her the one he’d just gotten, new and not faded or missing pages like the two practical manuals his father owned. He was set to go on about how he’d chosen the useful book about the Wainright wars with the plain, elegant binding instead of the foolish poetry books with gaudy covers when she stayed his chatter with a light press of her fingers.
“But what do you think of your Athilda, now that you’ve met? Will she do for you?” Her eyes spoke of the concern that her expression kept back.
He blushed, awkward as he’d been when faced with his lively, chattering betrothed. “She’s like your bird, all song and color. She’s strong without mannishness, and she sings and plays. She’ll be good company for you when the day comes.”
His mother didn’t look too comforted. “But is she wise, Iestyn?”
“She knows her letters. An accomplished, polished girl who speaks very well. Everyone remarks on how charming she is. She is everything a woman of station and breeding should be.”
“That is not wisdom, son.”
He took her words to heart and thought hard. Was Athilda wise? He hadn’t thought to find out. Before their chaperons, she’d spoken of poetry and song and how much she loved the stream of important foreign visitors that would come and go from the King’s house. She danced at the feasting and he’d tried to partner her, but she’d laughed at his heavy footfalls and called him a mountain’s child. She must have been wise to see that his training left him unsuited for light things, surely. So he finally said, “I think she’s wise. But I will consider the matter further next year.”
His mother nodded, just a little, and stroked his hand fondly. “Time enough for all that later. Next year, perhaps I’ll come with you.”
He knew she wouldn’t. Not with the bumpy wagons and days on horseback. But he said indulgently, “Nothing would make us happier.”
“Not even a proper war-horse?” Her cheeks dimpled with a sudden smile as she surprised him into blinking.
“Father said not until next year…”
“Your Father relented. Off to the stables, love. Go see.”
He rubbernecked, eager to run to his gift. But he remembered discipline, and the rules for a properly caring Lord. “Later today, when the stiffness leaves, we go as a family.”
“No. No buts. Poor son I’d be if I deprived you of your right to be there.” He used his new man’s voice, aping the sternness of his father with uncanny closeness.
She gave him another smile, and because she was Mother and it was permitted to be soft with Mother, he grinned fully back.
It took another day, but both parents were there when the groom led his mother’s mare and her new colt into the courtyard. Iestyn looked into the wide, skittish eyes of the leggy creature, then shushed and murmured comfort until the young thing would take a softened apple from his hand. Already the colt was growing above Iestyn’s head, and he had the lovely bay markings of his dam, his sire’s perfect conformation.
“Egric.” Iestyn said it firmly, proudly. The colt butted him for more apple. “Your name is Egric, and I am Lord Iestyn.”
His father had a blanket for the colt, this one sable with the house sigil woven in gold threads by his mother’s hands. The next autumn Britheue went to her ancestors , stung by a bee as she rode out to the meadow to watch Iestyn breaking of his yearling to harness. Only one sting and she fell swollen and gasping, dead in his son’s arms as the manservant frantically galloped off for a healer. He clung to her last gift’s strong neck and slept in the horse’s stall, and the grooms politely ignored their master talking to his mount and reading ponderous verseless narratives from those book-things he was so font of. Brithue’s bright rooms were locked, and his father sometimes looked like he’d been crying. But there were no tears, no softness in Wulfmunt. Not until a new lady would come to live in the bright quarters in the East wing and make a new place where weak things were cherished.