Many Guises and Many Names
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House Divided, A: 5. Deliverance
‘Mama! Mama! Come quickly!’
Brianna ran into my room, her forceful voice so unexpected that I pierced my finger with my needle. Instinctively I put the finger to my mouth, quickly double checking to make sure that no blood had stained my embroidery.
‘What is it, child? Is something on fire?’
Her eyes were bloodshot, her braided brown hair unkempt. She shook her head, then held out her hands to me, every gesture one of pleading.
‘It is- it is-’ she struggled with the words as I put my project on the side table and rose from the chair. ‘Go to the stables. Windmane is dying. Papa is with him.’
As I rushed from the room, Brianna at my heels, I grabbed a cloak and threw it across my shoulders. We both raced through the mostly empty cavern of the Golden Hall, down the wide stone steps past the standing-guards. I paused for a moment at the stable entrance to get my bearings and for my eyes to adjust from the crisp autumn light of outdoors to the hazy dimness in the stalls.
About halfway to the back of the stables, Thengel was sitting on some straw, cradling the head of his horse in his lap and murmuring something to him. Gwineth and Théoden were there as well, their expressions both sorrowful and also apprehensive. I suddenly realised that despite their ages of eighteen and fourteen, they had never seen their father cry before. Being confronted with Thengel, the King, weeping over his steed, they were unsure quite how to react.
All three of them looked at me. Brianna ran from behind me to clutch at Gwineth, who took her in her arms.
Thengel spoke, his voice thick. ‘I know that he is old, and I should have expected this, but-’
He stopped. I looked at our children, then said gently, ‘Please leave us. I will get you when it is time for the burial.’
They nodded, then walked silently away, Théoden taking a last look back when they were at the door.
I walked over to Thengel and sat down next to him. Windmane was breathing heavily, his tail moving almost imperceptibly as Thengel patted his neck. I did not know what to say, so I wrapped my arms around my husband’s waist and leaned into his back. I breathed in the scent of hay and horse, and also Thengel’s unique scent present in all of his clothes. At last the stalwart horse twitched, then lay completely still.
Thengel continued to stroke Windmane’s neck, his own breathing now coming in shuddering gasps. I held on to him more tightly, rocking him as he wept. We stayed that way for a while, his anguished sounds the only noise in the room. Eventually he regained his composure, and turned his head to look at me, his eyes red.
‘I need to be with you,’ he whispered hoarsely. Surprised, I found myself nodding in assent. I loosed my arms from him so that I could stand up. With tender movements he moved Windmane’s head from his lap, then reverently ran his hand down the horse’s side.
‘None shall be your equal, old friend,’ he spoke softly, giving the horse a final reassuring pat.
Thengel pushed himself up from the floor, then stood before me, taking both of my hands in his, stroking my fingers. ‘I was not half as emotional at my own father’s burial,’ he said, his voice husky. ‘What does that say about me?’ A wretched smile crossed his face. ‘I am crying over my horse when I shed no tears for him. There is no escape from the place of one’s birth, apparently.’
Despite the emotional distance that had formed between us in our recent past, I found that I mourned for him. ‘Dear Thengel, do not judge yourself. From what you have told me, Windmane is worth the tears you weep for him, and I cannot say the same for Fengel.’
Then I raised my hands to his face and pulled him to me. We kissed deeply, and while there were not the sparks as we had known when younger, I was comforted, and found that I hungered for his touch as well. As my hands drew us together, I felt his body’s ache for mine.
Throwing all caution and common sense to the wind which breezed through that early autumn day, I leaned back, caressing his cheeks with my fingers, then whispered, ‘Shall we go to the back stall? I have my cape which can be placed on the hay.’
He looked astonished, then relieved. ‘You are a woman of much foresight, dear wife.’ Fingers calloused from years of soldiering gently brushed across my lips. ‘I could not have chosen a more understanding partner.'
We walked hand in hand to the last stall where Thengel took off my cape and laid it on a straw-pile, after checking for horse-droppings. In the dusty corner of the stables, I closed my eyes and embraced him, my desire enhanced by the sheer unexpectedness of our liaison. With familiarity that can only come from years of being together, we were soon joined and it was not long before he was spent. He had not been rough, by any means, only needy. I lay on my back for a few moments as his breathing slowed, feeling emotionally much more naked under his grateful gaze than I did in my own unclothed skin.
‘I love you,’ he said, then kissed me, a lone tear falling from his eye to my cheek.
I pulled his head down to nestle in my neck.
‘I know,’ I replied, closing my eyes.
The scent of the food at table reinforced my famished feelings, though I could have been found in the kitchen only an hour or so ago, furtively eating some sweetbread from dinner the day before. As I walked - or waddled, rather - into the Golden Hall, Thengel and the few others at the well-laden board rose. I nodded, and they all resumed their seats and their conversation. All, except, I noted in surprise, a stranger who sat at the opposite end of the table. He did not mean to breach the courtesy of Thengel’s generous hand, I am sure, but his eyes never left me, widened in surprise as I took my accustomed seat to Thengel’s right. After being served and having a healthy swallow of some wine, I allowed myself to glance down at him again.
Gondor, I mused. His features were more refined than those of the Rohirrim, and his hair was quite dark. It was his eyes, however, which startled me; grey, the colour of shaded clouds in early dawn. They belied age beyond his youthful face and strong frame, such as I could notice. Before returning my gaze to well-tended plate, he shifted, and the torchlight caught on a silver medallion on his chest. It was a five-pointed star.
A gentle touch on my hand by Thengel’s drew my attentions to him.
‘Morwen,’ he said, ‘we have a new man who wishes to join our ranks. He is a Ranger from the North, beyond the forests of Dwimordene.’
I raised my eyebrows, confused. Northern? I had not heard much about the northern Rangers, ancient ancestral relations to some who lived in Gondor. What I had heard had not been very positive, though the man at the end of the table bore an air of distinction. Thengel looked quite pleased.
‘Ranger,’ Thengel’s voice carried down the table, ‘my wife, Morwen.’
The man lowered his head and placed his hand above his heart before returning my gaze.
‘I am most gratified to be allowed to serve under your husband, lady.’ His voice was a melodious tenor; accented, though it was obvious that he was used to speaking the Common Tongue.
‘I am sure that my husband is most grateful for your intended service. A Northern Ranger you may be, but for lack of a proper name, I think we should call you Arthur, eagle eyes.' I paused for a moment, then added, 'All those who wish to pledge loyalty to Thengel are welcome here.’
In the unexpected quiet, with a solemn smile he said, ‘I will be loyal to the King and his line,’ looking directly at my very swollen belly.
Ah, of course! No wonder he had stared when I entered. He was probably unused to seeing women as far along in their pregnancies still participating in the everyday activities of the household, much less someone as old as Thengel still siring children. I raised my glass to the Ranger, then back to Thengel, his face suddenly seeming more lined than before, though it glowed with pleasure.
‘To the King!’ On
As the conversation around me resumed to talk of securing armour and accommodation for this Ranger, it came back to me how surprised even I was to be in this state. Our intimacies had become far less frequent, as desire waned with time and, if I were honest, sheer familiarity. So when I felt familiar stirrings and cravings nine months prior, I was astonished, though not displeased. I was forty-one, my husband fifty-eight. I had known of no one from Lossarnach bearing children at my age. The other children were excited to have a new sibling, and Thengel was beside himself. He pampered me in ways he had not for years, and for that I was grateful. He would brush out my hair before bed, and often run his hands over my belly.
As for myself, I was ready to be done with being tired and sore. I needed to tend to the rest of our brood, currently with one of Thengel's sisters, and assist my husband in his ever-growing responsibilities. I was a queen now, after all, and was almost embarrassed at how our bodies had betrayed our fondness for each other, even if those meetings were far more occasional.
I was walking back to our room from the study, a favourite childhood book in my hand, when my water broke. While this was my fifth child, I was still surprised at the sudden sensation. With it came the portends that as of that moment, until the baby was born, it was all, rather ironically, out of my hands.
I had done this enough times not to panic. Instead, I gathered up comfortable clothing and a favoured cushion before trying to find Thengel, and then the midwives, such as they were. Thengel and the marshals who had eaten with him had moved to more comfortable chairs in the Golden Hall. They all were still in an animated conversation with the Northern Ranger. Whether or not he would accept my naming gift, time would tell.
I approached Thengel and told him my news, which caused him to stand.
‘Why did you come by here? I would have known momentarily!’ Worry, as always, shadowed his eyes.
I shook my head, sighing. ‘If you would but summon the women, I will see you again after this.’ Then I smiled, as he looked so disconsolate. ‘Another child, Thengel! Will not Dallben be self-satisfied at his predictions!’
His face brightened, and he hurried away to find the midwives.
The eagle-eyed Ranger stood as well, looking at me in a disconcertingly familiar manner. While he was not unpleasant to gaze at, to be sure, I knew nothing of him except for his pledge to my husband. I returned his stare, and so we stood, until pain of contractions urged me on my way.
All went as my prior birth-givings had been until the very end, when I heard one of the midwives gasp and yelp that the child had a grey foot. Through a haze of familiari pain I struggled to comprehend what they meant. Then I heard one call to Stæfwis, a woman who seemed to have assisted with most of the births in Edoras, and she rushed over.
Without even a glance up at me, she yelled, ‘Bring over the water and cloths!’
I bellowed a string of profanity from pain and discomfort as she reached inside of me to pull the child out. Cloths were put under me as blood and fluids went everywhere. My baby - my baby girl - was ashen, and not just her foot. I was still gasping for air, trying to find words, struggling to raise myself even as I watched Stæfwis and Hilda, one of the younger ones, quickly rub her down with a steaming cloth, clutch her in a skin and rush her toward the window.
‘Do not throw my child!’ I screamed, completely disoriented and in shock.
The woman who had been mopping my sweating brow quickly handed me a cup of potent spirits, and soothingly said, ‘No, no- they will not throw her! She needs air. Fresh air.’
‘She will freeze!’ I babbled, drinking so quickly that half of it missed my mouth and ran down my chin and neck.
Just then, Hilda walked toward me, a large smile on her face, the silver-haired midwife right behind her. She handed me a brown-haired, and now pink-faced infant, her mouth wide open and eyes firmly shut.
‘She has breathed in the strong air of the Mark, Queen. She is now the colour she should be.’
More cushions were placed behind me, and weakly, I held my child. I was too weary to do much except stroke her fine hair, still damp, and reassure myself that she was not grey, and still breathing. My body ached, and I knew that it would pass, but I felt as though I were a trampled cloth, wrung out and twisted. I knew that I should signal to the midwives to let Thengel know of the safe birth, that I should lie down properly…
Consciousness left me.
I had just put up my sword and arrows and stretched out, my head cradled in my hands, when one of the King’s attendants knocked on the door.
I heard, and eased myself up onto my elbow. ‘Enter freely.’ The name was not really mine, but it had suited the Queen, who even from our first meeting had not wanted to call me "Ranger." I supposed that I had gotten used to it, though I longed for a day when I could finally be known as my father's son.
I looked into the lanky man’s face, which betrayed nothing. I was not scheduled to be on patrol for another few days, and it could do me no harm to spend the day with the man who had been willing to put me into his guard with no word other than my own, especially when that man was the King of Rohan. Requests from kings were not really requests, after all; they were demands shrouded in niceties.
While I did not bring myself to a standing position, I did rise to sit on the edge of my cot before answering. ‘Please tell King Thengel that I would be honoured to take part in his activities.’
As the marshal brusquely nodded his head and turned to leave, I asked, ‘When should I be expected, and where?’
I nodded appreciatively. ‘Please thank the King. I will see him shortly after sunrise.’
The door shut securely behind him. I laid back down onto my bed, wondering what the invitation meant, if anything. Hunting, for sport. Those in Elrond’s house did not do such, and even my kindred in the Angle hunted for food only. I was rather unsure about the proceedings, but I had spent enough time around Thengel and the Rohirrim as a whole over the prior eighteen months to know that their intentions were honourable. Perhaps I had missed an undercurrent of something, being so caught up in the everyday activities of riding with a score of others in defense of their land. Granted, the plains and mountains of Rohan were neither the grounds of my birth nor keepers of my heart, but when I found myself on the edge of sleep, the expectant words Elrond had spoken to me came to the fore of my mind:
"There are many lands in which you need to prove yourself before you return."
It was stunning, the amount of fog that swirled around my feet the next morning as I stood at the base of the stairs which led up to the Golden Hall. Even if I had been a statue coloured as bright as the sun, there would have been no hope in being discovered. I had seen nothing like it in my time in Rohan, nor anywhere else, for that matter. Thick as some of the stew I had been served.
A fluttering black shape emerged in front of me with a loud cawing sound. Startled, I stepped back and drew my cloak closer around me as the crow continued its chattering. Aw! Aw! Aw! Then it was silent, staring at me, beady eyes glittering as it turned its head right, then left.
A commotion of sturdy boots on the stone stairs caused the crow to look away. My eyes were drawn to a swirl of red dress as I heard the Queen’s voice say in annoyance, ‘Shoo, you ugly thing!’
I smiled to myself as the rest of the entourage manifested themselves before me in the mist. The crow took to the air, squawking as it did.
‘Good morning, King Thengel,’ I said, bowing, then nodded to his left. ‘Queen Morwen.’
They both appeared to be in high spirits, and Morwen looked almost giddy.
‘Good morning to you!’ Thengel replied as he stomped down the stairs to me and clapping my arm with a leather-covered hand.
Behind them was Gléauling, a man I had discovered had been one of the former king’s closest advisors. He was easily in his eighties. Though he had lost an eye at some time in his youth, he was often seen overseeing some archery training and I knew that all of the Marshals held him in high esteem. We exchanged some pleasantries, then Morwen took my arm.
‘Come, Arthur. We have kept you so busy around our horses that you may not have known about another of our favourite animals.’
We walked away from the steps. The fog slowly dissipated, though I still could not see far before my face.
‘This was something new for Edoras, I believe,’ she continued as we walked around to a walled garden back behind Meduseld. Its high perimeter protected the plants within from the winds which whistled more often than not, evidenced by my chapped face and hands.
Gléauling pulled open a grated door, and my gaze lingered for a moment on a spiderweb which gleamed with jewelled dewdrops.
‘Thengel brought two falcons from Gondor after Théoden made mention of them when he was but a child.’ She smiled, small wrinkles forming around her brown eyes. ‘What he did not realise was how much I would take to them, more so than his son!’
We were now at the end of the gravel path, and I saw there were two large cages with thin metal bars crisscrossing across the fronts. Inside each one was a bird sitting atop a perch. Four eyes stared unblinkingly at me, while the sharp talons of one animal moved slightly as it sidled a bit down its bit of wood.
Morwen loosed my arm and retrieved from Gléauling a heavy leather glove similar in make to the King’s, which she put on her right hand. After unlatching the door, she reached in and one of the birds, with dark grey and white feathers, hopped on to her glove. Leaning back, she stood, then walked toward me so I could see the falcon, both woman and creature appearing to be quite comfortable and familiar with each other.
‘Arthur, who also possesses keen sight, this is Sharp-eyes.’
She petted the bird’s head, murmuring quiet nonsense to it in an intimate voice.
‘Shall we take her out today, and perhaps Lovebite tomorrow?’ Thengel asked.
I was more and more confused. Gléauling must have noticed, for he approached me and said, ‘They are trained birds. They live for the hunt and can see hares even when they are soaring above the plains and trees.’
I noticed that Morwen’s falcon had leather strips on its legs, and I was astonished when she pulled what could only be described as a leather helm over its head. What was its name? I wracked my mind. Sharp-eyes. Sharp claws, more likely.
‘They get agitated when we ride if their vision is not covered,’ Morwen explained.
The lady asked Gléauling to shut the front of the weathering while I continued to stand, mute. What Elrond or anyone in the Angle would think of all this I could not begin to guess, though I imagined they would find it all somewhat absurd. Horses were for training, not birds that could easily tear out one’s eyes with either beak or claw! All the same, a day of riding for pleasure, with or without this animal was certainly not unwelcome, and I found my spirits buoyed by Morwen’s enthusiasm.
The four of us rode north for an hour. The fog had lifted, but it was still overcast. Low-hanging shreds of dark grey clouds, chased by the wind, swiftly traversed the sky. Despite the lack of sun, it was very pleasant.
We stopped by a small glade of trees. After letting our horses graze to their satisfaction, both Morwen and Thengel monitored Sharp-eyes as she flew high above us, making distant circles as she was carried on the wind, then dove with deadly accuracy to the ground. She did this at least four times, and before we sat down to some salted meat, cheese and wine, the King had tied the legs of four well-formed hares and put them in a leather bag.
In the interim I had shot a couple of quail in the woods. There were deer to be found as well, but I had concluded that this journey was more for my benefit to see the feats of Sharp-eyes than much actual hunting.
Gléauling took his leave of us after the meal, bearing away the falcon and her prizes. As Morwen, Thengel and I remounted our horses, Thengel said, ‘Ranger, there is an excellent view of this part of Rohan not far from here. Would you like to see it?’
We rode a ways to the base of a cliff which had a trail that switch-backed up to what appeared to be a flat area, though I could not be certain from my viewpoint. As we travelled up the road which was wide enough for a small wagon, Thengel led, then Morwen, then myself. We rode in silence, hearing nothing save the sound of horse’s hooves on well-pounded dirt and the intimate sigh of leather as our boots nudged our animals upward. I glanced around as we made our way along the path, noticing small stone statues which stood at squat attention and appeared to be far older than any of the buildings in Edoras. Remember to ask Thengel about those, I admonished myself.
After climbing for some time, we emerged at the end of the pathway. A grassy flat plain awaited us, with a forest of dark trees half a league away, seeming oddly to be both shelter of the end of the trail and the growth itself sheltered by the mountain. I did not sense any malcontent, merely age. Even the air on this pleasant field seethed with knowing, of ages long past.
‘Did you notice the figures?’ Morwen asked, having dismounted from her horse, whose proper name I had not yet heard. She always called him “coal-biter,” presumably due to his glossy dark colouring. ‘They have lined the path for time immemorial, or so some would say.’ She shook her head, her pale face shining like the full moon when seen at midday against blue sky. ‘You, too, are from an old line. What do you make of them?’
I was momentarily flustered at being asked such a question, but I tried to respond in a way that would not make me look foolish.
‘They do look rather weathered,’ I replied. ‘Perhaps this area once was a place of much significance to both Rohan and Gondor.’ Quickly assessing the poor vagueness of my answer, I continued, ‘Or even Arnor and Gondor. There have been folk in these regions for dozens of generations. I can only say that they do not resemble Elvish work.’
Thengel had freed his horse to graze again on more lush grasses. He turned his bright eyes to me as he said with the kind of quiet authority that makes the hairs on one’s arms stand on end, ‘You have not told us much of your home, or upbringing, Ranger. How is it that you know so much about Elves, since their kind has been largely unknown to us for many lives of men?’
I wracked my mind. What I could say would not necessarily be believed, and I had hoped to keep that part of my life to myself for rather a bit longer than only a few years. Strangely, it was the Queen who rescued me.
‘My dear, do not harass your unexpected recruit! Surely he will let us know more of his elusive childhood when he feels it is appropriate.’ With an almost imperceptible wink to me, she continued, ‘I have had Lofgild asking around, and those in his éored are sure almost to a man that Arthur is no spy.’
The King shook his head in resignation, but took his wife’s arm, and they went to gaze near the path where we had recently travelled. I followed them, taking my leisure, looking out over the valley and mountains beyond.
The view was glorious. Though still mostly clouded, the lands below us seemed nestled in their shading, the river Snowbourn gliding smoothly away, a faint glint on the front gilded woodworks of Meduseld visible even from this distance. My eyes were drawn to a distant eagle, wheeling in an ever-growing arc reflective of circles on a pond after a good stone has been skipped on its surface.
‘It seems so small, does it not, compared to the vastness of Minas Tirith?’ Morwen’s voice was both reverent and matter-of-fact, and I knew that her question was rhetorical and most certainly not directed at me.
Thengel straightened himself, even to pulling himself away from her a bit before answering. ‘Smaller, yes,’ he acquiesced. ‘Yet that is where we rule, and where we should return. Our children and Waldgrim will await us.’
The Queen’s brows furrowed. ‘I did not mean to provoke you, it was merely observation.’
From much time spent watching the interplay of those in Rivendell, and overhearing conversations in the shadows of inns, it was obvious to me that this was an argument whose subtle thrusts and parries were well-practised by the participants. I had been rather enjoying the day, and did not wish to be a part of any conflagrations between Thengel and Morwen.
I walked around them for another look out over the vista, trying both to be unobtrusive and also to re-establish that I was there as a third party. ‘Rohan is a most beautiful land,’ I said. ‘Looking on it from this height is a sight to stir the soul.’
And it was. The splendour was in a manner completely different from that in Elrond’s hidden valley of trees and inhumanly beautiful architecture; before us stretched a more desolate and unfettered landscape, the waving grasses an ocean to soothe the eyes.
They both turned to me, Morwen first, and she briefly nodded her head.
‘It is.’ She looked intently at me, then asked, ‘Have you ever smelled the Sea?’
I murmured in the negative as she shrewdly pursued her lips.
‘You are young, and have much to see,’ she said.
Thengel left to retrieve their horses. I walked over to mine, then brought her to join those of the King and Queen. After taking in a heady breath of the ancient air, I looked to Morwen and saw that her expression was still kindly.
‘My lady?’ I asked, and she turned to me, her eyes as brown as pine bark.
‘Before we left the Golden Hall I heard you addressed as Steelsheen. If you do not consider it improper, may I ask what it means?’
She considered the statement, then laughed lightly, her face lit with mirth. ‘It is a Rohirric form of appreciation, I do believe. They have accepted me, an unknown woman from the South, who will never wield sword and spear as they do. The people of Edoras are pleased that I have filled the Hall with fair children who do them all honour. And,’ she leaned in with a slight smirk, ‘I do have very good posture.’
Although I could see that my old friend was holding up quite well, I suspected that, given the circumstances, Thengel would not mind the offer of something stronger than wine for his cup. As the musicians played, their ebullient sounds carrying far within the stone walls of the Hall, I let my eyes rove through the room to find him. I smiled, seeing him sequestered in the entry hall, accepting compliments and good wishes from Tarangil and Dallben, the three of us having made the journey together to Edoras from Minas Tirith. Thengel seemed to be comfortable and well at ease, most likely unaware that he stood below a tapestry portraying his ancestor Eorl. I was amazed at two things, all of a sudden: how well-suited he seemed to be as ruler of the land he had forsaken in his youth, greeting his marshals and stable boys alike with unwavering attention; but also how his countenance so resembled those who had ruled before him. His long hair, now more silver than gold, hung loose below his shoulders atop a regal tunic, blood red. Though I was not much one for spending time in front of a looking-glass, I suspected that were there a contest in looks, I would be the loser.
His first-born, Gwineth, danced with her new husband, Fultson, the reason for the revelry. The irony that she had married the son of her father’s former squire was not lost on me, but it was obvious from the looks on their faces that it was a good match, even as that of Thengel and Morwen. I shook my head and stretched slightly as I roused myself from the carved stone pillar that had been my vantage point. For one who had married so late, he had managed to sire five children. I was very happy for him, but also, in some ways, grateful for my own situation. How Thengel bore up so well with children ranging from twenty-five to six, was a mystery to me. Even contemplating that thought I took out my flask and poured some of the liquor into my cup, and drank.
Moments later, I interrupted the King of Rohan and my Rangers.
‘Thengel, former Ranger, boon to Gondor and greater boon to Rohan!’
He smiled, then walked to meet me, embracing me as warmly as he had the day he had told me of his wife’s first pregnancy. Then he stood back a space, his hands still on my shoulders, his olive-coloured eyes full of contentment.
‘Ecthelion,’ he said. ‘You honour me and all of this land with your presence. Thank you so much for attending the wedding of my daughter.’
I paused for a moment, only just hearing the Rohirric accent creeping in as he spoke, then produced my flask.
‘A toast!’ I offered, and Dallben and Tarangil readily put their cups forward. Thengel wavered, then raised his to me.
‘Why not?’ he replied, then finished the prior contents.
Moments later the four of us stood, sturdy stoneware cups touching rim to rim.
‘Thengel, she is beautiful.’
He nodded, keeping my gaze.
‘To happy children, and peace at the last,’ I proposed.
‘To happy children, and peace at the last,’ the trio responded, then tossed back the fiery cordial.
Even as Thengel’s eyes widened and he shook his head in response to the strong beverage, Morwen appeared.
‘I should have known!’ she said, a wicked gleam in her eye. ‘Cannot trust a Ranger,’ she stopped to glare defiantly at me, then continued, ‘or a former Ranger, any further than I can throw him.’ Her arms were soon around Thengel’s waist, and then she smiled, her eyes shining even in the flickering light.
‘Steward Ecthelion, I know that you made this trip without your wife, but I will not stand for you hiding away with the father of the bride. Dance with me if you will have none other!’
I raised my eyebrows at Thengel, but he shooed me away, a wide grin on his face. Morwen escorted me into the main Hall, her arm in mine, and soon I was trying desperately to keep up with her quick steps. Despite the difficulties on my borders, it was good to be here on this night, sharing joy with my former Captain and his wife, her beauty belying her age.
As we turned and parted, adhering to well-known choreography, I noticed a tall youth helping himself to the plentiful food from the board. His bright hair was braided as appeared to be common among the warriors of Rohan, and he spoke with a slightly older man with dark hair. I would not have been so rude as to point at him, so at a brief lull, I leaned into Morwen and asked, ‘Who of your company is that at your table?
She turned to see where I indicated, then looked back at me, confused. ‘Why, Théoden, of course!’
I was stunned. ‘How can that be?’
She smiled knowingly. ‘Dear Ecthelion, he is a child no longer, and patrols with the Rangers. I am somewhat surprised that you do not see his father’s face in him, as fond of Thengel as you are!’
I took her in my arms as the dance dictated, and I could tell she found my discomfort amusing.
‘Do not fret so.’ She smiled warmly. ‘It is not as though you visit us often, and as much as we rue it, it is our children whose faces change the fastest.’
Were truer words said? I wondered, and found myself nodding.
‘Were I to set eyes on your Denethor, I am sure that I would not begin to recognise him, seeing as how he is older now than Thengel was when I first ran into him.’
She paused for a moment, considering her next words, then said, ‘Denethor is taking his time to wed.’
Her gaze was kind, not accusatory. Had I not enjoyed quite so much of my cordial earlier, I might have felt improper, being so comfortable in her sights, speaking as though she were a confidante of mine, though she had never been. And yet, I felt that it was not shameful to express some of my anxiety about the unmarried state of my son, whose brilliance shone in all other aspects of his life, save this one.
We began a stately walk, our palms pressed together as I replied, ‘Yes, he is, at much anxiety to his mother, who wishes for nothing, seemingly, save to be changing the underclothes of her yet unborn grandchildren.’
Morwen looked at me with pity and intertwined our fingers. ‘I daresay that her waiting shall not be much longer. As is said, those with patience are given the greatest gifts.’
It was only now, as she formed a slow smile, tiny creases at her lips, that I could see some of the toll of years behind her youthful expression. ‘Do not forget that Thengel was thirty-five when we wed, and the graces given us have been beyond reckoning.’
The music ceased, and we parted, then bowed toward one another.
All standing in the great hall applauded the talent of the musicians. Morwen shifted toward me, her pine-coloured dress dragging only slightly behind her.
‘I have been remiss in answering your question fully.’ The earnestness in her voice engaged me as she continued. ‘The other speaking to my son was Arthur, a Ranger from the North. He has been serving here for several years, and is a great healer.’
‘So that is he!’ I took a moment to look him over more thoroughly. He looked every inch a marshal, except for his face. Just before I turned away, he lifted his head and caught my gaze, and I was shocked to see how much he resembled my nephew Imrahil in countenance. His features were very much like the high-born of Gondor, yet he had come from the wilds of the North. Before reverting my glance to the host at my side, I briefly lowered my eyes, then continued to speak to Morwen.
‘Thengel has mentioned him in some correspondence recently. His past seems a bit cloudy, but your husband has spoken admirably of his skill both in tracking and slaying the orcs who have been so troublesome of late.’
Morwen nodded. ‘He seems to bring good will ere he goes,’ she said, then shrugged as she clasped my hands. ‘But I would prefer to entrust my faith in those who have paid their dues in this world, bearing up honourably with their scars and regal silver hair.’
I was just trying to figure out what I could say in reply to that when two of Thengel’s daughters came up, the elder tapping on Morwen’s shoulder, at least a head taller than her mother.
‘Excuse me, dear Steward,’ the Queen murmured, before turning to her charges.
It was only thanks to my talent with names that I could have recalled each child. The elder, Brianna, seemed an apt namesake for Morwen’s own younger sister, though ripe enough at eighteen that I found I needed quickly to avert my eyes from her closely-tied gown. The younger, Théodwyn, was the source of strife, holding her hand to her left ear.
‘Is the music too loud, dearest?’ I heard Morwen ask. Even as I saw the interchange unfold, I felt like an outsider, and made motions to leave.
‘Ecthelion!’ I heard as I turned. Her eyes beckoned for a last gesture, and as Steward of Gondor, this was something I was bred to do.
I held out a hand to Morwen. She placed her dominant left hand in mine, a trait mirrored in Thengel which I had found oddly endearing, even though it had made it exceedingly challenging for finding a writing-desk to accommodate him. I kissed her above the wide gold band bearing a star-sapphire on her fourth finger, and nodded respectfully to Brianna.
‘My lady,’ I began, ‘your daughter is the most beautiful-’
She cut me off, albeit gently. ‘I have many daughters. I hope that the fortunes of Gondor will shine on us often enough that your affections for my husband will not run out before the other four weddings.’
She winked before turning her full attentions to her youngest daughter, now with both delicate hands clapped to her ears, tears streaming down her face. Brianna, her duty done, was now making surreptitious glances around the room at the available young men.
As I tried to find Thengel, I realised that Brianna could be the age of my own granddaughter, had not my own son not been so stubborn.
Under my breath, I cursed him, then feeling a bad omen on me, I went outside to find clearer air.
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