The Measure of a Man: 6. Horses

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6. Horses

Under a pallid sky the dewy meadows lay grey and cold. Fana had been milking her mother's cows, which were grazing in the communal field outside the city gate. She was about to shoulder the yoke that would help her carry the heavy pails back up to her house, when she heard a rider approaching on the road. Soon she discerned the horseman and recognized the reddish braids and good-natured face of Niarl.

"Ho, there," he called and brought his horse to a halt. "Good morning, Fana!"

"Good morning to you, too. You're out early."

"Just for pleasure. I like an early ride sometimes. What about you, you're a bit late with milking. Little brothers have held you up again, eh? Here, let me help you with this."

He dismounted and lifted the yoke over the horse's saddle.

"You're going to spill the milk," said Fana.

"No, I won't," replied Niarl. He walked beside the girl and led the horse by the bridle, using the other hand to steady the yoke. "I'm not in the habit of spilling. I'm a careful kind of man, do you not know that? I've lived for twenty years in this world without mishap or accident."

Fana laughed. "I don't believe it. I'm sure your mother could tell me about plenty of spillages you've been scolded for. Anyway, you shouldn't make it sound as if people are to blame for their accidents."

His face turned serious.

"I know what you're thinking. But injury in battle is not an accident, Fana, and it's not through any merit of mine that I returned unharmed, or through any fault of his that Déoric didn't. Don't tell him I said anything like that."

"There's no danger of that," said Fana with a sigh. "He doesn't talk to me anymore."

"Still? That's too bad. Never mind, let him sulk a while. I haven't seen him much lately. He's been in a huff with me, too, though I have known him since he was born. But I think he will get over all that foolishness soon."

"What do you mean?" She glanced at the pails. The milk was sloshing about with every step the horse took, but right enough nothing was spilled.

"Oh, this whole thing about his leg has been a big shock for him. It will take him a while to come to terms with it. He went out a Rider of Rohan and he came back a cripple on a cart. It's not the kind of fate a man endures gracefully."

"Well, I know that, of course. And I rushed to his house as soon as I heard, but he wouldn't see me. I wanted to soothe him and comfort him, and he just wouldn't let me into the house. Dirlayn was quite distressed. I don't understand it. Of course he would be upset about his leg, but what does that have to do with me?"

Niarl shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe nothing, maybe everything. Coming home to be soothed and comforted by you was certainly not what he had expected when he left for battle. Especially not after all that mountain climbing and suchlike that you two were always up to. Give him time. Now that he's been taken on as a scribe, I'm sure he'll soon feel better. And who knows, it might be the making of him. I've sometimes thought that he wasn't really cut out to be a soldier. Words might suit him much better than weapons."

Fana looked at her shoes while she walked.

"That's not what he's been dreaming of. He always said to me that he wanted to be like his father."

"I knew his father and so did you! He was a good soldier, no doubt, but did you ever hear him tell a story? Of course you did. The man would have made as good a minstrel as any I've ever heard."

"Well, yes. You may be right. And in that case he might be still alive. But I don't think orcs ask if someone would rather sing songs by the fireside."

"Ah, but those times are over! What's left of these foul creatures will soon be routed from the face of Middle-earth. And then it'll be the likes of me that will find themselves at a loose end, while Déoric will be all snug and prosperous in his scribe's alcove. Believe me, Fana, it won't be long before he knows his good fortune, and then he'll stop sulking and all will be well."

"I hope you're right."

"Of course I am. I am always right! Hey, is that a tear that I see on your cheek? Don't be silly, girl, just have a little patience."

He reached out with a wiry hand and wiped the tear off her face.

They had nearly reached the gates. The sun was rising. From the bench outside his house, Déoric watched them, two figures the size of his thumbnail. He sat as long as they remained in sight. Then he grabbed his crutches and made his way up to the Golden Hall.

oOoOo

The great hall was deserted, for it was still early. A servant was only just preparing the fire in the big hearth at the centre of the room. Déoric passed under the banners with the horses that didn't look quite right and along the patterned pillars through the door at the back and into the scribe's room. He opened the shutters to let in the morning light and then slumped down on the chair in front of his desk.

And there it was - the book belonging to King Elessar. Déoric stretched out a finger and touched the edge of the front cover. The leather felt cool and slightly rough and a faint dusty smell emanated from it. He tried to put aside the thoughts about Fana and Niarl and was surprised to find that he could indeed do so, once he began to think of the man who had ridden into Edoras next to Éomer King.

King Elessar. He had seen the king once before, in Gondor, just a glance of a tall, dark man walking past in the Houses of Healing. He hadn't looked like a king then, just like a strong, weary, weather-beaten soldier, but the women had been whispering. Elfstone… banner unfurled… Mithrandir… from the north… sword that was broken … hands of a healer … Later, when he had come into Edoras with all the other noble guests, he had looked different, sterner and yet fairer. He was indeed the king of the ancient realm of Gondor, a country much older than Rohan, with wisdom and crafts that reached back in time to a depth that Déoric could barely imagine. Long before he had seen it with his own eyes from the window of a sick chamber, Himlebed, his uncle, had told him much about the city of Mundburg: A city with fair stone dwellings and skilfully wrought metalwork, with lush gardens and with a house full of books. They wrote books in Gondor, books of poetry and books of the tales of the elder days and they even thought it worthwhile to write a book about their neighbours, who possessed not the skills and the learning for such an endeavour.

And now Éomer King had asked him, Déoric son of Féadred, to copy this book. The full extent of the magnitude and the honour of the undertaking suddenly overwhelmed him and for a while he sat, awestruck, staring at the wondrous artefact. Writing lists and inventories was one thing, but to undertake so fine and splendid a work was another matter altogether. He had neither the skill nor the experience - he had not the confidence to tackle this task. Who was he but a cripple who couldn't ride in the kings' guard and whose girl had deserted him for another?

Déoric bit his knuckle. He was at the point of taking the book back to Éomer and confessing himself unable to fulfil the king's request, when it occurred to him to search his heart for his father's advice. Féadred had ever been a guide to Déoric, giving counsel to him in every predicament from the fullness of his experience. What would his father say to him now?

Never believe your foe cannot be overcome. The moment you relinquish your hope of prevailing, you are a beaten man. Take courage and look sharp!

Did not this apply here, too? Wasn't this the key to accomplishing anything, be it taming a horse or climbing a mountain –

No, better not think of climbing mountains. But, yes, he would be a fool to give up before he even tried. He needed to make himself think that he could do it. Courage, of course, wouldn't be much use here, what he needed was care and method and poise.

At last Déoric picked up a goose feather and cut a quill with all the care and skill he could muster. He pulled a piece of parchment towards himself and looked at it, trying to figure out the best place for putting the title. Then he shook his head, put it aside again and seized his wax tablet and stylus. Before he would submit a single word to parchment, he would have to think of the design of the letters he was going to use. His usual hand, clear and even though it was, would not suffice for this purpose. He began drawing a series of letters on the tablet, considering the tilt of the lines, the angles, the little adornments that would make each one a work of art. All morning and halfway through the afternoon, he employed himself in this manner. At last he was satisfied, and with great care he wrote on the first piece of parchment in inch high letters: The Kings of Rohan. It took him nigh on an hour, meticulously measuring out the spaces and painting each letter evenly and without smudging. When at last the ink was dry, he looked at his work with satisfaction. Then he covered it with a cloth and nodded to himself. This was indeed no minor commission. Give us something to be proud of, the king had said. If he was going to make this book, it was going to be magnificent.

oOoOo

Déoric was in the treasury with Léofred, writing down accounts to the older man's dictation, when Niarl strode in. The king's advisor looked at him, startled, but the young man smiled and quickly said:

"Do not be alarmed, Master Léofred. My name is Niarl, and I am a friend of Déoric's. His name seems to be a password into the Golden Hall these days, for when I mentioned that I wanted to see him, the guards let me in without further question".

"They are very neglectful then," said Léofred with a frown, "and I shall have to speak to them." He cast a questioning look at Déoric.

"Niarl has newly been assigned to the éored of Éomer King, Master Léofred," said the scribe. "He has been my friend since we were children." If there was a touch of coldness in his voice, Léofred took no notice of it, for he turned again to Niarl and said more kindly: "And on what errand have you come to see Déoric? Should you not be getting ready to ride out east with the king to his campaign with King Elessar?"

"Indeed, we mean to ride this very hour. I have come to say farewell," replied Niarl. "Please do not reprimand those guards. I was speaking in jest. I came through the door beside the king, who has given me leave to see my friend."

Léofred's face softened. "Well, Déoric," he said, "go with him then and see him off."

"But we haven't finished the accounts yet," said Déoric.

"The accounts can wait till this afternoon."

Déoric looked down at his parchments and bit his knuckle.

"I am giving you half the day off, Déoric," said Léofred. "Away with you, before I change my mind."

He handed Déoric the crutches and ushered him out the door. Niarl smiled at the king's advisor.

"Thank you, Master Léofred!" he boomed and put an arm around Déoric's shoulders.

"I can't walk with you holding on to me," said Déoric.

Out in the stable yard Déoric saw the familiar bustle of men getting ready to ride. There were horses everywhere, their hooves were clattering on the stone slabs and the smell of them hung over the place thick as fog. Déoric sat down on the edge of a feeding trough and leaned his crutches against the wall. He knew many of the men, some had been friends of his father, but they were all too busy to give him more than a friendly nod. After a while Niarl came through the stable doors leading his fallow horse. Déoric watched him adjusting the stirrups and straightening the bridle. Then Niarl left the animal tethered to an iron ring in the wall and came over to where Déoric was sitting.

"I'm not too keen on this adventure," he said and sat down beside Déoric. "Routing orcs I don't mind, but we are likely to deal with Easterlings on the other side of the Great River. I don't savour killing other men."

"You should be glad that you can ride," said Déoric.

"Oh, is that what the glum face is all about?" He placed his hand on Déoric's knee. "Listen, my friend, you've been lucky."

"Lucky! How can you call this luck?" cried Déoric and pointed to the sad stump that ended just two hand-widths below the hip.

"Yes, lucky," replied Niarl. "Has anyone in Rohan ever survived such a wound before? You were lucky that you were in the presence of healers with skills far superior to ours. And you were lucky that there was enough left of you for the healers to work on. Think of Halol! Isn't your mother glad to have you back? And now you can sit snugly in your room with your quills and parchments and not a worry in the world. You don't have to ride out to meet some savage enemies and risk life and limb in battle."

"That's because I've already done that," replied Déoric bitterly.

"Ah, but the thing is, you don't have to do it again."

"And what makes you think that should please me?"

"Déoric!" Niarl looked at him earnestly. "Déoric, do you really crave the danger? Is it the sweat and the pain that you want? Which would you rather, to be killed or to come home to tell my parents that I have fallen?" There was a hint of reproach in his voice.

"Don't talk to me about pain!" snapped Déoric.

Niarl sighed.

"I know you've got it rough, Déoric. I'm only trying to tell you that you are making it worse in your mind than it really is. What you're missing out on is not as great as you would like to believe, and you've gained something I don't think you quite appreciate."

"Well, I hope you appreciate what you have gained," snarled Déoric.

"I don't understand what you mean."

"No, you don't, do you?" He had stretched out a hand and touched her face...

At this moment the marshal appeared and gave the command to get ready. Niarl rose and went over to his horse.

"Just remember," he called to Déoric as he mounted, "that I am your friend, no matter what. Wish me luck!"

Déoric made no reply. Five minutes later the yard was deserted save for the stable hands. Wulfhere came over to him, a pitchfork in his left hand.

"How are things with you, Déoric? I hear you've been taken on as a scribe. Do you enjoy it?"

"It's not bad," replied Déoric and got up. "I'm sorry, Wulfhere, but I'm not in the mood to talk."

He hastened away in case the stable master made a sudden appearance. Back in his room he rested his arms and head on the desk. He felt the smooth wooden surface against his cheek and breathed in the smell of the parchments.

"I wish him to return unharmed," he firmly said to himself. "I do wish he will return unscathed."

It was the best he could do. Yet for all his bitterness he could not deny his good fortune when he thought of the three friends who had ridden out together. He walked on crutches, yes, but he still walked under the sun and under the open skies. In spite of the pain and the shame of the missing leg, in spite of the betrayal of his friend and his beloved, life tasted too sweet to wish himself dead. He envied Niarl with every fibre of his body, but he could no longer envy the fallen.

oOoOo

October was nearing its end and down by the river the leaves on the willow trees faded to yellow. One after another they drifted down into the languid waters and were carried away like a fleet of so many tiny boats.

It was early evening when Déoric came down from the city into the fields at the foot of the hill. He found a suitable knoll of grass and managed to seat himself comfortably. The stump itched and he tried to keep himself from scratching by occupying his hands. He grasped the damp grass and let it glide through his fingers. A faint smell of beginning decay wafted up to his nose. The air was clammy and a massive grey wall of cloud across the western sky hid the sun.

It was a good day for wallowing in misery and for seeking out the spot where he had first kissed her. This was the very tree where they had sat. Of course it had been summer then and very hot, so they had taken off their shoes and amused themselves by trying to pick up pebbles with their toes. They had laughed and Fana had leaned her head against his shoulder and suddenly kissing her had been the only right thing to do. He had kissed her again since, though by no means whenever they met. It had never been fully clear whether they were friends or lovers, for Déoric couldn't be sure if the stable master would ever approve of him as a husband for his daughter.

But that was all in the past and there was no sense in dwelling on it. He wouldn't kiss her again - ever. Instead the image rose in his mind of her kissing Niarl, but he knew he mustn't contemplate such a thing or else he would begin to wish ill on his friend, and that would be unforgivable. So he sighed and dragged his mind back to the scene in front of his eyes.

A flock of pigeons took to the air. They cruised leisurely, rising and circling like one body. As they swooped and turned, the setting sun sank below the cloudbank. It caught the underside of their wings and reflected a white light. Another curve in their flight made the light wink out and showed dark bodies against the evening sky.

Déoric looked across the river to the horses that were grazing on the bank, two brown and a dappled grey. They moved easily, in quiet contentment and at one with the world. Ever since his return he had stayed away from horses as much as he could, for seeing them made him ache for a ride and resent every man who still had two feet to put into the stirrups. When he had watched Niarl mount his horse the previous day, he had been close to tears. Yet for some reason these three horses munching peacefully on the fading grass made him feel calm and almost happy. Their heads swayed gently while their jaws worked in a steady grinding motion. Every now and then one of them pawed the ground or gave a lazy swish with the tail.

And then, suddenly, he saw it. There in the twilight it became clear to him with a thrilling transparency like something he had known all along and yet never understood. He looked beyond the colour and texture of the fur and there were the shapes, the circles and ovals and curves that made up the outlines of the animals' bodies. They were so simple, so natural, so right, and then he understood, too, why those horses on the banners in the great hall did not look real, could not look real.

He watched with apprehension, fearing that this vision might fade, but it was as if a veil had been drawn away from his eyes and the clarity of his new discovery did not diminish. Then images began to fill his mind of other horses, horses prancing or rearing or galloping, and there, too, he saw the simple shapes that formed their silhouettes. If one could but capture that in a picture!

In this reverie he sat for a long while. At last, when then chill had soaked his clothes and the light was all but gone, he rose and braced himself for the way home.


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.

Story Information

Author: Virtuella

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - Post-Ring War

Genre: General

Rating: General

Last Updated: 10/10/10

Original Post: 08/19/10

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