11. The Wisdom of the Minstrel
Déoric spent an uncomfortable night. In his restless sleep images of the burning house mingled with visions of his work being consumed by fire. He kept waking, even though for once he wasn't troubled by the ghost of his left leg. His mother, on seeing his face in the morning, asked for the cause of his distress, but he would not speak of it.
In the scribe's room, the book lay open at the page he had last copied. Déoric covered it with a cloth. He had a few minor scribing tasks to fulfil, and then he sat at the desk and stared at an empty piece of parchment. His head hurt and he was so tired that his eyes kept drooping. He lifted the cloth and made a half-hearted attempt at copying another page, but before he had even finished the first line he became aware that his hand was trembling. Léofred came and asked how he had fared with Gléowine, and Déoric gave as evasive an answer as he could. At last the afternoon drew to a close and the hour neared when he was expected at the old minstrel's house.
The children were in the yard again, busy with some noisy game, and again he paid them no heed. Gléowine's feisty daughter bade him in, but this time she led him not into the kitchen, but into a small parlour. The armchair had been brought through into this room and stood by the crackling fire. With more faith than sense, Déoric had hoped to find the old man sitting with the parchments on his knees, but that space was once more occupied by the ginger cat. There was no sign of his work anywhere else in the room. He sat down and braced himself for the inevitable.
"So, young Déoric," began Gléowine. "You are Féadred's son, I hear. A good man he was, your father, good horseman and even better story teller. But you will not ride, Déoric. Where was it you left your leg?"
"On the Pelennor," said Déoric, and for the first time he felt that the leg didn't matter so much, if only he could get his parchments back.
Gléowine stroked his beard with slow, deliberate movements.
"So, here you are, Déoric. A young man who cannot ride, but who can draw a horse like none I have ever seen. This book means a lot to you, does it?"
He lifted the cat off his lap and stood up. Déoric nodded but dared not look up. From the corner of his eye he saw the old man shuffling across the room and opening a chest.
"I asked my daughter to put your parchments away," Gléowine said. "I did not want the children to get their hands on them and spoil them. Last night I had a good look at your drawings. They are very good. You will be glad to have them back, eh?"
Déoric wanted to jump up and seize his work, but he realized suddenly that Gléowine had been putting him to the test. So he bit his knuckle and remained on his chair until the old man had shuffled back and thrust the parchments into his hands. Only then did he press them to his chest. Gléowine chuckled.
"I was flattered that you trusted me enough to leave them in my care, my lad. But it seems you have had a change of heart over night. Was it a bad conscience that made you think I would destroy your work?"
Déoric felt his cheek flushing with shame.
"I am sorry, Master Gléowine, that I tried to deceive you," he whispered.
"And so you should be," said Gléowine. "The next time you make up a story, pay some attention to what you are saying. Far to the South and West? There is nothing but water there, son, the wide, wide ocean. Well, well, it was a good story otherwise, and you have made your point. You seem to have inherited your father's talent. And you did make me think. I have to thank you for that."
Déoric raised his head at last.
"Then you are not angry with me?"
The old minstrel laughed.
"Angry? Why would I be angry?"
"Because I lied to you."
Gléowine smiled and stroked his beard again.
"That is a nasty word, lie. Are you sure you lied? What were you telling me? That I am just one man and will die like all other men before me, and sooner rather than later? That I would be a fool to let my songs and tales die with me, if there was a way to keep them alive for generations to come? That our realms come and go, but the written word outlasts the centuries? Was that not the truth, Déoric son of Féadred?"
"Yes, but – "
"And no less so, because you chose to clothe it in words that are pleasing and catch the imagination? I am no fool, Déoric, and you are no liar. I can see very clearly what you are, even if you cannot. Éomer King wishes this book to be written? Well, I can imagine that he does. He does not want to be outdone by his friend, the king of Gondor, if I am not mistaken. But let me tell you, I would say no to his face. He would not dare force an old man like me against my will.
You, Déoric, are another matter altogether. You are willing to pour your heart's blood into this book. You have it in you to make it a thing to be proud of. And you need it. You need it so your life can go on. Is that not so?"
"Yes, Master Gléowine," Déoric whispered.
"But you are thinking to yourself, here sits the old man, he is set in his ways and he will thwart me and will stick to his beliefs, outdated as they may be, for that is how old people are. Am I right?"
Déoric didn't know how to reply to this, so he only lowered his head and waited for the minstrel to continue. Gléowine chuckled.
"But some old people, you must know, Déoric, take delight in surprising the younger ones. It is a way to prove to ourselves that we are still alive. The whole world is changing. Why should I not change my mind? Why should I not listen to a plea as beautifully worded as yours? My limbs want to sit by the fire day in day out, but my mind moves where it will. Hear my words then, Déoric son of Féadred. I shall not send you away empty-handed. For every king of the Mark, from Eorl the Young to Théoden King, I have made a song. They are the work of a lifetime. Write them into your book and let me see them saved for my great-grandchildren. But you must prove that you can perform at least part of the minstrel's art. My songs are not for dictation. You must learn them by heart, before you write them down. I will recite them to you, but you are not allowed to write anything in this house. We will start with the song I made for Théoden King. Listen carefully."
And Déoric listened to the minstrel's clear, sonorous voice reciting a song of stark beauty that evoked images of ages past, of centuries rolling into one and culminating in that one glorious ride to the battlefield of Gondor.
Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day's rising
He rode singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
Hope he rekindled, and in hope ended;
Over death, over dread, over doom lifted
Out of loss, out of life, unto long glory. *
Day after day Déoric visited Gléowine, and after a while the children began to greet him and sometimes the cat waited for him by the door. Every afternoon, when he returned to the scribe's room, he recalled what he had heard in the morning and wrote it down before the words faded from his mind. His memory was less potent than he had hoped and more than once he had to ask the old man to recite again the song of the previous day. Then Gléowine chuckled and teased him that the scribe's craft had eaten his brains away, but without fail he would repeat his songs as often as Déoric needed to hear them.
It didn't take a fortnight before Déoric noticed how fond he had grown of the old man. When Gléowine was too ill to receive him for a few days, Déoric sat in the scribe's room and gloomily shuffled through his parchments. He had meanwhile copied the entire book and completed all but two of the royal portraits, missing only Folcwine and Aldor the Old. That gave him an idea. As soon as Gléowine was recovered, Déoric asked him if he would sit for the picture of the ancient king. The old minstrel was flattered to no small degree and arranged his braids and clothes carefully for the occasion.
Few pages were left to write now. Guntram the tanner, it had turned out, knew as little of binding as Deoric did. Hiltibrant had only ever written inventories and accounts, which were rolled up or stacked in boxes. So a letter was dispatched to Aldburg with urgent questions to Himlebed. Within the week the reply came, written in tiny letters on the back of the parchment. Deoric and Guntram pored over it, debating the thread, the leather, the comparative merits of wood or bone for the toggles. "I can do it," said Guntram, "leave it to me."
And so Deoric returned again to that house at the corner of two streets, went across the yard ducking under the washing line and into the parlour where the old minstrel sat by the fire. "Sing me again of Brego," he would say, "tell me again of Gram." And Gléowine sang, while Deoric listened, soaking up the words like the meadows soaked up the April showers.
The full force of spring was now unfolding in the land. The grass was lush and green and glittered in the sunshine after each tender shower of rain. The snow melted in the mountains and the river came down the slopes with a mighty roar and sprays of white. Outside the gates, where it poured into the plain, the willow trees were in leaf again and all over the city, wherever there was a patch of grass, a tree or a backyard full of shrubs, the spring green shone brightly with a vigour that suffered nothing dead. Everything with roots was rising, spreading, opening, and everything on legs was breathing with renewed strength. Even Dirlayn's tiny garden was filled with the scent of fresh growth. She had milked her cow, seen to her chickens and then spent most of the morning tending her herbs, which were already having to fight against the hardy weeds, and she had enjoyed the sunshine warming her neck and the twittering of the swallows, which were diving into and out of their nests under the eaves of the house. With reluctance she had come back inside, but there were certain things she needed to do if she wanted to have a stew ready for Déoric and herself in the evening. She was just pouring the milk from the bucket into a jug and setting it on the table when she heard a knock at the door. Before she could reach it, the door opened and Fana poked in her head.
"Dirlayn? Can I come and talk with you?"
"Sure, come in," said Dirlayn and offered her a chair. "How is your mother? Are the boys keeping her on her toes?"
"My mother is well, thank you. The boys are much calmer now that father is taking them to the stables most days."
Fana sat down, leaned her elbows on the table and rested her chin on her hands. Dirlayn seated herself on the other chair and wiped her hands on her apron. Their eyes met and they smiled at each other, but then Fana looked away out of the window. She rubbed the back of her hand with the palm of the other.
"Dirlayn," she began. "I'm sure you know why I've come to you. I … I am so unhappy about Déoric; I don't know what to do any more. Niarl said I had to give him time, but I've waited and waited and waited and nothing has changed. I don't understand, that is, unless… please tell me, does Déoric have a sweetheart in Gondor he is pining for?"
The older woman raised her eyebrows.
"Whatever makes you think that?"
"Oh, they say that when the healer came from Mundburg, he was expecting someone else."
"He was," said Dirlayn kindly. "He was expecting an older woman, who had tended him in the Houses of Healing and who had been like a mother to him. Déoric had much hoped to see her again. Her name is Merilwen, and he thinks of her with respect and gratitude, for he believes he would not have lived, had it not been for her care. Ask him about her, and he will tell you how wonderful the Houses of Healing are."
"But Déoric doesn't tell me anything these days, and you know that," said Fana quietly. She sighed. "I know there haven't been any promises between us, not with the war going on and all, but I had always thought it was understood... that is, there seemed to be no doubt ... everyone was assuming..."
She twirled one of her braids around a finger. Dirlayn looked at her sitting on the edge of the seat, small, forlorn, and her heart went out to the girl. She drew over her own chair and put her arm around the younger woman's shoulders. As if this gesture had cracked the eggshell of her restraint, Fana began to sob. Dirlayn pulled her closer and stroked her hair.
"Don't cry, dear. I'm glad you've come to me. You and I, we need to set things to right. He's being such a fool, that boy. I've tried to tell him he should go and speak to you, but he will not heed me. He has got it into his head, I know not how, that you won't want him anymore now he's a cripple."
Fana looked up at her and when she blinked, two tears rolled down her cheeks.
"But it's only a leg. Why should I mind that?"
"Oh, come now, Fana, can you really not see how that irks him? Can you not remember how proudly he rode out, expecting to return with honour and with booty to lay at your feet? The dreams he must have had about riding into the city with all the glow of victory? Instead they brought him back on a cart. Do you not see how his whole world was shattered? It would be a grievous loss for anybody, but to a soldier, a rider of the Mark - he will never ride in the king's guard now and he thought at first that was the end of his life."
"Oh, I know that," said Fana and sniffled. "I know that he was hurt and angry and desperate. But why would he not let me comfort him? And now, now that all is going so well for him, why does he still avoid me?"
"Men have strange notions sometimes, Fana. The young men in particular think that you girls want a hero. I remember Féadred, when we were courting, he was forever telling me about the deeds of his sword, and he didn't see that while I loved to hear his voice, I would rather have had him tell a story. He was a good storyteller, but he didn't think that would impress me. Déoric is the same. He must have thought that victory in battle would earn him your heart."
"But it was already his. How could he not know that?" She wiped her face with the back of her hand and pulled something out of her pocket.
"He gave me this," she said and handed Dirlayn a jagged stone. In its sandy surface was imprinted the spiral shape of a creature long dead. "He found it one day when we were climbing in the mountains. We were always together, walking, climbing, running ... oh - "
She broke off and hid her face in her hands. "What a fool I have been."
"There now," said Dirlayn and stroked the girl's hair again. "Not as much of a fool as he is. But do you see now why he doesn't like to be reminded of those times you've had together?"
Fana nodded and rubbed her eyes some more. "But what shall I do?" she said miserably.
Dirlayn sighed and stood up. She walked towards the window and looked out on the plain. A gentle wind had picked up and tousled the willow trees by the river.
"He pines for you, Fana, I am sure of it. It's his stupid pride that keeps him away from you. If he could but set that aside for one moment, he would be at your house before you could wink, and I don't have to tell you that nothing would please me more than seeing the two of you together. But he can be so stubborn, that lad, and I fear if you just keep waiting, you might wait forever. He doesn't know how to make the first step or how to swallow his pride. Do you think you could?"
She turned back towards the room and looked at Fana with a silent plea in her eyes.
"Oh, you know me," said the girl. "I'm not a proud one. I only want him back. I thought I had made the first step quite a few times, but he always withdrew and turned away from me. That's why I started to think he had found somebody else. Are you quite certain he hasn't?"
"I'm sure I would know if he had," replied Dirlayn. "He talks to me, always has since he was little, and he told me so much about his time away. If he had lost his heart there, he would not keep it secret from me. No, Fana, it is you he cares about, just like he has ever since that summer when you danced together at the fair and you had your blue frock on. Can you make him see that this leg of his has nothing to do with how you feel about him?"
"I don't know. I will try." She rose and smoothed her hair. "I'd better go now."
"Stay and wait till he comes home."
"No. No, I'd rather not see him just now. I need to think things over a bit."
"Don't think for too long," said Dirlayn. "It pains me to see you both so unhappy, and no need for it. The sooner you can get him to his senses, the better."
Fana smiled, just a little.
"I hope you are right. Thank you for your kindness, Dirlayn."
When the girl had left, Dirlayn sank down on her chair and took the jug into her hands. She moved it here and there around the table, then she opened one of her tresses and braided it again. Eventually she got up and went into the kitchen to see to the stew.
By the end of April Déoric had heard and recorded all but one of the seventeen songs Gléowine had promised to teach him. Since their time of working together was drawing to an end, he prepared a present for the old man, not as a parting gift, for he had every intention to keep visiting him from time to time, but as a token of gratitude. Therefore he made a careful copy of the picture of Aldor the Old, for which Gléowine had served him as a model.
It was a wet morning with low hanging clouds and rain dripping off the eaves of every house, but Déoric approached the minstrel's house with good cheer, because he looked forward to seeing the old man's pleasure when he received his gift.
Gléowine sat by the fire as usual, a fur blanket on his knees and the inevitable ginger cat by his side. A chair was already waiting for Déoric and he settled in it, preparing to chat for a while before the work began, as was their custom. When Gléowine had finished lamenting the state of the weather, Déoric opened his bag and took out the parchment.
"This is for you, Master Gléowine, as a token of thanks for what you have given me."
The minstrel reached out and took the gift. A smile illuminated his face when he looked at it.
"Well, Déoric, you are hard to match in courtesy! What shall become of my modesty, when I see myself in the image of a king, I wonder?"
"I thought you would like to have this," said Déoric.
"And so I do," replied Gléowine. "I thank you. You're a good lad, Déoric, and we should all be grateful that you were one of those that came home."
Déoric's face clouded over. He sighed and stared into the fire for a while.
"Sometimes I feel like I haven't really come home," he said, "as if there is something I am still waiting for."
Gléowine stroked his beard. The ginger cat slunk over to Déoric's chair and sat on its haunches, the tip of its tail flicking back and forth.
"Do you have a sweetheart, Déoric?" asked the old man suddenly.
He tried to make his voice seem indifferent, but didn't quite succeed.
"Who was she?" asked Gléowine.
"Elfanhild, the stable master's daughter, whom most people call Fana."
"And what happened?"
Déoric sighed again and looked down at his foot.
"Ah," said Gléowine. "She wanted a rider and not a scribe."
"I don't know. I didn't wait to find out."
The old man raised his eyebrows and leaned forward.
"You rejected her, so she could not reject you?"
Déoric didn't reply. He bit his knuckle. The cat watched him in silent vigilance.
"What did she say?"
"Did you speak to her at all since it happened?" asked Gléowine .
"Not much. She came to my house a few times after I first came back, but I asked my mother to send her away. I've happened upon her in the town sometimes, though I've tried to avoid her as much as I could. One day she came up to the stable yard when I was sketching there and we talked about drawing. But I didn't stay long. I couldn't … I couldn't bear to have her see me like this."
"Hmm." Gléowine settled back in his armchair and stroked his beard thoughtfully.
"But if you finished your book," he said eventually, "you would maybe find the courage to look at her again?"
Déoric shook his head.
"She walks in the meadows with my friend Niarl now."
Having watched him for long enough, the cat suddenly leapt onto Déoric's thigh, rubbed her head against his arm and started to purr. His hand began to stroke her, enjoying the touch of the soft, silky fur. Gléowine got up and put another log into the fire. A pungent smell filled the room.
"Well, Déoric," he said, "I will tell you this much: You are not a liar, but you are a fool. Since when do the women of the Eorlingas shun their injured warriors? Since when do our young men turn away their sweethearts at the door and abandon them without a word? Do not pretend that you are the helpless victim of a cruel fate. It is not your missing leg that has lost you your girl, but your stubborn head!"
Déoric hugged the cat and watched the sparks flying from the fireplace. The sudden accusation had taken him by surprise. He wanted to protest, but his moment of anger was fleeting and quickly followed by an uncomfortable feeling that the old man might have spoken the truth. He cleared his throat.
"Even if you were right, Master Gléowine, it's too late now."
The old man returned to his chair and slumped down heavily.
"And this Niarl is your friend?" he asked.
"Yes," replied Déoric with a hint of defiance." The best friend I've ever had save one, who didn't return from the battle at Mundburg."
Gléowine shook his head.
"I do not understand you young people these days. Your best friend takes your girl away from you, and you continue to call him friend? I tell you, if Swidhelm had ever tried to sweet-talk my Ebba, I would have had some things to say to him!"
"It wasn't like that. And I have no right to complain, because I did wrong by him first."
"Oh, did you now?"
"Yes," said Déoric and blushed with shame. "I promised him to go on an arduous errand with him, and then I didn't, because I was angry." He paused, hugged the cat again and then continued: "I've been angry a lot, and sometimes I've taken it out on those who least deserved it. I've just felt so hard done by..."
Whether it was the old man's quizzical look or the purring of the cat or something else, Déoric didn't know, but he felt to his embarrassment that his eyes welled up with tears. Gléowine's mouth twitched as if he had seen something amusing that had quite escaped Déoric's notice.
"So, this is how it is then? You have made a mess of things and now you do not know how to set matters right again. And you feel sorry for yourself, because you blame it all on the leg and not on your obstinacy. Ah, poor you! It is so very convenient, is it not? If anything goes wrong in your life, well, it is the leg's fault, so you do not have to ask yourself what you might have done wrong. A fine muddle you have got yourself into. What are you going to do now?"
Déoric quickly wiped his eyes with his sleeve.
"I don't know," he said miserably. "What is your advice, Master Gléowine?"
The minstrel chuckled.
"My advice, since you are asking for it," he said, "is that you complete your work on the book and on your drawings. It is the one thing you have got right. Stick to that and see how it will all turn out. If you should find, by and by, that there are people to whom you owe an apology, well, try not to be too pig-headed about it. Now listen to the song I shall sing about Folcwine King."
He leaned back and with his eyes closed began to recite:
"Proud leader of a proud and powerful people
War he waged in the west with mighty hand
Drove to despair Dunland's dark enemies
Restored the rich and rolling pastures of the Riddermark
But sorrow came, when south his sons were riding
With ardent aim to come to Gondor's aid..."
*ROTK, Many Partings