10. A Fear of Fire
By the beginning of March Déoric felt confident enough in his drawing skills to tackle the most crucial part of his commission, the frontispiece. He had drawn the kings, eleven out of the seventeen by now, against bare backgrounds, but for the title page he envisaged an image that covered the sheet from edge to edge. He needed to sketch a variety of motifs that would allow him to fill such a picture and to show that there was more to his country than just horses and riders.
During the course of the winter the time he spent on drawing and copying the book had increased steadily, with other scribing tasks done late in the day, way past the hour when he had previously been on his way home. There were fewer of these lists and inventories now, for he had caught up with the backlog within the first couple of months in his position, and Léofred, now quite recovered, assured him almost daily that there was little to be done. Still, Déoric suspected that the king's advisor had started to write some of the accounts himself in order to free up the young scribe for his artistic project. It was possible, of course, that the older man was simply exasperated by Déoric's weak head for numbers and found it easier to write out the sums on his own. However that might be, Déoric filled page after page with beautiful writing and vivid pictures and had meanwhile copied almost the entire text of King Elessar's book.
To find inspiration for his title page, he went down to his favourite spot by the river early in the morning and looked around, not for horses this time, but for the features of the land. No king would be the subject of the frontispiece, but the country of Rohan itself.
It was a breezy day and the new blades of grass flittered around his feet when he put down his sheepskin. The wind brought with it the scent of early spring, a stirring, vibrant smell that called to Déoric with an urgency he could not ignore. He inhaled it deeply while his eyes scanned the surroundings. There was the river with its willow trees, the long, bare branches swaying in the breeze. To both sides of the river meadows stretched out, and further to the west stood the mounds of the kings, covered in simbelmynë. The city of Edoras rose from the plain high and proud like a queen and beyond it the mountains shone white in the morning light. A pair of ducks whirred past, fast and straight as arrows. Déoric pulled his board out of his bag and began to draw. After a few hours he had filled the board, back and front, with the images that hailed him from the awakening landscape.
It took him a week to complete the frontispiece. Painstakingly he translated his charcoal sketches into the fine silverpoint lines, adding shadows and texture and detail in the process. In the background, slightly to the left of the centre, he drew the city of Edoras against the backdrop of the mountains with the tree-lined river flowing before the gates. The border was a garland of simbelmynë, with a different bird sitting in each of the four corners: a robin, a blackbird, a sparrow and a starling. The foreground, however, drew the eye and infused the picture with spirit. Déoric had copied his drawing of the rearing horse, that first unconsciously sketched image, but this time he had added shadows and highlights the way he had learned to do during his visits to the stables.
He had wondered whether it wouldn't be better to show the figure of a mounted rider, but had decided that none of the kings should be thus given preference above the others. He hoped they would each be contented, in whatever circle of the world they might dwell now, with the fine drawings he was providing for them.
The day after the frontispiece was finished, he showed it to Léofred and in the afternoon the king appeared in the scribe's room demanding to see the completed work. Déoric, less nervous in the presence of the king than he had been in the early days of his career, flourished the sheet with no small measure of pride.
"A worthy effort," said Éomer after he had carefully scrutinized the parchment, "and I am going to take the credit for discovering your talent. You are a remarkable young man, Déoric. The copy of the book, I hear from Léofred, is almost completed, too?"
"Indeed, my lord, there are a mere five pages missing."
Éomer raised his eyebrows, for the young scribe had sounded less satisfied with this announcement than one might have expected.
"You seem discontented, Déoric. Are you not pleased that your task is drawing to an end?"
Déoric held onto his right hand with his left to stop himself from biting his knuckle. He glanced at the king and then looked down at his desk.
"My lord, if I may say this: It irks me that the book is quite so thin. A mere two score pages for the five hundred years we have lived in this land. There are tales of our kings that every child in the Mark knows, but that haven't made their way to Gondor it seems. The story of Gram and the bridge over the Entwash, or the tale about the falcons of Goldwine. And there are many songs and tales that concern other persons than the kings, about the travels of Fricca the Goldenhaired and the first meeting of - "
"Do not get carried away, my dear Déoric," exclaimed Éomer. "It is a book we want and not a whole library. I agree with you, though, that what Gondor recorded is but a portion of our history. I desire therefore that you go and speak to Gléowine the minstrel and ask for his counsel. After you have listened to all he has to tell you, I give you leave to add to the book such tales as relate directly to the kings of the Mark. Dedicate at least half of every day to this task. And find out about bindings. Maybe the tanner could help you with that. You can easily complete your other duties in the remaining time, as well as finishing the last of the drawings. And there is no rush, although..." A smile flitted across his face. "...I should be pleased if the work was completed before the summer."
Déoric bowed his head to show his consent, though he was by no means sure that he could fulfil all his duties as easily as the king implied. Éomer patted him on the shoulder, wished him good luck and left the room.
He looks at his hand. It is strangely distorted and there seem to be more fingers than at other times, but how many there should be he cannot quite tell. The many-fingered hand picks up the stylus and draws: a hill, a rearing horse, a garland of evermind. The hill grows under his feet and he looks out across a plain of green grass rippling in the wind. From the grass spring the white flowers of the mounds, thousands of them, covering the whole land with their pale shimmer. He begins to run downhill, taking larger and larger leaps until at last he pushes off and floats over the grassy ground. He sees the rivers and woods and villages, the herds of horses on the meadows, and he swoops hither and thither, drunk with joy.
He awoke, as he so often did, from a pain in the invisible leg. For a minute or so he held his breath and gritted his teeth until the worst of the agony was over. Then he rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. The air in the house seemed stale and close after the glorious freedom of his dream. After a while, he got up and hopped across to the window. He opened the shutters and breathed in the night air.
It was the time of the new moon, and the world outside should have been steeped in darkness. Instead he saw a strange glow in the sky, as if coming from a bright light higher up in the city. He leaned out of the window but since it faced northwards, he could not see in the direction of the glow. He could, however, hear the voices, cries and shouts like from some kind of commotion.
From the peg on the wall he took his long sheepskin coat and put it on, then he grabbed his crutches and opened the door. It was cold, a chilly March night, and his bare foot recoiled from the icy ground, but he only wanted to look around the corner of the house to find out what the matter was. Three steps with his crutches got him there and then he saw it. There was a fire somewhere in the upper part of the town. No, not just somewhere: near the market place.
Déoric was halfway up the street before he realized that he really ought to go back and get his boot. But too clear was the vision in his mind of the stable master's house, that house overlooking the market place that was never quite tidy and rarely quiet. His imagination painted flames licking out of the windows and the roof, the terrified faces of the children and Fana trapped, Fana burning... He cursed himself for being so slow as he hastened up the paved streets and the flights of stairs. Would that he could run! With nothing but the shine of the fire to light his path, it wasn't easy to find his way. More than once he caught his foot on a step and at one point it splashed into the water channel that came down from the spring at the hall. Niarl, of course, would have leapt up these steps two at a time, darkness or not. But Niarl was in all likeliness asleep in his bed and so it was up to Déoric to save Fana. He could hear the voices clearer now, they sounded urgent, but not frantic. The smell of smoke was in the air and here and there sparks trundled down on him.
When at last he reached the market place he saw at once that the stable master's house stood dark and still. It was a house on the opposite side of the square that was ablaze. The were some people milling about the place aimlessly, but most folk were busy sloshing pails of water at the fire or working hand in hand with their neighbours in the bucket chain. The people of Edoras, dwellers in wooden houses, knew the dangers of fire well and were used to dealing with it swiftly.
It didn't take Déoric long to spot Fana, standing next to her mother in the bucket chain and passing on pail after pail. Even while he watched from the shadows between two houses, he saw that the people were getting the better of the fire and the flames died down.
Later on, when he returned to his house and lay in his bed shivering, he realized how foolish his visions of rescuing her had been. For he had seen himself carrying her out of the inferno in his arms as if he were a real man walking on two legs.
This had to be the house that Léofred had described. It stood on the corner between the main street and the alley that wound down to the smithies. A wooden fence kept the chickens and a handful of children in the little yard between the two low wings of the building. Laundry flapped gently in the wind. Déoric approached the gate and, leaning on one crutch, struggled to open it. When they saw him, the children stopped in their play and wandered over. They gaped at him as he shuffled through the gate.
"One-leg! One-leg!" shouted one, a boy of maybe seven years. A tall girl, clearly the eldest of the group, smacked the boy on the head. "Hold your tongue!" Déoric looked straight ahead as if he hadn't heard and made his way to the house. Shortly after he had knocked, a large, ruddy-faced woman opened the door.
"Good morning," he said. "I am Déoric, scribe to Éomer King. He sends me to speak to Gléowine."
"Come on in," said the woman. "Father is in the kitchen. He doesn't move far from the fire these days. His joints give him trouble, you know, especially in this weather. He didn't do too badly up until the summertime, but then he took a turn for the worse. Too much rain this week, he can hardly stir. Last week was fair, of course, and he felt the better for it, but this week it's just terrible …"
In this manner she chattered on while she led him into a rather messy but comfortable kitchen. There were bunches of dried herbs hanging from the ceiling, a pot of stew bubbling on the hearth and rag dolls and building bricks scattered all over the floor. In an armchair by the fireplace sat, wrapped in a blanket, the old minstrel.
"This young man has come to visit you, Father," said the woman cheerfully. "His name is Déoric. Éomer King sends him. Pull up a chair, Déoric. I'll leave you two alone, for I have errands in the market."
With this she bustled out and closed the door. Déoric smiled at the old man. Gléowine's beard was still yellow, but his braids were almost white. His figure was tall and gaunt and his face deeply wrinkled. He stroked a ginger cat which lay curled up on his lap. Keen blue eyes looked at the visitor.
"Well, well," he said after Déoric had settled. "Young Éomer sends you? How is he conducting himself as king, you think?"
"I believe he is doing very well, Master Gléowine. People speak highly of him. You must have heard of the new House of Healing he has established."
"I have." Gléowine tickled the cat's chin. "A fine deed for a king in peaceful times. Whether it will sound good in a song is another matter."
"Oh, but he did fight valiantly for so many years! There is no reason to sneer at him."
"Indeed, indeed," replied Gléowine. "I am but teasing, young man. I know Éomer's worth fine well. What did he send you here for?"
"The king has plans to increase the honour of the Mark. He has seen the libraries of Gondor and now it irks him that we are known as a people without books. So he has given me a commission to copy a book he has borrowed from the King of Gondor about the history of our people. He wants it to be a thing we can be proud of. But the book from Gondor only tells a part of our stories, and there is much more in our lore that would be fit to be written down. Therefore the king asks that you would tell me such songs and tales as relate to the kings of old, so they could be added to the book."
Slowly, Gléowine shook his head. "I do not hold with this writing down business," he said. "It weakens the brain, it does. Once you have something down on parchment, your head thinks it might as well forget it. A minstrel keeps his memory sharp and he knows all his tales and songs by heart. What would he need to write them down for? I shall not give you any of my songs so that you can kill their spirit on your parchments."
The king commands it, Déoric wanted to say, but he thought better of it. There was no way to order about one as wise and dignified as the old minstrel. Instead he slipped his leather bag off his shoulders and opened it. He pulled out the contents and began to shuffle through the parchments. Something had prompted him this afternoon to bring all his completed work with him.
"Did you know that Éomer King hasn't found a new minstrel yet?" he said and casually put the sheet with the frontispiece on top of the pile.
"That is nothing to me," replied Gléowine. "My master is dead and buried. Let young Éomer see to his own affairs. My work is done."
"That is true, Master Gléowine," said Déoric. He placed his pile of parchments on the floor and as if by chance turned it so that the minstrel could see the frontispiece the right way up. The old man leaned forward and looked.
"I know nothing of the lore and whether it required you to train up a new minstrel," continued Déoric. "But I am sure nobody would make such demands on an old man like you. And if the songs and tales of our people should be forgotten in times to come, why should you care? Your work, as you say, is done. I heard it was a very fine song that you made for the funeral of the king."
There was no answer from Gléowine, but Déoric could see that the old man was eying his parchments with keen curiosity.
"Since you won't tell me your stories, let me tell one to you," said Déoric. "It is a story I heard when I was in Gondor. A very long time ago, far, far down in the South and West there lived a people in a beautiful city by a lake. Their houses were built from shiny white stone and surrounded by flourishing gardens. They covered their tables with fine cloths and ate from plates of gold and silver. Every man, woman and child was clothed in garments as bright as the rainbow. They rejoiced in everything beautiful, but most of all they excelled in song. From morning till nightfall their city was filled with clear voices, and their melodies were so lovely that the birds stopped their own songs and perched on the balconies to listen.
Among this people of singers there was one even more accomplished than the others. He was both a singer and a great poet and he invented words to the well-known tunes so beautiful they made people cry with joy. His name was Baruma. Every evening Baruma would sit down in his bower and carefully write down the words of the songs he had made that day. It was a thick book and he kept it locked up in a box made of silver and set with pearls, for he was a rich man, whose talents had won him wealth and renown.
One night, after Baruma had locked away his book, he stood by his window and looked out on the lake. And behold, there was a great uproar in the waters from a creature of the depth that rose in the middle of the lake, and it spread its wings, which were dark as the night and came and consumed the fair city with flame. And his coming was followed by a mighty wave that washed through the streets and so all the folk perished and Baruma with them.
Many hundred years later a king from the West came to the shore of the lake with his escort, and they found the ruins of the city that had been there. And they wept that such fair dwellings had been destroyed and deserted, but there among the rubble they found a silver box and when they forced it open, behold, there was the book that Baruma had written. So the king read the poems of Baruma and he was glad, for here was such beauty of words as he had never seen before. Thus it was that while all had perished, the words of Baruma survived and are sung to this very day."
While Déoric had talked, Gléowine had stretched out his arm and picked up the parchments. The ones filled with writing he flicked through, being unable to read, but on the pictures he dwelt with great interest. When Déoric had finished, Gléowine placed the pile of parchments on his lap and looked at the young man.
"I thank you for your story, Déoric," he said. "You have given me something to think about. But I am an old man and I cannot change my mind quickly. I ask that you would leave me now and come back tomorrow at the same hour. Then we can talk some more."
"As you wish, Master Gléowine," said Déoric. He rose from his chair, but when he held out his hand to take his parchments, the minstrel shook his head.
"Leave these with me," he said.
Déoric hesitated. He felt a strong desire to insist, even to snatch the parchments out of the old man's hands. What made him relent and take his leave without them, he hardly knew himself. On his way home through the darkening streets he tried to convince himself that he hadn't really lied. He hadn't said it was a true story, had he? However, he had claimed that he had heard it in Gondor, this wonderful story that was so eminently suited to making his point. He wanted to believe that there was nothing wrong with making up a new story, but he knew in his heart that he was a liar and that it would serve him right should Gléowine decide to cast his parchments into the fire.
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.