Aswig looked up suddenly and laid aside his tools. „Arynd, I’ve been thinking… there’s so many places in Rohan I’ve never been to. Take the lands west of the Gap of Isen, for instance, between the Isen and the Adorn. I know next to nothing about that stretch of land. What do your people tell about it?“ „You’re earnestly asking me that?“ Arynd scoffed. „You’re talking about the land of Freca’s people, and you’re asking me that?“ Aswig nodded. „Only we don’t call it ‚land of Freca’s people‘, “ he said. „Not since King Folcwine reclaimed it for Rohan.“ „Reclaimed it…“ Arynd mumbled. „As if any Gondorian had ever taken an interest in it, had ever truly had the right to give it away to your people in the first place…“ „We agreed not to discuss that particular problem.“ „You’re right. What do we tell about that land? That a great warrior once ruled it and that your oh-so-heroish King Helm killed him, just because he had dunlendish blood.“ „Not because of that. Helm had already accepted that, had acknowledged him as lord of the western marshes and called him to his council. Only Freca didn’t answer that call, or if he did, then at his own leisure. It was Freca’s arrogance Helm couldn’t stand, and his constant eye on the throne. – Arynd, really, that happened almost 200 years ago. Is that still an issue for you? Up here?“ Arynd looked at him a moment, then shook his head. „No. We still bear the Rohirrim hatred for the wars that followed that incident, but we seldom talk of it. And I haven’t heard of a Clan going that far south for ages. You’d have to cross the Isen or the Adorn both to get there. Our singers tell of deeds done here, not there. As far as I know, the people living there don’t seek our kinship and are subjects of Rohan. But that is not what you want to know, isn’t it?“ Aswig smiled. „You know me too well. And? What about it?“ „As I told you, I do not know. Yes, with the wizard recruiting everyone and everything, even orcs, it might be possible he has allies down there, too. But I’m not that close to Korhal that I’d have heard anything like that. And I bet you Korhal isn’t that close to the wizard that he’d heard. And anyway, what difference would it make? We couldn’t change other people’s choices.“ Aswig looked at his tools, took them in hand, turned them this way and that and laid them aside again. „And what about the Druwaith Iaur? What do your people tell about that region?“
Arynd’s eyebrows both arched up. „Folk similar to ours lived there once“, he said. „Now…“ he shivered. „Strange things have been said about that wild terrain. I believe it’s deserted now.“ „Then why don’t you seek for fertile land there, if you don’t like these mountains in which your people were driven by mine? Yes, there’s the Isen, but it could be crossed here, where it’s not so deep and wide, and the same goes for the Adorn, and then a band of explorers could well reach the Druwaith Iaur. None of ours go there, it’s true. But I’d thought maybe some of yours…“ Arynd held up a hand. „We do not tread those lands. Those that once lived there had… ancient powers. No. It is not our land and never was. We do not go there.“ Aswig laid his head to one side. „Someone did go there. And the tales he brought weren’t good, that’s why you fear those lands.“ Arynd sniffed. „I do not fear them. They are almost impossible to reach, that’s all.“ „I see“, said Aswig. He took up his tools now and went on fledging the arrows.
„Once“, he began his narrative, „there was a man called Herelaf who served as soldier at the Westfold in King Fengel’s day.“ Arynd stopped doing what he did and took up a piece he wanted to polish. It was a task he liked doing while Aswig spoke. „Fengel was still a young king then, in the winter of 2911, that is called ‚the fell winter‘ now“, said Aswig. „So much snow had there been that winter, that in 2912 great floods swept the lowlands, ruining towns and bridges and fields and many people were driven away from their homes. The year was marked by unrest, for some tried to settle elsewhere and others tried to compensate their losses by stealing from those they believed still to have something worth stealing. A band of Dunlendings had tried to cross the fords that year and Herelaf was fighting them. The enemy was numerous and not easily driven back. They were still fighting when another band of warriors appeared and the Dunlendings gave shouts of relief. Herelaf though and his men were taken by surprise. This other band was already on their side of the river, however they’d gotten there, and the defenders of the ford were now wedged between two enemies. The fight was a bloody one and what saved Herelaf and the others in the end was the sharpness of their spears, the sturdyness of their armour and their valor, of course, for they would not run but stood together, protecting each other with their shields. The fighting ebbed. Those of the enemy who could fled the place. They had misjudged the Rohirrim. Their greater number and even their trap didn’t make up for the better equipment and the better training of the defenders. The last man still fighting was Herelaf, who was so interlocked with his opponent that neither of them realised the fight was over. He was fighting a fierce, broad shouldered, big warrior, ugly with his lank dark hair and armour of fur.
No one dared interfere with them, so intense was the fight.“ Aswig paused and refilled his bowl of feathers.
„It ended suddenly. The big warrior’s blow glanced off and in that moment Herelaf had him down. The look on the man’s face was so utterly amazed that Herelaf hesitated and held his weapon in check, looking at his captain for instructions, only now realising they had won.
The enemy had fled or lay dead and this was the sole survivor. „Take him prisoner“, said the captain.
They questioned him, and were lucky to find he spoke their tongue, but they didn’t find out anything interesting. He insisted they’d managed to come down over the mountains on the other side of the Isen already, and although something didn’t seem right about that there was no way of proofing him wrong. When the questioning was over the captain pondered what to do with their prisoner. Herelaf spoke up. „Only my armour saved me today,“ he said. „Had we fought equally euipped he’d have won. He made no fuss and answered our questions calmly. If I may be so bold, Captain, why can’t we just take his weapons and chase him home? Yes, he might return one day, or he might not. We do not know. But I do not like the idea of imprisoning this man. Or worse.“
His name was Durdan, and he was severely wounded and weaponless when they let him go free on the other side of the Isen. The captain did not think he’d ever see him again. “
„But he did, didn’t he? Durdan did return one day?“ Arynd had been drawn into the story and stopped polishing as he bent forwards. „I bet he gathered what remained of his friends, stole better armour and attacked again, and maybe he had better luck this time?“
Aswig let a feather glide through his fingers to smooth its surface. „Summer wore on“, he said, „and luck was with the rohirrim. There were no more attacks. But the crops had been sown and the vegetables planted late that year and the frost had bitten the blossoms of the fruit-bearing trees. So although the summer was golden the harvest was not as good as it was supposed to be and the storage rooms were not full when the first frosty nights spoke of winter’s arrival.
By midwinter, the defenders of the fort went out hunting to supplement their meals. It is said of Herelaf that although he was an agile fighter, his eyesight was weak and he was not a good bowman. He might manage to track down an animal, but then often as not his shot went wide and set the prey scattering off into the bushes, alarmed. This winter though, when it was his turn to hunt, he often brought home rabbit and roebuck. He did not tell the men how he managed. He did not tell them that when he bent to pick up the fallen animal he often found it hadn’t been killed by his arrows, for he found those sticking in the ground or the bark of a nearby tree. Other arrows, stones or little darts had done the trick. He called out, he searched the place… but never did he get an answer nor did he find tracks. The winter passed and another year began, a mild one this time, with a glory of blossoms and bees that promised a plentiful autumn. As before, no dunlendings or orcs made a try on the fords and all Herelaf’s unit had to do that year was chase away some bandits. When autumn was almost over though, tracks of a band of orcs were found. They’d probably come down from the white mountains.
They tried to track them down, of course. The orcs had gone inland for a while, but then, confusingly, turned back to the mountains in a hurry. The tracks told that they’d actually been running. They lost them when the terrain got too ragged between the rocks. And when they found them again…“
Aswig put a finished arrow into a quiver at his side, then chose another shaft and carefully examined it before he marked the place for the feathers. Then he went through the bowl, discarding this or that one. „Go on,“ growled Arynd.
„The orcs had met their fate“, said Aswig. „They found them down a steep slope, half buried beneath the fallen rocks that had taken them with them. Half buried, too, but alive a little to the side of the rockslide lay a man. They gasped as they recognized Durdan. „So you sided with the orcs now!“ the captain had shouted at him as they’d gotten him out. „We should never have let you go! Are there any more of you?“ „How would I know? I wasn’t with them.“ answered Durdan. The captain had called him a liar and from then on his prisoner had refused to answer any of his questions. The others had no reason to believe him, but Herelaf had, and he saw clearly now what truly had happened. He also realized that telling the others wouldn’t change their minds.
That night, he had to make a decision between his duty to his captain and his duty to a moral code beyond orders. Durdan had gotten rid of the orcs for them. Yes, he shouldn’t be on this side of the border at all, but he’d been here to help them all along, hadn’t he? Herelaf reasoned that his Captain was making a mistake, treating him as an enemy, and thus it followed that he was in the right to release him, wasn’t he? He cut his bonds and gave him a pouch of rations and a knife. They didn’t speak a word, not even whispered, and Durdan disappeared into the shadows like a ghost. One moment very much here, one moment gone.
Herelaf went back to sleep. When the clamor arose the next morning he pretended to have been asleep all night. It was concluded that the bonds hadn’t been tied well. The captain cursed and spat and shouted at them to go find him. And when they didn’t find his track he cursed and spat again, for wasn’t it impossible that a grown man was able to disappear right in front of their eyes?
Herelaf felt bad for some while after this. But he couldn’t help himself: Whenever they went out to scout in the weeks to come he hoped to find signs of Durdan, so that he could be sure he was alive. He’d even tried, once, to call out for him when he’d been alone.
But he was gone. And gone, too, was Herelaf’s luck. This winter, whenever Herelaf went out to hunt, the roebucks skittered in all directions, warned and very much alive. No one sent a hidden dart after them this time. He watched them go and sighed. He’d found a campsite, but it had been deserted for days. He’d found a cave and ahes of a fire, but no one had been living there for weeks.
Another newly feathered arrow slid into the quiver. Aswig stretched and yawned, then looked out of the window to the darkening sky.
„The years came and went. One, two, three of them. Live went on as usual. Herelaf met a nice girl, the daughter of a farmer from Witeberg, just south of Helm’s deep, and thought of resigning his post. Whistling softly, he trudged along after his Captain, lost in thought, as they made their way over a mountain pass one spring, returning from a visit to the captain’s relatives. „Will you stop whistling?“ the Captain looked back at him, scowling. „One cannot hear his own thoughts!“ He hadn’t paid attention where he tread as he looked back and lost his footing on the narrow path, sliding down the hill a few metres and landing hard against a rock. „Everything allright?“ asked Herelaf, who’d followed him cautiously and now extended a hand to him. „No, thanks to your whistling it isn’t!“ cried his Captain. There was pain in his voice and on his features. His ankle was twisted sideways and broken and he couldn’t get up. Herelaf indeed felt guilty, and he wasn’t trained as a healer. He didn’t know what to do besides fix the foot with bandages and try and help his Captain along. He couldn’t leave him there, helpless, while he went to get help. Wild things roamed this region and it was a long way. But taking him with him… the road home involved some serious climbing and he had no idea how they were going to carry that out. „We should go back, that way it’s longer, but easier,“ he suggested. His captain cursed him when he wasn’t complaining. By the evening of that day Herelaf wasn’t only fed up with that, he was also totally exhausted and at their speed there were still some days ahead. Their provisions wouldn’t last that long, he found, as he looked into their bags. Feeling helpless, he went away a few paces when he thought his captain was asleep and called out to Durdan. Never had that had any effect, but he felt like doing so.
„You needn’t shout, I’m right beside you“, answered a quiet voice. „It was a good decision to bring him back this way, you’d never have made it over the climb.“ Herelaf’s heart raced and he just stared at him. „Your loud captain will have to put up with me, if he wants to get home safe“, Durdan said. „By the Valar, man, you gave me a start!“ Herelaf smiled nonetheless. „I’m so glad to see you. However did you manage?“ Durdan just shrugged. „Let us build a stretcher, then we can carry him between us. Will be easier for all.“
Herelaf couldn’t stop pondering his luck while they searched for the materials. „Durdan, have you been watching over me?“ he finally dared ask. „Sometimes, when I wasn’t watching over others or my own affairs“, Durdan admitted. „Then why did you never answer my call or show yourself?“ Herelaf wanted to know. Durdan sighed. „Because your world and mine were more different than I first thought. And you didn’t need me before.“ The captain rubbed at his eyes and groaned when he saw who was sitting by the fire the next morning. „Please tell me I’m dreaming, Herelaf.“ When no one answered him, he spat his first curse of the day. „Good morning“, said Herelaf then. „Captain, Durdan will help carry you home. You needn’t hobble all the way and we’ll arrive much faster and then you can rest and heal. Doesn’t that sound nice?“ His Captain’s cold grey eyes fixed on him and he declared him a fool, prior to shouting at him angrily: „What, by storm and thunder, did you think, to invite the enemy in? And worse, that incident a few years ago…. those bonds weren’t tied too loosely, were they? Herelaf?!“
Blood rushed to Herelaf’s cheeks and he lowered his head. „I didn’t know what else to do, captain. You’d never have believed me that Durdan had been there to kill the orcs. I was only trying to protect you from making a mistake.“ „Ah. That’s how you describe ‚treachery‘ nowadays.“ „Will you please understand that…“ „I will nothing of the sort, traitor! This man has no right to be here and both of you know it!“ „How do you know? And who are you to decide that?“ asked Durdan calmly. „What makes a man fit to belong in this realm or not, can you tell me?“ The captain furrowed his brows. „Well, for one thing one shouldn’t be a Dunlending who came to steal“, he said. „And one shouldn’t be a liar, for you lied to me back then at the fords, I felt it.“
„You have a point there. I did lie to you,“ admitted Durdan. „I love my life and was quite sure that you wouldn’t have liked the truth.“
„May I have the truth now?“ Durdan thought on this. „Why not?“ He shrugged. „You thought we’d all come down from Dunland, but we didn’t. We were on your side of the Isen already because we’d always been there. You see, one doesn’t have to cross a river to be able to talk to those on the other side. My warriors and me, we were the descendants of a band that had stood against Folcwine in the days when he decided to drive all that was dunlandish from the West-marches. I have no idea how he decided who might stay and who had to go. Intermarriage between people of Dunland and Rohan had been so frequent in our area that there was no way of telling one from the other anymore. I believe the king just decided to drive everyone out and resettle the place. Well, he didn’t drive everyone out. Some remained, maybe because they could convince him they were rohirric enough. Maybe they hid, like we did, I really do not know. My father hated him with all his heart and raised me likewise. He hadn’t been a military man from the start, but when the scouring started we had to flee from our farm, we got separated from our kin, many of ours were killed… and he took up arms and swore that one day his children would live in Rohan again. He got killed trying to achieve that. And I fulfilled my promise to him by collecting men who thought like I did and making plans with the Dunlendings from over the Isen. As you know, I lost my men. My plans died with them. And you can call me criminal now, or rebel, as you like. But do not call me Dunlander, because I’m not. My family have lived in the West-march near the Adorn since before King Helm’s day. Ancestors of mine won renown when they helped fight off the orcs that invaded Rohan during King Brytta’s day. My father thought of himself as a Rohirrim before Folcwine came. I thought of myself as a Rohirrim when I was a child. No one had explained to me then that they usually never have dark hair and tanned skin and that this heritage marks me as an enemy to them. Of us four children, two were dark and two were fair.“
The captain had fallen silent a while ago. He thought of telling Durdan how the oath granting them this land had been hard earned in Eorl’s day and blessed and made on hallow ground and how Folcwine had been a good King and reestablished a working order for the Eohere, so that now many full manned Eoreds were keeping the mark safe. But for once, he bit his lip. „You still shouldn’t have come at us in arms“, he said after a long pause. Durdan had been sitting with his head turned away, towards the vast open land to their right, beyond the mountains. He nodded and faced the captain.
„I know that now.“
„Why did you not turn back and go home to your people then? No one would have known or persecuted you there. Why did you stay here?“ Durdan sighed. „There is no family of mine left there, captain. That place has grown cold to me. I thought to seek a new kind of life. Only, I misjudged how well controlled the mark is nowadays and how suspicious still of strangers to their eyes most people are. Maybe you are right. Maybe I should turn back once we took you someplace safe. Only, I don’t want to.“
The carrying of the stretcher was accompanied by curses and complaints. The captain couldn’t help himself, he was hurting and angry and hated it more than anything to be dependent on Durdan. But the curses, if not the complaints, subsided as they went along. By the time they reached the foothills and saw the little village wherein the captain’s aunt lived he had calmed down a great deal. „Durdan“, he said, „from here on Herelaf can manage alone. You’d better disappear now. I know you’re good at it.“
„Safe travels, captain“, he wished as he laid down the stretcher. Herelaf accompanied him a few paces. „Durdan?“ „Hm?“ „He’d better never learn about those darts that killed the rabbits… and this strange habit of yours, to be so perfectly still as to go unnoticed… it’s a bit uncanny. How do you do that?“ „Uncanny you think it? Oh.“ Herelaf cleared his throat. „I… I’m sorry, I didn’t… I just don’t understand how it should be possible.“ „With a lot of practise, dear lad, and a bit of talent, a steady hand and a sharp eye.“ „A lot of a ‚bit of talent‘ I’d wager.“ Durdan chuckled softly. „Well, you could call it a family trait. The time of Wulf’s reign at Edoras and Frealaf’s subsequent campaign was troublesome for my family. They weren’t on Wulf’s side, but couldn’t declare openly against him. And then came the revenge of the King, so… some of ours left the land. My ancestor Hilda was one of them. She was dark-haired and she was shunned by her neighbours. One day she told the family she would leave, packed up her belongings, went west and was never seen again. Many years later, during King Brytta’s reign, a young man shows up at our holdings and claims he’s her youngest son and that she would not return for she had found the love of her life in his father but that he was anxious to see the land of his forebears. He never told more than that. He was the one who first had that ‚uncanny talent‘ as you call it. And he was a great hater of orcs. He hated them so fiercely that he managed to get the position of scout in Brytta’s army although he was a rather small and dark-haired man. He rose in rank as he was very good at finding the orcs and killing them. So he married a fine girl of the Rohirrim one day, slender, tall and fair. My grandmother. His abilities have run in my family since.“ „And… will you use them to disappear forever now? Won’t we meet again?“
Durdan smiled. „I thought you wanted to leave the service, become a farmer?“ Herelaf nodded. „Yes, I… I told you?“ „My friend, there will be no more conflicts concerning your duty once your decisions are your own. Until then.“ He bade him farewell, turned to a thicket of hawthorn and vanished.
„He’ll get along“, the captain said as Herelaf returned. „As long as I don’t meet him in arms again, that’s fine with me. And now help me up.“ They hobbled to the village and while the captain was healing there Herelaf found the courage to tell him he wanted to leave his Eored. The following year he married his young lady and lived happily ever after.“
Arynd gave a dissapproving grunt. „Oh, come on Aswig. That’s not the end of the story.“ „It isn’t?“ Aswig blinked his eyes and groped for another shaft. Whistling softly he prepared it for the feathers.
„I hate it when you do that“, growled Arynd. „Tell me the rest of it.“ „The rest up until when?“ Aswig asked. „Those people really lived, Arynd, and so their story of course went on. Do you want to hear it up until they died? Do you want to hear of their children and grandchildren? There is no end to such a story.“
„Did Durdan meet Herelaf again?“
Aswig laughed. „Yes, he did. He married a cousin of Herelaf’s wife whom he’d seen years before and secretly guarded and loved from afar all along.“ Arynd’s fist went to the table with a ‚bang‘. „No! That’s too much, you’re making that up!“ Aswig still laughed. „It might seem like too much, yes, but that’s what happened.“
Arynd shook his head. „How would you know? Men won’t tell that kind of story round the fire.“ „Probably not“, Aswig agreed. „But since you don’t know them I saw no reason not to tell it to you. You see, the man who was my teacher as a kid, who taught me all I know of woodlore and tracking, he had this uncanny knack of total stillness that made him one with his surroundings. And he told me of his grandfather.“
Aswig’s good mood subsided. „But I haven’t seen him for ages. Seldom since my family moved to the Norcrofts and not anymore since our Eored stopped being called to Edoras or Helm’s deep. I hope he’s fine.“ „With such a talent he probably is“, reassured Arynd.