Three hundred thrice twenty—the days of the year.
What day begins backwards, no sun in the sky?
What day out of time and houseless doth lie?
Not this year nor that, nor season have I
Three hundred thrice twenty—the days of the year.
—'Five Days' verse
Sightless sees, shiftless stalks
In the dreams of others walks
Gastings Night guarding bones
Of Dead and Dreamers all alone.
It was held among the …orlingas that there was one day in all the year when the Dead walked the earth freely. An old tradition, that, which had been old even when …orl had ridden south to the succor of Gondor, and like all such ancient custom, it had changed over the long centuries. The day remained the same: the day that fell 'out of the years,' when Fall became Winter—Gastings Day, when the Evenday had come and gone. But it was perhaps not so fearful a day as it had been in the past. Once, men had shut themselves fast and fearfully within their tents or barred the doors to their homes, leaving iron upon the threshold and candles burning inside scooped out, fearfully-carven gourds set at the quarters to warn the Dead away. Such customs still endured, but in most places, they had lost much of their force. Men still left iron before the doors, but also the seeds of the gourds and a little milk or beer, or some similar offering, as a gesture of good will towards any wandering shades. The gast-lamps themselves were now more often signs of greeting rather than warning to the spirits. And where once the youth of the Mark had been carefully guarded from the influence of the Dead, Gastings Night was now given over to them, to let them purge the last vestiges of childish irresponsibility in harmless pranks.
Harrowdale, however, was unlike the rest of the Mark. While it, too, followed the newer customs, the old ways remained. Gastings Night was more subdued there than in Edoras, and not without reason: for it lay within sight of the Dwimorberg and the Door was not so very far from Dunharrow. Come Gastings Night, it was said, the Dimholt hosted a great assembly of the Dead, who gathered there in throngs. Many said that Walda and his companions rode once more the passes above Dunharrow, wreaking vengeance upon any Orc that might be hiding there. Others believed that Baldor's shade held court over the spirits, preventing them from troubling the folk of the vale. And then there were the Púkel-men, of course. Though the …orlingas knew not who had made them, they seemed guardians, plain enough, marching up the road towards Dimholt. Harrowdale custom held that the spirits of the guardian stones walked abroad on Gastings Night, watching over the sleep of the innocent. Thus Harrowdalers took care to thank them, and it was customary to leave a gast-lamp beside the stones that sat by the road that passed through the farmsteads—to help them in their task of warding off evil and to guide their spirits home to the proper stone.
Naturally, though, the very rumor of ghostings insured that inevitably, a few young men would leave the sanctuary of the townstead's fields to dare a night in close quarters with the Dead. For though the Dead were held to be dangerous to the unwary, it was also said that they granted visions. A man might learn the name of his wife, or the fortunes of his family all in one night; he might learn the answers to many questions, if only the Dead obliged him with a dream. But even if the venturers dreamt not, still, there was honor to be won for such boldness. So peculiar was the custom, and so notorious, that it had spread even to Edoras, so that sometimes, a pair of lads from 'down below' would come to spend a night upon the very brink of the divide, where the waking world gave way to the realm of the Dead. And thus had arisen the traditional cry, of well-wishes and warning in Harrowdale:
"Hoch, the seekers! Hoch, the sought! May they teach you wisdom! May you learn fear!"
It had been a fair, clear afternoon upon the heights—not a cloud to be seen, and over all had arced a sky just that perfect shade of autumnal blue that makes all the colors of the world stand sharp and bright. The great firs, even, had seemed less dark, assuming a more vibrant green hue for the occasion of such a day. But now, the light was beginning to fail, and the shadows stretched long to the east. The scent of pine tasted sharp on the back of Háma's tongue as he inhaled, then blew his breath out in a long sigh, visible as a slight wisp of steam despite the slanting sunlight. For the air was chill with the promise of frost, but no worse than that. We ought to have another week of such weather ere winter truly begins, he judged. A pair of weather-wise travelers, then, ought to have no trouble, and Háma glanced over at his companion, who grinned back at him. "It should not be much further," his cousin, Herfrith, said.
"Have you ever been so far before?"
"Nay, but the chief scop (after our grandfather, of course) will have gone ahead of us, so it should be easy to find," Herfrith answered. Háma nodded at that, drawing a deep breath as he suppressed a nervous smile. Gastings Night under the Dwimorberg! The thought inspired a certain delicious thrill, for he would soon be able to discover the truth of all the stories and rumors collected over the long years. It rather made up for the fact that he would not be spending this evening with his friends down in Edoras' fields. Even now, he felt still a certain regret that Gythlaf and Mæthig and all the others could not join in the adventure, But even had they come to Dunharrow, they might not have come with us. That is the way of these ventures, Háma reminded himself. There were always a few who were left behind, and it was understood that those who spoke first were left the honor. If anyone spoke, that is.
It had all come about rather unexpectedly, this journey to the Haunted Mountain. Not two weeks ago, Háma had still planned, like all the other lads of Edoras who were caught in the awkward years between coming of age and the swearing of a Rider's oath, to spend Gastings Night beyond Edoras' walls. For he had turned fifteen with the coming of the icy winds of last February, and all too soon he would be accounted a proper Rider, ready to serve his lord. This was his last year, then, to be careless among his friends—to be still a boy, and to do the hundred foolish, light-hearted things that boys do, rather than to be a man, with all the weight of responsibility that that carried with it. The last year of safety, the last year when to pick up a sword or lance meant nothing, and he could laugh lightly with his friends about all that doubtless lay before them.
But family had been at the heart of many a rash venture since the Fathers of Men awoke. And who knows but that this might not prove to be another such tale? Háma thought, as he cast a glance up at the tall, dark pines that lined the road and dimmed the fast-waning day still further, and then surreptitiously sideways again at Herfrith. Two weeks ago, Háma had gone to Dunharrow with Githa, his mother, and his two younger sisters to visit Githa's father, the aging chief scop of Harrowdale. During that stay, what time he had not spent with his grandfather he had spent in Herfrith's company. The youngest of his several cousins, Herfrith was his age, and another who hoped to prove himself a warrior worth his horse one day. An expansive soul, quick to laugh, and with an eye for mischief and a head full of tales, Herfrith used his knowledge to devastating effect in the usual give and go of companionable insults. All in good fun, of course, and Háma was quite fond of him, but he did wish that just once he might win one of their arguments. "Scop's blood, I wager," Herfrith had said cheerfully one morning, having won the contest of words yet again. "You have it, too, cousin, 'tis simply that you keep dull company down below," he had added with a sly smile, elbowing Háma.
"In Edoras, one is less quick to best another with words than with deeds," Háma had retorted loftily, swift to defend the honor of his home. No Edoras-bred lad could possibly have let such slander pass, after all: it would have been a breach of hallowed tradition, for the rivalry between Dunharrow and Edoras was nearly as old as the Mark itself. It was common knowledge in Edoras that the Harrowdalers were glib-tongued but bloodless, whereas in Harrowdale, a man who was "come up from Edoras" was the one who hitched his cart in front of his horse. Five centuries had yet to settle the matter, and given the reverence in which that rivalry was held, the next five hundred years were unlikely to lay it to rest, either, no matter how many or how glorious the pranks pulled on Gastings Day by the loyal defenders of either city.
"A dull place for scops. No wonder you lads can scarcely string two words together," Herfrith had replied. And then, seeing Háma's look, a wicked gleam had lit his eyes, as he responded, in as mild a tone as ever he used, "Well, then, perhaps, O Wordless One, you would care to prove your claim?"
"Do you seek a drubbing, cousin?"
"Nothing so common as that," Herfrith had replied, eyes bright as he had waved away the very suggestion with a certain airy contempt. "Nay, for not only would you lose—" and here, he had grinned at Háma's properly indignant expression "—but such contests are beneath us. What I had in mind was something more fitting, for Gastings Day draws nigh. I wager, cousin, that even for Edoras' honor, you would not spend that night under the Dwimorberg. For none of you lads from down below have come up here for years," Herfrith had answered, arching a brow.
"And I have not heard of any Harrowdaler passing the night there in all that time, either. Which I would have, since the lot of you have never learned to rein in your tongues," Háma had replied, giving his cousin a measuring stare. For a time, they had simply stood eyeing at each other, seeking each other's measure. Finally: "How much?"
"A vulgar question! This is for the honor of Edoras."
"Had Dunharrow had any champions worthy of her the past few years, I might accept such an excuse. But she has not, so surely you owe me something above the honor rightly accorded Edoras."
"If you spend the night there. And you do not truly believe that I would let a down-below lad like yourself reap all the glory, do you?"
"Said and sealed, then?" Háma had asked.
"Said and sealed."
And so it had been decided. They had parted a week ago with plans in place, and early this very morning, Háma had crept out of Edoras with no one the wiser. Herfrith had been as good as his word, and had greeted him by the gates of Dunharrow in the afternoon. "Ready to test the tales, cousin?" Herfrith had asked, eyes sparkling.
"Hoch, the seekers," Háma had replied, gesturing for the other to precede him. Together, then, the two had set out to claim the glory of a night under the Dwimorberg for themselves....
"Look there!" Háma pointed ahead to a looming silhouette. It was now some two hours since they had crossed the Firienfeld, calling good-natured insults to their less daring peers there encamped. They had passed the last farmsteads some time ago, and had gotten a few wide-eyed stares from some of the children who, with their mothers, had been putting out lanterns to light the road. Since then, they had followed the line of Púkel-men towards the Dwimorberg in silence. Now, though, they came to what must be the last of them before the Dimholt, for at the base of the old stone was a lantern—one of the gast-lamps, with a supply of candles and a tin of matches. Beside the lamp, upon a small handkerchief, had been left some nuts, seed-cakes, and a few pieces of dried fruit. Courtesy to the spirits, and Herfrith and Háma wisely did not touch the offering. Even had there not been the threat of offending the Dead, that offering had been left by the chief scop of Harrowdale, and no one would dare do aught that might compromise a scop's honor. Light still filtered through the branches of the pine trees, but nevertheless, they each took a candle and lit it. Then, carefully, they set them within the gast-lamp, to show that there were two of them that eve. That task finished, they quietly passed beyond the mournful old stone and into the little clearing over which it stood guard.
Unslinging their bedrolls from their backs, they began to set up their campsite, on unspoken agreement choosing to face towards the Dimholt rather than away from it. Háma, after a moment's thought, spread his bedding at the feet of the old Púkel-stone. Although he was not precisely afraid, the idea of having it at his back was a comforting one, for they were alone tonight, and far enough from help that no one would hear them scream. Not, he told himself quickly, that we would have any cause for suchlike. But in case an animal came upon them, like a wolf, or some other unfriendly creature, it was well to have something solid behind one. Herfrith was already gathering wood for the fire, and Háma quickly joined him in that activity, hunting a little beyond the edges of the clearing.
Weaving among the mute pines, he searched for wood, pausing occasionally to look about himself. All seemed peaceful enough—quiet, save for the occasional chirrup of a bird and his own muted footfalls, cushioned by a carpet of soft fir needles. All around, the trees pressed close about, dusty and enigmatic, exhaling age. The light was fast waning by the time he judged he had enough dry wood, and Háma grimaced as he brushed at a spider's web that was strung between the trees. It glittered whitely in a stray shaft of sunlight, catching the motes that danced in the air. Fastidiously, he stooped to wipe his gloved fingers upon the earth to be free of the clinging stuff.
And as he crouched there, cursing the sticky threads, a curious feeling came over him. Háma had never fought before, though like any lad, he had spent nights in the open and knew the land around Edoras well enough. But the plains below the city were safe enough, and no enemy could possibly approach unheeded, so that he had not much practice in trusting such instincts as a warrior develops of necessity. Nevertheless, hemmed in by the silent, brooding trees, he felt suddenly certain that he was being watched. Turning quickly, he cast his glance about, tense and wary, seeking the source of that tickling at the back of his neck. But aside from the pines and a few isolated chirps from hidden birds, he saw nothing. Nothing, and yet that tickling remained.... Háma swiped at the back of his neck on sudden impulse, and nearly yelped aloud as he dislodged a spider.
"Bémas blod!" The poor spinner scurried for cover, eight legs a blur of motion, and Háma drew a deep breath as he shook his head over his fright. A spider! He sighed, feeling a little shiver of relief run through him as the gooseflesh on his arms began to subside. I likely brought that on myself when I pulled her web down. Mildly disgusted with himself, though sporting a rueful smile, he gathered up his firewood once more, then rose and headed back towards the clearing.
Herfrith was there already, and Háma stalked toward him to add his armload to the pile. His cousin gave him an odd, questioning look, causing Háma to blush a bit as he realized Herfrith had probably heard his curse. Still, he bit his lip and said nothing, only knelt to clear away some of the dead fir needles, setting dry kindling where the bare earth showed. Herfrith shrugged at his silence, then reached for the tin of matches with a sly grin.
"After what I remember of you and matches? Stand away, I have it in hand," Háma declared, fairly snatching the tin from the other. Herfrith chuckled then, as he watched Háma begin the fire, but did not protest his cousin's insistence. It had happened long ago, when the two of them had been very young children, but Háma still bore a scar on his leg from an ill-conceived game involving Herfrith, Háma, a haystack, and matches. Herfrith insisted that it had been an accident that might have happened to anyone, but Háma was not about to allow his cousin to deliberately set something alight, even if it was a campfire. As the flame caught, Háma began to carefully add larger branches to the pile of leaves and twigs, and soon, the fire was blazing merrily. Sitting back on his heels, he sighed softly over the welcoming light. Meanwhile, Herfrith produced a flask with a flourish and, after taking a quick swallow, proffered it to the other.
"Hoch, the seekers, Háma," he said, as Háma took a swallow. "To our last Gastings Night."
"Indeed!" Háma replied, coughing a bit. "You did not steal this from your father, did you?"
"Hardly," Herfrith replied, with a roll of his eyes. "Brand and I bet against each other on the Spring races, which wager I won. This, dear cousin, is the sweet taste of victory."
"A good thing that I won, too," Herfrith went on ingenuously, "else I would have had to steal from my father, as it was payment in kind, both of us being out our marks to Hæla."
"Some of us know better than to bet against a man so closely allied with fortune*," Háma replied, raising a brow. "May the spirits teach you wisdom indeed, cousin, for clearly, you need it!"
"In which case, hand back that flask," Herfrith retorted, feigning indignation.
"Ah, then, my apologies," Háma replied, chuckling as he took another sip. "But why wait so long to claim your winnings?"
"Sometimes 'tis wiser to wait until one needs a thing, than to demand payment on the instant. One never knows when one might need a favor, after all," Herfrith replied with a too-practiced shrug of innocence. Háma grunted at that, deciding that some things were better left unasked, and took one last drink of whatever liquor his cousin had procured before handing the flask back.
"I suppose that that is true. Mayhap the spirits will have naught to teach you but fear," he suggested, and Herfrith laughed.
"Well, I suppose I ought not to be so haughty as to hope that that is so," he replied with a wink. Háma shook his head and grunted, but said no more as his gaze settled upon the path that led out of the clearing. Some ways down that road lay Dimholt, and beyond that, the Door. And beyond that, who knows? Save the Púkel-men, perhaps, Háma thought, quelling a flutter of anxiety. For a time, neither of the young men spoke, only listened to the sound of the flames crackling, and the occasional whispered rustle as a light breeze stirred. Evening had washed over the land, and the dark trunks of the trees began to grow quite indistinct beyond the ring that formed the clearing. Somewhere in the branches, a squirrel chattered noisily as it scurried off to its nest for the night. Above the trees, the stars were beginning to shine faintly, but the firs spread heavy-laded branches wide, so that they could not see them through the thick swatches of needles. Womb-like, the little clearing seemed to close in about them as the day failed, sealing the orange glow and warmth of their fire within its confines.
Herfrith frowned slightly, thoughtfully, as he reached into his shirt to pull out what seemed a small medallion that had hung concealed on a leather cord. Absently, he turned it in his hand, and Háma, seeing this, raised a brow. "Old King Baldor taught the bells to toll. Can you spare a penny for to spare your soul?" he quipped.
"Copper for the quick and iron for the dead, ask the old man sitting: is the king gone down to bed?" Herfrith replied, finishing the verse.
"So," Háma inquired, settling back comfortable against the stone, whose odd, crouching posture seemed fit to brace a man's back, "should I have brought a coin of my own, then?"
"I see Aunt Githa has neglected your teaching down below," Herfrith answered, sighing for pity.
"Being a sensible woman, she married an Edoras Warden and left all such nonsense behind her," Háma replied.
"Nonsense, he says!" Herfrith shook his head, "And you sitting at the feet of a Púkel-stone. Foolish, cousin. Pay him no mind, good stone!" Herfrith spoke over Háma's head to the weather-worn statue.
"I mean no insult to this fine fellow, but if you will not answer my question, then I can hardly mend my ignorance, can I?"
"Ignorance has never saved anyone," Herfrith said seriously. "And it would have done you no good to bring even a gold mark tonight, for the only sure things when dealing with spirits are courtesy, patience, and iron. The King's treasury is not worth even this poor iron penny against the Dead."
"Do you really believe that they will come? The Dead, I mean," Háma asked, curious.
"They shall come if it please them. But doubt them and they may make a point of visiting you, and then...."
"Yes, then? Go on," Háma urged when his cousin left off dramatically.
"Have you no imagination, man?" the other sighed.
"Just tell the story!"
"As you wish, cousin" Herfrith replied, standing and spreading his arms wide, after the manner of a scop inspired. "Hear, then, the Tale of Ælfwyn and Deor. On the eve of the Day That Runs Backwards, from dusk 'til dusk, when the old year ends and the new is not yet begun, of old there rode the Great Hunt. Béma on his great steed, with his hounds, would ride the earth in search of a foe to match him, for all evil creatures walked abroad on that day. Then did men tremble, and they hid themselves for fear. But the undying Elves knew no fear, and some say that they changed themselves into hounds as well and ran with Béma. It happened that of all mortal men, there was one who was brave. Such was his courage that the King of the Elves and his lords held their more fragile forms in order that he might hunt with them on that Day. Deor was his name, and well it suited him, and it was not for naught that even the Elf King's bright daughter, Ælfwyn, loved him. Upon a time, when the Great Hunt came, the King of the Elves met a great wolf that had come out of the dark earth. Maddened by the light of the world above, the wolf sprang at the hunters, and the King might have died, for he wore still his own form that seems much like ours. But Deor, ever fearless, sprang before him, and so the wolf slew him instead.
"Then the King's bright daughter, Ælfwyn, grieved so that she went beneath the earth herself, and beseeched the Dead in the name of Béma to let her take her beloved back. 'For they who dare great deeds and look not to themselves, these do not deserve so soon the midnight of these dwellings,' she said. If her wish were granted, then in return, she pledged them a great jewel that would light the darkness beneath the earth, and so they might dream that they, too, had earned the right to walk twice upon the land. This she promised, if only she might have brave Deor back."
"And what happened?" Háma demanded, when Herfrith paused in the telling.
"She was granted her wish. Deor, ever fearless, was released to her for a time, and to him it seemed that he had wakened from a slumber, and did not remember anything. Then radiant Ælfwyn was glad, and the Elf King gave his daughter in marriage, for he could not deny courage its just reward. But Deor was a mortal man, and he knew not of the ways of the spirits, as the Elves did. And when at last he learned the tale of his wife, and of the bargain, he said foolishly, 'Powerless shades they are—shall I fear them, who want but a jewel, however great? Let them come and find me if they are so jealous.' Then star-bright Ælfwyn was stricken by horror, for she knew that his words had sealed their fate, forfeiting their time upon the earth. For the Dead hear all, and do not suffer the insults of the living. That very night, they came for him, and Ælfwyn, too, the King's fair daughter, who had bound herself to deliver the jewel that was heirloom to her House. When day dawned, neither husband nor wife were to be found, and that House has gone down into dust, for its greatest treasure is below the earth, and so all else has followed. Such is the fate of those who doubt the Dead."
"Strange tales you tell in Dunharrow," Háma said after a moment. "But I do not doubt that the Dead will do as they please, only that it shall please them to come."
"Who can say?" his cousin replied, settling down once more. "Sometimes, those who seek dream not. None can say what the Dead will, ere they will it. And now that I have finished my tale, 'tis your turn. Spin your story."
"But I have none!" Háma protested.
"And you from a line of scops," Herfrith snorted. "You must have some tale or poem that would be new. Something from Edoras."
"My sisters have been singing riddle-songs since the month began—if ever I knew aught else, I have forgotten it," Háma sighed. "Well that I am Githa's son, not Uncle Aldor's, else I should bring shame upon my line as a scop. Better a lance and sword for me."
"Better for both of us," Herfrith admitted, and gave his cousin a lopsided smile when Háma glanced up, surprised.
"You told Deor's tale well, I thought."
"That is because you have not yet heard our cousin Æthelred, son of Aldor, tell it. He is his father's son, in truth. The rest of us brood of cousins have souls suited to ride, not to soar."
"Mm," Háma grunted, but offered no further response as he absently added another branch to the fire. For a time, neither spoke, and each avoided the other's eyes, wrapped in his own thoughts. The …orlingas were known for their horsemanship, and a stranger might be forgiven for thinking that every lad yearned to be a Rider. Many did, and it was a high honor, and Háma hoped that he would prove himself worthy of it.
But there were other ways to serve with honor, ways that did not involve steel and pain and possibly death. Death.... Folding his arms across his chest, he grabbed the edges of his cloak and pulled it closer about him for warmth, for the night lay cold upon the land. So he told himself, though he knew the chill in his heart came not from the air. Honor to the scops but glory to the warriors, men said, meaning that a Rider went not unrewarded for the risks he took. 'Heart must be braver, courage the bolder, mood the sterner as our strength wanes'—that was the path to glory, as …orl had said it so very long ago. True words, yet Háma fretted as the days passed and Midwinter's Day court approached, when he would have to commit himself to stand by them. For what if I cannot? How can I know that I shall always be true, when I know nothing of what such a promise truly means? How can anyone know before the end? "Do you ever think about... it?" he asked suddenly.
There was a long silence. Herfrith stared at the flames, seeming so unwilling to speak that Háma was on the verge of brushing the question aside when his cousin answered softly, "Aye, I do."
"Do you think that you could be a Deor? Or an Ælfwyn, for that matter?"
"I suppose so. We shall not have much choice once we swear, after all," Herfrith replied.
"True enough. But do we know what we promise? They say a man should know what he swears, but if we do not know what it is to go beneath, then what worth our oaths? Do you never wonder what it is to die?" This time, Herfrith gave him a rather measuring stare, before taking another swig from the flask. And as he worried the stopper back into the mouth, he stared thoughtfully into the fire, 'til he had the cork securely in place.
Then, raising his eyes to Háma's face again, he replied, "I think I have another tale for you."
"Aye. Listen! If you go up into the villages around Dunharrow, sometimes you hear another tale of Deor. Or rather, I suppose it is the same tale, but told differently. It makes no great difference in any case," Herfrith said, waving such speculations aside. "It runs thus: Deor was a mortal man, and one of high spirit so that he feared nothing, either living or dead. One day, as he walked alone in the woods, he came upon an old man sitting very still with his knees drawn up and his long arms bent at the elbows, hands pressed flat on the ground. He was naked and aged, his hair grey and weedy, and his face was strange and unlovely. Deor stopped and asked him: 'Are you well, grandfather? Has harm befallen you? For if so, I shall avenge it!' And the old man laughed, then, a deep, odd sound, and he said unto Deor: 'Would you punish time, then? For that in truth is my enemy, yet I have no need of your vengeance. I have died before.' And Deor was much interested then, and he asked: 'How is it possible to die more than once? And what have you seen, who have gone beneath the earth? I have no fear of death, but much curiosity.' And the old man answered: 'There are questions that you should not ask, for I say to you now: those who ask them will soon know the answer.' Then Deor went away, and was much perplexed, and he spoke of the old man to the people of the village nearby, wanting to know whose grandfather sat alone in the woods and made strange prophecies. But when he had described him, the people knew the truth, and one said to him: 'We none of us have such a grandfather. But the old stone in the woods speaks sometimes, warning us of danger. For he is a guardian stone, made by the folk that lived in these parts. Do as he says!' And Deor went away, wondering.
"The rest you know, so I need not repeat it," Herfrith said. "Uncle Aldor tells it better, but I think it clear enough. Some questions are best left silent on nights such as this." A screech sounded then, and the sudden flapping of unseen wings drew their glances sharply skywards, but they saw nothing. Still, they looked long, conscious of the heavy silence that followed the owl's flight.
At length, though, Háma sighed and lowered his gaze. "Well, if we are doomed to learn the answers to such questions tonight, then 'tis too late for me to pose another. But what of you, cousin? What would you know?"
"I cannot say."
"What? You, speechless?"
"Merely more cautious than you reckless Edoras lads," Herfrith replied, with a slight smile.
"Bloodless Harrowdaler," Háma retorted, and his cousin gave a short bark of laughter.
"All tongue, no teeth!"
"Bluster and blow, but no brains!" Which retort was so outrageously scandalous that Háma spluttered, much to Herfrith's delight. Robbed of a witty response, Háma was forced to settle for rolling his eyes and hunching down in his cloak. Once again, they fell silent, listening to the still night. Fire crackled, sending embers up with the smoke to fade quickly in the cold air, and for a time, Háma distracted himself by counting them as the night grew older. Time spun slowly away, as the hours that stitched the night together unravelled by minutes and seconds.
"I think we should to bed," Háma said of a sudden, eyeing Herfrith, who blinked at his abruptness. "If we truly wish to dream, then let us give the spirits time to do their work, if they will."
"Then sleep well, cousin, and remember: 'tis perilous to let the Dead in," Herfrith replied. "You have no coin to pay your debt for living. Best you hope indeed that there is truth in the saying that the Púkel-stones are guardians!"
"And hope I do," Háma said, simply. "Sleep well, Herfrith, if you can."
With that, the two of them wrapped themselves in their blankets and lay down, back to back, and Háma let out a soft sigh as he pillowed his head in the crook of his arm. All was still and dark beyond the circle of their fire's light, and above him, the old Púkel-man gazed down, grotesque and broodingly mute, eyeless where the shadows lay heaviest on its grey, knobby face. Háma reached out with his left hand, running his fingers lightly over the base of the weathered stone, wondering. How many Gastings Night guests has it watched over? It was vaguely reassuring to think that the mossy-cloaked Púkel-man might have kept watch over many a dreamer since it had been set on its long watch. So say the tales, at least, he thought, and then dismissed the matter. Ah well. Good night to you, old stone.
From a branch overhead watched the owl whose flight had so startled them. Great glowing gold eyes aglitter in the firelight, it watched, as one after the other, the two young men drifted into an uneasy sleep. Beyond the firs, the pale sliver of a moon slowly trod his nocturnal path, and the fire cast shadows on the silent Púkel-stone. All the world seemed to hold its breath. And then a feather dropped down....
Voices in the darkness, chanting:
Thæs oferéode, thisses swa mæg.
Thæs oferéode, thisses swa mæg.
Thæs oferéode, thisses swa mæg.
That passed over; so may this.
So may what? Háma asked of the voices. Rustling in the blind night, and a whispering soft; rustling and a rain of feathers. Naught but feeling, yet he felt them brown. So may what?
Deor for his skill suffered exile,
the strong-willed hero had hardships to bear,
had as his companions pain and sorrow,
winter-cold exile, and endless griefs
Thæs oferéode, thisses swa mæg. That passed over; so may this.
Feather cold hands—deathly chill upon his face, gripping hard, yet catching nothing, sinking into flesh...! Labored heart and shallow breath, as Háma sinks to the ground... sinks into a brightening world with voices. Voices that he hears, cries and shouts of men in fear, cursing, calling out against the harsh mockery and howling of the enemy. Háma sinks to the ground, sinks into a brightening world, and the earth that meets his back cradles him with grass. The heavy scent of pine is in the air, pine overlaid with something sickly sweet; air gasped into agonized lungs tastes faintly of copper as the years fall away like leaves....
Where now the horse and the rider?... as hoofs thunder on the turf, recalling dim memories of his own mount rearing up in agony ere it had thrown him to the ground.... They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow... as the Old King's men had fought to hold their faltering line, to protect their lord. The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.... gone down like the King's defenders beneath the earth, like the man hewing stone with a broken sword. Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning, or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning? The arrow had struck hard from behind, piercing through even his mail, and blood had gushed out along with his breath. The worm of doubt within him writhes, gasping with him as feeling flies. Where now the horse and the rider? They have gone down to wait for the years returning. Shadow-form hovers before sightless eyes, and Háma struggles to speak, to break the spell as the air throbs with the rush of wings, as stony arms embrace him, drawing him back, out from beneath brown feathers. They have gone down ere all the days a-dawning. You have gone down—
Feather on his lips lies still, unstirred by breath. For that passed over; so may—
—"Háma!" Háma woke with a cry, clawing at his chest, seeking the arrowhead there embedded. Herfrith cursed above him and jerked his hands back, rubbing at the marks his cousin's nails had left. "Bémas blod, and mine as well!" Herfrith complained, sucking at the back of one hand as he gazed down with worried suspicion at him.
"Herfrith?" Háma murmured, shaking his head sharply to clear it, though he continued to feel for the arrow. But there was nothing... nothing at all. Swallowing hard, he looked up past his cousin, to a patchwork of dawn-grey sky and dark fir boughs.
"Aye, you great oaf, 'tis me! You would think that after my yelling at you three or four times, you would realize that instead of trying to take the skin off of my hands like a wildcat," Herfrith retorted. But then, more seriously, he asked, "What did you see?"
"Feathers," Háma replied, recalling with a sudden and inexplicable horror the rain of them. So cold, they were, and I could not breathe....
Herfrith gave him a nonplussed look, arching a skeptical brow. "Feathers? All that thrashing about for feathers? You woke me from a dead sleep with your tossing and moaning."
"There were feathers," Háma replied, forcefully, though he hastened to add, "and war, and a king... an old king. And a man hewing stone with a sword, and something about Deor...." he trailed off, taken aback by the rather arrested expression on Herfrith's face. "What?"
"So you had a vision after all," Herfrith replied, his voice grimmer than Háma had ever heard it. That sent a thrill of fear through him, but it also roused something in him, for Háma did not like the way his cousin was looking at him.
"If I did, it was likely your fault. Between that brew and your stories, no wonder my mind was all in a fog last night. Off!" he ordered, giving Herfrith a gentle enough shove, and his cousin made haste to sit beside rather than astride him.
"You think it was only a dream?" Herfrith demanded. "On this night, in this place? You were that frightened over a mere dream?"
"Everyone has nightmares sometimes, and the stuff of mine could have been culled from your tales easily," Háma responded, arching his back to get the cricks out. And despite his words, he felt a profound relief as he inhaled deeply, 'til his lungs were filled to bursting, and then let everything out in a yawn. "Besides, you did not dream."
"Nay, but I was not the one to ask questions of the Dead that I would not have answered for awhile yet," Herfrith replied. To that, Háma could say nothing, but as he sought a suitable response, his cousin sighed and waved a hand, seeming resigned. "I suppose it could be as you say."
Háma stared at him a moment, and when Herfrith gave him a queer look in return, he said, "Did I hear you surrender the argument to me just now, Harrowdaler?"
Herfrith's eyes narrowed at that, and after a moment, he replied, "How can I argue with one so lost to sense? 'Tis a kindness, nothing more."
"That is your apology? Bloodless, even with mere words," Háma sighed, shaking his head as if in disgust. Herfrith rolled his eyes, but said nothing more, either of the dream or of the argument as he rose.
"Shall we quit this place, cousin? We of Harrowdale prefer to start the day with the sun, after all, unlike you laggards in Edoras."
"Laggard, am I?" Háma demanded, as he reached for his blankets and began folding them. "You are still standing there!"
"Ha!" After that, the two of them made quick work of packing their few belongings and rolling up their bedrolls. Háma poured water onto the guttering embers of their fire, poking at the sodden ashes with the toe of his boot to be certain they were extinguished. They would break their fast in Dunharrow, as tradition demanded, and both were eager, therefore, to be off. With a bow to the old Púkel-man, they began the long march home. But ere they had gone very far down the path, Herfrith stopped and cursed softly. "We forgot the candles!" For adventurers beneath Dwimorberg would bring the candles from the gast-lamp back as proof of their exploit. He turned to go back, but Háma forestalled him.
"Nay, I shall fetch them. Wait here," Háma replied.
"Are you certain?" his cousin asked, raising a brow. And somewhat to Háma's discomfiture, that gleam of unease had reappeared in Herfrith's eyes.
"'Tis a bright dawn, cousin, and the Dead walk by night. Only wait a little while," Háma replied. Herfrith shrugged, but then nodded, and Háma turned and jogged quickly back up towards the clearing. Around a slight bend, the old Púkel-man came once more into view, and he slowed as he reached it, kneeling down by the gast-lamp. One of the candles still burned, and he quickly blew it out, plucking first one and then the other from the gourd. Unslinging his pack so that he had but one strap over his shoulder, he opened it and made a nest for them in a spare shirt so that they would not come to any harm. His task finished, he was about to leave when something glinted gold-brown at the feet of the Púkel-stone, catching his eye.
Frowning, Háma leaned closer, eyes narrowing as something he knew not what stirred in him. For it was a feather that gleamed in the sunlight—a great, black-tipped brown feather. An owl feather, there where he had lain. Uttering a short, disbelieving oath, he reached for it. An owl feather... like unto those in my dream. But when he pulled at it, it would not come, and his puzzlement waxed. What holds it...? Nay, that is not possible! It was not there ere I slept, and clearly, 'tis new-shed. How then can it be caught under the Púkel-stone?
Something fluttered overhead, and a shiver ran through him as waking vision darkened, and in his mind's eye he caught glimpses of a lumpy, obscure form that moved in the darkness of his dreams. Cold, hard arms had drawn him back, then... back away from feathers and death. Sightless eyes and stony arms.... Háma blinked memory from his sight, and lifted incredulous eyes to that strange-hewn face, mouth slightly agape. "You...? But that... that is... was it a vision, then? How—?" And as he squatted there, unable quite to fit it all together, of a sudden, the feather came free. Háma, overbalanced, ended up rather suddenly on his rump, reaching back with one arm to support himself. And still he stared at that strange, worn face, which seemed to stare back... seemed almost to smile at him.
The hair at the back of his neck prickled and stood up, yet he knew that there was no spider this time to cause it. Drawing a shaky breath, he scrambled to his feet, feather in hand. Bowing deeply to the old stone, he hurried away, disturbed, and came not again to the Púkel-man's clearing.
But in after years, the old stone stood, through all the years that Háma served his king. And sometimes the lads that came to stay in the clearing on Gastings Night told the tale of Háma and the feather, for no good tale ever goes untold or secret, much though the Warden spoke little of it. Then would some of them glance suspiciously at the weathered Púkel-man, wondering if that story were half-true or not at all. Even the king's young sister-son gave the stone a wondering stare one Gastings Night, for he knew Háma well, who guarded the doors of Meduseld. And it happened that one year, there came a group of lads, more than usual, and curious. For the war was done, and the King of Gondor had banished the Dead to their rest at last, and they hoped to learn whether any spirits remained in Harrowdale to tell of. They sat in the clearing that night and spoke of all the news that had come home with the Riders: of Elessar and …omer King, of …owyn Steelsheen and Master Holdwine, of the Siege of Gondor, and the Battle of Pelennor and Théoden Ednew. Of the Last Defense before the Black Gate. Of fathers, uncles, and brothers gone beneath the earth, laid under foreign soil, or else burned and scattered to the free winds. Of friends come home scarred and changed, proud and grieving, and the women who wore their widow's weeds still. Of well-loved names gone down to glorious ruin—Dúnhere, for one, and Háma of Edoras for another.
And it was an odd thing, but the next day, the lads came hurrying down from the heights bearing yet more news, and stranger, almost, than all the rest. For though none of them had dreamt, they had wakened that morn to an astonishing discovery: between one night and the dawn of the next day, the well-renowned old Púkel-stone had simply disappeared.
—'Some of us know better than to bet against a man so closely allied with fortune.'—'Hæla' is very close to 'hælo,' 'luck.'
—'Heart must be braver, courage the bolder, mood the sterner as our strength wanes.'— Battle of Maldon, ll. 312-313, minor wording changes by me to satisfy the part of me that cringes at translations that sound clumsy to me. Or maybe it's because …orl told me to change it.... ;-)
—"Deor for his skill suffered exile, /the strong-willed hero had hardships to bear,/ had as his companions pain and sorrow, / winter-cold exile, and endless griefs/Thælig;s oferéode, thisses swa mælig;g"—substitution mine, the real "Deor" can be found at:
—"Where now the horse and rider?..." and etc.—"King of the Golden Hall", TTT p. 143. Additions mine.
UT's tale of the Púkel-stone inspired a part of this story. Dunharrow and Halloween did the rest. 'The Tale of Deor and Ælfwyn' should be well-known to us all. A scop was an Anglo-saxon poet.