The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Fair Folk and Foul: 15. Monsters of the Mere
Weapons are unfortunate instruments. Heaven's Way hates them. Using them when there is no other choice--that is Heaven's Way.
--Heiho Kaden Sho ("Family-Transmitted Book of Swordsmanship")
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"So, what of the dam?" Veylin asked, his gaze keen as he surveyed the head of the cut. Their labors yesterday notwithstanding, the Dwarves were brisk this morning, even lively. Ingi chafed his hands against the frosty nip in the air or in anticipation, waiting beside Hani as the smith freshened the edge of his mattock; Vitr and Vitnir sang a martial air as they levered up a boulder wedged deeply in the channel.
Dírmaen cast a jaded eye on them. He had slept poorly, ears pricked for an assault that never came—or, if it had, there was no hearing it over the hearty snores resonating within the stony walls of their refuge. Halpan, who lay beside him, had been louder than any of the Dwarves; now the younger Dúnadan stood by Rekk, shivering within the damp leather of his jerkin, dull with fatigue. Aniel, who had trudged stiffly off to refill the waterskins not long before, was little better.
Rekk shook his head in brusque dismissal. "What of it? It will take less time to cut through into the bed as the water falls. It is not," he snorted, rubbing an orange smear of rust from the head of his pick with his thumb, "as if we will get much wetter."
"How long will it take to drain?" Dírmaen asked. While a few hours' grace would be welcome, if only to allow his fellow Men to regain their wits and some limberness, he did not wish the respite to drag on until near sunset. Whatever advantage the light might give them, he would take.
"There is no telling." The waterwright shrugged. "How deep do the evil things lie?"
Deep. The water rushed down the way they had cut it in a frothing freshet, scouring the glimmering rock clean; the rim of brown muck about the tarn grew wider, then dropped off in a series of ragged ledges. Rekk and his crew cursed the footing as they chased the retreating shore into the mud and down onto those uneven steps, where even hobnails and pick points slipped, yet they did not slacken, glowering at the ground they clove as if they resented the shelter it gave their enemies. Those who did not delve found seats nearby and put a final whet on their axes, or satisfied themselves with the strapping of their helms.
Standing aside, Dírmaen found that they reminded him of nothing so much as a circle of steel-grey wolves, waiting with burning-eyed patience for the stag at bay in their midst to stagger. Though their foes were also his, that intense enmity made him uneasy, and he withdrew to a clump of broom that broke the chill wind.
The beat of black wings brought Craec to him, a carrion bird before the slaughter. "Meat?" the raven asked shamelessly, once he had settled his glossy feathers.
Dírmaen returned Craec's gaze. "Is anything abroad?" he asked.
The bird snapped his beak twice, as if vexed. "Horse," he husked.
A beady black eye peered up at him. "North. Meat?"
Reaching into his pouch, he gave Craec a shred of tough salt beef. After the raven had bolted it, Dírmaen tried, "Pony?"
Craec considered, gave a deep click, then muttered "Oun," and creaked. Twice more he tried, but came no closer to the word. Shaking his head, he repeated, "Horse."
For his effort, Dírmaen gave him more beef. Perhaps, occupied with them, the fiends had not yet discovered the old pony.
A shout and what sounded like oaths turned his head back towards the tarn, as Craec crouched and took to the air. Those waiting had risen and drawn up to the edge, looking down into the pit—yet none raised their weapons. Was this it? Had the fiends proved to be trolls after all, and the sun left them no more to do, cheating the Dwarves of their battle?
There was no need to shove forward when he joined them, for they were too short to block his view. Which was as well, for they seemed struck to stone themselves. Gazing down over their gleaming helms, Dírmaen saw not monstrous writhen shapes in muddy slop, but a gaping mouth half-revealed by the falling water on the far side of the tarn. A cavern.
The sun, high overhead, would not do their killing for them.
They held a hasty council of war over their midday meal, waybread and salt beef sliced thin enough for teeth to do something. "And now?" Nyr muttered, passing on the waterskin.
"We go in after them, surely," Aniel declared. Seeing a way to their foes, he was eager as one of his hounds, baffled by the Dwarves' turn to coldness.
"Are you mad?" Bersi exclaimed, speaking what was on all his folk's faces.
Halpan frowned thoughtfully at the coppersmith. "Why would it be madness?"
"To walk blindly into their lair?" Veylin growled. This new frustration had him on the edge of wrath. "Where they know the turnings and grots, and we do not?"
"Ah," Halpan murmured in understanding.
"Either we must go in, or they must come out," Dírmaen said. "I doubt they will do that under the sun."
"Is this to be a siege?" Grani wondered. "We did not bring supplies for many more days."
"Surely they have less," Aniel protested, "with the land so empty that they must take hares from my traps."
Veylin looked to Rekk. "Might we bait them out?"
"With what?" the waterwright scoffed, hefting a slab of wooden beef. "This?"
Dírmaen found the dwarf-lord's hot russet eyes on him. "Might that pony still be in the glen with the rowans?"
"You think that will bring them out into the daylight?"
"No." Veylin's fists were knotted on his spear shaft. "But it may bring them out despite us."
Nordri stroked his brown-gold beard. "That is a good thought. We could build some hides from the stone at hand, and cut them off from retreat."
"Why bother?" Gamal asked. "From what I hear, they are not shy."
Bersi shook his head. "And have them go for the nearest, perhaps carry them to their hole?"
"You would fight them in the dark?" Dírmaen sighed. All that labor, spent for an advantage that eluded them.
"Hardly the dark," Vitr scoffed. "There will be moon enough."
"As much as we had last month," Halpan agreed.
When your quarry escaped you, Dírmaen did not say. Rising, he declared, "If you want the beast by sunset, I must go. It may have strayed far." Then he remembered the raven. "Where is Craec?" The bird could lead him straight to the pony.
Rekk glanced up into the aspen and around the top of the scarps, before giving a piercing whistle. "Capricious bird," he grumbled, as time passed. "Always shirking when he might be useful."
"I cannot wait," the Ranger said. "Send him after me, if he comes."
"Whether you find it or not," Veylin told him, "return by dark. If they do not require baiting, we will need your spear."
Mindful of the peril and his spear being too heavy for the speed required, Dírmaen did not need the warning. It was a pleasant day to lope over the land, bright and cool; if not for the ominous lack of beasts, the run would have soothed his cramped temper. Craec did not come; by good fortune, the old pony was where he had left him, grazing peaceably, and, having had two days' rest, was not too unwilling to jog—downhill, at least.
Aniel was watching from the ridgetop, gilded by the low rays of the sun, and came down to meet them, spear in hand and an admiring smile on his broad face. "I will take him the rest of the way," he offered, as the pony hung back on the face of the steep slope. "You will want a bite and a rest, I am sure. You must have run much of the way!"
"That would be very welcome," Dírmaen confessed. "Much of the way there, but not much back—this old fellow was not so eager."
The huntsman scruffed the pony's shaggy mane. "Ah, well—at least Veylin did not bring a younger beast. It will be hard enough putting this one down."
A final check of his spear, as he champed dutifully on a handful of dull waybread, spared him that sight. By the time he walked down to the tarn in the twilight, the long weapon balanced on his shoulders, the beast was dead and gutted, the offal spread to tempt the raugs beyond caution. Several low, untidy heaps of rubble surrounded the knacker's yard at a judicious distance. Halpan stood at the southern one, talking with Thyrnir; Vitnir and Ingi were with them. Aniel gave him a sketchy salute with his spear as he passed the western pile, where Nordri and his sons were stationed, with Thiolf.
Nearest the gaping gullet of the drowned cavern, on the north, Veylin was speaking with Rekk; the dwarf-lord's friend Bersi waited with Vitr and Arðri. Only the eastern hide had no spear, so Dírmaen went to join the Dwarves there: Grani and his son Gamal, and Haki. "Here you are!" Grani greeted him heartily. "Not too weary from your errand, I trust."
Gazing at the stones, which came no higher than his waist, Dírmaen wondered how he and his spear were supposed to be concealed behind them. "No," he assured the carpenter. "Although I hope I need not chase the fiends far."
Hani chuckled. "If your aim is good, you should not!"
"Hold one for us for a few strokes, and we will make sure it cannot run," Gamal promised, giving his axe bit a final appraising glance.
Dírmaen nodded. He had not thought of hamstringing the creatures, but Dwarves being so short, it must be a common stratagem for them. Once felled, they could slay the creatures at leisure, or—should even that prove too perilous—leave them to the mercy of the sunrise.
"I see you have found your post," Rekk said approvingly, coming over to join them. "You have your waterskin?" he asked Grani. Gamal pointed to it, tucked amid the stones. "Stay hid," Rekk went on, in a tone of reminder, "until all the fiends are past you, unless Veylin or I give the signal. Then go for the nearest, and aid others as you can. Do not," he rumbled, casting his dark gaze on Dírmaen, "let them back past you."
"Do not fear." Grani glanced sidelong at the Ranger, a smile quirking his beard. "If naught else, we can trip them with his long pole."
Among Men, they would have grown ribald after such an opening; yet the Dwarves merely grinned, shifting their axes in their hands. What could one do, when your companions made you the butt of a joke, except smile to show you took it in good humor? In truth, this was mild compared to the humor of some of his fellow Rangers. "A pity you did not take it into account when you heaped up these stones," Dírmaen returned. "Am I to lie down with it?"
Hani was struck by a fit of coughing, which he struggled to stifle as Rekk, smirking, growled, "Shush! Do you want to fright the fiends?" Gamal and Grani presented suspectly bland faces to Dírmaen's closer inspection. "If you must," Grani answered, with a shrug, "you must."
Rekk sniffed, seeming to strive for sobriety, and clapped the carpenter on the shoulder. "Good hunting," he wished them, and strode to join the group with Halpan.
Dírmaen lay so he faced the tarn. The ground for the hide had been cunningly chosen to give a good view of the fiends' lair; propped on his elbows, he could see most of its gaping maw. It grew harder to make out as the dusk thickened, no more than a darker blackness against benighted stone.
And so they waited. The Dwarves were still as the rocks they hunkered behind, and the wind took even the soft sound of their breathing away. Despite the tension and the chill, Dírmaen struggled not to fall into a doze. Perhaps he did, for his head jerked as someone bumped his ribs with the toe of their boot.
There was a shape within the darkness of the cavern's mouth, and a low thrum that might have been a growl as it peered around at the bare stone and drying muck. Hesitantly, it moved a little further out.
It was one of the big ones. Night shadows made its shape unclear: not unlike a troll, though leaner. The moonlight glistened pallidly on it, as if it were slick with wet or slime. A brighter flash came as it bared its tushes in a horrible snarl, yet it slowly crept from the tarn and onto the flat, snuffing the air and drawing itself upright every few paces, giving marrow-chilling growls as if it wished to daunt the foes it could smell but not see.
When it came within reach of the pony carcass, it seized a hock and dragged it nearer, then tore off a hind quarter as a Man might have taken the wing from a roasted fowl. Ravenously, it began to devour the beast's flesh.
At the crack of bone, two smaller shapes bounded from the tarn's bed, swarming up the steep, muddy slope, quick and lithe. Snapping and snarling, they fell to squabbling, and the Man-sized one drove the little one from the broken carcass to the trampled offal, as it gave a screeching squeal of protest. Little—it was near Dwarf-sized. Was this Craec's "nestling"? And where was the fourth?
It came at last, and there was something odd about it, even in the mirk: a different shape, a different gait. Only after it had clumsily clambered to the tarn's edge and raised itself upright to glare suspiciously about did the reason show clear.
A female, with a great, gravid belly, its limbs so gaunt it must be near starving. When it moved towards the others, Dírmaen saw it was halt. Was this the fiend that had eluded Halpan and slain Arathorn, wounded as it fled? The one hunched over the carcass, somewhat larger, rumbled threateningly around the forequarter it was now mauling. The raug-dam stood tall to snarl back, ropy arms raised on high.
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The thrawn thing had only a single ragged-taloned hand—its right arm ended in an ugly knob of proud flesh. Veylin stared at the dark marks of old axe-blows on its leaden hide and, as if catching a glimpse of a secret hoard through a cracked door, saw the fiend whole and hale, rending Thekk limb from limb. Blood—all was blood, encrimsoned. Bounding forward, he roared, "Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!"
Giving a grating cry, it whirled to flee; heedless of his leg, he followed. He would have it. He must have it. What was the pain, beside vengeance on the very creature that had slain his friend and his prentice? The agonies it had given him, riven heart and riven flesh, were so much greater, and he had borne them. Vaguely, Veylin was aware of the mad disorder of battle breaking out about them. Fiends bellowed; Dwarves and Men shouted. Yet all he saw was his one-handed foe.
It was drawing away from him. Lame it might be, lame as he was himself, but fear drove it as fury drove him, and its legs were longer. With all the strength of his hate, Veylin cast the heavy spear after it.
His knee nearly buckled under him as he pivoted on it, but he caught himself with little more than a bobble, even as he heard it screech. Snatching his axe from its sheath, he continued forward. A Man screamed, a shrill, piercing shriek that must be mortal, yet it was no more to him now than the voice of some strange bird. Dwarves, too, cried out: some in triumph, some in wrath and pain.
In his red rage, there was only that great monster, heavy with another of its evil kind, writhing to paw at the spear lodged in its loins, its foul blood black in the moonlight.
Arðri leapt past him, axe raised, going for its gaunt haunch. It backhanded him, part of the serpent-swift turn that brought it to face them, and the power of that blow was what finally quenched Veylin's headlong fury—his prentice, no lightweight even unarmed, flew a dozen paces before crashing to the ground.
Then, mad with its own pain, it attacked.
This time, the clutching talons did not sink into his flesh, foiled by mail; Bersi hewed at the arm and the fiend snatched it away, giving a shriek like tormented iron. Vitr took this chance to dart in, cutting at the bulging belly—blood and other wetness spurted from the gash, and the creature clenched around his cousin like a fist, splintering the stained ivory of its fangs on steel before its frenzied snapping ripped off his helm.
Veylin hacked at whatever of the monster came within reach, as did Bersi beside him, but the gaping wounds they inflicted neither distracted nor stayed the creature. Now Vitnir was attacking it as well, single-minded as Veylin had been, though it would avail his brother not at all. Flinging Vitr's mangled body aside, the fiend struck out wildly, rising up high above them, snarling with its dripping red mouth.
Sable wings dropped out of the night sky and beat about its head, the black dagger of Craec's beak stabbing for those piggy, fell-fire eyes. The raven seemed to be calling out, but whatever he would say was lost in the fiend's furious noise.
So was the pounding of hooves, until the horse was almost on them. One glance was all Veylin dared spare: a tall, dark beast driven hard, white flashing about its eyes, coming straight for him; a Man crouched low over its shoulder, only reins in his hands. Thyrnir—when had he joined them?—sprang forward and thrust Veylin aside, just as the rider cruelly wrenched the horse's head towards the fiend, and the two of them.
Veylin dropped and curled small. Even so, a hoof struck him as the horse desperately fought to halt, though it was too close, going too fast. The rider hit the ground nearby just before the squealing animal slammed into the fiend, bowling it over. Rolling to his knees, hissing at the stab of staved ribs, Veylin snatched up his axe.
Partalan. The swordsman's bald pate showed plain in the moonlight as he clambered to his feet, eyes on the thrashing tangle of limbs, the horse screaming and fiend squalling in a deafening cacophony that stood one's hair on end. Suddenly, he darted forward, stooping to snatch something from the ground—
—and came up with Veylin's troll-spear in his hands.
He had thought the Man mad before; it was now proved beyond any doubt. Yet it was a diabolically effective sort of derangement. When the fiend struggled clear of his mount's dead weight, streaming with dark and darker blood, Partalan lunged forward, driving the spearhead into the monster's breast to the crosspiece. It staggered back and the Man hung on, his own gapped teeth bared in furious resolution, but the barbs must have caught on ribs, for the spear did not pull free, and he was dragged after it.
Vitnir stepped in and began to hew at the leg on its handless side as if the fiend were a tree he would fell. It kicked out, knocking him away; Partalan used the distraction to wrench the spear, grinding it in the wound.
Bersi laid a hand on Veylin's shoulder, and then hoisted him to his feet; Thyrnir stood on his right, axe ready, watching the fight for a likely opening. When Halpan had said the fiends took a lot of killing, Veylin had not thought a Man, especially so young a Man, a good judge of such things . . . but perhaps he had merely repeated what the Half-Elven had told him. For these were the hardest-dying things Veylin had ever known, even in all those years of fell war to avenge Thrór. Even now, drenched in its own gore and with its guts tangling its feet, it found the strength to clout Partalan, the shortness of Veylin's spear leaving him within reach.
Though that strength was clearly waning, for though the swordsman reeled, he did not fall, though helmless, and he did not leave go of the spear.
Some way away, a collective shout of savage triumph rose; glancing over, Veylin saw a crowd around the still form of the other great fiend, and the Man of the Star with his long spear.
Thyrnir had left them. His nephew circled around behind their monster, and as Partalan dodged another blow, twisting the spear with desperate strength, striving to finish the thing, Thyrnir buried his axe in its backbone to the helve.
He had to leap back as it dropped, leaving his weapon lodged in bone as it flailed with dying malice, tearing the earth with its talons and gnashed its broken tusks. Its fall wrested the spear from Partalan's hands, and the Man hung back, not so crazed he would risk its clutch to retrieve it.
"Go on," Bersi urged Veylin. "Finish it."
Bracing his ribs with his elbow, Veylin stumped up to the fiend's head. Its thrashing was becoming more feeble, so it was no great feat to stare into its green-flamed eyes and strike off its bony, gaunt-cheeked head.
That bloody jaw snapped twice more, as a fish might gasp when beheaded, and then it was still.
For a moment, Veylin stood over it, savoring what he could of his vengeance, then looked up and around. "Are they all slain?" he asked.
Rekk came up, supporting Vitnir, who had a goodly dunt in his helm. "Aye," he reported, with grim satisfaction, gazing around with a jaundiced eye. "You would fix on the mother," he groused. "Why do you insist on the hardest tasks?"
Limping to where the handless arm was flung out, Veylin kicked it. "This is the fiend that attacked us last year."
"Ah." Giving it a look of cold hatred, Rekk drew his axe and opened its belly, spilling the unborn onto the ground and splitting it with a single blow to be sure. He stood a little longer, watching Thyrnir prying his axe from its back. "That was a mighty blow," he praised him, "but it is rarely wise to disarm yourself in such a way."
"You had already slain the others," Thyrnir replied matter-of-factly, breaking his axe free with a grunt. "It had to be dropped so we could give it its death blow."
Rekk clapped his shoulder and gazed on Partalan, who had taken hold of Veylin's spear again. The Man's expression was closed, as if he expected to fight them next. They were perhaps saved from ill words and worse actions by the arrival of Halpan, who hobbled up, bloodied and cradling an arm close to his chest. "Partalan!" he exclaimed, in stark amazement. "What are you doing here?"
"Avenging Halladan," the swordsman rasped. "As my Lady demanded." Setting his foot on the fiend's breast, he finally wrenched the spear free.
"There were other conditions, you said," Rekk observed, eyeing him.
"There were." Partalan looked to Veylin, who stood over the fiend's head.
He planted his axehead on the ground and leaned heavily on the helve; weariness and wounds, old and new, were calling in their debts. There were things more important than this Man's honor, however. "How many have we lost?" Veylin asked Rekk.
The waterwright gazed on Vitr. Vitnir had made his way to his brother's body and was kneeling over it, weeping and tearing his beard. "Three. And Aniel."
"Who are the other two?"
"Nyrað, and Thiolf, who defended him."
"Arðri is senseless," Bersi told him, having come from checking on his prentice. "I do not like the sound of his breathing."
Would that Saelon was here. Not that he would have wished her near the fiends. Veylin looked at Halpan. "Wounded?"
"Including you?" Rekk asked.
"Nordri is not so good; the others can walk."
They were perhaps a bit closer to Sulûnduban than Gunduzahar, but Halpan would find little relief there. And Arðri should be moved as little as possible until he came to his senses . . . or not. "When day comes," he told Rekk, "have the two fittest go to the mansion for ponies, and litters for the wounded. Would a pony be of service to you?" Veylin asked Halpan delicately, hoping he did not give offense. "I do not know what you would do with the body of your comrade." Dwarves did not speak of such things with others.
The young Dúnadan shook his head and looked to the swordsman. "It would be fitting to take Aniel down the glen, I think, and lay him by Halladan. What say you, Partalan?"
"Aye," the other Man of Srathen Brethil said gruffly. "He would have wished it so."
"Should you not sit, at least?" Halpan asked in turn. "You look gravely wounded yourself."
"The blood is not mine," Veylin dismissed.
Partalan did not look convinced. "You are not the one who must bear with our Lady if we carry ill news of you to her," he grumbled.
Veylin snorted. If he took refuge in Sulûnduban, perhaps, until he had healed up. Bending down—which was perhaps very unwise—he took the fiend's head by the scruff. "You had best not carry any news to her, good or ill, without this," he declared, and tossed it to the Man.
"And the spear?" Partalan challenged, clutching the shaft tight.
It was not worth the trouble of taking it from him, so mad and fierce a fighter. "Do you still maintain that Dwarves do naught but talk?"
"No." He was brusque, but respectful. "Nor can I deny that you have faced the raugs, crippled though you are."
Veylin's smile was toothier than he had meant; the swordsman need not have added that last. He was as tactless as Rekk. "Then I will allow that you have earned it. Take it to your Lady. She had few enough defenders before," he said, with a sigh of regret for Aniel. "Though you may believe otherwise, I would not strip her of those who remain."
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Broom (Cytisus scoparius): a shrub common in sandy heaths and wasteground, with green stems and small leaves, flowering yellow in early summer.
Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!: "Axes of the Dwarves! The Dwarves are upon you!" The traditional Dwarvish battle cry.
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