9. The Art of Healing
Déoric's lungs were burning and his head felt dizzy by the time he arrived at Niarl's house. It was deserted. Only then did it occur to him that the wounded would have been brought to the new infirmary. It took him another twenty minutes to reach the place.
Niarl's mother and his father, the carpenter, sat each on either side of the bed where Niarl lay. His mother was clutching his hand and crying. To the left and right and on the opposite side of the room, other soldiers were tended to by the healers. There was a background murmur of sighs and groaning and a strong smell of camphor. Déoric found a chair and sat down at the bottom of Niarl's bed when Lithôniel appeared with a bowl of water and strips of linen. An unfamiliar scent emanated from the bowl, sweet and potent. She gestured for Niarl's father to move aside and began to dress the young man's wounds. He had suffered a slash to the left arm and another one across the chest, the latter looking much more serious. The chief damage, however, had been done by a blow to the head. Congealed blood crusted the ginger hair.
"It is well that he is unconscious," said Lithôniel while she washed away the blood. "He will not feel the pain until it has lessened. The athelas will draw out any poison and soothe the wound."
"Will he live?" whispered Niarl's mother.
"I cannot make promises, but I see no fatal wound on him. If we can prevent an infection, he should heal well. I cannot tell you, though, how long it will take till he comes to his senses."
The parent's relief was so great and so sudden that it seemed to change the very scent of the room. Déoric noticed that he was shaking. He clenched his fists when he thought of the last time he had spoken to Niarl. Wish me luck. He had let his friend go without a greeting. It was five weeks since the king's éored had returned from the East, and Déoric had succeeded in avoiding Niarl ever since. His cheeks felt hot with shame.
At this moment he saw Ethelhelm and his older daughter enter the room. They went and spoke with a man in a bed at the far end, but after a while Fana came over. She hailed Niarl's parents politely and murmured a greeting to Déoric.
"My uncle has broken his arm," she said to Niarl's father, "but he has been well attended to and seems to be doing fine. I heard that Niarl was wounded, too."
The carpenter gestured towards the prone figure of his son, and Fana gave a small cry of compassion and took the young man's hand. Déoric looked away. He was seized by a strong urge to get up and leave, but he felt it impossible to desert Niarl again. So he crouched down in his chair and tried to make himself as invisible as he could. Fana didn't stay as long as he had feared. After a few minutes she turned to leave. Déoric was looking down at the floorboards, but he saw her little feet stopping in front of him. He tightened his fingers round his knee and didn't move his head, lest she should see his tears. It seemed a long while before she moved away.
"Good night, Déoric."
It was spoken so quietly that later he wasn't sure if she had said it at all.
The hours of the evening went by with little to mark their passing. Healers went about their business, quiet and gentle, and the coming and going of visitors trailed off, leaving just the nearest of kin who wouldn't be stirred from the beds of their loved ones. For Déoric there was no thought of going home. He wouldn't leave until he had seen Niarl conscious and asked his forgiveness.
Niarl's mother and father had nodded off in their armchairs. Déoric was determined to keep himself awake, which turned out to be fairly easy, because he felt a stabbing pain in his missing leg again. He moved his chair closer to the bedside, so that he could watch Niarl's face without craning his neck. It must have been well after midnight when Niarl opened his eyes.
"Mother?" he whispered.
"Your mother is here, but she is sleeping," said Déoric. "Shall I wake her?"
"No, let her sleep. I'm glad to see you, Déoric. Ow, my head hurts!"
"I'm so sorry, Niarl. I'm so sorry that I didn't wish you luck or said farewell to you properly. I was so very –"
"What? Oh, never mind that, Deoric. I know it's hard for you." Niarl raised his hand, touched the bandages and winced. "Can you get me a sip of water? Or, no, wait, I think I'm going to be sick."
"Excuse me!" A young healer had appeared beside the bed, a bowl at the ready. She gave Deoric a reproachful look, while Niarl leaned to the side and vomited.
"You should have told me he had come round," she said to Deoric while she settled Niarl back into the pillows and washed his face with a flannel. The commotion had roused the carpenter, who woke his wife, and they both began to fuss over their son. Deoric quietly slipped away.
There was little moonlight, and the streets were slippery with frost. He had to step carefully to avoid a fall. A shadowy shape swooped over his head, whether it was an owl or a large bat he couldn't tell in the darkness. When he came to his house, he saw a glint of light behind the shutters. He opened the door, suddenly aware what he would find: Dirlayn, still fully dressed, with a tense face in which worry was only just giving way to relief.
"Where in all the world have you been?"
"At the infirmary. Niarl has been wounded. I'll tell you tomorrow."
He sank onto his bed and was asleep before he could take off his boot.
In her own bed Fana lay still awake. It had been a painful evening with Déoric turning away from her yet again. She stared into the darkness, trying to figure out what had gone wrong with her life. Give him time, Niarl had said, but how much more time did he need? It was almost a year since his return from battle. Other girls whose young men had come home were wed by now, and she knew of a few who were with child.
How glad she had been when she had heard that he was back. Distressed, too, of course, who wouldn't be – she shuddered when she thought of that stump – but glad, oh so glad that she would see him again, that he was alive, that she wouldn't be one of those unwed widows, pining for men who had never been fully theirs. She knew that their carefree life of roaming the country was over, that things would be harder now and more serious, but still, he was her Déoric. Or was he? There it was again, that thought she could never quite get out of her mind. She hadn't told Niarl what haunted her, that spectre of the other woman. It had been her first thought in that anguished moment of being sent away from his door, that someone else had stolen away his heart. But with no signs emerging for such a notion, she had rejected it after a while. Now it was creeping up on her again. Wasn't he well off now with his position at the court, with his newfound talent as an artist, with the respect of the king's advisor and even of the king himself? Wasn't she taking every opportunity to show him that she was but waiting for a word from him? What reason could he have still to shun her, unless he had broken the faith and given his heart to someone else?
Her hands clenched the blanket. How dare he! He had wooed her, he had kissed her, he was bound to her by honour! His behaviour was abominable! She gritted her teeth, surprised to find just how angry she was. Let him do whatever he wanted, she would no longer care. What good did it do to wait for him? He had abandoned her. She would stop waiting for him. She would clear her mind of him and teach her heart to think of him no more. It was the only sensible thing to do.
But she knew fine well, didn't she, that she couldn't give him up. He was her Déoric, always had been, always would be, and that was that. Any idea of banishing him from her heart, any idea of turning her eyes to another was as impossible as snow in summer. Her anger drained away like rain in the sand and all she was left with was the yearning for him that soaked her soul with sadness. With a sigh she turned over and pulled the blanket closer around her shoulders, hoping that sleep would come and release her from these musings for a while.
Niarl returned home a week later, but Déoric soon had cause to call at the infirmary again, for Léofred fell ill with a lung fever, an unforeseen twist of events that caused much anxiety in many quarters and not the least to Déoric. He went to see the sick man almost daily; a duty he felt was his and which he undertook willingly, though with a heavy heart. It pained him to see Léofred pallid and sweating, with eyes that rarely opened. Still, whenever Déoric came, Léofred would seize the young man's outstretched hand and press it with whatever weak power he could muster. A man with no family, the king's advisor appreciated the scribe's visits greatly, and Déoric felt confident enough by now to sit by the bedside next to the king without blushing or an urge to bite his knuckle. Lithôniel devoted particular care to this patient, treating him with medicines hitherto unknown in Rohan, and after a week she pronounced a cautious hope that Léofred would recover.
"He does look better today," said Éomer one evening when he left the infirmary beside Déoric. "If he survives, we'll have to thank you for that."
"Me?" cried Déoric in surprise. "Whatever do I have to do with it?"
"Oh, everything, my dear Déoric," said the king with a smile. "Do you think there would be a fair infirmary and a wise healer from Gondor here in Edoras if you hadn't told my sister how pathetic our provisions for the sick were?"
Déoric felt the heat rising in his face. "I didn't say they were pathetic - " he began.
"Of course you didn't," interrupted the king, "you always choose your words carefully. Nevertheless you left us in no doubt about your views. There are many forms of bravery, Déoric, and among those there is one that cannot be prized highly enough, and that is the courage to tell the rulers when they are neglecting their people. Now, don't fret! Neither my sister nor I saw any insolence in your plea. The Lady Éowyn was more than ready to act on your advice, and she had been half contemplating the same thing, but her mind was occupied with other matters."
"Have you had news from her?" ventured Déoric, eager to steer the conversation into a different direction.
"Indeed I have. She and the Lord Faramir have made their home in Ithilien and they fare very well."
"Ithilien! That is where Merilwen went."
A bemused smile appeared on the king's face. "And who is Merilwen?" he asked.
"She is a healer. She saved my life, I believe."
"Then I am glad that she dwells near my sister. Now I must hurry. Good day to you, Déoric."
And the king hastened away, followed by his guards.
Léofred remained in the infirmary for nearly four weeks, but at long last Lithôniel pronounced him recovered. He returned to Meduseld and to his duties pale and thin, but with unshaken determination. With him he brought a sense of calm and of purpose, which settled on the place within half a day and made everyone realize just how much the kings' advisor had been missed.
The tide of the year had turned, the snow was melting and pert winds were throwing shower after shower at the city of the horse lords. Déoric's work on the book was progressing well. He had meanwhile completed nearly thirty immaculately written pages, for his speed of writing had increased and he could finish a page in the morning and still have time for drawing and his other scribing duties in the afternoon. His collection of regal portraits was growing steadily. Ethehelm's figure had served him as a model for his rendition of Thengel. He asked Hunwald the blacksmith if he could sketch him for the image of Helm Hammerhand. Wuffa the baker, a rotund and jovial man, sat for the picture of Brytta, that king famed for his generosity and good cheer. Initially Déoric placed the baker on a massive wooden box, but Léofred discovered them and walked away shaking his head. Shortly afterwards he returned with the king and Éomer insisted that they come into the hall and do it properly, as he said. So Wuffa, crimson in the face and with a drinking horn in his hand, perched on the king's seat attired in Éomer's cloak. The man wore a foolish grin out of sheer embarrassment, but that suited Déoric well, for he planned to convert it into a benign smile. Éomer and Léofred stood behind him watching him draw. Déoric hoped that they would soon get bored or called away by other duties, but it was nearly half an hour before they left at last and allowed him to continue his work with more ease.
This afternoon the weather was fine and he was sketching in the stable yard again. Over the last few weeks he had found a way to render shadows and muscle definition by shading in areas of his drawing with fine parallel strokes. Pleased with this discovery, he had decided to attempt the most crucial portrait, that of Eorl on Felaróf. Léofred had previously agreed to sit for this picture, and though he was still under orders from Lithôniel to take it easy, he had insisted that he felt quite up to sitting on a horse for an hour or so. So Wulfhere had brought out the handsome mare Willowleaf, a daughter of Shadowfax, and Léofred now sat mounted in dignity while Déoric sketched on his board.
He had finished the outlines and was just beginning to shade in the animal's head, when somebody entered the stable yard from the gates. From the corner of his eyes he saw that it was Fana. She greeted the king's advisor and then sat down on the bench beside Déoric. He felt his mouth go dry. Without moving his eyes from the drawing, he soaked up the signs of her presence, the shape of her shadow that crossed his leg, the faint smell of camomile, the stray hairs that were blown into his line of vision by the soft breeze, a fiery glow in the sunlight. His hand stopped moving.
"My father told me that you are learning a new craft," she said. "It looks like you have learned much already. Who's teaching you?"
"I'm teaching myself," said he and added a few more strokes to the horse's neck.
"You must be a good teacher," she replied, and even though he didn't look at her, he knew that she was smiling.
"How is Niarl?" he asked and continued with his sketch.
"Niarl?" She sounded surprised. "He is much better, as far as I know. His mother told my mother that he has recovered well."
"Have you not been to see him?"
"Not for a fortnight or so. I've been very busy making new trousers for the boys. Mama says they're outgrowing their clothes so quickly, she doesn't know how to keep up with them. I'll maybe go to his house tomorrow. But I thought you would have visited him more than I."
"I've been busy, too," said Déoric and decided to see Niarl that very night. If Fana was unlikely to go, there was no reason for him to stay away. It had been the dread of seeing them together that had stopped him from going. He felt a touch of pity for Niarl that Fana was so willing to neglect him on account of a sewing chore.
"That's good. Can I see some more of your drawings?"
Déoric hesitated. He couldn't decide whether he wished her to stay or to leave. Having her sit so close to him whilst knowing that she now belonged to another, and his friend at that, was a pain he could well forgo. But Léofred's words still rang in his ears. Nobody should ever say again that he acted like a child. He was going to face it like a man. From his bag he took a number of sketches and passed them to Fana. He was careful not to touch her hand. She, however, leaned even closer to him and began to look at the parchments. He felt ridiculously aware of the pressure of her arm and shoulder against his.
"I've never seen anything like this," she said after a while. "How can you make things look so lifelike?"
"It's a way of looking at things," replied Déoric, determined to conduct himself honourably. "You need to draw what you see, not what you know. For example, we know that all legs on a horse are the same length. But if you look at a horse from a certain angle, it might seem that some legs are shorter. I'm not sure why, but I think it's because things that are farther away look smaller. So if you drew a horse from a certain viewpoint and made all the legs the same length, it could look quite wrong. You need to draw some of them shorter, but you must look carefully how much shorter. Often it's just a tiny bit, like here." He pointed out one of the drawings.
"How clever," said Fana. "And you found that out all by yourself?"
"Yes, many years ago. When I was just a boy I tried to draw my mother sitting at the table. I made all the table legs the same length, and then I looked again and saw that it was wrong."
"Oh, yes, now I remember you were always drawing on your slate! Niarl used to tease you and say that you'd never make a warrior, but I thought it was a smart thing to do. I can't remember what Halol had to say on the matter."
"Probably not much." He shifted uneasily when he remembered that he still hadn't visited Halol's mother.
"No, he never was a talker, was he?" She sighed. "I'm so sad about him. Niarl said it was the worst deed of the enemy to tear the three of you apart."
Déoric suppressed an impulse to mention that Niarl had not been entirely faultless in bringing about the estrangement between them. There was no point in blaming the man. However, he felt by now that he had done his part and needn't torture himself any longer. "I must go," he said and took the parchments out of her hands.
"But you haven't finished your picture yet!"
Déoric stored his gear in the big leather bag he always carried with him now. "Yes, I have. I have other work to do in the scribe's room," he said and picked up his crutches. "Thank you so much, Master Léofred, I am done. I believe your father is in the tack room, Fana. Good day."
He made his way across the yard towards the gate, conscious that she would be looking at him and his dismal progress. Still, he felt he had done well. He had been calm and polite, he hadn't reproached her and he had spoken to her like to a friend. Léofred couldn't fault him on his conduct.