The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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After Stormy Seas: 3. Any Port in a Storm
Here is no water but only rock.
--T. S. Eliot, "The Waste Land V: What the Thunder Said"
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"Wretched weather," Bersi grumbled, wiping the rain from his sodden brows and wringing his beard, so it did not drip so much. "Do not tell me you want to go roofless tonight!"
Four fair days; now, when they reached the mountains, the debt came due. They had hardly gotten over the pass before the leaden clouds opened and began to slowly drench them.
"Of course not," Vitnir growled. "But who would take us in, while we are in their company?" He flicked a testy glance to where the Men and Elf were huddled in the dubious shelter of a tall clump of whin.
Standing beneath the overhanging branches of the neighboring bush, Veylin was glad he was a reasonable height—and that Saelon had brought so many hazelnuts in her supplies. Waybread was tedious eating at the best of times, and not improved by a soaking. "We can but ask," he observed, with the fatalism that passed for wisdom. "Do any of you have kin in these parts, or know of any who would entertain strangers? Ivaldi would take us for my sake, but we would have to double back and then go another league and a half north." Almost a day's travel lost; not worth it for mere rain. Now, if it were colder . . . .
"A cousin of ours dwells not far off our way," Bersi offered, taking the sack of nuts from his son and drawing out another handful before passing it on to Thyrð. "Distant, but friendly. He might harbor them." The coppersmith eyed Gwinnor and stroked his damp whiskers, not quite concealing a droll smile. "It might be amusing to watch the High Elf stoop to enter his door."
"If he will be parted from that grey jade of his," Veylin muttered. He would not have the gemsmith pass his own doors; he could hardly ask another to take him. What if Tharvi refused those who were not Dwarves? "Do you know of any derelict houses," he asked his fellows, "or scrapes, or even abandoned mines hereabouts?" There would be less comfort, but also less chance of division. Too many faults ran through their party, some of them deep as the mountains' roots.
If any did, they were unwilling to reveal it. The hazelnuts went around again before Barði gave a resigned sigh. "I will ride to Thvari's, and ask if we might shelter with them for the night."
His father gave him an approving clap on the shoulder, then distastefully shook off the wetness pressed from the sodden wool of his cloak. "Assure Tharvi we know them well. No booth will keep this out, and I want a hot meal and dry clothes."
As did they all. Watching Barði untie his pony, Veylin wondered if he might authorize him to offer a consideration, if the Broadbeams were reluctant . . . though going to speak privately to him now would appear peculiar, to his own folk as well as the others, who were watching the younger coppersmith mount with puzzlement. Such a delicate matter: if hospitality was not freely given, no Dwarf with any pride would take guests for a fee. When those who asked were Khazâd, there was no need, for they were all akin. The door was open, or it was shut.
But when those who sought shelter were not the Children of Mahal? Veylin chafed his stiff, fiend-rent knee, hoping some warmth would ease the bone-deep ache, ever-present but always worse in foul weather. Seldom did they permit others to penetrate the security of their deep halls, save for proven friends. Yet some sort of boon-payment might not be out of place, not to hire hospitality but as a token of bond. A dwarf-house did not have the protections he had built into his own halls, and nothing like those of the great mansions, where folk of other race usually came, if they troubled to seek Dwarves.
And then, who would pay? In such case, it ought to be Gwinnor and Saelon. For all his present rustic appearance, Veylin was sure the Noldo had something about him that he could give, if he wished—but the Lady was literally penniless, and the goods the Men carried were destined for Círdan. Veylin did not doubt he and Saelon could come to an agreement whereby he forwarded her coin against the promise of grain or stock . . . but Vitnir, as his heir, would take that trust ill, already believing he was too open-handed with the Men; while the Ranger would likely object as well, obstinate in his view that the Dwarves were profiting overmuch from Saelon and her folk.
So he stood and watched Barði trot off into the grey gloom of the mountain mist. He must not bring on quarrels by trying to forestall them. Let them see what the Broadbeams said before complicating matters further.
"Where does Barði go?" Gwinnor called across, loud enough to carry above the dull thrum of the rain.
Why could he not come over, if he wished to speak with them? Veylin strove to disregard his lameness, so far as possible, but he would not stump haltingly across the distance between them when the Elf was sound. "There may be shelter, at a place he knows, some way ahead," he shouted back.
"I hope so!" Gaernath burst out, from the depths of his drooping, dripping hood. "Is it far?"
"More than two leagues," Bersi replied phlegmatically. "If it is open to us."
For all his stoicism, Dírmaen seemed nearly as eager. "What kind of shelter? Like where we housed the night before reaching Srathen Brethil last autumn, or the scrape cut into the cliff by the tarn?"
Gwinnor set a hand on the Ranger's shoulder as if to silence him. "Any roof will be welcome, Veylin!"
So much for the hope that the Elf, impervious to wet and wind, would scorn to creep into a modest delf. Even immortal flesh could grow chill, it appeared, for as they prepared to mount and continue on their way, Gwinnor briskly rubbed his long-fingered hands together before offering them as a step for Saelon to take her seat behind Gaernath, saying something that made her chuff and roll her eyes.
Some witticism at his expense, or that of Dwarves in general? Or perhaps it was innocent—although knowing the Elf's double-bitted humor, that seemed doubtful. Veylin sought to throttle his mistrust. This cursed weather was making him surly, just when diplomacy might be most needed. As they set off, Oski swore at one of the beasts he had on a leading rein, balky under its burden of copper ingots. They were all grumpish, the conviviality that had made previous days so pleasant thoroughly damped. Everyone's hood was cast as far forward as still permitted sight; the treacherous trail, stones slick with wet where not greased with mud, seldom allowed more than two ponies abreast—it was a day that could only be endured, reminding oneself that every plodding step of the beasts brought them so much nearer the end of their journey.
When they had gone far enough for the train to sprawl out along the way, the longer-legged horses outpacing the sullen ponies, Veylin was startled out of dour reverie by Bersi's low voice beside him. "You think Thvari will not take the others in?"
"You know your own kin best, I am sure." Veylin angled his head so he could peer at his friend without getting too much rain in his face. "I would not expect mine to be so hospitable, however."
The coppersmith gave a commiserating cough and lifted his head a fraction to consider Vitnir's hunched shoulders, a hundred paces ahead. "Do you know," he wondered, "some reason why they being our companions should be insufficient surety?"
"No." Was that too hasty, too brief, for true assurance? "Though I will keep Gwinnor from Gunduzahar, if I can. How, then, can I vouch for him?"
"That is whom concerns you?" Bersi sounded complacent. "Thvari and his brother quarry slate. I doubt a mírdan would stoop to such stuff."
"Yes, that is probably too humble to excite the Noldo's interest," Veylin agreed. How many of his misgivings should he reveal to his friend? He did not mislike the Elf, and valued his custom highly . . . yet he mistrusted Gwinnor's impeccably polished charm, and the depth of his understanding made Veylin uneasy. The Noldo knew much of Dwarves; perhaps too much. "Still, the less of my workings he sees, the happier I will be."
"You permit Dírmaen to enter the hall," Bersi observed.
The Ranger had no magic, except, perhaps, his affinity for beast and bird, and was nearly as austere as Saelon. What did a gemsmith have to fear from one whose vanity was sated by a simple silver star? "Dírmaen's mistrust is open and honest, though misplaced. He believes we trespass on Lindon's lands, and that I have drawn Saelon into the dispute. I am glad Halpan charged him with this journey, for he will see he is mistaken when we reach Mithlond."
"If you can content Círdan," Bersi pointed out.
"If so." A great jut of gritstone narrowed the way and parted them again.
There was far more than that in the piece, however, and contenting the Shipwright would likely do no more than strip the plate from the baser metal. When Dírmaen came seeking a spear to carry against the fiends from him a year ago, the Ranger had shrugged off the question of trespass. They began to disagree when Veylin intimated that their Chieftain's expectations of complaisance were not balanced by generosity in time of need; and Dírmaen's frank reply on the matter of his familiarity with Saelon only cleft the rift deeper, paving the way to the final rupture, when the Man tried to stay him.
Which did the Ranger resent more, Veylin wondered: that a Dúnadaneth should prefer the aid and counsel of men of other folk, or that a lame Dwarf had brought him low with no more than a blackthorn stick? Dírmaen held his honor dear, and both must gall him to the bone. Why the Man remained at White Cliffs, dwelling in the dwarf-delved hall that must constantly remind him of these indignities, was a mystery to him. But if he desired Saelon . . . .
Veylin had thought the Dúnadan's objections to his friendship with Saelon naught but politics and pride of race, a sense of propriety as nice as his honor. Though he did not see eye to eye with Dírmaen, as he had quipped once or twice, he did not think the Man malicious; yet Saelon had charged him with jealousy, and his silences now seemed ominous.
He was on unknown ground here; strange and perilous, trying to judge the hearts of Men.
If Dírmaen thought him a rival, he was mistaken. Yes, Veylin admired Saelon, perhaps more than any who was not Khazâd . . . but not in that way. She was proving to be a trusty friend, but what was there to desire in such a bald face?
Nor did Saelon look on him with a covetous eye. He had known her hardly a handful of days when she came to them from the wave-hammered strand, flushed and giddy as a lass reappearing in a feast-day dance after a suspiciously lengthy absence; and the next evening her brother had resignedly confessed he would leave her by the sea, for her heart was given. Her lord and brother could not budge her; she had defied the emissaries of her overlord and Círdan to cleave to the coast. Having now seen storm waves thundering to shore for himself, Veylin marveled even more at her audacity. How could the quiet Ranger hope to capture a heart enamoured of such tumultuous might?
Yet despite her anger at his mistrust and jealousy, Saelon had not rejected Dírmaen outright. Did she judge they could ill afford to lose his skill with bow and spear? They were sorely short of men, and Dírmaen was the best warrior and hunter among them. Veylin had heard that Men gave their women in marriage, as if in trade, to cement alliances or placate foes. Saelon had no near kinsmen still living, none elder than her, who might use her thus. She held authority in her own hands, as Lady of her people. Would she give herself for such a reason, or did she merely intend to keep him paying court until more of the scattered men of Srathen Brethil returned next spring?
It was none of his affair; would not be even if Saelon were kin in fact instead of fancy. She was a shrewd woman and knew her own mind; she would do what she thought best for her people, and herself. Yet how different this was from how such matters were managed among Dwarves.
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The rain eased as the afternoon wore on, becoming a dank fog that masked all but the slopes of grey scree and dull green heath that fell away on either hand, turning his companion's mounts into vague shadow-shapes and muffling their hoof-falls. So the elven-horse's neighing challenge rang shrill, bringing Veylin's head up with a jerk. Peering anxiously into the mirk ahead, he kicked his pony into something approaching a trot. Was this Barði returning?
A shout, pitched deep to carry, rolled back along the ridge, its rising tone promising success, and he gave a gusty sigh of relief. The specter of a chill, cheerless night—what would they have burnt for fuel, on these bare, sodden hills?—receded. A good coal fire, ale, and something hot from the pot . . . .
When he reached the head of the halted train, Veylin found two Dwarves sitting ponies beside Barði, who was introducing them: Nari, a black-bearded Broadbeam with a hood of heavy red woolen; and Heptir, one of Durin's Folk, a proud beard over a patched cloak. Many of the Eldest's House had taken refuge in their western mansions, and Thorin Oakenshield had established his own hall further south, yet others were scattered throughout the mountains, laboring for whomever needed extra hands, striving to rebuild their fortunes.
When the rest of their party had crowded up, ponies stamping as the prentices sought to come near enough on the narrow way to hear their fate, Nari cast a considering, curious eye over the Men and Elf, then nodded, as if coming to a decision. "Nari, Ari's son, am I," he declared, as dignified as one of grand fortune, "and my brother Thvari and I offer you our hospitality. We have few neighbors and little traffic passes by, so we would be glad of your company and the chance to trade news. We had heard that there was a menace in the north—" his gaze strayed from his fellow Dwarves to the Men "—and who could tell the tale so well as you, who ended it?"
"We will give it, in return for fire and drink, and a dry place to lay our heads!" Vitnir promised. "Lead on!"
They continued along the ridge a little ways, then slithered down a steep track into the deep dale that lay on the left hand, their beasts almost on their haunches. At the bottom, they struck a broad, level way beside a narrow lake. Here, in the clearer air below the cloud that mantled the hilltops, Veylin's heart lifted as they trotted forward in close company. Had word of the fiends spread even to such out of the way places as this? Well, now . . . and why not? Had the monstrous things, like bestial trolls that laired in water, multiplied, places such as this—he glanced at the choppy, leaden waves lapping the shore—would have become wastelands, bereft of beasts, evil for any folk.
Having slain the creatures—having slain the very one that lamed him, avenging himself and Thekk together—he could tell the story with pride rather than shame. Indeed, it made a fine tale, grief and adversity endured until vengeance could be satisfied, in a double strand: for Men had suffered as well as Dwarves, and played their part in the final battle.
Nari led them away from the lake along a swift, rocky-bedded beck and across a clapper bridge of flawed green-grey slate, then drew up on the narrow terrace beyond and dismounted. "The prentices can unload your beasts here," Nari told them. "The house is a little way up this path."
A sweet place, Veylin thought when he had laboriously climbed to the door-step and paused to ease his leg: well-defended by the beck and sheer stone, with a grand view of lake and dale. On a fine evening, this would be a pleasant place to sit and smoke, watching the country round about and listening to the water below.
Filing in through the door—of the others, only Saelon did not have to stoop to enter—they came into a goodly hall, well-lit by lamps hung from stout square piers and gratefully warm after the rawness without, fires stoked high in its opposing hearths.
"Welcome, Bersi!" This must be Thvari, embracing the coppersmith warmly; he looked much like his brother, and by his side stood a youngster who was surely the son of one or the other of them. "It is good to see kinsmen."
"Especially on a day like this!" Bersi assured him. "Come, let me introduce my companions. It is good of you to take so many of us, Thvari, with so little warning. Veylin, son of Vali, you have heard me speak of."
"Often," Thvari agreed, bowing deeply. "At your service."
"At yours and your family's, assuredly," Veylin replied, matching the bow. "This is my cousin, Vitnir, Nali's son."
They traded the usual courtesies, then Bersi gestured toward the Noldo, who had been observing with polite attention. "Also in our company is Gwinnor of Lindon, sometimes herald of Círdan." A lover of gems, the gesture warned, though Veylin did not see much finery that would warrant defense.
"Many thanks for your hospitality, Thvari and Nari, sons of Ari." Gwinnor bowed courteously low. "After a day such as this, a dwarf-wrought roof is very welcome."
"Better than boughs?" Thvari asked, and though he smiled, his eyes glinted in the lamp-light. "There is a fine beech-wood nearby, if you would prefer the free air."
"A Deep Elf such as myself, who left his heart in Nulukkhizdîn? Stone is more to my taste than leaves, save on a night of bright stars."
When Gwinnor spoke that name, the proper name, every Dwarf within earshot stared at him; over by the door, Fram stood gaping, still holding a heavy chest of copper; beside him, Heptir looked thoughtful indeed. "You Elves and your stars," Thvari snorted, choosing to pass over it lightly. "Well, it will be brighter within tonight, and drier, too." Turning back to Bersi, he said, "Strange company you keep, kinsmen. Rumors have passed of a Dwarf-friend in the north, but they did not speak of an Elf."
"Ah, no," Gwinnor sighed, with regret Veylin would have found poignant if he had not been admiring the art of it, "that title I have not earned." Stepping back, he extended his pale hand towards Saelon. "It will be the Lady you have heard of."
Thvari's gaze went from her to Veylin, then back to Bersi as if for confirmation, uncertain, doubtless wondering how to proceed. Veylin scowled at the Elf, who had no right to name anyone a Dwarf-friend. Had he taken this shabby half-introduction to himself out of vexation? His curiosity about the gifting of the sea-jewel was still unslaked, yet surely so shrewd an understanding had grasped that it touched on their rivalry. "Sons of Ari," Veylin proclaimed, in his finest high council manner, "this is my good neighbor Saelon, the ruling Lady of White Cliffs and Srathen Brethil," while signing, You need not disregard her sex.
Saelon gave him an odd look as she came forward to curtsey deeply to their hosts, sensing the contest but apparently not reading it plain. "At your service, Masters. My escort, Dírmaen of the Rangers—" who managed a civil bow "—and I are grateful for your hospitality. I hope that if you ever find yourself in the north, you will allow me to return the favor."
"At yours and your family's, Lady." Thvari regarded her with barely concealed fascination when he straightened from his reverence. "From what Barði has told us, you have hosted Dwarves often enough that the debt runs the other way. I look forward to hearing your tale, but doubtless you are all wanting hot water and something dry to stand in." With less confidence, he proposed, "Lady, we thought to put you and your men in a suite, so you might have a chamber to yourself, and yet be together. Will that be satisfactory? I fear we are unfamiliar with Men's customs in such matters."
"A bundle of heather in a dry corner would satisfy me, Master," Saelon assured him with a smile.
"I should be ashamed to have so little to give a guest. Thár," Thvari told the lad beside him, "show our guests to their chambers, then help with the baggage."
The chambers were modest, and the furnishings in a by-gone style—as was so often the case, this house looked to have been more populous in the past—but the water in the ewers was admirably hot and there was plenty of it, enough that all Oski and Thyrð could squabble over was space before the hearth to take the dampness from their linen. Listening to them with half an ear as he secured his last braid with its copper clasp, Veylin smiled, remembering his own prentice days. Oski was senior, in lineage, age, and service, while Thyrð was his kin: a pretty little problem in precedence, and one they must sort out between them.
He was about to leave them to it, his hand nearly on the latch, when there was a knock on the door. Thinking it was Bersi, he threw it open—startling the Dwarf without, someone he had not yet seen.
For good reason: it was a woman. Bowing in profound apology, he held the door open in invitation. "Veylin, at your service. Will you step in?"
She nodded and came in quickly, giving the quarreling lads—who promptly fell silent—a mother's disapproving scowl. When he had shut the door behind her, she returned his bow. "I am Hervor, Thvari's spouse. Is everything to your liking?"
"The only things lacking," Veylin assured her, "are ale and food, which I imagine will soon be set on the table. To what do we owe the honor of this visit?" For to see one's hostess at one's door was out of the ordinary, at least when there were strangers in a delf.
Fingering the ornaments in her auburn beard, Hervor pursed her lips, then asked, "One of the beardless ones is a woman?"
Ah; curiosity had led to daring. "Yes, the Lady Saelon, a true friend of Dwarves. You can easily distinguish her, if you join us this evening . . . for such news as we can tell, if not for supper. The women of Men are quite different in appearance from their menfolk, so much so they do not bother to disguise themselves on the road."
Drawing herself up, she regarded him with narrowed eyes. "You think I will come into the hall, when foreigners are there?"
Perhaps he had grown too complacent about other folk of late. "You must do as you judge best," Veylin acknowledged, bowing his head. "It is prudent to be cautious. Your menfolk will enjoy passing on our tales, I am sure."
Somewhat mollified, Hervor allowed, "From what Barði said, it sounds singular." A veneer of politeness over skepticism, perhaps even distaste: though the circumstances seemed queer, it would be impolitic to offend one of his rank and wealth.
"So my sister has observed. Not," he added blandly, "that it has dissuaded her from profiting by trade with the Lady."
"Your sister trades with Men?" Consternation clashed with cupidity in that cry.
"With the Lady . . . who does not know she is a woman, let alone my sister . . . in the security of our hall; yes. My sister is a sensible woman. Riches," Veylin concluded sententiously, "do not come without some risk. Commerce is good, is it not?"
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Jade: a vicious or worn-out horse; hence the term, "jaded."
"boon-payment might not be out of place, not to hire hospitality but as a token of bond": a boon is a good thing or favor, given freely as a gift, or a request for the same. A boon-payment (the compound is my own invention) is a gift meant to incline the recipient favorably towards the giver, so they are more likely to grant the giver a favor. Bond here has a double sense: socially, as something that creates a relationship between the parties, so they are no longer total strangers; and legally, in the sense of a surety—basically, a security deposit. A polite little fiction, really, that would allow everyone to look generous and unconstrained, while giving the homeowner some reassurance and making the potential risk worth his while.
Double-bitted: a tool's bit is the cutting edge (akin to bite); a double-bitted axe is sharp on both ends.
Gritstone: in British geological terminology, a rough-textured sandstone suitable for grinding is called a grit or gritstone.
"plate from the baser metal": the term plate refers to precious metals, particularly silver; these are often plated—deposited in a thin layer—over less valuable metals to make objects appear more valuable than they really are.
Beck: a mountain stream; the term is common in northern England. Since I imagine that they are in the area roughly equivalent to Cumbria (more widely known as the Lake District), I am using the geographic terms usual there.
Clapper bridge: a simple bridge constructed by laying slabs of stone across a narrow watercourse; if more than one slab is required, the ends are supported by piers of piled stone. The name comes from the fact that when weight is placed on one end of the slab, the other tends to rise up, and then "claps" down as the load crosses. In some areas, they are traditionally called "dwarf-bridges," since locals believe Dwarves originally built them.
Nulukkhizdîn: the Khuzdul name for Nargothrond.
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