13. Open Spaces
A week later Gruffyd came up to the cottage once again with a visitor. Aldfrid led a second horse by the bridle – the mare Ivornel, who bore Déoric's crutches and saddlebags. It was late in the afternoon, the dull and chilly hour of winter twilight. Déoric stood next to Lunet by the cottage door.
"He's got my horse," he said, stating the obvious.
"Now, aren't you the lucky one," replied Lunet. "A mighty fine horse, and all your gear, too, it would appear."
"Hail, Déoric," called Aldfrid as he dismounted. He cast a suspicious look at Lunet, who shuffled back inside.
"Welcome, Aldfrid," said Déoric. "I am very glad to see you. And you, too, my sweet," he continued and patted the mare's neck. She snorted and began to search his pockets for treats. Aldfrid unloaded the horses in silence. When Gruffyd took hold of Ivornel's harness, Aldfrid made it clear with a gesture that he was going to tend to the horses himself. Gruffyd shrugged and indicated the path to the goat shed, then he picked up Déoric's saddlebags and carried them into the cottage. Déoric followed, leaning on his crutches with grateful relief.
Once inside, he crouched down on the floor eager to reclaim his possessions. The saddlebags looked darker than he remembered and when he touched them, they felt hard and brittle. Worry crept up his back and made him shudder. He opened the buckles on the flaps of the first bag and peered inside. It contained his clothes, all carefully laundered and folded. Underneath he found his spare shoe, newly polished. Déoric pushed that bag aside and opened the other. A wad of parchments lay on top and their warped look confirmed his fear: the whole bag must have been submerged in water. Carefully, he smoothed out a sheet and breathed with relief. The silverpoint writing was still legible. He congratulated himself for not having used ink; however, his next concern was for his paints. He found them at the bottom of the bag, wrapped in a cloth. Whoever had packed them with such care need not have taken the trouble. When he removed the cloth, he found the casket stained with streaks of many colours and in parts encrusted with a layer of pigments. Inside, it was a mess. Only a couple of the tiny boxes had lost their lids and spilled their contents, but water seemed to have seeped into most of the others. One by one, he opened them to survey the damage. Some had congealed into lumps, others had formed solid blocks and yet others had disappeared altogether, probably dissolved and washed away. Few looked as if they could be restored for use.
Before he could raise his finger to his teeth, Lunet had put her hand on his arm.
"You've got your horse back and your stories," she said, "and I dare say your king will be pleased enough just to see you again, or if he isn't, he's not worth a goat's tail, he's not."
"You don't understand," whispered Déoric. "These were all the pigments I had. I won't be painting again."
"Oh, think properly, Déoric," began Lunet, but she was interrupted when Aldfrid came in.
"There not room to scratch your nose in that shed," he said. "I got the horses in, but they'll be most uncomfortable."
"It wasn't built for strawhead horses, and that's the truth," replied Lunet. "If you don't like it, you can leave them outside, you can. At least that would leave me a space for my hammock without having to intrude on young Master Déoric's privacy."
He stared at her, but didn't say anything else. Gruffyd looked up from the parchments.
"My mother says the other strawhead can sleep in our house tonight," he said, "since it's crowded enough up here as it is."
The sentence penetrated into Déoric's mind and distracted him for a moment from his misery. He glanced at the sword girded to Aldfrid's side and wondered how Gruffyd's mother had mustered the pluck to invite a warrior of the Mark into her home.
"Are you sure?" he said.
"Well, I told her it would be alright," replied Gruffyd.
"I'm not sleeping in any Dunlendish house," said Aldfrid. "The woodshed will do for me."
"But, Aldfrid - " said Déoric, however, he was interrupted by Lunet.
"I will accept your mother's kind invitation," she said and began to wrap up for the outdoors. "Let's leave these two to catch up on their news, shall we. Déoric, there's broth in the pot, there is; see to it that your friend gets something to eat. I'll be back up here in the morning before you leave."
She was up and by the door quicker than one might have believed for a woman of her age, but Gruffyd still lingered. He knelt down where Déoric sat on the floor next to his spoilt box of paints.
"Farewell, Déoric," he said. "I'm glad we've met."
"So am I," replied Déoric and put a hand on Gruffyd's shoulder. Their brief embrace was watched with a smile by Lunet and a suspicious frown by Aldfrid. A minute later, the door closed behind the Dunlendings and Aldfrid and Déoric were left alone in the cottage.
"How have you been?" said Déoric while he randomly opened and closed the lids on the pigment boxes. "And how did you escape from the orcs?"
"The usual way," replied Aldfrid. "I slew them."
"I hunted round for you, but couldn't find you. So I returned to the Hornburg and asked Erkenbrand to send out a search party. But all they found was your horse and your bags. And then the snow came and I couldn't get away."
After this extraordinarily long speech, Aldfrid sat down on a stool and took off his boots. He didn't seem interested in hearing Déoric's story, and Déoric didn't feel like telling it just yet.
"Well, I'm glad you're here now," said Déoric and shuffled over to the hearth to serve up the meal out of the pot, a watery stew of onions and mushrooms. "And I'm glad you found Ivornel. What happened to my saddlebags?"
Aldfrid made a face when he tasted the soup.
"She lost them," he said. "A slash from an orc blade maybe loosened the straps. It was only by chance they were discovered, lying at the edge of a stream."
Déoric sighed. He wouldn't find out anything else about it now, and what difference did it make anyway? What was lost, was lost. He tried not to imagine what the king would say.
Déoric opened the door and blinked into the sunshine. After the dim interior of the cottage, the light outside seemed biting and far too bright. All was quiet, except for the gentle snorting of the horses, which were saddled and ready to go. Aldfrid adjusted his stirrups. The air had the fresh, tinny feel of melting snow; it moved about in sudden gusts that tumbled down from the hilltops. Déoric could almost taste it, a sharp and slightly acid tint to his very breath.
Lunet stood by the door of the cottage while he mounted, wrapped up in her grey shawl and heedfully keeping out of the way of the chill water that dripped down from the icicles on the eaves. Her crumpled, walnut-coloured face under the tangled grey hair showed no expression beyond silent watchfulness.
"Farewell, and thank you," said Déoric for at least the fifth time that morning.
"You take good care of yourself, dearie," she said. "The world isn't too overcrowded with women who can look after you when you get yourself into trouble."
"I will be cautious, Lunet," said Déoric. "And I have Master Aldfrid to take care of me."
"Aye, as he did the last time," mumbled Lunet. Aldfrid either didn't hear or pretended not to; in any case, he had finished fiddling with the harnesses and so they mounted and set off along the path that led from Lunet's cottage along the side of the hill. When they had ridden perhaps a hundred yards, Déoric turned in the saddle and waved at Lunet. She stood just outside her door and did not raise her hand, but he knew that she was watching. He kept glancing over his shoulder now and then. Her figure became smaller and smaller each time he looked back until at last he could no longer make out whether she was still standing there or had gone back inside to seek the warm comfort of her hearth.
After all that time spent inside the cottage, Déoric rejoiced in the light and air of the outdoors. With the snow mostly melted, lingering only in patches where it had been blown into dips or crevasses on the hillsides, he saw clearly for the first time the land that had harboured him during this long winter. The downs were sparsely covered with tough grass and last year's bracken, and pierced in many places by the grey rocks that lay underneath. He could see how even the hardiest sheep and goats would struggle to find sustenance here. Rivulets of icy waters trickled down from these hills. They were tinted red by the peaty soil and formed short waterfalls or little ponds depending on the shape of the land. Few trees could take hold on the stony ground.
The valleys, however lush they looked from a distance, were no more suited to feeding a people than the downs, for these were marshlands, where the woolgrass flourished and midges abounded. A thin line of homesteads skirted along the foot of the hills, and meagre gardens flocked around the houses as if looking for warmth. Next to a cottage some hundred yards below, a handful of boys were playing a game with sticks. One looked up and pointed at Déoric and Aldfrid. The boys shouted angry words and shook their fists. Before the riders could move out of sight, a stone flew up from the group of boys. It landed on the slope and bounced off a rock. Déoric and Aldfrid exchanged looks. They turned their heads the other way and spurred on their horses. From then on they stayed clear of those settlements and kept to the uplands.
Above, the white sky was a great mother bird that drew everything under her wings, the bleak hills and boglands as well as the ragged farms. Brown, amber and pallid yellowish green dappled with the white patches of the last remaining snow were the colours of this plaintive landscape, and every now and then they heard the call of the curlew, three short, sharp cries that echoed up from the marches. This was the only sound save for the noise of their horse's hooves, clanking against rock or falling muffled onto the spongy, moss-covered soil. Until dusk they rode on and then camped by a cliff. That night a starlit dome stretched out over their heads. Hardly rivalled by the modest light of their little fire, it displayed its pattern of brighter or fainter glow against a velvety black, a secret language that neither of the two men could read. Even their shrivelled apples and dry slabs of bread tasted sumptuous under such a splendid tent, and the scent that rose from the soup pot on the cooking fire tickled their noses with a tasty promise.
In the morning, Déoric felt strangely restless. It gave him a pang to think of Lunet left all alone in her cottage. They set off at dawn. As usual, Aldfrid spoke very little and Déoric joined in the silence. A light wind from the south blew his hair out of his face and its cool caress made his cheeks feel fresh and firm. In front of him, Aldfrid sat slightly hunched, his shoulders drawn up and his head bent forward. His thin braids fell down nearly to his waist and bounced gently to the rhythm of his trotting horse. Their pale, dull blonde colour suggested that they were shot with grey, and they were tied at the ends with slim leather ribbons of faded green. The smell of the horses undulated around the riders, a warm, almost spicy scent that carried a curiously mixed promise of both adventure and home. The steady movement of the animals was tranquilizing. Ivornel's fur shone like a ripe chestnut freshly peeled from its shell, but to the touch of his hand it felt soft and silky.
Shortly after noontime, they stopped for a meal at the edge of a forest. While Déoric busied himself over the cooking fire, Aldfrid led the horses to a little grassy spot. The hazy sky was cloudless, but water dripped down from the branches of the trees, making for a little local rain shower that was easily avoided by keeping a couple of yards out of its way. The two men had just settled down to their bowl of soup when they became aware of dark shapes emerging from the forest. At the same time, a terrified neigh turned their heads and they saw their horses disappearing down the hillside.
They looked back at the figures which now stood in the full light – three wolves. Aldfrid's hand was on the hilt of his sword immediately.
"Wait, don't!" hissed Déoric. He looked at the animal at the front of the group and tried to remember the face of the wolf he had seen only once in a dizzy blur. It was a silly undertaking – the wolves all looked alike to him. Still, he had an odd inkling that this wolf was no stranger.
"I think... I think I might have met this one before."
Slowly and without taking his eyes off the wolves, he passed his bowl to Aldfrid.
"Move back a bit," he whispered.
"But Déoric - " began Aldfrid.
"Just do it, please. I know what I'm doing." At least, he hoped he knew it.
Aldfrid slowly slid over to one side. The wolves were watching, keen eyes fixed on Déoric as he crouched down and held out a hand. The leader made a move towards him and stood still. One of the other wolves growled and bared its fangs. However, the first wolf remained calm and eyed Déoric earnestly.
"It was you, wasn't it?" said Déoric. The wolf took another step forward and sniffed. Déoric tried not to move. He felt the muscles in his leg going tense and sore.
"Well, I'm glad to see you've found some friends," he said and tried to shift gently into a more comfortable pose. Man and wolf looked at each other. In the silence, the far off whinny of a horse echoed up the hill.
"Thank you," said Déoric. At this moment, he lost his balance and fell over to one side. Aldfrid jumped up and drew his sword. The wolves turned and fled. Seconds later, they had vanished under the eaves of the forest.
Aldfrid shook his head.
"The horses are gone," he said.
"They were gone before we even noticed the wolves," said Déoric.
Aldfrid made no reply, but got up and began to walk down the hillside. Soon his figure was lost from view behind a couple of rocks. Déoric hesitated, then he poured Aldfrid's stew back into the pot, placed the lid on it and put out the fire. His own meal was still lukewarm, and he ate it with enthusiasm, not having seen any meat all winter long. Every now and then he peered into the murky forest or down the hillside, but there was no further sign of either the wolves or his companion. Mist hid the country in the middle distance. He began to study the boulders against which they had leaned their saddlebags and noted the strange patterns of the lichen. In his mind, he considered the pigments needed to mix the right colours, but cursed himself when he remembered the state of his paint box.
As the afternoon wore on, the sun broke through the haze and lent some cheer to the bleak surroundings. Déoric welcomed the change, especially since he was beginning to feel the chill, but it wasn't long before he had a different reason for displeasure. Something stung him on the side of the neck and then, a little later, on the back of his hand. As soon as he thought of what to look for, he spotted the cloud of tiny insects hovering about him. He waved an irritated hand at them. What a country! The snow had barely gone and here were midges already.
It was nearly evening when Aldfrid returned on horseback, leading Déoric's mare. The two men spoke little, merely enough to confirm the need to camp for another night. Aldfrid insisted in keeping the fire going and sharing watches, in case of wolves, as he said. Déoric shrugged and consented.
The following day dawned bright and crisp. Their descent from the hills was punctuated by thickets of elder and hawthorn, which extended bare, bizarrely twisted fingers into the clear morning. The borderlands stretched out empty of habitations for many miles, home only to birds and hares that fed on the abundant grass. Here the ground of the plains was firm enough to ride on and birches and willows grew in clumps among the small green knolls, their reddish twigs swaying gently as if trying to sweep the last memories of winter off the ground. Soon enough they saw proper fields bordered by beech hedges or dry stone dykes, with larks singing away vigorously under the brilliant blue sky and the people of the Westfold already at work in them with their sturdy horses and sharp ploughs. Towards the West, heavier and thinner clouds were layered in such a way as to paint the sky in a pattern of grey and pale yellow, against which stood the feathery shapes of a group of poplars.
By nightfall they reached a settlement of neat wooden houses with carved horse heads at the gables. A crowd of villagers by the well eyed them curiously and whispered at the arrival of the strangers, but their words sounded sweet and welcoming to Déoric's ears, for they were spoken in the familiar Rohirric tongue. They were back in the Mark.