His sergeant had given them the afternoon off, so Thorongil had taken advantage of the fine weather to wander around the markets. The language might be different, and some of the wares quite exotic to his northern eyes, but the general chatter reminded him of Bree and the other villages in the North. He paused in front of a stall selling dried fruit and nuts, smiling at the memory of how his mother had loved almonds roasted and sprinkled with salt.
That was probably his first mistake.
'Ho there, young sir!'
Thorongil glanced around in annoyance. He hadn't been planning anything in particular that afternoon, but free time was a precious commodity for a newly-recruited soldier. 'Are you talking to me?'
A voice muttered something that could have been, 'Yes, why not, you'll do' and he found himself facing the owner of the voice. Thorongil blinked. All that he'd heard about the Rohirrim (which was, admittedly, not very much) had led him to believe that they were a race of tall, strong, proud warriors, and while he realised that not every Rohirric person could live up to this image, this man was stretching the definition of 'Rohirrim' a fair amount. He was about a foot shorter than Thorongil, scrawny, and his hair was too dirty to tell its original colour, but what worried Thorongil most was the man's face. He was fairly sure that tall, strong, proud Rohirric warriors did not have faces that resembled optimistic weasels.
The man seemed to have sized him up at a glance. 'Not from around here, are you?'
Thorongil was very careful to deflect personal questions, but it surely couldn't hurt to state the obvious. 'No, actually–'
'Joined the army, have you?'
'Best army in the world, I say.'
'Yes, it's very good–'
'And they only take the best fighters.'
'I'm sure they–'
'Must mean you're a pretty good fighter then, eh?'
'Not too bad,' said Thorongil modestly. 'But I'm sure I've got a lot more to learn–'
''Course, a good fighter needs a good horse, don't he?'
'You got a horse, young sir?'
Thorongil was beginning to feel rather bewildered under the constant barrage of questions. 'Yes, they've given me a horse–'
'They've given you a horse,' the man snorted. 'How generous. Some old bag of bones that won't last you a week, is it?'
'She's a nice horse,' Thorongil said mildly.
'Oh, I'm sure she's a nice horse,' the other man said quickly. 'Not very impressive, though, is it? I mean, say you wanted to have a song about a young man like yourself, bravely riding into battle with his nice…'
'Brown,' Thorongil supplied.
'Right, his nice brown horse, wouldn't be a great song, would it? No, 'course not. You want people to sing about–'
'–yeah, Thorongil – nice name, by the way, Gondorian, is it? – and his famous horse.'
Thorongil suddenly realised that he had given his name to a complete stranger, and that he had been walking for some time, oblivious to anything going on around him. 'Wait, what's your name?'
'Díegleod, sir. Full name is HMOH Díegleod, but folks call me Díegleod mostly.' The man seemed to be getting cheerier and cheerier.
'Oh. Nice to meet you, er, Díegleod.' Thorongil glanced around at the buildings, and realised that they had left the marketplace. 'Where are we going, Díegleod?'
'Going to find you a horse, of course, Mr Thorongil.'
'But I've already got a horse–'
'Oh, not one like this one, sir,' Díegleod said confidently.
'I don't think I can afford–'
'We'll work something out, Mr Thorongil, we'll work something out.' Diegleod stopped in front of a shed, and busied himself with unlocking the door.
'What does HMOH mean?' Thorongil said curiously.
'Oh, you'll find out if you stick around here long enough, sir,' said Díegleod, and they stepped inside.
It was dark and dusty in the shed, and it took Thorongil a few minutes to adjust to the dimness. What he eventually saw was a small room, part stable, part storeroom, part workshop, if the objects cluttered on the floor and a rickety table were any indicator. The room smelt of straw, and there was the sound of something moving and occasionally stamping. 'Right this way, sir,' said Díegleod, and led him towards the stable part of the room. He had lit a small lamp, and held it up to show the occupant of the stall. 'What do you think, sir?'
Thorongil looked at the animal critically. If pressed, he had to admit that it had what he considered the basic requirements for a horse – eyes, ears, four legs, a tail – but it was like no horse he'd seen before. 'Well,' said Thorongil, 'It's a cow, for a start.'
'Very perceptive of you, sir.'
'I can't ride a cow into battle, Díegleod.'
'And why not, sir?' Díegleod managed an injured look.
'–just like a horse, but the horns are very useful for gouging.'
'I suppose that would be useful, but–'
'– and if you ever get lost or run out of food or something, you've got a steady supply of milk right there.'
Despite the ridiculousness of the idea, Thorongil was finding it hard to come up with any rebuttals. 'Horses are… traditional,' he managed.
'Oh, horses,' Díegleod said with a sniff. 'Nice enough to look at, I'll give you that, but they don't have nothing on cows. Just you wait, a few years and we'll all be riding these,' and he gestured towards the cow, which was looking rather bored.
Thorongil did not want to disappoint the man too much, but he was also expected at the barracks very soon. 'Er, it's very nice, Díegleod, but I think I'll leave it for now.'
Díegleod managed a look of almost genuine surprise. 'You're sure, sir? Normally they'd be six shillings, but I'll drop it to five shillings for you, and that's–'
'No, thankyou,' said Thorongil politely, and hastily slipped out the door.
He made it back to the barracks just as dinner was starting, and flopped down at a table with the rest of his group. Folcwine, his sergeant, raised his eyebrows at the young man's flushed and sweaty face. 'Found something entertaining at the market, did you?'
Thorongil was too interested in the food to notice the suggestive tone. 'Yes. I met this strange man at the market, he was short and scrawny and had a face like a weasel…'
Folcwine suddenly grinned. 'Ah,' he said knowledgably, 'sounds like you had a run-in with Hobble-Me-Own-Horse Díegleod.'
'Yes, that was his name.' Thorongil blinked. 'He tried to sell me a cow as though it was a horse,' he said suddenly as the surrealism of it came back to him.
'Don't worry, he does that with everyone.' Folcwine snorted. 'On my first week here, he tried to sell me a chicken to use as a messenger bird. Told me that it could wake me up every morning, give me eggs and fly faster than any pigeon. He's got some strange ideas, does Díegleod, but he's a good sort. Just don't buy anything from him.'
Training and a foray with the Riders meant that Thorongil did not go back to the market for a week. When he did return, it was a rainy morning and there were fewer customers, but he recognised Díegleod standing on a corner. 'Morning, Díegleod.'
'Oh, morning Mr Thorongil! Not dead yet?'
'Not yet,' said Thorongil, who was quickly learning that a sardonic sense of humour was a useful thing to have when talking to Díegleod. 'How's the cow business going?'
'Shelved it, for now,' Díegleod said gloomily. 'These people, so afraid of new things, they just can't understand what a great opportunity they're missing.' He suddenly brightened again. 'Anyway, enough about depressing things. How about a lovely beef sausage, Mr Thorongil? Just the thing to warm you up on a cold day. They're three pennies each for everyone else, but I'll make it two for our brave young soldiers, and that's hobbling me own horse.'
AN: None of these characters are mine. All - er, most - of them belong to Tolkien, and you can guess which is the odd one out here. Díegleod is the closest I could get to 'Dibbler' in Old English, but it means 'secretive man' and is therefore fairly accurate. Folcwine was the name of one of the early kings of Rohan - I've just recycled names, following in Tolkien's grand tradition.
No fledging rangers were harmed in the writing of this scene. Any feedback, especially constructive criticism, is always appreciated.
For the non-Discworld readers: HMOH Díegleod is a close cousin to CMOT Dibbler of Ankh-Morpork, possibly the city's worst businessman but simultaneously its best sausage seller. It's better not to ask what's in the sausuages, mind.