Many Guises and Many Names
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House Divided, A: 6. Damage
Two days ago she had approached me, recounting Théodwyn’s high fevers and ear pain in great detail. ‘All of my children are strong,’ she said pleadingly. ‘She will recover, yes?’
There is not much in this world which can force me into silence, but that question was one which I could not answer.
‘She will,’ she murmured. Then, in an intimate gesture which was so unexpected that I was unable to move, she took both of her hands and placed them on my face, her thumbs caressing my cheekbones. ‘You will heal her,’ she whispered. ‘It is your gift.’
And then she turned and left.
Now I found myself in the kitchen, making an infusion of steeped herbs. After pouring boiling water on it, I walked to the child’s room and sat on her bed, blowing away some of the steam from the hot herb tea I had brewed before raising it to her lips. Morwen had almost set the room ablaze with cedar-scented candles, some of which I had blown out for fear of too much heat on my patient and, quite honestly, to ensure that none of the nearby bedclothes would catch fire. The six year old’s hair was somewhat matted; I had specifically requested that she not be bathed and risk a chill on top of whatever it was which raged in her ear, making her cry out in the night. After Théodwyn had a few sips of the tea, I removed my overshirt, feeling rather warm in the small chamber, and blew again on the tea.
I turned my head to the child. ‘What, little one?’ With my left hand I smoothed some hair out of her eyes, which were half-shut. ‘Did you say something?’
‘Song,’ she said softly. ‘Will you sing me a song? When I don’t feel well, mother sings to me.’
My hands were cupped around the drink. I believed that it was still too hot for her to hold, but I felt she should have some more of the contents.
‘Yes, there are some pretty tunes that I know. If you will drink some more of this, I will sing something that I suspect you have not heard before.’
Weakly she stretched an arm out for the cup, and had two swallows, coughed a bit, then had one more before returning it to me.
Satisfied, I placed the mug on the floor.
As a light autumn breeze came in through the window, I hummed for a moment, then sang a song about the stars dancing in the sky, of trees with leaves both silver and gold, waving in a night of soft darkness. It was not one that would have been often sung in the Hall of Fire, but it had been one that my mother loved, even before she could understand much Elvish. The pale child of Rohan would not understand the words either, but she seemed to relax, so I continued to sing. After a little while I sensed that I was being watched, but as I slowly turned my head to the doorway, I saw no one, and the feeling passed.
I felt unburdened as I sang, so I continued on to another tune, and then another. From time to time Théodwyn stirred, and each time I gave her some more of the medicinal beverage.
Finally she slept, so I got up and went to the window, and spent some time looking out at the mountains and plains surrounding this isolated hall. The stars glimmered slightly behind a mostly clouded sky, but even their hazy light gave me hope for this illness-ravaged daughter of the King. I sang a bit more, enjoying the feeling of Elvish words in my mouth, lyrics of love and longing. Again the hair on my neck raised, as though someone were staring at me. I closed my lips so that I was humming as I turned around.
Morwen stood, hands clasped above her heart, tears running down her face. I walked quickly toward the doorway, troubled by her presence, but as soon as I had faced her, she disappeared from the entry.
I leaned out into the corridor, a hand still on the jamb, but there was no sight of the Queen.
Her stealth rivals that of the Rangers! I thought, disconcerted.
A rustling of bedcovers returned my attentions to Théodwyn, and I went back to sit by her side. With the back of my hand, I felt her forehead, which now seemed almost normal, and silently I praised the Valar. I did not wish to presume, but after days of fever without change, this respite gave me hope for her recovery. It is grievous for any parent to lose a child, but I had seen how tender King Thengel was with his youngest daughter, and I suspected that had things gone poorly, the burden of his sorrows would have been weighty indeed.
Unwilling to leave the room in case the child’s condition worsened suddenly, I sat down in a chair across the room and stretched out, resting my eyes for some time. I had certainly been forced to catch what slumber I could in far less comfortable surrounds than I currently found myself in, and soon I was in a light sleep.
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.
~From "September 1, 1939," W. H. Auden
‘She is well, Thengel, it is only weakness that remains, and that shall soon pass. You are free to go, and you should, if you feel it is appropriate!’
He was pacing, his forehead creased as he debated what to do. I played with Théodwyn’s hair as she lay on a blanket next to me, her feet outstretched near the clear water. She was still very fragile, weeks after her fever broke, but she enjoyed being outside, and so I took her out every day when it did not rain. Fréawyn and Brianna also assisted, acting like young mothers, even moving into their younger sister’s room to make sure that she was not alone during the night.
‘What if something should happen?’ my husband asked, and it took everything in me not to laugh at the absurdity of the question.
‘My dear, the potential for tragedy exists every day. You could not stop destiny whether you were here or no.’
His face was contemplative and focused on our daughter, not the words I had just spoken. I decided to speak freely.
‘The Riders and Théoden would be most pleased if you were with them on patrol. Besides, it has been some time since you visited the Lord of Isengard, and I think that it would be good for you to see him and remind him of our goodwill. He is assisting in the protection of this land, after all, and appropriate homage is not uncalled for.’
He stopped walking, and with his left hand stroked his chin through his beard, a habit that I was sure would drive me mad well before age might rob me of my right mind. I forced my gaze down to the river instead.
‘Yes, you are right,’ he said. ‘We need to retain strong relations with our allies, and Saruman’s loyalty has never been questionable.’
Pebbles shone near the white toes of my youngest child, the sparkling water chasing over the multicoloured rocks in warm midday light. I gazed at them, allowing my vision to soften, unfocused. So that is all it took, I mused. A logical course of action, and then he will be absent for some time.
Thengel came over and sat next to us, draping an arm over my shoulder. I looked at him for a few moments as he smiled, then traced a finger across Théodwyn’s face, her eyes closed in sleep. He leaned in and our lips met with a bland familiarity that can only come after years of marriage. My pulse quickened after a few moments, however, as unbidden, I saw the Ranger's face in my mind. I sensed him responding to my insistent tongue as I deepened our kiss.
Perhaps it was wrong for me ever to have let my thoughts wander as they had, but imperfect I was born and imperfect I knew I would die. As we lingered by the waters, Thengel’s fingers traced well-known paths from the back of my neck down to the front of my dress. We had been wed for twenty-six years, and such intimacies were far from frequent, not that I minded. But as we kissed and his hands caressed my breasts, no longer so firm after having nursed our five children, I felt a long-absent ache rekindled below my womb.
Though ashamed, I allowed my imagination to continue down its disloyal path, for the excitement I felt was not from kissing my husband. With my eyes closed, my body responded to another’s touch, yearning to be known, every curve of flesh heretofore unseen, beheld as marble to a master sculptor.
For in the rebellious fancy of my mind, the eyes above the mouth I so hungrily sought were grey as iridescent fish scales, and the tongue which met mine sang in glorious words of haunting beauty, their meaning unknown to my ears. His very singing could heal those near death; I had heard, and I had wept. He of the keen eyes. He whom I had named.
Desire for him now consumed me, and I burned.
My thoughts may have been traitorous, perhaps not. I knew that Arthur would remain in Edoras while the rest of those in his patrol were on leave, most of the Riders enjoying a well-earned reprieve with their families. I also knew that the northern Ranger was drawn to the evening, and to star-gazing.
It was not that I had sought such knowledge, but while I kept vigil by the side of the daughter whom I had already nearly lost once before at birth, his proclivities somehow became branded in my memory. Weeks ago I would not even have noticed, so caught up I was in Théodwyn’s every breath, every fevered motion. Yet now I found with each unexpected noise, every motion of curtains caught by the breeze, I turned, hoping to see his frame in the doorway. I was sure that all was not well with me, for in these moments of fancy he wore only his open shirt, the way I had chanced to see him as he treated Théodwyn; curling dark brown hair on his chest shining in candlelight, his cloak on the floor, his cheeks flushed with the warmth of the room.
I railed against myself. I could not be as a moth to fire; it was only that he had brought back my darling from death, her inner burning sure to take her, and it was those abilities which forced my eyes back to him.
As much as I had wished, the lies I tried to swallow would not go down easily. No, they resisted being stomached at all. My marriage bed was so cold compared to the heat in that room where I had found I could not linger, but where I was still drawn as an innocent is fascinated by beautiful leaping flames.
At times the risk of burning seemed small price, though the yearning awakened in me knew that the gap between scalded fingers and whole immolation was as thin as a knife-blade.
I wondered if breath itself could be set alight.
The next day at midmorning, standing on the steps of Meduseld, I poured the stirrup-cup for Thengel. He took it thankfully; drank, bowed his head, and returned the chalice. He would not be gone for long, but such demonstrations of historical propriety were met with much appreciation by his men and the citizens of Edoras. After they had departed and the thundering of hooves had quieted, the air was filled with the more common sounds of bleating sheep, common folk haggling for what was needed while filling the emerging absence of familiar souls, and dogs barking to hear themselves.
By the afternoon I had taken to my bedchamber.
The morning following the healers were desperate to see me. The Rohirrim are strong people, not taken to illness very often, and Théodwyn's near brush with death had put those in the healing arts on edge. They knew I was sturdy, so I asked merely for fortified broth and strong wine. Brianna ventured in after supper on her way to spend the evening with Théodwyn, and I reassured her that it was a passing vague malcontent, that I would be well shortly.
She sat, unconvinced, her sturdy brown brows knit together, running her fingers across my forehead.
'I will send for the Ranger,' she said earnestly.
I shook my head. 'He, too, must rest after spending so many weeks on the hard ground. This will pass.'
Her eyes darkened, troubled like autumn storm clouds. 'You trust him in his capabilities. I will send for him.'
My conjured protestations fell on deaf ears. As evening ventured on toward night, I shivered both with self-loathing and anticipation. It was wrong for me to do this. I was a young woman no longer. My head should not turn at the sight of those fair ones whose faces were pleasing, cloth sticking in summer heat to muscular frames untouched by weariness and responsibility. And yet, I waited. I yearned for him, hoping that my body would not be displeasing in his eyes.
Something in me knew he would come, as inescapably as a bird to the air. There were many things of which he had no need, longings I had seen in the visages of others in my husband's company, though they thought no one saw: loyalty, trust, confidences, adoration.
The only possible downfall in this man was pride. I did not wish to wring it from him; I hoped only that it would be enough to bring him to my room so that his hands would knead my flesh, that I would hear that clear voice singing in words from beyond this world.
It had been dark several hours when I heard a hesitant knock on the door. From deep within myself, a shudder bordering on delight raced down my spine, and I knew it was he.
'Enter,' I said.
He looked in and appraised both the room and me in an instant; ever the Ranger, ever attentive.
'I shall not bite, Arthur, and I keep no other company.'
He shut the door behind him. As he walked to my bed he lowered his head, but not before I saw a curious mix of expressions on his face. Worry, yes, but also something more conflicted. I noticed a bag of herbs knotted to his belt, and while I tried not to, I found myself unable to deny my eyes a surreptitious glance below his midsection.
His voice sounded of songs on the wind. 'Morwen.' He crouched on his haunches, looking concernedly at me, his eye roving across my face for evidence of sickness. 'What troubles the Queen of Rohan?'
I tried to suppress a thrumming of delight, pulsing in my blood. 'My very bones ache, Arthur. I do not know what could have brought it on.' Raising up slightly to show that I was not an invalid, as well as reveal my lack of clothing, I gazed into his granite eyes. Earnestness radiated from him, mingled with caution. 'Would you mind rubbing some of this oil of Gondor into my skin?' I motioned to a flask on the bedside table. 'I believe that it would relieve the cold which resides there, and then I shall be as flighty as falcons by morning.'
He paused for a moment. He wished to aid me in removing the source of my pain, that was obvious. I knew that he was gratified that people now consulted him, the young Ranger from the North, for more complicated medical difficulties. But I was also an unclothed woman, and the wife of his superior. Who was absent.
I smiled shyly. ‘If you would but grant some of the strength of your hands while singing some of those lyric tunes which healed my daughter, I know that all that is wrong within me will be made right.’
He stood, his knees cracking slightly, eyes focused in thought, until from somewhere within himself he reached a conclusion. With a slight nod, he indicated his agreement. I made to turn over, and he averted his gaze, chucking as he did so. As I made myself comfortable, leaning my head into pillows of soft cloths brought from Dol Amroth, I asked him what was humourous.
‘I assure you, it is not your condition that I laugh at, Queen Morwen. But I must admit I am grateful that you are not surrounded by the many candles you placed around young Théodwyn. One does not wish for one’s patient to be set alight, especially before she has been tended!’
I turned to look at him, saw his cheekbones lit by small inoffensive tapers in wall sconces, his eyes twinkling merrily. He was at ease. Comfortable, even. Suddenly aware that I had licked my dry lips, I turned my head back around. In an instant, he was at the top of the bed.
‘Do you need some water?’
I shook my head, then reconsidered. ‘No. There is some wine near the window, however, and I would be glad of that.’
He poured some for me, brought it back, and raising up slightly so as not to spill the cup, I drank. Remembering that I was supposed to be ill, I sighed slightly, and lay down again on coarse sheets.
What he did next was perhaps to humour me. Or perhaps he, being a man of uncanny insight, intuited the needs of a woman with whom he somehow knew he would become familiar in one sense or another. There were some candles of cedar scent near the bed, and using one of the wall tapers, he lit a few of them. Within moments, the tangy breath of old trees wafted about the room.
He laid his strong hands on my shoulders, surprisingly narrow fingers slick with Gondorian oil, and began to hum. With what was left of my rational mind, I recognized that the tune quietly issuing from his lips was not one that I had heard before. Before. When I had clutched to the doorframe as his heart-rending voice had sent his beautiful, incomprehensible song to the skies.
From within my most private heats, I throbbed, somehow able to remain lying prone, every sense aflame. When he at last began to sing, a melancholy line which seemed to carry burdens of sorrows unbearable, I was sure that I would be consumed; that I would burn and in doing so, possess him as a flame does wood.
But as an ember glows in stillness, so did I. My heart joined in his tale of exquisite woe, as a slow wave of passionate release pulsed through me, making my very fingers tingle. I grasped at the bed with a soft moan, and he stopped.
‘Have I hurt you?’ he asked, his voice near my ear.
‘No, no,’ I murmured, reaching out a hand to place on his knee. ‘All is well. Please continue.’
He massaged my back, from my neck down even to my upper buttocks, singing quietly. After time uncountable, but yet far too short of forever, he stopped. Assuming that I was asleep since I had not moved in so long, he pulled my blanket to my shoulders, then caressed my head for a time, his sturdy hands delicately fingering my scalp and hair. Leaning down, he lightly placed a kiss on my head, then smoothly got up from the bed. I heard him blow out the candles, open the door, then stop.
He spoke something which I could not understand, but which felt like a blessing, then the door was shut.
Like the coals in the smiths’ fires smoulder long after the fire has gone out, I lay, breathing heavily, my skin still warm from where his fingers had traversed. Would the radiance he had brought to the surface be there for all to see, or would it be visible to myself alone? Could I douse such light? Dare I?
Brianna came to my chamber midmorning, and once she saw me, her face brightened.
‘Mama!’ she exclaimed. ‘I knew that Arthur needed to tend to you. Your very eyes are shining.’
As she left, I supposed that my own daughter had unwittingly answered one of the questions which had assaulted me the night before.
The afternoon was especially golden as Théoden, his éored and I returned to Meduseld. Ripe, I thought. It would soon be time for harvesting, and for the breeding of the sheep. The rains had been kind through the summer, and it appeared that the people of Edoras would be far from starving, even if autumn was followed by a bitter winter.
I dismounted from Ðeostrung and after patting down his blue-black coat, strode up the steps, nodding to the Doorward and guards. Though tired, I was in good spirits. Inside the high-ceilinged hall it was a comforting mixture of stony cool and peatfire warmth. Rather than go straight to my study, I decided to find Morwen.
The smell of something sweet drifted from the kitchen and I found myself drawn to the large room despite my prior intentions. It was not the cook whom I found there, however.
‘Father!’ both girls cried out. Brianna and Fréawyn had donned aprons and were scrubbing down the stone counter. As they rinsed out their cloths, I marveled at how affectionate they continued to remain with each other, their age difference being three years. I embraced them both warmly, Brianna’s dark head reaching almost to my chin, and Fréawyn’s red-gold temporarily tamed curls not much shorter.
‘What are you baking?' I asked. 'I found I could not resist a detour to the kitchen!’
They grinned in tandem.
‘Blackberry tarts. You shall have them after supper!’ Fréawyn explained, squeezing my hand.
‘Ah, I replied. ‘You are very kind to an old king.’
‘Old king?’ Brianna said, indignant, then looking at my face, she saw that I was teasing her.
‘Yes, frightfully old.’
Fréawyn shook her head in response.
‘Where is your mother?’ I asked.
The young women shrugged. ‘Sorry Father, but we have been busy, and I do not know,’ Fréawyn apologized, then reached out to wipe some stray wheat flour from her sister’s cheek.
I released them. ‘Very well. I will see you at supper.’
As I left the kitchen, I decided to go back outside and ask one of the guards to the hall as to Morwen’s whereabouts, as nothing escaped their attentive eyes. I found myself again in the glowing light of late afternoon, and turning to the left, saw Frithmund, one of the younger guards I had appointed in the past year. He stood to attention and faced me.
‘Frithmund, do you know where the Queen is?’
Keen eyes the colour of mossy rock looked levelly at me. ‘Yes, my lord. She and the Ranger went riding some hours ago.’
Surprise showered through me, but I kept my composure. Surely I could not expect Morwen to spend all of her time alone working on one of her needlework masterpieces, or with the children, and yet I was displeased.
‘Thank you, Frithmund.’
He bowed in reply, but before resuming his stance, he continued, ‘She took ill after you left, my liege, but she seems to have recovered swiftly.’ He turned back to face the main road which led down to the gates and then out to the plains. I stood for a few moments as well, wondering at this news.
It is nothing, I resolved, then returned to the Hall and then into my study to have a glass of wine.
The next morning I was at a council with Arthur and Gramstred when Morwen chanced to walk by. She stopped briefly and nodded at us, but I saw she took a moment to smile at Arthur, who bowed his head. I looked again at Morwen as she continued on, noticing with a sudden shock how young she still appeared, how the curves of her body were displayed pleasingly in her dress, a faint flush in her cheeks. I continued to lead the discussion though my mind was now only half focused on what I was saying. Surely the noble-blooded man at the table across from me who had proven to act beyond reproach in all things had not been recently improper; perhaps I had only imagined my wife’s dawdling in the front of the doorway. The Ranger was a handsome man, however, and young.
I decided that I was being ridiculous.
Later that evening, I gazed at myself in the looking-glass in our bedroom. Morwen was asleep, and I felt wretched. She had been in a most passionate ardor, and though I had wished to please her, I had found for the first time in my life that I had been unable to do so. My body had betrayed me.
Her soothing insistence that it did not matter, that she was sure I was only tired, made me feel all the worse.
As though for the first time I acknowledged that my age was now revealed on my face and in the grey of my hair, and apparently in the rest of my form as well. I was sixty-four years old, and still hale, but as I stood, listening to my wife’s quiet breathing, an unfamiliar sensation coursed through me.
It was jealousy.
I resolved to send Arthur to Gondor within the week. He would have my full commendations, which were well-founded, and I knew that Ecthelion would be pleased beyond words. I had written to him of this unexpected Ranger who had proven himself so well in battle and in strategy, and I knew that he would demonstrate himself a valuable boon to my friend and the land I had left behind.
I would not suffer a rival, even if imagined, in my own house.
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