18. Emerging Patterns
Each new wave changes the pattern. A darker streak in the wet sand here, a lighter one there. The way a piece of seaweed lies this way or that. Tiny hills and valleys strewn with specks of little black stones, sometimes clustered together, sometimes spread out as if the seed pod of a poppy flower has suddenly burst and flung its contents into this strange and shifting country.
Shadows of clouds moved on the water. Lothíriel glanced over to where the city of Dol Amroth lay, a tight, rocky bay encrusted with grey and white houses. Then her eyes returned to the beach. A thin layer of dry sand covered her bare arms, glittering with miniscule fragments of seashell that stuck to her skin when she tried to brush them off. On her feet, which had been wet from the surf, these fragments formed an almost even surface of black, white, yellow and pink, reminiscent of the mosaic floors that could be found in many of the well-to-do houses in Dol Amroth. Lothíriel built a mound of sand, covered it with her shawl and lay on her side, with her head resting on this impromptu pillow. From her new angle, the sea looked like a wall against the sky, or indeed like another, stranger sky; solid, greyish-blue and studded with its own peculiar stars: the twinkling crests of distant waves. Only closer to the shore these waves looked alive and moving, and advanced on the land in long, rippling bands of pure white.
She remained like this for some time, a crimson huddle of fine cloth from which extended her smooth limbs, lightly tanned even this early in the year. The morning sun had climbed a hand's width over the horizon before she rose and shook the sand off her skirts. It was high time she made her way back to the castle. Yet when she had ascended the stone steps that led up to the cliff path, she wavered and stood for another while. Her lips moved. Eventually, she turned sharply and hastened along the path.
The guards greeted her briefly as she slipped into the castle through one the side doors and hurried up the stairs to her rooms in the turret.
Her day room appeared to her like the carcass of a roasted bird left after the feast. It had been stripped of all her possessions; empty shelves were the bones of the place laid bare. In her bedchamber, her wardrobe gaped at her. Her trunks had already been carried down the winding staircase the previous day to be heaved on the sturdy carts that would accompany her to Rohan. Only one small case remained, for such items as she would need until the last minute. Her travelling clothes lay spread out on the bed. She sat down beside them and reached for the small book on the bedside table, her notebook, in which she liked to scribble all her whimsical ideas. She opened it and read the last entry.
Tomorrow I leave for Rohan to become a queen. I hope the poor king knows what he has let himself in for with me. I am determined to civilise his court, in the most gentle and charming manner, of course.
She shook her head and smiled. It seemed odd, even laughable that she, easily the most bookish noblewoman Gondor had seen in a thousand years, should marry the lord of a land that prided itself in just having brought forth its first ever book. Should marry him, and gladly. She had only met King Éomer once, nearly a year ago, but even then the foundation of their attachment had already been laid in the form of their warm and animated correspondence. Since then, many more letters has travelled back and forth between them, and she felt she knew him well, certainly as well as any princess could hope to know her bridegroom. How he tied his laces, whether he liked his eggs fried or boiled, these were things she would find out by and by. For now, she knew his mind. That was good enough. It would be strange not to be writing to him anymore.
She heard footsteps coming up to the door. Her maid brought her morning meal. Lothíriel sat down at the small table by the window and gazed out at the ocean while she sipped her milk.
When she had finished her breakfast, her maid helped her to change into her travelling clothes. Lothíriel thanked the girl and dismissed her. For a long while, she stood by the window and watched the early fishing boats returning to the harbour.
Footsteps again, this time heavier ones, ones she knew very well.
"Good morning, Father."
"I am ready," she said and smiled.
Her father strode across the room and wrapped his arm around her shoulder.
"I know you shall miss the sea, my child," he said. "And the sea, if that were possible, would miss you and your songs. But you shall come back to visit. It is not a farewell forever."
"I know, Father. Do not worry about me. I think I shall be very happy in Rohan."
"If I did not believe that," he replied, "I would never have encouraged this match."
She leaned against his shoulder and breathed in his familiar smell. All would be well, she knew, and yet the sorrow of parting was not lessened. Would that Éomer but lived a day's ride away! She sneaked up her hand and dabbed her tears with her sleeve before her father could see them.
The two riders ambled along under a skyful of fluffy clouds. Earlier on, a spring shower had soaked their clothes, but not dampened their spirits. They talked and laughed. Déoric smiled at his escort. He had exchanged the most taciturn soldier in Edoras for possibly the chattiest one.
"...and then she said she would never fall in love with one of her patients, because that would not befit a healer, and once she had come to view a man with a healer's eyes, she could never think of him in any other way. So I said, well, we shall see about that. She changed her mind soon enough."
Niarl grinned. Déoric recalled the scene at the infirmary, well over a year ago now, when Aedre had bent over a vomiting Niarl who had been delivered to her care courtesy of a skirmish with a stray band of orcs. As far as introductions went, this one had certainly not been the most romantic, but Niarl's charm had prevailed, to nobody's surprise.
It was the second week of their journey. Just like the first time around, Déoric had found very little in the way of new tales in the villages around Edoras and after the third day had decided to press on eastwards at the greatest speed he could muster. They had soon crossed the River Entwash and then turned north towards that remote region between the River Anduin and the Forest of Fangorn which was known as the Wold. Settlements were few and far between here, but Déoric found that his judgement had been right. The stories these hardy hill folk told him were almost all new to him. They had only visited three villages and already he had filled nearly two dozen sheets. Marvellous creatures roamed some of these tales: Elves, which seemed no wonder given that the Elven realm lay just a day's ride beyond the River Limlight, and others, stranger still, great tree trolls terrifying and yet noble-hearted. Déoric thought of the eerie forest at Helm's Deep and wondered what truth hid in those stories.
The weather was improving by the minute. Déoric rejoiced in the stark colours around him: brilliant white clouds against a deep blue sky, fresh green grass and bracken and most of all, the rich yellow of the gorse bushes and the clumps of daffodils that sheltered in the valleys. None of the hills were very high, yet trees were scarce, just a twisted oak here or a group of wind-swept birch trees there. Sheep grazed almost everywhere and Déoric wondered how the farmers kept track of them in this fence-less wilderness. Their bleating, close by or echoing from a distance, accompanied the conversation of the two men. Every now and then, the sight of a gambolling lamb brought a smile to their faces. Déoric sighed. This lonely country seemed beautiful to him and yet melancholy. His father had been killed in the Wold.
By mid-afternoon they saw herds of horses, roaming just as freely on the bleak hills as the sheep. They reached the village about an hour later. It was one of the larger settlements on the Wold, home to some thirty families. Their houses were built in a different manner from that usually employed by the Eorlingas: not long, rectangular buildings, but round ones, covered in turf rather than thatch or wooden shingles. They did not face a village green to form the ring shape common elsewhere in the Mark, but stood scattered with generous spaces between, which seemed to be used for every kind of business from hanging laundry to grooming horses.
Déoric and Niarl might have felt at loss where to turn in this seemingly haphazard jumble of homesteads, but their arrival caused enough stir among the villagers to bring the Elder out to them before they could ask for him. Niarl displayed the king's standard and Déoric explained their business. Within half an hour they had washed and changed their clothing and sat down for soup and bread at the Elder's house. Soon afterwards, village folk began to crowd into the room in the manner Déoric had seen time and time again, some eager to tell their tales, some suspicious, some merely curious. Soon there was such a throng that the Elder suggested moving outside. Beside one of the rare trees on the Wold, stone benches stood in a circle and here the whole party reassembled, while further village folk joined them.
Storytelling commenced and Déoric was careful to encourage and praise without patronising. A few times, he had to ask for clarifications. Niarl sat alert and listened carefully; he was of great help to Déoric with regard to recalling the stories later when they were on their own. Once again, Déoric was glad to have his friend with him rather than the eternally sleepy Aldfrid.
Currently, it was the turn of a heavy-set man in his thirties. He told his story with skill and expression. The other villagers seemed familiar with his tale, but followed it with eager faces.
"So," said the man, "on the third day, there was still no trace of the children, and the parents were beside themselves. That evening, a messenger came to the village with news that the tree men had come out of the forest and were marching westwards. On hearing that, the mother begins to wail that the tree men have snatched her children and taken them away. Says the messenger, he's seen three children in one of the holes of the Hobytla. Why hadn't he said so straight away, cried the father. He'd thought nothing of it, said the messenger, he'd thought they were playing at hide and seek. So half the village set out to the holes of the Hobytla to get the little ones. But halfway there they meet with such a frightening sight that all the women trembled with fear and many a man, too. There was one of the tree men, a huge, trollish shape over ten foot high and with lichen growing on his head and arms like gnarled branches! And in those arms, as if they were cradled by their own dear mother, lay the three children, all fast asleep! And now the children's father stepped forward, sword in hand and said, give me back my children, you big brute, or you shall feel the bite of my blade. But the tree man just stretches out a leg – such a leg, like a tree trunk, so thick and rough – and kicks the sword right out of the man's hand! And there was a cry from the villagers, but the tree man paid them no heed and he bent forwards and very gently put the sleeping children down on the grass. And then, without a single word, he strode away, walking just like a big stork, and was never seen again."
The man had finished and his friends rewarded him with applause. But Déoric, whose foot had been twitching all through the latter half of the tale, blurted out the question that was almost shaking him.
"What did you mean when you said the holes of the Hobytla?"
The man, somewhat taken aback by this unexpected response to his story, furrowed his brow. Déoric realised his gaffe and added, "This is a wonderful story and I will be sure to tell it to the king. I thank you. We seldom hear about the tree men in Edoras and this tale will make us understand them better. But I am curious to find out what you know about the Hobytla, for it is a matter that interests me."
"They're all gone long ago," replied the man. "My grandfather said that he'd never seen any of them, but his father did."
"Three generations back?" cried Déoric. "But that is not very long at all - not considering that they were thought to have disappeared hundreds of years ago."
"Oh, no," chimed in a woman. "They were still around in my great grandmother's time, but then they vanished and nobody knew how or why. You can still see the strange holes where they lived."
"Over Halsted way, there's three in the hillside," said the man who had told the story. "I can take you there in the morning, if you wish."
"That is kind of you," said Déoric. "I'm very keen to learn more about the Hobytla and their connection with the Mark. I met one of them during the war."
His revelation didn't impress; clearly the folk of this village had heard nothing of the Ringbearer and his companions. Déoric felt inclined to remedy this, but remembered that it was his task to collect stories rather than to tell them. He cast round his glance and saw a woman who appeared eager to tell her tale. He nodded at her and she stood up and began to speak.
Dusk crept up between the huts and the sky turned dull and grey. A little distance away, Déoric could see tiny flickers of green and yellow in the twilight: fireflies, dancing and flashing in their search for a lover. With the sun gone, it quickly grew cold. When the woman had finished her tale, folk began to seek their homes. Déoric and Niarl returned to the house of the Elder and were shown a place to sleep. As he pulled his blanket round him, Déoric wondered for a while whether he was really going to see the dwelling places of Meriadoc's people, but the day's ride had taken its toll and he soon fell asleep.