The Dûnhebaid Cycle
Playlist Navigation Bar
Hand to Hand: 11. The Best Defense
That island of England breeds very valiant creatures.
--William Shakespeare, Henry V
* † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † *
Sitting back in a hollow of Gunduzahar's dark slope, which sheltered him from the ceaseless wind without much restricting the view, Thyrnir tucked his hands further under his folded arms and puffed a stray lock of his beard from his mouth. Before him, hummocky moorland stretched away to the snow-cloaked mountains; nothing moved across it that he could see, save a few hopeful crows drifting aimlessly over the winter-dulled land. If the Noldo skulked out there, Thyrnir pitied him, for he would spy little from afar but the too-dark green of his own cloak. The doors were well-concealed from prying eyes, by placement as much as spell.
So, another tedious watch: yet he would not have it otherwise. Being charged with the keeping of the delf during his elders' absence had been gratifying, deeply so. He was still young for such responsibility; the youngest of those who had remained behind. Not that it had appeared onerous to the others--a small place, a few fellows for company, naught to do but watch and keep the place in good order; practically a holiday! Rekk had declared when he handed over the great ring of keys. But aside from his mother, none of them knew of the hard-won hoard of fire opal that lay somewhere within, the hidden heart of Veylin's foundation. The weight of that trust was a burden, for all that he bore it willingly. He would not quarrel with quietness.
Clad in stout woolen of his mother's cutting and looking forward to a flagon of mulled ale once Fram came to relieve him, Thyrnir found it no great hardship to sit in sharp-eyed stillness, body dutifully idle while his mind turned over various concerns. Would the sea-cast wood the Men of White Cliffs took from the shore serve to make pit-props, and if so, what might they ask for the timber? Since the Elves were displeased by their joint inroads upon the oakwood, it behooved the Men to help them to some other supply. He must turn the seasoning wood upon the racks tomorrow, and find a piece suitable to cleave into shelves for Bersa; withies needed cutting for barrel hoops. If he went north for them, to the pool on the brown burn, there were always trout to be had, which would be a pleasant change from salt beef and pork . . . .
The chirruping of larks caught his ear away on the southern approaches, though it took him some time to spot the drab birds' low, swooping flight; then some stonechats went up, winging the same way. What had set them in motion?
Shading his eyes from the sun, falling now from the noon, Thyrnir made out an upright figure moving purposefully across the patchy heather. Too small for a Man; not a Dwarf, even had its cloak not been so muted a brown, very like the larks. Surely it was not a Hobbit--what could have brought one of those comfort-loving folk so far from the Shire, and at this season?
The trotting figure stumbled as if with weariness, nearly falling, and halted, hands braced on knees, gazing up at the hill that housed the delf.
Hanadan. Hammer and tongs, what was that imp doing out here, so far from home? Was he alone? Thyrnir scanned the moor and craned his neck to peer around the shoulder of the hill, for Saelon was apt to come up from the shore. No one but the boy. Did he know where Gunduzahar lay, or had he run all this way as a lark and been struck by the handsome, flat-topped hill?
Thyrnir settled back in his hollow, watching Hanadan through narrowed eyes. A mettlesome, pleasant child . . . though sometimes a trial, for all his liking for Dwarves, too ready to venture beyond his strength and skill. If this rash foray were rewarded, what would prevent him from descending upon them whenever the fancy took him? Naught but foul weather, he guessed, for neither his uncle nor Saelon could restrain him. Such forwardness would be intolerable.
Yet the boy's slender shoulders were low, as though freighted with more than fatigue. Had he run away again, rebelling against his elders?
Straightening up, Hanadan cried out towards the hill, a high thin call like that of some moorland bird, what words it might hold lost to the wind.
Torn, Thyrnir frowned. So young a child ought not to be out alone. He did not understand how Men, doting on their children in some ways, could be so neglectful of them in others, careless of their safety. What if ill befell the boy out here, or on his way home?
He could not bear to have a share in the blame for that. With a vexed sigh, Thyrnir rose and began striding down the hill.
When Hanadan spotted him, he shouted, a less plaintive noise, and ran to meet him with hectic speed; as he neared, his cries grew intelligible. "Help! Help! Oh, help!"
Thyrnir ran, too, and when he reached Hanadan, the child threw himself into his arms, blowing like a bellows, quite speechless. "Ho, there," Thyrnir chided gruffly, holding him off a little to look at him. "What are you doing out here, so far from home, and alone?" He looked even more discreditable than usual, his slight frame bedaubed with mud and flecked with bits of dead bracken, bare cheeks slubbered as though by weeping; there were hints of red in the filth on his unshod feet.
"Strange horses," the boy gasped out. "Fransag screamed--and a man--ran from the house--"
"And Aunt told me to run, and get everyone in the hall, and bar the door--"
Aunt was what the child called Saelon. So prudent a reaction to fleeing robbers, however, seemed alarm in one who had faced down three armed and vengeful Dwarves. "Where was Maelchon? And Halpan?" Thyrnir hoped the husbandman had not been hurt, not only because he still owed much for his house. Had Halpan and the surly Dunlending left for Srathen Brethil already? Surely not, with the heights still buried in snow.
"Out looking for Fokel and the cattle."
"The cattle are missing?" Their stock was the only real wealth the Men had; almost the only thing worth thieving.
Hanadan nodded, snuffling, and drew his too-small cloak closer about him. He had begun to shiver, the wind chilling his sweat. "Fokel did not bring them home yesterday."
Thyrnir gazed on him sternly. "None of this explains what brings you here." If thieves were abroad, it was even more outrageous that this child should be out, where he was too apt to run into danger. "Why are you not in the hall, as your Lady ordered?" Even if all the menfolk of White Cliffs were away, seeking to recover their beasts, it would have been fitter for Saelon to come herself, and ask properly for their aid.
"But who is to save Aunt?" Hanadan cried. "Guaire says the man hit her and dragged her into the house, and his mother still screaming--" tears started down his smeared face, sprung by rage as much as fear, it seemed "--and they will not let me have a sword--"
Not mere robbers, and that reckless woman of Men in their clutch. Thyrnir seized the boy's hand. "Come! Can you run a little further?"
* † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † *
"Mother!" Thyrð exclaimed, breath quick with running. "Veylin begs you will come to the Great Hall immediately!"
Auð stared, setting down the cabinet she wished to try on the other side of the parlour hearth. "Immediately?" Yet Thyrð had not waited to explain, hastening on to his room. Following after, Auð's heart chilled when she saw her son fling open the chest that held his arms and draw out his ringmail. "Are we under attack?" she demanded.
"No," he replied, curt reassurance. "Not us. White Cliffs. Uncle will explain. I must arm."
She went, questions beating at her brain. Enemies so near? It was only a week since they arrived: had they been in danger as their long packtrain plodded down from the northern pass? Veylin had obstinately refused to put off the journey until later in the season, when the weather would be fairer--had he known, or guessed, of some peril, and taken the chance to move before they would be expected? But now they--she--would be pinned here, until the ways were safe again . . . .
Veylin had thought to ride over to White Cliffs this morning, to call on the Lady and trade news of what had passed since they parted in the Havens, but a louring squabble between Prut and Laufi over precedence had delayed his going until the trip was better put off. Good fortune disguised as bad; otherwise he and those with him might have ridden into battle unawares and ill-prepared.
Sút was coming down the corridor, another of her chests in her arms. "Where are you rushing to?" she asked with a puzzled frown.
Or perhaps it was concern: her friend was still uneasy, the delf strange to her. "The Great Hall--there is ill news from White Cliffs." How ill, she would not say until she knew better herself; no need to alarm Sút without need.
"Wait! Let me put this in my chambers, and I will come with you."
How was she to put her off without worrying her, or making light of what might be dire? "Hurry, then! Veylin asked for haste."
Sút promptly plunked the chest down, sliding it to the wall. "How could White Cliffs call for haste?" she wondered curiously, turning back to join her. "The Men are three leagues off, aren't they?"
"Yes." Three leagues for the news to come; time to arm and organize their own defense, then three more back again before the men could reach their beleaguered allies. Auð hoped the Lady and her folk were not hard-pressed.
Thyrnir jogged past them, face set and eyes hot. Auð guessed he, too, was going to fetch his byrnie and helm.
She expected to see the flame-haired youth when they reached the hall, or the Lady--belatedly realized that Sút would be shocked to discover herself in the presence of aliens without warning--but found only Veylin and Nordri arguing in heated undertones by the dining tables, Veylin's arms piled at his feet and a short, ugly troll-spear clenched in his fist instead of his stick.
The catch of her breath was brief: of course he would go. "Veylin?" she called.
"Ah, there you are! I hear you," her brother told the rusty-bearded mason with quiet vehemence, "but I am determined. If you are also set on going, Barði will have to hold the delf."
"You would leave our women in the care of Broadbeams?" Nordri charged, a hissing whisper.
Sút came to an abrupt halt.
Veylin huffed in angry dismissal. "No, I would leave them in your charge."
"What is this?" Sút demanded, voice dropping perilously.
"Caution only," Veylin assured her, as if there were not a weapon already in his hand. "Our friends, the Men at White Cliffs, are troubled by cattle thieves. Two of the brigands have gone to Maelchon's house while the menfolk are out hunting them, and the women who are not safe shut in the cliff-hall require assistance. You need not worry," he finished with certain surety, "the brigands could not pass our doors even if they could find them. But the sooner they are slain, the easier we will all be. I have asked Nordri to remain here against unforeseen disaster."
"And I say," the mason rumbled, no less resolute, "that you are fitter for that duty than I. Should the worst befall--"
"They are feckless Men, not Elves!" Veylin snapped, more than irritated. "Unless they have found a way to bring an army over the snow-choked passes, how can they withstand a dozen Dwarves? I will go, and assure myself that the Lady is well."
As Nordri cast a glance of appeal her way, Auð brusquely signed her resignation. Her brother would not be kept back by his lameness. She had no real fears for him--if he could slay the fiend that had maimed him, Men should not trouble him . . . save for his madly incautious friend. "I would be happy to have Nordri stay," she granted, with a complaisance she hoped would soothe Sút, "but do not require so much assurance. Barði is more than capable--and, of course, Hlin is here." Surely no one doubted the young coppersmith would be zealous in protecting his mother. "You wished to see me?" she asked Veylin, turning the subject.
"Yes. I have a charge for you, too, if you are willing."
Auð regarded her brother with surprise. "What?"
Gesturing for her to follow, he stumped over to the hearth beyond the archway, where a chair was drawn up close to the fire. Peering over its back, Veylin rumbled, "Awake, are you?"
"Yes, Master Veylin."
What was this? Auð stared at the slight, blanket-wrapped figure huddled in the seat, which stared back with wide, marveling yet uncertain eyes. It was dwarf-high, but no Dwarf was ever so slender, or beardless. Bare, bony ankles and feet, mud-caked, stuck out beyond the ragged hems of its trews, and the arm that clutched the blanket around its narrow shoulders was pitifully thin. Behind her, Sút uttered a chopped oath in Khuzdul.
"Auð, Sút, this is Hanadan, Halpan's nephew. Hanadan," Veylin told the starveling, "this is Auð, who is close kin to me."
Hanadan ducked his dark head. "At your service, Master Auð."
She believed she bowed. "At yours, and your family's." A Man? Nephew . . . Halpan was young . . . . Taking Veylin's arm, Auð said, "Excuse us," and drew her brother away, past Sút, who gaped at the little Man with appalled fascination. When she had him on the other side of the stout black pillar, she demanded in Khuzdul, "Is that a man-child?"
Veylin nodded, mouth grimly set.
"What is he doing here?"
"He brought word of the brigands at White Cliffs."
For a moment, Auð did not know where to start. "They sent a child?!"
Veylin fingered the shaft of the spear, lips pursed in a way that boded ill for the brigands. "I do not think so. Saelon charged him with getting the folk at the cliff into the hall, from what he says. But he is a clever child. He knew they required aid."
"And where to find us?"
"The hill, it seems, but not the door. Thyrnir found him crying out at the foot of the slope." He set a hand on hers, which still gripped his arm. "Will you care for him, until we can return him to his kin? He may be one of only two left of his line."
"You just made light of the danger," she reminded him.
"For us. But if all the Men skilled in arms were away . . . ." His eyes were dark, hooded. "I do not know how many brigands there are, to swing a ram. Or if they are the kind of Men who would set a fire against the door."
"What good would that do them?" Auð asked, baffled but catching his fear.
"The door is wood."
"Wh--" She broke off, and shoved him towards the tidy pile of his mail and other gear. "Go! But I will expect explanations when you return!"
When he had left her, she ran a hand distractedly through her beard and took a deep breath. A child of Men! Boys she had mastered long ago, but what did she know of Men? And such a charge, to care for another's child without their leave. What would his mother think?
Not that she appeared to care much for him. Scrawny, bootless--
Three leagues, bootless, to seek aid for his kin. There must be love there.
Returning to their guest, Auð found the child and Sút still staring at each other, Sút with wary and increasing distaste, while the boy looked more uneasy than before. This would not do. "In our haste to aid your people," she owned, "we have neglected a proper welcome, Hanadan. Let us make amends now. I have met your uncle Halpan, and the Lady also. This," she gestured the other woman forward, "is my friend, Sút."
Voice shrill and piping as a bird's, the boy promptly gave his bob. "At your service, Master Sút."
He had been taught manners, at any rate. "At yours and your family's," Sút answered, after a pause. Looking at Auð, she asked in iglishmêk, This is a child?
His uncle overlooks him by near a pace. Yet how much a child was he? "May I ask, Hanadan, how many years you have?" Should he be offered strong drink, after his ordeal? She ought to have asked Veylin; but a glance showed he was now deep in discussion with Rekk and Bersi, as the latter helped him arm.
"Nearly nine," Hanadan answered with assertive pride.
"Nine?" Auð hoped her beard masked her astonishment so well as Sút's. Why, he was practically a babe! Hardly old enough to be let out of the suite unattended, let alone the delf! Yet that explained why he bore no weapon. "And how much longer before you are reckoned a man?" Men were, she had been told, short-lived.
What she got was more a complaint than an answer, a first hint of petulance. "Aunt Saelon says I may not go to the Havens until I am as old as Gaernath."
"Gaernath, too, I have met. What is his age?" About Thyrð's, Auð guessed. A youngster's patience would be tried by the prospect of three decades.
"He will be eighteen this summer."
How brief were Men's lives? The Lady's folk were direly short of men, else she would not rule over them, but to lay a man's duties on mere children . . . . "Well," Auð decided, trying to see one who topped her by a palm as a wean, "you are very grubby." Holding out her hand, she said, "Come; I am sure you would like to wash up before you eat. Sút, would you see if Bersa has anything fit for our guest?"
She left him playing with the taps in the washroom, amazed and delighted by hot water that did not come from a kettle, while she went to find clean garments. Thyrð had not worn the dark brown tunic since they first came here; Thyrnir, now favoring leather breeks that did not catch sawdust and woodshavings, could spare a pair of trews.
Yet while the tunic suited Hanadan's dark coloring, it did not sit well on his slender shoulders, and it would have been better if the trews covered more of his spindly legs. Auð did not think there were boots large enough for his feet in the delf, so it was as well that once the dirt had been scrubbed away, he proved to have soles calloused hard as horn. It would do for now--he would not soil the furniture when he sat on it--though if his stay stretched beyond a few days she would have to run up something more to his measure.
"Why," Hanadan asked as they returned to the hall, "is some of the rock dark and some light?"
"Because the pale rock comes from another place," Auð explained. "From the cliffs where you live, I am told."
If you could look past the baldness of his face, he had a sweet smile. "So that is what they did with all that stone! Gormal said Nordri would sell it."
"Who is Gormal?"
The child answered as blithely as he asked. "Maelchon's eldest son."
"Is he older than you?"
"A little," was the dismissive reply.
A few months? A few years? "Why did he not come in your place, or with you?"
That earned her a peculiar look. "He is Edain," Hanadan said, as if that explained all.
They had reached the dining table nearest the kitchen. "Be seated," Auð told him, "and I will bring your meal."
Within his sanctum, Bersa was holding forth to Sút as he punched and kneaded a great mass of dough. "--pestered by more of them, the longer we are here. After they have traveled so far, hospitality demands that we feed them . . . . They eat more than we get from them in trade! Useless creatures, always needing rescuing from something: fiends, Elves, now mere thieves--"
"I cannot believe," Auð broke in, for the cook would happily carp for hours, "that they have eaten as much as they served you all at their harvest feasts. You are very fond of the Lady's beef, I hear." He had also passed over the many bolls of barley that had come to them from Maelchon, in payment for plow and hearth.
"One must balance the scales somehow," Bersa grumbled. "This gangrel may stand no higher than is decent, but I wager he will eat like a stinted packman."
Enough. Bringing out her purse, Auð snapped a gold coin down on the sideboard. "Half a crown says the man-child eats less than you the rest of this day."
The fat cook sputtered. "I have been toiling over a supper almost no one will eat--no dinner, save a morsel or two while tasting the dishes--"
"The boy has run three leagues and missed his dinner entirely, so the advantage should be to you, even were you not a Dwarf. Will you take my wager?"
Bersa gave her a malignant look. "How is it that a widow such as yourself can afford to risk good coin on such foolishness?"
"How is it that a tight-fisted bachelor such as yourself cannot?"
Sút asked, once the cook had disappeared into his pantry, "You like these Men?"
Tucking the half-crown back into her purse, Auð considered. "I do not know," she decided. "They are queer creatures, and I have seen only a handful, for a few hours; no more. Yet the men who have spent the most time in their company think well of them--did not hesitate to hasten to their aid. What can we do but trust them in this, as in other things? Take a couple of ponies," she jested with dry displeasure, "and ride home to Sulûnduban?"
* † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † *
Lark (skylark, Alauda arvensis): a bird of grassland and moor, conspicous only by the male's singing flight.
Stonechat (Saxicola torquata): a red-breasted, (British) robin-like bird, favoring rough grassland.
Byrnie: a chainmail shirt. This is the Scandinavian-influenced Middle English term; "corslet" is Middle French.
Feckless: weak, ineffectual, irresponsible.
Iglishmêk: dwarven gesture-language.
Wean: Scots, "wee one," a young child.
Gangrel: Scots, vagrant.
Half a crown: two shillings and six pence; equal to an eight of a pound of silver.
Playlist Navigation Bar