The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Hand to Hand: 2. Leavetaking
Quhair I wes wont to se hir go
Ryght trymly passand to and fro,
With cumly smylis quhen that I met hir;
And now I leif in pane and wo,
And brekis my hairt, and nocht the bettir.
Quhattane ane glaikit fule am I
To slay myself with malancoly,
Sen weill I ken I may nocht get hir!
Or quhat suld be the caus, and quhy,
To brek my hairt, and nocht the bettir?
My hairt, sen thou may nocht hir pleiss,
Adew, as gude lufe cumis as gaiss,
Go chuss ane udir and forget hir;
God gif him dolour and diseiss,
That brekis thair hairt and nocht the bettir.
--Alexander Scott, "To Luve Unluvit"
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Dírmaen sat in the tall grasses, sere now, where the shoulder of the headland met the level lea, watching from afar as Saelon waved farewell to the swan-breasted ship, already hidden from his sight by the rock at his back. Sea-Elves seemed more to her liking than the artful Noldor; or perhaps she was simply glad to see them go. The fewer folk about her, the better she was pleased.
If he could bring her no other pleasure, he could relieve her of one more guest, unwished for, who had long outstayed his welcome.
There atop the highest sandhill she turned to speak to Halpan, as Gaernath continued to gaze after the Elves, hand shading his eyes. Able youngsters, both: with her to counsel them, and Partalan's rough skill, these folk had little to fear. Last night, the lad had regaled the company with the tale of the hunt at the Havens, and little embellishment was needed to rouse envy in Halpan, as eager in the chase as any . . . and something darker in Leod, who quietly drew his enthralled wife away. Such unsociability would be excused in those so newly wed, yet Dírmaen guessed the cottar's chief desire was to prevent Murdag from regretting her choice of husband.
That bit of commonplace ill-will seemed the gravest threat to the contentment of Saelon's hardy band, but it was not a Ranger's place to combat it. He had tarried here too long, when need was greater elsewhere.
After a time, Saelon's cousins left her, Halpan calling away the boys who larked amid the sandhills. Leaving her to the sea she loved.
Love. No one could doubt her attachment to that restless water, a fierce and obstinate devotion that set all else at naught: the authority of their Chieftain, the bounds of Lindon, the very company of her fellow Men. Sea-mad, her folk murmured, knowing no other way to explain so queer a passion, though Círdan's herald had scathed them for it. For the most part, Elves respected her desire to cleave to the shore, though the trespass displeased them; and even Veylin, who mistrusted the waves, upheld her allegiance, honoring it with a jewel that made her preference manifest.
The Dwarf had warned him that she was wedded to the sea, but he had not wished to hear. How could a woman prefer the cold crash of the waves to the warmth of a man's embrace? Was it not rather that she had been her own master so long she would brook no other?
He had not wished to rule her, only to relieve her of some of the burdens that had crabbed her generous spirit and protect her from harm, every man's duty to a woman. Yet she would take nothing from him save meat for the table and a spear in a raug: not counsel, not care, not even an arm to carry her cloak.
The raugs were slain; she had kinsmen enough to hunt for her; she had achieved all her desire by following the counsel of others, and was honored by lords of Elves and Dwarves. He must not be a fool. Let him go where he was wanted.
When enough time had passed that she could have paced the slow length of the strand, the sough of the surf soothing her soul, Dírmaen rose and went to find her.
She was standing in the shallows of one of the pools that lay among the rocks that hedged the sand, skirts kilted to the knee, gazing into its crystal depths. This was the Saelon who had captured his heart: not the high-born Lady who had gone before the great of Lindon with silver starring her marten-dark hair and a dwarven gem at her breast, but the barefoot woman with draggled skirts, fearlessly tramping the countryside for leagues about in search of berry and blossom and root.
You would not know she was Dúnedain at a glance, for she was small and dark, her fair skin burnt nearly as brown as his own . . . but only those who judged women by their dress could think her plain. Her high brow and the brilliance of her sea-tempered eyes showed her descent from the kings of old, and she moved with the sure grace of a clean-limbed doe. The strength of her slim hand, clasping his as they danced at Maelchon's houseraising, he would remember until his final breath. The noble carriage of her head, the sweet scent of herbs that lingered about her—
Dírmaen bit his lip. He must not torment himself this way. "Lady."
She startled, staring up to where he stood on the low sandhill, but her surprise quickly flattened to reserve. "Yes, Dírmaen? Is something amiss?"
"No." Not as she meant, aught among her people that required her attention. Stepping down the shifting slope to join her, he halted a seemly distance away. "I have come to take my leave."
Had she learnt this inscrutability from the Dwarves? "Where are you going?"
At least she did not pretend to misunderstand him. The mismatch of their desires had been made painfully clear when first he spoke his heart . . . and nothing that had befallen since had changed hers. "Wherever the Chieftain chooses." He ought to have gone as soon as she refused him—yet she had required escort to the Havens, and since she went, Halpan must stay, so those faithful to her house were not without a guardian.
She was not the one who had bound him. She had not wished to go. "We have only just finished a long journey. Will you not take a few day's rest before you depart?"
Sailing had not been wearisome; a few days would bring not rest, but a return to his customary tasks. They had managed without him for near a month, and delay would only renew reliance. "If I must go, the sooner the better: the weather will grown no fairer, nor the days longer."
The ease he required could not be found here.
"If—?" Saelon shut her mouth on her own question, crooked with dissatisfaction. "Rian is nearly finished your shirt. One more day should see it done."
There was an old tale—of whom, he could not remember—wherein a hero's wife put off evil by undoing her day's work each night, so the required garment was never completed. Should something unexpected arise, one day could easily become two, and two three . . . . That was why, mistrusting himself, he had left Mada on the ridge below the tumbled stones of the ancient tower, saddled and laden with his scant possessions. "No, Lady." Let him go as he had come: unseen, unsuspected.
She regarded him ruefully. "Argonui will think we did not care for you."
He did not think she cared for him, not so much as her pride. "I will assure him otherwise," he promised, frowning at the cold resentment in his voice. He must leave before he came to hate her. "We have disagreed, but I hope you do not believe I will speak ill of you to the Chieftain."
"No," she sighed, with a half-smile that tore his heart, "you will give him an honest report. I would not have it otherwise. If he is displeased, do not you take the blame!"
"I will take as much of it as I deserve."
After a bald silence, she murmured, "You will be sorely missed."
As a horse, when there was one fewer in the stable. "You will manage, Lady. You always do."
"Yes," she agreed, mouth wry. "Yet it will be harder without you. I am sorry I cannot repay you as you wish."
This was not the candor he had wanted from her. Bowing his head in mute acknowledgment of the bitter truth, Dírmaen said firmly, "Farewell, Saelon."
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And he was gone. Moving to a sun-warmed rock, Saelon sat and drew her cloak more closely about her, watching Dírmaen stride up the steep slope until he was lost among the craggy tussocks.
Was this a boon or a loss? Something of each, so intertangled that she did not know whether to be melancholy or glad. She would miss him. He was a good man: active and able as any Ranger could be—there, the flick of his grey cloak as he scrambled up the shoulder of the headland, making for the tower. He must mean to slip off into the hills rather than ride by Maelchon's, where explanations might be called for.
Those he would leave to her, it seemed, unsatisfying though they might be to the hearers.
Saelon shook her head. Vexing man—though he had vexed her less than many others, until this apparent infatuation arose. However had he come to fancy himself in love with her? He did not approve of her independence or her friends, nor sympathize with her attachment to the sea; and she was more than twice the age at which Dúnedain maidens were wont to wed. Why should a sensible man desire a cross-grained wife of middle age, who could bear him few children and would refuse to remove to his home? Either he was insincere or out of his wits, neither of which was attractive. Even if he were sincere, his kin must disapprove the match. Her own had been unkind enough, the bond of blood notwithstanding—she had no desire to acquire more.
Yes, it was best that he was going. She would not like to think ill of a man who had done so much for them.
Casting a glance back at the tide pool where a lobster lurked in the rocky crevices, Saelon set aside her efforts to recall the traps the Elves used to catch the fearsome-looking yet tasty creatures. How was she to manage the loss of Dírmaen?
He had been a tireless hunter, with an uncanny sense for beast or bird. In the famine time before their first harvest, that had been a blessing indeed, but fortunately he was also a good teacher, honing Halpan's skill and turning Gaernath's youthful enthusiasm into real ability. He had been a better example to her young kinsmen than Partalan, sober, diligent, and upright, and she hoped his influence would linger long.
Aside from that, however, he had done little that others could not do as well, save the one great deed against the raugs. He had scouted endlessly for peril that never appeared; been a better hand with the horses than Canand, but not much more so than Halpan . . . although no one could mend harness or boots so well.
Were any of them irreplaceable? In truth, Saelon had been surprised and very well pleased to see how ably Halpan and Rian had managed in her absence. Oh, there were things ill-done and undone—the bere ought to have all been threshed long since, and perhaps a third of the meadowsweet the lasses had gathered was already musty—but none of it was dire. They were young and lacked experience; if she were wise, as some said, her own mistakes had made her so.
Dírmaen would be missed most next spring, Saelon supposed, rising and making for the easiest way up the dunes, when Halpan and Partalan went to Srathen Brethil to watch over the families that had agreed to return to their holdings. If there was to be a lordship to pass on to her brother's son when he came of age, there must be people: empty land was but a hollow patrimony, and the few with her here would not sustain the dignity of their house, long though it had been since they were the sons of kings. That would leave only Gaernath to hunt . . . but there was ample stock and all the boys had taken to fishing; and since they were only allowed a score of deer, it was better that they waited until a later season, when the beasts were prime.
So too, fewer were immediately dependent on her, she reflected as she gazed across the stubble on the machair, where her cattle and Maelchon's were mingled. The husbandman and his wife were happy in their house behind the cliff, far enough off that those who had remained in the dwarf-delved hall sometimes went days without meeting any of the family save their boisterous boys. Muirne and Murdag had taken husbands since they came to this shore, fast friends even before they became sisters through marriage, cheerfully sharing one chamber and care of their husbands' crotchety gaffer. Unagh still looked after her father, as well as the brother of her raug-slain sweetheart. When Halpan and Partalan were away, that would leave only Rian and Hanadan, Gaernath and Canand in her household.
If Rian would take charge of most household chores, as was only proper at her age—valuable practice for when she was the mistress of her own house—in addition to her weaving and needlework, Saelon would be free to give more time to herbs and her garden, which would provide wherewithal to trade with Veylin's folk. Corn the Dwarves got from Maelchon, and would keep getting until their work on his house had been requited; but fruit and greenstuff had greater value, and she could hope for better luck with the wheat and oats Veylin had given her.
Was there anything she might take with her when she went to Gunduzahar tomorrow, save news from the Havens and the message Veylin had entrusted to her? She needed nothing from the Dwarves at present, but since they were willing, she could trade for coin . . . and then when she went to Mithlond next Yáviérë, she would not be penniless.
Yet before she began spending her wealth in dreams, she must give serious thought to what could be spared for the Chieftain of the Dúnedain. Saelon trailed her hands in the swift, chill water of the burn beside the track, sending the salt on her skin back to the sea. Though Halpan had assured her they had been granted ten years' remission of the customary fee for Srathen Brethil—mostly cattle and woolen cloth, yet in quantities currently beyond their means—it was not right that she paid a scot to Círdan for the use of Lindon's land and gave nothing to her own overlord. What did they have that he would value, that they could spare and would not be too burdensome to carry over the mountains and across the Lune? For her part, she would gladly send the herbs that only grew here by the shore, the ones she used to trade to Urwen for linen. She already harvested more than they required for their own needs to take to Lindon; another tithe would make little difference.
Yet there must be something else, something more valuable, a meet offering from kin still noble despite fate's cruelty. Herbs were a woman's gift, useful for healing or in the kitchen, but Argonui was a man and his province was war. All she had that a warrior might desire was her brother's helm, an ancient heirloom of their house, and that was not hers to give, only to hold as the symbol of her office and duty until Halmir was ready to—
No, that was not all she had. Her brother had entrusted her with more than his children and storied arms. He had also sent horses, the pick of his splendid herds, lovingly bred for speed and hardihood, mounts to match Rangers. They had not many mares of quality, but they had Môrfast, Halladan's matchless stallion, and even colts out of the common mares would make valuable mounts. The first crop of Habad-born foals were running on the shore pastures now, while the second already rounded their dams' bellies. They had no use for so many horses themselves, and Dwarves preferred mounts closer to their own height. Would it not be gracious to send Argonui several of the colts? Less than she could wish, perhaps . . . but then so had been the aid they had received from his house. A handful of horses should be ample return for five seasons of Dírmaen's service.
Satisfied, Saelon straightened and headed up the track, where long-neglected work awaited her.
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