The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Hand to Hand: 24. Another Man's Meat
'Tis not the meat, but 'tis the appetite
Makes eating a delight
--John Suckling, "Of Thee, Kind Boy"
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"Ailig! Come back here!" Muirne cried out, between despair and resignation.
Saelon looked up from thinning peas to see the tow-headed child scamper by in pursuit of her flapping and fussing geese, crowing with delight. "Leave him be," she reassured his harried mother, who halted by the garden with a grimace as the babe in her arms tugged on one of her blonde braids. "He will do no harm: those that are laying have found quieter places to nest." The worst that might happen, if Ailig chanced to catch one, was that he would get a shrewd peck and learn to respect the birds.
Muirne heaved a weary sigh as she pried Dornach's plump fingers from her hair. "Bless you, Lady. I cannot imagine how I am to manage when this imp begins to walk."
Pursing her lips, Saelon bent back to her task, pinching out another tender shoot. Usually Murdag and Unagh--and Rian--were only too glad to watch over and play with the babes, a welcome break from their chores, but now that their daughter was born Murdag and Leod had gone to Maelchon's, and Unagh gave half her day to her sister. Which had thrown more work on those of them who remained. "Tearlag is no help?"
"No, sweeting--do not chew on Mama's hair. Oh, a great help with her spindle and needle," the young wife hastened to say, though she would not meet Saelon's eye. "Ailig grows so fast! Yet," she murmured, "I begin to wonder if she has taken ill."
Saelon straightened up, wiping her hands on the worn wool of her skirts. "In what way?" Muirne's gentle soul shrank from complaint, but the serving woman remained a burden, her ravaged spirit continuing to ebb. She was unwilling to leave the hall . . . . Had she taken Dírmaen's lung-fever? If so, she must be moved away from the babes.
"I do not know, but I found her retching over the slop-bucket this morning."
Frowning, Saelon wondered what the woman could have eaten that did not agree with her. They were little troubled by stomach complaints here, save when the lads did fool things like gorging on cockles straight from the shell in the heat of summer. Not the buckies she had brought from the shore yesterday: Tearlag did not like sea foods. Yet Muirne may have prepared a separate dish for her family. "None of the rest of you were taken ill, in the night or this morning?"
Morning . . . . How many moons had it been, since the reivers fell upon them?
Muirne shook her head. "No. And she had no more than a bowl of milk and a few morsels of bannock for supper. Nothing to break her fast. She eats less every day." Shifting Dornach uneasily to the crook of her other arm, she asked, in an awful hush, "Can she mean to starve herself?"
"I do not know." Saelon had hoped time would heal what she could not. "Let me go to her, and see what is amiss."
Though the day was very fine, bright and mild and green as Gwirith could be, washed clean by yesterday's rain, Saelon found Tearlag alone in Artan and Muirne's chamber--the only body in all the hall--on the floor in a far corner with her back against the chill white stone. Grey she looked, in the wan light of a single dip; grey and ghastly, as if her shade already dwelt beyond. There was a spindle in her hand, but it was still; the fear-haunted eyes she raised at the opening of the door were bruised with sleeplessness, swollen with weeping.
Saelon went and settled down beside her, taking the hand that did not hold the spindle and cradling it in hers, stroking its sere skin with her thumb. "Muirne says you have no stomach for your meat," she said quietly, when they had sat so a while. "What new woe is this?"
Slow tears were her only answer.
How near they had all come to this! Yet the woman's oppression was too dreadful for long patience. "Are you with child?"
Tearlag's shoulders heaved, her thin body racked as the first sobs broke, rising to a thin, keening cry.
What could be done, but hold her close and rock her as if she were a suffering babe? This was an affliction too great for words. When the serving woman had wept herself--too quickly--to exhaustion, Saelon put her to bed and went across the hall to her own chamber for another blanket and a sleeping draught. Rest would do something; perhaps she should take Tearlag into her own chamber, away from Artan's rumbustious sons. A dish of muggins might whet her appetite: there was a fine patch of plants on the ledge of the other cliff, near the Dwarves' quarry.
As she sat before her kist, sorting through pouches and packets of simples--henbane was too potent for one so worn, bloodwort too mild; borage for courage would not go amiss; where had the knobby heads of the corn poppies gone?--Saelon's hand paused on the pennyroyal. That would soothe Tearlag's heaving gorge, but not so well as watermint, which grew thickly along the edges of the river. The creeping, small-leaved mint did not thrive here; it would be better to preserve what she had, since it was more valuable for lung complaints, and Dírmaen had drunk half her store. Besides, one did not give it to women who were carrying . . . .
Saelon drew her hand back as if she had brushed a torpid adder, the memory of the herb's somewhat bitter taste strong on her tongue, and turned to the other end of the kist, determined to find the poppy. Sleep first; then the muggins and some beef broth. Other remedies could come later, if required, when the poor woman was not half out of her wits with famishment and despair.
She had been carrying the pennyroyal with her, that day; for Gràinne's failing lungs. Why had she not thought to dose Tearlag then, as a preventative? As her grandmother had when--
Because Dírmaen had been bleeding his life away before her, and her head still ringing from the blows the reivers had dealt her.
There! The poppies--seldom used--were buried in the back corner, beneath the the kings-cup. Disentangling them, Saelon busied herself with compounding Tearlag's draught. Then a piece of brined beef must be set to soak, and the potherbs fetched . . . .
With one thing and another, and interruptions--always, there were interruptions--she did not get away to pick the muggins until the sun was well down in the sky; from the cliff-foot, she could see its light glint off the placid sea. On her way back down the slope, she passed the stubble of last year's small plots of wheat and oats--if she did not get the seed saved from the tempest-blasted stalks in the ground soon, there would be no time for the ears to mature, and Veylin's gift would be wasted.
Walking along the edge of the bere-field, she caught up her drover, carefully carrying pails of milk home, the dark bog-wood yoke bowing his wiry shoulders. "Good even, Canand," she greeted him. "How do the cattle fare?"
"I dinna know how ye coud ask for better, Lady," he replied, giving her a gap-toothed grin and a slight shrug of his shoulders, to draw attention to the brimming pails. "Sich land for kye I hae never seen."
"Where are you grazing them?"
"Ach, up the strand a bit, though I bring them back as night draws in. They are juist over the headland now. Still," he sighed, "I wad I had a good dog to keep watch ower them."
"There are no wolves, hereabouts," Saelon pointed out, with a sideways glance, "and foxes do not trouble kine. Nor do I think a dog would have fared better than Fokel against the reivers."
"Mebbe not. But it wad be some company." They walked together in silence for a while, until they reached the foot of the track; then he halted, squaring the yoke to face her. "Lady," he said, in his plain way, "ye know I was courting Tearlag afore the reivers came. Wad she welcome me, d'ye think, were I to begin agane?"
Saelon regarded him closely. "You know the villains treated her grievously."
"No need to mince words wi' me," the drover came gruffly back. "They swived her. I didna want to plague her while she was still raw, but she shouldna think I willna hae her."
Did Tearlag's despond well from her despoilment, believing no man would now have her, save for passing pleasure? She had been assiduously courted this last year, and while wedding a cottar would spare her no work, any husband would increase her dignity. At least she would drudge for her own man and babes, not another's.
Or had she taken a horror to men, so that she could not bear one even if he would have her? And what of that devil's spawn, quickening in her womb? Would Canand be so ready to take her, if there was a cuckoo in the nest? "I do not know," Saelon answered, with a heavy sigh. "That day still haunts her, and her spirit is slow to mend. I do not see any harm in trying, but do not take it to heart if she is unwelcoming."
"Na, na," the drover assured her. "She has been sore usit. O' coorse she is skerrit. So I hae yer blessing?"
"Heartily, if you can comfort her. Yet wait until tomorrow, or the next day: a touch of illness has put her further out of humour."
"Ye will set her t' rights," Canand said, with the phlegmatic complacence of his bovine charges. "I will bide."
He came behind as they climbed the track, it being narrow and the yoke with its burden making him broad, turning off towards her cave--which presently served as their dairy--when they reached the cliff-shelf. Saelon heard Unagh greet him as she went on to the hall with her own harvest. There she found Rian and Muirne talking quietly across the hearth as they prepared the supper bannocks.
"Is there enough for brewing as well as for Tearlag?" Rian asked, peering into her basket as she joined them.
"Whose tastes would you suit?" Saelon preferred heather and wood pease for flavoring ale, but Rian, following her mother, liked the bitterness of muggins.
Her niece smiled. "That depends on how much you found, so early in the season. Oh, I must not forget," she interrupted herself, pointing with her chin towards a bundle of sacking on the board. "Dírmaen has brought you something."
"What is it?" Saelon regarded the shapeless thing with a wary eye, as she handed her basket over to Muirne. "Here. Seethe as much of this as you think she will eat in the beef broth. If she takes none, fetch me."
"He did not say." Rian plucked up a nicely-browned bannock from the baking stone, and Muirne filled its place with a fresh round of dough. "He merely begged that you receive it promptly."
Begged? She had shunned him since he mortified her before Veylin and his prentices. Last night he was nowhere to be seen, but his brown gelding, long out on pasture, was stabled in the byre-cave, groomed to a high gloss . . . . Was this a parting gift, payment of some fancied indebtedness that would clear his conscience and free him to depart? Surely it could not be anything unpleasant, an expression of spleen. If Dírmaen wished to rebuke her, he did not fear to speak forthrightly.
Still, Saelon felt a strange reluctance as she went to take up the bundle. What was there to dread? She had known he would leave. She was obstinate in disobedience to the Chieftain; he was the Chieftain's man. He was needed in Arnor, and she had repeatedly, publicly, disavowed any dependence. Yet the man had almost nothing beyond horse and gear of war and what fit into a set of saddlebags; less than she had owned in her days of blessedly simple solitude. He could ill spare to part with any of his possessions.
There was a dead limpness to what lay within the cloth that brought other qualms back, briefly. Then, as she turned the coarse sacking back, she saw feathers: the ruddy bars and dark breast horseshoe of partridge.
"What is it?" Rian asked, as Saelon stared at the birds, mute with surprise; so mute she simply lifted the brace of cocks out of their wrappings for her niece to see. However had Dírmaen come by them? He had no hawk, no fowler's net--
"Partridge!" Rian exclaimed, coming over to examine them. "I did not know there were any here."
"A few, on the machair some leagues south." Shy birds, that she had seldom spotted and never been able to capture.
Was that a gleam of arch speculation in her niece's eye? "Such a handsome present! Does he know they are a favorite of yours?"
"I may have mentioned it." She had: not long after he first arrived. He had brought in some grouse, and she had wished they were partridge, for she had had none since the last Yule spent with her brother in Srathen Brethil . . . three and a half years ago now.
Rian drew them from her hands. "Let me see to them. They come too late for supper, but will make a nice dish for your dinner tomorrow. I remember how you like them."
"Thank you," Saelon murmured, though she wondered if she would be able to savor them properly. "Do you know where I might find Dírmaen, so I may thank him as well?"
Her niece shook her head. "No. He went back out, after entrusting these to me."
He must be in the byre-cave, tending his horse. Yet when she peered in, she saw only Mada, already sleek, ears pricked to the sound of other horses approaching.
"Lost somethin', Lady?" Airil asked as she stepped back out, from the bench where he sat in the sun, weaving withies into a creel for the pack beasts.
Looking along the cliff-shelf, Saelon thought that every man that belonged to the place was there . . . except the one she sought. Randir and Gaernath were dismounting after their day with the hounds, passionately discussing the virtues and vices of various dogs. Teig and Finean stood, heads together, over a rent leash, while Canand rinsed the milk pails with water from the spring. Artan, stacking freshly cut peats to dry near the hall door, paused to greet his elder son, tossing the crowing child up and catching him before bussing his cheek. "Did you see which way Dírmaen went?"
"Ach," the old man answered dismissively, waving a knobby-knuckled hand towards the south end of the cliff-shelf, where the boys were wearing a track up the steep way to the ruined tower, "he has flown awa' to his high perch."
"Thank you, Airil."
She had not taken this way to the tower since last autumn: it was a treacherous path even when the ground was tolerably dry, but the sun would set before she could go roundabout. Forunately, there was plenty of tussocky grass and heather to seize where there was slick mud underfoot, and the slope so severe that one hardly needed to bend to do so.
Taking care to be silent as she approached the summit, Saelon peered through the grasses along the lip. For a breath, she thought Dírmaen must be within the tumbled ring of stones, or on the other side, but then he raised an arrow to check the straightness of its shaft. The plainness of his clothes suited the crottle-covered stone and faded wisps of last year's grass, tall here where no beasts grazed. So still a man, and so quiet! No wonder he was an excellent Ranger, valued by his comrades as well as Coruwi.
Who else would have vexed her so little, while accompanying her on her lengthy forays after herbs? For until they met Veylin, she had had no complaint.
True, she had taken him with her as part of his cure, at first: he had been perilously low after his long incapacity, loathing his weakness so much that he was unwilling to do anything that made him feel it. One did not defeat debility through idleness, however, and she had not scrupled to use his custodial sensibilities to shift him.
Yet it was equally true that she had been glad of a companion, for her security had been wounded as gravely as his body. She did not fear to venture forth alone if she must, but her vigilance was now whetted to such a degree that the pleasure--the freedom--of solitude was sadly diminished. Some companion was desirable . . . and Dírmaen had suited very well, once his strength began to return. He was content to walk in silence as long as she pleased, not breaking in upon her thought; and while it had taken some effort to bring him to conversation when she believed his brooding morbid, his speech had gradually grown more natural, use wearing his unease away.
Surely weeks under the tyranny of her untender care had cured him of his infatuation as well as his wounds. Or so she had thought, until he bated at Veylin. Was it jealousy, or suspicion of less carnal intrigue, that poisoned his mind against her friend? She could not fathom how so discerning a man could imagine either. Let her go up, and discover what the partridges were meant to convey. With a gusty huff that might have been due to the steep climb, she clambered onto the crown of the hill.
Hastily setting aside an arrow-shaft, Dírmaen scrambled to his feet likewise. He started forward as if to offer his hand . . . then halted, hesitant as a hound that had been rebuked for chasing hares.
"Please, do not let me interrupt your work," Saelon urged, disliking the awkwardness of his attitude. He had such a spare grace, now that he moved easily again. "The light will not last much longer. I only wish to thank you for the partridges."
Eyes already cast down, he bent his high head further. "You need not. My conduct the other day was unpardonable; they are but a token of remorse."
Saelon pursed her lips. That he was conscious of fault was an improvement, but she would rather he vowed never to mortify her so again. She did not wish to lose her taste for partridge through a surfeit of the dainty. "I will accept them, if you explain yourself. In most things, I find your judgment admirably sound. Why do you take such an exception to my friendship with Veylin? Is it his conduct you find objectionable, or mine?"
When she began to think he would not answer, he finally said, very low, "I do not understand it, and you are peculiarly discreet."
"You do not understand how we are friends?"
"No. Have you ever before heard of Dwarves fraternizing with those of other race?"
Staring at him, Saelon considered, casting her mind back over the tales of ancient days. "I should not like to compare myself to Eöl. Yet Finrod, Friend of Men, was not ashamed to be called Felagund; and were not Eregion and Khazad-dûm allies while our fathers dwelt in Númenor? Gwinnor must have gained his knowledge of them through some confidence."
"They were all craftsmen together. What interest do you and Veylin share?"
They had been brought together by calamity, not mutual passions. "None, save a desire for security. Security here," she insisted, seeing Dírmaen's mouth begin to twist. "I do not fault you, nor the Chieftain, that there were no Dúnedain near to give us aid, no more than Veylin blames his own folk for leaving him to bleed on the moor. If there is anything we have in common, it is our singularity: we have both strayed far from well-trodden ways."
How severe he could be, in so few words! "And come to our own agreements with Lindon regarding any trespass."
From the quality of his silence, Saelon knew he was not convinced the Dwarves had fully compensated the Elves. She wished he had been stronger when Coruwi were here, so that he might have seen how matters stood between Círdan's marchwarden and Veylin for himself. "As for my discretion, if I have been reserved in matters touching Veylin's concerns, it is not from guilt, but out of respect. Dwarves are very close, and I take his confidence as an honor. I am sorry that you do not trust me likewise."
His cheek still pale after his long convalescence, there was no hiding his flush. "I have never doubted your honesty but once, Lady. Yet it is hard to watch you walk among hazards you will not shun. Your courage is beyond admiration . . . and, maybe, my fortitude."
Now it was her turn to blush. "I have always been a trial to my menfolk. Why do you think I left them? There was less grief so. I know," she sighed, "I cannot be so outlandish, now that I am Lady . . . but I have not yet found my way. I hope I am less careless than I was: I ought to have heeded your cautions last year, yet I was too used to going my own way." If--when--he left, she did not want him to think that he had bled for naught. "I am sorry."
Dírmaen bowed his head in that grave way of his, which might have meant almost anything--that he accepted her contrition or agreed she had been unwise--and bent to gather his arrows in the fading light. "Not so sorry as I. Shall we go down," he asked, simply prosaic, "before it grows too dark?"
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Dip: a tallow candle.
Muggins (also mugwort, Artemesia vulgaris): an herb used for flavoring and as a potherb, which stimulates the appetite.
Borage (Borago officinalis): an herb whose bright blue flowers are steeped in wine or made into a cordial, which gave courage and gladdened the heart.
Watermint (Mentha aquatica): a less-cultivated relative of spearmint and peppermint, used for many of the same medicinal and other purposes.
Kings-cup (also marsh marigold, Caltha palustris): a medicinal herb, also used for dyeing.
Kye: Scots, cattle.
"cuckoo in the nest": cuckoos (Cuculus canorus) are perhaps best-known for their habit of laying eggs in the nests of other birds, who then rear the interloper's chicks. This is a common folk metaphor for an adulterous bastard, as the word "cuckold" shows.
Creel: a wickerwork carrying basket. While today most people associate creels with fish, they were less specialized in the past.
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