6. The Art of Getting Lost in the Rain
The following morning Déoric rose early, stabbed awake by pain in the missing leg. He opened the shutters and was met by a surge of chill air. The window looked backwards, into the gorge, where clammy tufts of mist undulated along the rockfaces. Maybe the sun had already risen somewhere out on the plain, but in this deep chasm only a hint of light gave shape to the world. The sky was a dull grey roof high above. Déoric stretched his arms and regretted his foolishness in going to bed fully clothed. He felt as if his mind had been crumpled along with his tunic. This was his last set of clothes; Goldwyn had taken the rest away for washing the previous night. He glanced briefly at the slumbering Aldfrid, smoothed down his tunic as best he could and, taking care on the staircase, made his way down to the front door.
Outside, the fresh morning air wiped off the sticky sleepiness that still clung to his neck and face. The entrance of the Hornburg opened out onto the battlements. Déoric stood on tiptoe to look over the parapet. He thought of the transformations he had seen in this place. It didn't seem that long ago that he had stood there on two legs, head to head with his two friends, while the whole valley in front of them had been teeming with orcs and fierce Men from Dunland. Niarl, being Niarl, had tried to joke about it, but when the first orc heads had appeared atop the huge ladders, it had been Déoric's lot to swing his blade and save his friend from a blow that would very likely have been fatal. That had been the first and the last time he and Halol had drawn swords together in earnest.
He had escaped injury that night, though he was not quite sure how. Certainly not by his own valour, for he had been very thoroughly frightened. In fact he remembered little of the battle apart from the noise and the stench and the utter confusion. Whether he had dodged more blows than he had countered he could not quite tell. Somehow, when the morning came and the horns resounded off the mountainsides, he found himself exhausted, soaked in sweat, but alive and whole.
What a different view the battlements had presented then! A nauseous field of corpses had stretched out ahead, and beyond that – the forest. Such trees he had never seen before or afterwards. Long limbs clad in lichen had swayed even though there was no wind, and the darkness that lurked under their heavy boughs had spilled out onto the grass in front. With victory, however dearly bought, rushing through their veins, the Eorlingas had been calling out with glad voices and many threw their swords into the air, but the forest spooked them and none who could help it went near.
Déoric, Halol and Niarl, being both unscathed and in possession of swift horses, had been among those chosen to act as messengers and spread the word of the battle across the Riddermark. Glad to be thus excused from the gruesome task of clearing the battlefield, they had left straight away, but had taken the cumbersome route through the hills rather than facing the forest.
There was no forest now, only two large mounds and a single grave in the middle where Háma, the captain of the king's guard, had been laid to rest. It was said that in the mound to the left had been buried the men of the East Dales and in the one to the right those of the Westfold. Looking at the mounds in the pallid twilight and remembering the sight of the battlefield, Déoric was suddenly touched by some doubt whether in the aftermath of that battle, with so many dead, it had really been possible to tell with certainty in every case who was who. While he could not imagine that anyone would deliberately fabricate a lie on such a matter, he wondered if maybe the wish for this neat solution, together with the general upheaval, had spawned the story. He stowed away the thought for future consideration.
A broad flight of steps led from the battlements to the gate in the Deeping Wall. Déoric went down and greeted the guard. In the measured pace dictated by his crutches, he walked out into the grassy field towards the two mounds and then beyond in search for something he could pick up and take inside to paint. However, he found little to attract his attention. The valley was bare of trees now, only straggly bramble bushes colonized the crevices in the rocks on either side. A few stones lay about, but they were rough and dull, with no shiny surfaces or interesting patterns that would have been worth his time and his pigments.
Déoric began to peer under the bramble bushes, not quite sure what he was looking for, when his eyes were drawn by a glimpse of shimmering gold. He crouched down, always an arduous undertaking, and pushed aside a bramble shoot to discover the thing that had glinted golden even in this grey morning light.
It was a chrysalis. Déoric knew little of butterflies and other crawling creatures, but he couldn't help thinking that this one had chosen the wrong end of the year and would probably hatch only to meet an untimely death. He held it on the palm of his hand and tried to imagine the creature encased in this almost weightless shell. What did it look like? He tried to recall the illustrations from the Gondorian book. The caterpillar had most likely been garish, maybe plump and green or black and yellow and covered with hair. It would have been munching away at leaves and flowers for weeks, oblivious to the world around it; a life driven by a single need: to grow. With this single-mindedness it would have wiggled about, devouring everything edible in its path. And now it lay still. Inside the chrysalis, it was separated from the world, taking nothing, giving nothing, seemingly dead. Yet something was happening inside, some mysterious process by which the wriggly caterpillar was transformed into a butterfly. One day the wall of the shell would tear open and the delicate insect would emerge, unfolding graceful wings to catch the sunlight for the first time. Déoric let them drift past in his mind's eye: the caterpillar, the chrysalis and the butterfly. He wondered which stage he was at. He certainly wasn't munching and devouring without thought for anything else, but neither was he shut off from the world in a tight and rigid shell. That left the butterfly, that fragile creature of beauty fluttering about without much noticeable purpose. He tried to apply the image to himself. Then he laughed and shook his head. No, he said to himself, this was silly. Just because he had found a chrysalis it didn't mean that it was a symbol of his life. The very point was that he was not a butterfly. Gently, he let the chrysalis slip back into the grass under the bramble bush.
Inside the Hornburg the household had awoken and servants bustled about between the kitchens and the great hall. The ladies, Déoric was told, would not come down but break their fast in their rooms, but Lord Erkenbrand and his men welcomed him at the table which was laden with ale mugs, large bowls of porridge, fragrant loaves and platters of cold meat.
"Good morning, Master Scrivener!" called Erkenbrand from the far end. "Come, sit with me and tell me what you mean to paint today."
"I'm not sure yet," said Déoric and leaned his crutches against a chair. "I went out to see if I could find some kind of interesting object, like a curiously shaped branch or even a late flower, but I saw nothing suitable. I'd really much rather paint people, but I am still practising – "
"Well, why don't you practise painting people then?" boomed Erkenbrand and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. "In fact, why don't you paint me?"
Déoric took a slab of bread and daintily spread some butter on it. He sighed. The lord of the Westfold would be a truly magnificent subject, and one he felt that was most certainly beyond his powers.
"I could draw you," he offered.
"Not up for the challenge?" asked Erkenbrand.
"I don't have to take up every challenge, just because it is a challenge," replied Déoric. "That would not be wise. I need to use my resources sensibly."
"You think you would be wasting your time on me?" said Erkenbrand and grinned.
"I didn't mean to say that –"
"Ah, but the thought sprang up in my mind nonetheless. Can you do anything to convince me otherwise?"
Déoric took a sip of ale and held on to the mug, for he reasoned that his fingers were better placed there than between his teeth. He looked at Erkenbrand's mane. Burnt umber and yellow ochre, he thought, with a glaze of flake white. Why not. I can but fail.
"I will paint you," he said. "Though I must warn you that it could take all day and we may not even get finished. And I won't take the blame if you're not pleased with the result."
Two days later Déoric and Aldfrid emerged from the gate in the Deeping Wall and made their way out of the valley while the barely dry portrait of Lord Erkenbrand was passed from hand to hand in the great hall. Déoric had pronounced the picture to be only just tolerable, but this did not discourage others from finding it quite noteworthy. Béohild insisted that it would take pride of place over the fireplace and Erkenbrand had some trouble to make her admit that at little more than one foot by one, the panel would look lost rather than impressive.
Such concerns, however, did not touch Déoric and Aldfrid, who continued their journey much in the same style that had brought them to the Hornburg. One village seemed much like another and the people differed but little: kind, honest and a touch suspicious about the pursuits of the one-legged stranger. The third day saw them arrive at the Ford of Isen. On the far side the shallow bank of the river was rimmed by willow and alder trees, but the southern shore extended down to the water as a flat, pebbled shelf. They crossed the shallow waters and steered their horses onto the eyot in the middle of the river. Just above the high water mark they found a burial mound, carefully edged with slate-grey boulders. It showed signs of having been recently tended, and a handful of wilted wild flowers quivered mournfully in the breeze. A single spear was planted on top, and from the spear hung the green flag with the white horse.
"This is where he fell," said Aldfrid. It was the first time during their whole journey that he spoke without having been addressed by Déoric. They paused and looked, each following his own musings on how things might have been had Théodred survived. Not another word was said, and when at last they moved on, they rode away from the river briskly, as if the thoughts that lingered there might otherwise weigh down and drown them.
As they came into the farthest part of the Westfold, they found that the overlong summer had not extended this far, the land being a bit further North, or else that the year had caught up with them at last. The air felt sharper against their faces and the grass had turned ochre and limp. Here and there, patches of withered bracken painted the hillsides russet. In the gaps of the dry stone walls, the last flowers clung sadly to the tail end of their lives.
The villages lay further apart here than in the heartland of Rohan, and twilight had almost turned into night before they reached the next settlement. However, the yield seemed to justify the effort of travelling this far, because Déoric heard for the first time more new stories than familiar ones. This was border country, and many tales talked of the Dunlendings, of their brute rage and deceitful cowardice. Helm Hammerhand was a hero in many of these stories, and some of the deeds told here Déoric had never heard of before. Helm had chased off a pack of wolves by setting fire to their tails. Helm had broken an arm-thick branch off a tree with his bare hands and used this club to crack the skull of the Dunlending who had stolen his sword. Helm had cornered a band of orcs in a cave and frightened the life out of them when he tore the limbs off their chieftain. Déoric sat until late at night by the light of a rushlamp and scribbled down notes.
On their fourth day in this border country, it began to rain. The clouds were trailing low, almost touching the crests of the hills. It was boggy land they were travelling on, low rolling grassy knolls dotted with gorse bushes and small, twisted trees. Here and there, a hill rose not towards a gentle slope, but a sudden cliff of jagged, reddish rocks. There were caves opening up in some of those cliffs, though most were shallow and offered little shelter when Déoric and Aldfrid huddled together in the musty shadows for a bit of rest. It was too damp to get a fire going. They were thoroughly drenched, as were their horses, and in the end they decided it was best to move on and find the next village as soon as they could.
So they rode on, north-westwards they believed, guessing rather than knowing that noon had come and gone, for the sky was so thickly covered with billowing clouds that there was no telling where the sun stood. They kept to the moorlands, which were open and, if nothing else, afforded the nearest thing to a clear view in this steaming weather, while to their right wooded slopes of larch and ash rose, a wall of bare trees clumped together in muted hues of brown, grey and purple. Beyond, they could only vaguely perceive dark shapes that may or may not have been the southernmost foothills of the Misty Mountains. It was the only thing that still gave them some sense of direction. They had hoped not to stray quite so far to the North, because for all that Isengard was said to be deserted, they wished not to come too close to the former lair of the White Wizard. Whether or not they were now passing in the shadow of that dismal place was beyond their skill to determine. Heavy, soggy vapour hid all features of the land from their searching gaze. It wafted around the horses and crept behind the men's collars.
Somewhere to the left they could just make out a lone tree that must have been coppiced at one time, for it looked almost like a broom, with a sturdy trunk from which rose a bunch of long, straight branches, each covered in smooth young bark the colour of copper. Those youthful limbs stood in stark contrast to the ancient body that bore them, grey, cracked and disfigured by knotty growths, some as large as a man's head. Indeed, a few of these growths formed a pattern of two round ones on top and a longer, more prominent one underneath, which in turn sat above a gaping hole; and this bizarre arrangement gave the whole tree the look of a man with a shock of auburn hair crying out in fear or surprise. Like a sentinel of long forgotten times he seemed to guard the path ahead and give a mournful salute, or maybe a warning. Déoric passed it with a shudder.
It rained on and on. By now they were so wet that they had stopped caring. Déoric sat in a dreamy daze, reflecting on how ridiculous it was to have water dripping off the tip of his nose. In front of him, Aldfrid's horse glistened with moisture while the hunched over figure of Aldfrid seemed to cling to whatever little comfort his pulled-up shoulders provided. For the last half hour it had grown steadily darker and they could no longer fool themselves that this was only due to a gloomier set of clouds. Evening had come and there was no sign of the settlement that they should have reached hours ago. They had to admit that they were lost.
The attack could not have come at a more inopportune moment, even considering how generally unwelcome orc attacks are. It was a band of half a dozen small, swarthy orcs and two of them lost their heads to Aldfrid's sword before Déoric even quite realized what was happening. The crude voices woke him from his stupor and he drew his own sword, which felt heavy and awkward in his hand after more than a year of wielding the quill.
A yell hit his ear. One orc came at him from the left with a curved blade, while another grabbed the reins of his horse. Ivornel reared in panic. Déoric's sword met the orc blade with a clang. The orc stumbled backwards, but the effort to counter the thrust made Déoric lose his balance. With his foot still entangled in the stirrup, he slid off the mare's back and fell face down into the wet grass. He cursed. Ivornel shook herself free from the other orc's grip and bolted. She sprinted away, dragging Déoric behind her. He felt clawed hands grabbing for him and something cut into his thigh, but within seconds the skirmish fell behind and gave way to a wild chase through the grass and bracken.
Déoric managed to turn far enough to lift his face out of the grass and tried to shield his head with his arms. Gorse twigs whipped him. He scraped his hand on a stone. Ivornel's hooves were close, whirling, drumming, seemingly everywhere. Mud splashed into his mouth and nostrils. He gasped and struggled to get his foot free. As he wriggled, he inadvertently kicked Ivornel's side. She whinnied and flung herself to the right. A hoof hit his left forearm. Pain soared instantly. Then the mare reeled round again, this time to the left, and Déoric was thrust out over the edge of the cliff that had caused her to turn. Now, at last, too late, his foot slipped out of his boot and he tumbled, down, down, down, over rocks and shrubs and pebbled dips till at last he lay still on a patch of sodden grass at the bottom of the slope.
The pain in his head blurred and merged with the piercing hurt in his arm and thigh and his invisible leg. The black dots that had begun to oscillate in front of his eyes grew and multiplied until they filled his whole world.
And it still rained.
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.