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In A Stone City
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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1
In A Stone City

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain...


***


Éowyn watched the wind pick up, rippling the grass on the plains far across the horizon, and then the rain came, in great waves. She would not ride today.

Once, in her childhood, her cousin had told her of the winter when the rain had fallen so long and so hard that the river had broken. Water had flooded the dike and threatened the gate and the barrows of the kings, and the townsfolk had raised up banks to save them.

A memorable tale – but what she remembered best was hearing it told, as she sat perched in sunlight on the bough of an apple-tree, chafing at the bark with her fingernail, listening to his voice rising as he spoke. She twisted her neck to stare up at him, a strong young man with pale hair and bright eyes, looking like the prince that he was and the king that he could be, waving his arms and crying, ‘All of the fields were flooded, as far as the eye could see!’ Her love for him had come all in a rush – and when, near the end, she thought of him again, telling his tale, she had prayed for the waters to take each one – town and gate and barrow – and rid them of their taint as it whelmed them.

She had felt something else that day, she knew now, something that for years had remained unspoken (for she had had no words for it), but in time had threatened to engulf her. For although the flood had happened before she had even been born, she had envied him that he had seen the wide green grasses turned to water, had wanted to see it for herself. Now, she could put into words what she had known by instinct then, that there were worlds that he had seen and would see that were to be closed to her, and the child had resented it, without being able to say why.

She turned her back to the sea-grey sky and wandered through the hall, like driftwood.

***


A week betrothed, and he came to see her mid-morning.

They had established a pattern, she and the Steward. He would spend his days in the Citadel and she with the healers, for there was much in the city – and many – still in need of care. Early in the evening he would join her, and they would dine together and often walk in the gardens, since it seemed daily to become warmer. But it had gone understood how his duties – and hers – must fill their days. So:

‘Should you be here at this hour?’ she reproved, before thinking.

‘I find myself enjoying being accountable to none,’ he said. ‘While it lasts!’ He gave her his half-smile. ‘Is my presence at this hour unwelcome?’ She did not reply, just offered him her arm. He took it, and she allowed herself to be led out.

It was a bright morning, lit up by spring sunshine that warmed her through. They walked a while along a lawn lined with fragrant flowers, and when they came to the walls they looked ahead, as they often did, towards Ithilien. And then he took her to a little rusty gate in the crumbling wall, and for the first time she ventured out into the city.

They walked southwards around the circle, a street made narrow by steep buildings. They had often looked down upon all the levels below them – an eagle's view, soaring above the rocks beneath – but she had not foreseen what it would to be amongst them. The sheer lines rising upwards on each side left her giddy and uncertain. There was nothing like this in her home. She anchored herself by gazing up at a vivid patch of blue sky ahead, a window beyond the stone, and walked on more firmly.

She thought perhaps he had tightened his grip a little around her arm. Had he caught her hesitation? He did not say, and began instead to talk about the buildings they were passing by. He was sure-footed on the cobbles and she let him navigate her, and listened to his steady voice telling some of the stories of the stones around them.

At length he brought her to a quiet haven away from the main thoroughfare – an alcove set by some stone steps. A little more privacy here, she thought, than perched up on the walls above.

‘Look,’ he said, pointing out.

This far south and still so high, and with the day as clear as it was, they could see well beyond the confines of the city. Here the expanse of the river bent close to the wall built in defence, and beyond that lay the harbour. There were four long, flat boats and seven or eight smaller ones, and each bore a great blue sail on which there was a white swan.

‘A convoy from Belfalas. It came in last night, bringing supplies. And others follow, two or three days behind. I was glad to see them...’ he frowned, ‘and to hear the news that more were coming. The city was not starving, but this will surely ease our situation.’

He talked on about fair winds and trade routes, about how long it took to reach the coast, about his most recent – most recent! – journey there. She had never seen a ship before today.

‘I hope,’ he said, ‘that we may go there soon. It is the home of my mother’s kin.’

He stopped speaking, set his hands down flat upon the stone of the wall, and became still. After a moment she reached out and laid her hand carefully on top of his. He was warm to touch. His fingers moved to accept her, hers knitted around them, and he smiled up at her – quickly, and then bit his lip.

‘I was wondering,’ he said, looking back out towards the ships, ‘how I might explain myself to your brother.’

‘Explain yourself?’

‘I hear from the Marshal of the Riders,’ he said, lowering his voice as if offering a confidence, ‘that your brother is most protective of your honour.’

She caught the drift of the game. ‘Indeed he is. And will wish to question at length the man who dares to ask for my hand.’

‘I would like to think I could make a reasonable case.’

‘Myself, I have no fear for your eloquence, sir,’ she said, releasing his hand to reach down to her belt, where she had tucked away a slip of paper – folded over once, twice – with her name upon it. It had been delivered to her as she dressed for the day.

‘So you are receiving them,’ he murmured, peering down at his own script and then back at her. ‘You had said naught. I was beginning to think they were going astray...’

‘They have all arrived,’ she said, and looked again out across the walls to the ships ahead. ‘You are a strange folk, you men who came back from the Sea. Hewing your homes from the mountain’s side, shoring yourselves with stone. I think you do not like to see things pass. Is this why you write your love, instead of singing it?’

‘‘Tis naught so grand,’ he said frankly. ‘Only that I would have you know that even when I cannot be beside you, I am ever thinking of you.’ And for all her vaunted preference for candour, still it caught her by surprise. He took up her hand again and raised it, and placed one kiss upon the palm. ‘I can stop,’ he added, ‘if you would prefer.’

But she liked to think of him, throughout the day, busy but still finding time to write to her. She liked to think of him, thinking of her.

‘No,’ she said, and set her pale hand against his dark hair. ‘No!’ And then she laughed, and all around them the stone sang with her.

***


The box had come to her from her grandmother. Morwen of Lossarnach was a tall and thin white-haired woman with ivoried hands who had welcomed the two bereft and bewildered children to the great wooden hall with steely compassion. Éowyn had fastened herself to her, had loved her fiercely, and when, in the girl’s thirteenth year, the old woman had suddenly sickened and died, it was as if an ancient tree had been felled from under her, or as if the moon had faltered in the sky.

A week or so after the wedding, they had ridden from Emyn Arnen to Lossarnach. She had taken the box with her, to bring it home again, she told him shyly. He had just nodded. A late, lazy summer lay upon the green vales, and the air was heavy with the fragrances of flowers for which she had as yet no name – save for one, which seemed now and again to freshen the still air. As they lay together on the grass by a little stream, she watched his face lighten when he caught it too, the scent of athelas.

They rode on into a little township, where it was market day. They bought bread from a baker who did not know who they were but could see that they were wealthy, and tried to cheat them. She had to cover her mouth as her husband, with infinite courtesy, proved to know more about the price of flour in the kingdom than the man could ever have bargained for. At another stall sat an old man with gnarled hands, carving. She brought out the box and he looked it over, admiring its craftsmanship.

‘The wood is not from these parts,’ he told her, as he handed it back. ‘From Ithilien, most likely.’

They had both marvelled at this. ‘To think,’ she said, ‘that all of this time, I had a piece of the forest with me.’

For years, the box had stood empty. She had not been the kind of child that collected trinkets, and later on she learned to keep her secrets locked within her heart. She had never thought that she would use it for the purpose that she had; would not have said it was in her nature, had not believed she would have the chance, or the desire.

She opened the box and lifted out his letters.

The tale of a courtship. Two polite notes accompanying books, sent to her as she lingered in the Houses of Healing. Some comments on the volumes and his hopes for her good health. She had replied to neither of them, nor had she at the time answered her own unvoiced question of why she was keeping them.

The tale of a betrothal. The letter he had sent her directly after she had accepted him, his writing lacking its usual grace; and then all the notes that had come to her twice, even three times a day. One afternoon she had gone to the Citadel and found him working at his desk, intent on the paper before him. (Should you be here at this hour? he said when he saw her. I am accountable to none, she replied.) When she returned to Edoras and his letters arrived there, this was always how she would think of him, bent at his desk, writing to her with the news of the first days of the kingdom. It was when she was in Edoras too that the verse began to arrive, and she read through these now. Two lines with an odd rhythm (and, scrawled in the margin beside them as both apology and challenge, These would work better in Elvish). The first verse to arrive in her own tongue which she marked with his mistakes and sent back with no other comment. The next one had written alongside it, This is not right but rhymes, to which she had replied, The rhyme is not the point.

The tale of a marriage. She had told him once that she did not wish to speak in riddles, but she loved this language they wrote together, the senses that were hidden in the words that only they could know, the steady accretion of meaning. When had it stopped, she wondered.

***


She woke all of a sudden with the moon upon her face. The heavy curtain had been drawn back and he was standing there, silhouetted black against the window.

‘Did you dream again?’ Her voice seemed to ring around the room. He started, turned.

‘Dream? Yes,’ he said, and said no more. They looked at each other across the space between them, vaster than an ocean, wider than the fields of grass. His face was half in shadow. She shivered.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I did not mean to wake you.’ He held out his hand to her and she rose and went to him. When their fingers touched she shivered again.

‘You are so cold...’ Then she saw that the window was open. ‘No wonder!’ She reached for the clasp, but he stopped her hand.

‘Leave it,’ he said. ‘I want to feel the night air.’

‘It is the middle of winter-’

But he just drew her to him, turning her so that her back came to rest against his chest. His arms came around her. She felt him settle his head against hers, felt rather than heard him sigh.

Night lay like a blanket on the Moon-land. Their window faced east and she looked down into their dark, inchoate garden, saw the shadows of the trees, felt the press of the silent forest and the memory of the mountains beyond. He was warmer now, she a little colder. A cloud moved before the moon, which gleamed for a moment then was hidden. A breath of wind passed, like a fleeting thought. He shifted with it, restlessly.

‘We should go to the Sea,’ he said. ‘You still have not seen it.’ He drew his hand gently, carefully across her, brought it to rest against her hair. ‘Next year,’ he said, ‘we shall go to the Sea. We shall take our child there.’

But they did not, and went back to the stone instead, where the birds wheeled high above and the rock could offer no purchase.

***


She gathered all the papers together again and set them back in the box where they seemed now to belong. Then she reached down to her belt for the most recent – delivered by hand before he left – and ran her fingertip over the familiar letters of the seal before breaking it. A single page lay within. She smoothed the paper out before her, delaying the moment, both eager and unwilling to read.

His script was unchanged and the words were warm – his thanks for the hospitality of the hall, his expressions of affection for the children, his gratitude for her kindness, his name. Plain words that meant what they said and nothing more. A picture came to her of him writing them, elbow on the desk, hand to his forehead... Swiftly, she folded the words over upon themselves – then saw the others upon the back. They were written in her mother-tongue.

Once in sunlight we sang -
Healing our hearts; weaving our ways together.
But my voice faltered, my soul strayed -
And our paths parted.

What was once bound is broken,
And the wind alone now whispers
Our fading song that I failed to sing.


Later, she put the paper in its place with the rest. Outside, the wind keened, and the rain still came, in great waves.

~~~

A/N: I never thought that I did Éowyn justice in A Game of Chess. I hope this does a little to redress that.

The title comes from Exile in Athens by Lawrence Durrell and the quotation at the start is from Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold. Thank you to Stultiloquentia for her excellent advice and guidelines on writing OE love poetry, and to Isabeau and Alawa for comments on the drafts. Thank you also to Starlight for continuing to ask about this story.

Altariel, February-May 2003


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