8. With Open Eyes
Two days later Déoric still didn't know how to tackle his new assignment. It was clear to him that he couldn't just sit down and start drawing. He wanted the pictures to look right, just like the drawing of the horse looked right, but every time he picked up a stylus and an old, scraped piece of parchment to make a sketch, the images in his mind eluded him.
In his mind, indeed, he saw them. Seeing images, he had realized shortly after his revelation in the meadows, was something that he had done since childhood, ever since he had tried to catch these pictures on his slate without ever being quite satisfied with the results. When the king had approved of his drawing and told him to illustrate the book, part of him had been worried and overwhelmed by such a charge, but another part had rejoiced and whispered to him, wasn't this what he'd been wanting to do all his life?
He had turned round to that whispering voice and scolded it for talking such nonsense; where did it get such a notion, he'd wanted to be a soldier like his father, that's what he'd been wanting to do all his life. But as the voice slunk away and sulked in a corner of his mind, he couldn't help thinking that whatever he'd wanted to do with his life in the past, right now he wanted to draw pictures. It wasn't something that he wanted more than anything else, not more than having his leg back or kissing Fana, but he wanted it with a rising passion that balked at his lack of skill in exasperation.
His slate! Did he still have it? Had his mother stowed it away somewhere in the house? If he could take his slate and a piece of chalk, then he could go down to the meadows again and look at the horses, and maybe then he would be able to draw them the way he wanted to. Once he had a sketch on the slate, it shouldn't be hard to copy it onto parchment.
The next morning he arrived at the hall with the slate, which Dirlayn had found stashed in the rafters in a sack of children's toys. All evening he had been busy with it, sketching Dirlayn and almost every piece of furniture in the house. Just as he had expected, the images flowed willingly onto this old familiar surface. He went to Léofred and asked for leave to go out sketching. The king's advisor rubbed his beard and looked at him thoughtfully.
"Go, by all means. But I think the horses in the fields won't be enough. You will need to draw men, too, not just horses," he said.
"I know, Master Léofred. I thought of asking some men I know to sit for me. If it's not too bold, I was wondering if I could sketch you. You have a very dignified look."
Léofred laughed and shook his head.
"You flatter me, Déoric, but you are missing the point. You need men sitting on horses. How are you going to manage that?"
"Well..." Déoric had thought of this, too, but hadn't come up with a satisfactory solution.
"Do you think you could bear to visit the stables again?" asked Léofred. "I remember that you didn't want to work there, but maybe mucking out is one thing, but it's another to go there as," – he paused for effect – "an artist? Think about it. I shall speak to the stable master and tell him that you wish to make sketches in the stable yard."
"No!" cried Déoric. Léofred looked at him, surprised by the violence of this response.
"My dear Déoric," he said. "I understand your reluctance to look very closely upon a way of life that is lost to you. But I advise you to think the better of it. The king has honoured you greatly with his commission. It is your duty to fulfil it as best you can. You wish to hide from the unpleasant things like a child, but it would become you well to act like a man and face the truth."
Déoric bit his knuckle and looked to the floor.
"I will think about it, Master Léofred," he said at last.
"Think quickly then," said Léofred with a smile. "I want your answer tomorrow morning. Off you go."
When Déoric was at the door, the king's advisor called after him: "You should draw the stable master, you know. He's as fine looking a fellow as ever I saw."
"Yes," answered Déoric gloomily. "I know him."
It was very quiet in the house with no sound to be heard bar the crackling of the fire. Dirlayn was used to the silence by now, though she sometimes thought with a sigh of the times when Féadred's boots would echo on the wooden floor and little Déoric would giggle and chatter all day long in his high-pitched voice. The lad still confided in her at times like he had done since childhood, but his tones were often hushed and hesitant. At first he had talked with great enthusiasm about his writing, but now his mind had turned to all sorts of fine detail that he described to her very earnestly at the supper table, always sober, always serious. She hadn't heard him laugh since his aunt and uncle's visit.
This morning she had decided at last to embark on the melancholy task of sewing up Déoric's trouser legs. He had developed a way of folding them up and tucking them in, but they often slipped out again and caused a nuisance. There were three pairs of trousers save the one he was wearing, and Dirlayn laid them out on the table next to her sewing box. Then she stoked up the fire. She went through to the kitchen to clear away the breakfast dishes and climbed up the stair to tidy her bedchamber. Back downstairs, she stood for a while and didn't move. The sand on the floor, she thought, looked grubby, so she took her broom, swept up and sprinkled new sand from a bucket in the shed. Noontime came and went and still the trousers were lying on the table.
Eventually Dirlayn sat down and took the scissors out of her sewing box. She lifted the first pair of trousers and smoothed them out on her lap. For a while she sat and looked down at them. Tears rolled down her face when at last she cut into the fabric just above the knee. She wiped them off firmly. It wasn't as if the leg was going to grow back. With skilful fingers she sewed together the edges of the fabric.
By the time she had finished with all three pairs of trousers, the light was fading. She folded up the garments and placed them onto Déoric's bed. He would be home soon, hungry for his supper. She went into the kitchen and started to peel potatoes.
Half an hour later, she heard him coming through the door. She put her wooden spoon aside and went to greet him. He kissed her briefly on the cheek and sat down to take off his boot. Dirlayn brought the supper from the kitchen. Some months ago there would have been nothing but potatoes and gravy, but now that Déoric received his pay every week there were sausages and leeks and ale, too. She began to pile food onto Déoric's plate.
"I'm not hungry," he said.
"You've been out all day," she replied and put the plate in front of him.
"I don't want anything."
"Déoric, you've got to eat, you've got to keep your strength up. Look, these are your favourite sausages."
"Mother, I am not hungry!" snapped Déoric. "Why do you have to treat me like a child? Can you not just hear what I'm saying and leave me be?"
He pushed the plate away so violently that the sausages landed on the table. Then he got up, hopped over to his bed and threw the trousers on the floor without looking at them.
"I'm tired," he said. "I'm going to sleep."
Dirlayn silently cleared the spilled food off the table. She ate her own meal and carried the dishes through to the kitchen. The clanking of earthenware and the sloshing of water was heard. When she came back through she picked up the trousers from the floor, folded them and put them on the stool by Déoric's bed. He was lying under his blanket with his back to her.
"Good night, my son," she said softly and blew out the candles.
Ethelhelm, the stable master, was indeed a fine looking man. He was not as tall as most of the Eorlingas, but well built, and the pleasant features of his face, framed by shiny blonde hair, were usually lit by a winning smile. His attire was as neat as his beard and the wrinkles around his eyes only added to his appeal.
The stable yard was quiet and empty this morning and Déoric felt the more awkward for being alone with the man. Ethelhelm had greeted him civilly as behoved an old acquaintance and made no allusion to Déoric's recent avoidance of his household. Instead he had remarked politely how impressed both Léofred and the king seemed to be with Déoric's work and had suggested a fine stallion to be brought out for the picture. Wulfhere had led the steed into the stable yard and Ethelhelm had mounted with ease.
Déoric asked him to move closer and stand at an angle that was convenient for him to draw from the bench where he was sitting. He took his slate on his knee and seized a piece of chalk. Posing seemed to come naturally to the stable master. He sat with his shoulders drawn back and his head held high, forming an image of complete harmony with the horse. His casual smile remained on his face without fading while Déoric sketched. The animal was calm and still in the hands of this man.
Déoric tried to put all thoughts of Fana aside and just look at Ethelhelm as a model for his picture. Under his fingers the figures took shape with amazing ease. All he had to do was to look, and the shapes would stand out as clearly as they had that day by the river and found their way through his fingers onto the slate. For a while he worked in deep concentration, but then his mind began to wander. He couldn't help reflecting on how closely connected he might now be with this man in front of him if the fortunes of battle had been kinder to him. For a moment he doubted that even then the stable master would have been too pleased to marry his daughter to a mere soldier. He had never quite been able to fathom Ethelhelm. However much time he had spent in the older man's house, he had rarely spoken more than a few words with him, busy as Ethelhelm always was with many matters concerning the care of the horses and the running of his lively household.
"It's been a good while since you've last been to our house, Déoric," said the stable master suddenly as if in response to the scribe's thoughts. "The boys were wondering whether they had scared you away. They can be rather obnoxious, don't you think?"
"I have no quarrel with your boys," replied Déoric.
"Oh, I can't imagine that any of my womenfolk would have offended you," said Ethelhelm.
Déoric bit his knuckle and wished he hadn't caved in to Léofred's pressure. This was turning out to be worse than he had feared. He lowered his head and fixed his eyes on the slate. Eventually, though, he had to look up again if he wanted to continue with his sketch. Ethelhelm sat as before, with his chin raised, his eyes now looking straight ahead as if into some unknown distance. He no longer smiled.
An uncomfortable half hour passed before Déoric, somewhat prematurely, declared the sketch finished and thanked the stable master for his time. Ethelhelm dismounted and disappeared into the stable building with a brief greeting. Wulfhere led the horse to the feeding trough for a well-earned treat and then came across the yard towards Déoric. Suddenly he stumbled and almost fell, for his bootlace had come undone. He cursed under his breath and put the foot on the bench next to Déoric.
"Could you help me with that, please? I'm afraid I just can't do it anymore."
"That must be awkward," said Déoric and swiftly tied the laces.
"It is," replied Wulfhere. "Anything fiddly is just beyond me now. My wife has to braid my hair and help me with my clothes. Oh, well, I don't want to complain. As long as I can lift a shovel I'll be able to earn a living."
Déoric looked from his stump to Wulfhere's crippled arm. It had been squashed from the elbow downwards and the fingers were twisted and out of shape. Then his gaze turned to his own hand and the long, strong fingers that held the chalk.
"You're a better man than I am, Wulfhere," he said quietly. "I didn't take it so stoically."
With a sigh, Wulfhere sat down beside Déoric.
"I am an older man, Déoric. My house is long built, my children are grown. I can see how much harder it must be for you."
"I'm trying to get used to it," said Déoric.
"Well, I'll not tell you that you ought to be grateful, because I know fine well how hard it is to be crippled, but I'll say this much: Not many men have come back from war as severely wounded as you and have found themselves raised to positions of trust at the court. I don't mind mucking out stables, but on some of these chilly mornings I feel like I would quite enjoy sitting in the hall."
"Oh, the stables are probably warmer than the scribe's chamber. My fingers are quite frozen sometimes."
"Your fingers are serving you well," he said and pointed at the slate. The sketch, though rough, looked very natural. Déoric had to admit that he was pleased with this morning's effort. He wrapped it in a cloth and stored it in his bag.
"I suppose they do," he replied. "Thank you, Wulfhere. I'd better get back inside now, I still have scribing work to do."
He pulled the bag strap over his shoulder and left the stable yard. On his way to the scribe's room he encountered Léofred.
"Well, have you drawn Ethelhelm?" asked the king's advisor.
"I have, Master Léofred. Do you wish to see the sketch?"
Without waiting for an answer, he pulled the slate out of his bag and handed it to the older man.
"It's a bit smudged at the top, but I'll be able to work from it."
Léofred regarded the drawing quietly and then nodded.
"Very well, I shall look forward to your finished version. I was meaning to speak to you, by the way. I think you might like to know that the work on new the infirmary was finished last week. The healer from Gondor arrived yesterday. I wonder if you might know her, since you spent time in the Houses of Healing there?"
"What is her name?" asked Déoric eagerly.
"I cannot quite remember. It was one of those Elvish names they have in Gondor."
"Is she an older woman?"
"Not all that old. Less than fifty years, but not by much, I would say."
"Thank you for telling me, Master Léofred. I must get back to my work now."
At dusk Déoric arrived at the new infirmary out of breath and sweating in spite of the January chill. He was surprised just how much had been accomplished here. What had been an indifferent collection of storage buildings stood, whitewashed and with many windows, as a wholesome haven for the sick and injured of Edoras. He entered through the gates into a pleasant forecourt with newly planted evergreen shrubs and made for the door.
He tried to tell himself that he would be disappointed, but a stubborn hope refused to be subdued. It had to be Merilwen. She had told him one day how weary she was of the city of Mundburg. What better way for her to begin a new life than coming to Edoras?
He was greeted at the door by a local maiden and when he inquired after the healer from Gondor, he was pointed to the far end of the lofty chamber. A woman stood there with her back to him, neither tall not short, slightly plump and with a neat bun of dark hair.
"Merilwen!" he called.
The woman turned round. She had the same stature and the same dark hair flecked with grey as the healer who had saved his life, but the face was unfamiliar to him. She smiled and came towards him with her hand extended.
"You must be Déoric. The Lady Éowyn has told me that you would take an interest in this infirmary. My name is Lithôniel. Merilwen has gone to live in Ithilien."
Déoric sank down on one of the empty beds and dropped his crutches. His hands were shaking. Lithôniel placed a hand on his forehead with a worried look.
"A cup of herbal tea, I think," she said. "I shall see to it that you get one."
The last week of January had brought frost and a dusting of snow, but the days were bright and dry and Déoric found that if he wrapped up warmly, he could sit outside for an hour or two without getting too frozen. His hands would become cold and stiff, but he was used to that by now. Dirlayn had found him an old sheepskin, which he placed on the ground to sit on, and so he sketched almost every day. There was less scribing work now that most things ran smoothly in the tracks that Léofred had set them on, and Déoric had leave to spend as much time on his artwork as he wished. Almost from day to day he could see his artistic skills increasing. It was as if they had been lying curled up and hidden inside him and were now unfolding like fern fronds in the springtime. He had taken to sketching with charcoal on a board, because the chalk on the slate was too prone to smudging. In this manner he spent his mornings, and in the afternoons he worked on the refined versions of his drawings and on copying the book in the scribe's room.
This morning was milder than the previous week had been and Déoric savoured the sunshine on his face. He sat by the river under the willow trees. Memories of kissing Fana now mingled with the memory of his vision of the shapes whenever he came to this place. He found that he could draw better here than anywhere else.
The same three horses that had inspired the revelation were now grazing on the near side of the river, not ten yards away from where Déoric was sitting. The board was on his knee, but his hand had been idle for a while, for he was watching a grey heron wading in the shallow waters. The bird moved slowly in its odd, jerky gait, poking its head forwards with every step as if the beak was pulling the rest of the body after it. Suddenly, without any kind of prelude, it was airborne. It flapped its magnificent wings and then it sailed, neck retracted and long legs dangling, skimming over the surface of the river and settling on the far bank.
"What are you doing there?"
Déoric turned and saw a child of about eight years standing on the path.
"I'm drawing the horses," he said. "Why are you all alone here?"
"My mother sent me for rosemary," replied the child and proffered a bunch of the herbs as proof. She walked across the faded grass to where Déoric sat and looked at his board.
"It's very good," she said and pointed at the sketch. "I am Fryn. What's your name?"
"Déoric. This is just a rough sketch. I'll make a better version of it later with something called a silverpoint stylus."
"Because the king wants me to. I'm making a book for him."
Déoric looked at her with an indulgent smile. Without an uncle Himlebed, how could she know? He shifted over and patted the sheepskin beside him. She sat down gingerly and stared at him with big blue eyes.
"A book is a wonderful thing," he said. "You write words or draw pictures on sheets of parchment and then you bind them together into a little parcel and anytime you want you can open it and find the words again and look at the pictures. Our people have never had books in the past, but the king wants us to start now. They have lots and lots of them in Gondor."
"I hate Gondor," said the girl quietly.
"Why is that?"
"My father went there and he never came back. My mother says there was a great battle and he was killed."
Déoric sighed. He put the board on the ground beside him and turned to face the child. She had pulled her feet under her dress and was hugging her knees.
"I know how you feel," he said gently. "My father was a soldier and he fell not all that long ago. I miss him very much."
"I miss mine, too," whispered the girl. Her eyes were fixed on Déoric as if he could give her some kind of answer. He looked at her and was moved by her grief.
"I was at that battle in Gondor. That's where I lost my leg."
As he had expected, the distraction worked. The girl eyed the stump with unabashed curiosity.
"Did it hurt?"
"Terribly. It still hurts sometimes, all the way down to the toes."
"How can that be?"
"I don't know." Following a sudden impulse, he drew his bag towards him and began to rummage around in it.
"Do you like horses?" he asked. The child nodded silently. He pulled out a wad of rolled up parchments and began to look through them. These were drawings that he had deemed not quite good enough for the book, but some were nevertheless shapely and pleasing. He found one of a mare and her foal grazing against a backdrop of evergreen bushes.
"Here," he said and passed the parchment to the girl. "You can keep that. It's a present from me to you, because we both are fatherless and love horses."
She took the drawing with an expression of awe on her face. Then she smiled. Déoric wrapped the board in a cloth and stowed it in the bag.
"I am getting cold," he said and reached for his crutches. "Are you coming back to the city with me?"
The child nodded and put the parchment into the pocket of her pinafore. Déoric shouldered his bag and set off. Back on the road neither of them could think of anything else to say, but their silence was companionable. It was nearly noon and the sun stood barely above the snow-tipped peaks of the White Mountains. They were not far from the gates when they heard riders on the road behind them and stood aside to let them pass. Déoric looked at the marshal and saw that this was the king's éored. It seemed that they had met with trouble on their patrol, for they were carrying several wounded warriors with them. This was not unusual, since there were still scattered bands of orcs occasionally distressing the more remote villages. When the riders drew level with them, Déoric could see them more clearly and suddenly he was seized by the same numb paralysis that he had felt when he saw his own leg lying on the ground.
Blood-covered and unconscious, strapped across the saddle of his fallow horse, was a young man with reddish braids.