Many Guises and Many Names
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Courtly Love: 3. The Stranger and the Queen
For propriety’s sake she instructed Mæg to remain with her. The king’s childhood nurse had never learned the common tongue, which made her an ideal chaperone. Moreover, she was becoming rather deaf, though her sight was still as sharp as ever when it suited her. Then Morwen settled in the hall to break her fast and await the stranger.
When he entered, she studied him anew, as if checking that he was the same and not some vision that her fancy had invented for itself. If it were possible, he looked more beautiful after a night’s rest even than she remembered.
The young man bowed his head and then knelt.
‘Forgive me, my lady Morwen. I knew not when we met yesterday that you were the Queen of the Golden Hall.’
‘There is nothing to forgive, sir, for how could you have known? Please, sit.’ She motioned to a chair and he obediently sat down. ‘Now eat and tell me about yourself. It is not often that such fair folk walk in Edoras.’
Abashed by the compliment, he hesitated, ‘There is little to tell, my lady. My home is far beyond the Misty Mountains, but I desired to see the lands to the south and learn about peoples other than my own, so I set out before the burdens of age prevented me. I seek to serve, if I may.’
‘And what is your name?’
His eyes hardened just a little behind their heavy lids. ‘In my homeland we do not use our given names except with our close kin. A good name is a title that a man must earn, not that which his mother gives him. You may call me what you will, my lady.’
‘That is a strange custom, young man. I have named my children and my hounds, but I have never named a man full grown, and a stranger at that. It is our habit to be wary of strangers who are less free with their given names than are we ourselves.’
She surveyed him once more as he raised a drinking cup to his mouth, startled to find that she was imagining the touch of those long fingers on her face. Abruptly she pulled herself together. He sat, unmoved by her last remark, composed now and slightly aloof, as though in truth it was he who was appraising the queen.
‘Perhaps I shall find a name for you in due course,’ she added, ‘when I know you better. But tell me, how would you serve Rohan?’
‘I can ride and fight with sword or bow, my lady,’ replied the young man. ‘And I have some skill as a hunter.’
‘Indeed?’ Morwen feigned indifference. ‘That can be said of all the youth of the Riddermark. A hunter of what, I wonder? But it may be that we shall find other uses for you also. The king shall determine your fate on his return, should he deem you worthy of his service.’
Almost shyly, she found herself putting out her hand to touch the star at his shoulder. ‘That is a very fine piece, sir,’ she ventured. ‘Where did you come by it?’
‘It is but an emblem of my house, of little worth but considerable age.’
‘And that ring?’ Twin silver bands entwined an intricate path about his finger, but she could not make out their design without turning his hand in hers, and the idea was enough to make her heart skip a beat. Remembering that they were not alone, she thought better of it.
‘It is of even greater age, and belonged to my forefathers, my lady.’
The queen watched her guest slowly eat a piece of the freshly baked bread and sip tea. No, he was no commoner. Presently she reached for the security of more mundane matters.
‘I trust your lodgings are to your liking.’
‘They are the like of a palace, compared to my sleeping arrangements of late.’
‘And the fare? I am told that it is good, but I think that many fear to offend by saying otherwise.’
That disarming half-smile again. ‘It is more than adequate.’
‘Your courtesy does you credit. But you are accustomed to better, I deem, when you are not on the road.’ She paused and wondered why she was still nervous, before venturing, ‘Soon the king will return from Minas Tirith, and bring with him men of Gondor who wish to trade with Rohan. You wish to meet folk of other lands, and this you shall do in double measure.’
He lowered his gaze. ‘I should fear to be in such exalted company, my lady.’ And as the stranger spoke, the shutters closed again. As those quicksilver eyes change so does his temper, thought Morwen, but he is practised at concealing the storms. This boy has powerful passions in his soul and something has taught him to fetter them in the bonds of courtesy. How unlike Thengel he is! Her husband was undoubtedly a man of passions, but all Edoras knew his tempests, for he never troubled to hide them. Now, does he believe that Rohan’s queen is trying to seduce him? Indeed, can that be what I am doing? Take care, Morwen, or you may find that you are the one seduced.
‘But you will dine at Meduseld tonight.’ The words were out before she realised that she had opened her mouth. ‘The gathering will be small, no more than three or four. Then tomorrow we shall see.’
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