The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Of Like Passion: 10. Useful Trouble of Rain
Probable nor'east to sou'west winds, varying to the southard and westard and easterd and points between; high and low barometer, sweeping round from place to place; probable areas of rain, snow, hail, and drought, succeeded or preceded by earthquakes with thunder and lightening.
--Mark Twain, "New England Weather"
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What had begun as fitful showers on that raw Gwirith morn had settled into steady, pouring rain. Snatching a peek up at the low, heavy clouds as she paused to collect her breath, Saelon drew the greased wool of her cloak more closely about her. Such a pour was a fine thing for the newly sown bere, and the tender shoots of wheat and oats in their small plots, fenced with hurdles to keep the geese from them, but the day was no longer fit for man nor beast.
Yet when she toiled the rest of the way up the slick grassy slope facing the sea, she found them still there.
Giving the rump of one of the sodden ponies a slap and a shove so she could step under the cliff's overhang, though it gave little shelter now that the wind was veering west, Saelon gazed at the stolid huddle of Dwarves in the furtherest reach of the shallow cave, their normally colorful hoods muted with dimness and wet, and shook her head. "Masters," she said reprovingly as they looked around, startled by the noise and shift of their beasts, "I thought you had more sense than this. Why have you not come over to the hall?"
Even Nordri, placid for a Dwarf, looked mumpish, his mutter almost lost under the thrumming of the rain. "This will slacken shortly, Lady. We need not trouble you—"
Saelon set a hand on her hip; she had no patience with such courteous nonsense. "Do you think we would grudge you shelter and something hot?" Or that they would expect payment for mere neighborly hospitality? "We would not have that roof but for your trouble. Come over, where you can all wait in some comfort!"
A half-dozen, no, seven pairs of deep-set eyes turned to the stonemason, dark in the gloom. Thyrnir was there, and Nordri's son Nyr; Rekk's prentice Ingi and the stonecutter Aðal—the other three she remembered from her recent visit to Veylin's halls, but they had not yet visited Habad-e-Mindon. That comparative strangers should be hesitant to presume was proper, but those who had aided them in their direst need and slain raugs in Srathen Brethil should not doubt their welcome.
Nordri lifted a hand as if to draw off his hood, then thought better of it as a gust of wind drove spray into their rough shelter. "It is not your generosity we doubt, Lady, only this dratted weather! Losing so much time is vexing enough; I fear we would resent missing any break through traipsing back and forth."
From the louring looks of some of his companions—particularly the one in the, was it a dark brown hood? So hard to tell in this poor light; Hodr, was that his name?—not all of them would regret trading an hour or two's work for a seat by a fire and a cup of ale. "What did you expect in Gwirith? The weather is fickle at this season, true, but this is no short spate." She glanced over her shoulder at the leaden sky, then back at the Dwarves, obstinate in their misery. It would not do to press them; they were already crabbed. If she were determined on finishing a piece of work, she would resent being taken from it, even for motives of kindness. "You must do as you think best, Masters. If you come, there is room for your ponies in the byre-cave, where they will be close at hand."
So she left them to settle the matter among themselves, hastening down the slope and across the machair in hopes of making it back to shelter before her cloak soaked quite through. She did pause when she reached the top of the track, which was running like a younger brother of the clattering burn beside . . . and saw a train of led ponies picking its way down to the edge of the ploughlands below. Smiling, she spun and fled to the outer door of the hall, opening it just enough to slip into the narrow entranceway, the high-set lamp flickering in the damp gust from without. After hanging her dripping cloak on one of the pegs set in the wall and slipping off her muddy brogues, she lifted the latch on the inner door and stepped into the snug, softly lit warmth of the hall.
"Had they gone?" Fransag asked, glancing up from the cauldron where she was stewing the less tender joints of the cow lost to calf-fever.
"Dwarves?" Saelon laughed. "Of course not." Pausing to chafe her hands over the ruddy glow of the peat fire, she went back to the ale-tub in the corner and lifted the lid. Less than she had thought, but still ample. Taking up the stoup, she dipped it full, to refresh the ale mulling in the small kettle set in the corner of the hearth. "Nor were they sure they should leave what shelter they had found near their work. But they seem to have decided to come."
"What are they doing over there?" Dírmaen set aside the arrow he had just fletched, and picked up another shaft.
"Cutting stone to use in their hall." Saelon considered how much ale was in the kettle, then went back for another stoupful.
Halpan, on the next bench along the wall, looked up from the hide he was dressing and gazed at the smooth, pale rock around them, which kindly gave back the glow of the lamps. "Yes, I can see why they would want it. Their hall is cut from dark stone, which makes it rather gloomy."
"Do they have the right to the stone?" Dírmaen wanted to know, glancing up at her with a frown as she passed. "You did not give them leave, did you, Lady?"
"No, I did not," she assured him, displeased by his suspicion, as stubborn as the Dwarves themselves. The Ranger had left off urging them to return to Srathen Brethil, as Veylin had required, but always he found some grounds for criticism or doubt. Taking up the tongs, she dropped one of the larger boiling stones into the ale, where it hissed, raising fragrant steam. "Gwinnor told me that Dwarves have rights to wood and stone in the lands around the mountains. Surely you do not fear that Lindon will believe we have mined the cliff?"
From the other side of the hearth, where he sat with his youngest dozing at his breast, her chubby little hand knotted in the curls of his black beard, Maelchon chuckled softly. "As soon blame the Dwarves for tilling."
"How many are they?" Fransag wondered more practically, casting her gaze on Murdag, milling beside the shut door of her family's chamber. The lower menfolk—Partalan, Teig and Airil, Canand and Fokel—were probably in there with Finean. Hopefully they had no more than a pail of ale with them, and were not dicing. The swordsman was amusing himself with the cottars and menservants, and doing them little good. "Do you think they will stay to supper?"
"Eight. Who can say? It will depend on the weather, I suppose." Saelon looked around. "Artan, Leod—would you bring those two benches nearer the hearth? They are certainly wet, probably to the skin. Where is Rian?"
"In your chamber with the other lasses, weaving as they spin," Halpan replied, getting up and moving to sit beside Dírmaen. "Here, take this one as well."
Saelon smiled gratefully at him and told Murdag, "Grind enough for our guests as well. If they do not sup with us, it will be that much less to do tomorrow." Such a luxury, to be able to say that! This time last year, when Lindon's first emissary had deepened her anxieties, they had not been able to offer him anything better than water. Now they had their leasehold assured and half a year's corn in kist. No wonder everyone was in such mild temper.
Except Gaernath and Leod, of course, which was why Gaernath was next door in her old cave, watching over the boys where their rambunctious roughhousing could cause little mischief, while Leod was helping his brother twist rope down the length of the hall.
As if thought had summoned, the door was flung open; a chill draft and Gormal, Maelchon's eldest, burst in on them. "Dwarves!" he cried. "Dwarves have come!"
"That's no excuse for not shutting the outer door behind you," his mother told him sharply. "Come in or go back out!"
"Which Dwarves?" his father wanted to know, stroking the head of the babe startled from sleep by her brother's shouts. "They have names."
The lad hesitated, looking from one parent to the other, uncertain which to satisfy first.
"Shut that door!" Fransag commanded.
Gormal ducked back out, slamming the door. Maelchon snorted and shook his head. As the babe began to fuss, he rose and took her into his family's chamber, where Gràinne and Tearlag were watching over the littlest ones.
Saelon stepped into her own chamber to fetch Grani's finely turned cups and herbs for the ale. When she opened the door, the murmur of quiet talk stopped abruptly, but Rian, Muirne, and Unagh smiled on her once she had stepped in. "Do we have guests, aunt?" Rian asked from her seat before the small loom Partalan had made, seeing her stoop for the kist of cups.
"Yes, lass. Master Nordri and his followers were delving across the way when they were caught by the rain. It would be good of you—" she included all three in her glance "—to step out and greet them, but there is no need for you to stop your work to join the company."
Yet they did; and when Partalan stuck his head out of Finean's door to rebuke the irrepressible shouts of Hanadan and Guaire, and saw the cause of their excitement, the rest of the men came out as well. Visitors, even if uncanny folk, and the chance for news or a fresh tale were better excitement than gaming for the slender reward of their scanty possessions.
It took more than one round of ale as well as a heaping platter of butter-dripping bannocks to coax the grumpish Dwarves to sociability. They testily refused to give over more than their cloaks and hoods for drying, but as they sat there, stiff and sodden, Halpan reminded them of the keen contest to drain the tarn in Srathen Brethil, which a thorough drenching had not halted. Nordri's crew had won, and the four surviving members were all here; Halpan had been on the opposing team, with Thyrnir and Ingi; and as the seven of them wrangled over the debatable points as former comrades were wont to do, Dírmaen being appealed to as an impartial witness, their guests grew drier and more affable.
Gamal, who Saelon only now learned was a former prentice of Nordri's as well as Grani's son, shook his head at the offer of a third cup of ale. "Very kind, Lady, but no. Should the weather break, I will need to trust my eye and hand. Though this stone is less treacherous to cut wet than many others. A fine site for a hall," he allowed, gazing on the birches carved by the door with a subtle air of regret, "if you do not mind the waves always growling at your door. Is this limestone why you settled here?"
"I know almost nothing about stone," Saelon confessed, "beyond which ones are good for boiling and that some plants grow better on one kind than another. In truth, I favored the place for the view of the sea."
"You jest," Gamal protested, cornflower-blue eyes uneasy beneath his fair brows.
"No, she does not," Thyrnir attested, reaching over to help himself to another bannock. "She even walks the shore when storms rage, for pleasure."
"Why do you fear the sea so?" Saelon asked. She had never gotten a satisfactory answer, not even from Veylin. "Has it harmed your folk in some way?"
"Why do you trust it so?" Gamal countered. "Can you not see that it rose in such might that it carved the caves in these high cliffs?"
"Uncounted years ago."
"Near three thousand. And it drowned wide lands west of here some three thousand years before that. Why should it not march inland to wreck and scour again?"
"You fear that such calamity might strike at any time?" Restraining her incredulity was an effort, but she must not offend her guest as she had offended Thyrnir in the first awkward days of their acquaintance, mistaking his mislike of the sea for a sign of evil intent. Saelon did not think he had quite forgiven her yet.
For by all appearances, Gamal found her ease as dubious. "I have not heard that it gave much warning of its wrath, when last it rose."
Thyrnir snorted. "Her own brother could not argue her into sense on this point, so do not waste your breath. If you wish something from the shore, however, charge her with the commission. Or this one!" he exclaimed, breaking into a smile as Hanadan flopped over the end of their bench, a wooden sword drooping in his hand. He and the other boys had been inspired to reenact the battle against the raugs by the talk among the men. "He is nearly as bad."
"Bad?" Hanadan gave him a look of wounded bafflement. "What have I done?"
Saelon could not help laughing at her youngest kinsman. Though often a vexing child, he was not naughty, only too venturesome for his age and neverendingly curious. "Master Thyrnir means that you like to play on the strand."
"How is that bad?"
Gamal shook his head, grinning at the boy's confusion. "You Men are truly strange."
"These two are strange even for Men," Thyrnir declared. The warm light of the lamp struck a gleam from his eyes like the green of spring when the sun broke through the clouds, belying his harsh words. "As is that stripling who is trying to be a firebeard." He pointed out Gaernath, who sat beside Halpan, staring moodily at Murdag and tugging absently at the ruddy down of his maiden beard, with a short jerk of the flaming red-gold on his chin. "Why else would they be so friendly to Dwarves?"
Beyond the hearth, a breathy roar was followed by daring cries, the ominous crack of failing wood, and the crashing tumult of bench and boys coming down in tangled confusion.
"Ho! Maon! Guaire!" Maelchon thundered, rising up over the fiend and its would-be slayers, who were already turning on each other with recriminations. "Are you bull-calves, to behave so, and in front of guests? If you will be beasts, go to the byre-cave! Gormal," he rumbled, as the younger two fled, "as you hope for mercy, those ponies had best be handsome when Master Nordri is ready to leave."
"Aye, Da," the boy muttered, with a quick duck of his head. "Your pardon, Masters." Then he followed his brothers, though remembering to shut the door behind him.
"I do not know what has gotten into them!" Fransag protested, her broad face flushed with mortification, as Hanadan slipped stealthily after his disgraced companions.
Nordri chuckled, leaning down to pick up a broken bench leg. "From what I have seen, I would guess they are too used to having all the country round about to battle in. If I had realized how active your children would be when full-fed, I would have cut you a larger hall."
Thyrnir, who had gone to look at the shattered bench, shook his head over it. "It is not worth mending," he declared. "Let them have it to make themselves shields, or burn it for firewood."
Maelchon sighed deeply, looking perversely proud as well as rueful as he gazed on the wreckage. "They are lively rascals, it's true, and are bound to find more mischief, not less, as they grow. Now that our holding is assured, I would build a house somewhat apart, were it not for the limit on how much timber we can fell. My wife—" he glanced at Fransag, who sniffed and turned back to cutting roots for the stew "—would like a hearth of her own, and the children would be less trouble to the rest of you."
"Hanadan is no better," Halpan insisted, shaking his head. "It was only a bench. We will not banish you for that."
"Surely you can get a house from the oak you are allowed," Thyrnir said, looking up from the piece of plank he had been examining. "There is a tree in the wood that should give you three couple of crucks, if cut skillfully, as well as the ridgebeam. If you were short, you could piece crucks together from such wood as lies on the shore."
Maelchon looked uncertain. "Our house in Srathen Brethil had four couples of stout posts, each a tree in itself. And what are we to do for walls? One tree would not even give enough for planking, and this is no country for daubed wattle, the winter storms being so terrible."
"There is no shortage of stone," Nyr pointed out, bemused that so obvious a thing must be pointed out. So Thyrnir had suggested they enlarge the caves, when her people had first arrived.
"They have no skill with stone," Thyrnir reminded him. He considered Maelchon, his fiery head cocked to one side. "You were willing to pay in grain for a plow. Would you do the same for a house?"
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As his people came up from their workshops for supper, they found those before them gathered in the corner of the hall instead of around the table, and wandered over to see what had attracted such interest. Veylin sat a little back from where Nordri had clad a goodly stretch of the two walls in White Cliffs limestone, so the latecomers could get a fair view of what the facing would look like. He was happy with the effect himself, but for so public a space as this, it was as well to let everyone speak their mind. How there could be objections to a fairer hall was beyond him, but thirty years as chieftain had taught him that Khazâd could disagree on almost anything. The colony had begun with a happy combination of kin and friends and followers; now, joined by others whose bonds were not so close, things were becoming less harmonious.
Those three days he had been absent, confronting Gwinnor, and the orders to keep close within doubly guarded doors, had shaken the confidence of some. Which included, alas, Auð.
And himself. Yet he could not let his private anxieties mar the soundness of the overall venture. There was more here than opal.
"Less work for me, I see!" Laufi jested, before taking one of his lamps from its place by the hearth and trying the play of its light on the pale stone.
"Very nice," Bersi said, giving Nordri the nod one master craftsman passes to another.
Siggr was stroking his umber beard, a pensive look on his face.
"A great improvement," Vitnir declared, with all the authority of Veylin's heir. He and his followers had finally rejoined them, now that the spring rains had made what passed for roads in Eriador foul mires, and trade slackened until summer baked them to dust. "What are the Men charging for the stone?"
Rekk snorted. The ironmaster's pomposity irritated him, boding ill for the future. "Nothing. Lindon granted them leasehold, not freehold . . . and you know how scrupulous Saelon is."
"Prodigal, you mean." Vitnir reached out and stroked the stone.
Hearing his nearest kinsman speak so tried Veylin's temper sorely, but he kept his teeth shut. He had spoken his mind to Vitnir on this; if his cousin persisted in thinking Saelon foolish, he was the one who would suffer.
Along with those left in his charge. Sometimes, Veylin was glad his nephews were under another chieftain.
Having drawn back, Auð gazed down on him matter-of-factly. "You cannot deny she has little eye for profit," she murmured.
Before he could answer, Nordri chuffed. "The Lady has done well for herself and her people, all in all. I, for one, did not think we would have any trade with them so soon. Yet once I have finished here, Grani and I will be building Maelchon a house."
"They cannot even shelter themselves?" Siggr exclaimed, with incredulous scorn.
Grani frowned at the jointer. The two woodwrights were at odds; Siggr was civil to the carpenter, but disparaged the rougher nature of his craft to those who would listen. "Men build mostly with timber, yet the Elves have cruelly limited what they may take from the wood, and there was no carpenter among those who fled here. They could cobble together a house, but Maelchon is willing to pay for skill." When Thyrnir had returned with word that the husbandman was interested in their services, the carpenter had wasted no time, riding along with Nordri's work party the next day to discuss the matter with the Man.
Pleased that Thyrnir could find business for his master even here, and satisfied that good relations had closed the deal without delay, Veylin huffed under his breath. Why were some so blind to the opportunities the Men presented? Or did they believe them too trifling, too fleeting to trouble with? Not every gleam led to a good vein, it was true . . . but then many of them preferred common stone or iron for their livelihoods, content to pay the venturesome for their gems.
If only he could be certain Gwinnor had ridden straight back to Mithlond, he would dare to visit the opal dyke. Yet why might not the Elf have tarried, to see what his rival did once he thought him gone? Better to wait; not all caution was timidity.
"If this farmer is not content with the hall you delved them—which is fine, by all accounts," Ketli, Vitnir's coalmaster, told Nordri, "why should he be happier in a house of your building?"
"Have you ever heard of Men living so long under stone?" Bersi's son Barði asked. "It is unnatural to them."
Haki snorted. "It is the size of Maelchon's family that is unnatural. Is it any wonder, their children running wild as they do, that he should wish to keep them further off, so they are not such a vexation to the others?"
"Running wild?" Auð echoed, disapproving.
Nordri waved a hand in dismissal. "Boys playing at fiend-slaying." He smiled at Nyr. "I have known good dwarf-lads who broke more than a bench in such battles. Their only fault was carrying on so before guests. The wonder is that his wife can keep any order at all, with so many children, and all so young! You have some objection," he asked his ironmaster, "to so many more sturdy, active farmers for neighbors in a score of years?"
"I suppose not," Haki allowed. "Provided their herds and fields increase in proportion."
Rekk laughed. "Would Lindon have put such strict bounds on the Men, if they did not fear they would prosper overmuch? And us with them? Who cares why Maelchon wants a roof of his own, provided he is willing to pay us to raise it. I seem to recall—" he craftily split his glance between Vitnir and Haki "—Saelon saying that the women of Men consider hearths their lordships. When Saelon and Fransag divide the one between them, both will lack ironmongery. Perhaps you, too, should ride over with Nordri and see what you can get."
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Brogues: from Scots Gaelic, bròg, "shoe"; the traditional footwear of the Highlands. While in the modern usage a brogue is a stout walking shoe, in the Iron Age and Medieval periods it was a light shoe of deerskin, often with decoratively cut openings on the upper.
Crucks: the curved beams that served as wall and roof supports in medieval longhouses and later cottages. This was a more economical use of wood than post-in-ground construction, which is first seen in Neolithic longhouses.
Ridgebeam: also roof-tree; the beam at the peak of a roof.
Daubed wattle: in many areas of northwestern Europe, Iron Age and later house walls were commonly wattle panels covered with clay ("wattle and daub"). While this may sound primitive, the plaster or wallboard in modern houses is merely a highly refined version of clay cladding.
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