Thanks to Epilachna and Finlay for beta reading. Middle-earth belongs to Tolkien.
Chapter One: Consider the Pond Skater
Consider the pond skater. On his long legs, barely thicker than hairs, he darts across the water, making minute indents into the shiny surface in the process. His middle pair of legs propels him forwards, while he uses the hind legs to steer. Such a delicate little thing he seems to be, and yet he is a predator. With the claws on his front legs he snatches his prey, tiny bugs just above or below the surface, and devours them. Creatures of the water and creatures of the air are his food, but he himself commits to neither realm. And he is successful: a common bug in every part of the world, he has even colonized the open oceans.
Faramir turned away from the garden pond with a feeling of unease. He did not like the water bugs, their erratic movements and spindly legs. With firm steps he walked up the path back to the house, alongside the rose bushes and past the bee hives. Bees, he thought. Bees are much better. So purposeful and so organized. He admired the regularity of their honeycombs and their relentless devotion to the welfare of the hive. Each single bee was bound up in a pattern of life that cared not for self but only for the greater good. Would that people were more like this, thought Faramir. Life in the new community in Ithilien was peaceful and amicable by and large, but he saw with concern the emerging signs of selfishness among the people. Only the other day he had been called upon to settle a quarrel between two men who were arguing about access to a communal field for grazing their cattle. Bees would not waste any time on such petty squabbles. They worked for the swarm, building up their hive without ever thinking of personal gain. And the abundance they created gave people two invaluable gifts: honey to sweeten their food and wax for candles to light up the darkness.*
With these ponderings drifting through his mind, Faramir had reached the stair that led up from the garden to the paved terrace surrounding the house. He sighed. Something in his reflection about bees left him dissatisfied, but he could not quite work out what. He wanted to tell Éowyn, but she would just laugh and tease him about the solemn turn of his mind that could look at nothing without a little bout of philosophizing. She called it men's problems, which she considered a kind of idle indulgence, while women had to get on with the real questions of how to get the grease stains out of the best tablecloth and what to feed to the king and queen on their next visit.
When he arrived at the house he was greeted by the dogs, two large shaggy hounds with long bushy tails. He patted them absentmindedly and went in through the garden door. The room that opened out onto the terrace was a bright and pleasant apartment in which Éowyn often spent her mornings with letters and household accounts. He found her there now, seated on a green armchair, but she did not look as if she was inclined to laugh and tease. Her face was sweaty and pallid.
"Faramir," she said faintly. "I don't feel at all well. I've sent for Merilwen."
Grey light hung over Edoras. Dawn came a little bit later at this time of year, and the birds' twilight song had not yet ceased when Déoric, son of Féadred, awoke. He kept his eyes closed and let his mind test the texture of the world against the weightless blur of his dreams. Last night he seemed to have forgotten to close the shutters, because he could feel the light through his closed eye-lids. His left arm was hanging over the edge of the bed and his fingertips touched the wooden floor. The right foot was sticking out from under the blanket. His left leg: missing. Still missing.
He opened his eyes, turned, and nestled his face in the delicious, camomile scented warmth that was Fana's neck and hair. Her arm lay on top of the blanket. It was pale and freckled like her face and defined by strong muscles that seemed surprising in such a dainty woman. Déoric ran a single finger along the smooth skin from her shoulder to her wrist. On her hand, the morning light glinted off the gold ring. He touched it, reassured by its solid respectability, and then moved his flat palm back up her arm. With a sigh, Fana rolled over and curled up against him. He pulled her closer and rested his cheek against her hair.
"Are you awake?"
"No," mumbled Fana. Déoric pushed back the strands of hair from her face and kissed the tip of her nose. Then he slid his arm under the blanket and explored her sleeveless nightgown until he found the spot on her back where he knew her to be ticklish. She squirmed and giggled at his touch.
"Yes, you are," he said.
"No, I'm still sleeping."
"Wake up, or I'll tickle you again."
"I'm tired." She pushed his hand away and burrowed her forehead into the welcoming space formed by his neck and chin.
"Sleepyhead! Who do you think will milk the cow?"
"Dirlayn will do it. She promised me yesterday. I'm too tired."
"How can you be so tired all the time? You used to never be tired at all."
Fana sighed. She opened her eyes, planted her elbow into the pillow and propped up her head on her palm. Her gentle fingers traced the outline of Déoric's face.
"Well," she said with her mischievous grin, "I know someone who kept me up last night."
Déoric felt himself blush. Then he smiled back at her. She was, after all, his wife.
"It's the big day for me today," he said. Fana leaned closer and kissed him, first on both cheeks and then on the lips.
"You'll be just fine, Déoric. My father wouldn't let you fall. Can I come and watch?"
"Won't you be too tired?"
"Not for this." She kissed him again, playfully. "It'll be a sight to see."
"Don't mock me!"
"I'm not mocking you, Déoric. I'm very glad for you."
"We don't know yet if it'll work," he replied.
"It will, and it'll make all the difference to you."
"No. You've made all the difference to me."
"Too much flattery, my dear husband!" She sat up and flung back the blanket. "Shift, I need to get dressed."
She walked over to the window and washed her face in the bowl of water that had been left on the little table for this purpose the previous night. From the bed, Déoric watched her movements, which were brisk and purposeful. By the time he had peeled himself from the blankets and reached for his crutches, she was dressed and sat down on a chair to get her hair in order. He passed her on his way to the washbowl and leaned down briefly to kiss her head.
"Wait there, I'll do your hair," she said when he had put on his clothes.
"I can do it myself."
"I know, but I like doing it."
She pushed him into the chair and opened his braids. With a moan of contentment he surrendered to her touch, to the tender, even strokes of the comb and the sensation of her fingers brushing against his neck. It was hard to imagine now that his stubborn sulkiness had kept them apart for over a year. The ease with which she touched and claimed him seemed still new to him after less than three months of marriage, but at the same time he felt comfortable and safe in the realm of intimacy that was their little bedchamber. The week before their wedding, Léofred, the king's advisor, had seen to it that a better, broader stair had been fitted so that Déoric could climb it to share with Fana one of the two small rooms under the roof. It was this stair that they came down ten minutes later to find Déoric's mother Dirlayn just coming in with the milk pail.
"Good morning, you two," she said. "You're up late. Don't let your father wait, Fana."
"We won't," replied the young woman. "We're just leaving."
"What, without breakfast?"
"We'll get something to eat later when we come back, Mama," said Déoric. "I'll probably have a better appetite then."
"Are you coming with us?" asked Fana.
"No, dear," said Dirlayn. "If Déoric is so nervous that he'll even forgo his breakfast, then he'd better not have too many onlookers. I'll have plenty of chances to see him another time."
"If it works, that is," said Déoric.
"It will work. Now off you go my lad, and good luck."
She kissed him quickly on the cheek and ushered them out of the door. By now the sun had risen high enough to burn away the morning mists and illuminate the mellow colours of late summer. The air smelled of rain and of ripening apples. In Dirlayn's tiny garden potatoes, beans and marrows were ready for harvest.
Déoric and Fana stepped out into the lane. In the slow pace that Déoric had become accustomed to and that Fana was beginning to match with increasing grace, they made their way down to the gate and out of the city to a field hemmed by willow trees. This was the place where, not quite a year ago, the young scribe Déoric had begun to see the world in the peculiar way which allowed him to draw it so naturally that the king himself had commissioned him to make illustrations for the book of Rohan he was copying. The discovery of his artistic talent had become the turning point in his life, after his injury in battle had left him feeling worthless and defeated. Without his left leg, he was convinced that he would never ride again and that there was neither honour nor livelihood for such a one as him in Rohan. The king had proved him wrong on the second count. Now the moment had come when the first would be put to the test, too. Éomer had declared that the newly appointed Chronicler of the Mark could not be driven about in a cart in order to collect the stories of the Eorlingas, and that the missing leg should be no hindrance if only a suitable saddle was crafted.
The saddle was soon made, but Déoric had dithered. At first he had claimed to be busy preparing for his wedding, and then he had hesitated to name, at the king's request, a horse he trusted enough to dare and mount. In the end, Éomer had lost patience. The idea of having his own historian travelling the Riddermark and recording the rich heritage of his people had become dear to him, and he wanted Déoric on the way as soon as possible. But all his urging was in vain until he received support from an unexpected quarter. Part of his betrothal gift to the Princess of Dol Amroth had been a fine road horse, with which Lothíriel fell so much in love that she chose to ride it home and leave her trusted palfrey behind in Edoras. When Éomer complained to her in a letter about Déoric's hesitancy, she replied promptly with the suggestion that the scribe should have the use of her horse for the time being. This was an offer that Déoric could not turn down without offending the princess, and so he relented, in spite of his fear of failure. He had chosen his favourite spot by the river as the scene of his first attempt in the hope that it would inspire him with confidence.
When they arrived, Fana's father Ethelhelm, the stable master, was already waiting with the docile brown mare. Déoric greeted the horse with tenderness and let her munch the carrot he had pulled out of his pocket.
"Well, Ivornel, my dear," he said quietly. "Will we make it today, you and I?"
"Of course you will," said Ethelhelm. "Are you ready?"
Déoric patted the mare's neck and nodded.
"Good. Let's get you mounted then. That'll be the hardest part. After that it'll be child's play."
Fana took Déoric's hand, which had begun to rise to his mouth. His old habit of knuckle-biting was not quite dead yet. She pressed his fingers. He looked at the saddle and rehearsed again in his head what Ethelhelm had explained to him: Stand to the right of the horse. Hold on with both hands to the handles that replace the pommel. Jump and pull yourself up until you get your foot into the stirrup, then mount in the usual manner. Once you're seated, the saddle is shaped in such a way as to help your balance and stop you from falling.
"Do it," said Fana. "You know you can."
Déoric leaned down and kissed her. He handed her the crutches and tossed back his braids. Ivornel stood very still and snorted gently. With a swift movement he grabbed the handle and leapt. For a few seconds he hung helplessly, while his foot flailed in the air not finding the stirrup. He pulled as hard as he could, to no avail, and was close to muttering a curse, when he felt Ethelhelm's hands pushing him up. Suddenly, he was mounted.
And then the fear melted, even as he straightened up and took the reins; the worry, the secret shame gave way and his mind was filled with this single thought, which seemed to stretch to the horizon: that he was sitting a horse again.
"That'll get easier in time," said Ethelhelm, but Déoric barely listened. He drank in the sensation. The world looked different, sounded different, it even smelled different from the saddle of a horse. It was a sweet promise of freedom. He stroked Ivornel's mane.
"Let's go," he whispered. The mare paced smoothly to the far end of the field and Déoric recognized without effort the gentle movement of the animal and the way his own body fitted in with the swaying pattern. He took her round in a big curve and approached the place where Fana and Ethelhelm were watching. No words were spoken as he passed them, for the looks they exchanged said enough. When he reached the far end of the field for the second time, he turned the horse round and gave her the signal to trot. At first he fell in easily with the mare's rhythm, but after some thirty yards he felt himself beginning to slide. He reined her in.
"Ho, that's enough for a start," cried Ethelhelm. He ran up to Déoric and held on to the reins. "You have to learn to walk before you can run."
"But I've only just started!"
"I didn't mean you should dismount. Just take it slowly and find your balance. Why don't you ride up to the Hall? Fana and I can come with you and I'll take Ivornel to the stables with me."
"I confess the prospect of arriving at the Hall on horseback rather than on crutches does appeal to me."
Ethelhelm returned his smile.
"I knew you were not free from vanity, Déoric! Off you go then. I'll carry your crutches."
Shortly afterwards, they were ascending the main road that led to the Golden Hall. Common as the sight of horsemen was in the streets of Edoras, many turned their heads when Déoric rode past, and some who knew the young scribe called out words of encouragement. Déoric held his head high. Only last August had he sat by the roadside to watch the escort of Théoden King, miserable with the thought that he would never ride again and that his life henceforth would be useless and full of humiliation. Worst of all, he had believed that Fana, his precious Fana, would not want to wed a one-legged man. The memory of how he had rejected her made him flinch. Yet here he was, riding up the streets of Edoras, with Fana to his left and her father to his right, on his way to the little scribe's room at the back of the Hall of Meduseld, which had seen the transformation of the dejected cripple to the confident artist and budding historian.
When they arrived at the top of the town, Déoric dismounted, which was fairly easy because it involved little more than sliding off. He hugged the brown mare. Some pang of regret must have shown in his face when he swapped the reins for his crutches, for Ethelhelm laid his hand on Déoric's shoulder and said:
"You'll ride again tomorrow. And every day after that, if you so desire."
"I know," said Déoric. "Thank you, Ethelhelm."
The older man gave him a brisk nod.
"I'll leave you two love birds to say farewell. I know how hard it is for you to separate for the duration of the day." He winked. "Your mother would be happy to see you sometime today, Fana. She has made a big batch of apple pancakes and would like you to try some before the boys eat them all."
With this he led the horse away on the path towards the stable buildings. Déoric and Fana were left standing at the bottom of the broad stair leading up to the Hall of Meduseld.
"Well," said Fana and pushed back the strands of her loose blonde hair that the breeze had blown into her face. "How do you feel now?"
Déoric smiled. "Can't you tell?"
"Oh, I could, but I want you to tell me."
"Wonderful," said Déoric. "Just wonderful."
"Good. I'm glad. Listen, I'd better be going. If Mother feels she has to bribe me with pancakes, then there's something amiss at home and I'll be needed. Have a good day, Déoric. Oh, goodness, you never went back home to have your breakfast!"
"I'm sure I can get something from the kitchen here. Just tell my mother. Good-bye, my sweet."
"Good-bye, Déoric. I'll see you tonight."
She stood on tiptoe, put her arms round his neck and gave him a brief kiss. Then she turned and skipped away down the street towards the market place. Déoric made his way up the stairs, all sixty-seven steps. He greeted the guards and entered the Golden Hall. It was empty apart from a couple of maids who were busy taking down some of the tapestries for cleaning. The one they were currently removing bore the image of Eorl the Young. Déoric stopped and asked the women to let him have a look. They spread out the tapestry on the mosaic floor and he leaned forward to inspect it. He nodded. Yes, this was what had struck him about the picture, way back last year when he had first begun to think of creating images. The people who had made the banner, a group of genteel ladies a couple of hundred years ago, he imagined, had shown what they knew, not what they saw. The horses looked ill proportioned and off balance, because there was no foreshortening of their limbs, and the uniform colour of their fur made them appear flat and dull. This was the crucial thing that Déoric had learned about art; that things do not necessarily look like what people know them to be. While every single hair on a horse's body, if inspected individually, might be of the same colour, the whole body of the animal would be a pattern of lighter and darker hues, depending on how light and shadow played on the muscles. When it came to drawing, he trusted his eyes and not his brain.
He entered the scribe's room only a little bit later than usual and was embarrassed to find the king there waiting for him. Éomer sat on the spare chair with his elbow casually leaning on Déoric's desk.
"Good morning, my lord. I am very sorry I am late. I had my first ride this morning on Ivornel."
Éomer waved his hand in a dismissive gesture at Déoric's apology.
"I've been here but a minute or two, Déoric, and I've entertained myself well."
He pointed to a pile of parchments on the desk next to him, which he had been browsing.
"I see you have found a fair number of unusual stories already. Very good. Make sure you won't neglect your artwork, though."
"I won't, my lord. I was sketching at the market place last week."
"Yes, yes, I've seen the drawings. Your work is coming on nicely. And I'm also glad to hear you're back on a horse at last. How soon do you think you can be on your way? I'd like you to make your first tour into the country before the winter."
"I will try my best, my lord. Maybe in three or four weeks I'll feel confident enough to ride out."
In one smooth, vigorous movement, Éomer rose from his seat to let Déoric pass through to his own chair. Déoric expected him to leave then, but the king continued:
"A rider came early this morning from Dol Amroth, bringing tidings of the princess."
"I hope she is well."
"Oh, yes, very well, very well," replied Éomer. "It seems, though, that you are more in favour with her than I am, for I only received a letter, but you have a letter and a parcel, too."
He knelt down to pull a package out from under his chair and placed it on the desk in front of Déoric. From his tunic pocket he took a scroll and handed it to the scribe. Déoric, crimson in the face, broke the seal and unrolled it. He read:
Dear Master Déoric,
forgive me for my presumption in asking a favour of such a busy man as yourself. I am truly delighted with the drawing that you made on the occasion of my betrothal to King Éomer, but deep down in my heart I wish there was some colour in the picture. Call it a princess's vanity – I was very proud of my ruby red gown!
So I hope you will not think me too demanding if I ask you to try painting with colours. I know there is less than a year from now till the wedding, but you are such a talented artist that I feel you will be able to master the skill sufficiently by then to render a passable image. For this purpose I am sending you a box of colour powders and other artist's gear, which have been supplied by Amarant, my father's court painter, together with instructions for their use by his hand. Be careful with the powders, since some of them are very poisonous!
Please be so kind and generous to agree to my request. It would make the pleasure of choosing the fabric for my wedding gown all the sweeter, if I could know that you will immortalize it in a painting.
I extend my sincere congratulations to you on the occasion of your own marriage. May you and your wife always be happy and prosperous. Finally, thank you very much for your latest portrait of the king. You have caught the twinkle in his eye just right this time.
I remain with the best wishes for you and your family
Lothíriel of Dol Amroth
PS: I trust you are treating my horse with the devotion she deserves.
Without a word, Déoric passed the letter to the king and undid the string and oilcloth with flying fingers. A minute later they were both able to survey the content of the parcel: Not only the box of colour powders, but a glazed ceramic palette, a bundle of brushes in different sizes and a large jar labelled "gesso". A rolled-up wad of parchments was covered in a neat, spidery hand. Déoric placed all these items on the desk carefully like an ancient treasure just unearthed.
"Well then, Déoric, "said the king. "You'd better start practising."
*The image of "sweetness and light" was first used by Jonathan Swift in "Battle of the Books" and made famous by Matthew Arnold in "Culture and Anarchy."