A Stranger Far From Home
A crime has been committed in Edoras. On the same night, a stranger arrives at Thengel's court, a dark-haired, nameless stranger who wears a star on his cloak.
Rating: PG (some mentions of violence, but nothing graphic.)
This was written for the April 2014 Teitho challenge, on the theme of "Mystery." It placed first.
Unnoticed and unlooked-for, snow had fallen in the night.
Morwen stood with her hand pressed against the wooden shutter, looking out at the empty whiteness. The spring flowers were gone, covered by wind-blown drifts. Even the roofs of Edoras were white. Pale smoke issued from the smoke holes, but it was not enough to melt the snow. There were no footprints, but outside, beyond the gate, she thought she could see the tracks of a single horse.
Thengel stirred on the bed behind her, but did not wake up. She glanced at him, then found herself unable to look away. He looks… He had been in his prime when she had first met him. Years had passed since then, but in her mind he was still the strong, handsome prince who had first charmed her. When she looked at him awake, her gaze was overwritten with memories. Only occasionally, and only when he was asleep, did she see him as a stranger might see him.
She let out a breath, her hand rising flutteringly to her throat. He looks old.
Snatching up her cloak, she flung open the door, suddenly desperate for cold, fresh air. Meduseld was quiet. The feasting had been late and merry, and warriors slept where they had fallen, some with their hands still resting protectively on their drinking horns. The air was thick with the smell of mead and smoke. A shaggy wolfhound picked its way through the sleepers, finding discarded scraps.
"My lady?" Somebody tried to greet her, but she waved him away. The door warden bowed to her. A bleary-eyed guard offered her an escort, but she smiled and declined. Then she was outside; alone and outside.
Snow lay in waves on the terrace of Meduseld. The day before, she had eaten outside, enjoying the spring sunshine, but today the wind was chill. Unbound, her hair blew across her face. She pushed it back, but not before noticing how much silver there was amid the black. She was almost fifty years old, and cold. Her son was a man full grown, older than Morwen had been when she had married. One of her daughters was older still, with a child of her own.
I wish... she began, but she did not complete the thought.
She moved to the edge of the terrace, wrapping her cloak tight. Edoras was silent, slumbering in the aftermath of the feast. It was no longer snowing, and above her, the sky was a thin, pale grey. Later, she thought, the clouds might melt away, and spring and sunshine would return; or maybe they would thicken, and bring more snow.
A dog barked. Morwen turned her head, and saw again the line of hoofprints she had seen from the window. They started from the guest stables, and went through the outer gate, the only marring of the pristine snow. One of her husband's guests had departed before dawn, riding away without taking leave of his host. Like a thief in the night, she thought. But whoever it was, he had been allowed to pass through the outer gate, so the wardens must have seen no evil in him. It is nothing, she told herself, as grey-streaked hair blew across her eyes. She pushed it back, and held it. Her fingers felt cold as they brushed against her cheek. It is...
She saw it, then: a shape on the ground, half covered with snow. She leaned forward, frowning. It was a sack, a discarded heap of clothing. But her heart was racing, already knowing the truth. Her mind showed her a picture of Thengel, asleep beneath a white sheet. This was a person, a person lying unmoving in the snow. This was...
She was moving before she had even finished the thought. "My lady?" someone called. She ignored them, racing for the steps, slipping on the snow, almost falling. A dog leaped up with an eager bark, pulling at its chain. A door opened. Holding her hair back with one hand, Morwen ran on. Another shout. She barely heard it.
For the last few steps, she slowed. Then she stopped completely, a few feet from the person on the ground. It was a woman, a young woman. The head was turned slightly to one side, and one hand was reaching out, as if for help. The snow was shallow, just a thin dusting over the woman's clothes. Beneath her head, the snow was red.
Morwen stood over the woman, just breathing, sucking in great lungfuls of air and letting them out again. Her hand closed on a hank of hair, she gripping it tightly. She knew she should crouch down; knew she should touch the dead woman; knew she should call for help.
A dark bird took flight from a thatched roof, sending down a lump of snow that dissolved into dust before it reached the ground. Morwen looked at the sky; looked at the buildings; looked at the flower that showed through the snow near the woman's outstretched hand.
And then somebody was there: a stranger on a strange horse. Morwen watched him approach. She gripped her hair more tightly. Dangerous! said her instincts. Her other hand went to her belt, but of course there was no knife there, for beneath her cloak, she was still in her sleeping robes.
The stranger dismounted and stepped forward. He was very tall. His dark hood hid his face at first, but then he pushed it back, and looked at Morwen, meeting her gaze steadily. Morwen's first thought was that she knew him. Her second was that she did not. But the first thought lingered. It brought with it memories of her childhood in Gondor: stern lords in cold stone towers.
"My lady." His tone was respectful, but he did not lower his gaze.
Morwen, a queen in her own domain, found herself looking away first. "I do not know you."
"I arrived in Edoras last night, my lady," the stranger said. "I came to take service with your husband, for a while."
"I did not see you at the feast," Morwen said sharply, because a woman lay dead in the snow between them, and this was a stranger.
"But I was there, my lady." He said it politely, but still he did not look away. "Thengel accepted my service after you had retired for the night."
"And why are you here?" Morwen demanded. "Why are you out here in the saddle when everyone else is still in bed?"
"I have been travelling for many weeks," he said, "and am not used to sleeping beneath a roof. I woke early and went out for a ride, and have just returned. The guards on the gate will vouch for that. But this is neither the time nor the place to talk about such things."
"I can think of no time better," Morwen retorted, "than when a woman lies dead at your feet."
"Not dead, I think." The stranger went down on one knee, and reached out to touch the woman's throat. Morwen found that she had taken a step forward, and had reached out a hand, as if to grab him and make him stop. But his touch was gentle. His hand looked strong, scarred with the marks of old battles, but it knew how to be soft.
"Not dead?" She echoed it, her voice little more than a scratchy whisper.
"The snow has melted at her nose and mouth." The stranger touched the woman's brow, a feather-like touch. "The cold has helped slow the bleeding. She is not dead, at least not yet, but she is gravely hurt."
There were voices behind them; a dog barking, and the smell of hearth smoke and food. Edoras was waking up. Morwen swallowed. "I will call..."
"I have some skill as a healer," said the stranger. "I can tend her, if you will allow it."
The cold wind knifed through Morwen's cloak. "And if I do not allow it?"
The stranger looked at her. His eyes were grey, like ancient stone. "I am a stranger, and on the night of my arrival, a woman is attacked and left for dead. I know what you fear, but-"
"If I do not allow it?" Morwen repeated. "What then?"
"Then..." the stranger said. "Then I will accept your wishes, if I am satisfied that your healers possess the skill to save her, but if I am not, then I will tend her."
"Even if your king forbids it? Even if he sends warriors to stop you?"
"Even then," the stranger agreed. "But I would ask that you trust me."
"You would ask?" Her voice sounded harsh. It was that, or sound weaker than any queen should be. "Not beg? Not demand? Not threaten?"
"Ask." His gaze was steady. "Just that."
Morwen's mouth was dry. Once again, she had a brief flash of memory: her first visit to Minas Tirith from the gardens of Lossarnach, and how tall everyone had been, and how unfathomable, and how old. But this man was not old. He was younger than she was, perhaps by a dozen years, perhaps even by more.
She closed her eyes for a moment to steady herself. He was still looking at her when she opened them again. "Yes," she found herself saying. "Then I will."
"A woman was attacked in the night," Morwen said, as she spread honey on her bread. "She was hit on the head and left in the snow where she fell."
"Who?" Thengel sat hunched in his chair, both hands wrapped round his mug of hot milk. Since she had seen him as old, it was hard to unsee it.
"Nobody I recognised," Morwen said. "Perhaps she came for the feast from one of the distant halls."
"Then someone will claim her and demand justice for her." Thengel sipped his drink, grimaced, and put it down again. "Ah, Morwen, I am getting too old for such feasting."
Morwen stood up, and moved to stand behind him, rubbing his brow with practised fingers. "I thought she was dead at first," she confessed. "I was alone. I stood over her body, and I thought..."
Even as she kneaded the skin of his brow, she could feel the wrinkles against her fingers. 'Steelsheen,' they called her, because she had once been tall and beautiful and strong. Beauty faded, but she had always hoped that the strength, at least, would remain.
"But she will live?" Thengel asked.
"He thinks so," Morwen said. It was time. She had to say it. Her fingers kept moving, easing pain from her husband's head. "There was a man, a stranger. He said he offered you his sword last night, and you accepted it."
"I did." There was something in Thengel's voice, something troubled. Morwen's fingers stilled for a moment, then carried on. "He was very polite, very honest. He told me that he could not give me his name or tell me where he came from, but he swore to serve me truthfully in every other way."
"And you accepted his oath of fealty?" Morwen's hands stopped moving. "You swore the lord's oath to him in return?"
"He... swore no liegeman's oath," Thengel said, "and neither did I ask for one. An oath to a liege lord is binding for life. He said... He said that he would serve me as if I were his lord, until the time came for him to depart."
"As if you were his lord." Morwen groped her way back to her chair, and sat down heavily. "And afterwards? How will he serve you then?"
"Afterwards..." Thengel let out a breath. "Afterwards, he said, he would do nothing that would harm me or mine. I chose to believe him."
Morwen pressed her hands to her face, rubbing her tired eyes. "But the world grows dark. A king owes it to his people to be wary. Perhaps we should be less quick to trust a man who refuses to give us his name and will not swear an oath."
"An enemy would swear an oath, smiling, and break it without a thought," Thengel said. "An enemy would come before me with a plausible name and story, swearing to serve me forever more. In dark times, a king should be wary, but he should not close his people's hearts to trust." He gripped his mug, his knuckles white. "I chose to trust him, Morwen."
Perhaps nobody else would have recognised the hint of uncertainty that suddenly clouded his eyes, but Morwen had been married to him for nearly thirty years. Newly betrothed and very young, she had been slow to realise that a grown man like him could ever worry about what she thought of him.
"I know," she said, as she managed a tired smile. "And I cannot reproach you for it, because so did I."
Morwen stood in the doorway, watching the woman sleep. She was older than Morwen had first assumed, but still young: perhaps nearer thirty than twenty. Even in the ruddy light of the flickering candles, she looked pale. The stranger was no longer there. Instead, old Hilde sat at the bedside, rocking quietly in her chair.
"Where is…?" Morwen asked, but the stranger had left no name to be called by.
"He left," Hilde said. "Ah, mistress, don't look like that." In the shadow of the doorway, Morwen had thought her expression was carefully neutral. "I watched him carefully, as you told me to. He was gentle, very skilled. He had a true healer's touch. He showed me herbs I didn't know about, and new uses for herbs I thought I knew."
Morwen could smell the lingering scent of those herbs. The small room was full of the trappings of her husband's kingdom, but something about that scent reminded her of Lossarnach and home. "Where did he go?" she asked.
"Outside." Hilde shrugged. She turned back to the woman in the bed, and stroked the back of her hand. "Now, you just wake up, dear."
Morwen turned away, remembering times Hilde had tended to Morwen's own daughters, and to Morwen herself in childbirth. It was cold outside, the air strikingly fresh after the herbal scent of the room, but a watery sun had burned through the clouds, and the snow was rapidly melting. Edoras was all a-bustle, with lords and their household warriors preparing to return to their distant halls. The aftermath of the night's feasting made them quiet and subdued. None of them had claimed the woman as their own. She had been attacked and left for dead, but nobody had missed her.
Morwen found one of her husband's warriors propped wearily against a pillar. "Will you escort me?" she asked him, although it was an order, of course. At snow-covered dawn, while everyone else slept, a queen could wander alone through Edoras, but lords were watching now, and proprieties had to be maintained.
"Where to, my lady?" he asked.
Morwen thought she knew. It felt further, now, than it had felt at dawn, when she had run it, consumed with dread of what she would find. The stranger was indeed there, as she had half expected him to be. She stopped, and stood there watching him. It might have been easier, she thought, if she had found him gone; if he had betrayed them all, and ridden away, never to be seen again.
The stranger was down on one knee, touching the ground with the spread fingers of one hand. His back was turned to her, his hair hiding his face. She tried to remember what he looked like, but remembered only his eyes. She thought he was unaware of her, but then he said, "My lady," although he did not stand up or bow his head. Of course, he was already kneeling.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Searching for footprints and other signs in the ground," he said.
"Like a hunter." She wondered why her voice was so harsh, when she had agreed to trust him.
He stood up. The watery sunlight gleamed off the star-shaped brooch that he wore. She had not noticed it in the early dawn. Did it mean anything, she wondered, or was it just decoration? Then her eyes were drawn by the warriors who stood beyond him, standing like wardens at their post. Had they been set there by Thengel as a guard on him? She hoped so, or maybe she feared so; she was unsure which.
"I asked them to stand guard," the stranger said. His voice was level, stating it as simple fact. "When we were bringing her in, I requested that the area was kept clear until I had chance to return to it."
"It might be said…" Morwen cleared her throat. "Some might say," she said stiffly, "that the man who attacked her might wish to ensure that the site of his crime lay undisturbed, until he could return to it himself and erase any tracks."
"Some might indeed," the stranger agreed, "which is why I also asked them to watch everything that I did, so that they can report it to their lord, if asked." His face gave nothing away. She would have considered him entirely undisturbed by her suspicion, until he let out a breath, and something, some unidentifiable emotion, flickered in his eyes. "You did agree to trust me, my lady."
"Yes," Morwen said. Far away, somewhere beyond the walls of Meduseld, little Théodwyn gave a shrill, joyful cry. Morwen turned towards the sound, then back again. "Yes, I did."
"In truth, I found little," the stranger said. "The ground had been warmed by yesterday's sunshine, and the first falls of snow melted, obscuring any signs. She was attacked before the snow fell, perhaps an hour after midnight. Afterwards her attacker carried on towards Meduseld."
"They were still feasting then." Morwen's voice was faint. A hundred lords and warriors had been laughing and drinking, while outside, beneath the first falling flakes of snow, a woman had been left for dead, lying alone and unmissed.
"There was a brief struggle," the stranger said gently. "He held her by the upper arms, then struck her on the head. She was not assaulted in any other way. He moved her, but only enough to make it less likely that somebody would trip over her in the dark."
"He was in a hurry," Morwen said.
"Perhaps," the stranger agreed. "But she left her mark, I think. There was blood behind her nails, and something else, something strange..."
"Show me," Morwen said, her voice firm for the first time since she had met him.
The candles were almost burned down, and no light shone between the shutters. Earlier, melting snow had poured off the thatch, but now there was only an occasional drip. The birds were quiet. There would be no feasting in Edoras tonight, and no songs, just quiet, private meals of leftovers, and last night's songs hummed quietly under the breath.
The woman still lived, but she had not awakened. Earlier, the stranger had showed Morwen the reddened patches on the tips of two of her fingers, almost like mild burns, but not quite. Already they were darkening, turning almost grey.
"I want to find out who attacked her," Morwen found herself saying, suddenly fierce.
Hilde was lighting fresh candles. The flame on her taper shivered in the draught from the closed shutters. The stranger sat on the far side of the bed, the woman's hand held between both of his own.
"Nobody has claimed her," Morwen said. "She needs to be claimed for justice to be done. That is how it works in Rohan. If a wife or a daughter or a sister is attacked, the head of her family will not rest until justice is done. He will demand redress in blood or wergild. Justice is something that must be sought by the wronged party. It is not the place of the king to intervene unless his judgement is specifically requested. It would be considered an abuse of his power." She looked at the woman, so still and pale on the pillows. "But she is unclaimed."
The stranger said nothing. The sweet, sharp scent of herbs rose from a basin at his side.
"Who is she?" Morwen asked. "She must be a stranger, alone in a strange land, a woman in a world where justice lies in the hands of men."
Hilde moved on to another candle. The stranger was no longer wearing his cloak. The star-shaped brooch lay on its discarded folds, more gold than silver in the candlelight.
"She was not a guest at the feast," Morwen said. "She was not attacked in the king's own hall. If she had been, it would be an offence against the laws of hospitality and it would become his own responsibility, as host."
"She was attacked within the walls of Edoras," the stranger said.
"But not within Meduseld, the king's own hall." Morwen had her hands clasped tightly in her lap, and was twisting her fingers until they were white.
The stranger said nothing. He was sitting there, letting her confide in him, but he refused to give them his name.
"You think our way is wrong," Morwen accused him. She twisted her fingers hard enough to hurt. "You think my husband should seek justice for her even though none of her kin have demanded it from him. You think…" Her words ran out. She felt unconscionably close to tears.
"I did not say so," the stranger said quietly.
"What do you know of our ways?" Morwen demanded. Hilde stood frozen, the taper trembling in her hand. "What do you know about justice, about being a king? My husband is a wise, just king, and renowned for it." And old, she thought. And old.
"I know that," said the stranger, "or I would not have come to serve him."
"But he is King of Rohan," Morwen said, "and even a king must follow the customs of his people."
"I know," the stranger said, as outside, drifting over the quiet halls of Edoras, came the sound of a bard, singing a song from far away.
It was only then that Morwen realised that she had called her country 'Rohan,' as they had called it in Gondor, and not 'the Riddermark,' as it was named by those who called it home.
Although she was desperately weary that night, she could not sleep. Thengel lay beside her, and she could tell by his breathing that he, too, was awake.
"I want to find out who attacked her," Morwen said, speaking it into the darkness. She had said the same words to the stranger, earlier. Her husband and king should have heard them first. "I know that you cannot get involved, but she… I… I feel…"
"You feel sympathy with her. Yes, I know." Thengel was just a voice in the darkness. At night, she could imagine that he was still the man she had married, the man in his prime, with many more years of life, all of them at her side.
"I was there," Morwen said. "I found her." I thought she was dead. "I…" She sat up, blankets rasping across the bed. "She has no-one else to fight for her."
"You think she should have me." Thengel's voice was quiet.
"No!" Morwen stood up; paced; sat down on the bench below the window. "I know you must follow the customs of your people."
Your people. It echoed in the silence that followed. "Morwen," Thengel said at last, "I left my country and my father's court by choice. I would have stayed in Gondor for the rest of my life, had not duty called me back. I have striven to be a good king, to preserve all that is good about my people, while also discouraging some of the… excesses that flourished under my father. But within my hall, we all speak the high tongue of Gondor."
"I… know," Morwen said. And the stranger had spoken in that same tongue right from the start, she realised suddenly. She had not noticed before.
"A king should not be above the law," Thengel said. "My father's errors taught me that. A king must observe the customs of his people, as you say. Perhaps a great king can change those customs and bring his people with him willingly, but I am not a great king."
"You are." Her voice was hoarse in the silence of the night.
"No," Thengel said. "A good one, I hope, but not a great one, and not all great kings are good. It is not for me to change the customs of my people, but I am not without power. We speak the high tongue of Gondor."
He had already said so. This time she really listened. They spoke the high tongue of Gondor, although not everyone approved. Thengel had lived more than half his life in Gondor, where justice was the business of the rulers of the land, and not a private matter, family against family, man against man.
I cannot bring her justice unasked, Thengel was saying, although I wish I could. I cannot bring her justice unasked, but perhaps you can.
Hilde was dozing on a cot by the door. The stranger sat in a high-backed chair, as still as carved stone. His chin was resting on one hand, but his eyes were open.
"Did you sleep?" Morwen asked him.
The stranger shook his head. "She was growing weaker. I tried to call her back. She is a little stronger now, but still asleep. She needs to awaken soon, or…"
"Or it will be too late for her." It was easier to say such things now, now that she had her husband's blessing to proceed; now that she had a night's sleep to separate herself from the horror of that dawn discovery.
"Yes." He scraped a hand across his eyes. "I wish I had…"
"What?" she asked into the silence.
He gave a faint smile that was not a smile. "My father's skill, I was going to say."
"So you have a father, even if you have no name." Perhaps she meant it teasingly, but perhaps there was accusation there, too.
"I have a name," he said, "but I cannot say it. For most of my life, I have gone by other names."
"Other names?" she echoed, stressing the plural. "Why would a man with good intentions give himself so many names?"
"I have given myself no names," the stranger said. "They tend to be given to me." This time the smile was more real. For a moment, it transformed his stern face into something entirely different. "It is a habit."
"Then we must give you a name," she said, but she could think of nothing. Perhaps she should hand him over to Théodwyn, who was forever naming cats and dolls and birds, and even the men of Thengel's household, who already had names of their own.
Silence fell again. Hilde stirred in her sleep. Voices passed by outside, and somewhere a man was singing.
"But you should get some fresh air," Morwen said.
"I did," said the stranger. "I was struck with a sudden thought. I went out to investigate."
"And?" she prompted.
"It came to nothing. So I came back. For the most part, I have been thinking."
He was very weary, Morwen thought; more weary than he would ever admit. She moved forward, and almost touched him on the shoulder, but did not. "Why do you take such care of her?" Morwen asked. "And not just as a healer. You are trying to get justice for her." Just as I am, she thought, but did not say so. She thought she knew why she was doing it, but why was he?
"Because she needs it," he said, "and it is my place to do it."
"Why you?" she demanded.
"Because…" He stopped for a moment; closed his eyes. "Because I am here. Because I can."
There would be no more secrets.
Later that day, she watched the stranger walk ceaselessly through Edoras, asking questions, crouching at times on the ground, and standing sometimes for a long time, deep in thought.
"He is seeking justice for her, too," Morwen said.
Thengel nodded. "I know."
"Do you…?" Morwen began, but then she saw that Thengel was smiling.
A liege man could not do it, of course. A man who had sworn himself to Thengel for life could only do as his lord commanded. If he breached the customs of the land, it would reflect badly upon his liege lord, his king. But this stranger was bound by a promise, not an oath. He was serving Thengel for now, but was not bound to him.
Did he know? she wondered. Did either of them know, when they had created this unique situation between them, that this would be the result of it?
The stranger did not always walk alone. Sometimes he was accompanied by one or another of Thengel's own household. "Did you set them there as guards?" Morwen asked.
Thengel shook his head. "I would not set a guard on a man when I had promised him trust."
Morwen had to look away. She trusted the stranger now, she thought, but if she were king instead of Thengel, she thought she would have had the stranger discreetly watched, at least at first.
"He asked them," Morwen said, guilt making her voice harsh. "Yesterday he asked two of your household warriors to guard the place where she was attacked, and they did so. They obeyed him. A stranger. Your own men. Just because he asked them to."
"Yes," Thengel agreed. "He has that way with him, does he not? I saw a spark of it right from the start, although he chose not to show it then, or not much of it. It is easy for us to become set in our ways, riders following lords, lords following the ways of their fathers. It could do us good to have a stranger come amongst us, a stranger with the gift of command."
"Or it could do great evil," Morwen said. Outside, the stranger said something, and her husband's own sworn household warrior nodded crisply, and ran to obey.
"But only if we are wrong to trust him," Thengel said. "And I do not feel that we are wrong. Are we wrong, Morwen?"
Morwen wanted to say nothing at all, but she found herself shaking her head, the movement slow and barely perceptible, but there all the same.
By morning, the marks on the woman's fingertips had turned almost black. Her lips were pale and cracked. "I try to feed her water, my lady," Hilde said, "but she needs to wake up."
The stranger nodded in weary agreement. Whenever Hilde had woken in the night, or so she had told Morwen, the stranger had been holding the woman's hand, his face intent. "He looked as if was trying to call her back with the sheer force of his wanting it," Hilde had said.
"Come outside," Morwen said now. The stranger rose and followed her, and paused on the steps to turn his face up to the sky. "Will she die?" Morwen asked, then wished she had not, at least not until he had taken a moment to enjoy the touch of the sun.
"If she does not awaken soon," the stranger said.
"And we still have no idea who she is," Morwen said.
The stranger raked his hand through his hair. "My lady. The blackening on her fingertips… I am not familiar with poison, but it could be that she touched something…"
He let it trail. Morwen's mind filled in the rest of it. "Are you suggesting that she is not the true victim, after all. Are you suggested that that she came here to poison someone, and somebody else found out, and stopped her?"
"Some might say so, given evidence such as this," the stranger said. "She is, after all, a stranger." His smile was more rueful than bitter. "Strangers are a disreputable breed, or so I understand."
Morwen refused to rise to the bait. "But you do not believe it," she said. "Is that why you are working so hard to save her? Because she is a stranger in a strange land, and so are you?
He looked at her, and his steady grey gaze stirred something inside her, awakening her to the truth. And so am I, she thought. Even after nearly twenty years, it seemed that at heart she still thought of herself as a stranger in a strange land, far away from home.
"No," the stranger said, his voice as gentle as if he could see into her heart, although surely he could not. "Because whoever attacked her kept it quiet. If she was attacked to stop her from committing murder, surely her attacker would announce it to the whole court."
Morwen was struggling to speak. "So…" She tried to fill her mind with the image of the dying woman, an unclaimed woman without a voice. "So why tell me?"
"To prepare you, in case others say it," the stranger said, "and so you can make your own judgement as to the truth of it."
She remembered the way the woman's hand had reached out in the snow, as if appealing for help. I cannot believe it, she thought, but she could not be ruled by sentiment. Women could kill, even lost women far from home. She had cautioned Thengel not to be too quick to trust this stranger. She had to be prepared for similar caution.
"We… have to consider it," she said slowly, "but I am inclined to agree with you. Whoever attacked her was in a hurry, and kept it secret. Why? Unless…"
"Unless he was the poisoner, and she was the one who found out," the stranger said. "She tried to stop him. He stopped her."
"Then how…?" Morwen frowned. "Perhaps she saw him preparing the poison, and touched it, perhaps, to find out what it was. She tried to get help, tried to warn people. He attacked her. He was in a rush. He thought he had killed her." She ran out a words. It was nonsense, perhaps, just wild supposition based on a mark on a dying woman's hand. "But nobody was poisoned," she said.
"No," the stranger agreed.
"Maybe she delayed him long enough for his opportunity to pass," Morwen said. She had to keep talking. She could not stop to ask herself if she still thought herself a stranger in her husband's realm. "Maybe he was afraid that his attack on her had been witnessed, and he decided not to proceed. But who was the victim?" she wondered aloud. "Thengel? Was someone trying to kill my husband?"
"It could have been anyone," the stranger said. "Just a petty quarrel between two men."
"Not with poison." Morwen said it without a shadow of doubt. "It is not our way." She said the word 'our' without thinking about it, but noticed it as soon as she had said it. Because they were her people, in a way. They were her husband's and her son's, and so they were hers. "We fight openly. We kill with blades, not powders. If someone came with poison, they are an enemy from outside. Who else would they be trying to kill but the king?"
"It would not have to be him," the stranger said, "to tear the kingdom apart. It was Thengel's feast."
Morwen felt cold just to think about it. No matter who the victim was, death by poison at a feast hosted by the king would be a breach of all the laws of hospitality. Guests swore to keep the peace, and the host swore to protect his guests. Thengel would be grievously wronged, but would be put in the wrong, too. If he could not protect his guests in the own hall, questions would be asked about his fitness to rule. Accusations would fly, lord against lord. It could plunge the kingdom straight back to the dark times of Thengel's father.
Morwen turned to run. "I have to…"
"My lady!" Hilde called urgently from the steps. "My lord! Come quickly!"
"She woke up," Morwen was able to tell Thengel later. "She has farm in the Westfold. She came with a cartload of bacon and ale for the feast. Normally her husband would come with their hired man, but he had broken his arm, and the hired man was needed at the farm. So she came alone." And nearly died for it, she thought.
"So her husband can seek justice for her." Morwen sensed the relief in Thengel's voice, although she thought he was trying to hide it. Justice could be done, but without going against the customs of the Mark.
"No, I seek justice for her," Morwen said firmly.
"Morwen…" Thengel began.
"She cannot remember," Morwen told him. "She was sleeping in her cart. That is why nobody missed her, because she was not in any of the guest halls. She remembers lying there unable to sleep, listening to singing in the hall. She remembers getting up, but nothing after that. He says it can happen sometimes, in such cases."
There was no need to explain who 'he' was. For the last few days, their conversations had been about little else. "Then why…?" Thengel began.
"We think she might have stumbled upon a murderer preparing his crime," Morwen said. Thengel looked sharply at her, reacting, she knew, to her use of the word 'we.' After all, in many of those conversations, she had expressed distrust of the stranger.
She went on the explain it all. "We could be wrong," she finished. "It might not be poison. It could be anything else. Perhaps we will never know. But I want… I think…" She took a deep breath. "There is another feast tomorrow..."
"Barely a feast," Thengel said. "It will just be my household warriors, with no food brought from outside. If there was a poisoner, he is long gone. There were many strangers here for the feast."
"But I think you should be careful," Morwen said, "even so."
Thengel said nothing. Despite all his years in Gondor, Morwen realised, he was who he was: king of an honest, straightforward people, who were open with their loves and hates, and quick to trust. The lords of the Mark would not use poison, so did not fear it. But she came from Gondor, and the lords of Gondor, for all their honour, knew how to scheme, and knew how to fear the knife in the back, wielded by a friend with a honeyed tongue.
Then I will be careful, she vowed, on your behalf.
Morwen told nobody, except for Théoden, her only son. He listened quietly, as he always did. "But are you sure of him?" he asked when she had finished. "This stranger, I mean. Are you sure that it is not him?"
Even a day before, perhaps, she would have hesitated before answering. "I can not be sure of anything," she said, "but I believe it is not him. I believe he is worthy of your father's trust, and of yours."
"Mine?" Théoden repeated.
She did not explain. Chances were, Thengel still had many years to live, and the stranger would be long gone before Théoden became king. There was no need to tell Théoden that she had spent the last few days consumed with the sense of time's fast passing.
Evening approached. Morwen found excuses to visit the kitchens as often as she could, but saw nobody there who should not have been there. Sometimes she saw the stranger stalking through Edoras, busy with searches of his own, but he was careful to stay away from the kitchens and larders. She was grateful to him for that.
The woman was regaining her strength slowly, but spent most of the time sleeping. When she awoke, she called for her husband, and wanted to go home. She was too much in awe of Morwen to be comfortable in her presence. She liked Hilde, but it was the stranger she sought most often, brightening visibly whenever he entered the room. "She says she heard his voice when she was lost in the darkness," Hilde told Morwen. "She seemed surprised to find he was only a vagabond sword for hire. She seemed to think he was something else entirely."
"You called him 'my lord,'" Morwen pointed out. "You should not have done so."
"No." Hilde bowed her head. "I don't know why. It just slipped out. I'm sorry, my lady."
Morwen sighed. "If only she could remember! If only she could tell us who she saw, if indeed she saw anything at all. We could be jumping at shadows here. There could be any manner of other explanations."
"He tried asking her again, my lady," Hilde said, "but she gets so distressed when she tries to remember it. The memory might come back in time, he says, or maybe never at all."
Night fell. Snow was just a memory now, and spring continued to unfold around them, as if the sudden unseasonable snowfall had never happened. The warriors gathered, and the first songs were sung. Morwen sat stiff and awkward at the high table, although she smiled when she had to. Food tasted like ashes in her mouth. The stranger was in his own proper place, at the bottom of the lowest table, as befitted a newcomer who had not yet proved himself in battle. His keen eyes watched everything and everyone.
If there is a killer here, Morwen found herself thinking, this man will find him. But she did not relax her own vigilance, even so.
Thengel's household bard reached the end of a song, and waved a hand towards the bench at the hearth, inviting the other bard to take a turn. He was a travelling singer, bringing songs from other lands. Although the men of the Mark preferred their own songs and were for the most part content not to travel outside their borders, news from elsewhere was always welcomed.
The bard stood up and bowed. Morwen watched him. He had arrived for the big feast, she remembered, but had stayed longer than planned. He, too, would have slept in his waggon, up against the walls. He was wearing gloves. Why was he wearing gloves? His long hair fell over his cheeks, but when he bowed, she caught a glimpse of a scratch on the side of his face, several days old, but far from healed.
The stranger had already realised it, Morwen saw. He was watching the bard with a gaze as sharp as a sword, his hand pressed flat against the table, ready to move. She heard the sound of a chair being pushed back, and saw that it was Théoden, rising to his feet; Théoden, who had guessed the truth from watching the two of them. "It's him!" Théoden cried, and Morwen could see from the reaction of his friends around him that they, too, had been told the truth. Two of them leaped up, their knives in ther hands.
"No!" Morwen breathed, as the stranger rose to his feet and shouted something, but she could not hear what it was, because by then, everybody was shouting.
No swords were allowed in the king's hall of Meduseld, but an eating knife could kill, when thrust into the right place.
The bard escaped all justice by choosing to take his own life. Blood seeped across the painted tiles. Morwen had to look away.
"So we will probably never know who sent him," Morwen said, "or who he planned to kill."
"Some whisper the name of Saruman." The stranger's voice was almost hesitant.
"Saruman troubles our borders," Morwen said, "but this is far worse than that. This would count as war. It is the nature of neighbours to squabbles over boundaries, but Saruman… He is trusted in Gondor. He opposes the true enemy in the Land of Shadow."
The stranger nodded. Morwen felt that he was considering saying something, but he clearly decided against it. Instead, after a pause, he said, "She is recovering rapidly now. She still has no memory of her attacker, but she remembers seeing a man drop something. She picked it up and tried to hand it back to him. It hurt her fingers. And then…"
"And we can guess what happened then," Morwen said.
"Yes," said the stranger, and that, perhaps, was the end of it.
It was dark before she dared to say it.
He rolled towards her, his hand finding hers, granting her both permission and the courage to continue.
"You said I felt sympathy for her," she said. "What did you mean by that?"
"Ah." Thengel's hand was still. "I meant that I know that there are still times when you consider yourself to be the same as her: a woman, far from her kin and far from home."
"That was part of it, yes," Morwen had to confess. "I didn't realise it at first. But I don't always feel like that," she said. "Not often. Only when I'm feeling tired, or sad." Or old, she added silently, facing a future in which my husband will doubtless die before I do, and my daughters will marry and leave me for halls of their own. "Thengel," she assured him, "your people are my people. This is my home."
He squeezed her hand, then raised their clasped hands to his lips and kissed her entwined fingers. "I spent more than half my adult life in Gondor," Thengel said. "If I had not been called back as king, I would be there still. You have no need to apologise, my dear, and there is no need for reproach. Gondor is as much home to me as the Riddermark."
"My home is where you are," Morwen said, "wherever that is."
He kissed her then, and in the darkness, he did not seem old at all. "I returned from Gondor because duty called me," he murmured, "but it only became home because you came, too."
"So there was a mystery," Théodwyn said. "A mystery, and nobody told me. And now it's all solved, and it's too late for me to solve it."
"All solved indeed." Morwen ruffled her daughter's hair. Théodwyn had been told very little of it, of course. The blood had been thoroughly scrubbed from the tiles before she had been allowed back into the hall.
"And the bad man was caught and sent away where he can't bother anyone ever again." Théodwyn picked up her toy horse, and clattered it across the table. "Clip-clop," she said. "Clip-clop. I want a mystery to solve, mother. Can I have a mystery?"
Below them, beneath the terrace, the stranger passed by on his horse, at the rear of a group of men. He was the only one not wearing a helmet, and he nodded at Morwen as he passed. It was respectful, but it was not quite a bow. Now, he is the true mystery, Morwen thought.
"I like him," Théodwyn said. "I was out with Hilde yesterday. We were picking flowers. He stopped to talk to her: boring, grown-up things. Riders don't normally talk to her, you know, because she's only an old nurse, but he did. I gave him a flower, because he was nice. I like his brooch. It's shiny. And there was a bird in the sky, really high, and I couldn't see what sort it was, but he told me. Hilde said he must have eyes like an eagle. What's his name?"
"I don't know," Morwen said. "Perhaps you should give him a name."
A few years ago, Theodywn had gone through a phase of giving everyone in the household silly nicknames, many of them unflattering references to their physical quirks. Morwen waited while Théodwyn thought about it, and wondered what name her youngest daughter would come up with this time.
"Thorongil," Théodwyn said at last.
"Thorongil?" Morwen said, startled. "Why?"
"Because he's got the eyes of an eagle, and he wears a shiny star," Théodwyn said. "Obviously."
"But why say it in the high tongue of Gondor?" Morwen asked. "Why not say it in the tongue of the Mark?"
"Because he doesn't come from here," Théodwyn said. "Because he's tall and dark, like you. Because nothing else would feel right for him." She galloped her toy horse back again. "I'm hungry, mother. Can I have some cake?"
Thorongil, Morwen thought. "Soon," she said, absently. The outer gate opened, and Thorongil, their stranger, rode out with the others, out onto the plains, once again thick with the flowers of spring.
I wonder if his mystery will ever be solved, she thought. I hope so.
Note: The parts relating to the legal system in Rohan are entirely made up, but were inspired by a dimly-remembered book I read on the Anglo-Saxon justice system, and the move from treating murder as a crime against a person or family, to a crime against the state.
Part of me would very much like to write the continuing adventures of the intrepid crime-fighting duo that is "Thorongil" and the Queen of Rohan. Sadly, I fear this could only happen in a strange sort of AU. Shame.