Many Guises and Many Names
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House Divided, A: 2. Desire
I said, mmh, yes,
But not yet…
~ “The Sensual World,” Kate Bush
When I thought back on it, the dance was as they usually were, with much of the same company. Except that on that occasion, for the first time in over a year, I was accompanied by someone other than my father. I had joined Thengel on Lampwrights’ Street, and he escorted me up to the area where the festivities were being held.
It was stifling; the heat of summer. “Insufferable,” he had said, though I doubt he had meant it in terms of hot or cold. As he took my arm to begin our ascent, again I found myself experiencing a shiver of unexpected pleasure, though I admonished myself not to make too much of things. He was presumably above my station, after all, and obviously far older, though it did appear that destiny had thrown our paths together in a rather unsubtle manner. It had been disconcerting, but after his visit to our home I began waking only to discover that he had been in my dreams - and many mornings, as I remembered parts of my night visions, I wished to return to sleep so they would not end.
As we danced, I took my time to more leisurely take in his features in the dim light. He was quite handsome, in his way. Longish tawny hair with some strands of grey, and thick facial hair tinged with red. He seemed rather strong, and doubtless the years of holding a bow and sword had led to the rough callouses which met my hands as our hands clasped during familiar choreographed motions. For all of his social ease, however, something seemed to ring contrary to him, though I could not place it. His dancing skills were admirable, and for once I did not change partners through the evening.
‘You look exquisite,’ he murmured into my ear early in the evening, and I glowed in appreciation. As the time went on, we both had some wine, then he asked if I would care to go outside for cooler air. I gratefully agreed.
We sat on a stone bench and spoke about common things for awhile. Thengel asked me about my family, my father’s business, some travels we had made to Belfalas. I answered all in kind, though I was only half-attentive to my own words. The rest of my attentions were focused on him and the bewildering effects that his presence had on me. Certainly with no other suitors had my heart raced when a hand was placed at my back. Never before had I suffered goosebumps on my arms when a stray warm breath caressed my neck as he leaned in to comment on one of his fellows dancing nearby. Was it simply because he was so much older, more worldly than anyone I had met? As I realised that my imagination was taking rather explicit flights of fancy about his full lips, I suddenly knew that my feelings had gone beyond mere interest in his well-disguised exoticism. I had to know more about him, much more.
At an appropriate lull, I gathered my courage.
‘You have obviously lived here for many years, Thengel, but if I may ask, what is your original homeland?’
He looked down, then took my hands.
‘Does it matter?’ he asked as a reply.
‘No. I just find you so… interesting.’
He shook his head, and it took all of my self-control not to withdraw my hands so that I could run my fingers through his mane of hair.
‘That word again.’ He looked somewhat mournfully at me. ‘I do not wish to be forward, lady, but I had hoped that perhaps you would feel something for me beyond interest.’
He stroked my fingers, and I held my breath, waiting for him to continue.
‘Regardless, I am from Rohan. I left seventeen years ago and do not plan to return. The details of my past I would rather not discuss, at least not now.’
Rohan! I slowly exhaled, and gently grasped his hands.
‘I have two older sisters, and we have exchanged correspondence over the years, though I have not travelled to see them. They both have several children of their own, now.’
He smiled, but I could see that if he regretted nothing else, he missed not knowing these nieces and nephews, growing up leagues away.
We sat in silence for a few moments, then I did something that surprised me for years to come. I spoke my mind without thinking first.
‘Thengel, it matters not to me whether you are from Rohan or down the road. After our first unexpected meeting,’ at that, he smiled wryly, and I found myself caught up in the sparkle of his eyes the colour of ripest olives, ‘I thought of you on occasion. Since our second unexpected meeting, I have thought of nothing but you.’
And because my body would allow me to do nothing else after seeing the delight on his face, I leaned in and tasted his sweet mouth for the first time.
The next few months were little more than a blur. I met with Thengel when he was able; we walked together through the nearby vinyards, we took my younger sisters on small picnics, he showed me around his barracks where his troop was stationed. He came by one afternoon on a particularly chilly autumn day to show my father the cape he wore - it was made of the cloth he had ordered from us after his rather painful introduction to our shop. Father beamed, then looked knowingly at me. I pretended not to notice.
And then, just as I had gotten complacent about seeing him almost as often as I wished, he was sent away. We were drinking hot cider with brandy, sitting in chairs I thought were overstuffed, when he told me. My parents also were there in the room, of course. Though I was of age, and they had become rather fond of Thengel, they still did not feel it appropriate for us to be alone in the evenings for any extended period of time. This angered me, for I felt that I was being treated like a child, but rules were rules.
He and the other Rangers under his command were to join with Prince Ecthelion on an extended patrol of the southern border of Gondor through South Ithilien along the Poros, and then return north to fortify Osgiliath. After he broke his news, my parents both exclaimed how much they would miss his company, and then, surprisingly, allowed us some time alone.
Once they left the room, I got up from my chair and hurried to his, seating myself in his lap. Though he had been shocked at my forwardness on the bench at our first dance, he had warmed to my newly discovered sensual nature, now surging forth against his more restrained affections. I ran my hands through his hair, then buried my face in it, smelling his very essence.
‘I don’t want you to leave. I am only just getting to know you!’ The words rushed from me in a torrent of grief.
His strong fingers found each other as they embraced me, and I was held cradled there. He was quiet for several moments, his warm breath exhaling onto my collarbone.
‘Dear Morwen, it is not my wish to leave. But duty is duty, and I cannot fail my fellow soldiers, Ecthelion, or Steward Turgon.’
He leaned back so that he could look at me. ‘Do not think that your absence will be lightly felt, my eagle-eyed one. And it is not forever - it is simply that I do not know how long I will be gone.’
I took his hands, and kissed his fingers on the tips, one after the other. After each one, I asked, ‘This long?’ and he shook his head, smiling. When I had ministered to all ten digits, I sat morosely, looking at his sturdy hands in mine. Then I got defensive.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘I will miss you too. But there is plenty to be done here. You will let me know when you have returned?’
He looked at me, stung. I hadn’t meant to hurt him, but I was already aching at his absence, and I had nowhere else to throw the barbs that I wished rather to throw at whoever had commanded him to leave.
‘Yes,’ he said softly. ‘You shall know when I have returned.’
Determined now not to act like a petulant child, I simply nodded.
‘I will look forward to that day,’ I replied, then removed myself from his lap. ‘Is there anything else I can get you before you go?’
I watched as he slowly rose to full height from the deep chair, took his cup in his left hand, then drained the contents. Then he shook his head.
‘Please thank your parents for me. I will correspond with you if I am able.’
He looked suddenly rather older to me as he continued, ‘Do as your heart bids you. I would not ask you to wait for me unless it is your own desire to do so.’
Again, he took my left hand and kissed it.
I tired to be more constrained, but it simply wasn’t in my nature. I raised my hands, held his face, and pulled him to me for a more intimate exchange. The warmth of his breath coursed through me, and I tried to put the sensation immediately into memory for the future, even as I tasted his mouth, and wished to cry at the familiarity of it, so soon to be absent.
Moments later, he was clad in his warm cloak, that same breath making clouds before him in the doorway. Then he was gone, his boots echoing on the cobbled street.
I had just begun to try and make him fade from my dreams as midsummer was coming on. With the season change came perspiration, a sensation I found deplorable. Due to the heat, I had on one my lightest linen gowns as I walked the marketplaces of Lossarnach with Iolande in tow, in search of the ripest oranges, now in season. She was only eight and tired easily, and my temper flared more quickly than normal, so we returned at mid-day after her complaining began to drive me mad. I posited our goods before the cook, then made my way to my room on the second floor in desperate search of a sturdy fan. After I opened my door, however, my feet stopped.
On the table near my bed was a basket with six pomegranates in it. Those were fruits that were both rare and rife with meaning, their complex red-berried centers traditionally a gift for those newly betrothed. As I stood staring, our front door knocker was rapped soundly three times, and despite myself, my heart leapt in my throat. I rushed down the stairs, but Brianna beat me to the door. She performed her usual bow and invitation to entreaty, but no person entered. Instead she accepted a parchment, then with a look of disappointment, turned and handed it to me.
‘For you,’ she said, then walked with sturdy feet down the corridor to find Iolande to quiz her about the goings-on in the markets.
I took a shaky breath as I looked at the paper sealed with grey wax bearing the impression of the Tree of Gondor with its seven stars. It was not from the Stewards, whose wax was white, but rather that of her defenders.
Trying to calm myself, I took a quick detour by the kitchen, snatched up a bottle of wine and a small chalice, then took the parchment up to my room and closed the door. I poured myself a small bit of wine, drank it quickly, then picked up the correspondence. I broke the seal, and then read in surprisingly neat handwriting:
- I, Thengel of the Rangers of Gondor, request of you, Morwen, daughter of Briagond of Lossarnach, your company this evening. I shall arrive at dusk, and if it is your desire,
we shall continue to the Lothan Inn to take dinner and then join the Midsummer’s festivities.
I am sorry that I have not been able to write prior to this; our extraneous provisions have been few while in the South, but please know that you have strayed often into my thoughts.
I very much look forward to seeing you this evening. If your affections are at all still turned toward me, I shall indeed be the most fortunate man in this world.
I poured myself another splash of wine and re-read the invitation. So he had returned and would be here this evening. My heart began to race with the anticipation of being able to be held in his wide arms again.
Then I was haunted by the ages-old question: What should I wear?
The street noises seemed to be especially loud, or perhaps it was simply that I felt that my nerves were exposed. I was almost jumpy, and for one who had served as a soldier for almost twenty years, I was unused to the sensation. After my earlier clandestine questioning of Brianna, I was almost certain that Morwen would be accompanying me to the dance this evening, but from what my fellows said, one could never be sure about the hearts of women. I sensed that she had remained true to me, but that could also have been simple wishful thinking on my part.
During our long marches, I had thought long and hard about her, about myself, and our future. I was certainly of an age to be married. In point of fact, I was the only one in our troop who remained unwed. There simply had not been anyone who had caught my eye for more than a brief moment, not that Gondor wasn’t full of beautiful women. Many had been sent my way by well-meaning comrades, but there was an aura of fragility around many of them which was unappealing. I supposed, despite my years here, my upbringing continued to work on me in ways unexpected. I realised that I only wished to marry someone who was as strong in mind and character as my sisters, as well as (if I were fortunate) share their stark beauty.
I felt that person was Morwen.
I was so caught up in my thoughts that I nearly ran into Briagond’s awning for a second time. Before I could raise my hand to knock, Brianna had flung open the door and rushed to greet me.
‘Thengel! You’re back!’ she squealed, playing her part to the fullest as she threw her arms around my waist. ‘We’ve missed you!’
I smiled and rubbed her narrow back. ‘And I you,’ I replied. ‘Is Morwen present?’
She nodded knowingly. ‘Yes. She looks very pretty.’
‘That’s enough, Brianna!’
I heard her voice from inside the house, and I found that my hands became clammy. Morwen appeared from a stairwell and walked toward me, looking as I had remembered, and yet even more beautiful. For a few moments, at least, she was reserved in her demeanor, and I, too, found myself feeling slightly awkward after months apart and such a short courtship prior to our separation.
‘It is good to see you again, Thengel,’ Morwen said, then took my hand after her younger sister turned and walked a few paces away from us. ‘As to your letter sent today, I am indeed most desirous of your company.’ She spoke the words carefully even as she squeezed my hand.
I knew in that instant that she had waited faithfully for my return, and I was overcome by joy, but also intense longing, which I tried to suppress.
‘I’m also famished!’ she exclaimed. ‘Let us go to the Inn before I faint.’ She looked provocatively at me. ‘Seeing you again has made me very hungry.’
I could not begin to reply to that comment. What physical sensations around her I had felt prior to now seemed muffled, and I was both shocked and embarrassed at myself as a very intense ache centered in my loins. It was time for us to leave.
We bid Brianna farewell and I asked Morwen about her parents, who she said were visiting another merchant for the evening. I closed the door, took her arm in mine, and allowed myself a few moments to admire her shining eyes before escorting her down the cobbled road.
As we danced to one of the more slow and stately pieces, my mind worked its way into a fevered pitch of circling questions. Did I tell her my true heritage, that I was a prince who had abandoned his kingdom, before I asked for her hand, or did I wait? And would it matter? She had said that my background was not of interest to her, but I knew that it would matter greatly to Briagond, and Morwen was, in many ways that she would not admit, very similar in temperment to her father.
In the end, Morwen determined the course of things, as she so often did. After the dance, she took me by the hand and we went to get some wine.
‘Dear captain,’ she said, beaming, ‘you would not happen to have any thoughts about pomegranates this evening, would you? Or baskets of them?’
I looked at her very seriously, and her smile dimmed.
‘It was just -’ she began. Throwing all caution to the wind, I knelt before her.
She stood silently, her hair blowing in the much-needed breeze.
‘Morwen, I wish to ask you to consider being my wife. Your affections for me are honest, despite my being older, my being from Rohan, and that I will continue to have to leave on patrol…’
I got no further. She knelt before me, put her hands on my shoulders and asked, ‘Do you love me?’
I nodded. ‘With all that I am.’
She nodded. ‘Then we are a good match.’ Then she leaned in and kissed me, first softly, then passionately. I responded in kind, until we broke apart, breathless.
‘You did put those pomegranates at my bedside, did you not?’
I laughed, stroking her fair face. ‘Yes. Though I must admit that full guilt is not mine alone.’ I rose, and pulled her up to me, holding her tightly so that I could feel her ribs against mine. ‘Your sister Brianna had her hand in it as well.’
She leaned back, looking slyly. ‘I should have known! She let you in, didn’t she, while I was out with Iolande?’
Smiling, I nodded. Only then with a start did I realise that people were looking at us, and, in fact, a small circle of people now surrounded us. All of my sense of propriety came rushing back, and I was chagrined. I had planned for this to be a more private affair, and now a third of Lossarnach was privy to our news.
There was nothing else to be done- we needed to return to her parents. Morwen put her hand up to my face and turned it back to hers.
‘Thengel,’ she murmured, ‘do not worry so. My family will be so pleased.’
Still somewhat dazed, I asked, ‘And you? You are pleased? Am I truly who you want, though you are still so young, and could have any- ’
‘Hush.’ She placed her fingers on my lips. ‘It is you who I want.’
As we walked from the field back toward the main streets of the town, I gathered strength from her as she held my hand.
‘There is something yet I need to tell you.’
She stopped, then raised on her tiptoes to kiss me, vigorous and deep, then she stood back.
I looked at her, a young woman of twenty-one, only three years older than I was when I had left Rohan, vowing never to return. My betrothed. My wife to be. There could no longer be any unknowns between us.
‘Once I told you that I had left Rohan due to strife with my father.’
‘The father that I left behind is the King of Rohan.’
Comprehension slowly made its way across her strong features.
‘But you have sworn fealty to Gondor.’
She nodded again, brusquely this time.
‘Then you are not changed to me.’ She moved in and clasped my hand, holding it tightly to her chest. ‘Someday you shall tell me the reasoning behind your actions. But not now.’
It was the last we spoke of it for several years. We made our way to her home, where Briagond and his wife, Brianna, Iolande and toddler Forlong greeted us, and rejoiced in our betrothal. Morwen’s brown eyes were alight with happiness.
When I returned to my barracks that night, I found myself quite unable to sleep. The thought of Morwen’s touch on my skin, of her insistent attentions in her kisses, made a restful night impossible. I tried to turn my mind to anything else, as there would still be several weeks before we could be wed. It would not have been proper for anyone to ask me, but if they had, I would have admitted that there had been no woman with whom I had shared myself. But now, with such certainties made eminent, and the very touch of my newly-pledged causing my most intimate senses to throb with anticipation, sleep came late, and laboured. At thirty-five, I was a man very ready to share in the joys of marriage. Sleep was infrequent, my dreams a torment. And yet, I was very happy.
‘Denethor, please get your mother. We must leave now if we are not to arrive late in Lossarnach!’
My son rushed off. It certainly would not do for the Son of the Steward to be late for his Captain’s wedding, especially since I was performing a role in the proceedings. I had responded to Thengel’s question with great enthusiasm. ‘Yes, by the Tree, I would be most honoured to be your second. What date has been set?’
We had all seen it coming, of course, though some eyebrows had been raised at their age difference. But in looking at this merchant’s daughter who had caught Thengel’s eye, we considered him to have done rather well for himself. She was young, to be sure, but beautiful in her own way. And rather astute. As I watched them interact together on occasion months prior as well as in the weeks leading up to their wedding, I noticed that there was nothing that escaped her clear brown eyes. Not a comment, not a phrase, not a glance. It was as though she had been born to be loyal to him. Although at first she seemed an unlikely companion for him, as I grew to know her, it seemed rather that she was made for him. She intuited his moods, yet the match was not one-sided. He knew how to pacify her in ways that were baffling, even to me, and I had been married for fifteen years. Not only that, but I was about to bring a thirteen-year-old to Thengel’s celebrations. I hoped that my wife would keep Denethor on his best behaviour, not that he was an ill-mannered child, but I wished to do well by my dear companion.
I stood behind him at his wedding, my hand on his right shoulder while he recited the eloquent words that he had penned, a long-standing custom of our land. And there to his left, Morwen stood proudly, in a gown of almost scandalous scarlet, speaking back her part as clearly as a queen to her subjects. It was a bit hard to fathom, truly - she seemed but a child, and yet, the match was true. Who was I to argue about someone else’s affairs of the heart? I had married at twenty-six, and had sired a son by twenty-eight. In the past, others in our company and I had tried times uncountable to arrange meetings for this rogue from Rohan to find companionship, even if only for the evening, but he would have naught.
And now, seemingly, he had all.
I heartily congratulated the couple as they made their way around the back terrace of Morwen’s home, multicoloured flags hanging somewhat limply in the late summer heat. It was a small gathering, but due to Thengel’s rank as Captain, as well as being of the royal line of Rohan, the personages were of high position indeed, certainly faces not often seen in this less sophisticated area of Gondor. My father, always the diplomat, was speaking animatedly with Briagond, Morwen’s father. If the one son in that family was anything like him, Lossarnach would not lack for leadership in the years ahead.
Thengel positively beamed. In all the years that I had known him, he had never looked so happy. It struck me that while he was well supported in this endeavour, no-one from his family was there to sanction his union, or to bestow good wishes on the newlyweds. It bothered me a little at the time, but I simply assumed that his father had been ill, and his sisters unable to travel with their own children. Only later did I find out that he had not even written to them to inform them of his own betrothal. His own father did not even know that his only son had married.
I looked around to get my bearings about my family’s whereabouts. I was pleased to see that Denethor was creating a fort out of spare cloth and chairs drug out from the sitting room with the eldest of Morwen’s younger siblings; my wife was enjoying some cordial while speaking with the wife of Dallben, one of Thengel’s close companions in his troop. I took the opportunity while free from other familial responsibilities to speak with the bride and groom.
‘Your new home is at the northern entrance of Lossarnach, so I hear?’
Morwen nodded, and held tightly to her husband’s hand. ‘We considered a home in Minas Tirith, but since the distance is so short, and my sisters and brother still young, and Windmane is still such a fine horse…’
Thengel turned to her and stroked her hair, then returned his gaze to mine. ‘It seemed a good compromise since her family is here, it will be easier on her when I am away.’
I smiled knowingly at her even as she screwed up her face at him. ‘Morwen, you have stolen the heart of a man most dear to me, but I am grateful. There were times when I feared he would spend the rest of his life alone, save for the company of his horse and other honourable soldiers. And while we are not the worst of companions, I will be bold and say that I am sure he is looking forward far more to evenings with you than exchanging old tales with us.’
Thengel held her tightly to him, the picture of contentment. ‘The time of telling tales will come soon enough. I think now we should go to our house, if we are able to extract ourselves, even if only temporarily, from the loving embrace of family and friends.’
He looked out over the small crowd, and a brief look of sadness crossed his face. As he saw Denethor and his ever-expanding chair-fort, he smiled widely. ‘You had best keep an eye on him, Ecthelion. That son of yours is already building his own empire!’
Excusing himself from Morwen, he strode to me and enfolded me in a warm embrace. For a moment I was taken aback, as I had not known him to be effusive in his affections. But then I returned the gesture, suddenly understanding the swift melancholy I had seen pass over him moments before. He had essentially been raised by his sisters, since his father had been a churlish drunkard. As a result, my father and I had become as father and brother to him in the years that had followed. His adoption and acceptance by my country was now complete, though it also meant that whatever ties he held to his homeland were now severed.
I stood back from him, hands still on his shoulders, and told him, quite sincerely, that he was a very lucky man.
Memories of that first night in our small home will remain with me until my last breath. The scent of cedar is inextricably linked to that time, as she had arrayed our room with candles infused with that strong smell - it seemed a bower, as though the woods had been brought inside and we were two birds secluded away. Two falcons, perhaps. We were fierce in our union, though I must be honest and admit that our initial coupling was rather awkward. It had crossed my mind during my sleep-deprived nights prior to our wedding to go in search of helpful texts in the vast library of Minas Tirith, but then I decided that would be dishonourable. Years of vague dreams, then much more vivid ones, and occasional self-pleasuring left me woefully unprepared for the reality of a woman’s unclothed body.
My wife’s beautiful, luminous, very tangible flesh.
It would be most discourteous to speak in detail of that evening, but I had never felt so exposed, so loved, so utterly spent in all my days. After we were first joined and my heart ceased racing, I was almost able to tell Morwen how grateful I was, that the sun shone more brightly with her at my side…
Instead, without shame, I wept, and she mingled her tears of joy with mine, and we were complete.
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