4. Pressing Questions
Déoric sat at the table and watched the two women bustle about. It was wash day and they had been up and about before Déoric had come down for his porridge. Fana brought in armful after armful of firewood for the stove, while Dirlayn carried in the water pails. They moved quickly, and when Fana looked over her shoulder to fling a piece of banter at Déoric, she promptly collided with his mother in the doorway. The buckets wobbled in Dirlayn's hands and water splashed to the floor.
"Careful, Mother!" called Déoric. "The babe!"
"What about it, Déoric?"
"Will it not get squashed?"
Dirlayn laughed and put an arm around Fana's shoulders.
"Not easily," she said. "It floats in a bubble of water."
"Really? How do you know that?"
Dirlayn shook her head. "There are some things, Déoric, that menfolk won't be told."
"Ah, you keep saying that. Huh! It's the great secret knowledge of women, this child-birth thing. I wonder why people bother having fathers at all."
Dirlayn and Fana looked at each other and started to giggle.
"Right then!" said Déoric and slapped his hand onto the table. "This is where I retreat. I'll go up to the Hall and speak to other ignorant people like Léofred or the king."
When Déoric arrived at the Golden Hall, he found Léofred and the king engaged in conversation. He meant to bow and walk past them through to the scribe's room, but Éomer gestured for Déoric to join them.
"I'm pleased that you're leaving tomorrow. Let's hope the fair weather will hold. Have you met your escort yet?"
"Yes, my lord. Léofred introduced us yesterday."
"Good, good." Éomer spoke in his usual tone, half jovial, half commanding. Déoric could tell that the king was in good spirits, for the smile never left his face. A letter from the princess had probably just arrived.
"Déoric, since you are journeying westwards, I want you to go as far as Hornburg and take a parcel to Lord Erkenbrand. It is nothing urgent, so you need not hurry on that account. There are some documents Lord Erkenbrand has requested, and I have also included a letter asking him to offer you hospitality."
"Thank you, my lord."
"The parcel is on your desk, next to your box of paints. You will miss your painting practice, won't you? But it is only for a few weeks."
"My lord," said Déoric, "I had meant to take my painting things with me. I've prepared a few small panels that won't take up much space in the saddle bags."
Éomer leaned his elbow on the armrest and his chin on his palm.
"I don't think that would be wise, Déoric. You'd better leave the paints with Léofred for safe keeping."
"But my lord, I need to continue practising. I've only just worked out a way to render folds in fabric, and I'm getting better at mixing colour, and there are so many things that I need to explore further."
"What if something happens to the pigments on your travels? The Princess of Dol Amroth has expectations, Déoric, which you must not disappoint. No, no, it won't do. Leave them here."
Déoric turned round to Léofred, but the king's advisor gave him a solemn look that told him not to expect any support from that quarter. He felt reluctant to give in; however, the king seemed to consider the matter settled and rose from his seat to pat Déoric on the shoulder.
"Good luck, Chronicler of the Mark," he said. "Bring us back many stories."
"I will try my best, my lord."
He found the parcel in the scribe's room just as Éomer had said. A pair of saddle bags lay in the corner. One was to hold his writing equipment, the other was meant to go home with him that evening to be filled with his clothes and other necessities. Déoric began to pack his wads of parchment, his wax tablets and the box of styli and placed the king's parcel on top. He stopped and let his hand rest on the wooden case that contained his pigments. After a minute or so, he emptied the bag and packed it again with the box of paints at the bottom. Three small wooden boards, already prepared with gesso and wrapped in linen, were easily slipped down one side. Déoric closed the flap and pulled the leather strap through the buckle.
Voices by the door made him look up. Léofred appeared with Brecc, the tanner's son. The boy looked around the room with a mixture of awe and curiosity.
"Brecc has come to see the place where he will be apprenticed," said Léofred. He turned to the boy. "Déoric tells me that you have learned your letters very well."
"Yes, Master Léofred. I like writing."
"That is good. But there is a lot more to the scrivener's craft. You'll have much to learn. "
"Don't frighten my apprentice before he has even started!" cried Déoric. "Brecc, I am sure you will do very well. My uncle will arrive within the next few days, and I know him to be an excellent and very patient teacher. Unfortunately, he will only be able to stay for two or three weeks, since my aunt is not well and can't spare him for long."
"That is an inconvenience indeed," said Léofred. "I cannot blame him, but I'm afraid the work will pile up."
"I'll catch up soon enough when I come back," replied Déoric.
He got up and took some boxes from the shelves. Brecc watched while Déoric showed him quills and ink pots. Meanwhile, Léofred sat down on the spare chair and looked over a sheet of accounts Déoric had written the previous day. A couple of times he shook his head and picked up the stylus to make an amendment. Déoric saw it from the corner of his eye and wished once more that he could handle numbers as easily as he did letters.
When Brecc had left, Déoric returned to his desk. Léofred put down the accounts and handed Déoric a small leather pouch.
"Here is some coin for you to use on your journey." He looked around. "Where are your paints?"
"In the saddle bags," said Déoric without lifting his eyes from his hands that were spread out on the desk.
"You did hear the king telling you to leave them here, didn't you?"
"I did. But it wasn't exactly an order, more a ... preference. I cannot stop practising right now when I am beginning to get better at it. And, Léofred, the paints are mine. The princess gave them to me and she never said that they were the king's to command. I think I should be allowed to do what I want with what is mine, no matter what the king says."
Léofred shook his head.
"Think of what you're doing, Déoric. I will not say that you owe gratitude to the king, because one might want to make a case of what people would owe to you. But think carefully. Assertiveness is a virtue, but so is prudence."
Déoric looked up.
"What is virtue, Léofred?"
In the short pause that ensued, Léofred rubbed his beard. The crackle of the bristles was clearly heard.
"Virtue is a balance," he said. "It is courage tempered with caution, generosity tempered with prudence. Virtue means to have neither too much nor too little of any admirable quality."
"And what does your idea of virtue tell me to do in this case?"
"Ah, yes, there lies a difficulty. Being virtuous doesn't always help us how to decide. How did you mean to justify your action?"
Déoric fiddled with his braid and shrugged.
"I'm not sure. The way I see it, I have duties to the king, but I also have duties to the princess. She gave me the paints for using, not for storing them away. And in a way I even have duties to my art. A talent isn't just a gift, it is also a responsibility. I feel it would be wrong to go for weeks on end without practising."
"Duties, eh? Very well then, Déoric," said Léofred and rose from his seat. "If you have thought about this carefully and aren't just being a reckless youth, then I shall not try to dissuade you. You are old enough to take responsibility for yourself. Well, I have business to attend to. Until tomorrow, Déoric."
Déoric bid his friend farewell, but when Léofred reached the door, another thought occurred to him.
The king's advisor stopped in the doorway and turned round.
"If it's not asking too much," said Déoric, "I would be grateful if you could look in on my womenfolk from time to time and see that all is well with them."
"That I will gladly do, Déoric."
"Thank you. Well, I'd better be going, too. I still need to pack my clothes, and I want to say farewell to Gléowine before I go home."
He flinched when he reached for the crutches.
"Are your arms giving you trouble again?" inquired Léofred.
"Yes, the sores are quite bad just now. I've padded the crutches some more, but it doesn't help much."
"You need to give your arms a rest," said Léofred.
Déoric snorted. "And how would I get home, hop on one leg?"
"No. I'm sure the king would object to the Chronicler of the Mark making such a spectacle of himself. I'll give some thought to the matter. Now off you go. I shall see you in the morning before you leave."
Dirlayn's little garden was shaded by a canopy of gently flailing laundry that emanated a soapy smell. The sun, still vigorous for the time of year, would dry Déoric's clothes before the end of the day. At the moment, the damp lingered here and there, as Fana found when she ran her hands over the socks and tunics and the oddly shaped trousers with the sewn-up left legs. A tiny black beetle had landed on Dirlayn's white nightgown. Fana watched it and marvelled at the green and purple lustre of the shell, then she flicked it away with her finger. She picked up a small basket, opened the garden gate and walked up the lane towards the market place to buy ale and meat for their dinner.
Not quite half an hour later, with her purchases stored snugly in the basket, she crossed the square to join three young women who were sitting on a bench; the sisters Aedre and Udele and their neighbour, Eadlin. Fana put down her basket and sat down beside Udele.
"I have news," she said. "Do you want to guess?"
"Your brothers have set fire to the stables," suggested Udele.
"Good grief, I hope not!"
"Déoric has been made Captain of the King's Guard and received an order from the Princess of Dol Amroth to create a monumental tapestry depicting the Battle of Hornburg."
"Oh, don't be silly, Aedre!"
"Well, what then?"
Fana smiled and with a slow and deliberate gesture folded her hands over her stomach. There was a moment of suspense and then Aedre jumped up and embraced her tenderly.
"Oh, Fana, really? When?"
"In the springtime. In April, Dirlayn thinks."
"That is wonderful, Fana. I am so happy for you," said Udele.
"What does Déoric say?" asked Aedre, her arm still wrapped around Fana's shoulder.
"Oh, quite a lot..."
"How very unlike him!"
"Don't tease her, Aedre," said Udele. "Your Niarl isn't exactly taciturn either. Fana, this is such delightful news; I'm really very, very glad."
"But what if the babe is born with one leg?" asked Eadlin. The sisters turned and stared at her. Fana looked to the ground.
"How can you be so stupid!" hissed Aedre. "A parent's injuries aren't passed on to the child."
Eadlin's cheeks coloured.
"But, really, Fana," she said, "I don't understand how you can live with a one-legged man."
Fana was about to say something and it was clear from her looks that it wouldn't be an amiable reply, but Udele put a hand on her arm.
"Eadlin," she said gently, "we all feel for you, but your loss will be no more bearable if you grudge Fana her happiness with Déoric."
"I don't grudge – oh, what do you know!" Eadlin leapt up from the bench and ran away across the market place. On the far side, she disappeared between the houses.
"I can't help it," said Fana miserably. "It's not my fault that Déoric came back and Oswyn didn't. And she can't expect me to wish it had been the other way round."
"Nobody says you should," said Aedre.
They sat in silence for a while, Fana in the middle and the sisters leaning against her. Then, as if on some secret command, all three of them sighed.
There were a few farewells to be said. Déoric rode up to the house of the stable master to take leave of Fana's family and then paid a short visit to Sigrun, the mother of his friend Halol, who had fallen on the Pelennor. His chief destination, though, was the house of the old minstrel. As usual, laundry hung in the yard, but today there was no sign of the children. Gléowine, though, sat on his bench among his plant pots again. Most of them stood empty now, only the sunflowers nodded their seedheavy heads, and the last of the roses had come into their full glory. Déoric dismounted and sat down beside Gléowine.
"Well, that'll be me off tomorrow morning then," he said.
Gléowine reached out and stroked Ivornel's muzzle.
"Do you hear that, my pretty?" he said. "This young rascal here is going to take you for a long ride. Are you sure you are willing to put up with his antics?"
The horse snorted and shook her head.
"Ivornel!" cried Déoric. "You're not supposed to take sides with him against me!"
"Ah, the horse has got more sense than you have, Déoric," said Gléowine. He winked. "Look after yourself, will you? The last of the orcs are all but routed, so I hear, but that will not stop you from taking a tumble and cracking your skull. I want to see you back in one piece."
"I shall be careful. Aldfrid, my escort, is a very experienced man. I don't see us coming to any harm, other than getting cold and muddy if the weather should turn."
"Well, well. Let us hope you are right," said Gléowine. "I am looking forward to hearing all the curious stories you will come back with. Mind you, I was thinking only today that few of the old stories can be as strange as the ones people will be telling about our days in times to come."
"Do you think so?"
"Oh, yes. I would not be surprised if the story of the Ring War would become the best remembered story in all of Middle-earth, and not only because of the might of the enemy who was destroyed. Because you see, it is not only a story of Rohan or of Gondor or any other one place. Men from many parts of the world took part, and one woman at least, as we know, and hugely proud we are of her, are we not? But that is not even the most remarkable thing."
"What is then?"
"Are you feeble-minded, Déoric? Were Men the only creatures you saw on the battle field? This war brought together everyone, from everywhere, with a love of freedom and goodness and light. Elves, Dwarves, even the Ents. And then that strange people of the Hobytla. Ah, I wish I could have seen them."
"Did you not meet Meriadoc? He rode to the Pelennor with us. He..."
"Gléowine," he said at length, "why do we have a Rohirric word for hobbit?"
"Ah, but my dear Déoric, we do not just have a word!"
"Oh no!" Fana had glanced up and seen the dark clouds. "It's raining."
"Quick!" cried Dirlayn.
They dropped the half-peeled vegetables on the kitchen table and rushed outside. Already the shirts and trousers on the line were speckled with dark spots. With brisk movements they pulled down Déoric's clothes and flung them into the wicker basket that stood on the path. Their own garments they abandoned to the rain; they could do without them for another day or two.
Once inside, Dirlayn dragged the clotheshorse from the corner, where it had lain folded up, and placed it by the hearth. Fana was already busy getting a fire going. They picked the clothes out of the basket and draped them over the clotheshorse. When they had finished, they looked at each other and laughed. Dirlayn pulled Fana into a brief embrace.
"It'll be fine," she said. "Give it half an hour by the fireside and it'll all be dry again."
"I should have brought it in earlier," said Fana. "It's just as well that Déoric doesn't depend on me alone to look after him."
"We shouldn't have left it to the last day," replied Dirlayn. "But you really couldn't have done the wash on your own, not in the state you're in. Maybe I should have taken yesterday off from the infirmary."
She sat down on her armchair, leaned back and laughed.
"How many women does it take to care for one man?"
Déoric had meant to go straight home from his visit at Gléowine's house, but their conversation had left him with an itching question, and he could only think of one way to find an answer. So in spite of the rain he returned to the Golden Hall and to his scribe's room, sat down at the desk and began to write:
I hope you are well and have received the letter I sent you in response to yours. I am writing to you today to trouble you with a question. Just this afternoon I spoke to my friend Gléowine, who used to be minstrel to Théoden King. We were talking about all the different races that had helped win the war, and so 'Hobytla' were also mentioned, and it was then that I began to wonder why our language would have a word for a people with whom we have never had anything to do. But Gléowine told me that not only do we have a word, but we have some very old stories, too, about the little people that live underground and tread so silently that they are never heard and vanish in the wink of an eye. This intrigued me, and I cannot help thinking that there must be some kind of link between your people and mine that is buried in the past and that no one knows about. Would you have any idea what that link could be?
I have more good news about myself, if you care to hear it. Fana and I are very happy and looking forward to becoming parents in the spring. The king has seen to it that I got a special saddle made and now I am riding again – I have a loan of the Princess of Dol Amroth's horse! The princess has also given me a painting kit and wants me to learn to paint. I have not made huge progress yet, but am applying myself with much zeal to the task. It amazes me that such noble folk take the trouble to concern themselves with my affairs – though admittedly, they can hope to get something out of the bargain. I will do my best not to disappoint them. Tomorrow I will set out to travel the West of my country and begin to collect stories there. I am curious as to what I will find.
I hope things are going well in the Shire and that you enjoy your well-deserved peace. Please give my best wishes to your friends, especially to your wounded cousin.
I remain with kindest regards
Déoric son of Féadred
He rolled up the parchment and sealed it. In the morning, he would give it to Léofred and ask him to see it delivered.
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.