2. The Kings of the Mark Return
The bright green of the new leaves faded into a darker hue as the spring was gently gliding into summer. April had sent many showers and May some, but in June the puddles dried up under a diligent sun and by the end of the month the footsteps of the people were followed by little clouds of dust in the lesser parts of the city that weren't paved with stones. Straggling soldiers were still returning to Edoras from far afield, some with trophies and proud tales to tell, others weary and wounded and unwilling to speak. One morning in July, when Déoric was slowly making his way up the flight of paved steps that led to the market, he heard his name called.
"Déoric! Déoric, my friend! How wonderful to see you!"
He turned, and there, leaping up the steps two at a time, was a young man with reddish braids and a deeply tanned face. When the man drew level with Déoric, he seized him in an embrace that nearly knocked them both off their feet. Then he held him at arm's length and beamed into the lean face with the sharp nose and the angular chin.
"I thought you were dead! I could find no trace of you after the battle. What happened?"
Déoric leaned heavily on his crutches and pressed his lips together. Then he sighed.
"Those Easterlings swing a savage axe, Niarl. I would have been dead, but I was lucky that some men took me to the city and into the Houses of Healing." He paused and shook his head, then shifted one crutch to the other hand, so he had an arm free for hugging his friend again.
"I thought you were dead. What took you so long?"
"Oh, this and that. I never made it into the White City. Right after the battle, we were caught up in chasing some orcs down to the river with a group of soldiers from Gondor. We encamped near that ruined city of theirs. And then we set off for Mordor, and it was all to be very important and heroic, but I didn't actually get there and ended up helping to drive away the orcs from an island in the river. And then..." He broke off, when he saw Déoric swaying. "But that is not a tale to be told in the streets. Let us go to the tavern and have a mug of beer like we used to do."
Déoric's hand touched the pouch by his belt. Noticing his friend's embarrassed look, Niarl continued: "And I shall treat you, for I have just this morning received my pay from the treasury. Éomer King has not been miserly. Come! Let's celebrate my return."
When they were both seated at one of the long, bare, wooden tables of the Shield of Emnet, each with a pewter mug in front of him, Niarl related in full the tale of his adventures. At the retaking of Cair Andros he had been wounded and forced to spend a couple of weeks in the camp curing a nasty slash to the head and several broken ribs. By the time he had recovered, the company he had arrived with had moved on and he found himself joining a patrol that was on the way to Ithilien. There he had helped to rout the scattered remains of the armies of Harad and pursued them far into the South beyond the River Poros.
"Look at this," he said and pulled from his belt a long curved dagger. He handed it to Déoric, who took it gingerly. The blade was of bronze and curiously engraved with swirly patterns around the edges and the shape of a snake along the centre.
"A handsome weapon, isn't it?" continued Niarl. "The fellow who owned this regretted pulling it on me. I'd slaughtered plenty of orcs before, but he was the first man I killed. It wasn't pretty, believe me. Still, it was their own choice to follow the Dark Lord."
He put the dagger away and took a deep draught of his beer.
"It took me quite a while," he said, "coming back up the Harad Road. There were still skirmishes here and there. I kept to whoever was travelling north, and I was lucky at last to meet with Elfhelm's éored near the Emyn Arnen and join them for the rest of the way."
"Was Halol not with you then?" asked Déoric quietly.
Niarl lowered his head and looked at his hands.
"No," he said. "Him I did find on the Pelennor. The orcs hadn't left much even for burying, but I knew his shield and his armour. I am sorry, Déoric."
For a while, neither of them said a word, and the voices and noises of the tavern drifted into their little corner of the room.
"Does his mother know?" said Déoric at length.
"Not yet, unless someone else has brought her the news. I mean to go and see her tonight. Will you come with me? It would be less daunting to me if you were there."
"I shall come." Déoric bit the knuckle of his second finger. At last Niarl looked up from his hands.
"I thank you, my friend. Let's drink to his memory."
They raised their drinks. "To Halol," they said and drained the tankards.
They sat in silence again, until Niarl waved to the inn keeper and ordered another round of beer. Over their second mug they began to speak again.
"You haven't told me your tale yet," said Niarl.
"There isn't much to tell," replied Déoric. "They patched me up as best they could in the Houses of Healing and sent me home on the first train of carts that went north. I've been here since the end of April, doing nothing much but learning to walk with the crutches. The stump is still tender, but thankfully not infected. Mother was distraught at first, but she has calmed down now. She is still selling herbs in the market, but we never expected having to live on that in the long run. One of our chickens died, so there's only two left. We still have the cow. Mother milks her now, because I can't carry the pail up the hill."
"And how are things with you and Fana?"
With a flick of his hand, Déoric tossed one of his braids over his shoulder. He took a swig of beer.
"We don't see each other much anymore."
"Oh. I am sorry to hear that," said Niarl. "What happened?"
Déoric snorted. "Nothing. I'm just not the same man anymore."
"Indeed, you are not. Your beard is grown thicker."
At this, Déoric smashed down his tankard and the beer splashed onto the table.
"For goodness sake, Niarl, don't play the fool! You have eyes in your head. I am a cripple!"
"And Fana minds that?"
"I'm not going to wait to find out," shouted Déoric. "I am not going to be made the laughing stock of the town. Who wants a cripple? Halol has drawn the better lot!" He grabbed his crutches and hobbled out of the room. Niarl made no attempt to stop him.
It was Éowyn, Lady of Rohan, who first saw them coming. The high window of her bedchamber looked to the North, where the road emerged from behind the mountain slope. It was still morning and the sun had only just climbed high enough to rise over the ridge and stretch out its rays towards the city. Later in the day it would be fierce and even oppressive, but at this hour it was still pleasant, touching the summer landscape with a caress of warmth and light. The river, low at this time of year, curved to the East and rippled along under the willow trees to meet the distant Entwash. There between the lush meadows, following the course of the river on its eastern bank, the road wound among the last thin wisps of morning mist.
Éowyn shaded her brow with her hand and strained her eyes to make sure that the travellers she saw approaching were indeed the ones she was expecting. The foremost rider carried the green banner with the white horse and behind him came a cart, flanked by two riders on either side. Among the large group that followed she could discern only Gandalf, clad in white and riding the mighty steed Shadowfax, and some small riders on ponies, whom she guessed to be the Halflings. Many others rode there, some thirty or forty altogether, and she saw other banners she recognized: The silver swan on blue and the white tree on black.
She stepped back from the window. With short, quick movements she smoothed down her gown. Her maid had ordered her hair earlier, and she felt it neatly braided and bound with ribbons around her head. When she looked down she saw that the buckle on one of her shoes had become undone. She knelt to fix it and fumbled in her impatience. Her arms still troubled her at times, both the left, the shield arm that had been broken, and the right, which had held the sword that pierced the witch king. She paused and breathed deeply until the tingling in her fingers faded. Then she fastened the buckle, left her chamber and descended the stair.
The living quarters at Meduseld were situated on three floors by the entrance, so that those entering the great hall did so through a wide corridor some thirty feet long. It was into this corridor that the staircase opened, and when Éowyn emerged she was greeted by the guards and servants waiting for her there.
Éowyn turned to a tall, middle-aged woman in a brown dress and apron.
"Is all prepared, Brandwyn?"
The woman curtseyed and answered: "All is prepared as you ordered, Lady Éowyn. The main street has been adorned with banners and flowers all the way down to the gate. The oxen are roasting on the spit and we have nigh a hundred loaves in the ovens. The fruit pickers haven't come back from the orchards yet, but we expect them here any moment. I have had sleeping quarters prepared for the guests and the tables are set."
"You did well, Brandwyn," said Éowyn. She stepped out through the great doors and stood on the platform between the two stone-hewn seats that flanked the broad stair leading down to the city. More folk were assembled here. When they saw her coming out of the hall, they turned and looked at her expectantly. Éowyn raised her head and straightened her shoulders.
"Now let the heralds blow their fanfare," she said, "for the Kings of the Mark are coming home."
Edoras was indeed prepared for the return of the kings. Garlands of flowers hung from the eaves of the houses along the main street, green and white banners flapped gently in the breeze and the whole city was abuzz with excitement. Dirlayn and Déoric were among the last to arrive and in some places the street was already lined with people four and five rows deep. They found a space by a low wall overhung by an old plum tree, where the crowds were thinner. The street was narrow here and only one row of people stood on the far side, while on the near side folk were sitting on the wall. A chubby woman rose from her seat when she saw Dirlayn and Déoric approaching.
"Come here, Déoric, my lad, and sit down. I've been sitting here half an hour already and need to stretch my legs. You'll keep my seat nice and warm for me, won't you?"
Déoric blushed and hesitated, but then he thanked the woman, sat down on the wall and placed his crutches on the ground before him. People on either side moved up to make space for Dirlayn. The chubby woman crossed the street and stood among the other spectators. Moments later the sound of many hooves was heard approaching. Soon the procession came into sight. The foremost rider bore the green banner and when his trumpet rang out it was answered by a fanfare from high up in the city.
The people in the streets bowed their heads as the bier of Théoden King rolled past them. A small figure dressed in the garb of an esquire of the Mark sat on the cart. He looked around with keen eyes and "Déoric!" he suddenly cried out, "I cannot stop, but I shall see you later!"
"That was Meriadoc, the Perian I told you about," said Déoric to Dirlayn. Eyes turned to him for an instant, but there was no time for the people to wonder much how Déoric had made this stranger's acquaintance. For the cart was followed by many riders of fair appearance and foreign attire, the likes of which most people in Edoras had not seen in their lifetime. The young king of Rohan was greeted by a chorus of cheers.
"The white tree on black is the banner of Gondor," said Déoric to his mother. He had to shout to make himself heard above the many voices. "King Elessar is the tall, dark one beside Éomer King. They say he has the hands of a healer. And there next to Gandalf is Lord Faramir on the black stallion."
He felt a mixture of pride and embarrassment when the Steward of Gondor greeted him with a small nod. There, however, ended Déoric's knowledge of the guests, and he gazed like the others at the knights and their banners and the Halflings on their ponies and even more so on the elven folk with their shimmering gowns and ageless faces. It was as if tales and songs had suddenly come to life among them.
"An elf and a dwarf riding together on a horse of the Mark," said a man to Dirlayn's left. "What is the world coming to?"
"Better times, I hope," replied Dirlayn. "Consider that orcs on wargs might be prowling the city now, had it not been for the deeds of these people."
"Very well," said the man. "Though I dare say we have all done our bit, and your lad not the least. Yet we won't see him riding up the street with banners and fanfares."
"We won't see him riding at all anymore," whispered Dirlayn, "but I beg you not to say such things in his earshot."
The man raised his hands defensively and got up to leave. The procession had passed and the crowd was dispersing. Some returned to their daily business, others followed the guests up to the higher parts of the city. Déoric and Dirlayn remained where they sat and watched the people go by.
"Some illustrious folk you know these days, Déoric," came a voice from above their heads. Déoric did not look up. He felt the heat rising in his face.
"Aren't you too old for this kind of mischief, Fana?" called Dirlayn.
"Oh, you know how I like to climb," the voice replied, and an instant later a young woman dropped from the lowest branch onto the ground next to them. She had blonde hair like most of her people and her eyes under the sandy lashes were blue, but she was small and dainty and looked much younger than her eighteen years. Her little snub nose was covered in tiny freckles.
"I even used to climb that great willow tree down by the stream, before the storm blew it over. Déoric did, too, didn't you, Déoric?"
Déoric turned aside and bit his knuckle. He felt Dirlayn push her foot against his, but he remained silent and stared at the ground.
"Will you come and take our broth with us?" he heard his mother say.
"No, thank you, Dirlayn. I must go and help Mama with the little ones. They are wholly out of hand today with all this excitement. Will you be coming to the merrymaking later on, Déoric?"
"No, I have ... things to do," he said. He was aware how weak that sounded. Before she could begin to question him, he picked up his crutches and made for home.
Dirlayn and Déoric watched the funeral of Théoden King from the bench in front of their house. They saw the procession emerge from the gate, led again by the green banner of Rohan. The bier of the king was borne on the shoulders of his guards and many folk followed both on foot and on horseback. Thus they came to the barrow-field, where a fine tomb had been erected by the stonemasons of Edoras in the last months, and there Théoden was put to rest. Then many sturdy men took their shovels and raised a mound over the tomb, and it was covered in fresh turf. When at last this work was finished, the Riders of the King's House came forwards on their white steeds and rode around the mound. Fragments of song were carried up the hill to where Dirlayn and Déoric sat.
"There lies Théoden King," said Dirlayn. "For years it seemed he was but sleeping on his throne, but then he awoke and rose to glory. May his last sleep be peaceful."
Déoric knew that the sadness in her voice was not only for the old king, but also for her husband, and his thoughts went from the fresh mound to another, somewhere out in the wide grassy fields of the Mark, he knew not where.
Long after Dirlayn had gone into the house to see to their meal, Déoric remained sitting on the bench. He looked down to where the mounds were covered in green grass and studded with simbelmynë, nine on the left and eight now on the right. The song of a lark carried over from the barrow-field, the singer nothing but a tiny speck in the blue sky. The sun stood in the south, behind the White Mountains and the shadows were short at this time of day. On the low stone wall that marked the edge of their small kitchen garden a little green and brown lizard basked in the sunshine. It was panting in the heat, its flanks moving quickly. The stones had soaked up the midday sun and would cling to it while the day lasted, unlike those other stones that were now cooling under their blanket of turf into the endless chill of death.
Déoric put his hand on the bench beside him and felt the warmth of the rough wood. Thyme and rosemary that grew among the roots and cabbages scented the air. He drew a deep breath, filling his lungs with as much air as they would hold. When he moved his head, the lizard scurried away.