Many Guises and Many Names
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Courtly Love: 1. The Queen and the Stranger
The queen found herself warming to this spontaneous pleasure, sensual and uncensored, a rare enough opportunity amid the constraints of life at Meduseld. She was just about to let her gaze wander a little lower when she froze, for the young man half turned in her direction, as though conscious that he had an audience. She dared not move, for if she did he would certainly see her and she must not be discovered. He stood in profile for a moment, watching the westering sun, revealing a face that irresistibly drew her attention. It was a little longer than the average, with high sculpted cheeks and a fine, slightly aquiline nose above a bearded chin; a young man’s beard, not yet fully formed, but trimmed, though without precision, for what need did such a face have for vanity? It bore little resemblance to the flatter, fuller features of the men she knew at court. She looked on his eyes then, and held her breath. They were deep set and grey, or green, or silver, she could not tell at that distance; but like the sea, they seemed of varied hue and temper, now stormy, now calm, now bright, now dark and forbidding. And she knew that if once they turned on her she would not escape their gaze, for as the eyes of the eagle that soared over the mountain, they bore an intensity that could surely cut like ice. And something in their depths spoke of sadness, a distant memory or longing, a mind that walked in that moment in another place.
Again, she surveyed his physique, appraising every muscle, every feature, though with rather more than her artist’s eye, she readily confessed. Unhurriedly the young man began to dress, not much concerned with drying his body, for there was plenty of warmth still in the evening air. He took up a blue shirt, crumpled but of good cloth, and pulled on a pair of dark hose, somewhat worn with travel, but well cut. Then a soft leather sleeveless jerkin, which he laced down the front, and finally knee length boots. The queen hardly knew which enhanced the other more, the garb its owner or the body its covering. He sat down on the bank with his long legs stretched out before him and took bread and cheese and apples from his pack. Then, prising the bread apart with slender hands, he began to eat. On his left fore finger there glinted a band of silver in the evening light.
Despite her fear of discovery, a part of Morwen would gladly have stayed there long into the night to see how the moonlight might play on his ivory skin and tousled mane. But presently the youth rose in a single graceful movement, gathered up his pack, a longbow and broadsword and departed west along the river. Seconds later a call from the trees informed the queen that she was missed, and wearily she began to make her way back to her escort. Then Éothain appeared over the brow of the rise leading the queen’s horse, tension in his face at his mistress’s spontaneous show of independence.
‘My lady, it is not wise for you to wander alone. You must tell me if you wish to walk and then I may accompany you.’ His voice was wearisome to Morwen for she had suffered it all afternoon.
‘And if I wish to walk alone?’ she countered. Of course, she knew the answer, but it half amused her to see the alarm on his face. ‘I have dwelt in this land for three years,’ she concluded, ‘and I believe that I might find my way home to Meduseld if I put my mind to it, my lord Éothain. Though it is, I confess, a great distance.’ The hill on which Edoras sat was plainly visible not half a mile down-river.
‘My lady,’ the guard simpered as he tried to cover his embarrassment. ‘I would not wish to offend, but I am charged with your protection by the King.’
‘I know it well, Éothain, and far be it from me to bring the wrath of Thengel on your head.’ Morwen smiled her resignation, and over his shoulder watched the sun as it began its final descent in a fiery haze. Then she caught sight of the young man, nearing the fords now, and the rest of the evening ride suddenly lost its appeal. ‘After all, who knows what terrors might have befallen me had I been by myself? But come, I am weary. Let us go home.’
She mounted her mare and rode away, leaving Éothain hurriedly to return to the trees to fetch his own steed. Trotting ahead, she passed the stranger as he was crossing the Snowbourne. She had not intended to stop, but curiosity overcame her and so she turned to await him on the further bank. The other remained some distance behind, for Éothain was in truth more respectful of the queen’s privacy than his posting strictly allowed. He had, however, not yet seen the stranger.
A dark woollen cloak now covered the traveller’s clothes; worn and dusty, it had evidently taken the brunt of whatever recent journeys he had undertaken. It hung raggedly where it reached his knees, torn and frayed, but at his shoulder, it was clasped by a fine silver pin in the shape of a rayed star, that shone brightly in the evening light and intrigued Morwen as she watched him cross the ford. He halted a few paces from the queen and regarded her with interest. The keen eyes were grey after all, quicksilver with a hint of steel, like the slate from the mountains of Lossarnach.
‘Sir,’ the queen opened informally. ‘You are late to be entering the town, for the gates are shut at dusk.’
It was apparent from the young man’s quizzical gaze that he had not understood a word. But then an engaging half-smile played at his lips, and he bowed low. Morwen almost laughed. She had been in Rohan too long if here she was, failing to recognise a native of her own Gondor.
‘Forgive me,’ she began again in the noble tongue. ‘The gates will be closed to travellers by now. You will not be granted entry if the gatekeepers do not know you and you have no token of surety.’
The man glanced at her in some surprise. For a moment, she thought him about to answer, but then he shrugged his shoulders. It occurred to the queen that his ivory skin was somewhat pale for him to be a compatriot. She had guessed too hastily, despite the candid introduction at the riverbank. The common speech would have to suffice.
This time she succeeded.
‘My lady, I ask your pardon,’ he replied. ‘I confess I have been long on the road, and have given but little thought to tonight, save only that I wished to reach Edoras.’ He spoke softly with an accent that had music in it, his words accurate but a little cautious, like one who, though fluent in the lingua franca of the west, has lacked much opportunity to practise.
‘You have travelled far?’
‘From north and west of the Misty Mountains. I have been walking for many days. I should be sorry not to sleep on a bed tonight, though I dare say one more night shall not trouble me over much.’
‘I hope that the hospitality of the Rohirrim will spare you that. What is your business in Edoras?’
Before he could reply, the sound of hooves caused the man to turn, just as Éothain rounded the side of the hill and clattered across the stony ford. His bow was drawn and at his shoulder even as he reached them. The stranger raised his hands in gesture of friendship.
‘Stay where you are and give me your weapons.’ Dismounting, Éothain swiftly relieved the other of his bow and sword. The young man made no attempt to oppose him, though his gentle features darkened abruptly into a grim mask, like the shutting of a door. Éothain kept an arrow aimed at his chest.
‘Peace, Éothain,’ said Morwen, slipping back into Rohirric. ‘This fellow seeks nothing save the comfort of a bed for the night, and has assaulted me only with words of courtesy.’
‘Is he known to you, my lady?’ Éothain looked troubled and did not relax his bow.
‘As well as any man,’ she replied, and smiled. Turning to the stranger she continued, ‘The nights here are cold even in the summer. Come. Despite appearances, guests who come in peace are welcomed at Edoras.’
Éothain nodded, though his face said otherwise. He did not offer the man back his weapons and stayed very close to the queen as they rode slowly up to the gates. Walking in front, the tall stranger said nothing, but looked in wonder at Meduseld at the top of the hill, for the great hall had caught the last rays of the setting sun and was shining in what seemed a blaze of golden flames.
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