24. Neithan and the Drúedain
Chapter Written by Angmar and Elfhild
Bearing clay pitchers filled with water, the women attended to the thirsty guests at the feast. Though the occasion was a festive one, there was no chance that anyone would become intoxicated that day, for these folk shunned spirits of any kind. That in itself would be unusual enough, but these people were different in other ways; the most striking difference being their appearance. With their squat, ungainly legs and huge buttocks which swayed with every step, they would not be considered handsome by any people in Middle-earth save their own. There were pleasant smiles upon the uncomely faces of the serving women, though, as they laughed and joked while they filled the earthenware drinking cups of the guests gathered around the tables. Their garb was plain in keeping with their simple lives, and the women and men dressed much the same in kirtles of coarse fabric and kilts of dry grasses.
The occasion for the joyous celebration was twofold: it was Midsummer Eve, a commemoration of the ripe fecundity of summer, and, appropriately enough, a betrothal. After a long courtship, the headman's nephew had at last convinced a young maiden to plight her troth to him and had chosen this night for the betrothal feast. The young couple, both smiling shyly to each other and their guests, sat at the high table of the headman and his kin. Their beaming and doting relatives sat at lower, but no less exalted, places at the great table. Throughout the long night, earthen cups filled with refreshing spring water had been raised with the hopes of a happy marriage with many offspring. The latter wish was purely customary, expressed at every betrothal, with few having any real expectations that the wish would ever be fulfilled, for the Drúedain had few children. Still, though, the occasion was festive, and the betrothed couple was regaled throughout the evening with singing accompanied by drums and reed flutes.
Frugal and prudent though they were, still they had spared nothing of their provisions for the occasion, adding the customary mushrooms, fungus and roots to the meat of harts, hares, birds and small game which the huntsmen had provided. The food had long since been cleared, the hour had grown late, and the concluding toasts of the evening were being raised as the huge bonfires slowly died into glowing ash and embers.
Looking quite out of place among the much shorter Drúedain, a man of tall stature rose from his place at the headman's table and lifted up his cup. Scruffy looking and dark-haired, his gray eyes quick and keen, a lean and haggard look upon his face, he wore a worn green tunic of wool mixed with linen and breeches of deerskin, kept close to his calves by interlaced strips of leather.
Passing his hand over the surface of the water, he looked towards the West. After blessing the cup in the Drûgs' own language, of which he was somewhat fluent, he closed his eyes and raised the vessel on high. Pausing in silence for a few moments, his lids at last raised and his gray eyes rested upon the newly betrothed couple.
The man chose his words carefully, for, considering that Midsummer was a season of great fertility upon the earth, he thought it best not to point out that happy fact to a people who were known more for their celibacy than they were for the fruits of the marriage bed. "May each of your days together be filled with happiness and joy. May there be more rainbows than storms, more roses than thorns, and may you find far more days of gladness than you ever experience of sadness. With that, I should take my leave of you."
After lingering longer and exchanging more well wishes and farewells, the man at last broke away from the gathering. Happy choruses of "May your journeys be safe! Be well, man of the Land of Stone-houses! Come back and visit us soon!" rang in his ears. Striding on his long legs to the edge of the village, he heard the voice of the headman, Ghân-buri-Ghân, calling out behind him.
"Friend of my people, wait up! I had wish to talk with you before you left. Can you not remain with us a few days longer?"
Turning back to the Drûg who had followed him, the man smiled pleasantly. "Nay, Ghân, I have dined at your expense much too long, and should have been on my way two days ago. Once again you and your people have helped me as you have done in years past. Your kindness and healing skills shall never be forgotten."
"You have stayed this long. Why not longer?" inquired the gnarled headman, who hid his concern behind dark, impassive eyes. The Drúedain had been well acquainted with Neithan the wanderer ever since they found him close to death in their forest some years before. Stricken with a burning fever unknown to the Drûgs, the man had been weak and faint, suffering from exposure, dehydration and pressing perilously close to the edge of starvation.
Taking pity upon him, they had brought him to the house of the chieftain, Ghân-buri-Ghân. There, the wise and skilled Drûg healers slowly restored the man back to health. However, as the man's physical strength returned, the Drûgs quickly discovered that he was not entirely whole of mind, and was sometimes given to fits and bouts of madness. During these periods in which his mind wandered in and out of sanity, Neithan would oft go into a trance, talking to people who existed only in his mind, commanding soldiers who were not there, composing poetry that was nothing more than meaningless doggerel, seeing visions and making absurd predictions. When the sickness fell upon him, the Drúedain treated him kindly, doctoring him as best they could with soporific teas concocted from beneficial mushrooms, roots, plants and herbs. A kind people, the Drúedain did all they could for him, but after a year spent under their care, he had wandered away one night to come back from time to time and then to leave just as suddenly as he had come.
"My old friend," he placed his hand upon the small chieftain's shoulder, "when I was in the midst of giving my final toast, I felt the presence of Lhûnwen at my side... the shy sigh of the maiden... her sweet breath... the light touch of her hand upon my cheek..." A distracted look came over the man's face as he glanced away from the chieftain.
"Friend Neithan, I saw nothing." The chieftain grew alarmed, for Ghân knew that the madness must be returning to torment Neithan again.
"She is here with us now," Neithan vowed emphatically as a muscle jerked erratically under one eye. "Surely you see her?"
"Neithan," old Ghân moved in front of him, as though to block his path, "the sickness has come upon you once again and you are not at yourself. Come back with me to the village." He put his hand on Neithan's arm and looked imploringly up to his face.
"Ghân, I am no longer ill. You must not try to impede me. Now move out of my way!" His eyebrows furrowing, a dangerous expression had come over Neithan's face.
"You have become overly excited." Ghân cast a sideways glance towards the village, wondering if he should alert the men. "The healers of my people will soon make you better again."
"No, Ghân, I know you are well meaning, but you do not understand." He pushed the old Drûg aside and walked by him. "She wants me to follow her, and neither you nor any other man can prevent it! Not even the ones who dwell in the City of the Dead could stop me!"
"I will not let you go in your condition!" The Drûg rushed forward and gripped both Neithan's arms tightly. Though he was advanced in years, Ghân was as strong and muscular as a young wrestler. The two men struggled, grappling with one another, until Neithan's strong right fist plowed into Ghân's chin, knocking the Drûg sprawling on the ground.
"Neithan! Come back!" Ghân shouted after him, but Neithan, a crazed look burning in his eyes, fled upon his long legs into the forest. Bringing two fingers to his lips, Ghân emitted a shrill whistle to summon his men to him.
Running swiftly, Neithan was soon at the outskirts of the settlement, not pausing in his flight until he came to a statue of a Drûg squatting above a fallen orc. He cursed as he unsheathed his sword and raised the blade to lash out at the orc. Then the sound of pursuit startled him and he rushed away into the trees.
Neithan the Accursed and Mad, they called him, a man cast out by his own people. A wanderer and a vagabond, he would remain for a time in a place until the demons in his mind would turn him into a raving, babbling, frothing madman. Then people would fear him, calling him a lunatic or one possessed by devils. Driven from their villages, he would wander back into the wilderness, where sometimes he would go for months at a time before another fit overtook him. When in the midst of one of these spells of madness, he would laugh wildly, sometimes even striking trees with his fists until his hands were masses of bloody flesh, or slashing savagely out at the air with his sword. Finally he would wear himself out and sink onto the ground in a stupor. Then, upon awakening, his mind would often come back to him. In these moments of lucidity, he would remember much of what had befallen him, even knowing his true name and the man that he had once been.
At one time, he had been betrothed to Lhûnwen; he was certain of that. She had been the daughter of a widower, a crippled pensioner, honorably discharged from the Army of Gondor. Neithan had been... Who had he been? Sometimes he could not remember... and why was it even important that he should? He knew only who he was now, Neithan the accursed. But he could be many things, depending on how he chose to see himself at any one time.
He halted in his flight and listened for the sound of pursuit, but he could hear no pounding feet behind him. The forest was silent in the false light before dawn. He was cognizant that he was being hunted, but he was unsure of the identity of his foe. Were the Dark Fiends on his trail once more, determined to drag him back to the whips, chains and stocks of that deep underground dungeon? His muddled thoughts struggled to piece together the happenings of the night before. Had he drunk too much, as he often did when sanity became too much for him to bear? No! He was sure that he had not become intoxicated. He searched his mind for the answer, but he could remember nothing. He was certain only that he had eluded his pursuers once again... whoever they were.
Resting against a great pine, he sensed Lhûnwen's presence wrapping itself around him, the cool, silky light of her aura illuminating the glade. As he closed his eyes, he felt the wispy, ethereal touch of Lhûnwen's lips upon his own. "My lady," he murmured over and over again, his hand stroking her face while her body coalesced around him. "I beseech you to tarry with me a while before you depart once again." Her arms reached up to twine about his neck, and he heard her merry laughter in the soft murmuring of the wind.
"Lady mine," he breathed heavily as his fingers stroked the pine bark, "when we are wed..." The lady laughed again and looked over his shoulder at something that she saw there. Sensing danger behind him, Neithan pushed the woman against the tree trunk and rounded upon the intruder. "Hallas, you bastard! You dare come back? Must I kill you again?" Enraged, Neithan drew his sword from its scabbard, the vaporous light about him glimmering off the blade.
Yet the phantom only mocked him with his frosty laughter and refused to answer his challenge. "Fool!" came the cold, condemning words of the spectre. "You are too much of a coward to face a man in honorable combat!" The wraith pointed to the gushing fountain of blood which spewed from the gaping hole in his neck. As Neithan gazed on in rage, Lhûnwen floated like a sultry summer breeze to the phantom's side, her head tilting to kiss the hideous wound. Her dainty pink tongue licked over the pulsing flow of crimson and probed inside the ghastly rend. One hand on her breast, the other hand rubbing over his bulging crotch, Hallas moaned in pleasure as her mouth made love to his death wound. As her hands tenderly caressed Hallas' face, her half-closed eyes gave Neithan a sideways glance, both tempting him with promises of long denied pleasures and mocking him with laughing scorn and derision.
With a scream of maddened rage, Neithan lunged at them, swinging his sword wildly in a wide arc, cutting through their ghostly bodies like the scythe cutting through ripened wheat. Their garments falling away from them in spangled slivers of silver, the forms of the two shades merged together, writhing as their beautiful bodies became one in an act of obscene carnality, laughing, taunting him with the joys that he had been denied eternally. Then the pair vanished before his eyes, retreating to the realm beyond the veil.
Dropping his sword and clasping his face in his hands, Neithan sagged against the trunk of the tree and wept. "Accursed! Accursed!" he wailed. "Just like Túrin Turambar!" Then, one by one, like droplets of water slowly falling upon a great stone, partially remembered scenes from his past spattered like drops of blood upon the edges of his mind.
Once he had been a man of repute, betrothed to a lady of quality, though of lower social station than his own. His prospects were high, and he had even been promised a promotion by his mentor, Captain Vorondil. All had been well for him until he had begun to suspect that Lhûnwen's love for him had grown cold and another had taken his place in her heart.
Neithan had been light-hearted that May evening when he had been released from his station on the city walls. His footsteps were hurried as he walked briskly down the quiet streets which led to the house where she lived with her father. A short distance from her house, he looked up at her open bedroom window and saw two figures illuminated by the soft glow of lamp light. His blood racing, he stood there a moment and anticipated holding Lhûnwen's soft, yielding body against him.
A smile came over his face as he heard the merry voice of Lhûnwen's maid, Díneneth. A moment later, her high-pitched giggles were joined by the deeper, throaty laughter of Lhûnwen. When he was alone with Lhûnwen in her chamber, he would ask what the two women had found so humorous.
Walking to the door, he glanced at the familiar bronze eagle which embellished the heavy door-knocker, and then raising it, he rapped upon the door. His attention was drawn away momentarily by the sound of the town crier, who called out the hour of seven o'clock. He hummed an old melody as he waited for the maid to answer the door. "What is detaining that giddy maid?" he asked himself as he restlessly drummed his boot upon the cobblestone.
Finally Díneneth arrived at the door, her hair slightly disarrayed and a rosy flush upon her face. "Sir," she apologized as she smoothed a few straying tendrils back from her temples, "the mistress sends her regrets but she cannot see you tonight. She is quite unwell." Seeming in a hurry, the usually talkative and flirtatious Dínenath began to close the door in his face.
"A moment." Suddenly suspicious, Neithan halted her as he slid his boot between the door and the doorpost. "Surely, I could see her for a short while."
"Really, sir, I need to be going back to her," the flustered maid replied. Crossing his arms over his chest, Neithan would not budge. His cold gray eyes were unwavering as he stared at her until the maid dropped her gaze in consternation. "To tell you the truth, the lady is far too embarrassed to see you. Her eyes are red and puffy, her nose is stuffy and swollen, and she looks a terrible fright!" Díneneth lowered her voice conspiratorially, as though she were sharing a forbidden confidence. "Do not tell her that I said that, though!"
"Strange," Neithan thought to himself. The lady had seemed to be in the bloom of health when he espied her through her window. Obviously the maid was lying, but why? "This illness has come upon her suddenly, has it not? Two days ago when I saw her, she seemed as strong as a young mare."
"Rather quickly, yes, sir," a fidgeting Díneneth replied, but she finally brought her eyes up to meet his. "The illness took Lhûnwen suddenly. When she awoke this morning, I would have sworn she was in the peak of health. I was quite beside myself when, before the day was half over, she became faint and complained that she felt quite weak, chilling and aching. She soon took to her bed and has not ventured forth since. She has taken nothing into her stomach save for a bit of weak tea and some toast without even a spot of jam! I am sorely distressed for her sake! I can take a message to her, sir, if you should wish. That would be something that would cheer her, I am sure. Now, sir, if you would please remove your foot from the doorway, you could be on your way, and I could finish brewing a pot of tea for the lady."
Deciding to play the fool for the time and wait until this farce had played itself out, Neithan instructed her, "Take this message to the lady Lhûnwen. Tell her that I am most certainly concerned for her well-being, and I pray that she might improve quickly. Impress upon her that every hour I am parted from her is naught but emptiness, but above all things tell her that I love her."
"Why, certainly, sir. I will assuredly give her that message, and I am very glad to do it. Now you understand that I must be going. A good evening to you, sir, and perhaps when you return tomorrow, she will be her old self again. I certainly hope so!" Díneneth closed the door just as soon as he had removed his foot.
Puzzled, Neithan could make no sense of the events of the evening. Since he had planned to spend the evening with his lady, he did not quite know what to do with himself, so he stood for a moment, studying the eagle door-knocker. Then he turned back to the street and walked a few paces. At a distance from the house, he looked back at Lhûnwen's window, but this time he found that it had been heavily draped, and all he could see was a faint glow filtering through the material. Dejected, he found his feet leading him to a tavern that was a favorite haunt of many soldiers in their off duty hours.
As he walked into the public room, all eyes turned to him in curiosity. When recognition lighted their faces, Neithan was invited to sit at a table with two of his comrades who had just blown the froth off their tankards of ale.
"Did not expect to see you tonight, Neithan," remarked Garthon, a plain looking, dark-haired man who wore the livery of the city guards.
"Neithan, good fellow, we were expecting you to spend the evening with your betrothed. Have you two had a spat?" queried Orchal, a large, ruddy-faced man who was as fond of a night of drinking as he was a night with the tavern whores.
"Something like that," Neithan replied noncommittally.
"Well, you need a draught then to make you forget your sorrows. I will buy for all," promised Orchal, who, with a raise of his hand, summoned a tavern wench.
Bearing a tray of tankards, the wench set them down on the table. As she served Neithan his ale, she bent over, giving him a view of twin mounds, barely covered by her low neckline. Running a finger over the rim of her bodice, he elicited a giggle out of the girl, which set her bosom to jiggling as he pressed a coin down the valley of her huge breasts.
"Oh, Master Neithan," the maid tittered, "so good to have you with us tonight, sir! Will you be wanting anything more?" She winked provocatively.
"Come back later, sweets. I might develop a thirst for something else."
"Certainly, sir. Should you have need of anything..."
"We will see, lass." As she moved away from the table, her massive haunches pushed against the thin material of her skirt, each ponderous globe alternating as it rose and fell with her steps. She squealed as Neithan slapped her broad rump.
"Neithan, you rogue! Has not even your betrothal cooled the gleam in your eye and the itch between your legs?" Garthon asked.
"Love has made a different man of me, Garthon. All my thoughts rest with my beloved, and never do my eyes wander, straying places where they should not."
"You did not mention your hands," jibed Orchal.
The other two men laughed and attended to their tankards as Neithan scowled at them before sampling his ale. "Not to change the subject, of course," Neithan put in nonchalantly, "but where is Hallas tonight? I know he is off-duty, but he is not among this illustrious company I see about me in the tavern."
"A question I cannot answer," replied an unconcerned Garthon, "but I know he has not been about tonight."
"Strange," murmured Neithan. "There must have been something very important to keep old Hallas away from his draught, and that can be but one thing - a woman. Has the scoundrel found himself some fair charmer whom he has not told me about?"
"Well, he did say something about an appointment that he had to keep tonight. Considering the way he was acting - all broad smiles and laughter - I took it that he was meeting some delicate morsel who has caught his eye." Setting down his tankard, Garthon belched loudly and signaled a passing serving maid to set up another round.
"Well, knowing him, you can place good money on it that whoever she is, she will be lifting her skirts and showing him her pretty tail before the sun breaks the horizon!"
With that remark from Orchal, the three men went back to their drinking. They continued as the night progressed, until they were well into their cups. As the bells chimed the hour of one o'clock, Hallas drew open the tavern door and walked into the public room. The three friends at Neithan's table had just finished the chorus of a popular bawdy song when they espied their comrade.
"Hail, Sergeant Hallas, you old rascal! Out and about rather late, are you not?" remarked Garthon as he motioned him to sit down at their table.
"By the Enemy's belching buttocks, you look as though you could use a stiff drink! From what winsome hole have you pulled yourself tonight?" laughed Orchal.
Pulling out a chair across the table from Neithan, Hallas sat down and waited until the serving girl came by with a full tray of tankards. "Why would you think that, Orchal? Perhaps I was at my house resting," he replied innocently.
"Resting?" Orchal snorted derisively "You have the look and smell about you of a man who has not been resting, but has just come out of a warm bed after enjoying a bit of horizontal sport. Who was she? What husband have you been cuckolding?"
"Aye, who was it, Hallas? You can tell your friends, can you not?" Neithan probed good-naturedly as he gazed at Hallas.
"I do not like to boast. That is all I am saying, so ask me no more of it." Lifting up his tankard, Hallas could not meet Neithan's eyes and turned his head away.
"Oh, keeping it a secret, are you, Sergeant?" Garthon, not wanting to miss out on the fun, pressed eagerly.
"I said I would speak naught of it, so leave me be," Hallas replied gruffly and then tossed down another mouthful of ale.
"Keep your secrets then," chuckled Orchal. "We will ask no more of it. Let the lady, whoever she might be, keep her pristine reputation, but your reticence will leave us wondering."
Neithan had already been wondering, for Hallas was known to be a man who always liked to boast of his conquests. It was unlike him to remain so close-mouthed unless he had a very good reason... perhaps he did. Though Hallas had always been the epitome of a well-bred gentleman when he was with Neithan and Lhûnwen, several times Neithan had caught the two gazing longingly into each other's eyes. Díneneth the maid had been acting most strangely that night, too. What had she been trying to hide? Neithan did not like to think such thoughts, but his suspicions had been aroused.
Could his fellow officer and the lady of his heart be cheating on him? They would bear watching. Neithan resolved to discover the truth of it.
A thousand questions filled his mind, but he asked none of them. Instead, Neithan rose to his feet, and after thanking Orchal for his generosity, he bid the three men a good night and retreated from the tavern.
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.