The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Hand to Hand: 15. Sitting Idly By
. . . it is not to be supposed that the refinement and alertness of the faculties of observation can be sharpened to an exceptional degree without having one's susceptibility to pain sharpened as well.
--Thomas Mann, Question and Answer
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"Come, Master," Saelon's niece pressed, "will you not have more of the lamb?"
Veylin shook his head and took up his cup. "Thank you, but no. It is not," he added, with determined heartiness, seeing something like distress on Rian's smooth young face, "that it is not good--it is the best lamb I have had in many a year--but my appetite cannot match your generosity."
"Mine can," Rekk assured her, holding out his plate. "Tramping the countryside in search of brigands is hungry work. Is there any of the shoulder left?"
"A trifle. Or would you rather have venison?"
"Might I have both?"
The lass had made a fine thing of the venison as well, though she had not mastered Saelon's juniper-berry sauce. Even if she had, however, Veylin would have eaten little, his stomach still clenched by what he had seen and what he conjectured.
He must be careful not to drink too much. Drunkenness would mend nothing.
Looking beyond him, Rian asked, "Will you take another slice or two, Master Nordri?" How hard the lass was working, trying to do her aunt's duty as hostess. The anxiety on her face: did she fear to disappoint, or was it lingering fright?
Smiling, the mason wiped his rusty whiskers. "Two, if you would be so good."
Their appreciation seemed to settle her. "Gaernath, please carve more for our guests."
And the lad doing the honors at the other end of the Men's trestle-set board. Since he had provided the noble saddle and haunch, he had full right to apportion them . . . but if Gaernath took pride in his place, it did not show. He was as jovial a host as Veylin a guest, mum unless spoken to and dour then.
A strange feast altogether, Rian and Gaernath the only Men sitting down with the nine Dwarves who remained. A ceremony of obligation, rather than a celebration, in which the Edain apparently had no place, for they went about their work as best they could, short-handed, burdened by unease. The Rangers were not here, either. Saelon was tending the wounded at Maelchon's; Halpan ought to have reached Gunduzahar by now--Veylin prayed Hanadan had not troubled Auð too much.
So much trouble . . . and what had they accomplished? Nothing. He had roused and led out most of his followers in search of villains already slain; to witness their neighbors' shame.
Worse than nothing.
Most of his folk here about the board knew how to judge the Men's weaknesses, having seen them in dire plight before, but some of those who had already returned to the delf had grumbled and looked askance at him, ill-pleased by what proved to be over-hasty and profitless alarm. They cared little for Saelon and her Men, seeing scant value in them, and this foray may have swayed the balance of their judgment.
It was probably better that they had gone, for Veylin himself hardly knew what to make of much that he saw. Saelon's apparent indifference to physical insult and the smouldering fury beneath he knew of old; almost his only satisfaction was that he had put the steel of vengeance into her hand. Yet how was he to understand Fransag? The goodwife had emerged from seclusion that morning for the burying of her youngest, eyes scarlet with weeping, voice like a burr-stone: she sounded eerily like a Dwarf as she upbraided Nyr for shoddy workmanship . . . then forbade him to replace the gore-stained kerbstone or set it properly, lest she need such a weapon to hand again. This was tenacity indeed; but deranged, beyond reason.
Maelchon stood beside her, one hand on the curve of her broad back, and protested that Nyr and Ingi, Thyrnir and Thyrð should not trouble themselves, that the pollution was of no account, did not require so much labor to remove.
Did the husbandman think they would charge him for work he had not solicited, adding to the debt that bound him to his sullied house? Or was it simply the desire to be rid of all who were not kin at a time of mourning, to salvage what shreds remained of his family's privacy?
The Men's peculiar behavior deepened Veylin's gloomy uncertainty, feeding the growing sense that his actions had not only been unhelpful but perhaps even unwelcome. What did he know of how Men saw fit to deal with such . . . ordinary evils, save that Dwarves scorned them as feckless?
Among Khazâd, no measure of thought, no labor, no expense, no sacrifice was too great to protect women and children, the heart-lode of their race. They were never unguarded; only folk of proven good-will might pass so much as the outermost defenses of their homes. On those exceptional occasions when malignance did penetrate a delf--Orc or drake, dragon or dark demon-shape from the deeps--it was abandoned like a shattered strongbox. For all its greatness, Gundabad, where the Eldest woke, had not been spared that tragic fate; none would contemplate any return to once-glorious Khazad-dûm were it not for the mithril there.
But that was not how Men faced the ill chances of the world. Few put more than the slightest effort into defense; instead they would fight to regain homes already despoiled. Was that not what Saelon's folk had done in Srathen Brethil? How often, as he traveled, had he heard Men tell, with pride, how their fathers took back land from ancient foes or restored fallen houses?
The strategy was unsound, for the dearest things were precisely those that could not be repaired or replaced . . . yet Men, though poor, grew ever more numerous, and Dwarves did not. How? Was it their reckless prodigality in the matter of children? Did they grieve the loss of a child less if half a dozen remained?
Not from what he had heard of Fransag's long lamentation. And his understanding of the basis of their women's subordination was awry, for weakness and a lack of weapons had not prevented Saelon and Fransag from exacting their own retribution. Why, then, did women of Men tolerate condescension from those who ought to value them most?
Veylin wished he knew. He wished he knew how to ease their suffering, or even how to ask what they required, without giving offense or touching what was too tender.
So lost was he in these brooding thoughts that Saelon's voice started him exceedingly. "Keep him level!"
Artan held the hall door open; Randir was partway in, backing, holding the bowing end of a burdened and tilting hurdle, which promptly righted.
Faelnoth looked abashed as he came in with the other end of the hurdle, Saelon close on his heels. "The first door on the left," she told them curtly, before glancing Veylin's way. "Rian, you made up a heather bed as I asked?"
Beside him, Rian nodded mutely, staring, hand half-over her mouth. Saelon's hood was drawn up and a shawl wrapped close about her neck, but one large bruise could still be seen, livid, on her naked cheek. Veylin had forgotten that the lass had not yet seen her. As Gaernath jumped up to open the door to Saelon's chamber for those bearing Dírmaen, Rian started to her feet likewise. "Yes, aunt," she confirmed more clearly, hastening to greet her. "Although he might certainly have had mine." Reaching out to embrace her, Rian murmured, "Welcome home. Will you not sit and take a bite?"
Saelon kissed her niece's cheek. "No--I will be using yours; and no, thank you." Glancing around at the gathered Dwarves, her smile was distracted, mechanical. "Your pardon, Masters, but I must tend to my patient. Do you have all you could want?"
"All but your good company," Veylin assured her, raising his cup and bowing his head. Fearing their usual debate over the balance of payments, he refrained from praising the hospitality--overgenerous, given the Men's state of distress--or asking if there was aught else they could do, lest that increase her too-keen sense of obligation. There would be time enough, later, when her troubles were fewer, to bicker over the unnecessary gift of beeves. "How does Dírmaen do?"
"Set him down there, beside the bed of fresh heather," Saelon ordered the Rangers, glancing that way. "Do not move him yet. I will be there shortly. The first danger is past," she replied, her face drawn and grave. "The bleeding has stopped, but he is so weak I pray he will be spared wound-fever. Master Rekk," she said, turning to the waterwright, "I have not seen that raven--Craec, was it?--of late. Is he still in your company?"
"He hangs about," Rekk allowed, umber brows canted in curiosity and puzzlement. "Why do you ask?"
"I wondered if he might carry a message for me."
Rekk harrumphed. "He might. Craec is not the most reliable bird, as you well know."
Veylin drank to keep from commenting. Thekk had never had any problems with the young raven; had been fond of him. But Rekk had less patience with beasts, even conversable ones, than most Dwarves.
"I am not in a position to be particular." Saelon's smile was strained.
"Where is the message to go? Srathen Brethil?" Rekk looked down the board to the elder of their nephews. "Thyrnir, you would carry word to the Lady's folk there, would you not?"
"Of course," Thyrnir agreed promptly.
"You are kind," she murmured, "but I would send word to the Elves, not Srathen Brethil."
Rekk set down his cup. "The Elves?"
Saelon's bruised face was set against the displeasure in his voice. "Yes. They must be warned of the outlaws, especially since we are not sure they have all been slain."
"You doubt our assurance that none are to be found?"
Behind Saelon, Randir came to stand in the doorway to her chamber, his dark, tousled hair nearly brushing the lintel, a frown on his grim face.
"Rekk," Veylin rumbled, and when the waterwright cast him a lowering glance, signed for him to leave be. Foolish, to take her words as a lack of faith in Dwarves. The leasehold between her and Círdan required her to keep this border for him, as his own folk had not. "Did you mean to send word to the Havens, or did Coruwi tell you where to seek him?" At least the Shipwright had set a marchwarden over the north that did not hate Dwarves.
"No, he did not." Her voice was flat, grudging the effort of vexation. "That is why I hoped for Craec. I thought he might make for the Havens, looking for Elves on the way--ravens are keen-eyed--and leave word with the first he found."
Veylin drew on his beard. Pragmatic as ever; some proof that her wits had not been materially damaged. Yet Elves peering into every nook of the country would put an end to his plans of prospecting before spring's greenery overtook the land. He had not told her of that . . . but one of her most congenial traits was the ability to divine and give consideration to things too near to be spoken of. He sighed, frowning. "I suppose you must."
"As I said. If Craec is not to be had, then Gaernath will go."
The lad's glumness was shaken by surprise, though Veylin thought he appeared as anxious as pleased.
Looking from the straight-backed Dúnadaneth to her flame-haired young cousin, Rekk snorted. "On your own head be it, Lady, if the bird misspeaks! Should I see him, I will send him to you. I give no assurances."
"Thank you," she said, bare courtesy, and glanced along the board. "All of you, for all that you have done," she added, before withdrawing.
Nordri stood, followed by his son and Thyrnir, bowing after her. Even as they retook their seats, Saelon could be heard through the open door of her chamber, voice clipped and spare, directing the Rangers as they moved their blanket-swaddled comrade to the pallet prepared for him. When they had done, she thanked them as well, and bid them shut the door behind them.
That was the last they saw or heard of Saelon. Faelnoth and Randir joined them, at Rian's urging, but not even cream scones and another round of ale could salvage the mood of so mismatched a company. Veylin would have taken his folk off home as soon as they rose from table, were it not for an ill-sorted sense of duty that kept him loitering on the cliff-shelf until Halpan rode up the track with Hanadan, clutching a bundle of linen, at his back.
More professions of thanks, from boy as well as Man, yet the niceness of gratitude had become cloying, and Veylin feared his farewells were perfunctory. As his pony ambled through the heather at the easy pace of his tramping companions, Veylin wished he had not parted from Saelon with the shadow of disagreement between them. For all the inconvenience to himself, he did not resent that she would summon Elves to insure her own safety and that of her people. How could he, when she had shown him the way to a life-hoard of fire opal? Her being closeted with Dírmaen, however, prevented free conversation between them.
Dírmaen. He had been glad to hear that she was rid of the Ranger, but now the Man was back, like a blister from an ill-fitting boot. Dírmaen had galled Saelon much, during the year he was quartered on her folk . . . yet she now tended him solicitously, neglecting her own hurts to do so. Why? Was it gratitude for his slaying of the brigand chief, or a guilt-price? Dírmaen had wearied her with warnings that it was less safe by the sea than she believed, that she required a Man's protection, his protection, insisting she ought to heed his dictates--
If the Men of the Star had done their job properly, none of the brigands should have crossed the mountains. Had Dírmaen let them slip to bring her to the dependence he desired?
No: though he and the Ranger did not agree, such suspicions were discreditable. In justice, there was nothing to uphold them. Dírmaen was honorable, for a Man; more attentive to Saelon's outward dignity than she was herself. If he truly wished to partner her, the hazard would have been insupportable . . . and if his hunger knew no bounds, Saelon's solitary prospecting for herbs provided ample opportunity to slake his lust.
Perhaps that was why the Man objected so to her roaming: the temptation tried him. How would it be now, when he slept in her chamber and she tended his bodily needs?
He must not think of such things! Saelon was well able to manage her own affairs--she was no kin of his--it was none of his business. Such prurience dishonored her. Why must it be any different from when he had been in Dírmaen's place? The first time Veylin ever saw Saelon, she was dozing at his side, wearied by nursing him: a stranger, alien to her. How should she be less solicitous to her fellow Dúnedain? He knew the intimacy of her touch . . . cool, soothing, no more intrusive than need required--
He was not of her kind; his esteem ran in other channels. So whence came these thoughts? They savoured strongly of jealousy, but he had no rights that would countenance such resentment. Was their friendship so frail a thing that he should fret over whether or not the Ranger was able to secure her affection?
And, maybe, the Man might not survive his wounds. Men were apt to die. If he must brood, let him brood over surer troubles--like Auð's wrath at being brought to Gunduzahar through brigand-infested country and summarily set to watch over a child of alien race.
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Auð was not among the company in the hall when they returned, nor in her chambers. Stepping briefly into his own, Veylin set aside his helm and changed the troll-spear that had served as his stick for less bellicose cherrywood before stumping along the passage and down the stair. Auð did not often return to her workrooms after supper, but watching over Hanadan would have kept her from her work . . . . Further cause for dissatisfaction. Bracing himself for deserved rebuke, he knocked on her door.
The hollow sound echoed faintly off the rough, dark stone of the deserted corridor, the lamps already night-dim. Where could she be, if not here? In her suite after all, vexed enough to ignore his rap on the door? Fingering the head of his stick, Veylin wondered if he ought to knock again.
The click of the latch was his only warning before the door swung open. There was no mistaking his sister's flaming tresses, framing an expression of mild but not displeased surprise. "We are all back," he said, seeing her brows knit at his mail. He had come in haste to avoid further hint of neglect, not bearing bad news. "So, how indebted am I for your forbearance?"
She chuffed, crow's-feet crinkling in a gratified smile. "Less than you seem to fear. Come in." As she held the door wide, the shrewd emerald of her eyes assayed him. "A half-dozen bolts to shelve, then I am with you. Where are the boys?" she asked, as they crossed to her stockroom.
That was why she had not answered the door promptly. "Having a late supper."
"You are not hungry?"
How could one hope to mislead an elder sister? "Would you have me as stout as Bersa? The Men feasted us with venison and lamb, and three leagues is not enough to whet the appetite, when on a pony."
Auð smiled, hefting a bolt of brown linen. "The more beef for we who remained, then. So your friend is well?"
Leaning back against the doorjamb, Veylin sighed. Glad as he was to see she was not discontent, he could not enjoy the relief, not when she asked questions such as this. "She has prevailed again."
The look Auð gave him, as she stooped to break open the last waxed cloth- and canvas-wrapped bundle, let him know she did not find this a frank answer; but she did not press. "I am glad to hear it. The beeves were a handsome quittance. But that Halpan! He is no trader. If that is what the Lady has for menfolk, I begin to understand why she has taken charge."
"Hanadan did not vex you much, I hope."
"No; hardly at all," she assured him. "A mannerly child, for all his strangeness. Is it true," she asked, seeming as curious as scandalized, "that he is not yet nine years old?"
"I have no reason to doubt it." Hanadan had proudly laid claim to seven years when asking for leave to hunt fiends with them, harvest before last.
"His father was slain by the fiends, and his mother abandoned him to Halpan's care?"
Veylin pursed his lips. What else had the boy prattled of? "So I understand."
"And he is so little attended to that he was able to follow the Lady when she came to visit, without his uncle's knowledge?"
"Is that how he knew where to find us?" It was hard not to smile as he shook his head resignedly. "Do not judge all children of Men by that venturesome scamp. He is bolder than any I have seen."
"But how can he be allowed to stray out of safekeeping, at so young an age?" Auð thrust the next bolt into its place.
"I do not pretend to understand Men in such things."
That did not satisfy her. "The farmer with seven children--Maelchon--is his wife as careless of her sons?"
"Six, now," Veylin murmured, low. "I do not know what Men would consider careless."
Auð straightened up, clutching a roll of rich amber wool to her breast. "A child was slain?"
"Their youngest." The only one not roaming at perilous liberty.
Her rising outrage was smothered like a fire under too much fuel, and for several breaths she stared at him, soberly appalled. "Fram said two of the brigands were slain within Maelchon's house," she muttered, stroking the fabric beneath her hand. "However did they get in?"
"Maelchon was out seeking his servant and missing cattle; his wife went to fetch Saelon's aid for her ailing mother. When the women reached the house, the villains sprang out and seized them." So much he had been told. No one spoke of what came before. "The door had not been forced. It may be that the serving woman let them in. They are a kindly people, welcoming to strangers."
It would be easy to scorn such imprudence, dismiss their griefs as self-invited . . . yet he owed his life to Saelon's indiscriminate hospitality.
"Saelon and Fransag slew them."
Suspicion sharpened her look. "You told me the women of Men are not trained in arms," she reminded him, taking the woolen to its shelf.
"They are not." What did it matter, if he distressed her? She would be demanding an escort back to Sulûnduban anyway, she and the other women. "Saelon killed one with the knife I traded her, and Maelchon's wife beat the other to death with a stone ripped from her hearth."
Auð grunted, and came back to take up another bolt. "Where did these brigands come from? You have said nothing of them before."
"I knew nothing of them. They came from Coldfell, north of the Emyn Uial. Some were Men of Angmar; others broken Men from various parts of Eriador." Some even from Srathen Brethil, depraved enough to prey on their former fellows. "They took refuge in Srathen Brethil when harried by the Men of the Star and, attacked there, the survivors fled across the mountains."
"Have they all been accounted for, now?"
Veylin rubbed at a scratch on his stick, the roughness an irritation. "One or two may still be at large. We found no sign of them, so Saelon is sending word to Lindon. If they have not died in the snow-mantled hills, the Elves will swiftly bring them down."
"Elves?" Auð scowled. "How will you prospect, with Elves scouring the country?"
"As well as with the suspicion of starving thieves behind every outcrop and bush." He shrugged, sighing. "Perhaps I ought to have tarried in Sulûnduban until the tracks were clear after all."
"And left your friend unaided?"
He could not tell, from her harsh expression, whether she approved or not. "What did we do, save intrude upon their grief and eat their food? The brigands were slain before we arrived. The Men did not need our aid." Saelon was well able to manage her own affairs. Had he not always said as much? Why, then, did he continually press his support and counsel upon her, whether she asked for it or no?
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Saddle: a cut of meat from the back of an animal, including both loins--the tenderest part. The haunch would be tougher but have more flavor.
Burr-stone: a millstone of coarse quartz grit.
Wound-fever: bacterial infection of his wounds. In pre-modern medical systems, which had no conception of bacteria or viruses, illnesses were usually classified (and treated) by symptom rather than cause. In this age of antibiotics, we have generally forgotten how serious bacterial infections can be . . . and weakened by blood loss, Dírmaen's immune system is not going to be at peak form.
Quartered on: before the modern period, it was common for the military to assign troops to live in civilian households. Not only did this save the government the expense of housing and feeding them--it was another way to tax one's subjects--but it had the added advantage of discouraging civil unrest. "On" clearly shows this was considered an imposition.
Broken Men: men whose lives are ruined; outlaws. This was the usual term in the Highlands.
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