10. Tha Abominable Strawhead
In the night Déoric awoke with the urgent sense that something was wrong. Even more wrong than before. He was in Dunland, he had a broken arm, he had lost his horse and his luggage and he was stuck in the snow, but he had known all this for a few days now. It took him a while to pick up the thread of his daytime thoughts from the tangle of uneasy feelings which had woven his dreams. Once he found it, the whole skein unravelled and revealed how his precious stories appeared to him now, threadbare and moth eaten. Would that Lunet had never told him! And yet, if she was right, how could he wish not to know?
Was she right? Was there a way of knowing? Her stories had told of the same events; they confirmed what had happened, but they made it look so different!
Helm had chased off a pack of wolves by setting fire to their tails. Helm had broken an arm-thick branch off a tree with his bare hands and used this club to crack the skull of the Dunlending who had stolen his sword. Helm had cornered a band of orcs in a cave and frightened the life out of them when he tore the limbs off their chieftain.
Heroic deeds, he had thought at the time. Suddenly they looked like acts of mindless cruelty. Ever since childhood, Déoric had known the story how Helm had killed Freca with a blow of his bare fist for the insults Freca had offered him in front of his council. Only now did it occur to Déoric that an insult was no sufficient reason to kill a man. Come to think of it, Helm had insulted Freca first. As for the reason for their quarrel...could it be true? He wasn't sure. Not that he thought Lunet would lie, but she might be mistaken. All the Dunlendings with their stories about Helm the Pitiless could be mistaken. He tried to remember a story that would prove them wrong, that would show Helm as a kind and caring father, but he could think of none. The stories of Helm told in the Mark all ran in the same vein and showed him as strong, brave and unbending, a man not of words but of deeds.
All of those great deeds were only great as long as wolves, orcs and Dunlendings were bad.
Well, orcs were evil. He was sure of that much. Slaying orcs could never be wrong, and Lunet had not tried to say so. Wolves? He had been brought up to think of them as fell and cruel, but now he doubted it. The memory of soft fur covering his side was still very vivid. That wolf had curled up to the body of an injured man for the sake of what little warmth he could find there and had fled at the approach of an old woman. Lunet said wolves were timid and inclined to be friendly. His recent experience bore out her claim. What kind of person went out of their way to seek those creatures in the woods and kill them?
And the Dunlendings? They were monsters, if he wanted to believe the stories he had heard again and again ever since he'd been old enough to sit up at the fire with the adults at night. Ruthless, callous, brutal, with no honour and no other desire in their miserable lives than to beleaguer the Eorlingas. They had looked like that sure enough in the flickering torchlight at Helm's Deep. The world had been frightening then, dark and death-dealing, but it had at least been easy to understand: here was Us and there was Them. But now he slept in a Dunlending's bed, wore a Dunlending's clothes and shared a Dunlending's meagre food. What was left of him depended on an old woman whose clothes were tied together with string because she hadn't seen a sewing needle in ten years. All of Dunland had melted together into one face, and that face, for all its warts and crooked teeth, was the face of compassion.
She could have left him. She could have walked past his mangled body, and the snow would have covered him and nobody would have ever known. Fana and his mother would have been waiting for him all through the winter and the spring and for years to come and would have never known. Why had she picked him up? What had compelled an old woman to load the enemy onto her sledge and drag him seven miles through the snow so she could tend his wounds in her home? Could it be that, when all was said and done, the Dunlendings were just people?
There was no answer to these questions, but they weighed down the night with a choking sensation as if a huge and heavy animal had settled on his chest. He lay awake and listened to the mice rustling and the wind whispering behind the shutters, one man alone in a cocoon of darkness, far from home and with the certainties of his life crumbled away. At one point he had half a mind to get up and seek Lunet in the goat shed to escape this terrible loneliness, but he remembered the snow and his injuries and thought better of it. He had no idea how close it might have been to dawn when at last sleep overcame him again.
Lunet let him sleep the morning away. He awoke to the sound of her clattering with her saucepans. When he opened his eyes and sat up, he saw that they were not alone in the cottage. On a stool near the hearth sat a woman, neither old nor young, with haggard features and clothes that looked little more than rags. She held an infant on her lap, and four other children of different sizes leaned or clung to her in one way or another.
"You don't need to be scared of him, you don't," said Lunet from behind her pot without turning round. "Strawhead he may be, but won't bite you. Go and show him your skipping trick, Elain."
One of the children, a scraggy girl with auburn hair, hid her face in her mother's sleeve.
"Good morning," said Déoric for want of something wittier to say. The children stared at him, two of them with their mouths open. The woman gave him a fleeting glance and wrapped her arm tighter around her youngest. Déoric began to push his fur covers aside, but when he saw the looks of panic in the children's faces, he pulled them back up and remained in bed, leaning with his back against the wall. Eventually Lunet faced the room, wooden spoon in hand.
"This is Déoric, a young man from Edoras, and story teller by trade, he is. Déoric, meet Tegan and her children." She listed a handful of incomprehensible names which Déoric instantly forgot. "They've come for a fever draught for little Myf."
Now Déoric noticed that the infant looked pallid and sweaty. The other children kept scratching their heads, and Déoric saw the white dots in their dark hair. He wondered why the mother didn't take a nit comb to them. The sight made him feel itchy all over again. He nodded at the woman in what he hoped would look a genial manner. She returned his greeting curtly and began to fuss over her infant. Lunet shrugged, an awkward movement of her hunched shoulders, and poured a dark liquid from her saucepan into a wooden mug. She shuffled over to the woman and administered her potion to the child. The little one squealed and spluttered. Lunet murmured something in Dunlendish. Bending over the infant, the mother stroked Myf's little head and cooed incomprehensible words. At last, Myf relaxed and swallowed.
Meanwhile, the other children had approached Déoric, first with looks and then with hesitating steps. A boy of maybe four years with the bulging eyes and lolling tongue of the feeble-minded stretched out a hand to touch Déoric's braid. At that moment, the children's mother looked up and called out sharply. Startled, the children scurried back to where she sat and hid behind her back. As soon as Lunet had finished her ministrations, the woman spoke a few hasty words and then ushered her children out of the cottage. A powdery cloud of snowflakes blew into the room when she opened the door.
"You've got to excuse her," said Lunet after they had gone. "Can't expect her to like you much, what with her husband slain at that battle and with you perhaps someone who knows him that did it, you are."
"But I didn't - " began Déoric and stopped himself. As far as this woman was concerned, he was of the people of Helm the Pitiless.
"Do all the people of Dunland hate and fear us?" he asked instead.
"Pretty much," she replied, already busy again at her pot with the next potion. It stank of garlic and rancid butter, and he saw her sprinkling in fistfuls of dried herbs. Déoric sat in silence for a while and mulled over the picture of himself as a villain. It did not seem a faithful likeness at all, but then he had already begun to realize that people's views about others, however firmly held, were not necessarily true.
"Why did you take me in then, me, a Strawhead?" he said at last.
Lunet stirred the vile herbal concoction with a spoon carved out of goat's horn.
"Can you not guess?" she asked.
"No," said Déoric. "I am an enemy of your people. You told me a bunch of stories last night about the despicable Eorlingas. I'm one of them. You could have left me out there to die and then there would have been one less of the abominable Strawheads."
She shook her head.
"Think properly, Déoric, will you," she said in that strange manner of ending her sentences with questions that weren't questions. "Why do you think I live out here all by myself, just me and my goats, rather than down in the village?"
Déoric hesitated. He liked the old woman too much to answer, because you're an old witch, though he knew the truth lay somewhere along those lines.
"Because," he said, "you are ... different?"
She chuckled and waved the spoon at him.
"You're ever a polite one, eh, Déoric? Yes, I am different, me. Having sharper wits than everybody else around you doesn't make for an easy life, son, believe you me. I knew even as a young girl that this whole thing about Us and Them couldn't be true. It makes no sense, you see. Stand one of our men next to one of yours, take off their clothes, what difference is there? Colour of hair? Fiddlesticks! I took you in, Déoric, because when I stumbled upon you on the hillside I saw you for what you were: a Man, injured, cold, maybe dying. I knew for sure that you were some mother's son, and maybe some girl's sweetheart. You are one of my kind, Déoric, yellow hair or not, and there was no other choice than to take care of you. What sort of woman would I be if I left another woman's child out to die in the cold?"
Déoric said nothing and looked at the floor. He noticed a cockroach crawling along and felt inclined to squash it with his foot. But he just kicked up the sand and flicked back his braids. Lunet came over and pushed the cup into his hand.
"I didn't mean to humble you, son. Takes a while to learn wisdom for most, and many never learn it at all, they don't. You will, though, in due time. Drink this. It'll make you feel better."
Déoric drank and tried not to pull a face. Lunet certainly knew how to make her medicines bitter.
"Now go and make yourself useful," she said and thrust a creel at him. "You've had plenty of rest, so some exercise will do you good, it sure will. The woodshed's round the back. There's an axe hung up inside the door."
"But how..." Déoric looked down at his bandaged arm and single foot.
"Work out a way," said Lunet. "You're a clever man, aren't you?"
She turned away and busied herself with her pots to show that she considered the matter settled. Déoric looked at the creel, which was oval and nearly three feet across, with handles on either side. He was currently holding it by one handle and it dangled down to the floor, but there was no way he could carry it when it was filled with wood. For a moment he wondered if he could attach some straps to it and wear it on his back, but he dismissed the idea as soon as it emerged. He had enough problems with his balance as it was. Maybe it could be dragged along the ground. Déoric glanced towards the door and smiled.
Four hops took him across the room. In an instant, he had opened the door and pushed out the sledge. It was long enough to accommodate both him and the creel. He sat on it facing backwards and pushed himself with his right leg. Lunet had cleared a narrow path to the back of the cottage that she scraped clear every other day. It was already covered with a new layer of snow about four fingers deep. On either side, the white banks rose up to a height of nearly four feet. Clods of snow fell off as Déoric brushed past. A splattered pile lay in front of the shed where the snow had slid off the roof.
There were two doors. Déoric pulled himself up by the handle of the first and opened it. Five goats turned their heads and stared at him.
"Sorry, ladies, wrong address," said Déoric. He felt a wave of embarrassment to think that this was Lunet's bedchamber.
The second door opened into the woodshed and he saw the axe where Lunet had said it would be. He found an upturned bucket to sit on and after a couple of fumbled attempts managed to chop up a few logs. He tossed them into the creel and made his way back in the same manner in which he had come out. Once inside the cottage, he set the creel on the floor.
"Your wood, madam," he said. "Any more orders?"
Lunet looked at him and gave him one of her lopsided smiles.
"That'll do for now," she said. "Sit down, son, and let me look at your arm. Hold still."
She undid the bandages and splint and laid bare Déoric's arm. It was covered in bruises that were beginning to turn yellow, and it seemed to have shrunk. With her twisted fingers she touched it and ran her palm from the wrist to the elbow and back.
"Why is it so thin?" asked Déoric, trying to conceal the worry in his voice.
"Because you haven't used the muscles, you haven't. They'll get a lot thinner yet before this is all healed up, but they'll grow stronger again once you give them some work to do. Try to move your fingers."
Déoric wriggled his fingers.
"They tingle a bit," he said.
"Hmm, yes. That'll probably stop. It looks good, son." She began to wrap him up again. "Not sure how well it would serve a warrior, but it'll do fine for a right-handed scribe, it will."
Suddenly, Déoric laughed.
"It's the shield-arm! The same that Lady Éowyn broke! I never thought I'd have anything in common with her."
"And who is Lady Éowyn, dearie?"
"Do you not know? Then let me tell you. A truly glorious story of the Eorlingas, and I can vouch for its truth. Lady Éowyn was very brave. She rode..."
It had been easier, Éowyn thought, to be brave with a sharp sword in hand and someone to point it at. And a broken arm, for all that it hurt, was just an arm after all. This pain, however, strangled the very core of her body, and each new wave of assault was worse than the previous one.
Here came another one. It gripped her belly and soared up her back, and Éowyn could not remember how she was supposed to breathe and count. She whimpered and bit down on the leather rag Merilwen had given her. Tears ran over her face unchecked. She was barely aware of the attendants hovering about. Only Merilwen's voice seeped into the haze of agony that filled the world.
"Not long now, my lady, not long now," she said. "This is the hardest part, and it's almost done. Soon you'll have to start pushing. You'll need all your strength."
Good, thought Éowyn, that was good. Using her strength and pushing would be better than this, this flaccid state of simply suffering it. So when Merilwen told her to start pushing, push she did with all her might. It was indeed the relief she had hoped for, concentrating her efforts and her mind. Then a new pain seized her, ripping open a tender part of her body. Yet Merilwen urged her to keep pushing, and so she did. She felt, or imagined she could feel, how little by little the child slid out. Then she noticed the urgent whispers among the attendants. Merilwen's face swam into view, her expression grave.
"My lady, the babe's head is out, but the shoulders are stuck. I'm afraid this is going to hurt a lot. I'd like you to take some poppy syrup."
Obediently, Éowyn swallowed the potion offered to her on a spoon. She saw the anxious faces of the other women and a wave of fear grabbed her and made her feel sick. She had no time though to think, for two of the women seized her legs and pushed them up until her knees almost touched her ears. She heard Merilwen shout instructions and then, before the poppy syrup had taken any effect, she was torn apart. That such pain was possible, she could not have imagined. With her last grain of strength, she screamed and, just before she drowned in a warm, black sea, she heard another scream mingle with her own; high-pitched, piercing and wholly new to the world. The babe lives, she thought and allowed herself to sink.