The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Rock and Hawk: 3. Hammer and Tongs
He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
The curs of the day come and torment him
At distance, no one but death the redeemer with humble that head,
The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes.
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.
You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him;
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.
—Robinson Jeffers, "Hurt Hawks"
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Pain, and the sweet smell of limestone.
The pain ran through his body like ore through rock . . . yet it was the hot throb of flesh and bone reforging themselves, not the sharp shrillness of fresh wounds. How . . . ? They had crossed the moraine-ridge as dusk fell, Vestri determined to celebrate their find with venison—
There memory ended, like a tunnel blocked by roof fall. He strove briefly to push through, but his head clunked like a flawed casting. Something simpler.
Where was he?
A cave. Small, open or nearly so. His raw, irritable senses caught the muffled rustle of the wind, and faint echoes off naked stone around him. Inhabited: the earthy scent of peat smoke, damp wool, and an aroma of broth that made his stomach wring with hunger.
Faint, but ominous, the stink of foul wounds. His?
There had been a woman of Men, soft-voiced and gentle-handed, with cool, thirst-slaking water. Had he roused twice? Thrice?
He opened his eyes. There was little light, which was kind to his sore head. He lay on a thick bed of fresh-cut heather, about a pace from a rough-kerbed hearth where the peat fire glowed dully, mantled in its own ash. The light came from a fat candle set atop a well-carven chest, and the woman sat with her back against it, hands clasped around one bent knee. She was dozing, her chin on her breast and her face in shadow, a thick braid of dark hair over one shoulder.
A woman of Men. There were no Men this side of the mountains. Where was he? Limestone, with caves . . . . None in the Blue Mountains themselves, or for many leagues to the east; that belt along the coast down in Forlindon, Elf-country, but those were sea-caves, awash in storm and tide; and . . . another place. Where was it?
Another blocked passage in his mind. He went to lift a hand to his head, but the pain in his shoulder bit like a warg and he halted with a grim hiss.
The woman's head jerked up quick as a guilty sentinel's, and she stared blankly at him. For several breaths they looked on each other across the chasm of strangeness. "Are you thirsty?" she asked, hardly more than a whisper.
"Yes." The harshness of his voice, rusted by disuse, surprised him, but not more than his weakness. She helped raise him with a carefully placed arm and held a cup to his lips. The draught was cool, tasting of honey and bitter herbs. "Thank you," he rasped with such courtesy and dignity as he could find, once she had eased him back down.
"How is your head? Can you bear the light?"
"Well enough. Where am I, and how did I come here?"
She brought the candle between them, gazing at his eyes in the brighter light. Hers was a lean, strong face with good bone, bronzed by sun and wind, and her eyes were a curious color that seemed to shift with the candle's flame, grey or green or blue, like a fine sea-beryl. Or perhaps that was the fault of his dunted head.
Whatever she saw satisfied her, and she laid the backs of her fingers briefly on his brow. "I do not know what you might call this place. It is a goodly bay, with rich machair and old sea cliffs high above the plain. The ruin of a very ancient tower lies tumbled on the height of the southern headland."
He felt he ought to know such a place, but could not call it to mind. Along the coast, at least. "Go on," he prompted, as she turned away to fill a shallow bowl from the pot.
"You should take some broth and sleep again," was her reply. When he scowled, she added, "You have been senseless at least two days, I guess three, and there is still much fever."
Three days? "My companions—"
Her face, already somber, grew grave, and she gazed on him long. "I am sorry. They were dead when we found you. My kinsman has raised a cairn over them so they may lie in peace."
Rage burned away both pain and weakness. He sat bolt upright, though there was a tremor like the warning note of a cracked anvil in his head. "Who has done this?"
She caught his shoulders, trying to press him back down. "Lie down, or you will finish their work. You can go nowhere on that leg. Lie down!"
"Tell me," he demanded, "and I will consider it."
They hung there, locked in opposition, eye to eye and will on will, while she considered it. "I will tell you the little I know," she conceded, "but please, lie back. You are sorely wounded, and it is a wonder you are not dead yourself."
"Begin," he growled.
"We had news before the summer of fell things attacking beasts and herdsmen across the mountains. My kinsman came across you while hunting. There was blood on your weapons, black and rank, and what might have been a clawed hand. Whatever attacked you did not escaped unscathed. Now," she set a hand on his breast and leaned into him, "you are still very ill. If you wish to avenge your loss, you will need your strength."
Wroth though his heart was, he could feel the truth in her words and let her press him back down. "What is your name?" he asked, as she checked the wrappings on his wounds.
Just the one; no clue to her kin. "I am Veylin, son of Vali, at your service."
"And at yours." Brusque she might be, but not uncourteous, and kind to the needy stranger. He should be grateful; but after the broth, spent by the burst of anger and sapped by grief, he slid back into the darkness of sleep.
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When Veylin woke again, his head was clearer but his heart was bleak. Thekk and Vestri were dead. For a time he lay there, mourning them; then his thoughts turned to his duty. Word must go to their kin, so the hunt could set out before their killer's trail grew too cold. Opening his eyes to the soft light of outside day, he considered his splinted leg and flexed his foot by way of trial.
Bone grated on bone, and something shifted in the knee where all should be knit together. Truly, he would not be going anywhere on it soon.
He looked around in the better light, therefore, with greater attention. The cave was small, hardly ten paces across and deep, and sea-carved, its roof a natural ogive. Panels of loosely-woven wattle had been set across the mouth, leaving the point open as window and chimney. Heather had been lashed to more than half, as if someone was thatching a wall instead of a roof—crude work, which would keep out naught but the weather, and that for little more than a season. Were they capable of no better?
Men, he reflected, did not house in caverns by choice, but by necessity. Was this the broken remnant of some steading that had fled as far as the land ran, or a band of outlaws? If the latter, they had picked a poor place for their den—no folk of any kind dwelt along this stretch of the coast. Yet there were signs of past prosperity. Though the furnishings were spare and simple, there were some fine pieces: the larger chest, the box bed in a sheltered niche. If he could get a closer look at their carving, he might be able to place them.
Just outside the open doorway, he heard Saelon's voice, low and reassuring, and she came in, carrying a stoup and followed by a slim figure a good span taller than herself. Glancing his way, she canted her head like a falcon. "How is your head this morning?"
"Mending," he answered gruffly. Her gaze was disconcertingly keen, and suspicion had crept into his heart. Straitened folk might think to take gratitude rather than hope for it. And he had naught but her word for how he had come here.
"Here is my kinsman," she told him, "Gaernath. He it was who found you."
Veylin stared. Gaernath was the merest stripling, without even down on his cheek, though his ill-tamed mane put molten copper to shame. The child stared back, clearly unsettled. By danger so near or an ill conscience? His first sight of grave wounds or a Dwarf? An alloy of some or all? Having set the stoup down, Saelon bumped him with her shoulder, and he started. "I am sorry I could do no more, Master Veylin."
Little grace, but with the glimmer of courtesy beneath the unpolished surface. "At your service," Veylin replied punctiliously, concealing his doubts. "I am thankful for so much. Sit beside me," he asked, "and tell me all you can."
As the child told his tale, hesitantly at first, Saelon brought them both bowls of pottage, topped with brambleberries and cream, and left the cave. Gaernath gazed after her for a moment like an abandoned waif, then collected himself and, with unpracticed hands, helped the Dwarf to a position where he could manage the spoon for himself. "I'm sorry," he said again, as Veylin bit back a grunt.
"Go on," Veylin grated. His left arm was of little use, but dependence galled more than the pain.
Gaernath ate with the wolfish avidity of youth between snatches of his story, his awkwardness lessening, but when he came to the place of death, his spoon faltered. What he had to tell was gruesome, and he paused often; the sick horror on that fresh face made Veylin's heart burn white-hot. "Your pardon," he rumbled when the boy shoved his nearly empty bowl aside. "This is no subject for the table."
"No," Gaernath replied after a longer pause. "You need to know what happened to your friends, and perhaps you can advise me afterwards. I must not be a child." Yet he was silent before he went on again, and by the time he finished describing how he had taken the broken bodies of Vestri and Thekk from the moor to the ridge—alone, for Saelon had been nursing Veylin—and piled stones high to guard them, his voice was shaking.
Though it cost him dear in pain, Veylin reached up and laid a hand on his slender shoulder. "I thank you for your care of my kin." It was impossible to doubt such a tale, from such lips.
The boy gave his head a quick shake of dismissal. "Thank my aunt, for she ordered all. I knew not what to do. I still don't, yet her brother, my lord, charged me to look after her. Do you have any counsel to give me?"
Veylin had much to say, but not to this brave child, already so near the edge of his heart's strength. "Let me think on it. Who is your lord?"
"Halladan of Srathen Brethil."
One of the shards of the Dúnedain of Arnor, shattered and scattered across so much of Eriador; a remnant of the nobility of Arthedain. A fair-handed folk, though less friendly—less prosperous—than their fathers. What were the woman and boy doing so far from that valley and their kin?
Saelon returned, a covered pail on her arm, and Gaernath sprang to his feet. "I must take the flock to pasture. Rest well, till I see you this evening."
"Did you ask leave for the bow?" Saelon asked. At the shake of his head, she said, "Bring their gear."
As she moved around the cave, tending to her housekeeping, Veylin watched her, trying to read the puzzle. He knew little of the womenfolk of Men, save that Men seemed to hold them in little regard. Indeed, they often treated them as chattels. Yet this one was ready-handed, masterful beneath her complaisance.
Gaernath came back, laden with arms and leather. "Here is what we brought away."
Vestri's bow and quiver; Thekk's axe, and his own; their belts and pouches. They brought his companions' deaths back to him, and he reached out to touch them as the boy laid them down, grieving for the hands that would hold them no more. Thekk's axe still bore the blood of their killer: black, as Saelon had said, with a cloying reek unlike any Veylin knew. Musky: not goblin; not troll.
His axe had been cleaned, but carelessly. There was still a line of black where the head met the helve, assurance that he, too, had hurt the thing. Wrapping his hands around the silken ash brought him a measure of comfort, a promise of vengeance merely delayed.
"We have no weapons," Gaernath told him, "so I have sat with that one during night guard. During the day, I have taken the bow with me."
"This is mine," Veylin said, setting his axe aside. "But take the bow as your own—" he handed it to the crouching boy "—as a first payment of debt. His name was Vestri," he sighed: hardly more than a beardling himself, delighted to be hunting the gems he loved so well.
"The bow?" Gaernath was so caught between astonishment and joy—his hands fairly caressed the curves of yew—that he was bewildered.
"The bow was Vestri's."
That reminder of death sobered him. "Did he wear the blue hood or the green?"
Let him put a face to the gift, to honor the slain and keep the enemy's malice in his mind. "Blue."
Gaernath bowed. "Thank you. I will remember your friend."
"Go now," Veylin said, wearied by so much talk and movement. "Take care, boy."
As he lay back, Saelon met the boy at the doorway, handing him a packet of food. "Some fresh meat would be very welcome," she told him, "but do not stray. A sheep I can spare, but not you."
She stood in the doorway for a long time, watching him go, but when she turned back into the cave, her face was placid. Filling a bowl with warmed water, she brought it and a cloth to Veylin's side. "Shall I tend your wounds?"
"As you wish," he grumbled, bitter resentment welling up at his helplessness, the indignities of being nursed. He kept his silence while she tended his shoulder, unflinching under the pain that fed his dark mood, but when she had helped turn him and began unwrapping his leg, the calmness of her mien struck fire from him. "Are there no others here?" he asked curtly. "No men?"
Veylin glowered at her, angered by her unconcern. "Are you mad or a fool? What chance do you and that child have, if those fell things come to this defenseless place?"
"Little, perhaps. Yet you are not fit to travel." Drawing back the dressings so he could see for himself, she asked, "Would you have us abandon you?"
He blanched at the sight: from the thigh down, hammered flesh just beginning to leach from angry purple to a sickly yellow-brown; the clotted, ugly shin; and worse, the subtle wrongness of line, like a badly twisted shaft that had not come straight again. The only other time he had seen such damage, an axe had been put in the fire.
He raised his eyes to meet Saelon's, and now he saw her coolness as that of a warrior facing daunting odds. "It might be wise."
Her dark brows lifted and one corner of her mouth flicked in grim humor. "If there was any sure refuge within a day's march, it might be. Or if your kin would not resent it."
Veylin grunted. Mad she might well be, but not a fool. Oddi had some idea of where they had meant to go, and when they were gone overlong, there would be a search. But that was like to be weeks from now.
Saelon laid a hand on his good ankle. "In any case," she said with what sounded like lightness, "I would cheat such a raug of a victim if I could. We must trust to our fates for now, and the ward of sea and rowan, slender though they may be."
Aye, she was Dúnedain , putting her hope in waves and a white tree. He would be happier if there was a good stone wall across the mouth of the cave, and a stout, iron-banded door between them and this thing that walked at night. Yet having his axe to hand was something, too.
"I have some skill at healing," Saelon told him as she washed his wound clean, "but I have never treated a Dwarf before. Is there aught I should know?"
He knew nothing of Men's art in such things. "I have no complaints. We are hard to kill, but—" Veylin surveyed his leg with dour gloom "—that looks broken beyond mending. If I were among Dwarves, we would have it off."
"It may come to that." She felt his calf with the careful attention of a good craftsman, making small adjustments to the alignment of the bone. Veylin set his teeth on the pain. "Still, the fever and corruption are less. I remember my grandmother tending a leg nearly this bad. She saved it and the man, though he was lame lifelong."
A bleak prospect, but no worse than a peg. "You have my leave to try."
"You must stay off it," she warned. "Weeks, perhaps months."
"If we live so long, I will fret about it then."
That glint came back to her eye, one fatalist appreciating another. "Then I will begin considering how best to humor a fretful Dwarf. But now you should rest, or your fever may worsen. You have talked and done more than you should this morning."
Very likely, but his mind was less troubled than it had been, though his heart was no lighter, and his rest was more like sleep and less like stupor. He dozed and woke, usually to find Saelon near to hand, looking up from some task to see if he needed anything, then dozed again.
The westering sun was streaming in through the open arch, golden and warm, when he woke and reached for the cup Saelon had left within reach. "Do you need aught else?" she asked from the doorway, a spindle in her hands.
Rising, she laid her wool aside and stepped in to lift a laden basket. "Then I have chores that must take me outside for a while. You do not mind being left alone? I doubt I will be within call."
"Go," he urged. "I would not be a fetter. One of us pinned by the leg is already too many."
Saelon smiled as she set the basket on her hip. "I will not be long."
Veylin listened to her retreating footsteps, though he could not hear them for long. There must be turf a short way outside. The only other sound was the mild gabble of amiable geese. Ah, so they did not rely on the boy alone for an alarm by night. Having been hounded by the birds in many Men's yards, he knew their worth as doorwards.
When the geese had been silent for a while, he twisted around to reach for the gear Saelon had moved aside from his bed, ignoring his shoulder's protest, and groped his belt and pouch from the pile. The leather was stiff with blood in places, but his beard had shielded the pouch.
The secret knot he used to secure it was snug, undisturbed, and Veylin gave a sigh of satisfaction. It would have been unpleasant to find his hosts were thieves, particularly when he was unable to leave them. A couple of sharp tugs and the tie came free; with an effort he tipped the pouch's contents into his good hand.
In the streaming sunlight, the raw fire opals glittered, bright sparks of red and orange and gold half-hidden beneath their dull surface. The largest was as big as the end of his thumb, and from what he could see its fire was superb. If it polished up well, he did not think he would be able to part with it. The smaller ones were nearly as fine, however, and he should be able to ask his own price for them.
He still did not remember what happened after the three of them crossed the moraine, but he could see the dyke where he had found these as plainly as his own chambers in Sulûnduban, running across the writhen schists and out into the surf. There were more there, and cinnabar, too. He even had hopes of finding beryls nearby; the rock had smelt and tasted right.
For a while longer he gazed on them, warming his heart at their bright beauty, but as the sun sank, they lost the light and their splendour was muted. With a reluctant hand, he tipped them back into the pouch. Retying the knot was a struggle, with his left arm so lame, but he finally snugged it down and stowed belt and pouch beneath his axe. No one would be able to move that without waking him, save if he were dead.
It was inconvenient to find Men practically on the doorstep of such a lode; more than vexing, even though it was no more than a woman and a child, since the woman had the eyes of a hawk and the boy liked to roam. They should not be here: this had been dwarven land since before the seas drowned Beleriand. But so it was—despite war and plague, Men multiplied and Dwarves did not. It was good to have Men nearby, for trade that saved them the trouble of getting their own food, but not too close.
This was too close. Yet like Saelon's madness in staying here to tend him, how could he candidly complain? If they had not been so close, he and Thekk and Vestri would be lying on that moor together, the birds picking their bones clean, and these gems would have sunk into the mire and been lost . . . a grief as great as their deaths.
Then there was this other intruder, far more unwelcome. Whether there was one or many, whether it was beast or fiend, it would have to be hunted down and slain, for security as much as vengeance. Veylin was caressing his axe helve and weighing the merits of various tactics when he heard the fall of light, running feet and rose on one elbow.
Gaernath came bursting in the doorway, a bundle of reddish feathers dangling from one hand. "Good even, Master Veylin," he greeted him with a wide grin. "Do you like roast grouse?"
Taking grouse with the bow required skill and patience; perhaps he should not dismiss Gaernath as a mere child. "Most certainly."
"Then you may have the plumpest, since I would not have gotten them without the bow you gave me."
Veylin smiled at him; not a child, but still young, with the charming earnestness of youth. "The bow was given for services already rendered. You owe me no more for it."
"You will have the plumpest anyway," the boy said, "to help you mend. My aunt is spreading the last of the washing to dry; I best get these plucked so she can put them to the fire."
And he was gone as swiftly as he came. Veylin stared after him. Strange folk: so poor, yet so open-handed; so defenseless, yet so courageous. Were more Men like this, or were these two odd even to their own kind, like white crows whose flock would drive them away or kill them for their strangeness?
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Moraine: the deposit of mixed sediments marking the edge of a former glacier.
Sea-beryl: an aquamarine (blue-green beryl).
Beryl: the gemstone producing emeralds and aquamarines; there are other colors as well.
Ogive: a pointed arch.
Box bed: a bed enclosed with panels, i.e., in a box. These were more common in the Highlands than beds with curtains, since they were better at keeping out drafts.
Span: the distance between the end of the thumb and the end of the little finger on a spread hand, about 9 inches. I have supposed that a dwarven span is not much less than that of Men.
Fire opal: not the more usual rainbow-colored precious opal, but a distinct subtype orange in color. While fire opals often show no play-of-color, I once saw a specimen that had vibrant play-of-color all in oranges and yellows. Such truly "fiery" opals are the ones Veylin prefers. Opals are very sensitive stones, and easily damaged by heat and dehydration.
Dyke: a seam of intrusive igneous rock, cross-cutting earlier strata along fault lines, often standing above the surface like a low wall.
Schist: a metamorphic rock rich in mica, silvery white to grey, with strong contorted foliation.
Cinnabar: the ore of mercury.
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