The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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After Stormy Seas: 11. All Flags Flying
But who is this, what thing of sea or land?
Female of sex it seems,
That so bedecked, ornate, and gay,
Comes this way sailing
Like a stately ship
. . .
With all her bravery on, and tackle trim,
Sails filled, and streamer waving,
Courted by all the winds that hold them play
--John Milton, "Samson Agonistes"
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With a savage oath, Dírmaen put a knee into the gelding's barrel. Coll let go his breath with a startled whuf, and the Ranger swiftly tightened the girth. He did not care if the beast was weary from yesterday's chase. It need only walk a few furlongs, and he would tolerate no tricks that might mar their procession. More mortification he could not stomach.
Last night had begun so well. Saelon's temper milder than in many days, tempting hope; the gratifying fellowship of Elvish rangers; and most excellent wine, the like of which he had not drunk since his stay in Rivendell. Then all had curdled, when Calennae broke in upon them. Perhaps he ought to be grateful that the ill had not gone beyond rank discourtesy . . . but he was not. It had been hard to walk back to the guest-hall beside Saelon's cold, wordless fury.
He was supposed to be her protector, and what had he done? Nothing. His inaction, his silence, were bound to be cast in his face when next they argued over her need for a guard. Yet what could he have done or said that would not have made matters worse? If Calennae had been a Man, he would not have hesitated to challenge him . . . but the baleful marchwarden was not. Ancient in war, with the speed and grace of the Eldar—Dírmaen was as a child beside him, and knew it. The few words he had ventured, when the slander touched Dúnedain as well as Dwarves, had merely invited retribution.
Saelon had seen as much; must have, or doubtless she would have unleashed her tongue, bitter as any blade. That she had not spoken to him after, in anger or reproach or merely the simple civility of a good even, however, was ominous. Did she believe he approved of such enmity towards Dwarves? Did she think him craven?
His fine featherbed comfortless as couching amid scree, he gave up on sleep soon after the middle of the night and sought the cool calm of the open night sky. Yet walking the paved ways among the trees, avoiding so far as possible the merriment of the last of the Elvish middle-days, did not ease his heart, nor fatigue him enough to bring sleep.
It was the impotence that rankled. So he turned to the stables and the one useful thing he could do. Saelon might be austere to plainness, and he and Gaernath ragged, but no one would be able to fault the turn-out of their beasts, coarse though they would appear beside Elvish steeds. Pausing to free a few strands of Donnan's long forelock from the browband of his bridle, Dírmaen went to oversee Gaernath's lading of the down, the last of the fee for Habad, atop the pelts already on Maelchon's sturdy black.
The lad's skill as a sumpter had improved greatly on this trip, grappling with awkward goods that must arrive in prime condition on a few beasts. Under Dírmaen's critical eye he arranged the sacks nicely, and had them half-strapped into place—then came to a sudden stand, giving a long, high whistle of surprise and grinning across the artfully balanced load. Dírmaen scowled as the black flicked his ears back and gave a throaty rumble of uncertainty, then turned to see what had warranted such an outburst.
Saelon was coming down the steps, and the sight of her smote the breath from his body.
No one could doubt this woman was high-born among the Dúnedain. Fair she was, perilously fair, the light in her eyes as cold as the netted silver starring the dark crown of her hair. The simplicity of the dress Rian had made heightened her severity . . . but any suspicion of poverty was banished by the brilliant jewel at her breast, a shard of sea capped by wrathful waves.
Dírmaen found himself bowing as she came down the final steps. She hardly glanced at him, instead surveying the waiting horses with a judgmental eye. "They look very well," she decided. "How did you think to order the procession?"
"Do you wish your own mount, Lady?"
A glance sent Gaernath fleeting towards the stables to fetch the dun hobby Dírmaen had left in reserve against such a desire. "Will you be easy, sitting aside on Coll with no more than a saddlecloth?" At home, she went afoot most days. He did not know how skilled a rider she was. "He had a hard run yesterday, and should be quiet."
Saelon went to the horse and took his bridle; Coll snuffed, regarding her with a mild eye. "Yes. And Gaernath—would you mount him as well, or have him walk?"
"He has gone to fetch Buits. I thought you would lead us. I would take Donnan, and Gaernath Blackie and Whitefoot." That was the best he could do, with such mismatched horseflesh.
This earned him a nod of curt approval. "You have made an excellent job of lading them."
Dírmaen bowed again, glad to have pleased her; doubly, triply glad, her being in such severe temper, yet hardly trusting himself to speak on account of his own mood. He wished his appearance could also give the lie to Calennae's fling of "ragged vagabonds," but there was nothing to be done for it. He must serve as he was, as Rangers ever did.
"Where are the Dwarves?" she asked, as Gaernath loped up with the dun.
"I do not know." Dírmaen went to loose the girth he had just cinched tight, so Coll's saddle could be put on Buits. The only Dwarf he had seen this morning was Thyrð, hastily taking Veylin's pony and another from the stable. Had Saelon warned Veylin of Calennae's enmity? She had asked after the gemsmith before their unsavory supper. Or had she still not spoken with him?
"Gone to find places in the tower courtyard, surely," Gaernath replied cheerily as he held his mount steady for the saddle. Innocent of intrigues, he seemed to think this all part of the adventure. "Ferchai says there will be a goodly throng there to receive us."
In welcome, or opposition? From the set of Saelon's mouth, she did not know either.
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Stepping out into the garth, Veylin stopped short. Surely all these Elves had not gathered for the presentation of Saelon's paltry rent . . . had they? Exactly how many there were, he could not see, for this door was set at ground level; there on the steps where he had entered the tower, the chancellor directed those placing a richly carved seat and various banners for the ceremony.
"What is the matter?" the doorward prompted, a derisive twist to his smile. "Do you see a former patron whom you would avoid?"
Veylin held his breath and his tongue, fixing the Elf with a critical eye. Hair the color of an inferior grade of coal; buzzard-beaked; mere jasper on the pommel of his sword: one of those who had brought him before Círdan years ago, when he had been accused of theft. "Have so many come to see the Lady Saelon?"
The guard laughed, but like his smile, it left Veylin with no good feeling. "Indeed! We have not had such entertainment in long years."
Entertainment? As he stumped off towards the fountain, in hopes of a seat, Veylin could feel Oski's stiff watchfulness and Thyrð's bristling heat at his back. That sounded ominous. That some would come to witness Saelon's payment, he had expected: from ancient friendship with her people, displeasure with the agreement, idle curiosity. But so many? They stood in thickets, like broom-bushes, polished Noldor conversing in undertones and rustic Laegrim gaily swapping jests . . . there were even barefoot Falathrim, strewn about like gulls on Maelchon's new-ploughed fields. And they stared at him, when he was looking elsewhere, more than was usual. The hair on his nape prickled under their prying eyes.
He wished, now, that he had found an opportunity to speak privately with Saelon. Something was afoot that had escaped him. He ought to have taken her odd reticence and increasingly subdued mood as a warning; but, preoccupied with his own business, he had passed it off as a woman's uneasiness with the unfamiliar. Foolish, as well as careless: she was Dúnedain, not Khazâd. If the peculiarity of Dwarves had not daunted her, how should Elves, whom she could count among her longfathers?
Glancing towards the dwarven shout, Veylin saw Barði perched on the basin of the fountain, waving to catch his eye. Bersi sat on the broad marble rim below, indifferent to the offended glares directed their way. Vitnir was not there; Skani was, though he did not bear the incivility as stolidly as the elder coppersmith. Veylin settled beside his friend, grateful for the chance to relieve his knee, which was starting to grind.
How went it? Bersi signed, using the subtlest form of iglishmêk.
Referred to council.
Skani's umber eyes were worried. No decision?
A swift decision—in their favor—had been too much to expect . . . and the lack of one was not an evil. So long as the matter was under discussion, they were unlikely to be harried—and Elves might easily spend a century or more debating an issue of such gravity. With so much fire opal in store, Veylin believed he could bear the wait. And if the decision went against them in the end, it might be moot, if the wealth of the region proved shallow. It is ill to negotiate in haste.
Veylin turned his attention to the gathered Elves, putting an end to the conversation. Even in iglishmêk, it was unwise to discuss this before so many who were unfriendly. Yet not all. He beetled his brows to peer across the wide courtyard: was that not Sirorn, over by the wall, beside the blonde in a topaz-colored gown?
"—crass," someone said, in low-voiced Quenya, behind and to the right. "That the Núnatani have declined since the days of Elendil I knew, but not that they had sunk low enough to find the company of Naucalië congenial."
Did the speaker think Dwarves dull of ear as well as short-sighted? Or that none knew the Noldorin speech beside themselves? Yet it was true that few Dwarves troubled to learn it, caring little for ancient secrets of Elvish craft—Bersi and Barði carried on, heedless, with their blandly safe discussion of the probable state of the roads in the southern mountains. Veylin strove to give over the tell-tale stiffness of offense, lest he reveal his understanding. The fool's prattle might reveal some clue to what brought him, and so many others, here.
"She is herself stunted," another murmured in reply. "Have you not yet seen her? No more than one of the common Hildor in appearance."
Veylin locked left hand over right on the head of his blackthorn stick. Having so often seen Saelon command Men who towered over her, he had forgotten she might be scorned for anything other than poverty. Had someone offered insult her indomitable pride could not swallow?
In fine temper, the server had said.
"No. Is it true that the Iathrim marchwarden has put her on warning?"
"So the rumor runs." The second voice sounded amused by this. "And as Litheg has told me that Galdor means to have Calennae called to heel, how can it be false?"
Calennae—the baleful Elf in the antechamber: a survivor of Doriath, and a marchwarden. Galdor was Círdan's chief councilor; there he was, coming down the steps after his lord to take his place for the ceremony. Oh, what had Saelon done or said to rouse strife among Lindon's officers? That would not endear her to the Shipwright. No wonder so many had turned out. Not to see her, but to see how they might fall out among themselves.
Horns rang out at the gate, and Círdan stood before his seat.
It was a small train for such fanfare: six horses, none of the panoply of arms or folderol of plumes that the Noldor loved. . . but sturdy, serviceable beasts curried to a high gloss, three heavily laden.
Saelon had come, and she had brought her rent, but Veylin thought she looked perilous as a drawn blade, for all that she sat decorously aside on Gaernath's chestnut, finer than he had ever seen her. The gown more than repaid the delay it had caused, and simple silver studs that must ornament a hair-net gleamed in the sun—but they were no more than a harmonious setting for the sea-jewel that glittered at her breast, the severity of her style throwing its richness into high relief.
She had taken him at his word, wearing it when some high lord would look down his nose at her.
Off to the left, someone murmured dryly in Sindarin, "That does not look very beggarly."
"Shsh," an elf-woman warned, hardly more than a breath. "She is descended from the Sea-Kings, is she not? Surely it is an heirloom of her house."
That gave Veylin a pang of irritation as well as gratification, that his work should not be recognized . . . yet it might be better if undiscriminating Sindar thought it a relic of Númenor. They were the ones who had feuded with his kind.
Had Círdan enough knowledge of jewels to see it for what it was, a blazon of their friendship and alliance? Would he mistake it for the price of her fidelity, as did the Ranger who sat his horse half a length behind her?
As Saelon reined to a halt before the steps, the Shipwright called out, "Welcome, Saelon, Lady of Srathen Brethil, daughter of the line of Elendil, Gaerveldis of Habad-e-Mindon! Too seldom do we see your kin in these days of doubt."
From where he sat, Veylin could not see Saelon's face, though he could guess at it from the line of her back. She made no motion to dismount, but bowed her head deeply. "Mae govannen, Círdan, Lord of Lindon. Kind words, and I thank you for them." Her voice rang clear; not loud, yet no doubt even the Elves in the further part of the courtyard could hear her well. "How can we be but grateful, for your leave to dwell by Habad-e-Mindon, and the courtesies many of your folk have granted us as guests in your fair haven?"
The words were gracious enough, but the tone . . . . Veylin knew it too well. She was other than grateful, and many was not all. Had she forgotten that her tenure at White Cliffs was at Círdan's pleasure, to be edging her speech with reproach at their first meeting? Or had the offense been great enough to warrant ire?
"No less than we, Lady," the Shipwright answered, composure undisturbed but with something of the same mixed meaning, "for the part you and yours took in the destruction of the fell raugs, which haunted not Srathen Brethil alone. Minished in number you may be, since the days of Arnor's strength, but not in valour. Will you make your men, worthy of renown, known to me?"
"Gladly, Lord. Here—" she gestured, part-turning to her right "—is Dírmaen of the Rangers, whom our Chieftain sent to watch over us, a most valiant man and one of those who slew the raugs."
Dírmaen dismounted to bow low. "Lord."
The Man was wont to be silent, but this was taciturn indeed. Veylin frowned. Had he quarreled with Saelon again, flint to her steel? Yet she had spoken fairly of him . . . and how could he be displeased if Saelon's temper lost her her place by the sea? Maybe the insult had not been to Saelon alone. Not all those who had dwelt in Doriath, he had heard, loved Men.
"This is my cousin Gaernath, who was fostered with me when the raugs came upon us, and rode alone through the hills they made dreadful to fetch aid from Srathen Brethil."
Skillfully put . . . for the lad had sought aid against Dwarves, not fiends. Whatever had marred the mood of his elders, however, Gaernath was untouched. Though he attempted to imitate the Ranger's stern formality, he could not quench his smile, nor was his maiden beard yet full enough to hide a flush of pleasure and pride at being acknowledged. "Lord."
Círdan smiled on him. "If I do not mistake, you are young for such a feat."
"I was then," Gaernath admitted, growing more ruddy still, "which is why they would not let me carry a spear against the raugs. But I am a man now. The wolf pelts we have brought you are from my kills."
"Indeed?" The Shipwright turned back to Saelon. "Though your men are few, Lady, it is good to see that they are fit to carry out the charge we have given you in return for leave to dwell by Habad-e-Mindon, to watch and guard against further evil. How many are in your keeping there now?"
"Thirty, if Dírmaen is accounted among us."
"And you will begin to repeople Srathen Brethil in the spring?"
"That is our intent."
Veylin cut his gaze from Saelon to Círdan in sudden suspicion. The Shipwright might have learnt that from Gwinnor, but the Noldo must also have told him Saelon would not remove from the shore, nor those faithful to her. What Círdan said was the strictest truth, though it could be readily misinterpreted . . . . Elvish word-play, as two-sided as any coin, for those with the wit to understand both. Still, Gwinnor's talebearing notwithstanding, Veylin found the Shipwright's masterful address uncanny, satisfying offended guests and divided people alike by showing the worth as well as the insignificance of the Men.
"That you seek to restore your brother's son to his patrimony is praiseworthy, Lady. Your brother chose wisely when he sent his people into your keeping."
They had already met. They must, for the Shipwright to strike so unerring a note.
Saelon bowed her head, more deeply, and was not prompt to answer. Talk of her brother always cut to her heart. "You are too kind, Lord." The harshness in her voice was now of a different character, her anger broken. "Praise indeed, from one who has often had charge of folk harried and bereft . . . but I must share it with my kinsman Halpan. We cannot repay your hospitality as we ought, but pray, accept these tokens of our indebtedness against a day when we may be of greater service."
She could not bear to receive more than she could return. Perhaps it was the Shipwright's greatheartedness she had dreaded, and relief from the oppression of debt she sought by rendering dues. Item by item, she told over the agreed-upon payment; item by item, Gaernath took them from the packhorses and passed them to Dírmaen, who handed them in turn to an Elf who came down from the steps to accept them. Four woolsacks bulging with eiderdown, fleeces from a dozen wethers, the pair of half-cured wolfskins, twelve russet fox pelts, the hide and tusks off some of Partalan's pork, six cattle hides and as many from their calves, three deerskins, and, last off the packsaddle, the brace of kists bearing Saelon's harvest of herbs. It was both little and much: few goods and simple, of small value until transformed by craft into objects of greater utility, but a heavy toll for so few folk, whose own needs were many.
And Elves called Dwarves grasping. There was profit in taking as much as the Men could spare, to be sure, but prosperous neighbors made for better trade, and would be stronger allies at need. Lindon, however, facing West, cared little for trade, or neighbors.
"Forgive the quality of the furs," Saelon asked, as if they were a cause for shame. "As the agreement was made this spring, the pelts were taken in summer. They will be better next year."
If his claim to the northern coast were acknowledged, he would relieve Saelon of this needless obligation.
Círdan smiled on her. "I had heard that you were scrupulous in your dealings, Lady. This is a fair guest-gift. If the furs are somewhat thin, let us set it against my neglect as host. You have been in Mithlond since the opening of the middle-days, and not yet graced my table. Will you and your men permit me to remedy that now?"
Why did she hesitate?
"We would be honored."
Perhaps, Veylin reflected as Elves came forward to take their beasts, she had not wished to be set down before the assembly. The Ranger helped her dismount; standing beside him, she came no higher than his shoulder. Alongside the Shipwright, she would appear smaller still. Stifled, his snort threatened to become a growl. Absurd, to give such consequence to loftiness, as though it were virtue. Size was but one aspect of value, less important than the color and fire of a stone.
When Círdan had led his guests into the tower, leaving the train of courtiers to follow, Veylin turned to the right and fixed a coldly appraising gaze on the two Golodhrim he found standing some little way off. Neither deigned to notice him; after a few breaths, they wandered off towards another knot of their kinfolk.
Thyrð muttered something very crude in Khuzdul. Ordinarily it would have earned him a sound cuffing, but this was not the place. "Fetch my pony," Veylin rumbled, his glower promising punishment was merely deferred, "and be quick about it."
Bersi canted a quizzical brow at him, puzzled by his displeasure. "That went well, I thought." Better than first expected.
He was right to be relieved. "Yes, it did." Rising, Veylin unknotted his fingers, stiff from clenching. "I am glad the Lady has made her peace with Lindon," he said, for any to hear.
"Veylin!" Looking sharply around at the hail, he found Sirorn and his companion approaching them. "Was that your work?"
"What are you speaking of?" he replied cagily. He had done what he could to hearten Saelon to face the Shipwright, but he was not the one who had whetted her tongue.
"Do not tell me you are modest," Sirorn chaffed. "The Lady's jewel."
Relief almost put a smile on his face. "Yes, that was mine."
The glow of pride kindled by the Elf's "Beauteous!" was somewhat damped by what followed. "I had no idea your skill reached so far. It is marvelously like. I thought you Dwarves shunned the sea."
"We shun dragons as well, but that would not prevent me from producing a passable likeness."
"Passable?" Sirorn rolled his eyes, grinning. "Would you make such a jewel for me? Limmen," he turned his gaze, tenderly eager to please, to the elf-woman beside him, "has taken a fancy to it."
Was she the reason for his impetuous outlay on jewels the other day? "One exactly like, no. But something similar . . . ." Thyrð was returning, but without the pony. Instead, Lagoreg, the captain of the guards, accompanied him. "Captain," Veylin greeted the Noldo with a qualm and a respectful bow as they drew near. "Is there some difficulty?"
"When is there not, when Dwarves are about? Nay, Veylin," Lagoreg hastened to reassure, his smile suggesting that the trepidation had been ill-concealed, "do not take a jest amiss. Your pardon, for breaking into business. However, the Lady Saelon has requested your company at table, and so I have been sent to fetch you, if you will come."
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Sumpter: Middle English, one who drives a packhorse; in later English, it refers to the beast.
Chancellor: to be taken here in the earlier sense of a minor functionary of a court (originally, the usher or gate-keeper of a law court), rather than the later, more elevated sense (for instance, the Lord High Chancellor of England, once the chief officer of the Crown). Although Círdan does not rule as king, many relics of Gil-galad's court have surely been preserved.
"an inferior grade of coal": Veylin is thinking of lignite or brown coal, which is extremely compressed peat, dull in color and coarse in texture.
Buzzard (Buteo buteo): not the North American vulture, but a large Old World hawk.
Jasper: a species of quartz used as a semiprecious stone; it is usually red or brown, though it comes in all colors, and is often variegated.
Núnatani: Quenya, "western men." Cognate with Sindarin "Dúnedain."
Naucalië: Quenya, "stunted ones, Dwarves." Cognate with Sindarin "Naugrim."
Hildor: Quenya, "followers, Men."
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