Many Guises and Many Names
Playlist Navigation Bar
Courtly Love: 5. Galmod and the Stranger
Leaning on the wall to take the weight off his foot, he surveyed the stony ways that led through the town. The afternoon sun was not unpleasant, and presently his patience was rewarded as he noticed the figure of the stranger seated with his back turned on the low promontory that jutted from the south slope, almost directly above the gatehouse. He was staring out eastwards and southwards along the line of the mountains. He held a long stemmed pipe in his hand, and from his lips there rose a thin stream of grey smoke, which eddied across the void above the rocks as it was caught by the breeze. Gálmód made his way down to him.
‘I have heard of pipe-smoking,’ he remarked casually, sitting down nearby, ‘but it is not a custom we have adopted in the Mark for we have nothing of note to use as weed.’
The foreigner turned and studied Gálmód long before he answered. ‘This leaf is grown only in the north,’ he replied at last. ‘I do not think it would thrive here, for the air is dry and the soil too sandy.’ He offered the pipe to Gálmód, who shook his head.
‘I thank you, but no. I have never liked the idea of burning dead leaves in my mouth.’
The other shrugged and then turned back and continued to stare into the distance. Gálmód watched him for a while, but his companion showed no sign of having anything further to add on the subject of pipe-weed, so presently he broke the silence.
‘You have walked far to study the scenery. Are there no mountains in your homeland?’
’Yes, indeed,’ replied the other. ‘But forgive my ill manners. I was wondering, how far is it to Minas Tirith?’
’To Mundberg? I have been there only once and it was many days ride. Not worth the trouble to my mind.’
‘And why do you say that?’
‘It is fine enough if you like halls of stone. But nothing green grows in the whole city. And there are too few horses. The place is like a cave without a roof and the walls rise up sheer like cliff faces, ‘til you would think there was no sky above. And they say there is a single tree in the citadel, but it is long dead and has never been felled.’
The foreigner raised an eyebrow. ‘There is no accounting for folk,’ he observed noncommittally.
’And how long have you been on the road?’
’Long enough. More than two months all told, I think, though it is easy to forget the days. The road was not a straight one, and I was delayed.’
‘I have never walked so far.’ Gálmód surprised himself with the note of envy in his voice.
The man nodded, his eyes straying to Gálmód’s right foot. The king’s councillor glanced down and for the first time in years, he beheld the appendage as others might see it; an ugly deformity from above the ankle, its twisted and grotesque form ill disguised by the boot that cradled it.
‘That obvious is it?’
‘I am sorry. I saw you this morning at Meduseld. I couldn’t help noticing.’
‘Nor can anyone.’ Gálmód grimaced. ‘I am accustomed to stares.’ Suddenly he realised that he felt uncomfortable under the searching gaze of the newcomer. It was an experience that startled him. He stiffened involuntarily.
‘I have offended you.’ The disquiet in the stranger’s pale features was real.
‘No,’ he faltered. ‘No you haven’t.’ It was no slight that Gálmód felt, only the inadequacy of his physical form next to this extraordinary youth.
‘An old wound?’
‘I might wish so, but not unless you count my birth as a battlefield.’
‘And does it cause you pain?’
Odd that no one had ever asked the question before in all his thirty-three years. And yet it seemed the most natural inquiry in the world from this young foreigner who knew nothing of the lifetime of discomfort, and, lately, the shafts of agony that at times coursed through the malformed bones and wasted muscles. How well he had learned to hide them.
‘Sometimes,’ he conceded.
The stranger nodded and there was silence again as Gálmód sought a change of subject. He could see now why the queen was so fascinated. For all his reticence, this man had a poise about him that defied his youth and was more than his physical presence, impressive as that was; but Gálmód found himself inarticulate to define it. Then he was distracted by a familiar thirst tugging at his throat.
‘What do they do for sport in your homeland?’ he ventured.
The man looked surprised, but then his face broadened into a wide, sudden smile that lit his face.
‘We ride or hunt. We drink ale. Sometimes we sing and tell tales.’
Gálmód grinned. ‘I sing like a corncrake, but I can drink with the best of them. Come, let us continue in the alehouse.’
It was dark and warm in the tavern after the bright sunshine and the cooling breeze outside. The occupants of Gálmód’s customary corner quickly dispersed when they saw him come in, with respectful nods and the usual pleasantries. The stranger attracted curious stares, but few of the folk there knew the common speech, and most left him well alone, though they continued to watch as the landlord brought tankards and a jug of ale and set them down on the table.
‘This is brewed from the best hops in the Riddermark, my friend,’ remarked Gálmód and, filling a tankard to the brim, pushed it towards the young man. He took it and, raising it to his lips, tasted the dark foaming liquid. Satisfaction spread across his face and he nodded his thanks.
‘It is the best I have tasted since I left home.’ He sat back with legs outstretched, eyes glinting in the half-light. Then he went on,
‘I saw a great many horses some four days since, grazing the plains. I have never seen them running wild in such numbers .’
‘They are the pride of the Riddermark. There are no other such herds in all the west, they say.’
‘And there were others, few in number, but finer still and very swift. I have rarely seen their like. Tall and clean limbed and all of them silver like the moon.’
Gálmód nodded. ‘The Mearas,’ he said. ‘Horses of the kings. They live long and are slaves to no man. But if they choose a human companion, they repay his friendship with a bond of loyalty and love that none can match.’ He drew a long thoughtful sip of ale. ‘And what of your horses? I take it that you can ride?’
‘Well enough. The horses of my people are tall and strong, broad in the shoulder and proud of bearing. They have thick coats to stay the winter snows and they can suffer great hardship.’
‘But you chose not to use one on your long journey. Why was that?’
‘I was uncertain of the terrain and I knew little of what lay beyond our borders. A horse needs fodder and water, and they are nigh on impossible to conceal if you want to be discreet.’
‘And what need does a young fellow like you have for discretion, may I ask?’ Gálmód’s eyes narrowed as he leaned closer. However, if the stranger was discomforted, he did not show it.
‘Was there ever a time in the last age when a man abroad need not look to his own safety?’
A question for a question, thought Gálmód. A good strategy for evasion. He had used it many a time himself.
‘And you wish to serve Thengel King?’
‘If he will have me.’ The impassive features were kindled by a hint of fire.
‘You don’t look like the sort of man accustomed to service.’
‘There are few men in the world who are beholden to no one, my lord, be it only their wives or their mothers.’
Gálmód laughed loud and long. ‘That I cannot deny.’ He paused and stared the other straight in the eye, green on grey. ‘So are you going to tell me your real business in Edoras, or do you plan to keep this up indefinitely?’
The foreigner did not answer immediately and his face said nothing until Gálmód discerned the hint of amusement deep in those penetrating eyes. It appeared that they understood one another.
‘If it is surety you seek,’ the youth said, ‘then I can give you nothing save my word. But if I fail in that then you may do with me as you will. For these days I have no home except the ground beneath my feet, and I wish only to make a living and to earn what honour I can by honest toil.’
‘Well answered, my friend!’ Gálmód sat back comfortably. ‘Very well, you may come before the king in due course. It is well for you that I think I like you, stranger from the north. But, before it is decided what use you may be, we must see what you are made of. Only the best of men may serve the King. You must learn to speak our tongue. And then there is the small matter of your name. Or are you going to tell me that you no longer possess one?’
The man emitted something approaching a sigh; ’You may be nearer the mark than you think.’ Then the sudden smile again. ‘But you must ask the Queen. She will tell you my name.’
Gálmód began to feel as though he had been excluded from a conspiracy, which irked him, as the most efficient conspirator in the Mark. And he could not deny a regard for his friendship with Morwen that was close to jealousy.
‘For my part, my name is no such mystery,’ he countered testily. ‘I am Gálmód, son of Gramlic and I am councillor to the king. If you become one of the King’s Men, and I mean if, then you shall be answerable to me. But a long apprenticeship awaits any that aspire to that distinction, no matter what their talent or birth.’
Several hours later the pair were seen to leave the alehouse together and, it was remarked by onlookers, somewhat the worse for wear.
Playlist Navigation Bar