People, cattle, and carts pooled out of Fréasburg as the color drained from the sky. Hæneth walked up the ditch along the road, not to get caught in the current of Faire-folk leaving the city. The brazier-lights winked from the towers as if to herald the fireflies. She had just made it. The town, like the rest in Rohan, closed its gates when dark fell. It would not have been her first evening spent sleeping outside a barred city, but she was already days past her due, and someone inside expected her.
It wasn’t home, but it almost felt like coming back to one.
She’d felt a duty to the town for years, inextricably linked as it was with her Lord’s long-lined family. Fréasburg was one of many hill-forts the keepers of the West-March had used to girdle their land and protect their power—a nail to keep the roofbeams up.
The path just before the gate curved more steeply, and Hæneth paused at the switchback for a look down the climb. To her right, the hill edged out onto steep natural mason-work, white rock steps too narrow and too tall for even giants to climb. Left, the slope eased west, spilling buttercup into grassland that sank to marshes towards the river. White heron with blue wings, nearly like those Haeneth knew from Carwic near the Entwash, made a ballroom of the grasses and stagnant tide.
Behind her, the hill bowed to the greater White Mountains. Three jagged pale peaks—the Trihyrne—stood like thick, leafless mallorn. Each fought for the crown of clouds when the wind changed, and the tallest, snow capped, glared back at the setting sun.
They reminded her why she was there—why Fréasburg was there. The dry, passable land was dangerously thin between the wide, deep Isen and the perilous mountains behind. It was vital the river remain open to ships whose final port was Grimslade, north. A kink in the flow of goods and men from Gondor to Edoras could strangle a country. The fall of Fréasburg, like a simple bite of pork lodged in the King’s throat, could topple even the greatest of Men.
Cut off from Edoras, the Reeve of West-March was allowed impressive autonomous power to keep that river clear, but it was power he could not easily lend to the aid of the King.
Farther than her gaze, a richer port lay at the westernmost tip of the region, where the Adorn climbed into the Isen and Rohan yielded to Gondor. There were grander settlements further south, built from stately homes left when Calenardhon was still richly populated by Númenor’s heirs. Other hill-forts along the Isen could boast more victories against corsairs rushing up from the sea. Fréasburg, arguably, was nothing special but where it lay. When she had realized years ago that it would be their home until her husband’s lands were restored to them, though, she hadn’t complained.
Like so many other things in their lives, it was a crossroads. It was many worlds converging into one, and she still had someone to meet.
She’d stretched her pace to reach the gates by nightfall. Haeneth turned against the current of people spiraling down the stone-lined road. She took a last glance behind her at the Isen streaming away West, so calm you might walk on it. She narrowed her eyes at the sun, but it was too bright to see the storm clouds roll in.