15. A Foreseeable Confrontation
For the rest of that day and all through the following morning, nothing could move Déoric from Fana's side. By mid-afternoon, though, he began to feel nudged by a desire to call upon some others who had a claim to his heart and his news. So he set off together with Fana to the snug little house in the Smithy Lane that was now home to Niarl and Aedre. They were received with great cheers and much slapping of shoulders on the young men's part. Ale and spiced milk warmed their spirits, and after an hour or so, the most crucial tidings had been shared and the flow of conversation became a trickle, punctuated by smiles and nods and a general sense of everyone being very pleased indeed. Soon Déoric felt a need to move on, for neither Niarl nor Aedre would have much interest in the questions that pressed him most. Fana decided to stay; she and Aedre had other things to talk of still. Déoric embraced her tenderly and promised to be home before dark.
At the house of Gléowine, he was welcomed by the old minstrel's daughter and her children, who swiftly led him into the little parlour where he found his friend wrapped in blankets in an armchair by a cosy fire. Gléowine's trusty friend, the ginger cat, purred on the hearthrug.
"Well, Déoric, some mischief you have got up to," said Gléowine, but the smile on his face belied his stern tone. "Come, sit with me and tell me how much is true of those rumours. I hear you were held prisoner in Dunland?"
"I was," said Déoric, "but only by the weather and the injuries caused by an orc attack. I broke my arm, but it has healed up well." He pushed up his sleeve and stretched out his arm for examination. Gléowine shook his head.
"You need to be more careful with your limbs, lad," he replied. "I assume you found someone to patch you up?"
"Yes, an old woman. She was quite remarkable, really."
"Hm. You seem to have a talent for being rescued by remarkable older women," said Gléowine, who had on a previous occasion heard all about Déoric's convalescence in the Houses of Healing in the tender care of Merilwen. "Is your Fana not jealous?"
Déoric had to laugh at the thought.
"Not of Lunet, certainly," he said. "Why, she'd only need a hunchback and goitre to make her the perfect picture of hideousness! But she is kind and wise and generous. And she has left me with many questions. Questions I would like to put to you, Master Gléowine."
"Place another log on the fire then," said the old man, "so I can be comfortable while you ask me."
Déoric crouched down by the hearth and did as he was bidden. When he tried to push himself up again, his glance fell on the wood basket and he saw that he had disturbed a slender, black beetle that began to crawl along the woven rim.
"A Black Corsair," he murmured, remembering the name from childhood. "Do you know why we call them that? I hear there are a fierce people in the South called the Corsairs of, what, Amber?"
"Umbar," said Gléowine. "It is the name of their city on the coast of Harad. They are pirates and pillagers, and had their fleet made it up the Anduin, it would have looked grim for us on the Pelennor. It was our great good fortune that when the ships arrived, they carried men of Gondor instead."
"I've heard of the black ships," said Déoric. "So is the bug named after the pirates?"
"Who knows? The beetle is a predator. It even attacks big June bugs. Draw your own conclusions."
"Such a little thing?" Déoric had difficulties imagining this. His eyes sought the beetle again, but the creature had already disappeared.
"What difference does size make?" said Gléowine with an impatient movement of his hand. "They bite people, too, though I dare say they do not eat them. A cat may look at a king, you know."
"And a little bug may bite a big warrior?" Déoric grinned. "I suppose you're right."
"Those questions you have mentioned," said Gléowine, "have nothing to do with beetles, though, I assume?"
"No," replied Déoric. "They concern stories."
"Ah. You think there is anything left that I know about stories and you do not?"
"Plenty, I'm sure," said Déoric. "Remember that I told you, just before I left on my journey, how I found that some stories were told somewhat differently by different people? And how you said I would have to think hard to decide which one's true?"
"I still have a minstrel's memory, my dear Déoric," replied Gléowine. "Have you hit upon one where you cannot work it out?"
"Not just one, Master Gléowine," said Déoric and rubbed the cat behind the ears. "And I'm afraid the two versions I've heard cannot be reconciled with each other in any way. Yet I trust the source of the disturbing stories..."
"You had better tell me all about it then."
Déoric did and it took a while. He recounted all the stories he had heard in the Westfold and all that Lunet had told him, and he paid special attention to everything that concerned Helm Hammerhand, whom the Dunlendings called Helm the Pitiless. Gléowine listened with his head cocked. His face did not give away his thoughts. When Déoric had finished, he leaned his chin on his palm and stared into the fire.
"What shall I do now, Master Gléowine?"
The old man sighed and pulled his blanket tighter around his shoulders.
"I am not as surprised as you might think I would be," he said. "One people's hero is another's villain; that is nothing new. But let me remind you, Déoric, that the Riddermark was granted to the Eorlingas by the King of Gondor and in taking it for our own we did nothing for which anyone could reproach us. When the Dunlendings made alliances with the enemies of Gondor and invaded our lands, it was Wulf who led them and who brought us to grievous harm. Helm lost both his sons in the struggle."
"What of the daughter?"
"I do not know. It may well be true what you say. Even so, you must understand that Helm had good reason to avoid an alliance with Wulf."
"So you think we're blameless?"
"No," said Gléowine. "I think nasty things have been done on both sides."
"None of the stories say that, though. They all make it look as if the other side are wicked while one's own side is only putting up a righteous defence."
"We tell our stories our way, they tell theirs their way."
"But why not just tell the truth?"
"It is not only about truth, Déoric. We must tell the tales that our people need. Had our stories not nurtured our minds to think of ourselves as heroes and men of honour, do you think we could have defeated the armies of Saruman and of Mordor?"
Déoric shook his head.
"I see what you mean," he said, "but it doesn't please me. Honest men should stick to the truth, even when it hurts. In any case, Sauron is defeated now, and the White Wizard has left. Surely there's no longer a need to nurture our valour by maligning the Dunlendings?"
"Times have changed, that much is certain," replied Gléowine. "Whether we are ready to change the ways we have been thinking for hundreds of years, I cannot tell. Perhaps Éomer King will look favourably on your revelations – and perhaps not. There is really only one way to find out. Are you sure you want to take the risk?"
"I'll have to," said Déoric. "I promised Lunet." He glanced at the window. "And I promised Fana I'd be home before dark, so I'll have to go now. I was glad to see you, Master Gléowine. Thank you for your advice."
"Thank you for coming, my boy. Let me know how you get on."
He reached out with his skinny hand and gave Déoric an affectionate pat on the arm. When Déoric opened the door, the ginger cat slipped out with him.
The second chair was as easy to steer as the other was, fitted under his desk neatly and allowed him to move in comfort all over the scribe's room. Déoric blessed Léofred for this handy invention. However, when the king called for him on the afternoon of his first day back at the Hall, he abandoned the chair and took his crutches. He felt he needed his full height to face Éomer.
The king sat on his throne, a guard on either side, engrossed in the study of a parchment. Léofred, for whose support Déoric had rather hoped, was nowhere to be seen.
"Master Déoric!" exclaimed Éomer and put the letter aside. He grinned.
"I am glad to see you back. I do not know if you are to be pitied to have met with such misfortune or congratulated on having escaped it."
"I don't feel particularly pitiful, my lord."
"Very well, very well. But, Déoric, I must speak sternly with you. You took the princess' pigments with you against my orders. I hope you have at least made good use of them."
The twinkle in the king's eye and his barely suppressed smile invited Déoric to tell of his artistic successes and be forgiven. Déoric cringed.
"My lord," he said and drew back his shoulders as best he could while leaning on the crutches, "I'm afraid the pigments have been spoilt. The saddlebags landed in a river after the orc attack. It was my fault entirely. I should not have taken the box with me. I am very sorry."
Éomer's eyebrows rose. He was clearly annoyed, but Déoric's pre-emptive apology was not without effect. He shook his head and took a deep breath.
"Well," he said, "that is extremely vexing. The princess will be very displeased. I would have thought you would be more reliable. However, the damage is done and it will not help to lament it. Let me hear more cheerful news. How did the story collecting go?"
"I found a few interesting tales," said Déoric.
"Only a few?"
Déoric clenched his hands round the crutches to stop himself from biting his knuckles.
"In many villages I heard the same few stories over and over again," he said. "It was only when I came into the far corners of the Westmark that I encountered many new tales..."
"I can hear in your voice that you are not very pleased with those tales, though. What is wrong with them?"
Déoric sighed. He had hoped that the thorny subject would not come up during his very first interview with the king, but it seemed inevitable now to say what he had to say. It would have been easier if he hadn't foolishly ruined his paints.
"My lord, most of those stories are about strife with the Dunlendings, and in all of them the Dunlendings are spoken of as evil and contemptible folk."
Éomer looked at him blankly.
"And what," he said, "is the problem with that?"
Shifting and twisting his crutches in his hands, Déoric looked over to the windows and then down at the floor.
"I know we've always been accustomed to think of the Dunlendings as villains," he said. "But during this long winter I've come to think that this is not necessarily true."
The king leaned forward on his throne.
"You astonish me, Déoric. Explain yourself."
"Not all the Dunlendings are fighting men," said Déoric. "In fact, most of their men are dead. The women and children are left. And I pity them."
A sharp, perpendicular line had appeared on the king's brow.
"Why would you pity a gang of murderers and thieves, or even their women and children?"
"My lord, I owe my life to a Dunlendish woman!"
"Do you?" snapped Éomer. "I would have thought you owe it to your mother."
"Please, my lord, hear me out! The misfortunes that befell me left me injured and unconscious on the heath in Dunland just as the snow set in. It was an old Dunlendish woman who took mercy on me and tended to my wounds, and had she not done so, I would have surely died. She cared not that I was an enemy of her people, she only saw a man in need. Can we not look at them with the same merciful eyes? She told me that Saruman had lured them into his army with promises of giving them back these lands, for it was they who lived here before the Eorlingas came. Now they are close to starving, because they have no land that is fit for growing crops, and with most of their men fallen there are not enough hunters to provide them with food. They need help. Please, my lord, can you not help?"
"What do you expect me to do?" The king's voice was cold and sharp. "Let them have lands that we need to feed our people? They are our enemies, Déoric!"
"They are just Men, not orcs. And if they used to live in these parts – "
"That was hundreds of years ago! We live here now! And whatever some Dunlendish witch has whispered into your ears, the land never belonged to them in the first place, but was a part of Gondor. For goodness sake, Déoric, you have been at the Battle of Helm's Deep, haven't you? And tell me, was it an orc or a Man that severed your leg on the Pelennor?"
Déoric gritted his teeth.
"That," he said slowly, "is beside the point. Many will starve there next winter. Old folk, children, pregnant women. None of them has held a sword in the war."
"I do not care! They have burned down whole villages in the Westmark! What about the women and children and old folk who lived there?"
"My lord, I am not saying that they haven't done evil deeds, but I believe wrong has been done on both sides. It is only that our stories never tell us how things looked from the other side. Take Helm, for example -"
"I can imagine that the Dunlendings have nothing flattering to say about Helm Hammerhand," said Éomer. "He showed them their place and they hate him for it."
"He killed a man just because of something he had said! Do you think that was right? Did you know that Wulf was truly in love with Helm's daughter, and she with him? And that when Helm married her off to one of his nobles, she languished and died? And that Helm, when he heard of it, laughed and said that such a feeble waif was not worthy to be called a woman of the Mark?"
"Helm was a hero of Rohan, who protected our lands from the cruel Dunlendings!"
"Ah, but the Dunlendings say Helm was a brute who killed Freca out of spite and ate his victims."
"Well, clearly their stories are not true!"
"Maybe ours aren't either."
"How can you say such a thing?"
There was a pause during which the echoes of their raised voices rung around the hall. The two guards stared at the far end of the Hall, pretending not to hear. Eventually, the king continued, in a quieter tone.
"Who are you, the Chronicler of the Mark or the advocate of our enemies?"
"You told me at one time that you valued a man's courage to tell the king an unpleasant truth," replied Déoric.
Éomer hesitated, but then he shrugged off Déoric's remark and pushed his chin forward.
"They may be struggling for a while," he said, "but trust me, they will recover, they always do, and then they will pester us just as much as before."
"They have nothing left," said Déoric. "They have slaughtered even their horses."
The disgust on Éomer's face was painful to behold.
"Does that not tell you all you need to know about them?" he said. "They are little more than orcs!"
Déoric was trembling.
"Would you keep your horse and let your children starve?" he asked.
"I would never be in such a quandary, because I would not abase my country by making alliances with orcs and wargs and fighting against honest Men. Have you forgotten Háma, who was cruelly struck down by the gates of Hornburg by a Dunlendish chieftain? He was my friend and they murdered him. We have done nothing wrong. The Eorlingas have defended their own, and then went on to fulfil their oaths and ride to the aid of Gondor. If anywhere at all, it is to Gondor that we look for approval, Déoric, not to Dunland."
Déoric stood in silence and breathed slowly.
"I know why you're saying that," he said at last.
At this, the king's jaw tensed.
"It is not for you to make such remarks, Déoric. Leave me."
"Very well, my lord," said Déoric and bowed his head. "There is much work waiting for me in the scribe's room."
The king frowned and gripped the armrests of his seat.
"I do not think you ought to go to the scribe's room. Who knows what you will write! You cannot be trusted. You will defile the memory of our heroes and the honour of our land. I dismiss you from your duties. Go home."
"But my lord –"
Éomer raised a hand to cut off Déoric's words.
"Go," he said quietly. Déoric opened his mouth to speak again.
"Go!" shouted the king. "Get out of my sight, before I do something I will regret!"
So Déoric left and went, tock-shuffle, tock-shuffle, along the length of the Golden Hall and out through the gate and down the sixty-seven steps and he didn't turn round, not once.
The Black Corsair, like all other creepy-crawlies in this story, is a real insect; a subspecies of the assassin bug.
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.