At a table in the Shield of Emnet Inn, a young man of the Mark found it hard to believe the folly of his friend.
"And you told that to the king? Are you out of your mind, Déoric?"
"Why, what would you have done?"
Niarl took a swig and put his mug down with a bang.
"Déoric! I would have kept my mouth shut. There was no reason to tell him all that."
"How can you say there's no reason? Don't you care about the truth?"
"Not as much as I care about my own skin. Truth is just an idea. Have you thought about what you'll live on, you and Fana and your child and your mother, if you break with the king? How will truth help you, if you're left out in the cold? People are more important than ideas."
"The Dunlendings are people, too. And I've always thought the Eorlingas cherished truth very highly."
Niarl turned his empty tankard round and round between his hands. It made a scraping sound on the table. He sighed and looked at the ceiling and then back at his fingers.
"Look, Déoric, I wouldn't tell lies, but there would have been no harm in simply keeping quiet about this whole thing. They're just Dunlendings after all."
"Niarl!" Déoric reached across the table and grabbed his friend's arm. "They are of our kind!" And suddenly the rest of the sentence came to him without thinking. "What sort of man would I be if I kept quiet about a whole land full of people starving?"
Niarl, however, was not impressed. "You'd be a man who is still bringing home some coin to feed his family. How could you be such a fool, Déoric?"
"I promised Lunet I'd speak for her people. Would you have me break my promises?"
"Now, that was jolly stupid of you to make such a promise, wasn't it? Déoric! Who has ever heard of such a thing, a man of the Mark befriending a Dunlending? It's ludicrous!"
"I didn't befriend her, Niarl, she befriended me, and if she hadn't done so, the crows would now be feasting on my dead body, kept nice and fresh over the winter by several feet of snow. I'm sure I have explained that before."
"All right then, but what about that boy, that Grumpid? Surely you didn't have to befriend him? What if he is a spy?"
Déoric rolled his eyes.
"His name is Gruffyd. And he's just a boy, Niarl. He's not much older than Fana's brothers. We liked each other because we both thought the other lads from the village were mindless bullies."
"There you have it," said Niarl. "Bullies and ruffians. I can't see how you'd want to anything to do with them."
"You just don't want to see my point, Niarl," said Déoric and emptied his mug. "I don't think you can. Perhaps one needs to see those people eye to eye to understand. Let's talk about something else. Have you thought about what it'll mean to you to be a father?"
Niarl, reluctant though he might have been to change the subject, could not resist this question and began to bask at length in the glory of the son he intended to have. The moon was out by the time they left the inn and the night air, crisp and nippy, cleared the ale daze from their heads. They walked home in silence and parted with just a tap on the shoulder of the other. Déoric hastened as best he could to his house, which lay in darkness.
It was cool in the bedchamber. Déoric hurried to slip under the blankets. He meant to keep his cold limbs away from Fana's warm body, but she turned over and pulled him into her embrace.
"Sorry to wake you up," he whispered and kissed her on the forehead.
"I wasn't asleep. I've been waiting for you."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I should have come home earlier."
"Stop apologising," she said. "I'm just glad you're here."
They lay for a while, arm wrapped about each other and listening to the familiar sounds of the room: a gentle rattle of the shutters, a creaking of wood, their own breaths.
"Do you blame me, Fana," said Déoric, "for speaking to the king as I did?"
"No," she said. "You did right to tell him. It's supposed to be peacetime now. We must change how we're thinking, and the king must lead the way."
"Fana." He burrowed his face into her hair and inhaled the scent. "You are too good to be true. But what will we live on?"
"Something will turn up, Déoric. Fear not. And until then, humbling though it is, we'll have the charity of our parents."
"I'd rather not depend on that," said Déoric.
"I know. But it'll do for a while, and then you'll find something else to do. Just you wait and see."
Déoric sighed. "I hope you're right."
"So do I," she said and clung closer to him. Her belly pressed against his stomach, and it wasn't long before he could feel the twitching movements of his child. Thus, with their unborn infant between them and the anxious future hanging over them, they drifted off to sleep.
Far away in Ithilien, a young woman quite new to motherhood had problems of a very different nature. Things had not turned out the way she had expected and she just could not fit herself into the image of the blissful nursing mother that she had so fondly nurtured during her pregnancy.
"It still hurts every single time," she told the healer who sat by her armchair. "It's as if someone pushed in a needle." Merilwen subtly examined the suckling infant's placing at his mother's breast.
"I can't see anything wrong in the way he latches on," she said. "Some women get such stinging pains for a while and then they disappear. Applying a heated stone after the feed might help; I'll send your maid to prepare one."
She turned to the maid Acha and gave her some murmured instructions.
"How long before it gets better?" asked Éowyn and flinched with pain. Acha scurried out of the room.
"I can't tell, my lady," said Merilwen and sat down again beside her. "But Elboron is growing well, so you must be doing it right. The pain is a nuisance, to be sure, but a brave woman like you will bear it tolerably. Or do you wish me to look out for a wet nurse?"
"Oh, no," said Éowyn with a tender glance at her tiny son. "After all the frowns and disapproving looks I've endured from the Gondorian ladies, I won't give them the satisfaction of seeing me fail. I can stand the pain, but it's so disheartening to know that I'll have to do it all over again a few hours later. There's just no end in sight."
"Take heart, Lady Éowyn," said Merilwen. "Come May, your son will be able to take gruel and other light food. It won't go on like this forever."
"Come May, my brother will wed Princess Lothíriel. Merilwen, will I be strong enough by then to travel to the Mark?"
"I don't see why not. Lady Éowyn. You have recovered very well. Even if you cannot sit a horse, some other way of transport may be found."
"And shall you come with me?"
"I, Lady Éowyn?"
"Indeed!" said Éowyn. "Do you not recall me saying to you, some while back when you showed me the letter from Déoric the Scribe, that one day you shall travel to the Mark with me and see him again?"
Merilwen smiled in that calm, dignified way of hers.
"I do remember that, Lady Éowyn. I would be honoured to accompany you."
"And so it shall be," said Éowyn. "We shall travel together."
Elboron had nodded off at the breast and she gently moved him aside and cradled him in the crook of her arm, while her other hand rearranged her clothing. Both women looked in silence at the slumbering infant. Traces of milk still clung to his upper lip, and he had curled up his hand behind his ear.
"Are you sure it matters not?" said Éowyn, for the umpteenth time, when she looked at the little fist.
"I've never known it to cause anyone any trouble," replied Merilwen. "It's just one of those things that happen from time to time. Don't let it weigh on your mind. He's a fine, healthy boy and I have no worries about him whatsoever."
"What if - " began Éowyn, but at that moment Acha returned with the hot stone wrapped in a cloth. Éowyn handed the child to Merilwen, who nestled him against her shoulder, and leaned back in her chair while the maid placed the stone. When the heat seeped through her clothing and into her aching breast, Éowyn closed her eyes and contemplated allowing herself to fall asleep, too.
Three days after the quarrel with Déoric, Éomer King sat in his study and conferred with his chief advisor. Things were going well in the Mark. Almost all damage that had been caused by the war was meanwhile repaired, and plenty of strong, healthy foals had been born that would in time allow the herds to recover. The last harvest had been abundant and though the winter had been severe, ample food stores remained that would see the Eorlingas well fed until the new crop. With quiet satisfaction, Léofred placed account after account in front of the king. Éomer read and nodded, signed and approved. Yet he seemed not as pleased as he should have been.
"Is anything the matter, my lord?" Léofred asked when their business was concluded.
Éomer leaned back in his chair and stretched out his legs.
"It does not seem right to me, Léofred, that we should prosper while others starve."
At this, Léofred rubbed his beard thoughtfully.
"You are, I assume, referring to the news about the situation in Dunland?" he said.
The king sighed.
"Léofred, would you say the Eorlingas have acted dishonourably?"
"I would not say so, my lord, and most certainly not in front of my king," replied Léofred with a sly little smile. "As for what I think: I see nothing shameful in our past, no. We settled in the land granted to us by Gondor; we built it up, we defended it. Things were rough at times, and your forebears responded to the needs of their people as they saw fit. Of course, things are different now. How future generations will judge the conduct of the Eorlingas will depend very much on you, my lord."
Éomer snorted. "Thank you for reminding me of the full weight of my responsibilities, Léofred. Not that I was in any danger of forgetting it. But what can I do?"
Léofred tapped the parchments with the accounts that still lay on the desk between them.
"You are a generous man, my lord," he said. "Generosity will give what it can – nothing more, nothing less. You have seen for yourself that we prosper."
"And we can spare...?"
"A little, here and there. It will add up."
"See to it then," said Éomer. "We will give what we can spare and for now we will not worry if it is enough to fulfil their need. We shall do our duty by them. Let time tell if they are worthy of it."
He seized the parchments and handed them to Léofred.
"There is something else, though."
"Yes, my lord?"
"It pains me to have thus sent off Déoric in disgrace. I have a great fondness for the lad and would rather than not see him back in the scribe's room. Moreover, his words weigh heavily on my mind. I think there is much truth in what he said. Way back, Léofred, in the days of the war and before it, I used to believe that all I wanted was for our people to be free and live in the way we always have lived of old. Now I am beginning to think that is not enough. If the war has shown me one thing, it is this: that no people's fate is separated from that of the others, and that what concerns one part of Middle-earth should concern all. That, I believe, was also what Déoric was trying to tell me. He was just unfortunate enough to have befriended a people who were very low in my estimation. As for his boldness, I fear I have encouraged it previously and ought not to blame him. I wish I could have him back. I feel it is a sorry court without my royal artist and chronicler."
Léofred smiled. "You are the king, my lord. If you tell him to return to his duties, I am sure he will be delighted."
"And yet, I cannot be seen to condone such behaviour as Déoric has shown towards his king right here in the Golden Hall, in front of others who may have told their wives, who may have told their sisters and so on to their neighbours and all over Edoras. I must be seen to be a king and act like a king."
"I understand, my lord. There is a solution to that," said Léofred slowly.
"And what would that be?"
"Send him away for while. Make it known that you are giving him a chance to redeem himself. When he returns, you can reconcile with him without losing face."
Éomer shook his head.
"How could I do that to him? He has got his young wife, and I am told she is with child. He will not be pleased to have to leave her yet again."
"Let him stay until the babe is born," said Léofred. "It can only be another month or so from now. Once Fana is safe, he can ride out for a few weeks."
"And what will he live on in the meantime?"
"Leave it with me, my lord," said Léofred. "I would not let the lad or his family be distressed."
"You take a very personal interest in him," said the king.
"That I do," replied Léofred. "In him and his family." He indulged in a little smile that Éomer could not quite fathom and then took his leave.
In the second week in March, a veritable heat wave struck the country. The people of Edoras shed their winter coats with glee. Fana and her little sister Ardith sat on the front step of Ethelhelm's house and held up their faces to the spring sunshine. In the few square yards of garden in front of the house, pink and blue hyacinths imbued the air with their heavy perfume. It was midday and the sisters watched the buzzing crowds in the marketplace.
"If you put your hand here, you can feel it moving," said Fana and guarded the little girl's hand to a spot on her rounded belly. Ardith smiled.
"So I can! Are you excited, Fana?"
"Yes, very much. Are you? You're going to be an aunt, just fancy!"
"I think that will be nice. But aren't you scared of the birth?"
"Only a little bit. Look, there's another bumblebee!"
A gap between the slabs of the front step was the entrance to a bumblebees' nest. For the last hour or so, they had been taking note of the insects as they returned to their home, each with two coloured parcels of pollen on their back legs.
"This one's got orange bags. We haven't seen orange yet, have we?"
"No," said Fana. "Pink, red, purple, yellow –"
"Do you think we'll see blue?"
"No, I don't think there could be blue. They all come back with different colours because of where they've been and what kind of pollen they've found. But they can only bring what's there, and I've never yet seen a flower with blue pollen."
The bumble bee disappeared in the crack, and since there was no other in sight, Ardith lost interest.
"Mother says Déoric is going away again."
"Yes," said Fana, "but not before the babe is born."
"But when, Fana? How much longer?"
"I don't know, dear. A few more weeks, probably."
Ardith smiled, but a child passing by caught her attention and she jumped up and skipped across to the garden fence. While she stood chatting with her friend, Fana leaned back in a vain attempt to get more comfortable. She gritted her teeth. A bumble bee, strangely confused, bumped into her face and she waved it away. Ardith talked and talked until eventually the other child was led away by an impatient grandparent.
"On second thought," said Fana when her sister at last returned to her side, "you'd better go and get Mother."
"So - ha! - yes, I am to prove myself worthy by riding out again and finding stories that are more to the king's liking."
"Don't talk like that, Déoric," said Niarl, brushing deftly with his currycomb. "You are very lucky that Éomer King has changed his mind. And I thought you liked this whole story collecting business."
"Yes, but the unspoken understanding is that I am not to stir up any more trouble."
"Well, don't then." Niarl gave his horse a hearty pat. The animal snorted and swished her tail.
"Don't you see, Niarl? I cannot tell what I will find. What if it's something else that Éomer King doesn't want to hear?"
"Then you will jolly well keep quiet about it. And don't start that whole song about truth again. You have to think of the here and now. Forget your endless agonising about history."
"Gléowine says that history is just things that happen," said Déoric. "They are pointless, until we make them into a story."
"There you go," replied Niarl and picked up a hoof to inspect it. "Just make all the history you stumble across into stories that are fit for our king."
"I don't think that's what Gléowine meant. It can't be right to tamper with truth."
"Here we go again!" cried Niarl.
Déoric stroked the mare's velvety nose.
"You've got it easy," he said to the horse. "You never have to decide what's right and what's wrong."
He leaned against the side of the stall and wondered why his life had to be so complicated.
"Oh, will you be done with worrying, Déoric!" said Niarl. He had finished tending to his horse and sat down on an upturned bucket. "Wait and see. You may not come across anything that the king would not be delighted to know."
"Niarl! Déoric! Are you here?" came a woman's voice from the stable doors. When they craned their necks, they saw Udele hasting towards them. Niarl jumped up.
"Is anything the matter with Aedre?"
Udele reached the stall and stopped, panting.
"Aedre? No, not Aedre, she's just busy with the washing. But you're wanted at home, Déoric. Your babe's been born."
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.