11. Winter Wonders
It was still early, but Éomer sent a servant to the scribe's room to get some ink. He felt no inclination to drop in personally, as he had so often done when Déoric had been busy there. Occasionally, when he could spare the time to tutor the youth, Léofred would sit there with Brecc, but mostly these days the room lay deserted. Éomer realized that he had begun to think of it as a dismal place. Even his own room seemed dismal at times. Right now, it was very quiet, for the fire had not been lit yet, and all that could be heard was a faint cracking and clicking. Suddenly he realised what those noises were, for his eyes had stared at his desk and seen it for a while without taking it in: four tiny holes just next to his ink well and another two closer to the edge. Éomer looked on the floor and found, on closer inspection, two little piles of sawdust. He groaned. Curse those woodworms! He hated the thought of them sneakily munching away inside his very home, destroying things slowly but surely with their insatiable appetites. And somehow, he felt that something was gnawing at his insides, too. My whole soul is worm-eaten, he thought. I have been a prisoner of this city for too many weeks, with no news from either my sister or my beloved.
When the servant returned, Éomer had to stop himself from walking up to the door with his hand outstretched.
"My lord," said the servant. "I could only find this. It's half empty, I'm afraid."
He handed him an ink bottle.
"Thank you, Béogard. Whenever the Chronicler of the Mark returns, it won't be too soon. You may leave now."
With a bow, the servant withdrew. Éomer sat down again at his desk by the window and smoothed out the sheets of parchment in front of him. The prospect of writing to Lothíriel lifted his spirits. She might have not received his last, so he'd make sure to answer her questions once again. He picked up a quill and cut it to his liking; then, in his careful, rounded letters, he began to write.
My dearest Lothíriel,
You will forgive me, I hope, if I fail to show the necessary interest in the matter of your wedding dress. It is not for lack of trying, but I cannot bring myself to care greatly whether you settle for saffron or carmine, and therefore my advice in this matter would be highly dubious. However, you may consider it a compliment that I trust in your judgement completely. Besides, I would marry you regardless, even if you were dressed in a sack.
Being as we are in the claws of a crueller than usual winter, I find it hard to imagine that May will come and bring me my bride. But no doubt the year will turn as it always does and melt this snow that delays your precious letters, which I so ardently crave. I shall not say I am destitute, but the tedium wears me down. My sister hasn't written to me since September, or perhaps her letters have got lost. There is no fighting to be done in this weather, and Aragorn is, so I have heard, as snowed in as we are. Master Léofred keeps me busy with matters of government, which inspire me about as much as the inside of a wooden chest. My court artist and royal story collector is missing in the Westfold, which deprives me further of interesting conversations, but I should be less selfish here and show some due consideration and anxiety for his welfare. I would find it easier to muster such feelings if the darned fool had not, against my explicit orders, taken your box of pigments with him, as I only noticed the other day. If he loses them, I swear I will have his hide!
Worry not, my sweetest, my people look favourably on the prospect of having a Gondorian queen – and if they do not, I shall make them! It is true, many think we paid dearly, too dearly perhaps, for the rescue of Mundburg, but my efforts are beginning to bear fruit and more and more people understand what price your country has paid for the safety of all of Middle-earth by holding back the flood from Mordor for so many years. And it was good that Aragorn came to give his respects to Théoden King. The people appreciated that. They were not too pleased though with Faramir carrying away such a prize! I am slowly persuading them that in you they get just as great a treasure in return.
I am trying to picture you standing by your window overlooking the beach. You will find it hard to believe that I have never seen the sea. Keep describing it to me, I like to read your beautiful words, my little secret poet. If I had not already appointed a new minstrel, a splendid chap by the name of Guldbert, I would have asked you. In the Mark, women do not play the lute, or any other instrument for that matter, so I am looking forward with great curiosity to hearing you.
The messenger will leave this afternoon in another valiant attempt to deliver a letter to Dol Amroth and I hope with all my heart that he will prevail. If I do not hear from you again before the spring, I will boldly assume that the cause is the adversity of the weather and not any coldness of feeling on your part, and I request that you do likewise with regard to hearing from me, because the not-so-humble writer of these lines is your wholly and truly devoted
He rolled up and sealed the parchment and, without much further thought, left the chamber and walked out into the great hall, letter in hand. Here the fire roared mightily in spite of the early hour and the light of the flames licked the banners that hung from the high ceiling. He paused for a moment under the image of Eorl the Young. For all that Déoric had claimed that the proportions of the horse were all wrong, he could not but feel immense pride to see his forefather presiding so magnanimously over the grandest dwelling of his people. The Eorlingas had neither the refined culture nor the ancient history of the Gondorians, but they could look back on five hundred years in the Mark filled with honour and valour and had nothing to be ashamed of. He was the king of a splendid people.
When he heard footsteps approaching from the treasury, he hid behind a pillar. It was bound to be Léofred with more tedious talk about accounts. A servant girl, who was busy sweeping under the benches along the wall, looked at him with a question in her eyes, but before she could open her mouth, Éomer put his finger to his lips and winked at her, making good use of the famous twinkle in his eye. She giggled and dropped a curtsey. He sneaked away behind the row of pillars and out by the door, hailed by the guards. Outside, he wrapped his arms around himself against the cold and looked out over the plain.
Hoar frost lay on the land in the way he imagined the salt crusts Lothíriel had spoken of that brined the rocks below the castle at Dol Amroth, covering streets and roofs and the bare limbs of the trees. Yet it had touched some things with more delicate fingers than the salty sea: A spider web hung between the ears of one of the horse statues. It would have been invisible, had not the frost traced it with a ghostly white hand.
The air was very still and a gentle white sun rose in the East into a mellow and cloudless blue sky. Éomer breathed in the sharp scent of the cold. And then the glitter began. First he saw just a tiny flicker from the corner of his eye, but then he found himself surrounded by a flurry of glints. Wafting down in lazy twirls were miniscule snowflakes that sparkled in the morning sunshine. No cloud had given birth to them; they had frozen straight out of the chilly air to caress the country with a shiny enchantment. Elves, he thought, could not have conceived anything more beautiful than this. Diamond rain. He had heard of it, but never seen it.
He took it for a sign.
Somewhere else entirely, the hoar frost bristled on pine needles and painted bare alder trees into a pattern of white branches against black stems. Here and there, under the heaviest boughs of the trees and in crevices of rocks that the snow had not reached, the frost had found some cobwebs and turned them into glittering nets drawn with a silver pen. For the sun was shining down on this cold and lovely scene, piercing through the bare twigs with a twinkle here and a shimmer there; a whole world of frosted beauty that looked so delicate, it might break at the slightest touch.
Alas, there was no-one to see it. No-one, at least, who walked on two legs and was gifted with speech. The wolf that prowled through the undergrowth had other things on his mind than appreciating the scene. He had been travelling steadily northward for some days, but appeared to have come round in a circle. The snow had changed the shape of the forest; nevertheless the place looked familiar. There was the little brook, now rigid with ice, and the group of boulders that had given him shelter. Yes, he'd been here before, some little time ago. It had been the day after he had found the injured animal. The memory of the faint warmth and the thumping sound in the creature's chest made him wince with longing. He had felt quite comfortable curled up to this animal, before the other big animal had come and he had fled. Thinking back, he wasn't sure why he had passed on such an easy meal. He couldn't have been hungry then. He wasn't very hungry now, not after that rabbit. Not hungry, just cold. Cold, and very, very alone.
On the far side of those boulders, he remembered, there was a hollow, overhung by rock and screened by a shrub. It would be a place to sleep, and not quite so cold, maybe. He was so tired. Tired and cold. It would be good to sleep in a little hollow beneath a rock, even with this emptiness inside. He trotted around the boulders.
When he saw it, he couldn't understand how he hadn't smelled it. The cold, maybe, had numbed his senses, or else the memories he had pondered on had made him pay no heed. It mattered not. He lay down on the snow and rested his head on his paws. No sleep for him now, he'd have to watch. For the hollow was already occupied by two sleeping creatures. They were young wolves.
"With child, too!" said Lunet. "No wonder you are restless. But the snow will melt before your babe is due, you mark my words."
Déoric shrugged. His arm was itching inside the bandages. He rubbed it from the outside, futile though this was. Lunet, for a change, didn't potter about the cottage and stir her potions in her pots. She had been sitting for the last hour or so listening to the one story Déoric knew to be true – his own.
"I hope you're right," said Déoric. "It grieves me to think of her sorrow and worry. There is no kinder and sweeter girl than Fana in all the Mark."
"And she loves you truly," said Lunet, "I can tell."
"She does," agreed Déoric. "And yet, I wasn't quite sure until the day of the challenge."
"And what challenge would that be, dearie?"
"When a man of the Mark wants to wed a girl, it is the custom that she sets him a task he has to fulfil. Often it is a feat of courage or riding skill. You see, the man is to show his devotion for the girl by rising to her challenge. However, if she does not wish to marry him, she will set him an impossible task. I know it was silly of me, but I was worried that Fana would give me a challenge I couldn't meet. It would have been so easily done. But she didn't."
"So what did she ask you to do?"
"She made it very easy for me," said Déoric. "I was to draw a portrait of each member of her family, showing enough likeness so that a random person asked to judge could recognize them. The most challenging part of the whole undertaking was to get her little brothers to sit still."
"Well," said Lunet, "most men would have blanched to hear that challenge. Can't say I've ever known anyone who could have met it, I don't. She was making double sure that nobody else could come and claim her, she was."
Something thudded against the door and the sound of angry voices came in through the shutters.
"There's people outside, there is," said Lunet, needlessly.
"Who are they?"
"Lads from the village, who think they know how to deal with a Strawhead," said Lunet and made for the door. "I'll give them a piece of my mind."
"No," said Déoric. "Let me talk to them."
She cast him a quick glance and then stepped aside. Déoric stood up and hopped over to the door. As soon as he opened it a crack, the shouting grew louder and a hail of snowballs pelted against the wood. He slipped outside and leaned against the wall of the cottage.
The shouting stopped. A single snowball flew past his shoulder and hit the cottage wall with a thump. Then everything was still. A group of seven or eight boys, all of them several years younger than himself, stared at Déoric. One of them, who had stooped to pick up another handful of snow, let it drop and gaped.
"Good morning," said Déoric. "My name is Déoric. Is there something you want to talk to me about?"
He saw their looks wander from his bandaged arm to his missing leg and back. Then their eyes turned to one among them, a stout lad of maybe sixteen years with long brown curls. It was clear from their expression that talking hadn't been part of the plan.
The curly-haired lad scowled.
"Get out of Dunland, Strawhead!"
Déoric took one of his braids and made a show of holding it up in front of his eyes.
"Oh, yes, my hair is yellow. My name, though, is Déoric, as I said. Do you have a name? Where I come from, we like to know who we're talking to."
There was some shifting of legs and shuffling of feet among the group and one boy said something in Dunlendish. A quick exchange of short sentences followed and then the curly-haired lad shrugged and turned his head aside.
"I'm Gruffyd," said the other boy. "What are you doing here?"
"Right now I am trying to find out why a bunch of youths make such a racket outside an old woman's cottage. But if you mean, what brought me to Dunland: I got lost, I was attacked by orcs and badly injured, and Lunet found me and took care of me. She seems quite unconcerned about the colour of my hair."
"Did the orcs cut off your leg?" asked another boy. "I'm Drytan," he added quickly.
"Pleased to meet you, Drytan," said Déoric. "I lost my leg at the Battle on the Pelennor Fields in Gondor last year to an Easterling and his sharp axe."
The curly-haired lad, apparently feeling a need to assert his role as leader of the group, straightened his shoulders and looked at Déoric.
"My name is Idwal," he said, "and I want to know where the other soldiers are and why they were riding in border country."
"I don't think the Eorlingas must give a reason for patrolling their borders," replied Déoric. "But I'm no soldier. I'm an artist." And since the word seemed to convey little meaning to the lads, he added: "I make pictures. Like this, see."
He took a stick from a pile of kindling that Lunet had left by the door and turned aside to a flat patch of untouched snow. With swift, sweeping movements, he drew the outline of a horse. The boys came closer and looked.
"Is that all you do?" asked Idwal in a voice that made clear how unimpressed he meant to be.
"I collect stories, too," said Déoric, "and I write them down."
"Not much of a warrior, are you? But you have been in battle. Have you been at Hornburg, too?"
"Yes, I have."
"Killed any Dunlendings?"
"Not that I know of," replied Déoric. He wondered how many of the boys had lost fathers, brothers or uncles at that battle. "I just got a few orcs. Mostly I tried not to get hurt. I guess I was never a great warrior to begin with."
"That's just as well," said Idwal and gestured to the other boys that it was time to leave. "We don't want any Strawheads here. As soon as you're better, see that you get back to your own country."
He turned and began to stomp down the hill along the narrow track in the snow they had made on their way up. One by one, the others followed. Gruffyd was last. He looked at Déoric and shrugged.
"Good picture," he said over his shoulder before he joined the line of boys marching back towards the village.
Déoric went back inside. Lunet stood at the hearth with her back towards him and stirred something in a pot.
"Well done," she said without looking round.
"They were just boys," said Déoric. "It won't be so easy when the men from the village come up."
Now Lunet turned round and looked at him.
"Déoric," she said. "These lads are the men from the village, these lads are. There are two very old men, but they are too frail to make it up the hill and I doubt they would care to in any case."
"You mean the men were all ... killed?"
"Yes. Your warriors were very successful."
Before he knew it, Déoric's finger was in his mouth and he bit his knuckle.
"But that can't be right," he said after a while. "There were a lot of Dunlendings taken captive at Helm's Deep, and they were disarmed and made to clear up the battlefield. After that, they were sent back home."
"Well, they can't have been from our village," said Lunet. "Luw, Idwal's father, was the only one who came home, but he died a few days later, he did. Poisoned wound."
"The Eorlingas don't use poisoned weapons!" cried Déoric.
"I dare say in the heat of battle, those orcs didn't always look very carefully who they were hitting."
"Why were they fighting alongside orcs anyway?"
"Because Saruman, curse him, had promised to give them back the land the Eorlingas had taken off them."
"But that was hundreds of years ago!"
"Ah, but people still remember."
Déoric did not know how to reply. Remembering the past was not the privilege of the Eorlingas. He did not like it that the Dunlendings seemed so keenly aware of those ancient wrongs, but he could hardly blame them. So he just shrugged and the topic was not touched between them again. Weeks went by and they lived on goat milk, goat cheese and a rather repulsive broth Lunet made from wild onions and dried mushrooms. Now and then a woman from the village would come to the cottage to ask for advice or for medicine, and twice Gruffyd knocked on the door on some flimsy pretext and sat for a couple of hours talking to Déoric. But by and large, they were alone up there in that tiny world that closed in on him, between the cottage, the privy and the wood shed – he never went near the goats again – and beyond that nothing but snow, snow, snow.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.