Then Éowyn looked in the eyes of Aragorn, and she said: ‘Wish me joy, my liege-lord and healer!’
And he answered: ‘I have wished thee joy ever since first I saw thee. It heals my heart to see thee now in bliss.’
ROTK: Many Partings
And he answered: ‘I have wished thee joy ever since first I saw thee. It heals my heart to see thee now in bliss.’
ROTK: Many Partings
It is as if the dams of the sky have opened and a great river floods the valley. Rain pours from the clouds, rustling in the thatch above our heads and pounding against the ground beyond the walls. Thunder grumbles and rolls over the tops of the trees and ever so often the wind sends spatters of rain in through the windows. My lord's hall stands tall, from floor to rafters near three men-tall. Long windows open above our heads into the rain and chill night air. The open hearth in the midst of the room burns brightly and the torches are brought indoors. The hall is ablaze with light and sound, and water pours in a shimmering curtain of silver and gold threads of reflected flame beyond the open casements.
Here, my lord and I sit among his guests, our hands bound fast throughout the feast and one bowl and trencher before us. We will eat little if we do not seek help from the other. I have attended a goodly number of wedding feasts and have seen many a couple make a game of the repast. They tease with bites of the bounty of forest and field and sneak kisses between, when they think the company does not perceive. Others are so shy their guests must ply them with wine and pound the boards until they are appeased for a short while with a kiss. Others are more bold and care not who looks upon them, so great is the passion and head full of wine they share.
My lord and I share neither of these. Our cup stands near full and seldom does his glance stray to mine over the meal. He eats lightly, and the time between mouthfuls lengthens. When I offer to help him cut more of his meat, my lord declines with a quick shake of his fingers. It is good my appetite has fled with the discomfort of noise and unease, for I would not ask my lord to wear himself thin just to give me aid.
I sit beside my bridegroom and let the company whirl about me. My shoulders are stiff and my back aches, for I hold myself rigidly in my seat. The groom looks no more easy than the bride. His hand is still beneath mine and he does not speak. Our food grows cold long before the meal is done. Our only blessing is that the guests do not come near enough to demand speech with my lord and none have called for him to show me the fondness expected of a groom for his bride. It is plain to me, who sits so near, that he tires swiftly.
It is with relief, then, the feast seems to be drawing to a close. Bowls are emptied and pushed away, and the guests pluck at the corners of the trenchers of day-old bread, soaked as they are now with the juices of roasted meats and a sauce of garlic and thyme. I think the meal shall soon be done and the dancing take its place. I would not deny our people their one chance of late to invite joy and it seems my lord is of like mind, but the quicker this evening ends, I think, the better.
Soon, I hope, the women will lead me up the stairs and there prepare me to await my groom in the solar where he sleeps. It is enough to know the company shall watch me as I go. It is enough that I go to meet a man who is far beyond my ken, more myth than flesh and blood breathing beside me. I know him not. I am grateful my lord's men have been merciful and spared me greater acquaintance with their chieftain where all can watch. It shall be enough to be pinned beneath my lord's own gaze. The waiting grates upon me. The sooner it is just he and I, the sooner that, too, will be done.
"My lord!" a voice calls and our eyes are drawn to the tables across from the hearth. There stands one of his Rangers, a young lad with a round, pleasant face.
"Aye, Gelir," my lord says and his guests quiet the better to hear him. All about us faces turn to the hearth.
'I have a boon to beg," my lord's man says, and turns to the company and raises his wine, his eyes alight with mischief.
"Ah, Gelir," I hear. His friends laugh and call, "Sit down, there."
Yet he is determined. My lord's man remains steadfast and backs away from playful hands that seek to cuff him or pull him to sitting. Those Rangers elder to his years smile and lean in one tother to whisper and exchange a meaningful glance. It seems they know him well and are not surprised.
"Nay, nay!" he says, laughing and protecting his cup. "Is this not a wedding feast? Forgive me, my lord, I could not tell."
My lord says naught, but he attends. His brow rises and his look is gently amused, and by that his man takes heart.
"Does there not seem to be one thing yet lacking?" He extends a falsely bewildered look to the company and then smiles broadly. "My lord, you are known for stealth, having been tutored in the ways of it by the Elder-born. You must forgive these mortal eyes if they missed it, but I have not seen even one kiss betwixt my lord and his bride."
The men laugh and shake their heads. "You shall make a fool of yourself, yet, Gelir!" I hear.
The man shrugs and looks out among the company. "Have you?"
"Nay, not I!" comes from the far side of the hall and now the guests turn about in their seats, their eyes bright and expectant. I catch a brief glimpse of my aunt. She sits upon her chair surrounded by her friends, her dark eyes bright with laughter as she leans from her seat the better to see, the butt of her cane teetering upon the floor. "Nor I!" comes another call.
At this, the man beams and turns to my groom. "What say you, my lord? Shall you not give us satisfaction?"
With that, Gelir is not the only man standing. There they rise and call out my lord's name. As if in echo the hall takes up the call, and a drumming upon the tables rises from about us. Very quickly it is loud, buffeting against my ears, and the faces of all the company are turned to my lord and me. For all its usual subtlety, Halbarad's look is thunderous, his eyes glinting darkly beneath his brow. I shall not be greatly surprised if my lord's Ranger finds himself assigned the most onerous of duties come the next week and the next following it. He heeds the threat not, but raises a cup to his lord, his smile broad and laughter on his lips.
After some hesitance, my lord's smile is fond as he gazes out upon his man, and by this I know he will comply. My heart beats so at this thought that, when my lord turns to me, I know I must blush brightly so all may see. I hear little over the pounding on the tables. My lord's eyes are upon me, and I am pierced by the sharpness of his gaze. Ah, had I not drunk more wine when I had the chance!
The men pound all the louder and the tempo of their beat quickens. Yet, still, he does not move, and indeed, my lord breathes deeply and clenches his fist upon the rest as if preparing himself to exert great effort to bridge the distance between us. Only then does it come to me what this kiss will demand from my lord in pain.
This should not be! Is not my lord's discomfort sufficient suffering, that he must seek out more to appease them? Before I give it more thought and convince myself otherwise, I launch myself over the rest where our hands are bound, and press my lips to those of my lord's. I come nigh to knocking his head into the back of his chair for the force with which I fly at him.
I think, at first, a great gasp arises from my lord's guests, but then the hall roars loud with approval so I am near deaf for it. Laughter beams from my lord's men's faces and the women hide their glee behind their hands. They shout and strike their tables and pound the floor. For want of practice, I am sure I lack gentleness and skill, but my lord cannot say the kiss was wanting in its effect.
When I pull away from him, my lord's look is stunned, but soon a slow smile softens his features. He then laughs low and his eyes light with mirth as he wipes at his lips. So great is my shame I cannot look upon him or any of his guests. I all but cower in my chair, wishing for naught more than my hand was free so I might flee the hall.
My lord lifts his cup from the table and silently salutes his men as they cheer him on, calling his name, raising their cups to his and laughing. When he drinks, they do the same and the hall quiets some.
"Lady," I hear softly beside me and I lift my eyes to find my lord offers me the wine.
There is naught to do but take and drink of it under my lord's watching. I hear my name called in a scattering about the hall as I drink and over the rim of the cup I catch a glance of raised cups and smiling faces until my eye lights upon my lord's kin. Somewhat of satisfaction and relief has settled upon Halbarad's features, and he offers me a slight nod before he sips from his cup. I am not so shy of the wine and drain all that is left.
With that, Halbarad rises and signals the end of the meal. It is customary for the groom to lead the bride to the floor where he will partner her, but this is not asked of us. Instead, the men move the tables until my lord and I sit before the hearth and around us rings the empty floor. The table all but disappears from before us and the floor clears so swiftly the whirl of change leaves no room for comment. Surely all is as it should be.
By the time the company dances in a round about us, the wine has risen to my head, where it gives me little comfort. A muddle of music reaches my ears, a mix of viol, pipe and drum and the beat of feet against the floor to set the rhythm. In a little, my head shall clear, but now I blink at the forms of my lord's guests as they slip past and seek mightily to keep my eyes open. The circle ceases its turning and couples break from it to whirl about. They wend their way against each other as so much weft laid down between the warp, but I lose the weaving for the swiftness of their feet. Only then do I cease my attempts to make sense of it. They are merry. Let me be content to watch.
Under the influence of the wine, time passes swiftly and I have nigh forgotten my lord. By the time my mind is my own, a brisk tune moves their feet and the company swirls about us. Clapping of hands ring in time above the Ranger's heads and the dance involves much of pounding heels as the men circle the lady of their choice. It is a joyful dance and the hall is full of bright sound. The women beam and the grimness of the most weathered of our lord's Rangers falls from him.
Even Halbarad deigns to smile at the twinkling eyes of the delicate lass he has chosen. She seems to barely top his belt, but her cheek dimples with her suppressed smile and she stands no doubt as straight as her father's spear, though perhaps not near so tall. Then, there is a clear shout and the tune breaks into a wild whirl and the men grab their partners' hands to swing them laughing about the floor in great circles that threaten to collide one with the other in their recklessness.
When the dance ends, I am laughing with them and I turn to my lord. I wish to share my delight, but he stares straight ahead, his eyes fixed and distant. The dancing brings him no joy. It is then I notice the sweat that has sprung out upon his brow, his labored breath, and the eyes that waver in their gaze.
I lean to him. "My lord," I whisper beneath the sounds of music, dancing feet and laughter, "what do you wish?"
He blinks as if arising from the depths of dreams and shakes his head so slightly I wonder had I seen it.
Will my lord take no comfort? Is there naught I can do?
But I have not the time to discover it, if there were, for I turn at a light touch upon my shoulder and find the women are waiting.
My aunt has long since left the company and gone to her bed. She came to me before the dancing was done, and pressed her cheek to mine. She said naught, knowing I feared my lord's overhearing what reassurance she might need to give along with her farewell. Another will pluck the flowers from my hair and puzzle out this strange dress' fastenings, but I have the pride in my aunt's eyes to take with me no matter how far we may be parted.
They unwind the ribbon from about our hands, and, in a gentle crowd, lead me to the stairs. He gave me no farewell more than a slight nod, and in my last sight of my lord before the women urge me up the steps, he speaks softly with Halbarad and stretches his fingers as if their binding had been a sore trial.
Sitting on the edge of a stranger's bed, I await my husband.
I roll the word upon my tongue in the dark, where it tastes oddly. A draft runs along the slats of wood where my bare toes dangle and I shiver. A cold welcome it will be for the groom if the bride were to sit much longer waiting in only the thin covering of her shift. It feels most of an hour since I was dismissed from the company, the men lingering to toast their married chieftain and, on this night, wish him much bliss.
And an heir, do not forget, an heir.
The voices of his Rangers have long since faded about the hearth. My hair unbound and skin bare but for a thin layer of finely adorned linen, I am as a field of warm earth beneath the spring sun. But where is the plow-master for the planting of his seed? If he delays much longer, he might find his bride has fallen asleep before joining her in his bed.
A thin pool of light pours into the solar from below and feet scuff faintly at the bottom of the stairs. My heart thuds into my ears, bringing my sour reflections to an abrupt end. His tread is labored and slow as he climbs the stairs, each step accompanied by a soft grunt of effort. A flickering arc of light that throws the beams of the roof into fleeting relief heralds his entrance.
At last he is come.
Light spills into the room, and I blink into the glare. A fine picture I must make, squinting into the light as I am, and, uneasy, I shift in my seat. Shadows play heavily upon my lord's face and I cannot read the expression writ there. Without so much as a word or look, he crosses to the foot of the bed. His steps weave across the floor and blood rises to my cheeks at the thought that my lord has need of wine to buttress his resolve to bed his wife.
I swallow and turn away at the thought of wine-sodden breath and clumsy hands, a heavy body that will not rise. But, at the trembling of light upon the wall, I catch my lord's grimace as he lowers the candle to the long chest at the foot of the bed. His breath is not that of a man enfeebled with too much wine, but one drunk with exhaustion and pain, where the cost of each rise and fall of the breast cannot be fully paid. He leans heavily upon the tall bedpost and the hand that seeks to unbind his belt shakes with the palsy of an old man.
Before I can consider what I am about, I am on my feet. When my hand covers his, his arm falls limp and heavy to his side, acquiescing to my touch as if he lacks the strength to resist. His eyes hidden in the curtain of his dark hair, he watches silently as I undo his belt and the ties of the formal tunic he wears. It is thick and velvet, pliable and warm with the heat of his body when I ease it off his shoulders, as if it were the pelt of some gentle living creature. I turn away to fold the cloth and lay it upon the chest and I find I am shaking. Here is a thing I had not expected, to lead our steps through this dance.
The shirt beneath is stiff with raw fibers of silk. It makes the soft rustling sound of falling leaves and the skin its removal reveals is little less smooth and warm than the velvet that had covered him. His breath runs across my cheek from where I am bent to him. I swallow and blush furiously at the warmth and scent that rises from his bare breast as the cloth falls from his wrists and hangs from my hand. I cannot meet his eyes for fear of what he may read there. When he catches my hands and leads me to the bed, it is now I that am weak upon my legs like a newborn lamb.
But, when he cautiously sinks upon the mattress, holding tightly to me to ease his descent, he turns my hands in his to stare at my palms as if looking to them to find aught hidden there. I had taken care not to brush his flesh with them, for they are cold from the wait. Then, laying his face into their cup, he sighs into my fingers. His beard is softer than I thought and I can feel the warmth spreading through my hands where he has captured them against his skin.
For a long moment we are thus, I standing before him, and my lord and bridegroom slumped upon his bed, his hair brushing the edges of our hands. When he raises his face, his eyes are the startlingly blue of a cold, clear winter's day. His voice is deep and rich as he speaks his first private words to me.
"I kept you waiting, lady, but I beg you must wait a while longer."
I cannot tell whether the sinking in my gut is relief or regret. What does a bride say to such a kind refusal to claim the right of the groom?
"We have much time before us, my lord," I finally say.
"That we do."
I have naught to say to that.
In the dark I lie beside my lord's slumbering form, listening to the breath that sighs gently beside me and staring at the wooden canopy above our heads. In my mind I stand within the shadow of the entry into my father's house, watching the passage of the column of Rangers mounted upon their shaggy-coated steeds. I look for my father among their company, but there I see, as if for the first time, their chieftain's face before he passes, and the flash of something vital in his gaze.
It causes me to shiver, and I pull the blankets about my shoulders and turn upon my side so I may curl into a ball without disturbing my lord. But it does little to warm me, for I have seen the weariness of my lord's body sink into the depth of his eyes. And I have seen the linen tightly bound about my lord's middle and, beneath its outer wrapping, it is dark with blood.