14. A Kiss, a Chair and a Letter
A small chest of drawers stood near the window and above it hung Déoric's portrait of Erkenbrand. Déoric glanced at it more than once during the meal – it was the last thing he had painted. Back then he had been looking ahead and hoping to improve his skills greatly by and by. That chance was gone. He sighed.
Erkenbrand's household had changed. His daughter had married and left, but the party sitting down for dinner that night had increased and not diminished, for to Erkenbrand's right sat two dwarves, Gimli and another who introduced himself as Mîg. Déoric was astonished to hear that the dwarves were establishing a settlement in the caves of Helm's Deep.
"Dwarves right here in the Mark!" he exclaimed. "Why, that is wonderful indeed. We'll have so much to learn from your skill in metalwork and mining."
Gimli bowed his head.
"We will be glad to be teachers to the Eorlingas," he said. "Even if times are now approaching when there will be less need for swords and axes, there are many things we can craft that will serve peace. But not all of us are smiths and warriors. Mîg here is a poet, and that is why I have brought him along tonight to meet you, for I hear that you are a wordsmith, too."
"Someone has exaggerated then," replied Déoric. "I make neither verses nor stories, I only write them down."
"That is an honourable craft," said the dwarf Mîg, "though one might think that as a man of runes, you would wish to record more than just the words of others."
"I have tried my hand once or twice," admitted Déoric.
"And how did you fare with your story collecting before you got lost?" asked Erkenbrand. "Shall we hear some tales that are new to us?"
"I am afraid I have committed none of them to memory yet," said Déoric in an attempt to avoid the subject, since he was still unsure of how to handle those stories about the villainous Dunlendings. After his experiences in Dunland, he couldn't imagine them to be entirely right, but it was clear that they were not completely wrong either. He had seen the Dunlendings taking sides with orcs and wargs against the Eorlingas, after all. This reminded him of a question that had nagged him.
"Lord Erkenbrand, we did show mercy to the Dunlendings after the battle of Helm's Deep, didn't we?"
"Oh, yes, to those that were left," boomed Erkenbrand. "Made them clear up the battlefield and then sent them home, good riddance."
"So there weren't many survivors?"
"There were a fair number, but many more had perished. It was a fierce battle, and they were more easily crushed than the orcs. Many had wounds from which they would hardly recover, and others had run off into the eerie forest."
"Was no aid offered to those who were wounded?" asked Déoric.
"Those who still stood took the wounded away with them," replied Erkenbrand. "It seems those Dunlendings would rather bleed to death than be touched by a Strawhead."
Déoric clenched the knife and fork in his hands. How many had died due to the Dunlendings' stubbornness? Idwal's father, Gruffyd's father, Tegan's husband? How could they have been so stupid? Then he remembered what Lunet had told him, those rumours that the Eorlingas burn their captives alive. But it wasn't true! So much wasn't true that one people told about the other. Would they hate each other for all times because rumours and false tales grew like weeds on the deserted battlefields?
"I fear we have digressed," he heard Erkenbrand say, "and we are boring our guests. Master Mîg, will you be so good and entertain us with some of your songs?"
The dwarf stood up and bowed. He smoothed down his beard and began to sing, in a voice much softer than Déoric had expected. The words were in the dwarven tongue, but after a while he felt as if he understood, or else that images formed in his mind without passing the portal of language: images of roaring fires in halls of stone, of hidden jewels and gleaming metal, of hands joined in friendship and work. It seemed clear that the dwarf sang of a place where his heart lay, however much he had come to dwell in another.
Déoric allowed his thoughts to drift away, eastwards, home. He pondered on the note he had sent off earlier that day, in the hope that the messenger would reach Edoras well ahead of him. This was to spare his mother and his wife two or three further days of worry, should the message he had sent through the dwarves have got lost for some reason. As the dwarf's voice floated through the room, Déoric wished he could have rolled himself up inside that scroll and sped home to Fana on a horse much too fiery for his diminished body.
The winter had departed as suddenly as it had assailed the country. When Déoric and Aldfrid set off from the Hornburg the following morning, the sun shone down on them with force, and though it was only February, they felt warm enough by noon to cast aside their cloaks. The grass hung limp and wan coloured; no first glimmer of budding leaves shone on the trees and shrubs, and yet a feeling of spring wafted over the land. It's the smell, thought Déoric as a wave of scattered memories washed over him. It always does that when the seasons change.
By late afternoon, they were surrounded by a wobbling cloud of crane flies. Déoric swatted one that had landed in Ivornel's mane.
"They don't actually bite," said Aldfrid.
"Do they not? I always thought they did." With a slightly queasy feeling, Déoric contemplated the sorry mess of tangled thread-thin limbs on his palm. He wiped it off on his trousers.
"Ever been bitten by one?"
"Not that I know of," admitted Déoric. "I wonder how they get through the winter? They look so flimsy."
Aldfrid shrugged and didn't reply.
"Will you be glad to be back home?" said Déoric, and it occurred to him that he had never asked the man about his life. Aldfrid was so quiet most of the time and so matter-of-fact whenever he spoke that Déoric had failed to think much about him. Now he realized, to his shame, that he didn't even know if the man had a family.
"Very glad," replied Aldfrid. "I have a wife waiting and my little girl. You know her."
"Do I?" Déoric frowned in puzzlement and wondered whom Aldfrid could mean.
"Yes. You gave her one of your drawings. With horses."
"I don't – wait, you mean you are Fryn's father?" Déoric's mind flung up images of the child he had befriended one winter's day in the fields outside Edoras, when they had both lamented the loss of their fathers. He remembered well how thrilled the girl had been months later when she told him of her father's return. It was the day he'd been made Chronicler of the Mark, the day of his reconciliation with Fana. And this was Fryn's father? "The one who was left behind in Mundburg because he'd lost his memory?"
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"You didn't ask."
"No, I didn't," said Déoric and lowered his head to hide his face. He had been inconsiderate to say the least, treating Aldfrid like a piece of furniture rather than a person.
The rode on in silence for a while and then Déoric said, "Would you like to have your picture, too? Should I draw you, maybe?"
Aldfrid didn't look round.
"I would like that very much," he said. "It would be something to comfort my wife when I'm away from home."
"That's what we'll do then," said Déoric, "as soon as we get home."
When Déoric entered the house, he found Fana bent over a sewing task and Dirlayn sitting at the table in quiet conversation with Léofred. Both women jumped up and rushed to embrace him. Déoric dropped his crutches and flung himself into their caress, left arm around Fana and the right around his mother. He held them for a long time, though he didn't dare squeeze to tightly when he felt Fana's bulging belly pushing against him.
At last they let go of each other. Dirlayn pressed Déoric into a seat by the fire, but their need to be reassured of their reunion was not yet fulfilled and all three of them kept stretching out hands to touch arms, shoulders and faces.
"Dunland, Déoric!" cried Dirlayn. "How in all the world did you escape?"
"They didn't do anything horrible to you, did they?" said Fana with wide eyes. She sat on a stool right beside Déoric and held on to his arm like her younger self had once clutched a rag doll.
"No, they didn't," replied Déoric. "I don't even know where to start explaining. It's a long story. But rest assured that nobody has been horrible to me, apart from the orcs, that is, and the snow. The Dunlendings are – well, I don't really know what to say, only that they are not how we always thought. For a start, there are very few warriors among them now. They're more a people of old women and little children."
"You'll need to tell us more about that, Déoric," said Léofred.
"I will, eventually," said Déoric. "For now, though, I'd like something decent to eat. Without onions or dried mushrooms, if possible."
"There's sausages and potatoes," said Dirlayn, "but I'll have to warm them up first." She disappeared into the kitchen. Léofred followed her, presumably to allow Déoric and Fana a moment's privacy.
"Well?" Déoric placed his hand on Fana's neck, right under her ear, and stroked her cheek with is thumb.
"Well." She sighed. "I'm so glad to see you, Déoric. I was worried that you wouldn't come back...in time, you know." She hugged her belly and smiled at him. The smile made her lips seem so irresistible that a kiss could no longer be postponed. It had been a long and lonely winter and the kiss had to make up for it. They were still engrossed in their tender exchange when Dirlayn and Léofred returned with the food. As if caught in some impropriety, they broke apart. Léofred grinned.
"You'll be glad to get some good ale, too," said Dirlayn. Instead of a reply, Déoric seized the mug and drained it. Then he settled down to his meal, intently watched by the other three. The first piece of potato was so sweet and soft on his tongue that it nearly drove him to tears. At Lord Erkenbrand's table they had, to his regret, served plenty of meat and bread, but no potatoes. He ate with unabated enthusiasm. Once his plate was cleared, he leaned back and let his eyes rest on the familiar faces.
"I am very grateful, Léofred," he said, "to find you fulfilling so faithfully my request to look in on my family from time to time.
The corners of Léofred's mouth twitched for a second, but he quickly raised his hand and rubbed his beard.
"It was my pleasure, Déoric," he said. "And now I have something to show you."
"Master Léofred has been keenly awaiting your return," added Dirlayn. "He is so eager to see what you will think of his invention."
"An invention?" Déoric wiped his mouth with his sleeve, which earned him a stern look from both his mother and his wife. "I cannot possibly imagine what he would have invented."
"You'll see," said Fana, grinning.
Meanwhile, Léofred had disappeared into the narrow passage that led to the back of the house. Déoric was puzzled, but presently he saw Léofred coming back pushing a strange looking contraption, which he placed in front of his young friend with a gesture that was half embarrassed, half pleased.
Déoric scanned it with curiosity. There were a horizontal and a vertical surface, attached in such a way as will always be called a chair, but the front legs ended in two small metal casters and attached in the place where the second pair of legs should have been were two cart wheels. A slim wooden board extended from the right front leg just above the caster wheel.
"That is the footrest," explained Léofred, having followed Déoric's eyes. "This won't be of any use in the streets and with all the stairs, but it'll get you round the house and garden well enough. I've got another one the same as this up at the Hall. It's a bit of a tight fit, but it just goes through the door of the scribe's room. Somebody can push it along, but you can also propel it yourself if you place your hands on the wheel rims."
Déoric cast a sceptical look at the contraption. It appeared sturdy enough, but he wasn't sure whether his sense of dignity wouldn't suffer if he used such a wheeled chair. He glanced at his crutches. In nearly two years since he had lost his leg, he had learned to move about with them fairly well. Of course, there were the underarm sores... Those had healed up nicely during the lazy winter. Anything that would prevent them from forming again had to be worth a try. He lowered himself into the chair and gave the wheel rims an experimental shove. The chair rumbled across the floorboards with amazing smoothness.
"It's good," he said. He attempted to steer it round the corner of the table and found that it manoeuvred with ease.
"I spent quite a while on the wheel balance," said Léofred. "I hope it'll make your life a lot easier."
Fana grabbed the two handles that protruded from the back of the chair and pushed Déoric around in what little space was available.
"You weigh nothing, Déoric," she said. "Whatever else the Dunlendings did to you, they failed to feed you."
"Too true," said Déoric, "though it wasn't through any meanness on their part. You shall hear about all that later. But first, Léofred, I'll have to thank you for this wonderful present. It's just what I need. How did you come to think of it?"
"Oh, sometimes I have these ideas, you know," he said. "And every now and then one of them runs away with me. But now I shall leave you to your womenfolk. Take a good rest. The king expects you up at the Hall the day after tomorrow."
Under a shower of thanks and good wishes, Léofred slipped out the door. Once he had gone, a tingling silence settled on the room for a moment, and then Fana, Dirlayn and Déoric all started talking at the same time. With much laughter and very little method, they shared at least a portion of their more relevant news. A new wing for the infirmary, why, excellent! And Aedre with child already, well, Niarl didn't wait about, did he? At last Déoric's look fell on a scroll that lay on the shelf next to a haphazard pile of scarves and gloves.
"Did Uncle write?"
"No, not Uncle," said Dirlayn. "This came from the North. Probably from that Halfling again."
She took the letter and handed it to Déoric, who opened it eagerly and read:
Thank you for your letter, or both your letters, I should say. I have meant for a while to reply to the first, but was distracted with one thing or another, and now that the second has arrived I will no longer delay.
First of all, let me congratulate you. Chronicler of the Mark sounds like a very respectable title indeed. So you are a scholar? I confess I had not expected that, but things being as they are, we seem to have much in common. Maybe this correspondence is something we should continue? I am also interested in legends and history, and at times I entertain myself with researching old archives and studying accounts of days gone by. And an artist, too! There, I am afraid, I cannot follow you. My own attempts with a paint brush have always had rather pathetic results.
Perhaps more importantly, I extend my congratulations to you on the occasion of your marriage. I hope you and your Fana will always be very happy. I am certainly very pleased to hear that you have wed such an amiable young woman. As for fatherhood – what can I say? You seem a lucky man indeed. I hope you will not think me insolent if I tell you that you strike me as very young to be married. At your age, a hobbit would be considered little more than a child. My people usually do not wed until they are in their thirties. I am thirty-seven years of age and am only now beginning to think of courtship – you may wish me luck!
With regard to your question, it is one that I have pondered about before. It is an intriguing one indeed. This is not the first time I hear about those stories. They were mentioned to me by Théoden King when I was introduced to him. And like you, I have wondered about the word Hobytla. Your king told me at the time that the Eorlingas used to live in the North of Wilderland, as did apparently the ancestors of my own people. That might explain things, but I do wonder if there maybe was some kind of contact in the less distant past, for otherwise we would have to assume that your people have a very good memory indeed. It is some fourteen hundred years now that the Hobbits settled in the Shire, and we know little about our history prior to that time.
Our ancestors, you must know, lived in the vales of the Anduin and travelled to the West and North in times so far in the past that I would know nothing about it, had my friend Gandalf not told me. It would seem that different groups took different paths when they made their way into Eriador, and I believe it is possible that some of them came to Rohan, long before your people ever settled there, and stayed. I do not think, though, that we will ever be able to find proof. I have searched the libraries both here at Brandy Hall and at Great Smials, but alas, our records do not go back any further than the founding of the Shire and rarely concern themselves with anything outside out own country. If it was indeed so that a group of hobbits, perhaps of the kind we call Stoors, lived in the Riddermark long after the rest of our people had moved into the North, I would dearly like to know what became of them. But I do not think we will ever find out.
Thank you for your kind wishes. Most of us are very well, though my cousin Frodo, alas, is still suffering a great deal. I wish there was more I could do for him, but I can only attend to him with such acts of kindness as are usually ministered to those who are feeling poorly.
On a more cheerful note, I am planning to come to Rohan next year with my cousin Peregrin to attend the wedding of your king. I will make sure to visit you then, and we can talk some more about old legends. Please write again and tell me where your house is. Until then, I remain with best wishes for you and your family,
"...his cousin Frodo," muttered Déoric when he had finished. "That must be the Ringbearer."
"Was the Enemy really destroyed by a Halfling, Déoric?" asked Fana. "It seems hard to believe."
"I barely know what to believe these days," he replied, "but I'm pretty sure it's all true what they said about those Halflings. And having met Meriadoc, I don't find it all that hard to believe."
Crane flies are better known in some parts as Daddy-long-legs.
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.