The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Hand to Hand: 12. Fighting for Strangers
We fight not to enslave, but to set a country free, and to make room upon the earth for honest men to live in.
--Thomas Paine, The American Crisis
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Three leagues, Veylin decided, was a damnable distance: too near for detachment, too far for fellowship. It gave him too much time for thought as he kept his pony, sullen beneath the added burden of steel, up to the inexorable pace of his companions.
Hours had passed--three, four?--since Saelon had been taken. Was she still alive? Wise in many things, but not in defense, her fierce temper was a blade that cut both ways. She might have already routed the thieves; they might have struck her down out of hand. Men's brutish use of their women he had seen in his traveling days: kicks, blows . . . worse; calculated oppression, the subjugation of body as well as soul. He could not imagine Saelon suffering such treatment, living. Therefore the mind's hope that her shrewdness had prevailed once again did nothing to ease the grimness of his heart, arming itself against whatever blow might fall.
Their line, spread wide to comb the rough ground for foes, was passing the slumped scrap of moraine that dammed the damp of the bog-moor when a shout came from Veylin's left, on the ridge itself. Not the war-cry of foes found; against the sky, Nyr waved Rekk's party on the inland flank onward, even as a Man rose to greet him.
"Keep on along the shore!" Veylin called to Bersi, who seconded him on the seaward wing, as he turned his pony aside.
Partalan, bloodied and wrathful beside the cairn Gaernath had raised over Thekk and Vestri, with the bodies of a strange Man and a not-unfamiliar horse at the moor-side foot of the boulder ridge. Another stranger lay stretched across the cairn as if he had been attacking one perched on its rounded peak, his blood rusting on the white stones, while Canand, Saelon's cowherd, sat nursing a hacked shin. "What has brought you lot out of your hole?" Partalan growled, abandoning his wounded companion to Nordri's hands.
Mounted, Veylin could look down on him a little. "The same thing that has brought you out of yours, I venture. Hanadan brought us word of brigands."
"Hanadan?" the swordsman exclaimed. "How does he know of these dogs?"
Saelon's hound, he was styled; his lord's last command to defend his kinswomen. "They have taken Maelchon's house. And your Lady."
Had the situation not been so dire, Veylin would have enjoyed watching the clash of feeling on that ugly, broken-nosed face. The Dunlending looked with disfavor on Veylin's friendship with Saelon; had once accused him of meddling with her, and in one as coarse-minded as Partalan, that was not a reflection on counsel given. Only sottishness--and the matter of the fiends--had spared the swordsman correction beneath his axe. There was a deep antipathy between them.
Yet others might now be meddling with his Lady, in the very sense he meant, and Veylin was bringing near a score of strongly armed Dwarves to her defense. Which would the Man think the greater evil? That marauders of his own race should sully Saelon, or her alliance--as he perversely imagined it--with a Dwarf? His impotence, too, must rankle: that he could not afford to spurn alien aid.
In the end, Partalan salved his pride with fault-finding. "Why are not more of you mounted?"
Nyr gave a scorn-chopped laugh. "How is it that you are bereft of the beast that spares your legs?" Unlike the folk of Srathen Brethil, Dúnedain as well as Edain, who would tramp far afoot, the Dunlending was adverse to any errand that did not call for a horse.
"That is my fault," Canand said, shamefaced, as Nordri swiftly bound up his wound. "I was thrown when the reivers fell on us, and my horse ran off. Partalan stayed by me. That is his mount, down there." He jerked his chin towards the dead beast below.
"Boots do not bolt when battle begins," Nyr declared, "and we go as swiftly as ponies over ground such as this, when arms are our only burden."
"Canand cannot," Partalan came back brusquely, "nor can we leave him wounded and alone, with raiders about. The dun bolted homeward. Catch him, when you come on him," he told Veylin, "and bring him back."
Veylin snorted, raising his brows. "I am no groom, and have no way with such beasts. Walk on and fetch him yourself! Or stay and keep your comrade company. We will send someone for you, once the folk at Habad are relieved."
"You cannot leave me here!"
"Then come, if you can keep up," Veylin said, as Nordri took up his axe again and stood. "I will delay no longer." Indeed, he grudged even that brief halt, though the pony was less unwilling to canter afterwards and soon he was back in his place between Thyrnir and Bersi.
Two strange horses and at least one brigand at Maelchon's; two more brigands taking Partalan and Canand in ambush halfway between Gunduzahar and White Cliffs. Fokel and the cattle missing yesterday, and all the ablest Men scattered seeking them, exposed to such piecemeal attack. That seemed the stratagem of a cunning mind; how many Men were at its command? Two less than before . . . if there had been many, they could have carried White Cliffs by force; yet there must be enough for the brigands to divide as well. They seemed to come in braces, and Hanadan said the Men went out in three parties. No fewer than a half-dozen remaining, then, if the taking of the cattle was a draw and not simple thievery. Were all but the two at Maelchon's out on the heather? If Halpan and Gaernath did not serve their attackers as the Dunlending had, from what directions would the brigands come to White Cliffs? Where were they laired, and had they left men in reserve there? Where had they come from, with the mountains all but impassable?
Too many questions. Answers, if any, lay on the other side of battle.
Sheep with new lambs scattered before his party as they crested the low boss of the bay's northern headland: not all the stock had been taken. Yet there was no shepherd who cried greeting or challenge, and Veylin could see no one on the stubbled plain below the cliffs . . . only more sheep.
"There is a horse on the cliff-shelf," Thyrnir reported, shifting his grip further down the helve of his axe. His young eyes saw further than most. "A roan. I see no Men."
None of White Cliff's beasts were roan. The intruder must be at the foot of the cliff, by or in one of the caves, or the hall. Looking over his band--Nordri would be sweeping the face and back of the nearer cliff with his half-dozen, while Rekk's party beat upriver, to come down to Maelchon's by the track--Veylin wondered how much advantage might be gained by crossing the plain under cover of the dunes, and coming at the cliff-shelf up the shoulder of the tower hill. Already they were so near the sea that even Bersi looked uneasy beneath the copper-chased rim of his helm . . . and he would not get his pony up that way. "Then they will not see us as we cross to the cliff-foot. Thyrnir, make for the far side and come up the slope beyond the hall, so you can drive them towards us. Fram, go up on the right of the burn; Oski, to the left of the track. Climb quiet! When Bersi comes up the track, that will be your signal to attack, unless you find the Men already engaged. I will come after Bersi, when this beast's clatter will not give us away. Go!" he urged, for Thyrnir had far to run.
By the time they splashed across the little ford and reached the plain, Veylin hated the sheep, whose flight and cries seemed more likely to give them away than aught else. Saelon's collie added to the clamour, defying Fram with raised ruff and bared fangs, darting away from his kicks and barking furiously. No one appeared at the top of the steep slope of talus by the time they reached its foot. Was the roan's rider deaf? Battering on the hall's door so determinedly that the din drowned the bleating below? Already inside the hall?
Bersi started up the track--more treacherous than ever, mud churned ever deeper by foot and hoof--as the prentices crept through the grasses below the brink, frail and pale as white gold. The horse snorted, the stamp of its uneasy hooves audible in the silence. Where was its rider? No one hammered upon the hall's oaken door, built to hinder fiends. Unsettled as the unseen horse above, Veylin urged his pony up the track, unwilling to be behindhand in whatever might befall.
"Halt!" a Man commanded, as Bersi stepped onto the cliff-shelf. "Who are you, and why have you come to Habad-e-Mindon?"
"Bersi, Berg's son, am I, friend to these folk, come to their aid. Who are you, that we should not cut you down?"
His beast finally scrabbling up the last stretch--they must pave this!--Veylin saw a tall Man in a grey cloak, dark hair touched by frost, standing beside the great slab of cliff-fall that served as Saelon's threshing floor. "Faelnoth, Ranger of the North." The Man stood ready, sword in hand, eyeing the Dwarves drawing in about him as if they were the interlopers.
"The door is sound and shut!" Thyrnir called out, as he passed the hall.
That was hopeful, but Veylin kept his spear pointed at the Man, regarding him warily. Yes, his cloak was pinned with the seven-rayed star of plain silver. Yet Saelon had been repeatedly commanded to bring her people to her chieftain's realm. Had he finally lost patience, and sent his men to bring them, willing or no, before they got this year's crop in the ground? "What brings you here, Ranger?"
"Outlaws off Coldfell that we harried into Srathen Brethil. They lost us in a mountain blizzard, and by the time we found them again, they had begun to prey on these folk. Who are you, and by what right do you challenge me?"
Those Partalan had slain were swart men like himself, scraggly as mange-eaten wolves, not Dúnedain such as this. "I am Veylin, Vali's son," he said, laying his spear across the horns of his saddle in token of peace, "lord of Gunduzahar and a chieftain of the Firebeards. At my command the hall that shelters these folk was delved, and the Lady Saelon is my ally. Do you have news of her? She was taken at the house of Maelchon, by the river, I was told, along with Maelchon's wife."
"The dwarf-lord who, with Dírmaen, slew the raugs of Srathen Brethil?"
Veylin scowled. He did not recall Dírmaen giving any of the fiends its death-blow. "The same."
The Ranger deigned to lower his sword. "The Lady is at the house still, tending Dírmaen, who has been gravely wounded. Four of the outlaws met their deaths there."
Dírmaen? He had withdrawn, Auð had told him. "I grieve to hear of Dírmaen's wounding, but the Lady is a skillful healer, as I have cause to know." She lived, at least. "Two more outlaws have been slain by the Lady's men, who searched for their missing cattle north of here. You know her kinsmen are abroad as well?"
"So she told us. But we wished to be sure the rest of her people were safe, and set them to guard so we might search." The Ranger frowned over his shoulder at the hall. "Yet no one answers at the door."
Veylin wondered how many the Ranger's "we" amounted to, before considering who might be within. Rian; the fair-haired cottar lads with their wives and aged grandfather, Artan's infant sons; the sad-eyed dog-keeper; Finean's remaining daughter . . . Hanadan had spoken of Guaire, so at least some of Maelchon's many children. "They should give credence to a strange Man's voice when Men have attacked them? Thyrnir," he called, "a Dwarf's voice is beyond mistaking, even through so much oak. See if they will open to you.
"I am glad to hear so many of the outlaws are dead," Veylin allowed, turning back to the Ranger as Thyrnir rapped on the door with the butt of his axe and shouted for Rian and Artan and Leod. "Did any of the Lady's folk come to grief?"
Faelnoth's face grew grimmer still. "Yes. Though only a babe is dead, I believe."
The fearful wrath that had begun to die down in his heart flamed up again. "How many of these outlaws remain, do you know?"
"Two, perhaps." The Ranger considered the Dwarves about him with narrowed eyes. Was he contemplating the use of so well-armed a band against what remained of his foes, or was the deepening of their anger sensible to him?
"Rian?" Thyrnir repeated, very loud. "Yes, Hanadan reached us and is safe in Gunduzahar. There is a Ranger here, who says they have slain the brigands at Maelchon's. Open the door! There are five of us, and if the Ranger is false, we will deal with him."
That did not please the Man, who still had not put up his sword--but then Men of the Star could be as mistrustful as Dwarves. Keeping a watchful eye on him, Veylin rode closer to the hall door, and the rest followed after him.
The first to peer out was Leod, and seeing Thyrnir, the young cottar pushed the door a little further open, revealing the iron bar of a roasting jack clenched in his fist. "You are a welcome sight," he muttered to Thyrnir, as he looked carefully around, then glanced back over his shoulder. "Yes, lady, Master Veylin has come."
"Thank you, Leod," Rian said, touching his shoulder as she ventured out, clutching a shawl about her slim shoulders. A fine imitation of her aunt's air, Veylin thought, until she spoke, for Saelon grudged any admission of need while the girl's relief was as naked as it was unashamed. "Oh, Master Veylin! Hanadan is safe, and Saelon too?"
But then the lass was far too young to be called lady and have charge of those who must huddle, frightened, within. "Hanadan is well and in the care of my kin," he assured her, as soothingly as he could. "I have not seen your aunt, but had word of her from this Man."
Sheathing his sword, the Ranger bowed low. "Greetings, lady. Faelnoth is my name, and I come to Argonui's service from the South Downs. I left the Lady Saelon tending the wounds of my comrade Dírmaen, who I think you know. You are Lord Halladan's daughter?"
A faint flush colored the lass's wan cheeks. "Well met, Faelnoth," she answered, giving him a respectful curtsey. "Yes, I am: Rian is my name. I know Dírmaen well, and grieve to hear he is wounded. Do you know aught of my cousin Halpan, or the other men that went to seek Maelchon's cattle?"
"We met Partalan and Canand on our way," Veylin told her. "They had been set upon and lost their horses, but slew their attackers. Canand is wounded, not gravely, but as soon as you can spare a man, someone should take a horse to fetch him."
"I will go, lady," Leod offered stoutly, "if the Dwarves will guard you in my place."
A child entrusted with his first steel-bitted axe would have been as good a defender, or better, but Veylin only said, "Bersi, will you keep watch here with Fram and Oski?"
"Certainly," said the coppersmith, who was fond of Saelon's ale, "if there is no battle to be had. We left Partalan and the cowherd by the cairn, Leod."
The lad nodded. "I know the place."
"You will be easy, lady," the Ranger asked Rian, brows knit, as Leod laid aside his makeshift weapon and loped towards the byre-cave, "with these folk?"
The lass's smile was a pretty thing to see. "Oh, yes. Master Veylin and his companions are old friends, who have seen us through many a trial. Did Dírmaen not tell you of them?"
Perhaps he had: though that might not have been the best recommendation. Faelnoth's "A little" was as discreet as his passing over the gravity of Dírmaen's wounds before the girl. Yet Veylin found Rian's confidence uncommonly affecting, so that he rode towards Maelchon's, Thyrnir jogging by the pony's flank, with a heart alloyed of gratification and disquiet. If only he could be sure he had already heard the worst. The Ranger, who kept his roan to the shorter beast's pace, may have passed over much that was grievous, and how could he ask him to speak of the women, especially if they had been dishonored?
As they fell in along the little river between the cliffs, Veylin gazed up at the bluff on the left and spotted Nordri and two others, staring down at them. He gave a short shout of reassurance and flourished his spear in all's-well, pointing it upriver to indicate they should cross at the upper ford. Nordri's axe flashed in acknowledgement, catching the low rays of the sun.
"How many of you are there?" the Ranger asked, scanning both bluffs for more.
Worry notwithstanding, Veylin's lips quirked in a smile. "Enough to keep watch here and carry the battle to our foes. You?"
Faelnoth looked down on him from his horse. He had a blunt face, its nakedness nipped by frost, deeply worn by recent labor or privation. "I am glad," he confessed. "With Dírmaen fallen, there are only two of us. We cannot leave these people unguarded, and even if we could gather them all in one place, it would be foolhardy for one to seek a few men astray in a country strange to him, as night comes on . . . even were some of the outlaws not folk of Angmar. Do you know this country well?"
Angmar: there was an ill name. "Much of it." What was it Hanadan had said, of the Men's search for Fokel? Partalan had gone north, and there they had found him. The pastures southward were Gaernath's portion; Veylin had been that way but once, with only a few of his companions. Yet Halpan and Maelchon, who were most wanted, were to go to the oakwood, and because of their own need for timber, that was familiar ground. "Nor will the dark trouble us." Even if the clouds broke, there would be no moon--a black night indeed. Canting his head to meet the Man's eye, he asked, "Is Dírmaen very bad?"
"We could not have made our way across these trackless mountains but for Dírmaen. There was no trail to follow," Faelnoth recounted, voice gravely low. "Wind and fresh snow had erased it, but before we came far down this stream he marked tracks he swore belonged to no horse of this place. The spoor led us to the little wood of oaks."
To which Halpan and Maelchon had ridden. "What did you find there?" Did this Man dote on the sound of his own voice, or seek to make Dírmaen's fall less discreditable by harping upon what was praiseworthy?
"The scent of roasting beef and three ragged men lounging about the fire, certain they would soon have bread and ale besides. We had a scuffle among the trees: my man led me a fox's chase afoot, so I did not see how Dírmaen and Randir fared. I heard the clash of swords and pounding of hooves, and followed after them as soon as I had done, but came too late. Dírmaen took a thrust in the first skirmish and had already lost much blood before he slew the outlaw chief here, at the cost of another wound. He collapsed, Randir says, into the Lady Saelon's arms."
Veylin sniffed. Why the Men of the Star scorned to wear mail, he did not know. Did Dírmaen hope to win Saelon's favor through such gallantry, or soften her heart with pity for the injuries he had incurred? Foolish Man. Saelon did not condescend to pity, as Veylin could attest, having suffered her tender mercies.
As they mounted to Maelchon's yard, he looked sharply about. The hurdle-walled folds were new since he had paused here on his way to the Havens; the one nearest the house--which appeared unscathed--held five horses, one Dírmaen's stolid brown. Another grey-cloaked Man rose from the bench beside the door, staring at him and Thyrnir despite Faelnoth's raised hand of reassurance.
Four Men lay sprawled on the dungheap in the indignity of death, the head of one bludgeoned beyond recognition. The savage fury that bespoke made his beard bristle.
The two Rangers spoke together, low-voiced, while he dismounted at the stone in the dooryard. Thyrnir took the beast in hand, tying it to the young rowan as Veylin stumped to the threshold. The second Ranger started forward, as though he would forestall him, but either Veylin's glare or Faelnoth's hand on his fellow's sleeve halted him.
He knocked briskly.
The voice was Saelon's, but spent, weary as he had rarely heard it in all these years of trial. With a strange quaver of apprehension, he lifted the latch and pushed open the door--sound, untouched by violence, still perfectly silent on the pintles Grani had carved.
Blood. With an oath, Veylin clutched the spearshaft in his hand, hardly able to tear his eyes from the clotted pools of gore beside the hearth. The place had been defiled.
"Veylin!" Saelon's exclamation of surprise drew his gaze to her, and now his grip grew so tight his knuckles gave the groan he could not utter. She sat up a little straighter beside Dírmaen's blanket-swathed form, right arm cherished at her breast as though broken. "How--?"
Though stained and stiff with blood--so much could not be her own--her threadbare old gown appeared whole; her face and the unguarded slimness of her throat had been marked by hands harsher than Rekk's. "Hanadan came to us."
Ill-used she had been . . . yet her temper was still true. "Hanadan?" The breath of her sigh was as vexed as relieved. "Whatever was he . . . . I did not send him," she said, and there was no shame in her gaze, only the ashy grey of burnt-out anger. "I did not know you had returned."
"No matter," Veylin assured her. "We are here now. Tell me how we can be of service."
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Talus: rock debris, especially at the base of a cliff.
"horns of his saddle": for greater security, on account of his game leg, I envision Veylin using something like a Roman cavalryman's saddle, which had two angled horns in place of the cantle and another two in front.
Steel-bitted: a tool's cutting edge is its bit; tools and weapons, including swords, were usually low-carbon iron (malleable, so it would bend rather than break) with high-carbon steel (brittle, giving a hard, sharp edge) on the business end.
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