For a week Déoric did little else than ride and paint. The skills of horsemanship came back to him readily enough and once he had found his balance, he rode the brown mare quite confidently. While mounting was still tricky at times, he no longer depended on the help of others. Every day he grew a little bolder, and when, on the fifth day, he finally galloped across the fields outside the city, he felt a delight that almost matched the elation of his wedding day.
The box of pigments proved a more formidable challenge. Master Amarant's instructions seemed bewildering. An egg, why would he need an egg? And what was he to do with the gesso? The long and detailed explanations about things like mixing, glazing and underpainting were even more confusing. All his early attempts were failures, with paint smudged, colours turning out wrong after they had dried and the overall results looking awkward and embarrassing. After a few days Déoric realized that he was making a fundamental mistake. He treated the paint brush as if it were a stylus. He drew outlines and then filled them in with colour. He wasn't painting at all, he was still drawing. The foundation of drawing was the line. But the foundation of painting, he suddenly understood, was the block of colour.
Once this insight had taken hold, he began to make some progress. He read Master Amarant's account again, this time with comprehension. The word layer revealed its meaning. For a whole afternoon he painted series after series of little squares, observing carefully how the tone of a colour changed when overlaid with another. He wrote down which combinations of paints he had used and any points of interest that arose from his experiments. The following morning he felt ready to try again. On a new board, smoothly prepared with gesso, he began to build up an image from coloured shapes. He remembered his own discovery: that the artist must show what he sees, not what he knows, and he saw with a new interest the shadows and lights and the way a colour would take on different hues according to the shape of the object. There could be a hint of green in the red, a touch of purple in the grey.
Three days later Déoric completed a small picture showing an apple and a rose. It was a simple motif and had no claim to distinction, but Déoric was pleased because the fruit looked round and shiny and the flower had crisp petals rather than the indifferent blurry lines of colour that had marred his previous attempts. He showed his work to Léofred, who took it to the king.
"Not bad for a start, Déoric," said Éomer. "You have much still to learn, but of course you have only just begun. How is the riding coming on?"
"Very well, my lord."
"Splendid. We shall soon see you set off on your little adventure then. When do you think you will be ready?"
"Very soon, if it was only for the riding, my lord, but I have so much else to do. I believe I could go in about a month's time."
"That would be the beginning of October. Very well, if you stay away for five or six weeks, you will be back before the worst of the winter is upon us. You should be able to visit a fair number of villages in that time. We shall have to find you an escort. Do you think your friend Niarl would be willing to go with you?"
"No, my lord, I think he has other plans right now."
"Oh, does he?" Éomer leaned back on his seat and stretched out his legs in front of him. "Do tell."
"Well," said Déoric, "there is this girl he likes..."
At noon time on the day of rest, two riders made their way through the streets of Edoras. Déoric, still thrilled by the feeling of sitting a horse again, greeted acquaintances from the height of his seat with an air of satisfaction. Next to him, on a fallow gelding, rode his best friend. Niarl's clothes and his reddish braids looked neater than usual, and he wore a broad smile. Both men were dressed in light tunics to keep cool in the late summer heat.
"I hope I'll be able to help somewhat," said Déoric.
"Who knows what challenge she will set me? But in any case, I don't think you could be any more useless than I was when it was your turn."
"Oh, Fana made mine so easy that I didn't need any help."
"Easy? Well, I really hope that Aedre isn't going to ask me to draw her family!"
Déoric gave a smug little smile.
"Don't worry. If she does, you've got the right man with you."
"But I have to fulfil at least two-thirds of the task on my own, as you well know."
"I could teach you quickly."
Niarl tossed back his braids and grinned.
"You know, Déoric, you are getting way too full of yourself. I liked you better when you were moping."
"You did not!"
"I did. That Fana has spoiled you."
"Oh, be quiet, Niarl, or I'll go home and then what would you do?"
"I'd go and find someone else."
"Ah, but then you'd be late and Aedre wouldn't be pleased. Never, ever give a woman the impression that you don't take this kind of thing seriously enough." He nodded emphatically. "Really, Niarl, listen to a married man."
"See what I mean?" exclaimed Niarl. "You're insufferable!"
Their good-humoured squabbling continued until they reached the house of Oswald the cobbler. Niarl dismounted, but Déoric, who still found it hard to get onto a horse, remained in the saddle. Presently, the door was opened and two young women came out. The cobbler and his wife were seen to watch from the doorway.
Oswald's daughters, Aedre and Udele, were handsome girls of eighteen and nineteen years. Udele was tall and fair. Aedre's hair and eyes were brown and her build stockier than that of most Rohirrim. She took after her Dunlendish grandmother. The most striking feature of her face were her full, beautifully curved lips. Right now, these lips were smiling.
Udele stepped forward.
"I welcome you, Niarl son of Wulfgar, and you, Déoric son of Féadred. We have heard of Niarl's desire to court my sister Aedre. She grants it gladly should you fulfil this challenge: to find, before sunset, thirty scarlet ribbons that have been hidden in Edoras. At least twenty of those must be found by Niarl, while Déoric may bring the other ten. The ribbons have the letter A embroidered on one end, so make sure you get the right ones. Do you accept the challenge?"
Déoric cleared his throat, for this was his part.
"We accept the challenge and will fulfil it before sunset. Await us here at the agreed hour."
While they had been speaking, Aedre and Niarl had been gazing at each other in rapt engrossment. When Déoric had finished his speech, Niarl reached for the pommel of his horse, but suddenly he turned back around and stole a kiss from Aedre's lips.
"Shoo!" cried Udele. "What insolence! Off with you and find the ribbons!"
Niarl laughed and mounted, Udele slapped his horse on the thigh, and the two men rode down the street with a clattering of hooves. When they came to the first junction, they split up and went different ways.
It took over half an hour until Déoric spotted the first ribbon. It was tied to the fence of a house near the infirmary. Ten minutes later he found one among bunches of herbs at a market stall. Another one hung from a tree, and the horse statue from which flowed the fountain in front of the Golden Hall wore a pretty red ribbon on its left ear.
When he came down again from the top of the town he noticed a flash of scarlet on an upper window of a house that stood slightly set back from the street. A sturdy vine climbed up the wall and obscured part of the window, but he could clearly see the ribbon tied to the shutter, about four feet above his head. He unhooked one of the crutches from the holder at the saddle and reached up. The tip of the crutch touched the ribbon, but there was no way of loosening the knot. Déoric looked at the vine. The stem seemed strong enough to carry his weight. If he pulled himself up with both arms, he should be able to get his foot just into the –
Suddenly he laughed. He was a one-legged man after all, and he should be used by now to engaging his head rather than his muscles. He dismounted and knocked on the door. A girl of maybe fourteen years opened.
"Good afternoon," he said. "My name is Déoric. I wonder, is that one of Aedre's ribbons that's flying from the shutter of your upper window?"
"Are you Niarl's friend?"
"Just one moment," said the girl and disappeared into the house. She left the door ajar and Déoric could hear her going up the stairs. Then she appeared at the window. Within seconds, she had untied the ribbon.
"Can you catch or shall I bring it down?"
"I'll catch it."
The girl dropped the ribbon and Déoric caught it easily in his outstretched hand.
"That's five I've got now. Thank you!"
"You're very welcome. Do you think Niarl will find enough?"
"I'm sure he will," said Déoric.
"That's good," she replied. "Aedre promised me I can be maid of honour at the wedding."
"I shall see you then. Farewell for now."
By the mid-afternoon he had gathered ten ribbons. The last one had been tied to a doorknob on a house in the lane coming up from the smithies. Seeing himself in this part of the town, Déoric decided to pay a visit to a friend. He rode up to the corner house at the top of the street. A group of children played a skipping game in the enclosed yard.
"Hullo, Déoric," called a boy of maybe eight years and ran up to the gate to open it. "Is that your new horse? It's mighty nice!"
"She's not mine, Grimstan," said Déoric and dismounted gingerly. "I've only got her on loan. Her name is Ivornel. She belongs to the Princess of Dol Amroth."
"Can you ride her?"
"As you see."
"Can I look after her for you? I can get her some apples."
"That would be very kind of you."
Meanwhile, the other children had approached and began to pat the mare. Déoric took his crutches and turned towards the house. Cyneburg, a tall girl of twelve, put a hand on his arm.
"No," she said, "Grandfather is out here in his garden."
She led Déoric across the yard. He ducked under the washing line and found himself in a sunny, sheltered corner. Heat radiated from the walls of the house. A tiny garden had been created here with plants that hung in baskets on the wall or stood in clay pots on the ground. Most were of the useful kind, carrots, cabbages and cooking herbs, but here and there flowers added bright dots of colour. A ginger cat lay curled up under a wooden bench. Gléowine the old minstrel stood bent over a potted rosebush and applied a liquid to the leaves from a ceramic jar. When he heard Déoric approach, he looked up.
"Greenfly," he said and nodded at the plant. "If I don't get rid of them, they will kill my roses. Soapy water usually does the trick. How are you doing, Déoric?"
"Very well, Master Gléowine. How about yourself?"
Gléowine straightened up and put a hand on the small of his back.
"A bit stiff, but not too bad otherwise. The hot weather does me good. I have been out here tending to the plants for an hour or so, but I need to sit down now. Come and have a seat with me. Tell me how you fare with your stories."
"I haven't worked on them much recently," said Déoric. "I had other things to do."
"But the king has ordered you to collect the stories, has he not?"
"Sometimes I think the king wants me to do more things than I can accomplish in a lifetime. I have recorded quite a few stories since I last saw you, but I am beginning to get confused. I heard two that I thought I knew, but the man who told me told them differently. You know that one about the baker and the apple tree? He said it was a rook and not a magpie that took the trinket. My father always said it was a magpie. Now I don't know what to write down."
"Hm." Gléowine sat with one of his braids in each hand, running his thumbs up and down the white hair. "Do not worry about that too much, my lad. It makes very little difference for the story."
"But which one is right?"
"Who knows? Which one rings truer to you?"
"The one with the magpie, because magpies like to take shiny things."
"Write it down with the magpie, then."
"Can I just do that?" asked Déoric.
"My dear Déoric, of course you can. You will have to. There are always little differences in stories, because people like to tell them in a way that suits them. It will be part of your task to decide which variation is best, because you cannot record all of them."
The ginger cat woke and stretched in the lazy, self-absorbed way of cats. Then she jumped on Déoric's lap. He tickled her under the chin.
"I can see how that would apply to the made-up stories," he said. "But what about the true ones, what about history? If I get variations in them, how will I find out the truth?"
"You will have to think, Déoric. You will have to think really hard. Can you do that?"
"I will try. I don't think I have much choice."
Gléowine smiled his enigmatic little smile that suggested he had seen a cause for mirth that Déoric would not understand. Déoric let it pass. The old man could not offend him, however much he liked to point out all of Déoric's follies. Without Gléowine's superior mind and his boldness to tell it as it was, Déoric would in all likelihood still be pining for Fana and blaming every imaginary misfortune of his life on the missing leg. The young man was well aware of this. Foolish he may have been, ungrateful he was not. He knew a friend when he found one.
They sat in silence for a while and then began a lighter kind of conversation. Déoric told of Aedre's challenge for Niarl, of his riding and his painting, and Gléowine spoke at length of the weather and of the trouble with greenfly. The late summer sun burned down on them. The cat purred, the washing flapped gently in the breeze. Time flowed by in such a leisurely way that Déoric forgot about it altogether. Suddenly he noticed how long the shadows had grown. He jumped up and grabbed his crutches.
"I must go," he said. "The ribbons must be at Aedre's house by sunset."
"Aye, you had better go then. Do not let me see you disappoint your friend, you silly lad."
Déoric gave the old man an affectionate pat on the shoulder.
"I shall come again soon. Good luck with your roses."
Ivornel greeted Déoric with a gentle whinny. The children had provided her with apples, water and a shady spot to stand, but seemed to have lost interest in the horse after a while, for they were now all gathered at the other end of the yard engaged in a game with pebbles and sticks. Déoric hooked up the crutches and mounted.
When he came out into the street, he saw just how low the sun stood. He spurred Ivornel into a light trot. The streets were quiet at this time of day, with most people having gone inside for their evening meal. It took him only minutes to reach the house of Oswald the cobbler. By the looks of it, Niarl had just arrived. The two young women came out of the door and rushed to the gate.
"I have ten," called Déoric and held out a hand full of ribbons.
"That can't be right," said Niarl. "I've got twenty-six."
Udele took the ribbons out of the young men's hands. She counted them and checked for the embroidered letters.
"Well done," she said at last, "you have met the challenge."
"But you said you hid thirty!"
"No, I didn't." said Aedre, her face one broad grin. "I said you had to bring me thirty. We hid fifty. I wanted to be sure you'd find enough."
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.