Many Guises and Many Names
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House Divided, A: 7. Death
I heard a steady clinking sound for several moments before my mind recognised that it was I, myself, making the noise. Irritated, I put the chalice down, stopping the racket by not tapping the glass against my own teeth. Where was Penick? I mused angrily, my thoughts on edge. He should have been here for council ages ago--
A loud rapping on my door caused me to whirl around and fumble with my cup, which almost fell from its precarious perch on the windowsill.
‘Yes?!’ I exclaimed, testy.
Surprisingly, it was not the chief messenger from Imrahil. It was Kelsolan, my aide.
‘Steward Ecthelion?’ he asked, dark eyebrows furrowed, then he mastered any emotions on his face. ‘A letter, sir, bearing the seal of Rohan.’
I walked to the door, and took the parchment, looking at it quickly before nodding dismissively.
‘My thanks.’ Mind racing, I turned and asked, ‘Did the bearer say that he had met anyone on the way?’
Hazel eyes focused on mine.
‘Yes, Lord Steward. He met Denethor and Gwindor two day’s ride outside of Gondor, but they did not speak of their individual messages.’
I stood for a moment, handling the paper, then realised that I needed to make a reply.
‘That is all, Kelsolan. Thank you for bringing this to me immediately.’
He bowed, then said, ‘I assume that you will wish to extend the common courtesies--’
I waved my hand. ‘Yes, yes. Please see that the messenger is fed, housed, and of course, that his horse is shown to a Rohirric groom.’
The seal had broken under my thumbs.
‘If there is one still left, anyway,’ I muttered. ‘Why they pick fights with those youths from the coast I will never--'
I cleared my throat. ‘Yes?’
‘Are you in need of anything?’ He eyed my glass and the empty bottle standing on my desk.
Chuckling ruefully, I replied, ‘Nothing misses those astute eyes, do they, son of Dallben?’
His lips curled. ‘Precious little if I can help it, Lord Steward.’ He bowed, and backed away to the door. ‘Wine will be brought to you shortly.’
As the solid wood shut behind him, I sank into my chair, dread hanging on me as intimately as my tunic used to after a thirty-days’ march. I sat down at my desk to read what had been sent from Thengel, my heart still groaning from the horrendous news I had sent to his family only days before; this only a few months after telling him of Tarangil's death from an infection incurred from an orc-arrow wound.
Things here go ill. I feel obliged to ride out to the Eastfold with my son and those of his éored who can be spared. Either the ancient Easterlings are starving or they have become less afeared of us, for they have been harassing the folk on their borders, burning some homes and stealing sheep and cows. I would have sent him alone, for Théoden is his own man, but I have not been out on patrol in a while.
How is Arthur doing amongst your company? He is a good man; complex, and for all of his skills, I do admit to a wariness about him, if only because I do not know his heritage beyond what he chose to tell me. Still, if what you have written is true, you are in need of all men of strength, and I hope that he is the boon to you as he was to Rohan.
Morwen and the children send their love to you, your dear wife, and to Denethor. Can it really have been already over a year since you were here for Gwineth’s wedding? I look forward to an invitation to celebrations of your own house. Surely that clear-sighted son of yours will not try to out-last me in his wedding age by many more years.
I released the paper and let it roll back into its former cylindrical shape. After a sharp knock, the wine steward entered, and I gratefully accepted a new pitcher of recently imported wine from my wife’s family on the sea, and poured myself a full glass as the youth left.
My son would be arriving at Edoras within the day, and I could not imagine how Morwen would take the news that I had been obliged to send to her, especially with her husband and only son out on patrol. I took a healthy swig of wine.
Seven days later, Morwen was shown in to see me. She looked as composed as she could, having had several days to absorb the news I had sent.
‘Dear Ecthelion,’ she began, not even shedding her travelling coat as she stood in the doorframe. ‘Thengel would have sent his kindest regards, you know that…’
Her voice trailed off as her left hand played with a cape-clasp as I walked quickly toward her.
‘My dear,’ I spoke gently, then deciding it was not inappropriate, I embraced her wholly. ‘I am so sorry. I had wished to see you again under much more pleasant tidings.’
She rested against me for a time, then looked up, her cavernous eyes oddly flat and emotionless. ‘Where shall I stay, since my home is burned?’
I looked incredulously at her for a moment, then answered, ‘Here, of course. In Minas Tirith. On the sixth level. I will have my aide take you to your lodging.’
She nodded. ‘It is still light. May I be so bold as to ask to borrow a fresh horse to journey to Lossarnach? I do not wish to do you any disservice, but since my family is already buried, I would like at least to cast my eyes on what little remains.’
Saying no to such a request was impossible, and so I let her go, asking only for her attendance at dinner. I knew what she would see at her home; rubble and ash. The house had burned to the ground, and though her parents were not young, they should have seen many more years. That all of her siblings save Forlong had also perished in the fire was tragedy upon itself. I rubbed at my forehead, wishing that Thengel had not been away, that he could have been here with her during her grief. Not that she was a weak woman, for I knew that not to be the case. But to lose almost all of her family in one fell sweep of fate, especially when she lived so far away, I was sure it was taking a heavier toll on her than she cared to reveal to me. I sighed. We could converse at dinner, and perhaps I would be able to get some sense of how she truly fared from either Gwindor or Denethor, who had escorted her here.
He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes;
My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is…
~ Lamentations 3:16-17
There was a quiet knock on the door. I continued to hold the small knife above my skin, drawing tentative lines. I expected no one, and so I ignored the sounds. I now had a small yellow bird in a cage for company, unhappily tittering at me, hopping from floor to bars to perch and back. The bird had been found in a tree, near the remains of the burned house. Forlong wept openly as he said that it had been Brianna’s daughter’s finch. I had had no choice but to take it.
Forlong and I spoke the words we were supposed to say to commemorate our loved ones, bidding them farewell while standing on the ground which had long since ceased to smoulder. I had lost my composure, and grabbing his arm, I begged, ‘Tell me that there was someone who did this! A spurned suitor, something! Father was never so careless…’
He clutched at my hand, and his wife made a move to rush toward us, then stopped herself after my brother waved his hand in some motion of patience.
‘It was an accident, Morwen. Iolande was sought by many, it is true, but none would have tried to set the house ablaze. It was simply--’
‘Fate,’ I snapped in reply. ‘Curse fate. Curse flames and fire and cloth and men from Rohan who run into you in the street. It is all for naught. I do not see the meaning to life anymore. It is all folly.’
Forlong stepped away from me, obviously upset. ‘Morwen! Don’t say such things! Look at what you have become!’
Now I knelt on the floor of my cold room, the fire unlit. Yes, I thought, look at what I have become. The Queen of Rohan, my family speaking a language that others do not, my parents and my sisters and their families dead. And my inconstant heart somehow swayed by a man from yet another land. I am a disgrace. My children would fare far better without me.
Ecthelion had been a very gracious host, and I had drunk most of the wine he had sent. The knocking continued, more assertive this time. I swore at the door, and was surprised to realise that it had been in Rohirric, rather than Westron.
You are hopeless, I mused, drawing the blade harder.
The door opened.
‘Arthur!’ I said, shocked.
He was at my side in moments, and took the knife.
‘That was mine,’ I murmured, but then resigned to my caretaking, shaking my head.
He crouched by me, holding my hands in his.
‘What are you doing?’ he asked.
I shrugged. ‘Mourning. Is that not what I should be doing? If there had been more ash I would have covered myself in it. But the fire was days ago.’ I jerked my head in the direction of the agitated finch. ‘Would you care for a bird? My brother found it. It belonged to my sister-daughter. He does not appear to be happy around me.’
His grey eyes looked at me sternly. ‘Stop this.’
I looked back evenly. ‘Gondor suits you. All lands seem to suit you.’
He sat ungracefully, the first time I had seen him do anything that did not have an aura of dignity to it.
He cleared his throat. ‘They call me Thorongil, now.’ He looked gravely at me as he massaged my fingers, still caged in his hands. ‘What is odd is that the meaning is similar to the one you gave me.’
I retrieved a hand to move some hair out of my face. ‘I am in need of a reason to live, Ranger.’
His gaze was clouded, worry and disquiet battling while he sat in silence.
‘There is a woman, isn’t there?’
He nodded, continuing to caress my chilled fingers. ‘She is one of the immortals. I have to trust that fate will not cause our paths to sunder completely. I may have keen sight, but the future is something I am unable to see.’
I picked up my glass and drank what was left. ‘I have never wished to know what will come, and I do not want that burden now.’ I breathed deeply. ‘I am cold, Arthur.’
‘You should be warmed,’ he said gently, then leaned in and placed his soft lips on mine.
I kissed back, hungrily, rather uncertain that he was really there, wondering if I were merely in a dreaming stupor. I am sure that I left bite marks all over his skin, desperate for visual evidence that I had been physically on him, tasting, my hands grasping at coarse hair on his chest, on his face. I had been so close to the land of the spirits that I found myself drowning in my senses. His scent! I wished only to burrow under his skin, then realised that for once, just that one time, much more was there as gift for me.
All further details of that night are mine alone. We were awkward together; whatever they may say of men, whether they be kings or peasants, they are still very much human, and all couplings as we had only become graceful with practise, which we did not have.
And yet, as I dressed and took my toilet the next morning, sore as I was both from intimacies long-inexperienced and our ardours which had unintentionally bruised my back, I no longer wished to die.
The golden bird and I had a safe journey back to Rohan. Denethor asked me several questions about Arthur which I felt were inappropriate, but then I looked at the Steward’s son, at his attractive profile, and his queries disturbed me no more. The two men were not so different in age, and Denethor perhaps rightfully felt that a rival had stepped unexpectedly into their ranks.
We housed the Steward’s Son and Gwindor for two nights upon our arrival to Meduseld. Thengel was beside himself in mourning for my family, and wept in our bedchamber as I spoke to him of the details. It was only as our guests left, and Thengel went with Théodwyn for a ride to the orchards and I was left alone, that I allowed myself to grieve as I knew I must.
The cry ripped from my son’s throat. The situation must have been exceptionally poor else he would have called me by any of my usual names, this being one I had not heard in years.
I had two chalices at the ready to toast his child’s birth, whether male or female, it did not so much matter to me. I had sired so many children, I expected the same would be true for Théoden. But his wretched face told me more than I could accept at that moment.
‘Théoden!’ I replied, striding toward him. ‘Whatever is the matter? Is Elfhild ill?’
He crumpled. He sank to his knees, forehead on his legs, his hands above his matted hair, unwashed for days over the caretaking of his expectant wife. He rocked back and forth for a few moments as the comprehension of what had happened tried to reach out a fierce arm to me, but I was unwilling to tend to the parlay.
Handing my drink to a servant, with creaking knees I lowered myself to his level on the floor. ‘The best healers in all of Rohan, my son, they are here- you know how they saved Théodwyn.’
I found that I was stroking his hair, then Morwen burst into my study, her eyes red. I raised my glance to her, and then lowered it, unable to withstand the honest brutality of what was conveyed in her visage.
She ran to our son, covered him with her thin arms, and held him as he pounded at the floor. He beat at the boards for a good amount of time while I ran my fingers through his hair, Morwen and I sharing a cloth which an aide had been good enough to retrieve and hand to me. I raised my son from the floor and pulled him to my chest, where he clutched at me, raging and sobbing, alternately.
He had been so loud that we had not heard Fréawyn enter, her eyes as bloodshot as the rest, but holding a tidily bound bundle.
‘He needs a name,’ she said, quietly, still rocking the newborn even as his tiny fingers grasped at the cloths put around him. ‘Théoden, you must name him.’
I raised my eyes to her, this stalwart daughter of mine whose strength I had not until that moment comprehended.
‘Théoden!’ Her glacier-blue eyes were pleading, begging for someone to hear her. ‘I know you do not wish to, but you must, he is part of both of you.’
An anguished muffled sound came from him, since he was speaking into my tunic.
Just then, one of the midwives walked in slowly.
‘Elfhild,’ she began, but seeing my face, she stopped, as it was obvious that I knew her message.
Théoden slowly uncurled from my cradled arms, and stood. ‘She is dead.’
The midwife nodded. ‘There was too much blood, but we did all that we could.’
Morwen made a gesture of thanks, and the midwife left, dignity intact. Suddenly the babe began to wail, and Fréawyn rocked the child from side to side, but nothing would appease him. Théoden walked toward her, then ran his thumbs over the infant’s face, making near-silent cooing noises as he did.
‘Théodred, you shall be,’ he said, running his lips over his son, caressing eyes, nose, lips, then standing back from Fréawyn.
With a distant look, he took us in: his mother and I still kneeling on the floor, his sister holding his child, then he shut his eyes for a moment, drawing into himself as once I had seen a fern leaf do at sunset when a finger had been run along it.
‘I need to attend to my wife's body.’
He left the room, leaving Fréawyn, who had begun crying again. I motioned her to the door. ‘There are wet nurses. Please go find the midwife and guide Théodred to one. If you cannot find the midwife, come back here.’
She nodded vigorously, the child now opening and closing its mouth, wailing when its mouth was open.
After Fréawyn stepped gingerly from the room, we were shrouded in silence.
Morwen had drawn her knees into her chest, and sat as still as one of the pillars in the Hall.
‘Morwen,’ I breathed, desperate for her touch.
She took my hand, and nestled it within her knees, her own fingers surrounding it. Then she turned her haunted brown eyes at me, and with them alone, bade me to rest my head in her lap. After she lowered her legs, I did, gratefully.
She stroked my hair, and for a fleeting moment I wondered what she saw: an old man; her husband; her lover; one caught up in the troubles of a country she had never wished to see; the father of her children; one who tried to console his son’s heartbreak.
We did not need words, though she began to chant an old poem of Gondor about the river and the Sea. I drifted in and out, my body and mind exhausted. It was enough only to be there, before the lit fire, my head free of the Rohirric crown, my wife’s words burbling over me like the Anduin over ancient rocks, a mournful lullaby of my manhood.
The hush which had settled over our home was stifling. I found that I was purposefully breathing more deeply, the sense of being suffocated hanging about as inescapably as mist over a waterfall. I went looking for Théoden after rising and finding my bed empty. I assumed that Morwen was with him, preparing for such rites as must be done.
I had not been much for fast-breaking that day, drinking only a hot bitter beverage. I walked to my study from the Great Hall, knowing that I needed to find the books that would contain the appropriate words I would need to speak that day. My whole body felt bruised, as though I had been thrown from my horse and rolled in the dust down a hill. And my heart… in many ways, it was like seeing my own son die. Théoden’s anguish bit at me like wolves’ teeth; his free-flowing tears had marked me forever. For a brief moment I imagined what it would be like to bury Morwen, her fair skin bloodied, flesh cold to the touch, and I shuddered.
In the study, I went straight to the tome which had the text I required. After a cursory glance, I tucked it under my arm, then went to find my wife.
It was outside in the shelter of the garden where I found Morwen, my only son kneeling before her. She held sharp shears, and with dull resistance, she cut his hair to a length barely below his ears, in a show of mourning. Golden strands fell to the ground, surrounding his legs in a mockery of sunrays. Her left hand wielded the blades, and even as I saw her from the gateway, I could see that though she was standing perfectly still, tracks of new tears stained her face.
So much death, I thought, my breath caught in my throat.
Whatever will be said of Thengel’s line?
I cleared my throat, then sang. The vowels no longer foreign, they bled from me even as the words were rapaciously torn from me by the wind.
He sang to the sun, sword unsheathing
To hope’s end he rode, to white gates shining
Then back to his homeland, the Mark o’er ruling
O flowered bier, sheltering mound of soil
Guard well the form of Thengel, whose toil
Now lamented, rests with others’ spirits loyal
In golden light shall forever lie his dear body royal
The king was dead. My husband, after so many years of soldiering and ruling, of occasional great happiness, of catastrophic happenstance, had chanced to drop dead to the ground while we were out taking a tour of the orchards. His heart must simply have given out; it was all the healers could assume. At seventy-five, it was not unexpected that he would die, but his passing was sudden nonetheless.
I could not say that we had always been happy, nor that bliss had ever been our combined pursuit, save in the earliest years in our marriage. He was noble, he was tender, he was driven by obligation. After thirty-seven years spent together, we had much in common in time shared, and our children.
I would miss him, very much.
Ecthelion had been, as always, gracious and kind. He came within days of the news to attend Thengel’s funeral, and spoke to the people of Edoras at length of the gratitude of Gondor for his service, as well as his personal thanks, and his sharing in our loss.
We sat in Thengel’s study, drinking some wine, a fire lit despite the warm evening air.
‘How is young Boromir?’ I asked, and the Steward’s eyes glowed with pleasure.
‘Well, being only a toddler, I have no true sense of what he will become, but he is sturdy enough, and brings both Denethor and Finduilas great delight.’
I smiled, then lifted my cup to my lips and drank. ‘You have had a long wait of it, but it appears that being a grandfather pleases you.’
He nodded. ‘The Steward’s line continues,’ he said, looking carefully at me, knowing of Elfhild’s tragic death two years prior, ‘as does that of Rohan.’
‘Yes, it does,’ I affirmed, leaning back into my chair and rubbing at my chilled arms. ‘I hope that Théoden will remarry; it does not seem right that he should rule alone. He is only thirty-two years old, after all, and others who look on him without privilege of his mother’s eyes acknowledge that he is handsome.’
The Steward’s mouth twitched. ‘Morwen, with you as their mother, no child could be anything other.’ His gaze turned serious. ‘I do hope that the new King will be able to find future happiness, though I fear that the powers of dark will continue to trouble our children’s rule.’
I closed my eyes briefly, thinking back to the stories told by those who had fled to Lossarnach, then I reached out to pour Ecthelion and myself more wine. ‘Should Gondor ever need the aid of Rohan, you know that she will tend the call as soon as it is issued. We are two divisions of one house, would you not say?’
With a contemplative smile, he concurred. ‘There was a time, once, when Dallben mentioned that Thengel had said, rather seriously, that he had brought Gondor to Rohan.’
I thought about that for a moment, then replied, ‘That sounds very much like something he would say.’
The stone walls of Meduseld seemed to wick heat away from me after Thengel’s death, and even the warmth of Théodwyn in my bed, ensuring that I was not alone, did not remedy the chill in my bones. Despite the years, I was still a foreigner; this was her home, her birthplace. Shameless, I held my youngest daughter close to me and breathed in deeply of her hair, always smelling of field and horse.
At times, I needed simply to be left alone to wander the corridors, to look through his books, to look Théoden in the face and have the unspoken words burrow through me in their understanding, even as he walked alone, the circlet of Rohan above his brows.
We are abandoned.
The heart of a woman is known only to God, and a great enigma to those to whom it is given to guide these eternal strangers through life.
~Jane Smiley, The Greenlanders
The sapphire sky was as bright and clear as the betrothal stone on my finger. We walked together and I murmured soft undercurrents of, “this is this, and that is that,” in Westron to my granddaughter, knowing full well that whether I were speaking in my native tongue or in Rohirric, none of it would make sense to her. ‘Come see my old bird-cages!’ I chirped, and took her to my garden, past the untended flowers, the stone path littered with weeds. Gingerly I sat my always aching bones down on a nearby stone bench, nestling my delightful Éowyn in my lap. I pointed to the now-empty weatherings, speaking the language of my home, though fewer spoke it now in the Golden Hall.
‘You would have laughed at him, my sweet darling; though he was a ferocious one, that Lovebite.’ I showed her a scar on my right index finger. ‘He was given that name for a reason, but his heart was pure.’ The babe squirmed in her swaddling, and I continued on after moving some hair out of her eyes. ‘But it was Sharp-eyes whom your grandfather and I were especially fond of. We took her out when we showed Arthur,’ at this I leaned in conspiratorially, as though she knew what I was saying, ‘and I know that our Ranger from the North assumed we were mad.’
I smiled at the memory, and readjusted Éowyn so that I could cradle her against my face, feeling her impossibly soft skin against my ageing wrinkles. ‘He might have been right. But Sharp-eyes was an excellent hunting bird. Were it not for your uncle, he would never have lived the rather pampered life he had here.’
She cooed as babies will, and I vowed never to forget that moment.
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