Many Guises and Many Names
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House Divided, A: 3. Duty
‘These stone floors have stood for thousands of years, but I swear that you are now cutting a path in them with your infernal pacing!’
I was temporarily up from the table which had our scouting maps stacked on it, warming my hands over a brazier set up in my office. It was February, and bitterly cold. The sky was an unforgiving steel grey, and my second in command would not sit still and concentrate.
‘What is it, Thengel? You are no good to me, walking back and forth. We need to give serious consideration to the next patrols along the Poros! Your keen mind has never failed me yet, and I need your thoughts on how many men should go, and whether or not we should try, yet again, to make a peace with the Haradrim while the rumblings to the South are still only that.’
My entreaty apparently met on deaf ears, as he maddeningly continued to walk and did not reply.
He stopped, then looked at me as though I had only just begun speaking to him.
I controlled my ire.
‘I need your attentions. Here.’ I jabbed my thumb backward through the air toward the maps. ‘What fog surrounds your mind that even the words of your commander cannot get through? This is not like you.’
He looked almost sheepish.
‘Morwen,’ he admitted. ‘She has been… ill. Every morning. For days. It is most unpleasant, and rather worrisome.’ He regained his composure, rubbed his eyes, and walked back to the table, taking the maps in his hand.
‘My apologies, my liege,’ he began. ‘The lands south of the Poros have been rather quiet of late, but suspicion rather than security comes to my mind.’
He traced his left index finger along the familiar drawn lines of the river, stopping at its crossing with the Harad Road. Brows furrowed, he continued, speaking more clearly. ‘If what our more discreet emissaries say is true, we would do well to fortify our ranks in South Ithilien. I do not suggest that we send more than a few dozen, but I do not doubt that, given their history, the Haradrim will wish to engage us with more than words, though that may be their first parley. And if so, someone should be there to counter their banter.’
Raising his head, he looked me in the eye. ‘I will lead this entourage, if you feel it appropriate. It is land that I well know.’
I nodded approvingly.
‘My one request, Ecthelion, is that you allow one of the Healers to visit Morwen before I depart.’
I stood up, weaning myself from the heat of the warm coals, then strode toward him. ‘Of course. Would you feel better if one went with you, now?’
He looked as though he were a condemned man suddenly given reprieve.
I sighed. ‘Let us go to the Healing Houses. Though some of Minas Tirith are struck down with coughing fits, I suspect that we can spare a Warden to make a visit to Lossarnach.’
Later that day, a strong knock sounded on my door. Surprised, I put down my wine, gathered up the correspondence that I had been composing, and shoved it hastily in a drawer. I was not expecting my father, but I could not imagine who else would be visiting so unexpectedly. The deepening dusk was frigid, and newly engaged in activity, I found that I was very cold and rewrapped my cape around myself before opening the solid door.
Thengel almost fell in on top of me. In shock I leaned forward to catch him until I realized that he was pushing past me. He almost bounded into the room, his eyes alighting on my writing-table.
‘Ah!’ he exclaimed. ‘You already have wine! I brought some as well!’
I was beginning to think that perhaps the Master Warden of Healers had slipped something rather serious into a tonic for him instead of his wife, when he blurted forth, ‘Morwen is with child!’
It took everything in me not to laugh aloud.
I stared at Thengel as he busied himself in my study. His long-fingered hands fumbled about an infrequently-referenced bookshelf, thick with dust, which happened to have an equally long-unused chalice. Then he asked about my glass, proposed a toast, and drank his wine. I then found myself basking in his accusatory glare until I walked over and took my own glass and drank from it.
‘She is with child!’ he repeated, shaking his head. He began looking around for a chair, then after casting his eye on one sequestered in a corner, he found his way to it. In one fluid motion, he slumped into it, his long legs stretched forward.
‘You probably find me ridiculous,’ he said. ‘But I have spent so many years with soldiers, how would I know? And Morwen, Morwen, Morwen…’ he let the word trail off before continuing. ‘Her mother was never ill. She thought that she was soon to perish! As did I!’
He shook his head, long hair covering his back.
He should cut that before the next patrol, I thought quickly. Or at least pull it back.
‘We must seem so naive, Ecthelion! I am so sorry to trouble you.’
He made as though to leave, but his joy was so apparent that I kept him. I found another chair, which I dragged closer to him.
‘Dear Thengel, life is a mysterious and wonderful thing. Please do not feel that you have troubled me. I am rather honoured that you have left your wife, now pregnant, to come and bear these tidings.’
He raised his glass and drank again, then looked at it, and then at me. A change came over his face.
‘My apologies, my liege,’ he spoke softly. ‘It appears that some of the poorer attributes of my father stir within me yet.’
He handed me most of the contents of the bottle of wine. A rather exclusive vintage by the colour and shape of the bottle, I noted approvingly, but I put it on the floor near my chair since that appeared to be his wish.
I reached out my hands and he reciprocated. ‘This is no small thing, Thengel,’ I began, ‘and I suspect that this babe shall not be the only of your line.’
Clutching at my fingers, he smiled, a bewildered look on his face. ‘I must get back. But you are as a brother to me, I wanted you to know. This morning, I was so afraid…’
Thengel stood, and I stood with him. Surprising myself, I leaned in and embraced him.
‘You will be a generous and meet father, Thengel of Rohan.’
His hands clasped my back.
‘I only wish to do what is right.’
I nodded, then disengaged myself to be able to look at his face.
‘You shall,’ I said. ‘Now get back to that beautiful wife of yours. Not that she needs watching over, to be sure.’
He smiled, then frowned.
‘Cordial!’ he exclaimed. ‘She was craving a cordial. I must go in search of it.’
Then he was gone from my chamber, cape trailing behind him, boots pounding on stone.
I hoped that he had not forgotten that he was scheduled to be leading a patrol to the Poros in a few days’ time, but I would be sure to remind him.
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses
~ from “What the Thunder Said,” The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot
Our troop had almost finished another day’s uneventful march when, after passing a cluster of trees, we were charged. I was taken a bit off guard as the Haradrim had not ventured past the Rohirric mourning-mound since the large-scale attacks of my grandfather’s day. There were not many of them, but they put up a surprisingly difficult fight. Several of my men were wounded by sharp scimitar-blades before the small party was defeated. In the midst of the noise, Tarangil shouted at me, his sword at the throat of one, and his face was grim.
‘It’s a woman, Captain!’
He looked as though he were trying to control a snake and that he wished very much to let it loose. She thrashed about, her arms held behind her.
What can this mean? my mind raced. I had never seen the women of Harad fighting with men.
‘Hold her, but drop your sword,’ I called out in response as I ran to him.
I stared at her, and black eyes filled with malice returned my gaze.
‘This land is ours,’ she growled, spitting at me when I approached, ‘and we will take it back.’ She bared her teeth which glittered menacingly against her dark skin. ‘We do not fight alone.’
‘Alone or no, I think that you and your message will return with us,’ I replied angrily.
‘I will be no usurper’s hostage!’ she yelled, then bit Tarangil. He cried out, but continued to hold her until she twisted around and kneed him savagely in the groin. As he doubled over, quick as lightning she unsheathed a knife from her boot and made to escape, but the rest of my company had surrounded us.
With a look of wild pride, before I could even comprehend her action, she thrust the knife into her chest. She stood swaying for a moment, then fell forward.
I had seen men die before, some at my own hand, but this reckless act was beyond me. I was still captain, however, and I willed my personal thoughts away. Tarangil was helped to his feet, wincing as he rose.
A dozen or so dead Haradrim had fallen in battle, and custom dictated that we pile the bodies and cover them. The necessary proceedings were taken out with small talk, but no-one wished to deal with the body of the woman, so that task was left to me. Those of Gondor do not take the weapons of their enemies, so I rolled her body over and picked her up, knife-hilt still protruding from her ribcage. She was heavier than I expected, more muscular than any I had seen since leaving Rohan. I forced my mind to focus on the rest of our evening’s proceedings as I carried her to the pile of the dead. We would not want to bivouac this close to those whom we had slain, so we needed to continue on for some time, then make camp for the night.
Despite myself, I found that I placed her body down more gently than I needed to. Those few soldiers with shovels dug up earth enough to cover them, and brush was also placed on top. And then we left, walking quickly northward to safer, higher ground on the Harad Road. By the time that small fires had been lit, and the wounds of the injured tended, the stars were glittering brightly overhead.
After ensuring that the company was eating well enough from what provisions we had, I took my leave briefly to walk around the perimeter of our camp. The high hill of Haudh in Gwanur rose nearby, and I felt drawn to it. I spent some time gazing at the tall mound, then raised my eyes into the inky blackness, generously spread with flickering lights of the heavens.
I heard steps behind me, and wheeled around, my hand on my sword-hilt.
‘’Tis Dallben, Captain.’
His voice was reassuring, familiar beyond words.
‘How does Tarangil fare?’ I asked, having witnessed his injuries as they occurred.
He raised an eyebrow. ‘As well as can be. I suspect that he will be fully recovered by the morrow.’
I nodded, then turned my face back to the barrow.
A few moments went by, silent save a haunting owl-cry from the nearby woods.
‘Captain, a question?’
I turned back around. ‘Of course. Shall we sit?’ I motioned to the thick grass, not yet soaking with night’s dew, and after adjusting our swords, we rested on the ground.
‘We have been here before,’ Dallben began. ‘Many times. It has crossed my mind before, but I had not thought to ask until now. Those buried here, are they kin to you?’
I pulled in my legs under my cloak, sheltering them from the cold.
‘Yes, they are.’
I felt a strength, suddenly, of these long-ago slain ancestors, though I immediately pushed the thought away, finding it ridiculous. I looked at Dallben before continuing.
‘I never knew them. They were elder brothers to my father. Twins,’ I chuckled. ‘Seems that bearing children in pairs is far less uncommon in Rohan than Gondor. Must be the barley.’
He smiled benignly, then a look of dismay crossed his face.
‘I have not yet congratulated you!’ he exclaimed. ‘Morwen! You!’ He stood quickly. ‘May the sturdy stone of the City long bear the happy footsteps of your children.’
I nodded in appreciation. ‘Thanks, indeed, coming from one who can expect to hear an army of footfalls given the way you and Rolindis are going.’
He gave me a knowing look. ‘You may rue what you have just said,’ he spoke, mirth in his voice. ‘Though late compared to some, you have only just begun, Captain.’
Now it was my turn to raise an eyebrow. At hearing sounds from the camp, Dallben begged to take his leave, and I agreed. I was again left to my thoughts, sitting at the base of the mound where my uncles had been killed by the grand-sires of those whom we had slain that afternoon. Would it ever end? The shining dark eyes of the dead Harad woman bore into my skull, and my head ached. The rise of the barrow had filled me with pride in the past, but now I was filled only with melancholy.
More than ever before, I wished to be home, at Morwen’s side.
‘Did you ever see a lassie, a lassie, a lassie,
Did you ever see a lassie go this way and that?
Go this way and that way, go this way and that way -
Did you ever see a lassie go this way and that?’
There was something about washing my husband’s and children’s laundry that always put me in pleasant spirits. I sang to myself and swayed my hips to the song as with wooden pegs I hung up small socks, breeches, and frocks, and longer tunics, under-drawers and trousers.
Thengel thought it absurd, the wife of a Captain of Gondor, much less the wife of the Prince of Rohan, though self-exiled, doing our washing. To be honest, I think he was embarrassed, but that did not matter to me. My father was a prominent figure in Lossarnach, and I had been raised with a cook and nursemaid. Despite such luxuries, loathing of pride had been driven into me from very early childhood. I was more than capable of keeping the clothing of my own family clean, and by my own hands.
Gwineth hummed along, lifting garments to me, every bit the helpful child at nine years of age. Théoden, five, was down the road visiting with another boy, and Brianna, not yet two years old, was within sight’s distance in a tree-swing under the shade. We were all enjoying an unexpected warm day at the end of September, which doubtless had also lightened my own mood.
Considering what had happened in the prior two years, I felt exceedingly fortunate. Mordor, always a land of misery from legends uncounted, now appeared to have erupted with new hatred and malice. Most of the stalwart folk who had been dwelling in southern Ithilien, continuing to resist the incursions of the Haradrim, had fled, or died trying. My husband, who had known much calamity in his life, had been unwilling to tell me what he had seen, and so I had ceased asking. There was now said to be a roving, inscrutable eye beyond the Mountains of Shadow that could not be escaped, gazing relentlessly over the foul lands so close to Gondor’s borders. I could not fathom it, and I was unwilling to ask Thengel about it, though he had of course ridden to the mountains with the other Rangers as soon as the news had come to Steward Turgon and Ecthelion.
Steward and son. Both could still be named, though even those had changed suddenly. It was now Ecthelion and Denethor, Steward Turgon having died after a fortnight’s battle with fever. He was not old, and nether was Ecthelion, being only fifty-one, three years senior to my Thengel.
Not two months had gone by since we had all dressed in mourning black to stand at the side of Ecthelion, his quiet wife, and silent son. For all the promise in Ecthelion’s proud, yet anguish-ridden face, it seemed that there would be only one heir to the Stewards. Denethor bore now the visage of a young man at twenty-three, beard and all, and had no other siblings.
I had held tightly to Thengel’s hand walking down the Rath Dínen, the aptly named silent street. Once in the House of the Stewards, tears had run down his cheeks, and he did not check them. Our children were appropriately solemn, but I felt distanced from the ceremonies, not knowing Turgon as my husband had. I felt apprehensive of the portends of his untimely demise, but said nothing. Despite it all, we were still happy.
The noise of a fast-approaching rider brought me back to the present. At the loud knock on the door, Gwineth started and dropped a small tunic of Théoden’s to the ground. I handed my daughter the peg-basket.
‘Keep your eye on Brianna, please, while I answer the door.’
She nodded, her large olive-coloured eyes looking somewhat fearfully back at me. It was disconcerting, as the colour was so similar to Thengel’s, but with other children had come other traits to be seen from both of our families. Or so I assumed - I had only Thengel to go by as representative of his line.
In haste, I walked around the side of the house to the front where Berestor, one of the men under Thengel’s command, was dismounting from his horse. He seemed winded, but he did me the courtesy of bowing briefly before speaking.
‘May I speak with Thengel?’ he asked. ‘It is most urgent.’
I looked intently at him before replying, ‘He is in council with Ecthelion and some of the soldiers based at Henneth Annûn, at their lodgings. You may tell me whatever news is to be shared. I assure you that I will inform him as soon as he returns.’
Berestor’s usually serious face was positively grim. ‘I do not lack in faith of you, lady, but this news must be delivered immediately to him. I shall ride to Henneth Annûn.’
I grew alarmed, then angry, even as he got back astride his horse.
‘What news is this which is so dire that you must fly north of the city to speak with my husband, yet you will not inform me?’
My voice sounded shrill in my ears, and he tarried, obviously very uncomfortable. Feeling somewhat desperate, I walked to him, held onto his horse’s reins and succumbed to pleading.
‘Please, Berestor. Thengel and I harbour no secrets. Must he leave to go to war?’
He relaxed his hands slightly, and shook his head.
‘No, Morwen, we are already at war, as you well know.’
His face was an unexpected confusion of expressions. Finally he gave in, and sighed. ‘I do not feel this is proper, but I expected Thengel to be here, not at an outpost.’
I nodded encouragingly.
‘Fengel, King of Rohan, is dead.’
He stood in silence for a moment, then continued, ‘There are two marshals of his guard at Minas Tirith. They entreat your husband to return with all haste and take his rightful role as ruler of the Riddermark and dwell in the seat of Meduseld.’
I met his words with incomprehension. Riddermark. Marshals. Meduseld. Foreign words. The language of my beloved’s childhood. They planned to take him back.
I nodded to Berestor, knowing that Thengel had sworn an oath to Turgon, and by default, to Ecthelion. We were not going anywhere, not with this new menace in the black lands, and the cursed Haradrim.
‘Thank you,’ I said.
Relieved, the Ranger turned his horse and galloped away, off to tell my love that the father he had left nearly thirty years ago was dead.
It would be a difficult night.
All three children were asleep, songs sung, small backs rubbed, words of gratitude spoken to those upon Western shores. Thanks to my gifted ability to make all seem well when things were far from such, I was sure that their dreams were sweet.
I, however, now sat in our drawing-room, well into my third glass of wine. Thengel had not yet returned. Berestor obviously had found him, told him of the happenings in Rohan, and now my dear conflicted husband was wrestling with how to tell these marshals to return without either them or him losing face. Diplomacy was a skill that came naturally to him, so that did not worry me. But for all that, the news was still shocking. It was astounding to me that I had never yet met my father-in-law. Now, apparently, I never would, though from what I had picked up from ten years of marriage, I was perhaps better off.
The door suddenly opened. I almost jumped out of the chair, having begun to half-doze. Thengel entered, and I rushed to meet him, burying my head in his wide chest, holding him.
‘I am so sorry,’ I murmured. ‘Berestor came by, and he was loath to tell me, but I made him. I just couldn’t allow him to - ’
‘Morwen.’ His voice and tone was what he used with his troop, not with me. I raised my head, confused, then I saw that there were others behind him.
He gently took my hands from behind his back, kissed them, then released me. Thengel looked exhausted.
‘Lofgild, Onthéon - my wife, Morwen.’
I stared at the two men, still disoriented from my sudden waking, then nodded my head.
‘Please come in,’ I said at the same time that my mind willed them to go away.
They were tall, clad in similar leather riding gear, both wearing dark green capes. Large bronze disks with an image of a white horse clasped their cloaks. Evidently they had left their helms outside, for long gold and honey-brown hair fell across their shoulders. I looked at them, then at Thengel, who suddenly appeared to me as he had when I first met him, a man from another land.
Though tired, Thengel smiled at me. ‘These marshals and I will be in conference yet awhile. I suggest that you go to bed, my dear.’
Go to bed? My mind whirled. Your father has died, there are strangers in my home, how can I sleep?
‘Have you eaten?’ I battled for time, went back to his side, clasped his hand.
‘Yes. We have been meeting with Ecthelion for several hours already, and eaten at his table.’
I felt my father’s stubbornness building in me. ‘If what you and - ’ Ai! Their names! ‘ - the marshals are discussing is our future, I would prefer to be allowed to be here with you.’
I couldn’t be sure, but it seemed that I saw a flicker of approval in the face of one of the wild-haired men from Rohan. Or perhaps it was pity.
‘Morwen.’ His tone was again officious. ‘You and I will need to talk about this turn of events tomorrow. The marshals, too, will need to return with all speed, so please, give us your leave and get the rest you will need.’
The words were gently ominous. Then, with instant clarity, the worn look on Thengel’s face conveyed the message I had been unwilling to accept. We would not be travelling to Rohan only for the funeral of his father. We would go and not return.
‘King.’ I whispered the word. Solemnly, he nodded.
The Riders bowed their heads to me, then their voices, heavily accented, filled the room.
I was awake, but I willed my eyes shut, pretending still to be asleep. Breath in, breath out. His heavy, strong arm was draped familiarly across my naked ribcage. I had gone to bed, unclothed, stubborn, shivering. It had seemed only appropriate, mere hours ago. I had not roused when he joined me under the frigid bedcloths, but now his heat next to me seemed the last tether that held me to any sense in this world. The hair on his chest rustled against my back as some dream fragment caused him to mumble and turn slightly.
I wished for the abyss to take me. I wished never again to open my eyes. I knew that the children dearest to my heart would wake soon, and I would have to explain, somehow…
Then, with the unquestioning surety of the condemned, I fell back asleep.
The day brought new losses.
‘Why?’ I asked sorrowfully. 'I do not wish to do this. Please do not make me do this.'
My resolve, regained so readily with warmth of morning and the pride I saw in my father’s eyes as he spent a last few hours with his grandchildren, now seemed as intangible as the hues of a rainbow.
‘I have meant to do so every year at my birth-memorial since I arrived in Gondor, Morwen. Now it is truly time.’
I was listening, biding time, completely unable to fulfill the task given me.
‘It is not that profound a thing, my love. No other Ranger is so lax as to let his hair grow this long. All I ask is that you cut it to an appropriate length as you would see on Steward Ecthelion.’
Thengel forced the scissors into my hand, then unbearably, he turned and knelt before me on the ground of our yard.
‘If I must go to Rohan,’ his familiar voice said, ‘then much of Gondor must go with me.’
I hated myself. Duty pulled me in so many conflicting directions that I felt utterly inadequate to this seemingly simple command.
He turned back toward me for a moment, a look of distant serenity on his face. ‘Within the Royal Hall, all shall speak the Common Tongue, so that you can understand what is being said. The children, as well.’
After he bowed his head again, I quickly pulled back the sleeve on my weaker arm, the right, and not even comprehending why, I held the blade-edge of the scissors above my skin. Then I shoved the sleeve back down. Even as my occasional tears fell to the earth, I began to cut the hair of my husband, his golden-grey locks intermingling with the dying grass of autumn.
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