The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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After Stormy Seas: 2. Keeping Convoy
When it came night, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea's voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters.
--Stephen Crane, The Open Boat
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They followed the sea, to start, until they had rounded the spur of Mount Rerir, after which they followed the straighter line of the mountains south. Considering the inauspicious beginning, with both Saelon and Veylin's tempers full-sharp, Dírmaen was surprised by how well their varied company rubbed along together once they were on the move.
Eager to prove that his incompetence had been all in service of delaying them until Saelon's gift was ready, Gaernath took charge of the packhorses without asking the moment the Lady dismounted, and had them laden and ready for the road early enough the next morning to content even Veylin. Some of his diligence, no doubt, came from the example of the Dwarves, for he kept company with the prentices, who did not hesitate to chaff him for anything ill-done.
As all their kind, they were experienced travelers, setting and breaking camp as swiftly as when the Ranger had marched with them against the raugs: each had his appointed task—ponies or baggage, wood or water—and set to with a will as soon as the setting sun brought them to a halt for the evening. Gwinnor, who frequently ranged ahead on his mettlesome mare, led them to admirable sites, with good grazing as well as other necessities near to hand.
Veylin, whose lameness kept him from more active chores, set his hand to the cooking, as he had on the foray to Srathen Brethil—which led to a debate even Dírmaen could not help smiling at, the first time Saelon ate one of her friend's meals. The Ranger had suffered far worse food than the dwarf-lord's, many a time, but no one would deny that her skill far outstripped Veylin's . . . not even his boon companion Bersi. It was settled, therefore, before they went to their blankets that first night, that all would contribute stores to the common pot, and the Lady would wield the spoon.
She also tried to claim a share of the watches, so there would be a round dozen of them, two for two hours each through the night, but none of them—Elf, Dwarf, or Man—would hear of it, and so she was compelled to be satisfied with dominion over the kettles.
In the grey light of dawn, they would roll their blankets and clear the drowse by sluicing their faces in the chill waters of a swift-running stream, then break their fast on slabs of berry-studded oaten porridge, cooked the night before and swiftly toasted on the griddle. After a year of naught but barley, Dírmaen found the Dwarves' corn a welcome change, sweet and light. Gwinnor declined such fare, however: with his scant baggage and no need to harness his horse, he would content himself with new hazelnuts, roasted in the previous evening's coals, and the last of the summer's fruit from bramble or bough, then ride ahead to look out the way and settle his mare for the slow but steady pace of the dwarf-ponies.
They made a respectable train, with seven horses and sixteen ponies, though they frequently went six or seven beasts abreast, there seldom being any need to go in file in these trackless lands. Saelon would ask Gwinnor some question of ancient lore, as when they passed the bog that had once been Lake Helevorn, where Caranthir, one of the seven sons of Fëanor, had dwelt in the Elder Days. Veylin and Bersi and sometimes Vitnir would draw closer to listen to the Elf's tale, and often add their own, in contradiction or support, full of harsh, unfamiliar Dwarvish names. Dírmaen, who kept close behind Coll and his double burden, saw how keenly Saelon followed these strange stories, savoring them as a Ranger would his first ale after a long stint in the Wild.
Would that she might find him so enthralling. But he knew none of the great tales so well as her, and those he had heard in the halls of Rivendell had passed from his mind as the vivid leaves of autumn blew away on winter's winds, a fair memory that eluded capture.
At other times, she would fall into conversation with Veylin, and Gwinnor and Bersi and Vitnir would draw in . . . as would he, unwilling to be left out, lest he miss something of import. Often they spoke of the most prosaic things, the exact opposite of her speech with the Elf. For instance, on the third morning out, as they neared Thôntaen, where they would cross the mountains by the pass at the head of the Little Lune, the dwarf-lord observed, "I have never seen porridge grilled before, Saelon. Where did you learn such a thing, or is it your own invention?"
She laughed gaily. "Oh, no! It is an old goodwife's trick, to make cold porridge more palatable. As children, we would beg Ulma, our serving woman, to make it for us. She would drizzle honey over it, and we thought it good enough for a feast. But I admit it is better when made from oats."
Dírmaen recalled a winter sweet of his mother's, which was much the same, though made of wheat and rich with cream and butter. How long had it been since he had tasted it? Years; too many years.
Veylin looked up to where Saelon sat perched behind Gaernath, the russet thickets of his brows knit thoughtfully. "I have forgotten to ask: how did your oats and wheat fare?"
"Alas," she sighed, "they were still green in the ear when the storm struck. We will salvage enough for a somewhat larger plot next year, but there will be none to spare for eating, nor seed for a field. It will be two years before you might look to us for any in trade."
"Ah, well. At least you will not need more seed. Will Maelchon break more ground for planting next year, do you think?"
"With his debt to Nordri and Grani," Saelon observed, casting an uneasy eye on Gwinnor, "I believe so."
"Why do you look on me so warily, Lady?" the Elf asked. "We set no conditions on how much land you might till. If you choose to slave to feed Dwarves, that is your own business!"
"Slave?" Veylin rumbled, misliking the choice of word.
"If Maelchon slaves for anything," Saelon maintained, firmly quelching what might have soon turned unpleasant, "it is to please his wife, who would otherwise make his life a misery. Fransag is a very good woman, but sharing a hearth was a trial for both of us. She is happy in her new house. Have you a wife, Gwinnor?"
Dírmaen wondered if there could be a more confirmed bachelor than one who had not found a wife in three ages of the world.
"Then you may not appreciate the importance of keeping a spouse content."
A laugh burst from the Elf. "You are one to talk, Lady!"
Saelon's sun-bronzed cheek took on a rosier hue, yet she promptly asserted, "One cannot avoid such knowledge, when living in such close quarters as our hall."
Veylin cleared his throat loudly; beside him, Vitnir looked almost absurdly prim. "And your folk that are returning to Srathen Brethil—how much do you think they might plant next year?" Veylin asked, resolutely returning to his own interests. "It will be easier for them to till already made fields, will it not? Might the crops be better, for the years of fallow?"
"I am not sure," Saelon confessed, and glanced over her shoulder towards him. "Dírmaen, do you know?"
Unfortunately, he did not. "No, Lady. But they will have much work to do, setting their houses and byres to rights. I would not expect much for the first few years."
"Of course," Veylin agreed. "It takes time to rebuild, after such a calamity. Now, your cattle seem to be thriving—"
A league further on, as Saelon explained the advantages of wethers over ewes for producing wool, Gwinnor dropped back beside Dírmaen. "If I must listen to much more of this," he murmured, "I will say something regrettable. I am off to see if fresh meat might be had for supper. You know the way to the pass?"
Dírmaen smiled with wry envy. "Yes. We came this way when we first rode to Habad-e-Mindon. Is there somewhere we should tryst, or do you think we will make the pass before dark?"
"It would be better," Gwinnor advised, "to camp on this side, and cross the heights in the morning. Do not trouble with a tryst—I will find you. Who could miss such a cavalcade as this?" he asked, with tolerant scorn.
His departure seemed hardly to be noticed, save by Gaernath, who gazed wistfully after the swift-running mare. While the lad was proud of having charge of his Lady, at the moment he appeared to be finding pillion more tiresome than Saelon.
Dírmaen would have borne the tedium easily—even gladly—if that slim arm encircled his waist, instead of the red-headed youth's.
This was intolerable. He plodded along behind her, no more than a couple of lengths distant, yet he might as well be at Habad for all it advanced his suit. She spoke readily with other men—men of other race—was lively, even merry . . . yet when she addressed him, he could manage only a few words, more commonplace than even this interminable talk of stock and trade.
Did he mean to follow her all the way to Lindon and back, mute and obedient as a hound, in hopes that she would reward him with her regard on their return? What kind of regard would he deserve, if he behaved so?
He was a Ranger, not some shepherd swain; nor a green boy like Gaernath, who had lost his sweetheart through uncertainty in the face of a bolder rival. Ready speech was not one of his talents, but he had others. Surely he could come up with a better plan of campaign than this blind, bleakly wishful wanting.
So far his policies had served him ill. Mindful of honor, he had concealed his love through the long summer, for Halpan had entrusted Saelon to his care while he and Partalan sought the folk who scattered when her brother was slain. Dírmaen had thought himself a patient man of temperate appetites: yet his pent desire had grown upon him until it became an affliction . . . then curdled into jealousy, bitter resentment of her intimacy with the Dwarf, as she sought to draw him into their intrigues against Gwinnor.
He had rebuked her. He had rebuked her too often, since he had been left to keep watch over these strays, far beyond the bounds of Men. The Chieftain wished them back in Srathen Brethil, if not in Arnor, east of the Lune; but Saelon clung to the sea, and those faithful to her house, lesser scions of the kings of Arthedain, clung to her. His band of Rangers would have brought her home, were it not for Veylin. Gwinnor, herald of Lindon, would have seen her off Elvish land—were it not for Veylin.
No, Dírmaen did not believe she had lain with the dwarf-lord. Yet they were closer than was right or proper. Saelon turned to the Dwarf, when she should seek aid and counsel from her own kind. From the Dúnedain.
If he had kissed her, had spoken, at the end of that fateful dance in Lothron when the beauty of her joy smote him, would she have accepted his love? As soon as Halpan returned, Dírmaen opened his heart to her—but the quarrel was too fresh. She seemed to think his avowal a maneuver: a landless man seeking a lordship, the Chieftain's officer bringing a recalcitrant woman to heel by whatever means might be found. She did not believe he admired her.
How might he convince her? Saelon was an austere woman, scorning compliment; had ever been so, her kin averred . . . and their recent hardships had only made her more severe in mind and mood. Praise, even if it were not effusive, would be suspect. He longed to find some way to ease her burdens—some way she would accept, for she took her brother's charge to keep their people as straitly as any avowed lord, without knowing how to entrust others with their part, preferring to keep all in her masterful hands.
She would only take comfort, take praise from Veylin, whose close-fisted generosity flattered both pride and independence. Dírmaen felt his face set into sternness, a mask over resentment and pain, as the Dwarf chuckled at one of her wry witticisms. Merely trading favors, they both insisted; a contest begun when Saelon had saved the dwarf-lord's life, and not ended when he repaid with the hall that sheltered her folk through their first famished winter by the sea.
What had she given the Dwarf, that he would offer—that she, who disdained even modest finery, would accept—that breathtaking sea-beryl in return? How could he hope to match such proofs of regard?
Why had he agreed to escort her to Lindon? To see her every day in Veylin's company; to watch her hand over goods that should be the Chieftain's due to Círdan? When had he become so weak? So pitiable that even the Dwarf wished him well?
Intolerable. The more he struggled against his desire, the deeper it bit into his flesh. Love had caught him like a snare. Who could free him, if she would not? Why had she not rejected him, so he would be free to seek some new duty? Orc-killing on the eastern marches of Eriador would distract him from this heartache . . . or put an end to it.
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The Elf found them again as they reached the pine-clad heights below the pass, and brought them to a fairly level glade, only moderately studded with boulders. There was little grass for their beasts, but a fine spring of water and a boar shoat hung by its hocks to bleed. Fresh pork and a grand dish of mushrooms for supper did something to lighten Dírmaen's dark mood: it was hard to wish oneself on the trail of Orcs while eating Saelon's cooking.
The mid-night watch fell to his solitary lot that night, and that was also a boon, for he found it equally difficult to sit silent beside a Dwarf in the darkness and to trade trifling words with him. Bersi had persistently offered conversation the night before last, speaking blandly of the deplorable state of the roads in the West, but the Ranger kept wondering how much the brown-bearded coppersmith had heard of his quarrel with Saelon at the foot of the hill where the Dwarves dwelt. Among other things that would have been better left unsaid, Dírmaen had admitted revealing the hill's location to Gwinnor; and Bersi's requirement that he give a solemn oath not to reveal the way into their halls, as the price of not going blindfolded, had been too apposite.
His conscience was not easy. They were not enemies; they had fought against the raugs together. But neither could he consider them friends. They were too secret. Why should they be, if they were honest?
Nor did he want to face Gwinnor's deceptively artless questions. The Noldo missed little, and having seen Veylin's gift about Saelon's neck, such curiosity burned in his ever-piercing eyes that Dírmaen could hardly bear to meet his gaze. Gwinnor had chaffed him for complying with Saelon's wishes rather than the Chieftain's back in Gwaeron—had the Elf read what was in his heart so long before it became clear to him?
Dírmaen would not subject another to the ugliness now in his heart if he could help it. Let him sit in the chill dark for a few hours and see if he could untangle it somewhat in solitude. He had had precious little solitude since he found Gwinnor and his mare in the hills.
The blank night peace soothed his spirit enough that he took a turn around the camp to whet his wakefulness. But when he came back to the low-burning fire, he found Saelon sitting there, staring pensively into the embers. "Lady," he exclaimed quietly, mindful of the others' slumber. "Why are you not sleeping?"
She glanced up to where the wind soughed in the pines, their boughs tossing far above the dim glow of the fire, and shook her head, shrugging. "Is the weather changing? The sea's speech I can interpret, but not that of the forest."
Unfamiliar sounds, in a strange place, might break anyone's sleep. "Yes . . . but there is little chance of rain tonight." Tomorrow night would be another matter.
"We have been fortunate with the weather," Saelon murmured, drawing her cloak more closely about her slim shoulders. "Where is your fellow watchman?"
"It is my turn to watch alone tonight." That was the agreement; yet between the sleeping Dwarves and their baggage, someone sat upright. Someone always sat upright, even when he had watched with Bersi or Skani. He did not understand: they allowed him to see the way to their door on the strength of his word, but feared he would thieve?
Saelon wished him to be at peace with Veylin—did she not see that suspicion lay on both sides? "So I say, though there is another on watch over there," pointing towards the dwarven side of the camp, a little apart, with his chin, "as if they do not trust anyone else on guard."
She peered that way. The lumpish shapes of blanket-muffled Dwarves, several of them snoring in the soundness of their sleep, could just be made out. "Over there, near the kists?" she said very quietly, hardly to be heard.
"Aye." She had good eyes.
There was a soft crackle from the fire, as a resinous twig fell into the flames. "I do not think it is you they mistrust." She glanced up at him, eyes unreadable in the night. "You know that Veylin and Gwinnor are both gemsmiths? Veylin speaks of their rivalry as a kind of game . . . yet I believe the stakes are very high."
Dírmaen looked away into the trees. The Elf was out there, somewhere, where he claimed the snores of the Dwarves would not disturb him. Those small, iron-bound chests—two were a heavy burden for a sturdy dwarf-pony. What did they contain? Gems? Gold? He frowned. "Is this a private game, or do they play on behalf of their kingdoms?" Why did Gwinnor call Veylin friend, if the Dwarf was plundering Lindon?
Chafing her hands against the night chill, Saelon sighed. "Perhaps it will become clear when we reach Mithlond."
"Is that why you did not wish to come?" Though surely, if he knew he rode towards contention, Veylin would have brought more of his followers. Or would he? The dwarf-lord's wiles were not to be discounted: he had brought the men of Srathen Brethil to heel quickly enough, without so much as showing steel, once his temper was roused—and felled Dírmaen with no more than a sweep of his crutch. Even his weakness could not be trusted.
Gwinnor called him a fox; not merely for his coloring.
"The rivalry between Veylin and Gwinnor, or the unfriendliness of Dwarves and Elves?" Saelon asked, dark brows knit.
She shook her head. "No; not since Gwinnor came. You were not here when Lindon's coastwarden visited us: he was unfriendly to Dwarves," she muttered. "If Círdan looked unfavorably on Veylin's presence, would he not have sent Falathar again, or another of his mind?"
"Rather than one who knows Veylin well?" Dírmaen posed in return. "Gwinnor thought to find him settled on the edge of the mountains, not beside the sea."
"It matters little at this point." Leaning over, Saelon took a branch from the woodpile and set it onto the glowing coals. "We are all going to Lindon."
The pine quickly caught; in the brighter light, he saw a shadow of the old haggard worry on her face. He was not easing her, talking so. "Forgive me," he murmured, and sat. "I have fretted you."
Silence, as she stirred the fire with a stick, and he cast about for some way to make amends. "What is it that troubles you," he finally asked, voice low, "if not the displeasure of Lindon?"
"I am wondering what mischief has befallen, back home."
Her mouth was harshly set. Was she cross at him, or truly brooding over what might go amiss at Habad? She was particular, and liked things just so; the work of others seldom satisfied her. "Nothing that cannot be mended," he assured her softly. "Come—Halpan will take good care of them, and not merely because he dreads disappointing you."
"I did not know you thought so highly of him." From her look, she believed he was humoring her.
This time last year, he had been furious with the young Dúnadan. "It is our loss, that he did not remain a Ranger." Dírmaen was brusque, remembering how Halpan gave up his star-brooch. That, too, was Veylin's doing. "We need all the men we can get . . . but you can ill afford to spare even one, I know. If he can bring Srathen Brethil back under cultivation, the Chieftain will probably think himself well served."
Saelon drew her hands back into the shelter of her cloak. "Do you know," she asked somberly, "what my brother gave the Chieftain for Srathen Brethil?"
So she did give thought to her proper allegiance. He shook his head. "Homage and service would be usual, but your lands were never part of Arnor. Did Râdbaran not speak to you of these things?"
"No." Her tone was curt. "He did not think a woman should bother herself with men's affairs."
Was that who had soured her against Rangers? She had been as welcoming as her straitened means allowed when they arrived, but by the time he returned from scouting Srathen Brethil, her mood was brittlely polite. Râdbaran—so gallant with women, so adroit with men—had been expecting Dwarves . . . and had gotten a second Haleth. The offer to gently relieve her of her charge would not have been welcome. "Few women care to. Yet I have heard that Queens sometimes ruled in Númenor."
"I do not want flattery."
He met her flat, fire-touched glare. "Good, because you will not get it from me. What do you want?"
"I—" She stopped herself, and when she finally answered, her anger had burnt to ash. "Things I cannot have."
"Peace," she whispered, staring into the flames. "Freedom."
"Who does not?" Dírmaen was disappointed: those were words men like Râdbaran used to put heart into people when they despaired of their long struggle to keep something still of Arnor. He had hoped for something more tangible from this pragmatic woman, something he might actually achieve.
"Yet so few ever have them. I did. For years. And I will never have them again."
He rose to go to her, for she was weeping, silently. "Saelon . . . ."
She darted up like a startled grouse, shaking her head. "No—" And fled back to her blankets.
He let her go, in peace; the only peace he could give her. He had fancied her fierce temper that of a wild falcon, that would not be tamed; but the bird was already made and manned, bating against the jesses set by a dead man's hand . . . and her own will.
How could she be untrammeled from that, without offense?
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Mount Rerir: the highest peak in a westward reach of the Ered Luin, just where the range turns and runs to the northeast. Maps of the Third Age give no local names, but a comparison with maps of the First Age (see the relative location of Himring Hill and the Isle of Himling) leaves little doubt of its identity. I would guess that in terms of size, it is on the order of the highest peak in Britain: Ben Nevis in the West Highlands (1340 m/4406 feet). Habad-e-Mindon lies about a day's ride north of this westward spur.
Lake Helevorn: found south of Mount Rerir in the First Age, but no longer on maps of the Third Age.
Thôntaen: Sindarin, "pine heights." This is the name I have given to the northernmost forest west of the Ered Luin on Tolkien's map.
"the advantages of wethers over ewes for producing wool": wethers are castrated male sheep; ewes are female sheep. Wethers produce more and finer fleece than ewes, since they are not putting their energy into making lambs and milk.
Shoat: a weaned pig, less than a year old.
Homage and service: the ceremonial pledge and performance of loyalty and duty to a lord, in council and war, given in return for a grant of land. This is the heart of feudalism. But since Srathen Brethil is west of the Lune and north of the Little Lune, it is technically in Dwarvish territory; the descendants of the kings of Arnor have no rights to that land.
"made and manned": the term used for a bird trained for falconry; biddable to man.
Trammel: a net used to catch birds or fish; particularly one with layers of coarser mesh around a finer one—the bird carries some of the fine net through the coarser one, and is doubly entangled.
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