22. Old Friends, New Ideas
The city of the Horse Lords smelled strange. Merilwen was not unfamiliar with the odour of horses, but in Minas Tirith and Ithilien it was only ever encountered in certain places. Here, it tinted everything. The nose grew used to it after a while, and then it was surprised again when turning a corner or stepping out of a building to meet with an even stronger whiff. It was no unpleasant smell, and judging by the state of the streets, someone was obviously employed to remove any horse dung from public places. However, it was pervasive, and it struck Merilwen afresh through the opened shutters in the morning, pushing aside what little of her own scent wafted through the room.
She moved back from the window and turned to the washbowl. Once she had put her face and hair to rights, she was ready to leave. It was the day of rest and that left her free from all duties this morning, unless the Lady Éowyn should unexpectedly call for her. It was also her fiftieth birthday, a date that none remembered now save herself, and she had resolved to provide her very own birthday treat: seeking out the young man who was so inexplicably dear to her. It wasn't as if she hadn't saved lives before, many times. Why this lad had become so special to her, she could hardly tell. Perhaps it was because he had needed her so much, not only to tend to his wounds, but to support his spirit. And to know how he had flourished since and gained such happiness in spite of his misfortune – ah, would that all the scars of the war were so beautifully healed! Yes, it was the healer's heart that rejoiced at the very thought of Déoric.
An errand boy at the Golden Hall had given her instructions, and though she lost her way a few times, friendly Rohirrim were eager to point her in the right direction and so she soon arrived at the gate and peered into the little garden. A young woman was busy pegging laundry to a washing line strung between the house and the fence. Merilwen recognised her as Fana, from the drawing Déoric had sent her. The older woman who knelt in the vegetable patch had to be his mother. Déoric himself sat in a wheeled chair, stylus in hand, sketching the scene.
There's my boy, she thought, and then checked herself. It gave her a pang to see the two women who had the right to call him theirs, but this lasted only for a moment, because when Déoric noticed her, he dropped his drawing on his lap and whirled his chair round.
"Merilwen!" The wheeled chair rumbled over the paving slabs. "Mama, Fana, look who's here! Come in, come in!"
So she was ushered in, and welcomed, while Déoric's mother wiped her hands on her apron, and "We have heard so much about you," while Fana smiled and picked up a tiny infant from a basket on the bench and held it up to her, while Déoric grinned and "Did you come here with the Lady Éowyn?" and she was urged to sit down on the bench to tell them everything as Déoric brought his chair beside her, and his face was tanned and his eyes shining and she was incredibly glad to see him so well.
They had exchanged a couple of letters during the last year, but there was still a lot to tell. She soon found to her surprise that she had just as much to say as Déoric, about Ithilien and the new life there, and the Lady Éowyn and her son, and about their journey to Edoras.
"And do you not find it distressing, living so close to the Black Land?" asked Déoric's mother.
"No, not distressing. Ithilien is neglected, but it's easy to see that it was once very beautiful and will be beautiful again. That encourages us greatly in our work. The Black Land is just like an empty, hollow shadow now; it holds no threat or menace anymore. The Lord Faramir even thinks that in times yet to come, things might flourish there. I can't see that happening, but those young people are always so optimistic."
"I know what you mean. Déoric thinks we should make peace with Dunland."
"But Mother, Éomer King has agreed with me!"
"Very well, Déoric, and I hope you'll both be right, but I do believe you see things a bit too rosy. The old lady who looked after you is certainly a kind and generous woman, but that doesn't mean the same is true for the rest of those Dunlendings."
"Dirlayn, if there can be one exception to our ill opinion of them, then there is no reason not to think that there can be more," said Fana. "You'd really have to meet every single one of them and decide for yourself."
"The Dunlendings are your neighbours to the north?" asked Merilwen.
"The northwest. I was stuck there all winter with a broken arm and got to know a few of the people. It changed my mind quite a bit."
"Men are not orcs," said Merilwen. "They may go down the wrong path, but they're never irredeemable. Our king has made peace with the people of Harad, and while some of our folk have hard feelings about this, I believe we will see the benefits of it as time goes by. Who knows, there might be a way to live at peace even with the Easterlings."
"Now who's overly optimistic!" said Déoric and rubbed his stump. "I confess I would find it hard to forgive the Easterlings, which just goes to show that we tend to be unduly influenced by our personal experiences."
"But by the same token, your experience in Dunland has made you think better of them. Maybe you should try to get stuck in the East next winter."
"Most certainly not!" said Fana. "Déoric will make all his further musings on the merits of other people from the safety of his own home. I will defy even Éomer King himself to send him away again."
"You take great care of him," she said. "That's good to know."
A long conversation with Merilwen delayed Déoric's chief plan for the day, which was to consult Gléowine. However, after the midday meal, he escorted Merilwen back to the Golden Hall with a promise to show her his work the following day and from there he made his way to the house of the old minstrel, whom he found outside among his plant pots.
"Good day to you, Déoric. Did you get yourself into trouble again?"
"Not yet," said Déoric and sank down on the bench. "In fact, Éomer King appears to have changed his mind. He's come up with a plan to help the Dunlendings."
"Has he now? Did he come to think better of it all by himself or did someone put in a good word for you?"
"Oh." Déoric raised his eyebrows. "Did you?"
"No, not me."
"Léofred then. I hadn't thought of that, but you're probably right. Why do I always need people to sort things out for me?"
"Because you are young and reckless." Gléowine chuckled. "But never mind. Diplomacy is all very well, but it is not exactly a straight forward way of dealing with things. You may be a fool, but an honest fool."
"Well, I thank you, Master Gléowine. Your compliments are precious gems indeed."
"Do not sulk, Déoric. You know I think highly of you. How did you get on with your stories on this journey? Have you been bamboozled by conflicting accounts again?"
"Well." The ginger cat made her appearance and rubbed her head against Déoric's leg. "I've found conflicting stories, but I think I'm beginning to make sense of them."
"Really? Do tell."
"I heard this story about a man who had to get the severed heads of seven orcs as a challenge from his bride."
"Oh. She was not too keen on him, was she?"
"Possibly not. Anyway, in one village it was told quite straight forward, how he got the orcs one after another, each in a different manner. However, in another village, some twenty miles away, the story had a little twist. Before he found his seventh orc, he came to a gorge where a troll lived, and that troll would have eaten him, had he not outwitted it. I found that curious at the time, but I came to understand it the following day when we travelled past a similar gorge near the village and were almost caught up in a rock slide."
"So what exactly did you understand then?"
"That the episode with the troll was probably meant for the children of the village as a warning not to go near the gorge where such accidents threatened. Whoever added that bit must have believed that the thought of the troll would keep the youngsters away. Not that I think that would have worked."
"You would have been there like a shot to see if it was true?"
"Probably, and my friends as well, Fana ahead of us all. That doesn't matter, though. What I understood there, Gléowine, was that the differences in the story had a purpose. It wasn't about what had actually happened, about what was true in the strict sense, but about what seemed useful to the people of that particular village."
"Well done, young man." Gléowine picked up the cat and began to tickle her under the chin. "Now tell me, has this helped you at all in coming to terms with the conflicting stories about Helm Hammerhand?"
"Not yet, but let me think. The Eorlingas colonised the Mark by leave of the king of Gondor, so they thought they had a right to be there. The Dunlendings had lived here before, so they also thought they had a right to be there. They felt hard done by; while we thought all was well. They kept pestering us, thinking they were only trying to get their own back, while we felt they were trying to take what's rightfully ours. And so it went on for ages, and then Helm struck a crucial blow against Freca and that threw back the Dunlendings for a good long while. Now, the Eorlingas would have rejoiced in that and the Dunlendings, obviously, not. So, to the people of the Riddermark Helm Hammerhand was a hero and the stories show Freca as an insolent upstart who gets his just deserves. To the people of Dunland, though, Helm is a brutal tyrant and Freca the hero who gives his life in an attempt to stand up to him. And they cannot both be right."
"No," said Gléowine. He let the word hang in the air, like an unfinished line in a song. Déoric knew he was supposed to notice something, but what? They couldn't both be right, but...?
"But they could both be wrong? Neither story is true?"
"You are always going on about truth, Déoric, as if truth was some gemstone or precious metal that you could unearth if you only dig for long enough. I do not think it is like that. Both stories were true, in their own way, at the time. To the Eorlingas, feeling a threat from Dunland, Helm was a hero defending their land. That was true. To the Dunlendings, Freca was a hero trying to claim back some of what they considered theirs. That was also true. Is any of this still true now? Look at what has come out of it, generations of war and strife."
"So you think it was foolish of them to tell the stories as they did?"
"No, not foolish," said Gléowine and shook his head, "but regrettable."
"So what is the truth that we want to see now?"
"That is for you to find out, Déoric. We could hang on to our old truths, but where will it lead us? Truth has many faces – you should seek the one that nurtures our people. Perhaps we should part with the notion that we should find the perfect truth. Perhaps it would be enough to be..."
"...less wrong?" said Déoric.
"Yes, that may well be the best we can hope for. But no, that sounds too despondent. Stories do not only carry on our old grudges, they can also show us how to do things better. Remember, Déoric, that stories are not only about the past. They are also about the future."
"I would like to believe that, Gléowine. But what can I do about it?"
"Hm." Gléowine stroked his beard and glanced around the yard, which was, for a change, deserted of his lively grandchildren. "I think, Déoric, it is time that you sat down and rewrote that story."
When Déoric returned home, halfway through the afternoon, he found his father-in-law, who had brought Ivornel and Fana's pony. He stood with them by the gate, since there was no way to bring the horses into the garden without them trampling on Dirlayn's plants.
"You're riding out together. The two grandmothers have decided that the young mother needs to get out a bit and spend time with her husband. I am merely instrumental to their will. Your mother has taken Blythe up to our house, to stop Fana from changing her mind at the last minute. Fana is inside getting into her riding gear."
Indeed, at this very moment Fana appeared, ready to go. She didn't look as if she was likely to change her mind and she mounted her pony without any hesitation.
"Thank you so much, Papa," she said. "We'll make sure to be back before Blythe is hungry again."
"Don't worry, my dear, we can always find her a wet nurse."
"Don't you dare! Good bye, until later!"
Déoric, surprised but happy enough to comply with this plan, clambered onto his mare; they waved to Ethelhelm and rode down the streets to the city gate.
"Where now?" said Déoric once they had left the cobbles and gained soft grass underfoot.
"Up into the hills for a bit," said Fana eagerly. "We haven't got much time, because Blythe will want to be fed in about two hours, but we can go up just a little bit."
"And can you cope?"
"I'm fine. I'll take it easy, but I'll be just fine. My mother was back in the saddle four weeks after I was born! So surely I can cope after six. Anyway, what about you? How's your arm now?"
"I've been riding with this arm for weeks. It twinges a little sometimes, but it's not a problem. Let's go then and not waste time."
So they turned towards the mountains and found their favourite path into the foothills. It climbed gently among thickets of hawthorn and hazel, the former freshly in leaf, the latter covered in catkins. They spoke little, listening instead to the snorting of their horses and the chirping of the blue tits. The day was pleasantly warm and the sun ahead hung half hidden behind wispy clouds. With the equinox passed, the daylight would last them until it was time to return.
When they reached the source of a little stream some six hundred feet above the plain, they turned eastwards and took a narrow trail that ran parallel to the slope. A dense line of conifers obstructed their view for about half a mile, until the path emerged at a lush meadow that ended abruptly in a cliff. Here stood a group of linden trees under which sheltered the bee hives of Fana's Uncle Eadgar. It was too early in the year for the sweet linden blossoms, but the bees had still ventured out and droned about the grass in search for wild flowers.
Déoric and Fana dismounted close to the edge of the cliff. From here they could see Edoras, less than half an hour's ride away if they took the serpentine path that led down from the meadow. It had been a cherished spot with them both in their days of roaming about the countryside before the war. They settled down in the grass and let the horses graze freely. A soft breeze had picked up and carried a scent of fresh growth with it.
"You seem deep in thought, Déoric."
"It's been a thought-provoking day."
"Yes. I liked what Merilwen said about Men never being irredeemable," said Fana. "It must be dreadful to be an orc, don't you think?"
"Probably. I saw one die, you know, just a few days ago. In fact, Niarl killed him to end his suffering. It was a very strange experience. Very unsettling. I couldn't help thinking that he was just someone in pain, someone needing help. It was the first time it ever occurred to me that an orc could be a person. Could you imagine that?"
"I don't know. I can't quite imagine them at all. People say they're horrible, but what do they look like?"
It took Déoric a few seconds to realise that Fana had never seen an orc. She had lived her whole life in the safety of Edoras, and even though she had been at Helm's Deep along with everyone else, she had sheltered in the caves with the other women and had later been among a group that left via the mountain path and never crossed the battlefield. The enemies had no face for her.
"Well, they are somehow…twisted-looking. And they're not all the same. Some are taller than others. They're – wait, I'll show you."
Déoric, never without his shoulder bag, pulled out the sketchbook he always carried with him these days. It consisted of two smooth wooden panels about two hands by three, held together with a leather strap. On the inside, the surfaces were prepared for his silverpoint stylus, a skill he had mastered after Guntram the tanner had shown him how to apply the white gouache.
Fana leaned against his left shoulder, lightly, so as not to disturb him, and watched as he conjured up the image of an orc soldier with a few well-placed lines.
"You see, they have fangs, like this…and bow legs … they can't seem to stand up straight…their eyes are yellow, I think, not that I've ever looked that closely. I slew a couple at the Battle of Hornburg, but that was in the dark, and on the Pelennor it was mostly Men that fought us. The ones that attacked me and Aldfrid, well, that all happened very quickly. And then this other one."
He lifted his stylus and moved over to the second panel. Ten minutes later, he had drawn the dying orc. He didn't manage to capture the stricken expression he had seen in the creature's eyes exactly, but close enough to give Fana a vague idea.
"There," he said. "I don't think I've ever seen anything to strange. There was no evil left in him, just pain and sorrow. Almost like a Man, one might say."
Fana took the sketchbook and examined the picture.
"Poor thing," she said. She rubbed her head against his arm and let her fingers run over his wrist and the back of his hand.
"You have such clever hands, Déoric. Everybody admires how you can do these pictures."
"Well, you know what I mean."
"I'm not sure I do, but it's enough for me that you're impressed."
He put his arm around her and looked down at the city of Edoras. The pattern of roofs looked somewhat like that of a honeycomb, albeit less regular. It was market day, and so the gate was busy with folk coming and going. From this distance, they appeared not unlike bees.
Yet the beehive wasn't a fitting image for his people in spite of these similarities. For we, thought Déoric, are each of us named and needed, or even if not needed, then still named and loved. Our minds strive for so much more than just the survival of our kind, else we would not even know such words as honour or beauty.
And, his thoughts continued, it was good that bees were so different as to bear no resemblance to Men; that bees, and birds and wolves and deer and all other animals for that matter, lived a life quite of their own and would continue to do so even if there were no people in Middle-earth at all. It would be a sad world indeed otherwise.