20. Unexpected Encounters
Niarl's horse was lame on the right hind leg. They had checked the leg and found the swelling of the fetlock that caused the animal to limp, but were unable to do much about it. There was no external sign of injury, and since they had come nearly half a day's ride from the last village, turning back was not an option. They would have to find a place to stay the night and hope that some rest would mend things soon.
Currently, there was no thought of stopping, though. On the heather-covered uplands, they had been searching for almost two hours to find even a trickle of water, but had no such luck. Their water skins held barely enough to see themselves to the end of the day, let alone their horses. They had some ale in a jug, but they felt wary of quenching their thirst with it. Niarl now led his mare by the bridle, after they had moved as much of his provisions into Déoric's saddlebag as they could expect Ivornel to carry.
"I could maybe try the crutches at least for a while, just to give you a break."
"Don't be daft, Déoric. A bit of walking won't do me any harm. And please don't start apologising again. It's not your fault that you can't break into a run and scout out a nice little brook for us."
There was no contesting the truth of this, and Déoric had to content himself with feeling miserable. The heather, brown, tough and scratchy, came up to Niarl's knees in places and hampered their progress. By mid-afternoon, the heather made way for grass and the ground slanted ever so slightly downwards. Another half hour took them to the edge of a small, bracken-filled glen, and here at last they heard the welcome gurgle of running water.
Descending was not easy. The plant cover hid some almost perpendicular cliff faces. Niarl had to leave Déoric with the horses and walk a good stretch in each direction before he found a promising slope. Even so, Déoric had to dismount and crawl down among the old brown fronds and the newly unfolding green as Niarl led the horses ahead of him. The bottom of the glen turned out to be lush and narrow, less than twenty yards across and lined with fresh, green bushes and a single, oddly-shaped rowan tree. Down here, the bracken grew unusually high and formed a veritable little forest of tiny brown trees. The brook ran over round, mossy boulders much in the manner of others they had encountered in the Wold and formed an eddying pool near the tree. It was there that Niarl took the horses to drink while Déoric was still struggling in the fern thickets halfway up the bank.
"Do you think we should stay here overnight?" he called down.
"It looks promising. And quite frankly, I need a rest," said Niarl and leaned against the tree.
"Surely that's no reason to disturb my rest?" replied the tree.
Déoric had never seen Niarl jump quite so quickly. And then he witnessed the somewhat more astonishing sight of the tree turning round. It turned and revealed a face with large, round eyes under grey-green hair much like lichen, and he realised that what looked like two long, sturdy branches were in reality arms and that this was no tree at all but –
" - a tree troll?"
"Hm, ho, tree troll? No, no troll. I would prefer it if you said Ent, though that is a hasty word even for me to use. Oh, do not fear, there is no need to back away like that."
"You mean you're harmless?" said Niarl, who had succeeded in putting a good seven yards between himself and the creature, but was prevented from retreating further by the rock face behind him.
"Harmless?" The tree man released a grumbling sound that may well have been laughter. "I do not think so. No, I would say I am dangerous. Yes. Very, very dangerous. I have been fighting orcs and wizards. Well, one wizard, and ill did it go for him! But I have no reason to fight you. I leave the horse people in peace, as long as they leave me and my trees in peace. My name is Quickbeam in the common tongue."
"I am pleased to meet you, Quickbeam," said Déoric from his safe distance. He took heart from the fact that the horses continued to drink calmly and didn't seem to feel disturbed by the creature. "I am Déoric, son of Féadred, the Chronicler of the Mark. This is my friend and escort, Niarl, son of Wulfgar. We are travelling by order of Éomer King to collect stories of the Mark."
This was the usual introduction they had presented everywhere on their journey and it flowed off his lips without requiring any thought, though the look the – what had he called himself, Ent? – gave him made him feel like a little boy playing with a wooden sword when suddenly the grow-up men come into the room with their real blades. For a start, there was something radiating off Quickbeam that created a peculiar impression of ... depth. He seemed deeply, deeply rooted, both in the soil and in something else – time, perhaps...?
"You are quite a distance away from the next village," said Quickbeam. "Did you get lost?"
"Yes," said Niarl with a grin. "It's Déoric's speciality. But he always finds people to rescue him."
"Is that so? Hum ho ha. In that case, I shall have to be the one who does the rescuing. Since you are seeking a camp for the night, I can tell you that this is as good a place as you will find. In the morning, follow the course of the river to the North-West, but do so from the high ground to begin with. About half a mile from here, the river goes through a deep gorge that you will not be able to traverse with you horses. Once you have passed the gorge, you will find it easiest to return to the valley. The village itself sits by the river, about half a day's ride from here."
"Thank you, Master Quickbeam." Déoric had at last reached the floor of the glen and called for Ivornel so he could retrieve his crutches. "We may have to walk all the way, though. Niarl's horse is lame."
The tree man tut-tutted into his greenish beard and began to rummage in a rough, bark-like contraption that turned out to be a bag with a long shoulder strap. He pulled out a water skin.
"I do not know if this will help," he said, "but you might want to give it a try."
"Not just water, no, hum ho. It is an Ent draught. A secret recipe, if you must know. I always carry some with me when I leave the forest to visit the trees of the Wold."
He poured a clear liquid into a shallow dent on one of the large boulders and gave a kind of low whistle. Straight away, Niarl's mare picked up her ears and came over. She sniffed the Ent draught and then gulped it up greedily. Niarl and Déoric stared at her as if they expected to see her gallop away immediately. The tree man laughed, a slightly disconcerting, rumbling sound.
"Now leave her to rest," he said. "Who knows, she might be better in the morning. Hum ho. In the meantime, I would welcome your company for this evening. If you have a story to tell, all the better, and I shall tell you one in return."
Few proposals could have pleased Déoric more, and so they hastened to set up camp, listening to an urgent instinct that advised them to do without a fire. When their horses were provided for and their bedrolls spread out in a cosy nest of greenery, they squatted down for their evening meal of dry bread and salted bacon.
"Will you not sit down?" said Niarl. "Have something to eat."
"If it's all the same to you," replied the tree man, "I prefer to stand. I hope that does not make you feel uneasy. And thank you, but I do not require the same kind of sustenance that you need. A sip of my Ent draught will do me just fine."
So they each partook of what rations were suitable for their kind, and then Déoric told two stories to which the Ent listened with solemn mien. To finish his recital – for he noticed that his throat was beginning to feel dry – Déoric chose the story he had heard in the last village, of the Ent rescuing the two children.
"Oh yes," said Quickbeam, "they were pitifully lost, hum ho ha. I was going to take them back to the village, but their folk found them before I had got very far."
"So it was you?"
"Of course. Other Ents do not venture into the Wold. But I am not only hastier than my brethren, but more adventurous, too. And I have many friends here."
"Oh, yes. There are a couple of alder trees not far downriver from here, and pines about a mile away on the hillside, and a grove of old rowans - "
"Your friends are trees?" said Niarl. Déoric, for want of a spare leg with which to kick Niarl's foot, nudged him with one of his crutches. The Ent, however, only rumbled his good-natured laugh.
"As much as those horses are friends to you," he said with a gesture towards the two mares. "But I promised you a story and I shall not withhold it any longer. It is a story that - "
Déoric, who saw that the light was beginning to fade, felt compelled to interrupt.
"Master Quickbeam," he said, "forgive me, but would you consider it too bold of me if I asked to draw your image while you speak?"
"Draw my image? What do you mean?"
"I mean... Have a look at this." He drew from his saddlebags a wad of parchments and handed the Ent some sketches he had done during the last few days. Fingers like sturdy twigs reached out and held up the sheets. The Ent looked at each picture for longer than was comfortable for Déoric to watch. Eventually, he passed them back.
"I see you possess Elven skills, my young friend. Hum ho. I did not know that Men wielded this peculiar magic as well."
"There is no magic involved, Master Quickbeam. It is a skill that I honed in many hours of patient exercise. The Men of the Mark don't usually practice this Art, but the people of Gondor do. Éomer King has commissioned me to travel through the Mark and record the life of our people in word and image. Few in our city of Edoras have heard of ... Ents, and even fewer have any idea of what they really are. I would be honoured if you would allow me to bring home a picture that would show them there's truth in the old tales."
The Ent made a stiff forward movement that might have passed for a bow.
"The honour is all on my side," he said and folded his arms.
And so, while the Ent told a story that was long and complicated and hard to follow, Déoric took a likeness like none he had ever done before, and he rejoiced in his good fortune that Niarl was sitting beside him awake and alert, bearing witness that this was all perfectly true and not just the offspring of a feverish mind.
They awoke rather later than they had meant to, but it had been a merry evening under a moonlit sky. The jug of ale had been emptied, Quickbeam had laughed a lot and Niarl had entertained their small party with songs of the Mark. He had even got up at one point and shown off a dance, which had clearly amused the Ent, who tried to join in.
The morning sobered them with a fine drizzle and the need to move on. Quickbeam, as he had announced the night before, was gone, set off at the first light of dawn to return to his home in Fangorn Forest. For a moment, Déoric wondered if he had dreamed the whole encounter. However, Niarl's word and his own drawing of the Ent confirmed it as real.
Whether it was the effect of the Ent draught or else half a day's rest had sufficed to set her to rights, in any case, Niarl's mare no longer limped and the swelling of the fetlock had subsided. They hastened to pack up and climb out of the glen, an endeavour that proved strenuous for Déoric, who couldn't use his left arm as much as he would have needed to. Once they had won the high ground, they mounted and rode off north-westwards as Quickbeam had advised them. Soon the early rain eased off. The sun remained veiled, though, and hence the land appeared lacklustre and sullen.
By noon the weather turned brighter and they began to watch out for a place to rest.
"Look there, they must be two of Quickbeam's friends," said Niarl and pointed.
Déoric followed the gesture. Behind a couple of birches, the sky displayed a pattern of greyish-blue and dusty-white yellow. It was a strangely colour-drained backdrop to the lush trees in their first green. Déoric considered the kind of brush strokes he would use to render the scene.
It was a landmark of sorts, and the birches attracted them as is the way of trees, so they rode up to take their respite there. When they drew closer, they saw a mound on the far side of the trees, where the grass grew longer and greener and tiny white dots marked the blooms of that most melancholy of flowers: Simbelmynë. For a few paralysed seconds, Déoric stopped breathing.
This was the place. There was no telling how he knew, but this was it.
No voice had spoken his name, he had felt the word rather than heard it.
"I am here," he whispered. His lips trembled.
He didn't need Niarl's confirmation that there were three broken spear shafts still embedded in the mound. He didn't need to recollect what the other riders had told him and his mother on their return. He didn't doubt. He had found the place. This was it.
Later he couldn't remember how he had got off his horse or where Niarl went or how long he sat there with his hands clutching the grass. He cried. What else was there to do?
It was quiet and still, with no wind even here on the top of the hill and somewhere high above he heard the trill of the skylark. It reminded him of something, some time and place connected with death and sadness and a sudden determination to live in spite of everything, but he couldn't quite remember when and where that had been.
"You have to draw this, Déoric," said Niarl, when he eventually returned. "You really have to."
Niarl brought him parchment and stylus from the saddlebags and Déoric wiped off his tears and began to draw: the birches with their peeling white bark, the mound, the backdrop of hills. The tip of a broken spear, surrounded by pale white flowers. And then, on another sheet, he drew his father's face. He had tried before, more than once, but the image had always faded under his fingertips.
"It's him," said Niarl, looking over Déoric's shoulder. "You've captured him very well."
"I suppose." Déoric sighed. "Drawing the dead from memory is not the happiest way to employ my art."
"But much appreciated by those who loved them."
Déoric made no reply, but reached up and squeezed Niarl's hand. They lingered a while longer, in silence, for what else was there to say, and then whistled for their horses and set off to follow the path on which Quickbeam had sent them.
Late in the afternoon they found themselves still in the river valley with no sign of the next village. It wound on in a haphazard fashion, as if it didn't really care what direction it was taking. Had it not been for the sun, they would have lost track of which way they were heading. Yet following the river meant at least that they couldn't get lost. It was a pleasant river, too, just quick enough to make an agreeable noise. The banks were steep at times and flat and sandy at others, with hazel thickets in places and myriads of a pale blue flower that neither of the men knew.
"I don't doubt Quickbeam's word," said Niarl, "but I wonder if he has misjudged the distance. With those long legs of his, he might easily overtake people on horseback, especially on such unkempt paths as these."
"So what do you suggest?" said Déoric. "We don't have much choice." His voice sounded distant.
"That slope doesn't look too steep. Let's get out of this valley and see what we can see from higher ground."
They ascended the bank, letting the rushing sound of the river drop away behind them. When they reached the crest of the hill, they realised what had been absent during their journey in the valley: wind. Now it teased their hair and stroked their faces with cool caresses.
It must have carried a scent of sorts, for the horses shook their heads in unease and took a few sideways steps before the men regained control of them. A glance down the far side of the hill showed a dark, huddled shape half propped up against a boulder.
"Orc," hissed Niarl.
They drew their swords and scanned the surroundings. There was nothing to see, though, just open space and a few rocks that could not have hidden anything much. Weapons clenched, they advanced on the creature.
When they came close enough, they saw that the orc's foul rags were soaked in black blood, already caked in places, but glistening wet in others. Flies buzzed about, attracted by the stench or some other instinct that made them seek out death and decay.
Death, however, had not struck yet. The orc stared at the men with eyes that were half-closed but not broken. Niarl brought his horse forward until it loomed over the creature.
"Where are your comrades?"
The orc opened his eyes a fraction further. He drew breath with a horribly gurgling sound that made Déoric grind his teeth.
"Gone," he rasped. "Left … me."
"This could be a trap," said Niarl quietly to Déoric.
"I doubt it," Déoric whispered back. "Who would they be trying to ambush in this empty land? But keep watch. I want to have a closer look."
He slid off his horse, seized the crutches and went over to the orc. A whole swarm of flies took off at his approach, but returned within an instant. He flailed at them.
The orc lay motionless and twisted in a strange angle. Déoric had an inkling that the creature's back might be broken.
"Do you swear you are alone?"
"Yes," said the orc between two heavy breaths. Then he mumbled something else. It took Déoric a few seconds to work out what the word had been. Hurt. With such injuries, the orc had to be in agony. Déoric looked him in the eye and felt his insides tighten when he recognised the expression: pleading. The enemy was begging him for mercy.
This could mean only one thing. Déoric's hand tensed around his sword hilt, but queasiness made him avert his face. The flies, unchecked, continued their sickening dance. One settled on Déoric's hand and ran up his arm.
"Niarl," said Déoric with all the urgency he could muster. "I can't do this. Please…"
"Step aside," said Niarl. He didn't dismount. With one powerful stroke, he brought his sword sweeping round. There was a scraping sound when tip of the blade hit the rock, and then the orc's head toppled over and fell into the grass.
Neither man moved. For a few seconds, the drone of the flies was the only sound to be heard. Then it was joined by another. Déoric wept. Maybe it was because he had already shed tears earlier that crying came so easily to him now. Maybe his mind just faltered after having seen true suffering in so loathsome a creature. And to think that he had ever wanted to be a warrior!
"Come on, Déoric." Niarl leaned forward and touched his shoulder. "Let's get away from here. I'm not completely convinced that there are no other orcs about."
"I know." Déoric wiped his sleeve across his face "It's strange that there should have been any. Hadn't they all been routed?"
"I can't tell. There might still be scattered survivors from Isengard hiding away somewhere. Hunger maybe drove them into the Wold. It's hard to be sure. Let's go. The sooner we reach the village, the better."
Déoric took Ivornel's bridle and mounted. They rode off at a trot and were grateful to leave the nauseating noise of the flies behind.
"Forgive me for being such a weakling," said Déoric after a while. "I felt so sorry for him. Did you feel sorry for him, too?"
"Yes." Niarl stared straight ahead. "I suppose I should be grateful that you didn't try to draw him."
"Maybe I should have."
They rode on in silence for a while. Déoric's thoughts were torn between the memory of his father's grave and the pitiful encounter with the dying orc. At last they saw the first houses of the village in a ravine leading off from the western bank.
"Promise me one thing, Déoric," said Niarl after they had forded the river.
"And what would that be?"
"Don't tell Éomer King about this."
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.