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Fair Folk and Foul: 14. Undermining the Enemy

Constmimus batuimus.                                      We build, we fight.


--motto, United States Navy Construction Battalion ("Seabees")


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Veylin leaned heavily on his troll-spear and looked down the ridge—garnet heather and copper bracken amid glinting faces of schist—into Srathen Brethil.  This is not how he had imagined arriving, when he and Saelon's brother had taken leave of each other at White Cliffs this time last year.  Yet at least he had reached it on his own feet, which was more than he would have hoped for then.  The old pony that had borne him as far as the dwarf-house they had set loose last night.  The Ranger had insisted on leading it back to the last glen, where there was a thicket of rowans and better pasture, so that they must hold off on sealing the door until he came loping up in the louring dusk.


A foolish risk, for a beast that the fiends would probably devour before they could bring doom on them.  Then he remembered Saelon's faith in the red-berried little trees and huffed.  Well, it would be a good thing if he did not have to walk all the way back to Gunduzahar.  Three leagues felt near his leg's limit, even with the brace Thyrnir had made him.  He would have been a sorry drag on the march if the others had not been so heavily burdened, or the eyes of the Ranger less often turned his way.


Yet he had not disgraced himself, and his heart burned with savage pride, confident now that if the leg was granted but a little rest, it would bear him creditably against the fiends.  For the moment, none could fault him for wishing to pause here a while and survey the field of battle from on high.


Halpan had been reluctant to speak of the ill-fated Dúnedain foray, but with patience they had drawn the tale from him, the better to understand what they would face.  Dírmaen had spoken truly, the night of the feast, when he had rebuked the youngster for taking too much guilt to himself: he had not been craven nor inept, merely callow.  The shame for Halpan's part in the death of their Chieftain lay squarely on the Man himself, for taking one not yet hardened against such dire foes . . . and he had paid.


The corrie was narrow and, after the first fall of slope, shallow; its throat narrower still, where an ancient rockslip spilled the rubble that had given the Dúnedain and Half-Elven cover to wait and watch.  Veylin scowled at the many boulders scattered about, around the larger of which the fiends might play at tig with them.  The creatures were said to be quick, unlike trolls, and with his leg as it was, even a modest stone was likely to be an obstacle rather than a step nearer their necks.


And there, nestled in the land's palm, the lone golden-leaved aspen beside, was the tarn, its surface a mirror for the fair, cloud-speckled sky, giving no hint of the evil beneath.  A half-dozen figures toiled on the slope just below.


"Ai!" came a great-voiced hail from below, and Veylin grinned to see Rekk perched on one of the boulders, flourishing a mattock.  "Come down, you sluggards, and make yourselves useful!"


When they had picked their way through the scree, his companions gladly shed their bulging packs by the open door of the scrape before finding seats on earth or stone.  Their shelter was cut back into a scarp along the western wall, where it would catch the first sun over the encircling ridge.  Thyrnir and Arðri broke out sausages and waybread, and carried them around; Ingi came up from the workings with waterskins.


"Where is this from?" Vitr asked, eyeing the skin.


"The beck, a troublesome way below," Rekk's prentice assured him, with a grim smile.  "We do not drink from the tarn."


"What is all this?" Bersi asked, pointing with his knife to gouges and dunts on the stone around the door, the fresh mica flashing in the sun.  "Do not tell me you were so careless with your picks."


"No."  Rekk smiled even more grimly.  "The fiends have sniffed us out already.  They made a determined effort to reach us last night, but to no avail.  I am glad we delved deep; this schist is soft enough that they might whittle it away, over time.  We will not give them that, however—now that you are here, the work will go faster.  Two days more, I think."


As the rest of Rekk's company joined them, breaking for a midday bite, Veylin asked, "Where is Oddi?"  The black-bearded mason was not to be seen.


"Away.  Repairs to the Frogmorton mill, for the harvest."  Rekk shook his head.  "He will tear his beard when he returns and discovers he missed his chance."


Or, Veylin reflected, regarding the bruised and runneled stone dourly as he ate, he would be left to seek vengeance for them all, if this proved folly.


As soon as folk had finished, Nordri led them back to the cut, newcomers as well as his work crew.  "Time enough to rest this evening," he briskly told Arðri, who was inclined to grumble after the morning's weary march.  "The sooner done, the sooner we can slay these things and get back to our proper work."  Having spent the short meal consulting with Rekk, Grani took Thyrnir and Halpan away to discuss where they might get timber; Aniel and the Ranger set out to scout the neighborhood for such news of their foes as tracks might give.


Rekk lingered, pulling out his pipe and coming over to sit on a boulder by Veylin, who had stretched his game leg out on the sun-warmed stone.  "So," he asked, once smoke was rising, "have the Men settled?"


"As much as they ever will."  Veylin looked over to where Halpan was gesturing at the aspen; Grani looked dubious.  "Aniel has never been less than keen, and Halpan has grown more so as we drew nearer.  Let us hope he does not cool again, in this pause before blows."


"What of the Man of the Star?"  Rekk turned a disbelieving eye on the mighty spear, too unwieldy for scouting and so left behind, settled carefully on a narrow ledge of stone.  "I had not thought him pretentious.  Does he think we hunt dragons?"


Veylin shook his head, still marveling.  "It is not vanity: he can handle it, and handle it well.  Given what the Men say of the fiends, who would not keep them as far off as he might?" Reluctantly he admitted, "We will be glad to have him, I think."


Rekk grunted and sat a while in thought.  "And your knee?" he finally ventured.


"Well enough."  Kneading the bone-deep pain, Veylin hungered to slay the things that had crippled him so.  "A little rest, and it will be better still."


"Good."  Still the waterwright seemed in no hurry to return to his work.  It was some minutes more before he asked, "Did you see no one on your way?"


Veylin considered him curiously.  "Who should I have seen, in these fiend-haunted lands?"


"Partalan."


"Him!"


"Yes, we met with him our first day out."


"What did he want?"  Veylin frowned.  "Since I have not seen him, I presume you sent him on his way."


Rekk observed, with a very slight smile, "He most earnestly desired to speak with you."


"He waited overlong."


"So I took pleasure in telling him."


Veylin gave a short chuff of contempt.  That would have been good to see.  "I wonder that he dared ask.  What did he offer for pardon?"


"Nothing."


"The Man is mad."


"In truth," Rekk allowed, "it seemed desperation."  When Veylin regarded him with raised brows, impatient with this riddling talk, he added, "Saelon has dismissed him."


"What did he expect?"  A pity he had missed that, too. Having scathed the Half-Elven, Saelon would not have stinted on one who claimed to serve her.  And she had been so very bitter when they parted, which troubled Veylin much.  "Does he think she will take him back if I pardon him?"


"Those were not her conditions," Rekk answered, with relish.


"What were her conditions?"


"He must bring her the head of a fiend on a troll-spear, to prove his love of his slain lord."


A cruel charge, whether Partalan was mad enough to attempt it or no.  Truly, Saelon must believe it was the Man's words that drove him to this, and that it would be his death.  Veylin shook his head in wonder and disbelief.  Yet at the least, the swordsman could no longer think her weak-willed—not if he would treat with the Dwarf he had offended rather than his lady.


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As the sun kissed the ridgetop, Dírmaen and Aniel climbed back up to the corrie.  The way was not very steep, but they had walked many leagues that day, and even the Ranger was weary.  They had spent the afternoon traipsing the upper reaches of the glen, seeking some sign that the raugs had shifted their lair, but though their cursed spoor crisscrossed the land, nowhere was the water's edge so trodden as about the tarn.


"Those will be very welcome," Bersi observed.


Aniel started and almost dropped the grouse he carried; apparently he had not taken notice of the Dwarf sitting watch amid the tumbled rocks, the steel of his helm and mail not unlike the grey of the stone.  Yet he recovered quickly.  "Fowl looks to be all we can hope for, save what we carried," the huntsman sighed, hoisting the double brace of birds.  With near a score to feed, they would be little more than a bite of fresh meat to relieve the iron rations carried in on their backs.  "There is little else afoot in the glen."


Rising from his seat, the coppersmith scowled at the pool of still water.  "They have scoured the land so bare?  Why have they not moved on, to where there is better hunting?"


Dírmaen shrugged.  The same question troubled him.  "Why did they not flee after the Chieftain's attack slew two of them?"


"You are sure they have not?"  Bersi cocked his head, glancing up at him.  "It would be vexing—" his beard twitched, beside his mouth "—to go to all this labor, and find the tarn holds naught but water."


"They are there," Dírmaen assured him gravely.  "The tracks are fresh.  Or do you doubt Rekk's explanation of the battered stone about the door?"


"No.  Come," he said, with a glance at the darkening sky.  "We should be getting to shelter."


Those who had been delving were shouldering their tools as they came abreast of them.  Dírmaen considered their work: for near two-score paces, the earth had been cast aside and a narrow channel cut down into the rock beneath.  They had made considerable progress since midday, but it was well over a hundred paces to the uptilted lip of the corrie, and they would have to cut down further still as they approached it.  Even for so many Dwarves, it seemed a prodigious labor, the more so as they would not put off their mail, despite assurances that the raugs only walked by night.


Aside from the watchman, the only Dwarf not toiling mightily was Veylin, and even he was not idle, having taken the cooking in hand.  Dírmaen marveled that his leg had borne him so far that morning, and over such rugged ground.  His leg, or sheer cussedness: he had kept a close watch on Veylin during their march, and the stony set of the Dwarf's face had revealed his pain as much as hidden it.  Yet none of the other Dwarves took notice of his lameness, so far as the Ranger could tell; they neither encouraged him nor disparaged him for not bearing his share of their heavy burdens.  Perhaps they did not wish to rouse the temper Dírmaen had felt by the tower at Habad-e-Mindon.


An afternoon's rest, however, had restored the joviality that was the dwarf-lord's ordinary temper.  "Carry these pots in, Arðri," Veylin told his prentice when they reached the dooryard, and smiled at Aniel's handful of birds.  "What is this?" he asked.  "Dainties for tomorrow's dinner?"


The huntsman's reply was interrupted by a loud exclamation of pain, and Halpan came crawling out of the low doorway in the scarp, rubbing his head.  "Surely you could have made it a little larger," he complained.  "Must we all squeeze in there?"


"We did make it larger," Rekk assured him complacently, "knowing you long-legged folk would be joining us.  It was delved for use, not comfort—why should we have spared more time from the real work?  Once we are inside, eat and go to sleep, and you will not feel so straitened."


Dírmaen ducked his head in, to see what awaited them and how he might maneuver his spear in.  It certainly could not be left outside, if the raugs besieged them by night.  His fear, that it would be too long to fit, proved unfounded.  Though only a single chamber, unlike the dwarf-house where they had spent the previous night under cover, it was a good seven paces deep and three broad.  Yet it was only when he crawled in to set his spear along the wall that he found how low the roof was.  Save for an area around the end of the passage, he doubted even the Dwarves could stand upright; sitting, there was little space between his head and stone.


When fifteen Dwarves and three Men had been fitted in, it was snug indeed.  With the food and gear stacked tidily by the entrance and their blankets pushed back against the walls, there was room enough for them to sit around the larger kettle.  The other, porridge for breakfast, had been set covered in the corner, so they would waste no daylight which could further the work.  Thyrnir knelt in the center, serving the stew into battered tin bowls.


It was not a meal to praise, but Dírmaen had eaten many a worse in the Wild, and after the bowls had been scraped clean and set aside, Nordri produced a skin of their dark, bitter ale, which was passed around in equal fellowship.  Most of the Dwarves continued to keenly discuss their work, talk that Dírmaen little understood—the grain of the schist, the degree of fall of the channel, the force of the water—when a dull, heavy blow resonated through the stone and struck everyone into momentary silence.


"What was that?" Aniel whispered from where he had just stretched out at the far end, trying to make a tolerable bed with no more than a blanket between him and the unyielding floor.


The Dwarves had gone very still, listening.


Another hammerblow fell without.  And another.


"The fiends, knocking at the door," Rekk rumbled.  Scooping up the nearly empty skin, he tossed it to the huntsman.  "Do not fear.  They beat so most of last night, and you saw how little it profited them."


Yet Dírmaen thought not all of the Dwarves looked easy.


"How do you know they cannot break in?" Halpan wanted to know, appearing pale and strained in the lamplight.


Beside him, Nordri chuckled and reached up to clap his shoulder.  "The stone between us is near as thick as you are tall, save the passage.  You have seen these things clear—could they fit through that narrow way?"


"The smaller ones might."


"How large are they?" Gamal asked, shaking out his blanket.  A past prentice of Nordri, he had been part of the advance party that cut this refuge.


Halpan took a deep breath, considering.  "Man-high, though broader in the shoulder."


Veylin leaned back against the outer wall, disregarding the shudder of the stone.  "How do you think you would fare, crawling in here, with Dwarven axes waiting to greet you?"


Dírmaen gazed towards the door.  "Is that why the roof is higher there?"


"Aye, to give us room to swing."  Rekk regarded him steadily.  "You have had some experience of war, it seems.  Have you fought creatures such as this?"


Shaking his head, Dírmaen admitted, "Nothing worse than Orcs and wargs."


"They are evil enough," Vitnir muttered.


"Do you remember that night," Rekk asked Veylin, a glint in his eye, "the warg got into our scrape on Udushinbar?"


The dwarf-lord chuffed and rolled his eyes.  "How could I forget?  Thekk nearly brained Frati with his backswing."


"He feared returning home without you more than the warg," Rekk explained, grinning.  "It took you a week to get the slaver out of your beard."


Veylin stroked his thick russet whiskers.  "Better it chew on this than my neck.  I still say I throttled the beast."


"How did it get into the scrape?" Thiolf, Nordri's current prentice, asked with a frown.


"A foolish quarrel," Veylin sighed.  "There were two Longbeards among us, and one was angered by what he considered disrespect of Durin's Line.  He stepped out to cool his temper, and his brother insisted we leave the door open for him."


"That was madness," Nordri declared, fixing Rekk with a severe look as he stretched out on his blanket.


Rekk shrugged.  "It seemed less perilous than axes drawn among us."


Dírmaen shook his head; how often vexation among comrades offered opportunity to the enemy.  How much worse it must be, penned tight together under stone . . . although perhaps that did not oppress Dwarves.  Already he craved the open air as he would thirst at the end of a long day's march.


"How do Men hunt wargs?" Thyrnir asked.


"With bows, at a distance," Dírmaen replied, when even his fellow Men looked to him, "if we can.  With spears, if we must."


Arðri gave him a baffled look.  "Do you fear to come near your foes?"


The Dwarves Dírmaen suspected were the elders among them—Veylin and Rekk, Nordri and Grani and Bersi—frowned at him, presumably for not taking the point about avoiding conflict among allies.  On his other side, Halpan and Aniel were scowling as well, touched in their pride.


"We are not so sturdy as Dwarves," Dírmaen said simply.  "Nor so close."


After a pause long enough to lift a querulous brow, Veylin burst out in a guffaw, then sniffed, regarding him with narrowed eyes.  Many of the others seemed not to have grasped his double meaning, though Bersi was shaking his head and muttering darkly about puns.  "I do not know," the dwarf-lord replied.  "You Men of the Star seem near as profound."


One double-edged compliment for another.  Dírmaen was considering what answer might be both creditable and safe when Nyr said sharply, "The hammering has ceased."


For a long time they sat or laid silent, listening for the return of that pounding malice.  One by one, they gave over waiting, surrendering to their weariness despite the ominous peace without, and eventually Rekk put out one lamp and turned down the other, dimming the light to aid already uneasy sleep.  Yet so long as Dírmaen remained awake, he could see Veylin still sitting with his back to the outer wall, deep-set eyes gleaming in the gloom as he stroked his axe helve.


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"Well," Rekk growled, "they are not dumb beasts."


Nordri shook his head.  "A mess, but what does it gain them?  If anything, they have widened the outfall with their battering.  We will have to pry the boulders out, but that can wait until we are ready to breach the dam."


Standing over the workings, Veylin prodded one of the rocks wedged into what had been a neatly cut channel with the toe of his boot.  Solid.  He calculated how much force it must have taken to lodge it so, and his grip tightened on the troll-spear that served him as stick.  Mail would blunt fang and talon, but was little defense against such brute strength.  Glancing over to where the Ranger and Aniel stood by the tarn, puzzling out the fiend's spoor, he was glad the Men were with them, for those longer spears might well settle the balance in their favor.


And who could remain dour, seeing Craec perched on Dírmaen's shoulder, head cocked at the exact angle as the Man's, as if he studied the tracks with equal intent?  The young raven, Thekk's pet, continually irked Rekk with his mischief and faltering tongue.  The Ranger, who seemed to read beasts as Dwarves read stone, still marveled that Craec spoke at all, and always had a tidbit to spare.  Little wonder that the bird was spending more time in his company.


"I had hoped to start on the dam today," Rekk grumbled, stooping to pick up a stone.  After giving it a cursory glance, he slung it into the tarn, as he might have slapped a pony that angered him.  "What is the point of bringing in timber, if they can do this to stone?"


Veylin found a convenient boulder and sat down, to ease his stiff leg.  "Why is the dam so important?"  The explanation might take some time.


"We must undercut the bed of the tarn, if it is to drain quickly," the waterwright declared.  "I do not know the shape of the bed, nor how deep it is—though it must be quite deep, to house so many fiends, and they so large.  We are on stone, not earth: the water will not carve its own channel as it falls."  He tugged at his plaited beard; Veylin guessed he would have to rebraid it by midday, if he kept worrying at it.  So he had done during the war against the Orcs, when things grew uncertain.  Still, it was not so bad a sign as if he stopped.  "The dam would let us cut further into the bed of the tarn, without flooding the works.  I will have to reconsider," he rumbled, frowning, and looked over at Nordri.  "The rest of you can keep cutting the outfall.  That will not change no matter what they do."


There was more than enough delving there to keep everyone's hands busy.  Veylin took the camp duties to himself again, though they were usually a prentice's chore: it was better that the youngsters, who had seen little of battle, tired themselves to sleep better.  His nights would be broken in any case, between brooding over how best to fight the fiends and the pain of his leg, and if he sometimes nodded in the warmth of the sun beside the fire, no one was near to see.  The Men roamed the glen below seeking sign that their foes had retreated to the headwaters of the river, and returned with news that all the traps Aniel had set the afternoon before had been robbed, but brought half a cloakful of apples from the trees at an abandoned steading by way of compensation, as well as water and wood.


They were best employed so, though they might have sat guard and spared another Dwarf for the delving.  But the only thing that might come by day that concerned Veylin was Partalan, and he did not think they would warn him of such an arrival as he would wish.


In the end, Rekk put off deciding about the dam until they saw what ruin might be accomplished that night, and so they drew the channel over a hundred paces nearer the break in the slope that day.  Even without the labor of a dam, it looked to take more than a day just for the remainder of the outfall, and the prospect of another night under threat drew a gloom over them all at the end of the weary day.


The fiends beat at the door longer that night, and they had a bad moment in the morning, when the door stuck hardly half a span open.  A good push by the three strongest of them, all who could fit into the passage, forced it far enough that Thyrnir could slip out.  The door was not damaged, as feared; there was only a boulder of some hundredweights set before it as a stop.  Ingi and Thiolf, in the high spirits of relief and absurdity—few of them could resist laughing at Aniel's momentary panic when he thought they were trapped, though Nordri kindly explained one could not trap Dwarves so, not when they had their tools to hand—challenged each other to a stonecutting race.  Rekk made a dry comment about the masons' technique, and it was quickly arranged that Nordri and his followers would cut up from the lip while Rekk and the rest cut down, six to a side, with Bersi, who had no kin among them, as judge.


As they divided up the tools, Nyrað tossed a spade to the huntsman, who caught it handily despite his surprise.  "We claim Aniel for our team."


"I do not know what to do," he objected.  "I was too taken up with hunting to help you delve our hall."


"You can dig, can you not?" Thiolf asked, grinning.


Rekk eyed the two Dúnedain.  "Halpan for us," he declared.


"Not Dírmaen?" Grani asked.  As the day's guard, he was the nearest thing to a spectator.


The waterwright snorted, and cast a glance at the Ranger.  "He would want a spade as tall as himself, I am sure.  And there is grey in his hair."


Halpan laughed at Dírmaen's ruffled expression as his elder checked his dark mane for signs of silver, and picked up another spade.  "If Aniel will join you, I suppose I must, to keep things even.  Though a cottar may shovel better than a Dúnadan!"


When they had trooped off to the workings, chaffing each other, Dírmaen bent to collect the empty waterskins.  "That was well done," he said.


Veylin inclined his head and began gathering their small store of wood, which the fiends had strewn about.  "Rekk has always been good at rousing tempers," he replied.  "He is at his best in time of war, when there is a clear foe."


"Clear."  Straightening, the Ranger stared at the tarn.  "If daylight is not enough, how should we attack them?"


"You say there are four; we have four spears.  If we can pin them, axes will do the rest."


The Ranger looked at the spear in Veylin's hand, only half the height of his, and walked away.


He did not understand.  None of the Men, not even Saelon, did.  They had never seen Dwarves at war.  Yet if the Man of the Star would but turn his long-sighted eyes to the slope below, he might see the foundation of their confidence, for the chafing impatience of the youths had struck fire in their elders.  When Veylin took the midday meal down to them, Rekk and Nordri were urging their crews as if they sought the last vein of mithril and the delvers scorned to stop, so evenly matched that any slacking might decide the race.  Even Halpan and Aniel had caught the fever of pride; though, seeing Halpan reel briefly when straightening up from his work, Veylin pulled the two Men out for a breath and a bite.  They resented being singled out, but he would not have them destroy themselves in a vain attempt to match Dwarves—they must be fit for battle next day.


His own folk did not require such cosseting: so long as there was fire in their hearts, they plied their picks and mattocks as if the stone was the flesh of their foes.  Even the rain that blew in as the shadows lengthened did not douse their ardor—though the same could not be said for the flames under the stewpot.  Yet when they finally strutted in, beards dripping and gambesons soaked through, Veylin was pleased to feed their ravening appetites from kettles carefully banked with hot stones and pass around a celebratory skin of mead.  For even Rekk and his crew, who had lost by little more than a pace, were triumphant.


The outfall was complete.  If the fiends did not crack their refuge tonight, they would strip them of theirs on the morrow.


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Notes


Tig: the game also known as tag.


 Scree: loose stone on a slope or at the base of one.


 Mica: soft silicate minerals that form thin, easily separated plates or flakes, with a characteristic pearly shine.


 Wargs: these are bookverse wargs (which are evil wolves), not movieverse wargs (which look more like giant hyenas).


 Pace: if the measurements do not always seem to match up, remember that the Men are reckoning in rangar (a ranga is approximately 38 inches), while the Dwarves are reckoning in a unit more proportional to their height (I have estimated a dwarven pace as approximately 22 inches).



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Last Update: 13 Dec 08
Stories: 5
Type: Author List
Created By: Adaneth


Dúnedain and Dwarves--and oh, yes, some Elves--on the northwest shore of Middle-Earth, not quite a century before adventures first befall Bilbo. Rampant Subcreation and Niggling in the margins. The ever-lengthening saga, in order.

Why This Story?

Dûnhebaid II: Lindon puts the trespassers on notice, and tragedy is avenged.

 

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Author: Adaneth

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - The Stewards

Genre: Drama

Rating: General

Last Updated: 02/26/11

Original Post: 12/10/06

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