5. On the Way
After all those weeks of talking about it, it was strange to be on the way at last. They had set off from Edoras mid-morning, after long and cordial farewells and much unsolicited advice from just about everyone Déoric knew. The rain of the previous day had taken the unseasonal heat out of the air and for the first time there was a feeling of autumn about the land. In the afternoon, though, the sun gained the upper hand again and made steam rise from the grassland and sweat glisten on the brows of the two men. They rode in silence for much of the time, because Déoric's thoughts were occupied with what he had left behind as much as with what lay ahead, and Aldfrid seemed a man of few words, who did not speak unless Déoric spoke to him first.
The day was nearly at an end when rainclouds moved in again and they were obliged to seek shelter under the trees of a little copse. Both men dismounted and treated their horses to a few carrots.
"How much further today?" asked Déoric.
"About an hour, I reckon," said Aldfrid. "Eikfeld is a large village and you'll be sure to find many people to talk to there."
"Let's hope we can move on soon," said Déoric, "so we can get there before dark."
The rain was short and abundant, as it so often was at this time of year. A blanket of dark cloud still covered most of the sky when they set off again, but towards the West, just above the horizon, a broad gap let through the setting sun. The light that fell on the trees made the wet leaves glow. They looked as if they had been wrought from glass by some Elvish craftsman. Déoric sighed. Years would pass before he would be able to paint that.
They reached Eikfeld in the twilight and rode up to the village green. A group of children followed them and pelted them with questions, which Déoric answered with good humour. Yes, they came from Edoras; yes, this was the king's standard, no, they had not seen any orcs, yes, they meant to stay the night. Aldfrid confined himself to nodding and smiling.
Under the ancient oak trees on the green they dismounted and were greeted by a man with grey braids, one of the village elders as it turned out.
"You're welcome to stay the night at my house," said the man, Redwald, after Déoric had explained his quest. "We can talk by the fire after supper, and tomorrow you can speak to other folk in the village. Word of you will spread soon enough, I dare say."
Word spread quickly indeed, for even on that same evening, after a meal of fried eggs and onions, they were joined in Redwald's large wooden house by nearly a dozen villagers, all eager to see the king's chronicler and to tell their stories. They started with well-known tales of Fricca the Goldenhaired and of Helm Hammerhand, but soon they moved on to stories Déoric had not heard before. He took his wax tablet and stylus and began to take notes.
Silence fell. Déoric looked up and gave an encouraging smile to the woman who had stopped dead in her tale of two sisters lost in the woods and their encounter with a strange giant. He saw that everyone in the room, apart from Aldfrid, who had nodded off in a corner, was staring at him.
"And what happened then?" he said, but the woman, the elderly mother of the village's blacksmith, didn't take her eyes off the wax tablet in Déoric's hand.
"Are you writing down what I'm saying?" she asked in a tone that carried suspicion as well as awe.
"Well, yes, that's rather the point, isn't it?" said Déoric. "The king wants me to make a book of stories."
"When you said you were collecting stories," said Redwald, "I thought you meant to commit them to memory like the minstrels do."
"My memory is not all that great," replied Déoric. "I'm a man of letters, I'm afraid."
He saw the people exchange glances, and here and there a brow was furrowed. The crackling of the fire seemed almost too loud.
"Since you're not sure if you want to give me your stories, let me offer you something in return." Déoric pulled from his bag a small square of parchment, his silver stylus and a board to lean on. He looked at the old woman, the way her face was shaped: from a broad, round forehead and large, wide eyes, via a smallish nose and small mouth down to an almost non-existent chin. The stylus in his hand began to move.
"What's he doing?" he heard one of the men whisper. Redwald rose from his seat and came across the room to look at Déoric's parchment.
"Good gracious!" he murmured and leaned closer. One by one the other people in the room drew near.
"No, please stay where you are!" cried Déoric when the blacksmith's mother got up, too. She sat down again and cast a look at him that spoke of her growing bewilderment, while the eyes of the onlookers moved back and forth between her face and Déoric's parchment. Déoric worked as quickly as her could, because he sensed the mounting unease of the woman and felt uncomfortable himself with the crowd looking over his shoulder and with their whispered remarks. Another ten minutes or so and he handed the parchment, a rough sketch rather than a proper drawing, to the old woman.
She looked at it and drew breath sharply.
"Is it some kind of magic?" she asked.
"No," said Déoric. "You saw me do it. It's a skill. I have a bit of talent, but mostly I learned how to do it. I made illustrations for a book that the king gave to the Princess of Dol Amroth. I drew the king, too."
"Well, it is very good." The old woman inclined her head and with a delicate gesture passed the parchment back to Déoric.
"Oh, no, keep it, it's a present," he said. "And now, please, what happened to those two little girls?"
With a certain amount of fuss, the old woman tucked the parchment into her sleeve. Then she smiled.
"Well, as I said, there they were all alone in the wood, and it was all dark and eerie, and suddenly they saw this giant, and he was as big as a tree and also..."
And so Déoric traded drawings for stories all evening until the fire had burnt down low and his eyes were sore from the strain in the dim light. The following morning a similar scene unfolded on the village green, and Déoric realized that he would have to keep his artistic skills secret in future, lest he run out of parchments before he'd even reach the Hornburg.
It was not quite noon yet when he announced that he had heard enough stories for a day and, on a whim, asked for a raw egg. He received one and set out to prepare his tempera, surrounded by a crowd of curious villagers. Many were children, and they had drawn closest - so much so that Aldfrid had to warn some of the younger ones not to touch Déoric's pigments - but a fair number of adults seemed to have found time to spare from their work. Déoric grinned. They're all wondering what trick the one-legged madman is up to now, he thought. From the grass at his feet he picked up an oak leaf, which was pleasingly patterned in hues of green and tan. He placed it on the lid of his box and began to paint. The village folk watched him, and more than one had a mouth gaping...
In the early afternoon they were on their way again, riding steadily but without haste. It was sunny and the land looked fair and mellow under the autumn sky. They saw the feathery seed heads of grasses nodding in the wind among the wildflowers of creamy white, yellow and lilac. Elder bushes stood adorned with shiny purple berries like outlandish gems, filling the air with their sweet smell.
Déoric mused on the sensation his skills had aroused among the people of Eikfeld. Their admiration had flattered him – Ethelhelm had not been far off the mark when he had said that Déoric was no stranger to vanity – but he was also saddened by it. If painting, drawing and even writing caused such a stir, what did that say about the people of the Mark? Gondorians would not have been so easily impressed.
After two hours' ride they reached a little lake, tucked away at the bottom of a rocky cliff studded with birch trees. Reeds grew all around the shore save for one sandy spot that led up to a grassy slope. They decided to take a rest, since Aldfrid was sure that the next village lay less than five miles away and it was only mid-afternoon. The horses began to nibble the long grass straight away. Aldfrid shaped his cloak into a pillow and lay down for a nap, but Déoric made his way to the lake. He crouched down on a flat rock by the shore and scooped up water in his hands to wash his face. After the long, hot summer and the mild weeks of early autumn, the lake was still fairly warm. Déoric rolled up the sleeves of his tunic and splashed his arms. He took off his shoe and sock and dug his toes into the wet sand, which was firm, but pliable. In that manner he thought for a while, elbow on knee and chin in hand, watching the iridescent body of a dragonfly that hovered over the water. Then he removed his tunic and, with a certain amount of wriggling, his trousers. He seized the crutches and began to wade into the lake.
The ground fell steadily and by the time the water reached his hips, it was notably cooler. He rammed the crutches into the sandy ground and plunged forward into the lake. The initial little shock when the cold water engulfed his chest soon gave way to an exhilarating feeling of freshness. The sores in his armpits stung a bit, but other than that it was glorious. He began to splash about. Kicking his leg worked better than he would have thought, but mostly he moved forward with strong strokes of his arms. It did well enough.
After a while he stopped swimming and lay on his back, keeping himself afloat with little wavy movements of his hands. He tilted back his head and looked at the sky. The clouds shifted, transforming continuously before his eyes. A hare grew long legs and became a horse, which broke up into a cat and a couple of swords, while another cloud that resembled a seated woman developed a bulging belly that made Déoric smile.
He breathed out and allowed his body to sink. The water closed over his head and filled his ears. He stretched out his limbs and then curled up his body; knee, hands and elbows folded to his torso. Thus he drifted for a few precious seconds while he imagined his unborn child floating in the tepid waters of that strange land between not being and being in the world: the silence and the weightlessness. Is that how you feel, he whispered in his mind, is this the whole of your world? When his body began to ache for air, he swam back to the surface and took a deep breath.
That evening they were bidden into the big longhouse at Burharg, a somewhat smaller village than Eikfeld, and just like the previous night the storytelling commenced. This time Déoric left his wax tablets in his bag and endeavoured to commit the tales to memory. The following morning he hid himself away in the house of the miller where they had slept and wrote down what he could remember. Before they set off again, he listened to another round of stories and an hour after they had left the village, he bade Aldfrid to stop so that he could take further notes. This became their pattern from then on as they journeyed from village to village, sometimes in this direction or that, depending on where the settlements lay, but always keeping a general westward course. The king's standard ensured their welcome wherever they went.
Some places had seen grave damage during the war, others were virtually untouched, but everywhere men were fewer than they ought to have been and they saw many women with lines of grief etched into their faces. Déoric's thoughts turned to those who were missed in Edoras, first of all his friend Halol and then, inevitably, his father. This was a sorrow that had scabbed over, but would still bleed if picked at. It was best not to dwell on it. He set his mind on the stories he heard, and whenever he got hold of a fresh egg, he tried out his paints.
In this manner, travelling maybe twenty miles a day in a zigzag fashion, they slowly made their way to the westernmost parts of the Riddermark. After eleven days, they reached Helm's Deep and rode up that long, narrow cleft in the White Mountains that led to the Eorlingas' ancient retreat. Through the gate in the Deeping Wall they came, where guards greeted the king's standard rather than the two men that bore it, and at the door of the Hornburg they were met by the Warden of the Keys, who carried their letter from the king to Lord Erkenbrand. Soon they were received by the lord of the Westfold in a spacious chamber that looked out over the battlements.
"Hail, Déoric, Chronicler of the Mark," said Erkenbrand, Éomer's letter in hand. "I thank you for delivering the documents I requested of the king. However, I hear from him that you are by no means a mere messenger, but a scholar and an artist. I shall be glad to talk with you over supper, though first I am sure you will want to refresh yourselves. Goldwyn here will show you where you will stay."
The housekeeper, a rotund ginger-haired woman in her forties, led them up two flights of stairs to the guest quarters. Déoric struggled on the narrow spiral staircase and would have fallen at one point, had not Aldfrid with his quiet watchfulness seen him stumble and caught him from behind. They were assigned a small, comfortable room, where a fire was soon lit by a maid and pitchers of water poured into large bowls by another. Déoric washed, set his hair in order and changed his clothes and in little under half an hour was fit to be seen by polite company, but Aldfrid only grabbed a crust of bread from his pack and said he wanted to go to sleep. So Déoric found himself sitting down for supper as the only stranger at Lord Erkenbrand's table and, to his embarrassment, placed at the man's right hand side.
Lord Erkenbrand was a man of heavy build, and tall, though not quite as tall as Éomer King. Déoric had seen him from time to time in Edoras, though always from a distance, and it was only in sitting next to him that he marvelled at the man's broad shoulders and massive hands. Like the king, Erkenbrand wore his long hair loose rather than braided; it was as thick and wavy as his beard and showed touches of grey. Déoric remembered that in Erkenbrand was said to live again the image of Helm Hammerhand. Looking at the size of the hand that held the wine goblet, he could well believe it.
He had been introduced to the members of Erkenbrand's household, notably his wife, a handsome and cheerful matron, and his three grown-up daughters and adolescent son. All in all, there were at least twenty-five sitting down at the table, including the Warden of the Keys and the marshal of Erkenbrand's éored. Déoric felt not a little intimidated, but he reminded himself that he had even dined at the king's table before and would surely be able to live up to the occasion without falling into a tongue-tied stupor. In fact, he had no choice but to talk, for Erkenbrand questioned him eagerly about his journey and the success of his quest so far.
"I see you have your work cut out. Does Éomer want you to create a whole library for him single-handedly?"
"I don't think so," said Déoric, "though sometimes it feels like it. The Princess of Dol Amroth has promised to bring books with her, and I believe the king wants to have something on the shelves when she arrives. He has sent to Mundburg for books, and in the store room we've found many tomes that must have belonged to Thengel King or the Queen Morwen. There were some fascinating books among those, and not all of them story books. I liked one about the distinctive features of gemstones, and one was all about insects, with beautiful illustrations. But all of these were written in Gondor. Éomer King wants something that has been achieved in the Riddermark. So he relies on me, because Gléowine doesn't write, and the handful of people who can have more pressing things to do. And he still hasn't appointed a new minstrel."
"Just make sure you won't get chosen for that task, too," said one of Erkenbrand's daughters with an impish smile.
"There's no danger of that," replied Déoric. "I'm pretty tone deaf."
"That is just as well," said Erkenbrand. "It seems to me that you have enough to do as it is. Did you find many new stories?"
"I collected a good few, but not as many as one might expect. After a while, one finds that there is a lot of repetition. In fact, in the last village we visited, I didn't hear anything that I hadn't heard before."
"Travel further west from here," suggested Erkenbrand. "The people in the outlying regions of the Westfold are a peculiar folk and I wouldn't be surprised if they had some unusual tales in store for you. You can rest here for a couple of days and then continue your journey. If you spend one or two weeks in that part of the country and then return here for another short break, you will still be able to make it back to Edoras in good time before the onset of winter."
"That seems like a good plan," said Déoric. "If we stay here for a couple of days, that'll give me opportunity to do a bit more painting. I've rather neglected my practice."
"Paint all you like," said Erkenbrand. "I'm sure we can provide you with plenty of eggs. Our chicken coops are rather well stocked, aren't they, Béohild?"
"Not as well as they were before you had half of them roasted for the midsummer feast," replied his lady with a smirk.
"Come now, we had reason to celebrate, and I didn't want to appear miserly." Erkenbrand drained his cup and held it out to the servant to be refilled.
Eventually the topic of Déoric's tasks and travels was exhausted and conversation turned to other matters. It had been a good harvest this summer in the Westfold and Lord Erkenbrand was confident that his people would get over the winter comfortably. A group of dwarves was expected to arrive within the next few weeks, for Gimli, the famous dwarf who had been a companion of the hobbits who destroyed the enemy's Ring, was bringing some of his kinsfolk to set up home in the glittering caves of Aglarond. Erkenbrand's eldest daughter was going to be married before Yule. The wine was excellent, from Anfalas in Gondor, the best wine that had come to the Mark in many years...
This very wine was beginning to make Déoric feel drowsy, and he was glad when the Béohild rose and gave the sign for everyone to retire. In his room, he found Aldfrid snoring. The shutters were not quite closed and moonlight patterned the flagstone floor. With a yawn he sank down on his bed, dropped the crutches on the bedside rug and slipped under the blanket. Like every night, he thought of Fana and tried to imagine her beside him. He whispered words of love for her under his breath and then fell asleep with his shoe still on.
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.