From somewhere out of a depth of numb nothingness, Déoric's mind swam to the surface. The first thing he noticed was the pain throbbing in his head and leg and his left arm. It made him regret the small spark of consciousness and wish to return to blissful oblivion. The next thing was the cold. His leg and his hurting arm felt chilly to the point of pain, and an icy wind stung on his face. Only his right arm and his torso were curiously warm. They seemed covered with a heavy blanket. He opened his eyes and glanced at his chest. It took him a while to make sense of what he saw: the grey fur so luxuriously draped over his right side ended in a sleek head with pointed ears and a long muzzle; the glistening black nose was just a hand's width away from his chin.
The creature was asleep. Even if he had felt able to, Déoric wouldn't have dared to move. How a wild wolf could have found him and yet left him alive was beyond his understanding, but he felt so weak and dizzy that he knew any attempt to escape would be futile. What would happen when the wolf awoke he could not tell and didn't want to imagine. For now, he was almost grateful for the comfort of the animal's cosy body, and the delicious pool of warmth was the last thing his fading consciousness knew as the cold and the pain were slowly blotted out.
It was the beginning of winter and the shadows were long even at noon. Towards the evening, a heavy snowstorm hit the city of Edoras and brought the icy message to the people that none could afford to face this season unprepared. The Rohirrim, though, had ample stores of food and fuel and met the onslaught with equanimity.
Dirlayn placed another log on the fire and rose, pushing herself up by placing her hands on her knee. Sparks rose and danced about like fiery midges. The room was dim with the shutters firmly closed against the weather. By the table sat Fana peeling potatoes. Her dress stretched a bit tighter these days over her belly. When a muffled knock was heard, she looked up, but before she had even put the knife aside, Dirlayn was by the door. It was opened and closed swiftly to admit a single figure wrapped up in a hooded cloak.
A brief expression of disappointment rippled over Fana's face and settled quickly into well-practised resignation. The visitor stamped both his feet on the mat by the door and brushed the snow off his shoulders.
"Sit by the fire, Master Léofred," said Dirlayn and pulled up a chair for him. "You must be half frozen coming here on a night like this. Wait, I shall bring you some spiced milk."
"Don't trouble yourself, Mistress Dirlayn," replied Léofred and took off his cloak. "The fire will do me nicely. How are you keeping, Fana?"
"I'm very well, thank you, Master Léofred," said Fana and picked up the potato knife again. Léofred sat down and looked earnestly at the two women.
"I thought I'd better come and tell you straight away," he began, and this opening caused both Fana and Dirlayn to sit up and stare at him with alarm in their eyes.
"The news is grave, but not disastrous," he continued and laid a soothing hand on Dirlayn's arm. "A messenger came to Éomer King about an hour ago bearing a letter from Lord Erkenbrand. Aldfrid came back to the Hornburg a week after he and Déoric had set out from there. They had been separated when they were attacked by a stray band of orcs. There is no sign of Déoric."
The wooden bowl hit the floor with a clunk when Fana jumped up; it tipped over and potatoes rolled onto the sandy floor. Dirlayn's face had gone white.
"This doesn't have to mean anything really bad," said Léofred quickly. "Aldfrid is sure that he'd killed all the orcs and he believes Déoric was not seriously injured. Apparently Déoric's horse took fright and bolted. She was later found by some villagers, wandering alone in the moors. Nothing terrible needs to have happened to Déoric. I hope he is sitting safe and snug in some other village."
"Has Lord Erkenbrand not sent out people to look for him?" asked Dirlayn.
"He was intending to do so at the time of writing the letter, which was on the day of Aldfrid's arrival. However, I doubt that we will hear more any time soon. They will all be snowed in by now. The messenger barely made it to Edoras. I fear we will get no further news while the winter weather lasts."
"I thought the orcs had all been routed," said Fana.
"They have in most parts of the Mark," replied Léofred. "But out there in the far flung corners of the Westfold, some might still come over the border from Dunland or down from the Misty Mountains. I wish he hadn't gone into that part of the country. I wonder that Erkenbrand didn't advise against it."
Dirlayn shook her head.
"He may well have, and to little avail," she said. "You know how stubborn Déoric can be. If he'd got it into his head, for whatever reason, to go that way, then he would."
"True enough," said Léofred with a sigh. "It's the downside of his perseverance. Well, let us try not to be too disheartened. Unless we hear otherwise, we ought to assume that Déoric is safe and well. You will not get upset, will you, Fana?"
"I'm trying not to," replied Fana and knelt down to gather up the potatoes. "I am sure that whoever finds Déoric would be happy to help him. And if he is staying away a little while longer, that'll give you more time to finish your surprise. Have you worked out a way to steer it yet?"
"Sadly not, but I have one or two more ideas," said Léofred. "Well, I am glad you're being brave about it, Fana. Please don't worry too much. I am sure everything will be just fine. Mistress Dirlayn?"
Dirlayn shrugged. "I've seen him ride off to battle twice," she said. "I am quite used to worries by now. At least this time I have things to take my mind off it. I have my work at the infirmary and I have Fana to keep me company."
"That's good to know." Léofred stood up. He rested his hand on Dirlayn's shoulder for an instant before he put on his cloak.
"Good night, Fana. Good night, Mistress Dirlayn."
"Good night, Master Léofred."
"You be careful out there," said Dirlayn as she opened the door. "The snow has made the steps all slippery. Good night."
When he had gone, the two women sat at the table and looked at each other.
"Well?" said Dirlayn.
"Well," replied Fana. "We'll just have to wait."
Dirlayn sighed. "As is the fate of women."
They gazed into the fire, each knowing that the other would seek to picture the same face in the flickering flames. After a while, Fana began to peel the rest of the potatoes. When a silverfish crawled out from under the peelings, she shuddered.
It wasn't exactly nothingness this time. There were things happening, but his head was too sore, his senses too feverish to mind. There was pain, and there was a voice, a strange voice, rough but not harsh, there was darkness and more pain, and dim light forcing vague shapes through his half-opened eyelids. There was a cup pressed to his lips at times, and he swallowed, whether it was cool water or the sharp and sour potion that replaced it now and then. There was movement, and yet more pain, pain in his head, pain in his arm, pain in his thigh, it was everywhere. Sometimes the pain seemed to slumber and then woke again like a wild creature stirred from its rest. Déoric let it devour him. He had no strength to care. He wanted to sleep.
And so he slept, for hours or maybe days, he knew not how long. Then the moment came when he emerged from sleep with a cleared mind and a sudden desire to know what had happened to him.
When he opened his eyes, he almost cried out in fright. But quick as the mind is, it realized that there was no ogre sitting in front of him, but only an old and rather ugly woman. Whatever attempt she may have made to tame her frizzy grey hair had been futile and it stood in shaggy tufts around her head, from which extended a pair of overly large ears. Her skin was shrivelled and patchy and strewn with dark brown spots. Two warts the size of acorns sat on her left cheek; they were flat, dry and cracked on the surface, looking more like a bizarre fungus than part of a human face. From a few much smaller warts on her chin sprouted curled, wiry hairs. She was the most hideous woman Déoric had ever seen - but the reason he could see her crooked and blackened teeth was because she smiled.
"Does the head still hurt?" she asked, in the voice that he had heard in his fever. She spoke the Common Tongue, but with a strange accent. Her breath smelled of caraway seed.
Déoric felt dazed and had only just begun to take stock of his body. A dull pain sat over his left brow. He reached up to his forehead and his fingers brushed against a bulge.
"Aye, you must have knocked your head quite a few times. How's the arm?"
Déoric looked at the hand he had just raised and noticed nothing uncommon, but then he realized that his other arm, the left one, was tightly wrapped up in bandages from the elbow downwards. The sleeve had been cut open. Now that he turned his attention to it, he realized that it had been hurting all the time. He touched it with his right hand and felt the rods under the fabric.
"Broke that one, you did," said the old hag. "Lucky for you that you met someone able to set and splint it. But I am forgetting my manners. My name is Lunet. Welcome to my cottage."
"I am Déoric, son of Féadred. Did you rescue me?"
"I did indeed, dearie, I did indeed. You've been here for three days now, and lucky for you it was that I found you."
She showed her blackened teeth again in a crooked smile. Déoric tried to sit up, which wasn't easy with only one arm to use. The bump on his head began to throb.
"And where is 'here'?" he asked.
"Oh, you have strayed out of the horse-land, dearie. Lost your way, did you? This is Dunland."
Déoric held his breath for a moment, then he looked at her more closely. Brown eyes, brownish skin, and the grey hair might have been dark at one time. So, he had fallen into the hands of the enemy. He groaned. There was no way he could escape in his current state, and at least so far the enemy seemed to have looked after him well enough.
He began to take in his surroundings. The room was dark, lit only by the fire in the hearth, which seemed to have blackened the beams of the low ceiling in the course of many years. Bunches of dried herbs, garlands of onions, pots and pans and all manners of household contraptions hung there and made the room seem even lower. Shutters closed the two small windows. The floor was covered with sand. A large cauldron hung over the fire and from it rose a nauseating smell. Suddenly Déoric's mouth was filled with foul tasting saliva. Before he could do anything to check it, his stomach turned and flung up whatever contents it still held. He leaned forward and was sick onto the floor.
When he was finished, Lunet handed him a damp rag to wipe his mouth, and knelt down to clean up the mess. She opened the door and chucked out the soiled sand. A gust of cold air made Déoric shudder. Lunet closed and bolted the door, then she sat down on a stool beside his bed – her bed, he realized, there wasn't another bed in the room, and no other room in the cottage.
"You don't need to tell me, but I'm a nosy old woman, so I need to ask what happened to you."
"I'm not sure." Déoric rubbed his forehead. He felt woozy. "There were orcs, I think, and I fell... The horse hit my arm - " He faltered, suddenly gripped by that cold and paralyzing feeling that alerts us to something terribly wrong.
"My horse!" he wailed. "I've lost the princess's horse. Éomer King will have me flogged and roasted on a spit!"
"It's the kind of thing he does, your king?"
"Of course not! He is a kind and generous man. But this horse – it belongs to the Princess of Dol Amroth – I had it on a loan and was supposed to look after it well. And how will I get home without a horse?"
"With or without a horse, you won't leave here in a hurry," said Lunet. "Go and take a peek outside."
He looked at her with doubt in his eyes.
"You can get up," she said. "Just take it easy."
Déoric rose and clung to the bedstead with his good arm. One of the windows was just about two yards away. He held on to the wall, shuffled over and opened the shutters. Instantly, he recoiled and sheltered his eyes with his hand. The light was dazzling, for the sun glinted on a land clad in white. To the left he saw the edge of a forest, branches bent down with the weight of the snow. To the right, a gentle slope led down to a valley where, maybe two miles away, the chimneys of a village were smoking. Beyond, low hills stretched out as a blank, featureless desert. Déoric leaned forward and looked down. The snow came up almost to the window ledge.
"Yes, the skies have been busy while you slept. It snowed for three days and nights solid. The wind piled it up nicely in some places. And I have a feeling that we're in for more. I'm afraid you'll have to content yourself with my company for a while. Now close the shutters, you're letting all the heat out!"
Déoric obeyed. Flake white, he thought with a last glimpse at the snowy landscape. Then it struck him. His box of colours was in Ivornel's saddle bag, along with all his notes, the harvest of four week's work. He stood for a while without moving, while his face turned paler and paler. Then his hand went up to his mouth and he bit his knuckle hard. But the pain could not distract him for more than a few seconds. He winced.
"You'd better sit down, dearie, you look like you're going to take a little dizzy turn," said Lunet. Gently, she wrapped his good arm over her shoulders and helped him get back to the bed. It was a rickety thing, made from roughly hewn logs and strapped together with leather belts, but he was glad to lean back on the furs that were piled up in place of blankets.
"This is terrible," he said, panting. "It couldn't have been any worse."
"Oh, I think it could have," replied Lunet. "Be grateful for the snow. I don't think I could have carried you the seven miles or so, but the sledge did nicely. I don't often venture that far from the cottage any more, but since it had just started to snow I thought it would be a good thing to go and get stocked up on juniper and elderberry before the winter set in for good. The last of the elderberries were vastly overripe, but it was just as well I got them. I had used up all my elderberry juice a few weeks ago, when a fever made the rounds in the village, and you had need of it. You were near delirious."
Déoric remembered the strong flavour of elderberry juice from his childhood, when his mother had given it to him as a cure for fever. It had tasted much better than whatever concoction Lunet had poured into him, but then it occurred to him that Dirlayn had always sweetened it with honey. Lunet's household didn't look as if it afforded such a luxury.
"How did I get such a bad fever?"
"It was that slash in your leg; it had become all infected."
Déoric looked at her with horror.
"Will I lose it?" he whispered.
"No, dearie, don't worry. I'm not that bad a healer, I'm proud to say. The poultice I made you may stink, but it has drawn out the inflammation very well."
"And I've been here for three days?"
"Yes, and have slept for most of the time. I thought you'd be in much pain, so I gave you something to make you drowsy. Couldn't say how long you'd already been lying there, but it can't have been terribly long, because you were not as cold I would have thought."
"I had a weird dream," said Déoric, "of a wolf that covered me like a blanket and kept me warm."
She looked at him quizzically, then turned her head to one side.
"It might have been more than a dream. You see, my eye-sight isn't all that good at a distance, so I couldn't quite say, but there was something that fled when I approached you. I thought it was odd how there was only a little bit of snow on you, down one side. And come to think of it, I believe you reeked of wolf." She bent over him and sniffed. "Still do a bit. Well, your wolf friend probably saved your life. You'd have been gone with the cold otherwise, I reckon."
Déoric blinked and shuddered. "Why would a wolf do such a thing?"
"Oh, wolves do strange things sometimes, especially when they've lost a cub. They like to be friendly."
"Friendly? Wolves like to be friendly? You must be joking. Wolves are dangerous and cruel and vicious; they kill and maul people."
The old woman snorted.
"Seen it often, have you?" she asked.
"Well, no, but I've heard stories."
"Hmhm." She nodded, more to herself than to Déoric. "Probably stories told by people who don't know the first thing about wolves, or any other animal for that matter. I'm not talking wargs here, mind, they're fell beasts. But your common wolf, you know, is more scared of you than you could be of him. Sure, he's got teeth and claws, but Man has swords and arrows. Wolves only kill so they can eat, or to defend their pack, but Man kills for all sorts of reasons and sometimes for no reason at all. If you met a wolf in the wild, most likely he'd run."
Déoric shook his head.
"But this one didn't run."
"Well, you weren't much of a threat, were you?" said Lunet. "Have you ever watched a pack? I have. They're very loving with each other, wolves are. They do like to be friends. And if you think of a she-wolf whose pups have died or a young wolf who's been separated from his pack – well, such a wolf could get very lonely and might look for any kind of friend he could find."
Something about this struck Déoric as being true beyond the mere words that were spoken, but he couldn't quite say what it was. The long conversation had exhausted him and he snuggled his cheek against the furs and went back to sleep.