15. Confession Part III
Confession - Part III
Lamedon FA 9
The boy waved a hand of greeting and started to usher his mare through a gate into another paddock. Wingrider made smacking noises with his lips whilst pawing the ground with one big hoof. Then seeing the mare being taken away, he let out a long shriek of frustration, sidling round to try and break his rider's control. Déor calmed him patiently; his stallion always took an interest in any mare that came his way, but if this one happened to be anywhere near her sweet-time, then he would be impossible.
As soon as the mare was behind the gate, and looking forlornly over the rails, the boy started to walk towards them. Déor couldn't take his eyes from him; it was like looking at Éomer when he was a child – the same square chin and intense blue eyes. Those eyes were not focused on him, however, but on his horse. As he got closer, the boy dragged his gaze away from the horse and focused on the two men. He stopped just short of them and bowed, uttering a formal greeting.
'Good morning, lords. I am called Halmir. My uncle is the master of this vineyard. Have you business here? Shall I take you to him?'
Déor introduced himself and his father. 'We came from Rohan to buy wine, so would be pleased if you would lead us to your uncle.' At the mention of Rohan, Halmir's eyes sparkled with excitement, the point about buying wine invoking only a slight acknowledgement. Déor got the impression none of that interested him, but Halmir answered politely.
'My uncle is up the hillside checking on the vines, but will be back for the noon meal very soon. I will take you to the house to wait for him.' He led the way, walking by the side of Déor's stirrup, bubbling over with talk of his horse. 'You might have noticed how fine and spirited my mare is. She is pure Rohirric bred.'
Déor nodded, concentrating on subduing his own feisty bit of Rohirric breeding who would have preferred to be heading for the paddock. Halmir gabbled on, unaware of the amused interest of the two men.
'My mother came back from the war with a mare as reward for her work with the injured Rohirrim, but she didn't know that Aéfre was in foal.'
Déor chuckled to himself – that didn't surprise him. In the aftermath of the Pelennor, with all the injured, and many horses having lost their riders, it had been difficult to keep the stallions and mares separate. Only Rohan's nobility had tethered their horses in or out of the stables on the sixth level, the others were put in makeshift paddocks outside the city. But from what he remembered, the mare Éomer had given Guleth had been on the small side. She had obviously been covered by a well-found stallion to produce the beauty he had just seen.
'You are lucky to have her, Halmir.'
'I know.' The lad nodded furiously. 'Aéfre gave birth to Dreamcatcher not long after my mother birthed me. We have grown up together. She's had two foals.' He looked proud at that, but then sighed a little despondently. 'Both have gone to Lord Angbor, as stallions from the castle covered her and the warriors covet her foals. But...'his eyes met Déor's in a silent plea...'if she were mated to a pure bred Rohirric stallion like yours, then the foal would be beyond compare and I would not part with it.' His shoulders dropped a little, but his proud gaze never wavered. 'I suppose the price would be high.'
'That depends.' Déor caught his father's wry look, but ignored it. 'I would not necessarily charge you much, but I cannot hang around too long waiting for your mare to be ready.'
'It will only be a couple of days at the most. I am sure she is not far off and the presence of your stallion is bound to stimulate her.' Halmir almost danced along in his excitement. 'And my uncle had a good harvest last year and this one looks as though it will be prolific, too. He should be willing to help me.'
Déor agreed that the arrival of his stallion might bring the mare on early. That often happened. But anyway, he might be glad for an excuse to stay awhile, as he had no idea how Guleth was likely to react to his coming here. There would possibly need to be negotiations on more than buying wine. Although Éomer had been very adamant that if the boy knew nothing of his paternity and Guleth wanted it that way, then the matter would end here.
Halmir looked at him expectantly, so Déor put his thoughts aside, touched by the lad's enthusiasm. 'You would not have to pay until it is sure the mating is successful anyway,' he reminded him.
Halmir frowned. 'Yes, but I would have to honour my debt and you will be back in Rohan by the time I know.'
'So I will. In that case I might think of some other way for you to pay me?'
That seemed to please the boy, as he was still smiling at the possibility when they approached the first of the buildings – a long stone barn, held up by massive timbers. Halmir said it stored the aging barrels of wine. The house rose tall behind it and an assortment of other buildings clustered around an open yard. Chickens pecked outside a stable door, and Déor could see a sty with a litter of spotted piglets. Beyond the house a row of thatched workers' cottages straggled down the hill. The cloying tang of fermenting fruit hung in the air, overriding the odour of horses, pigs or anything else. As the harvest had not been picked that year, he imagined the smell must be ingrained in the buildings after years of winemaking.
'I'll just tell my aunt you are here, and then I'll show you where you can put your horses. There's plenty of room today.' Halmir ran into the house, reappearing in just a few moments. He took them to the well-built stables where an old servant appeared and fussed about filling water buckets. When the horses were settled, Halmir escorted them back towards the house. This time a man waited by the door, dressed in brown breeches and a leather jerkin. He was of medium height, thin and wiry, with mid-brown hair; weathered skin showed he spent a good part of his life outdoors.
He came forward smiling profusely, introducing himself as Olthor. But Déor thought he caught a hint of wariness in the man's eyes, quickly hidden. 'My wife said you have come to buy wine. I don't sell any to Rohan at the moment; most of my output has previously gone to the big city. But I planted more vines a few years ago and they came into full production last year. I expect a good harvest from them this season, so will have some to sell elsewhere.'
Déor explained how his queen had sampled the wine in Gondor's Court and wished it supplied to Meduseld. Olthor's smile widened and full of promises of hospitality, he led them into the house, insisting that they eat before any more talk of buying wine.
Déor and Eorllic joined the family and a few other members of the household around a long wooden table loaded with breads, meat and cheeses. Olthor's son, a couple of years older than Halmir, came in? He spoke politely, but seemed a quiet lad with none of the lively disposition apparent in the younger boy. Halmir had already broached the subject of mares and foals to his uncle, who smiled at him benevolently.
'We may be able to come to some agreement, Halmir, but it will mean you taking a full share when it comes to the harvest. You will have to do more than just drive the carts if you want me to fund you.'
'I will, I will,' Halmir promised. 'I will work from dawn to dusk if it means I can mate Dreamcatcher with a Rohirric stallion.'
'Then you must hope she is receptive before I leave,' Déor said.
Sympathetic to the lad, who had no doubt inherited a love of horses from generations of ancestors, and confident Wingrider would entice the mare to come into heat, Déor had made up his mind to stay near at hand until the mare was ready. But he didn't tell Halmir that.
As the meal progressed, the conversation moved to other things pertaining to Rohan and Gondor. Déor waited for an opening to ask about Guleth who had not been mentioned. He had somehow been expecting her to join them, but the meal was served by Olthor's wife, another quiet soul, and their eldest daughter. An old lady sat at the other end of the table. Déor had missed her name in the general introductions, but surmised she was Olthor's mother. She didn't join in the conversation, but every time he glanced that way, pale, farseeing eyes were fixed on him.
Eventually realising he would have to ask, Déor tried to approach the subject nonchalantly. 'Halmir told me that his mother was given a horse after the Ring-war as a reward for her work in helping to heal the Rohirrim. I am sure she must be the same lady that treated a friend of mine. I think she was called Mistress Guleth.'
'That's my mother.' Halmir nodded proudly before anyone else could answer. 'Do you know her, lord?'
Déor carried on eating his meal, aware that Olthor had put down his knife and was looking intently at him. He ignored it. 'I met her a few times. Does she live here?'
After a stiff silence Olthor answered. 'My sister lives with us, but she was away from home last night. She takes her healing to the mountain villages and every so often stays the night at Cirlion, as it's too far to travel there and back in one day. She will return in time for supper tonight.'
Good, then he would make sure he was still here. Déor had a feeling that Olthor might have some suspicions of his motives for visiting the vineyard. But whether he did or not, the lure of a prestigious contract with the Royal Courts of Edoras must have pushed any other concerns aside. Olthor offered them a bed for the night, saying he would show them the process of winemaking that afternoon and hopefully conclude the negotiations before they all sat down for supper.
They saw big rollers that crushed and pressed the grapes and the huge vats where the fermentation took place – all empty now waiting for the next harvest. Olthor explained that he made his best wine from the first fermentation of the must; he then made a further batch from the remaining solids, which he sold to a few locals or gave to his workers to drink. The residue returned to the fields as fertilizer, so nothing was wasted. The wine stayed in the barrels for only a year, which kept it light and palatable for the ladies.
Déor found it all fascinating, recognising the efficiency and skill involved in Olthor's operation which even had its own cooper. At the end of the tour, Olthor tapped a barrel he said would be ready to be drunk in about three months and could form part of a consignment for Rohan.
Déor perched on one of the trestle tables in the wine store, sipping at his goblet – the wine tasted fruity but still a bit thin, although Olthor said it would be up to standard by the autumn. He then gave them a sample of an aged wine he kept for himself; rich and red it packed a mighty punch. Déor drank half the goblet and then put it aside: if he had to negotiate on price then he needed a clear head.
But his father had been buying goods for Aldburg for years and took over, coming to a fair deal pretty quickly. The rest of the wine went down well – the goblets topped up again before they emerged back out into the sunshine. Olthor suggested they might like to wash up before supper, but as they walked towards the house, Déor heard the clip clop of hooves. Into the yard came a grey mare followed by a chunky piebald. Déor recognised the mare, and the woman riding her. The powerfully built man on the piebald looked like he might be a guard. Guleth hadn't spotted them, her attention taken by Halmir, who appeared from the stables and belted across the yard to welcome his mother. Guleth dismounted, passed the reins to Halmir and untied a colourful bag from behind the saddle. She said something to her companion, but Halmir pulled at her arm to get her to take notice of what he was trying to tell her. She listened to her son for a moment and then her head jerked up and her attention flew across to the two men standing on the other side of the yard. She fixed her eyes on Déor and, even though there was a distance between them, he witnessed the colour draining from her face.
Halmir never noticed his mother's reaction to seeing Déor, but Olthor did, looking between the pair of them with eyes narrowed by suspicion. Luckily Halmir's excitement at his mother's return, and anticipation of the future possibilities for his mare, covered an awkward moment. It gave time for Guleth to compose herself and she greeted Déor and his father politely, if without a lot of enthusiasm. A moment's conversation and she excused herself, saying she needed to change before supper. Déor wondered if in fact she would appear again that evening, but she did, slipping into her seat just as the meal was about to be served. Déor thought her still as pretty as when he had first met her. Tonight she had let her brown hair down; still a little damp from washing, it framed her face and curled on her shoulders becomingly. He could certainly understand why Éomer had succumbed, and possibly why he did not want to upset her. But when Éomer had decided that, he had not met his son. Had he done so, he might well have felt differently. Déor chewed a piece of bread thoughtfully – there were likely to be difficult decisions ahead.
Conversation during the meal first centred on Guleth's two days away, as she gave messages to Olthor from friends and some of the farmers who supplied goods to the vineyard. But her mother wanted to know about the various injuries and illnesses she had dealt with, and listened closely, adding suggestions and advice, but generally agreeing with what her daughter had done.
Taking advantage of a lull, Halmir, who had not taken any part in the talk so far, looked up and addressed a question to Déor. He had obviously been deep in thought about his future. 'Do you think there would be work for me in Rohan when I am older? With the horses, I mean?'
No chance to answer, because Guleth beat him to it. 'It would surely be better to seek work in Minas Tirith or Dol Amroth, Halmir. Your skills would be highly prized there, whereas I imagine there is no shortage in Rohan. But it is far too early to make any of those decisions.' She immediately told Halmir to help carry some dishes, averting her eyes from Déor.
So, she had made her position plain, but unfortunately for Mistress Guleth that would not be the end of it. Whether she liked it or not, they were in for some serious discussion. Not that evening though, as she excused herself once the meal was cleared, saying she'd had an exhausting couple of days. But as Déor contemplated her retreating back, Olthor nudged his arm, murmuring in his ear.
'Come and share a goblet of wine with me; I think we need to talk.'
Déor nodded and got up, following his host. He felt eyes boring into his back; he didn't need to look around, aware that Guleth's mother was marking every move.
Olthor steered him to the back of the house. The room he entered was small, dominated by a huge, age-worn desk. Shelves on two of the walls groaned with piles of ledgers and in the middle of another, a large window looked down the valley onto a darkening landscape; a few lights twinkled in the workers cottages. Standing against the third wall was an ornate coffer on which lay a tray holding an earthenware flask and two silver goblets. Olthor indicated for Déor to sit down and picked up the tray, carrying it over to the desk. He poured ruby-red wine into the goblets, passed one to Déor, took the other, and sat down himself.
Déor sipped at his wine, waiting for Olthor to open the conversation. The vintner took a mouthful of wine, rolled it around his mouth and swallowed before he spoke.
'I think you have come here for some other reason than to buy wine.'
Déor didn't deny it; he looked Olthor straight in the eye. 'If I have, then I assure you that the order for wine still stands.'
Olthor nodded, cradling his goblet thoughtfully. 'I would be a fool if I did not notice the anxiety my sister showed when she saw you. Or her forced politeness tonight. This leads me to think that the suspicions that have grown on me over the years are correct. For some time I've had doubts that Faeldor fathered Halmir, and I know my mother believes the same as me.'
Déor sat back in his chair, not giving anything away. 'And what do you believe?'
Olthor gave him a dry look. 'When Guleth came home, I accepted that the child she carried was her husband's. Many men died without knowing their offspring. And for the first few years there was nothing to make me think otherwise. True, Faeldor was swarthy with black hair, but we as a family are much fairer, so Halmir's colouring did not seem out of place. It was when he started to grow – tall and long-limbed – so unlike his supposed father was he in looks and temperament. It became obvious that he had a natural skill with horses, which started me mulling over the mare that Guleth had been given, and made me think that perhaps it was a mighty gift for a healer to receive. I considered the possibility that maybe Halmir's paternity could be contributed to some man who lived over the mountains in Rohan. I fear that you coming here confirms my suspicion.'
'You have challenged Guleth with this?'
'No.' Olthor shook his head. 'It is accepted that Halmir is Faeldor's son, but he is my blood-nephew whoever his father. So believing it her business, I have kept my thoughts private. Although, as I said, I know our mother has come to think the same as me. Now I am worried that seeing you here others may make the connection. Guleth is respected, loved even, all along these mountains. Many country people have strict morals, and my sister is precious to me. It would pain me if she lost her good name, and her reputation became smirched by grubby insinuations. You see, I owe her a debt that I can never repay.'
Déor never said anything; just raised his eyebrows in enquiry, and Olthor went on. 'When my son was born, both mother and child were ill. They had a fever that I thought was going to burn them alive. Guleth and my mother nursed them, but the brunt of work fell on Guleth. Night after night she tended to my son, bathing his tiny body and spooning liquid into his mouth. He survived, and when I am old and worn, I will be able to pass this vineyard to him, because as Halmir is made to work with horses, then he is made to care for the vines.' Olthor sighed, and took a gulp of his wine. 'We all live here happily, Lord Déor. For whatever reason my sister decided to pass Halmir off as her husband's and not acknowledge you as his father. Why you have come here at this late hour, I do not know, but I do not want my family upset. You have shown no interest in your son so far and I would rather you left it at that. I can assure you that I am quite capable of providing for Halmir and my sister.'
It took a moment for Déor to react, but then he realised that it was a totally understandable mistake for Olthor to make. But one best put right quickly. 'You are under a misapprehension, I am not Halmir's father, that honour belongs to a friend of mine.'
A look of relief passed across Olthor's face, and the stiffness left his body. 'So, it is just a coincidence that a friend of Halmir's father comes to buy wine.'
'Not quite, I am afraid. You see my friend is the King of Rohan, and until a week ago he did not know Mistress Guleth had born him a son.'
'The King of Rohan...'Olthor went white, swearing under his breath. 'You are sure?'
Déor nodded, but the poor man had difficulty with the startling news, and put his hand to his head, shaking it in wonder.
'That I never suspected...Guleth said the king had given her the horse for tending to the injured Rohirrim; however these past few years I had come to believe that Halmir's father had probably given Aéfre to her.'
'He did,' Déor put in, slanting Olthor a wry smile. 'Éomer King gave her the mare when she decided to return to her home.'
Olthor's forehead creased in thought, and he rubbed his eyes. 'But you say the King found out only a week ago, how was that? Has someone else been here and reported back?'
'No, he was alerted to the possibility in an entirely different way.' Déor explained about Lothíriel's gift of foretelling and the vision she'd had, and how he had been sent to discover the truth.
'It is obvious that your sister does not want to talk to me, but I am afraid she is going to have to tomorrow. There are decisions to be made; we cannot ignore that Halmir is of the House of Eorl.'
To be continued
List of original characters appearing or mentioned in this chapter.
Guleth Had a relationship with Éomer after the Ring-war.
Faeldor Guleth's husband, killed on the Pelennor.
Byrde Hama's youngest daughter, married to Déor.
Déor. Childhood friend of Éomer, now the captain of Lothíriel's guard.
Eorllic Déor's father. Elwyth – his mother. Æbbe – his sister
Olthor Guleth's brother – a vintner.
Halmir Illegitimate son of Guleth and Éomer.
Elphir and Meren:
Alphros m – born 3017; Elphin m – born 3020 ; Eldir m – born FA4; plus one girl
Amrothos and Devoran:
Elenna f – born FA2; Rosriel f – born FA5; Carafin m – born FA7 (became Lord of Morthond when Devoran was given her inheritance); Baranir m – born FA8; Lindis f born FA11 (married Déor and Byrde's son, Caedda)
Eóthain and Welwyn:
Leofcwen f – born Yule 3020 ; Eadrid m – born FA5; plus three more.
Déor and Byrde:
Caedda m – born FA6 (married Lindis; four children including Osmund)
Ealgyþe f born FA 27; Éadwig m born FA29; plus two more sons and one daughter.
Erchirion and Inayah:
Two daughters and one son.
Æbbe and Godric
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