When he awoke, the rhythm of dripping water was music to Déoric's ears, as it had been for the past few days. The thaw had come at last and with it came news. Gruffyd stamped the soggy snow off his feet before he entered the cottage. He greeted Lunet with a sentence in Dunlendish and Déoric with a smile. It was clear from the expression on his face that he had something to tell.
"There are dwarves in the village," he said as soon as he had sat down, "more than a dozen. They came last night and asked for shelter because of the upcoming storm."
"Brave to travel at this time of year, they are," said Lunet. "Do you know what brings them after all these years? If they have sewing needles, I'll come down to get some."
"I doubt it," said Gruffyd. "They're not traders. I think they must be dwarves of some importance by the look of them. Very fine clothes, you know. And they'll travel on southwards from here. Déoric, they're bound to come to Rohan. You could send a message home with them. That's why I came up straight away to tell you. They plan to be gone before noon. You'd better come back to the village with me now."
Lunet shook her head.
"Gruffyd, you silly boy, what are you thinking? He could sledge down, but how would he get back up, you think? No, you'll take the sledge, my lad, and go and ask politely for one of them to come up here and speak to a wounded man of Rohan, will you."
"Please, Gruffyd," said Déoric. "Lunet is right, I couldn't do it myself."
Gruffyd turned red and rubbed his ear.
"I'm sorry, Déoric," he said. "I didn't think."
"Never mind," replied Déoric. "You did your quick thinking when you realised this would be a chance for me to send a message. Thank you for coming up here so early in the morning, and please be so kind and ask for one of the dwarves to come out here before they leave."
Lunet had already unhooked the sledge from the door and sent Gruffyd off with another admonition to be courteous. Déoric grinned.
Less than two hours later they heard hoof beats outside. Lunet opened the door and a flustered Gruffyd ushered in two dwarves with handsome armour and magnificent beards. One wore an impressive woollen cloak in shades of jade and ivory.
"Gimli, Son of Glóin, at your service," said the one in the cloak. "Bor, Son of Thror, at your service," was the introduction of the other.
"Déoric, Son of Féadred," replied Déoric and attempted to bow.
"I am Lunet, no son of anybody, as I'm sure you can tell," said Lunet with a grin. "We're a bit short of chairs I'm sorry to say, but if you don't mind, one of you can sit on this upturned crate here, you can. Gruffyd, there are obviously ponies outside. Go and take them round to the goat shed; you can't leave them standing in the cold like this. The goats won't mind, they won't."
"That is very considerate of you, madam," said the dwarf called Gimli. "But in any case we can stay but a little while. We need to press on and hopefully reach the Gap of Rohan before tomorrow night. I could not refuse, though, when I heard that a man of the Mark needs my help. The King of Rohan is a friend of mine. How can I be of service?"
Déoric glanced at Lunet, but she showed no response to this revelation. He looked at the dwarf with awe.
"If it isn't too much trouble," he said, "it would help me greatly if you could make it known in the Mark that I am stranded here and need someone to come and take me home. I have lost my horse and I've broken my arm, so I don't know when I'll be able to ride again..."
"By the time someone comes out here, you'll be fine," said Lunet. "You kept your other arm nice and strong, you did, when you chopped up all that wood."
"I shall gladly take your message," said Gimli, "but where shall we take it? Will any place in the Mark answer? We are bound for the Hornburg."
"That will do very well," said Déoric. "Lord Erkenbrand knows me. In fact, I hope he may have news of my escort, Aldfrid. I was separated from him when we were attacked by orcs, but I hope he escaped unharmed." With a sudden hot shame he realised that he had given hardly a thought to Aldfrid's safety this whole long winter.
If the dwarves found anything remarkable in this tale, they didn't show it. They listened with grave dignity and assured Déoric that they would speak to Erkenbrand on his behalf.
"And assure him, please," added Déoric, "that I have been treated with the utmost kindness. Whoever comes to take me home ought to come in peace. Also, since you're a friend of the king's, you'll probably want to send him word of your coming, and if you would be so kind and have a message included to my wife and my mother, I would be very grateful."
The dwarves nodded slowly and solemnly.
"Will the king know who you are?" asked Gimli.
"He will," said Déoric. "I am the Chronicler of the Mark."
His proud title sounded somewhat less grand to him here in Lunet's grubby cottage, and he wasn't too sure just how good a chronicler he was at the moment, but the dwarves accepted the explanation with further nods.
"You will excuse us now," said Gimli. "Our companions are awaiting us and we must make haste. Rest assured that your messages shall be delivered with all the speed we can muster. Farewell, Mistress Lunet. Farewell, Chronicler of the Mark."
Both dwarves rose from their seats and performed a dignified bow. Lunet led them to the door and a short while later the neighing of ponies indicated the departure of their unexpected guests.
Snow was melting from the mountain passes. The weather had turned not long after Yule, with the snow clouds retreating and a crisp, dry cold making the heart of winter more bearable; but only now, halfway into February, was it warm enough to bring about the thaw that cleared the roads and released the people of Edoras from their prison. Riders came and went again on errands as varied as the colours of their horses, but one whose arrival was eagerly awaited failed to appear. It was four months since Déoric had ridden out, yet Fana refused to believe that he could be dead. She was sure she would know it, sense it, if his spirit was no longer out there. But she felt as enveloped and carried by his love as if he had been right beside her.
Still, she missed him. At night she lay awake and sent her mind out into the expanses of her country in a stubborn quest to reach him with her thoughts. With the child kicking and punching her from within, she had more than one reason to forgo sleep.
She tried to evoke him in every last detail. His eyes, large, oval shaped and of the palest greenish grey. His slightly nasal voice. The little mole at the side of his neck, just under the ear. His lips, his hair, his beautiful hands with the long, slender fingers. There was a small, dented callus on the first joint of his middle finger from holding the stylus. She thought of the fine blonde hairs on his chest, curled like the tendrils of sweet peas. She even thought of the stump and of the sadly scarred skin that no longer made her cringe. Déoric had flinched the first time she touched it, less from pain, she believed, for the wound was thoroughly healed, but from fear that she would after all turn away from him in disgust. But all she felt, then and now and always, was tenderness for him. The missing leg was little more than a curiosity to her, and she minded it much less for her own sake than for his.
She had just prepared herself for another night of such ruminations, when a knock on the front door startled her over her washbowl. Before she had even dried her face, she heard Dirlayn hasten down the stair and open. Fana rushed to follow her. In the front room stood Léofred. Rain dripped off him onto the sandy floor.
"He's alive," he said. "He's stranded in Dunland, but he's alive. Aldfrid is riding out to get him."
While Dirlayn flung her arms around Léofred's neck, Fana sank down on a chair, sobbing.
He worked slowly. It would be a rather crude sketch, because the board was still rougher than he had hoped and the charred stick he used for drawing didn't allow him to render any fine detail. His left arm, free from the splint and bandages now and feeling ridiculously light and fragile, wasn't quite able to hold the board steady enough, so he had propped it up against the wall instead. This arrangement required him to turn his head a lot, but at least it gave him a stable surface. The drawing itself proved difficult, too, though for a reason that was entirely new to him. So far, he had always drawn what was in front of his eyes. Now he felt tempted to smooth over the harsher aspects of Lunet's features, for it seemed unkind to him to show them to their full extent. She didn't look half as ugly to him now than when he had first seen her. He wondered whether it was really always enough to just draw what he saw. Maybe there was a way to include what he knew also. How could he show the wit, the wisdom and the kindness of the old woman?
He could think of only one way to try. As he drew, he let his mind revisit scene after scene of their time together and hoped that the essence of her character would somehow flow through his hand onto the board.
An hour passed. Lunet sat very still. She didn't even move when an earwig, disturbed in its wriggly progress across the ceiling, dropped right into her lap. It squirmed and writhed its way to her knees and plunged down from there. Seconds later, it had disappeared in a crack between the floorboards.
Eventually Déoric decided that any further efforts would only result in smudging what little he had achieved. He shuffled back to see the drawing at a bit of a distance and was surprised to find that the features formed by the coarse black lines were indeed Lunet's. On the board, she even wore her wry little smile, though she had kept her face quite solemn during the sitting. Without a word, he passed the drawing to her.
Would she see it?
She looked at it for a long while.
"I used to have a better version of this face," she said at last. She touched her brow and nose and lips gingerly with her fingertips.
"Is this what your king values in you? The eye that does not lie? The hand that tells it as it is? Well, I dare say he has a more fetching face to show the world, he has."
"Are you offended?" said Déoric quietly.
"No," she replied. "The truth does not offend, though it can sadden, it can. I can see that you have a great gift. You've shown me what I look like, but also what you think of me. I thank you for that."
"It is nothing," said Déoric. "I have to thank you, and I do not know where to start. If there's anything at all I can do for you..."
He left the words hanging in the air, unsure of what he could possibly offer her. Lunet put the board aside and smiled.
"I appreciate your gratitude, Déoric," she said in a graver voice than usual. "And I do have a favour to ask of you, I have. I hope you will write down those stories I told you. It would comfort me to know that something of my people will survive when we're all gone."
"What do you mean, when you're all gone?"
"I told you. There are no men left in the village, and not many elsewhere in the land."
"But when the young people grow up..." Déoric began.
She shook her head.
"We are a dying people; can you not see that, Déoric? We've always been close to starving, ever since we came to live in these marshes and hills. The war has cost us too much, way too much, and we've used up the last of our supplies, we have. We've lasted this winter, but at what price? Many had to slaughter their animals. There's nothing left for another winter, there isn't."
"You'll have to hope for a good harvest," said Déoric.
"Harvest? What kind of harvest do you think we get from boglands and sandy hills, pray? There's nothing much but pines and birches and heather growing up here and reeds and rushes in the marshes. We're herdsmen and hunters, always have been since your forefathers drove us out of the fertile lands, they did. But who's to hunt now, with most of the men dead and gone? The womenfolk may go into the woods and gather mushrooms and berries and wild onions, but we cannot survive on just that, not for long. Our herds may recover, but it would take years and until then - no, Déoric, this is the end. In a few years' time, your king may claim this land, too, for what little it's worth."
"No! You cannot just sit here and die! You must do something. The king must do something!" Déoric twisted his braid round his hand. "Indeed, Éomer King will help, I'm sure he will."
"And why would he do that, do you think? We're the enemy, remember."
"He doesn't know what you're really like. He can't know the truth. If he hears the truth, he'll help."
Lunet sighed. She shifted her hands in her lap, one on top of the other and then back again. They were covered in dark spots, like her face.
"And who'll tell him?" she said quietly. "Does he listen to you?"
"I don't know. But I'll tell him. I swear, Lunet, I'll tell him. He has to listen."
"I will not ask this of you, Déoric," she said, "though I confess it has been my hope that you would speak for us. You have a gift with words as well as with shapes, and if anyone can persuade a mighty lord, you can. But don't get yourself into trouble on our behalf. Your tales may not be well received, they won't. What king wants to hear about the wrongdoings of his forefathers?"
"Éomer King is generous and honourable," said Déoric. "He thinks of you as savage foes, but he'll change his mind when he hears what I have to say."
"Well," said Lunet, "you seem to know your king, you do. For your sake and ours, I hope you're right."