"Tarlanc, what a terrible experience that was for you! You were so fortunate that Dezi did not kill you in his mad folly!" Elfhild's voice was shaky.
"I was so frightened when you were telling about that dreadful man that I could hardly sit still! But, oh, how romantic! Tabahanza must have seen you as her hero!" Fully immersed in tales of romance and derring-do, a sighing Elffled clasped her hands together and brought them to her cheek.
His brows furrowing, Tarlanc looked at her askance. "At the time, I did not think there was anything romantic about it! But now," he scratched his jaw reflectively, "in retrospect, perhaps, perhaps... to someone young."
"What happened next?" Elfhild asked excitedly.
"After riding back into the camp, I explained what had happened, and summed up by relating that, though I had come to no real harm, Dezi could just as easily have killed me. Attempting to word the suggestion in the most diplomatic manner possible, I advised that it would be the best idea to take Dezi to one of the city's houses of healing. Certain that they would understand the real meaning of my suggestion - that they should transport the dangerous madman to an asylum and put him under irons - I was taken aback when they patiently informed me that 'the Randirrim take care of their own with no help from outsiders.'
"After calling an outdoor conclave to which they invited me, the elders decided that, while Dezi's behavior was inexcusable, he had meant no harm. According to their views, his boisterous, high-strung spirit had simply gotten out of hand. It irritated me greatly that some of Dezi's kinsmen expressed concern that possibly I had severely injured him. Considering the fact that he was much larger and stronger than I, the headmen quickly discounted the idea as being unlikely, although I noticed several of them eying me disapprovingly.
"Beginning to question whether I was regarded so highly among the Randirrim as I had previously believed, I found the meeting left me dumbfounded and shaken. Although I assured them that Dezi was none the worse for the wear, the elders felt it was the best wisdom to err on the side of caution, and so a driver and cart - along with an escort of his kinsmen and friends - were sent to haul him back to the camp in the event that he had been hurt.
"As the meeting concluded and the men were walking to the lines where their horses were tied, Dezi's mother ran up to us. Her face convulsed with anger, tears streaming down her cheeks, the hysterical woman screamed and spat out a string of curses at me. Before I realized her intent, she had stabbed at my eyes with her long, pointed fingernails, raking my face and leaving red trails of blood flowing down my cheeks. She lunged for me again, but I dodged away and caught her wrists with my hands, holding her back at arm's length. The Randirrim who had gathered around us murmured darkly, and I sensed that many of them were on her son's side against me." Tarlanc sighed heavily, letting the air whistle through his lips, "I doubt you know this, but Randirric women are noted for being hot-blooded and volatile." Becoming accustomed to his moods, Elfhild sensed that he was in need of a drink. She held up the wineskin and looked at him questioningly. With a nod of his head, he took the skin from her hands.
"I was relieved from my embarrassing situation by the arrival of Ahãma and some of the other women, who, after talking with her a while, led a sobbing Hebeli away to her tent. Seeing Tabahanza at the edge of the crowd, I made my way over to her through the disbursing throng. There was no need to wonder about her loyalties, for they were written all over her sweet, gentle face. Taking her to my own wain, I sat down on a bench and related my story while she cleaned the wounds dealt to me by Hebeli and put salve on them. With only time for a quick, though passionate, kiss, I left her to saddle my horse and join the 'rescue party.'
"When we came upon Dezi, we found him where I had left him, lying on his face and still bound. Babbling to himself, he was as gentle as a babe when the men released the ropes which bound his ankles together, righting him so he could sit up. While he smiled at them, the elders interrogated him about what had transpired between us that afternoon. When my charges against him were explained, Dezi looked each of his questioners in the eye, an expression of great hurt upon on his meek face. In his imbecility, Dezi seemed totally artless and with no guile whatsoever. Compared to his trusting openness, I am sure that my allegations against him must have seemed cruel and harsh.
"The change in his behavior was amazing to me. How could a man who had been a raging maniac less than an hour before have gone through such an amazing transformation? Even considering his now placid behavior, I had supposed that on the ride back to the camp, Dezi would be tied even more securely with ropes and possibly chains. Instead, the elders, even Wedri, concluded that the imbecile had simply suffered another one of his unfortunate fits, which had passed as they always did. Rather than leaving him tied, the head elder cut away his ropes himself!
"Meri, whom I had always considered possessed a streak of sarcastic mischievousness about him, took a piece of hard candy from the pouch at his belt and tossed it up into the air. As it fell towards the ground, a freed Dezi leaped up and caught it in his mouth like a trained dog, while the crowd applauded his cleverness. The spectacle, though, had not yet concluded. When the wagon was brought up for him to board, Dezi's face fairly seemed to glow with excitement. With an exclamation of wild delight, he capered across the distance to the van and bounded up to the seat beside Meri in one leap. Most of the men smiled approvingly at his antics.
"Disgusted, I said nothing but sat my horse silently, not caring if anyone read the look of anger which darkened my face. I expected Dezi at least to express his resentment that I had bested him in a fight and bound him like a captured animal. Instead, whenever his gaze turned to me, Dezi rolled his large, thick red lips over each other, making smacking and popping sounds with his mouth. Drooling slightly, he grinned broadly like the fool that he was. Each one of his escapades would set his companions into laughter. Inwardly seething in a hot rage, I was convinced that he was mocking me and making me appear as a fool in front of the crowd. No matter how much stronger he was than I, had he had been of a sound mind, I would have challenged him to a duel right there.
"On the trip back, he sat beside Meri on the driver's seat. There, he constantly attempted to draw attention to himself. First he would wave his arms and stamp his feet, and next he would contort his face into bizarre grimaces, while imitating the squawks, honks, growls, neighings, bleats, moos, and roars of various animals. Sometimes he thumbed his nose at me while flapping his arms, deliberately trying to infuriate me. These antics had Meri in wild paroxysms of laughter, and his body shook with hilarity until the tears poured down his cheeks. I concluded that Meri was almost as stupid as Dezi.
"Waiting while the procession led by Meri and Dezi passed ahead of me on the road, I fell in behind the group. We had not been riding long when Wedri rode back and drew his horse up beside me. Keeping his voice low, he told me in the best of good humor, 'You Gondorians are far too serious, my boy! You should learn to laugh more. While it is true that my wife's nephew is not the brightest, surely he is good-natured and harmless. The poor fellow's mind is but that of a small child. Make allowances for his frailties and pay no attention to him when he becomes a little boisterous in his play. I am sure you will take my advice to heart.' With that, Wedri slapped me across the shoulders, dug his heels into his horse's sides, and trotted up to ride beside Meri's wain.
"After returning to the camp, I watched as Dezi alighted from the wain in front of his mother's tent. The lout was soon embraced in his mother's loving arms to the cheers of all the tribe. Not able to watch the spectacle, I dismounted my horse in silence and led him away to be tended.
"In the days that followed, the camp soon fell back into its familiar routine, but still I suspected that more than a little evil lurked in Dezi's ponderous skull. In spite of the reassurances by the elders that Dezi was harmless, from then on, I kept my dagger constantly honed and always with me. I found myself starting at small noises during the night, and often I felt that I was being followed. I looked forward to the wedding both with anticipation and no little trepidation."
"What happened then?" asked Elfhild. If she had been sitting on a chair, she would have been on the edge of her seat, her hands gripping the edge.
"Many things." As Tarlanc shook his head, the light from the candle played over the hollows and ridges of his angular face, turning one feature into a high prominence while casting other areas into shadowy valleys. "During the past three years, Wedri had consented to allow Pere and Meri to teach me blacksmithing. While it was not a trade that I would have chosen, the profession provided me with an adequate living, more than enough to support the wife and family which I hoped that I would have someday. From before dawn until dark, I worked beside Wedri and his sons in their forge, eventually developing the great muscles of a smith and the calluses of honest toil. Seeing this old frame of mine, you would not believe it now, would you, lasses?" He flexed a bicep and looked at it sadly.
"You are a fine-looking gentleman!" Elffled protested. "I know you must be quite strong to operate a mill."
The old man beamed at her, cleared his throat modestly, and went on. "You are too generous in your estimation. While I labored during the day, my beloved Tabahanza tended to her craft of weaving baskets with her mother, and sewing her wedding dress with the other women. This mysterious garment was forbidden to my vision, but from the few things which she would intimate to me, I knew that it must be an elaborate concoction of colorful embroidery and ruffles." The old miller smiled to himself as he thought back to that day.
"As the day of the wedding approached, I constantly thought of the time when I would take Tabahanza as my wife. I had seen Randirric weddings before, and knew them to be gay and festive occasions, celebrated exuberantly by everyone attending. With only a few days before the wedding, I could barely keep my mind upon my work at the forge. Totally occupied with my constant ruminations on my approaching marriage, I became careless and smashed a finger when I was repairing the axle of a wain. In pain and in no mood for work, I left early.
"When I reached my tent, I stripped my sweat-soaked clothing from my body, washed my face, arms and chest from a bucket of water and then finished by pouring a bucket of water over my head and shoulders. Donning a clean set of clothing, I combed my wet hair, and considered myself entirely presentable to see my lady. Lasses, perhaps you might be offended by the Randirrim's ideas of cleanliness, but they do not hold a clean body as a high virtue. Being a nomadic people with no permanent dwellings, they have little opportunity to bathe regularly, taking advantage of water only when they can find it. There should be no illusions in your minds that I smelled like a garden in spring, but to the rest of the Randirrim, I was perhaps a little too personally meticulous for their thinking." Tarlanc chuckled at his gentle witticism. "In other words, I was clean enough, but not too clean." At that the sisters giggled.
"When I went over to her family's wain to inquire for her, I learned from her mother that she had gone walking out towards the city. Disappointed, I mounted my horse and went out to look for her. Soon I saw her on the side of the road, sitting under the generous branches of a sycamore tree.
"'What are you doing out here?' I asked sharply as I dismounted my horse and came over to sit down beside her. The agitation in my voice was all too evident, and she looked up at me questioningly.
"'I was only out walking,' she explained. I could tell from the tenseness in her voice that she was not telling the entire truth.
"'You should have taken someone with you,' I scolded. 'What if Dezi had followed you? We both know that he is infatuated with you, and with his weak mind, he might take it into his head to do you some harm.'
"'He did follow me.' She dropped her head and studied her fingers, turning them over and examining them one by one.
"'What happened?' I asked in alarm as I grabbed her by the shoulders and turned her to face me.
"'Nothing! Stop that! You are hurting me!' she exclaimed as she went stiff in my arms.
"'I asked you what happened!' I demanded.
"'Dezi is my first cousin on my mother's side. We have grown up together, and he is devoted to me! I know what you think of him, Tarlanc.' She tried to calm me by rubbing her soft hand against my cheek, but I moved my face aside. 'He will not hurt me, no matter what you think.'
"'What did he want?'
"'To talk and bring me this bouquet of daisies. Is that so wicked?' She held up a wilted handful of wildflowers. 'He is always bringing me something or doing some little kindness for me. What is the harm in it? Nothing!' I could tell that this subject was upsetting her, but stubbornly I intended to press her on it.
"'Do not go walking by yourself ever again! No matter that he is your cousin, I cannot trust a man who tried to kill me. Either wait until I finish my work for the day, and I will go with you, or ask one of your other relatives to go with you. I am only concerned about your safety. His mind is so unsound that I worry constantly, fearing that he will go insane and turn on you!'
"'Do you not see that this rejection would hurt his feelings? Please do not think so unkindly of him! He and I have talked over this, and he has promised me that he will never attempt anything so foolish again as challenging you!' Tabahanza turned pleading, tear-filled eyes up to me, and my heart melted at the sight of her.
"'We will see,' I capitulated and ended the discussion of Dezi with a kiss upon her sweet lips. We talked no more of the matter, for when lovers are alone together, there are far better things to discuss... and to do.'" Tarlanc smiled and called Haun over to be petted.
"Tarlanc, you have not finished, have you? You will tell us about the wedding, will you not?" Elfhild wondered if perhaps the old miller was growing weary. Though perhaps it was selfish to think such, she hoped that he would postpone sleep to finish the tale.
"Why, certainly, I am going to tell you about the wedding! I was only trying to recollect everything that happened, and at the same time giving Haun a bit of attention. He is a demanding fellow, you know, and a very good friend." Tarlanc's excuse about gathering his thoughts was an untruth, for he could remember almost every detail about his wedding. However, even after all these years, there were aspects about the event that still embarrassed him. At least he had one more tale to go ere he told about the wedding, and by then he could find the words to phrase certain elements in the most discreet manner possible.
"Aye, he is a good friend," Elfhild agreed and hoped that Tarlanc would go on with the story.
"There is more to tell before I relate the story of the wedding. As I had surmised, Dezi had been deeply in love with Tabahanza since they were children. Often he had proposed marriage to her, but she certainly did not love him or want any match. Upon the day that I told you about when he had given her the chain of daisies, he had asked her yet another time. Once more she turned him down, but in a gracious way that was designed to be gentle to his feelings. Still her refusal, which was as firm as she possibly could have made it, did not penetrate his simple brain, and he began to press his suit even stronger.
"Since Tabahaza's mother and his were sisters, it was difficult for her to avoid him. Her gentle, kind heart made it impossible for her to be cruel to him, so when he would bring her flowers - their stems often crushed in his clumsy hands - she would smile and thank him for them. Always when he brought her small gifts, she was in the presence of her mother or some other woman. She never again went walking by herself after I had forbidden her. Not only did he bring her small gifts, but he would offer to help her with her weaving or other small tasks. Feeling pity for him, usually she would agree, considering that since it was in the company of her mother and his, no harm could come of it. Sometimes he would simply come by and sit with Tabahanza and boast of some small achievement or brag of his strength in wrestling.
"Three days ere the wedding, a horse fair was held upon the fields outside Pelargir. All those who were able packed up their families and rode off to the city. Dezi came there in the company of his friends, for there were always some young men and children gathered about him who admired his wrestling accomplishments or thought he was amusing. There were many fine animals on exhibit, for the horse fair drew people from all over Southern Gondor. In addition to the opportunities offered to buy, sell or trade horses, there were competitions where riders could show their horses against each other to be judged for prizes.
"That afternoon, Meri saw a fine young stallion which interested him, and was given permission by the horse trader to try the animal out in the green field below a small stand for spectators. This majestic horse was part of a lot of spirited horses imported from Harad by two brothers, local horse traders, and it was as much a novelty as anything. Dezi's gaze was riveted upon Meri and the mount, and, surrounded by his friends, he gaped at his cousin. Tabahaza and I were applauding her brother from the stands which had been built up around the area. Occasionally she would call out an encouragement to her brother or some gentle jest. This exchange between brother and sister capturing Dezi's attention, he became jealous and attempted to catch her notice. Other than a polite wave of her hand in his direction, Tabahanza's eyes were only for her brother.
"With that headstrong streak of impetuosity that so characterized him, Dezi strode over to where a young mare was tethered along the picket line. Before anyone could stop him, he had slung his hefty bulk upon the horse. The Randirrim nearby gathered round, murmuring in concern, for they knew that he was a poor rider. Yet the horse was good-tempered, and if any horse was suited to carry small children, inexperienced riders, and imbeciles, it was this mare. Intelligent and gentle, with a refined dished face and dainty muzzle, the horse was small in size, smaller than most at a little over 14 hands tall, and of Haradric stock, with a strong, short back which had been bred over the generations to carry even heavy riders.
Though Meri frowned and shouted at him to take care, most of the other Randirrim watching the scene did not act, for they thought that no harm would come of the situation. No one wished to make the simpleton of the tribe lose face and be humiliated, so no one attempted to pull him off the mare as they would have a wayward child. The sight of this hulking monster of a man sitting atop a horse and flopping like a sack of turnips while he bragged of how he was the best rider in all of Gondor set many of his kinsmen into peals of mirth. Others who possessed a malicious sense of humor urged him on, hoping for even more sport from the clown whom the crowd loved.
"Looking up to Tabhanza, Dezi smiled his broad, slack-jawed grin and cried, 'Tabahanza, watch this!' Slamming his thick legs against the horse's sides, he laughed as the mare surged forward in a burst of energy which shocked the crowd. Laughter turned into horrified expressions as they watched Dezi attempt to maneuver the nervous horse, sawing on the bit and tormenting her sensitive mouth as he pranced her about. Several of the men rushed forward, trying to grab the reins, but the horse, already confused and frightened, reared up and struck the air with her hooves. Dezi squealed in excitement, and when the horse came back down, he kicked her in the ribs and broke forth from the men, galloping away into the distance on the runaway horse. Shouting at him to halt, Meri streaked off after him on his steed. As soon as we could mount up, other men and I raced after them, but by this time, Dezi's terrified mare had caught the bit between her teeth and was galloping ahead, completely out of control.
"When they caught up with Dezi, they found him sitting on the ground, bawling and crying, large, fat tears streaming from his eyes, his hands clutching his leg. The mare stood nearby, her head drooping low, her right foreleg sprained and bruised from the fall which she had taken. 'Kill her! Kill her!' Dezi screamed. 'She fell and hurt Dezi! She is evil! Kill her so she can never hurt him again!'
"Upon further inspection, it was found that Dezi's leg had been broken. Wedri called for a cart to carry him back to camp. As he was helped aboard, Dezi turned his head and glared at me, as though I were the cause of all his misfortune."