9. Story Time
The date for Niarl and Aedre's wedding had been set for the second day of rest in December, being the customary three months from the day of the Challenge. When the time drew near, Déoric's prolonged absence began to unnerve even Niarl. He was loath to get married without his friend by his side, but calling off the wedding would be unheard of. With the snow lying almost two feet high beyond the gates of Edoras and the news from the Hornburg become common knowledge, Niarl could no longer maintain his cheerful protestations that Déoric would be back any day now. The feast would have to go ahead without him, and when he said so much to Fana on the Friday before the big day, she only nodded and smiled at him in a helpless, forlorn way.
Fana and Dirlayn prepared for the wedding with as much care as they ever would. They brought out their best frocks and dressed them with new ribbons, they brushed and braided each other's hair and put on what few trinkets they owned. On their way to the feasting hall, they held on to each other, for where the lanes had been cleared, the cobbles were slippery, and in other places grubby snow lay in crusty, unsightly piles that needed to be negotiated with care lest one fancied a tumble and a soiling of one's festive garments.
They were among the earliest guests to arrive. Flames blazed in the huge fireplaces at either end of the feasting hall. Some pieces of apple and cherry wood had been added to the more common oak logs; their sweet fragrance mingled with the scent of the fir garlands that bedecked the walls. On the long tables, dishes of cold meats, fresh loaves, spiced carrot pies and apple and bramble tarts stood waiting.
The door through which they had entered faced another door at the opposite end of the hall. Halfway along the width of the room a canopy of green cloth had been adorned with scarlet ribbons and yet more fir garlands. Three musicians - two fiddlers and a flute-player - sat in a corner and busied themselves about their instruments. Fana and Dirlayn found seats on the benches along the walls, not too far from the canopy.
In less than half an hour, some four score people had crowded into the room. Before long, the sound of a horn rang from outside one of the doors, and was answered from the other door at the far end. The bridal party entered through one and the groom's from another. Oswald the cobbler and Wulfgar the carpenter each went ahead of their group, with the child they were about to give into marriage one step behind, followed by the rest of their household. All guests stood and watched as they walked across the room towards each other. About ten feet from the canopy, they came to a halt.
"Blessings be upon our meeting," said Wulfgar. "I bring Niarl, a young man of the Mark, whom I brought up to honour the laws and customs of our land and to defend what is ours. He has come here today to pledge himself in marriage to your daughter Aedre, if she so be willing."
"And I," said Oswald, "bring Aedre, a young woman of the Mark, whom I have brought up to nurture and cherish and to build up what is ours. She has come here today to pledge herself in marriage to Niarl, for this is her will."
"So be it," said Wulfgar.
At this, Niarl and Aedre stepped forward and closed the gap, so that they came to be standing under the canopy. Each carried a sword; Niarl's had clearly seen some action, while Aedre's looked smooth and newly forged. Niarl offered the hilt of his sword to Aedre.
"This sword has come to me through my father and his father's fathers before him. I give it to you for safe keeping in the hope that one day you will pass it on to our son."
She took the sword and presented hers likewise.
"I promise to keep this sword in the spirit in which it has been offered," she said, "and ask you to accept this blade from my hand to wield in the defence of our home and our land."
The exchange of swords was followed by an exchange of rings, after which a kiss sealed the marriage and everyone clapped and cheered. Niarl turned to face the guests with his arm wrapped tightly around Aedre's shoulders, looking even more pleased with himself than he usually did. Aedre's face was one big lantern of happiness, and no wonder. She was a married woman, with Niarl by her side, and now there would be feasting and dancing.
Fana looked around. There was about one man for every two women in the room. Even if she had felt like dancing, she'd have to sit out at least half the evening. She noticed Sigrun leaning against the wall in a corner; she looked like she was furtively wiping away some tears. Fana clenched her hands. Aedre was lucky. So was she. Or had been, anyway. Yet even with the war over, men could still get lost. Who knew how much snow covered Déoric's body? But no, she would not allow herself to think like that.
"I was sorry to hear about Déoric," said a voice behind her. "I hope he'll come back safely soon."
Fana looked over her shoulder, but the speaker had already turned and was moving away. It was Éadlin.
Three days had passed since Déoric had come to his senses in Lunet's cottage. On the second day, they'd had a long argument about her sleeping on a hammock in the goat shed, which Déoric felt certain should be his quarters, but Lunet had just laughed at him and asked him how he was going to get there with his broken arm and single leg and no boot. So he continued to sleep in her bed, ill at ease but forced to admit that it was the only feasible thing to do. He was exhausted still, drifting in and out of fretful naps, while his various worries pinched and punched his wakeful hours. Lunet sat or worked in silence for much of the time, and he had no inclination or maybe just no strength to pick up again the strands of their first conversation which had so forcefully arisen in the bewildering moments of his first awakening. She ministered to him with the calm and measured movements of an experienced healer, and though he felt awkward about his frailty and unsettled by her alien speech and hideous appearance, he came to trust her notwithstanding that sinister word invisibly stamped on her forehead – Dunlending. Whatever the Dunlendings might have done to his people in the past, however evil and hostile their men might be, in the house and the hands of this old woman, he was safe.
When Déoric awoke on the fourth day, she was busy about the cottage as usual. His head seemed clearer this morning, and when he sat up there was none of that dizziness that he had become accustomed to expect. He stretched out his arms, which almost touched the ceiling that came sloping down at this end of the room. It was warm, the fire in the hearth bigger than on the previous days.
Lunet looked over her shoulder.
"Better today?" she asked.
"Very much, thank you," replied Déoric.
"Then take off your clothes," she said.
Déoric gave a start.
"Take off your clothes," she repeated. "You smell, so you do. I have a pot full of water heating up over the fire. Do you strawheads never wash your clothes?"
"Yes, but –"
"I won't look, though I dare say I wouldn't see anything I haven't seen before. I tell you what, my bashful young friend, I'll put out a bowl of water for your own use and I'll go away and see to the goats, is what I'll do. Here's a tunic and a pair of breeches that you can wear while your own things dry."
She dropped a bundle onto the bed and turned to the hearth, where she filled a pottery basin with water from the cauldron. Then she walked over to the door.
"See that you're decent again by the time I come back, dearie," she said and went out.
Déoric shuffled over to the hearth and began to undress. Lunet was right, of course, he smelled worse than something fished out of a cesspit. He hadn't changed his clothes since the day he'd left the Hornburg and the feverish sweat had not improved them. They reeked of sickness and stale fear. His trousers weren't soiled, though. For the last few days he had used a chamber pot, but suddenly it occurred to him to wonder how Lunet had kept him clean prior to that. He flinched and chucked his trousers into the cauldron as if he could thus rinse the embarrassing thought out of his mind. The water bubbled with a sharp, fresh fragrance, as if Lunet had added healing herbs rather than soap.
He turned to the bowl. It felt good to dip his hands into the warm water. Only now did he realize just how grimy they were. He rubbed them clean and then bathed his face. Next to the bowl he found a piece of soap and a cloth and used them to wash himself from head to toe. His skin was red and sore in places, and he had to agree with Lunet that it was high time for him to get a wash. Once he was wet, he began to shiver in spite of the roaring fire and returned to the bed as quickly as he could to get dressed. The tunic and breeches Lunet had left him were roughly woven and frayed around the seams, but they fitted fairly well and warmed him almost instantly. He wondered who the clothes may have belonged to, but knew straight away that he would not dare to ask.
There were neither shoes nor socks. On his bare foot, Déoric returned to the hearth and added his tunic and sock to the boiling water. What now? He looked around and tried to remember how his mother dealt with the laundry. A large wooden spoon hung from a hook on the wall. He took it and began to stir. Clothes soup, he thought, my favourite. A giggle rose in his throat.
The bubbles had calmed a bit. He looked with curiosity at the hundreds of tiny seeds that floated to the surface. What had Lunet put into the water? With the wooden spoon, he scooped up some of the seeds to take a closer look – and noticed the legs. A groan escaped him. These were not seeds. They were tiny insects, brownish, almost translucent, with oval bodies and miniscule heads. He let the spoon sink.
"Are you decent, Déoric?" came Lunet's voice from the door.
"Yes, well, I'm... Come in!"
Lunet entered and marched straight over to the hearth.
"What's the matter, dearie?" she said. "Sit down, you're white as goat's milk. Feeling dizzy again?"
"It's... I ... Lunet, are these what I think they are?"
He handed her the spoon. She brought it up close to her face and screwed up her eyes. Then she put the spoon down.
"Yes. You've caught yourself some body lice, dearie. Have you not been itchy?"
"I have, but I thought that was because of the sweat..." Déoric slumped down on the nearest chair, while Lunet inspected the cauldron.
"Well," she said, "You probably got rid of most of them with your clothes, though a few may still hang on to the hairy bits, they will. See to it that you wash well for the next few days, and you should be fine."
At that, without any warning, Déoric burst into tears.
His outburst surprised him so much that at first he didn't notice Lunet's gnarled hand on his shoulder.
"Shhh, shhh, dearie," she muttered. "It's all been a bit much for you, eh?"
"It's ... so disgusting," sobbed Déoric. He couldn't quite understand how such a trivial thing could shock him so much, but he soon realized that it was just the last little bit that had pushed him over the edge. And then the whole rest of his sorrows piled up on him all at once. He shook, he trembled, and the tears fell in warm droplets onto his hands.
"And I've lost my horse, and I can't get home, and my mother and Fana will be beside themselves and..."
"There now!" Lunet knelt down in front of him and took both his hand into hers. He felt the thin, loose skin bunch up where her fingers met his. She stroked his hands with her callused thumbs. "We'll get you home once the snow is melted, don't you worry."
She soothed and cooed some more in her strange, Dunlendish voice, assuring him that nothing but the weather kept him prisoner and that all would be well, though she refrained from promising to find his horse. By and by, Déoric's sobs subsided into hiccuppy sniffles, and he drew calmer breaths. But he was not yet willing to let go of his despair.
"It could be weeks before I get away from here," he said. "And I had collected so many stories. Now I fear I'll forget most of them before I ever get back to Edoras."
"Tell them to me," said Lunet.
He looked up at her, at that crumpled, wart-ridden face.
"Will you remember?" he said.
"Perhaps I will and perhaps I won't. But that doesn't matter. Telling them to me will make you remember them better, it will. Go ahead," she said and pulled up a stool. "I'm quite comfortable here and ready for story time."
Déoric hesitated. The stories he had gathered in the border country were full of the Dunlending's villainy. It wouldn't even take Déoric's ample sense of politeness to see that those weren't the best kind of entertainment for the Dunlendish woman who had saved his life. But something had to be said. He decided to be evasive.
"Do you know what happened at the village of Gilsham?" he asked. Maybe it would be easier if he could get her to tell of the guilt of her people, rather than him accusing them.
"Gilsham?" She rubbed the back of her hand. "That was a sad business, so it was. The story goes that at that time, the people of Dunland still held some of the fertile land of what you now call the Westfold, and grew crops there. But the Eorlingas came and drove them out into the hills, and when they saw that the winter was upon them, they grew desperate and Bleddyn gathered as many men as were willing and able and led them into the plain. They went from village to village, raiding the grain stores secretly at night and sending what they could lay their hands on back into the hills with their trusty ponies. But when they came to Gilsham, the men of the village had been waiting for them, for they had heard of their raids, and they turned on them with swords and fierce dogs. And because it was night time, they carried torches when they came rushing out of the barn where they had been hiding. And in the fight that ensued, a torch fell into a pile of hay and set it ablaze, but the men of both sides cared not, for they were so engrossed in their struggles. And so the fire got out of hand and carried from hut to hut until the whole village was burning, and many were lost, men, women and children, and Bleddyn died and all of his companions."
Déoric stared. Absentmindedly, he wiped the last remaining tears off his chin. He shook he head.
"But our stories say that the men of Dunland pillaged and plundered recklessly," he said, "killing anyone who stood in their way without mercy, and that Bleddyn wrestled the torch out of a woman's hand and threw it into the hay with a grim laugh and fled with all his men."
"Well," Lunet replied," I'm not surprised that your stories do."
"Are you saying they are not true?"
"Is there such a thing as truth? Or is there just the ways people see things, you think?"
"Of course there is truth!"
"And how do you know what it is?" she asked.
"Well..." Déoric floundered. "I think... I always thought you just look at things and see how they are, and that is the truth."
"But what if we can only see what we expect to see? What if we cannot recognize a thing unless we already have the shape of it in our mind?"
"I don't think I understand you," said Déoric.
Lunet stood up and smoothed out her dress. She walked over to the hearth and fished Déoric's clothes out of the cauldron with the wooden spoon. They dripped and steamed, and Déoric fancied he could see the tiny dots of the dead lice making a disturbing pattern on the fabric of his tunic. He shuddered. Lunet found a wooden bowl and dumped the laundry into it. Then she wiped her hands on her apron and turned back to Déoric.
"Did you know," she said, "that the people of Dunland once lived in all the lands you now call the Riddermark? And that the Eorlingas came and drove them out, declaring it to be their own by decree of the King of Gondor, as if it was his to give away? Our home."
Déoric rubbed his hands up and down, up and down his thigh. It was something to do to stop himself from scratching all over his body.
"No, I didn't know that," he said at last. "I've never thought about who might have lived in the Mark before the days of Eorl the Young."
"Well, it was us, and now you know, don't you," said Lunet. She turned her back on him and began to wring out his trousers. The hot water ran into the bowl and little splashes of it painted dark pockmarks into the sand. Her hands were red and glistened in the firelight.
Déoric didn't know what to think. If the Eorlingas had indeed – stolen, one would have to say, the land from the Dunlendings, that put a different light on things. He could see it now. He hadn't recognized it before, because, as Lunet had put it, the shape of it hadn't been in his mind.
Still, the Dunlendings had fought alongside orcs and wargs at the Battle of Hornburg in an attempt to destroy the Eorlingas, whose women and children had been cowering in the caves. Déoric had been there! No amount of past wrong could excuse their atrocities at Helm's Deep.
He had to ask.
"Lunet, do the Dunlendings have tales of Helm Hammerhand?"
She was finished with wringing and spread his clothes over the back of a chair that stood near the hearth. Then she took again her seat on the stool and looked at him with her tired brown eyes.
"Helm Hammerhand," she said. "Oh yes, let me tell you a story or two about Helm Hammerhand."