Aoife was playing fivestones with Shandon in the field when he turned his head towards the west.
“You missed!” she called. “My turn!”
But he ignored the four bones lying on the ground, and kept looking. Then she heard it too. The low drumbeats of hooves across the plains.
“The tithing,” he said. Aoife picked up the bones and dropped them into her skirt pocket, then hared across the field to the village, her feet kicking up the ash remnants from the burning as they did so.
They reached the village in less than five minutes. Everyone, it seemed, was preparing, scraping away dung and stones, tying dogs to posts and corralling the few sheep that wandered the lane into their pens before the riders arrived. Shandon ducked beneath the hay-cart, and Aoife scrambled after him, skinning her knee on the dusty hard-baked road surface.
Her father was there, looking very serious, taking council. She couldn’t make out what he was saying to the other men. “What’s he saying?” she asked, but Shandon shushed her. “I want to know!” But she said it in a low voice.
The council was over. Whatever it was had been decided. Her father came to the two of them. No, not to the two of them. To the cart.
Shandon touched his finger to her lips. Keep quiet. Oberve. Stay hidden. She still didn’t understand what the old folk talked about much of the time, of dowries and blood, but she knew that to learn she would have to stay hidden.
His legs, dressed in wollen trousers, seemed like pillars to her. When she was younger she had held onto them while he walked around, her feet on his, arms around his leg. When she had grown too large for that game he would hold her aloft, then sling her around his neck. There was so much more of the world up there.
Then whatever it was, was done. Her father returned to the group.
Aoife shuffled across to the wheel, peering through its dark wood slats, sunlight warming her face. There were five of the men. Her father held out his closed fist to each of them in turn, and they pulled something from it. When each had done, her father opened his fist and looked down at whatever was within it.
One of the men clapped him on the back and said something she couldn’t make out. Then they all walked away, leaving him there alone.
Then the riders were there. Tall, and blond, and seated on huge, beautiful horses. Aoife thought that she had never seen anyone so beautiful.
The lead rider spoke to her father.
“Why is the harvest not prepared? Where are the carts?”
“My Lord… the harvest was weak. The crop spoiled.”
He looked across at the granary. “Your granary still stands, I see. Were I to open it, would I see nothing within?”
“Only enough to feed us for the winter. If we are lucky.”
The rider nodded to two of his men, and they rode to the granary.
“My Lord! If you take our grain we will starve!”
The rider looked down upon her father. “The King requires your grain so that he and the Riders shall not starve. Would you disobey the King?”
“If he knew, he would be merciful!”
“King Théoden allows you to live here at his pleasure. You would do well to remember that.”
The riders returned from the granary. “A small amount.”
“You see?” said her father “We would not lie to you.”
“Is it enough?” asked the lead rider. His companion nodded, and the rider turned back to her father.
“Prepare the carts. We will take our share.”
Her father stood proud in the sunlight. “I cannot let you do that.”
The rider drew his sword and cut her father down in the street.
The rest was a blur of flames and blood.