The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Hand to Hand: 4. Gracious Lord
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.
--Robert Frost, "Directive"
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Dírmaen swore and wiped the wet from his face. The door was shut, and he did not know how to open it.
The rain had begun to fall yestereve, at first no more than a louring grizzle that matched his mood; but it had been pissing down since midmorning and the chill was deep in his bones. He must have a better shelter tonight than a length of sodden wool and a whinny bush, and within this low scarp lay a fine, dry chamber. He knew this was the place: the rock bore the scars of the raugs' attempts to dig them out.
He fared no better than they. No lip, no catch, not even a crack one might pry. Dwarven magic, beyond his ken.
Slapping the stone in frustration, he turned back to Mada and mounted. If this was closed to him, he must push on to the glen below. It was dim as dusk already; no moon or star would relieve the blackness after sunset, and he did not know this country well enough to find his way blind. There was a house less than a league away, on a knoll overlooking the river—on the far side, of course, and the water in spate, with all this rain . . . but how could he get wetter? It would be a roof, for horse as well as rider, and there would be wood for a fire, even if he must burn the benches.
They reached it, despite the treacherously sliding stones of the ford, while there was still a grey glimmer in the air, enough to see that the door of the long, low house stood ajar. Dírmaen frowned; he was sure he had shut it behind him when he left, but that had been a year ago, as he scouted the desolation of Srathen Brethil. Yet now that the fell things that had slain Saelon's brother and driven out his people were dead, brave souls might venture here and travelers other than he seek shelter.
Still, they might have closed the door. The dim stink of fox mingled with the must of rotting thatch, and it was as well that the floor had been flagged inside the door, where the beasts came through to the byre.
By fate's fickle favor, the wet had not gotten into his tinder, and once his cold-stiffened fingers coaxed sparks into flame, there was light enough to see better.
More than foxes had denned here. Someone had already burnt the benches, save one and a stool; two sprung links were all that remained of the pot-chain; and the staves of a shattered pail lay along the moss-chinked planks of the wall. The burning, Dírmaen reflected, fingering the charred curve of a trencher-end, might have been need . . . but why, then, had the splintered staves not been put to the fire? And who would tear down the chain, which had still borne its kettle a year ago?
Not Orcs, or the destruction would be worse and the place befouled. Nor a drover, wandering with his herd, for it was senseless to spoil a shelter one might use often, the weather being so chancy in these hills. Halpan and Partalan had passed this way, though they would hardly damage the surviving goods of those they wished to return to their homes. Who else would abide in this land, haunted by fiendish memory?
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It took near a fortnight to come to Argonui, once he had crossed the Lune. Brandin, patrolling near the ancient dwarf-road north of the Emyn Uial, pointed him south towards Lake Evendim; there, rumor led to Fornost. A day shy of that place, he chanced upon a message-rider who had left Argonui in the Weather Hills, where Dírmaen found the grass about Weathertop trampled by many horses. Following the hoofprints of the finest beasts across the eastern tail of the South Downs to the Greenway, he came upon the moil of a skirmish, so fresh that rain had not yet washed the blood into the earth. He was puzzling which trail to follow, the one making for Sarn Ford or the one doubling back to the South Downs, when Maethron, seeking the bandits who had fled, happened upon him and set him right.
Collies barked as he rode up to Halnaeth's holding, and one of the men who came out to look was not a shepherd. He was Dúnedain, tall and dark, with the star on his grey cloak, but Dírmaen did not know him. "Well met, Ranger," the man greeted him as he drew Mada to a halt. "How can I aid you?"
He was young, perhaps newly joined. "I am Dírmaen, son of Dûnthand, and I seek our chief."
The unfamiliar Ranger did not name himself. "Is your news urgent?"
Dírmaen considered him closely, stroking Mada's neck. Was he wary or rude? "No, nor ill. I have been more than a year on Lindon's shore and wish to report, that is all." So long as he could get something hot to eat and a flagon of ale, he would not mind waiting, or even riding further tomorrow.
"Sebbi!" the Ranger called to one of the shepherds. "Show him where to stable his horse!"
By the time he had seen to Mada and his tack, the nameless Ranger had returned. "Come with me," he said, swinging Dírmaen's saddlebags over his shoulder.
A friendly gesture, though he would have liked it better if he knew the man. The youngster led him not towards the hall, but Car-e-Dineth, built for Halnaeth's father when his new wife did not agree with his mother. A small place, tucked back in the shelter of the beeches that gave this steading its name, it was now used chiefly as a guesthouse at feast days . . . or for passing Rangers.
When Dírmaen saw Forodirn, Argonui's sworn brother, mending a bridle by the door, he knew he had reached his journey's end.
"Come! Have a seat that is not a saddle," Argonui invited, rising as he entered to press his own jack into Dírmaen's hand. "By Elendil, you have been run ragged! What brings you in from the west?"
Cider: this was better than ale. With a sigh of mingled satisfaction and regret, he looked up from the empty cup. "Peace."
Argonui glanced over his shoulder at the two who kept him company. "No wonder your father has lost so many to Círdan. Yet mine run the other way!"
"Not all," one of the Brethren of Rivendell reminded the Chieftain, raising a jug from the bench beside him with a questioning arch of his dark brow. "More cider, Dírmaen?"
"So the Lady Saelon has come to terms with Lindon?" his twin asked as he poured.
Dírmaen hoped someone had occasion to address one of them by name soon, so he would know which was Elladan and which Elrohir. "Yes, she has."
Argonui settled back onto his leathern stool. "Arador, bring more stew and bread. What terms?"
So that was Argonui's son? Dírmaen took another draught of cider as the young man withdrew: the heir must be new-come from his fosterage in Rivendell. Dutifully he told over the hides and pelts, down and herbs that Saelon had taken to Mithlond, and when he had finished, the Chieftain grunted. "Will they be able to pay?"
"They already have. The scot was due at Yáviérë."
"And Veylin," the twin with the jug asked. "Has he also come to an agreement with Círdan?"
"I do not know. He went to the Havens as if there was no dispute between them, and the Lord treated him courteously." Dírmaen did not understand: that some Elves hated and many scorned Dwarves was plain, yet it did not seem they were required to requite Lindon for their trespass, as Men were. Saelon had told him Dwarves had some rights in Elvish lands . . . but he had not believed her, thinking her gulled by partiality.
"Veylin . . . . That is the leader of the Dwarves who helped you slay the raugs?" Argonui asked.
It would be nearer the truth to say he had helped the Dwarves, for they—including Veylin, lame though he was—had done most of the killing and provided suitable weapons for the Men. "The Lady Saelon's neighbor and ally, yes."
Argonui raised doubtful brows. "Ally? To a woman?"
He did not know her, or he would not speak so.
"Should you ever meet our grandmother," the twin nearer the hearth warned dryly, "I beg you not to take that tone."
"The Lady Galadriel is exceptional," the Dúnedain chieftain allowed.
"So is the Lady Saelon, in her own way."
"Veylin son of Vali," his brother added, "is a chieftain among the Firebeards and, like all Dwarves, a shrewd judge of worth."
"What no one can explain to me, Elladan, is what value a Dwarf could find in her, or her impoverished people. Now that the raugs are slain, who are they allied against? Not Lindon, it seems. Me?"
Dírmaen shook his head. "No, Saelon is not unfaithful." Though she gave credence to Veylin's charge that Arathorn had neglected them, sending Rangers rather than corn, she acknowledged the Chieftain's authority.
"Then why has she still not brought her people over the Lune? Or to Srathen Brethil? Will she not even meet us halfway?"
How could he explain, when he did not understand himself? "She will not part from the sea."
Argonui gave a jaded snort. "So I have heard."
"If Círdan has not sent her back to you," Elrohir said, passing the Chieftain his jack, "it may be wise to leave her there."
"Why?" A long pull at the cider did not lessen Argonui's look of sobriety. "Is she favored by the Lord of Waters?"
Elrohir gave one of their peredhel shrugs, graceful ambiguity. "Who can say, save perhaps Círdan? She makes no claim. Some say she is touched, yet I found her wits sound enough."
"Her temper left much to be desired," Elladan recalled, setting another length of wood on the fire.
"The corn was nearly in their mouths, after long famine," Dírmaen pointed out in Saelon's defense, "and malice came to a head among the women once you arrived. There was less to provoke her after you took Urwen and Lis away."
Elladan, who had tended the Dúnedain matron after her dramatic collapse, wondered, "What has become of Urwen?"
Argonui huffed and rolled his eyes. "Do you think I have nothing to attend to, save the giddiness of women? I can hardly spare attention for my own wife."
The knock on the door signaling Arador's return was a welcome interruption to such talk, and the Brethren rose to take their leave once their latest foster-brother had set out Dírmaen's meal: a trencher of still-steaming mutton stew, loaf and butter, apples and cheese, as well as another jug of cider. When the farewells were finished and Dírmaen sat down at the board, Argonui asked, "Is there anything else you desire?"
"News of how you all fare," he said, drawing his knife to cut the loaf. "There on the shore, I sometimes felt that the Last Battle might come, and I would not know."
As he breathed the welcome scent of wheaten bread and dug into the hearty stew, Argonui told him of the bandits they had just routed, who had been plaguing the Greenway. There had been a murrain among the cattle of the Emyn Uial and a drought east of the Weather Hills; wolves out of Rhudaur and rumors of Orcs across the Glanduin. The south was the most troublesome quarter these days, though Rainind and Faelchol had been slain by a band of outlaws on Coldfell—Maegvir and his band had discovered their lair and killed half of them, yet the rest had scattered. Hopefully they would go to ground for winter, and do little harm before they ran them down again.
Sopping up gravy with the crust-end of the loaf, Dírmaen observed, "I stopped in Srathen Brethil one foul night on my way here. The empty house I sheltered in had been ill-used since I was there the year before."
Argonui swore. "Another reason we must get folk back in that valley. It is too easy for masterless men to slip across the Lune, and the Elves do not seem to watch their border so far north."
"That is because their realm ends at the Little Lune, this side of the mountains. North is dwarf-country."
"Is it?" the Chieftain asked, brows knit, then chuffed. "You would know, I suppose! Can we hope the Dwarves will make an end to them?"
Dírmaen reached for an apple. "Only if the outlaws are rash enough to waylay some."
Sighing, Argonui refilled his jack and drank. "Someone will have to be found to scout Srathen Brethil before spring. Halpan will never coax his people back if the first to return are set upon by outlaws."
"I will go," Dírmaen offered. "I have been through the glen thrice, and know it passably well." Better than any other Ranger, since none of the Dúnedain of that march had been abroad in the Chieftain's service when it was beset, and Halpan had withdrawn to refound the strength of his shattered house.
Argonui leaned back against the wall, considering him over the leather rim of his jack; though not as sharp, his dark eyes were more penetrating than Saelon's. "Son," he finally said, addressing Arador, "here is one of the chief challenges of ruling Rangers. There is hardly a one who will not run beyond their strength at the slightest need. What do you think of this one's condition?"
The heir smiled, perhaps apologetically, at this. "I find the cheese goes very well with the apples, Dírmaen," he said, sliding the platter his way. "Did not a party of Rangers venture to Srathen Brethil to seek the raugs? And with my grandfather?"
Having been in Mithlond only a month before, Dírmaen recognized this as the suggestive courtesy of the Elves, still hanging about him after his fosterage in Imladris. "Yes," he allowed, taking a slice. Why did everyone think he needed feeding up? "Halgorn was in both parties; Maegvir and Dornadan have also been there."
"Hmm. Halgorn," Argonui mused, "is chasing rumors of trolls in the Ettenmoors. It would be good for him to turn his hand to something more commonplace for a time. Now, tell me of Lindon."
As he cut slices of crisp new apples and the cheese whose bite did complement them very well, Dírmaen spoke of the slender yet formidable strength of the Elves, their defenses and their ships, and the friendship they had—for the most part—shown the Lady and himself. Arador asked several shrewd questions about their numbers and force of arms: though still allies in name, it had been generations since meaningful aid had come to them from Lindon. "They are hoarding what might they have," Dírmaen judged, "though for what, they will not say."
"Elrond says," Arador murmured, "that Círdan sees further into the future than any other this side of the sea."
"So tales tell," Argonui agreed. "Yet little good it did Arvedui." He was silent a while, brooding over his cider. "This Habad-e-Mindon, that the Lady Saelon will not leave . . . tell me of that."
He did: the high white cliffs set above a fair lea, its seaward edge fenced with sandhills; the ancient ring of stones on the hill beside, all that remained of a tower that had guarded against the Enemy in the Elder Days; the sea-carved caves where Saelon had dwelt alone, and the hall Dwarves cut to repay her for saving Veylin's life. He spoke of how bountifully bere grew on the shell-sweet lea and the mildness of the seasons, so that there was ample grazing all year; of the wealth of fish and fowl and game . . . and of the terrible storms whose winds blew a man down, lasting for days in winter.
"It sounds a fair place, save for the storms." Arador looked into the jug to see if there was more cider, and smiled ruefully at its emptiness. "Perhaps the Lady is merely fox-mad. Shall I fetch another?"
"No; we must be in the saddle at dawn tomorrow," Argonui sighed, then grinned slyly at his son. "But you should go and spend time with our host, to reacquaint yourself with our people. You can get more drink there, and he has daughters well worth looking at."
"I should seek a wife already?" Arador came back, feigning consternation, as he collected the tray and began loading it with empty jugs and dishes.
"Seeking is not finding," his father reminded him. "A Ranger must keep an eye out. Go," he repeated, more soberly. "Take a little merriment while the chance offers. It comes seldom enough, outside Elrond's vale."
When Arador had left them, Dírmaen and Argonui sat in easy silence, nursing what was left in their jacks until the fire began to burn low. Argonui gave a mighty sigh and heaved himself up from his folding stool, stepping out briefly into the night; Dírmaen heard him speak to Forodirn, low and indistinct through the wall. Ordering the night watch, most like. Gazing at the broad bed in the corner, he wondered idly if it was already fully bespoke. No matter—after the last weeks, he would not scorn a blanket beside a well-warmed hearth.
But when he went to spread one there after his own trip outside, Argonui, who was drawing off his boots, frowned at him. "What are you doing? This is not one of the Pony's vermin-ridden pallets, I assure you."
"Arador and Forodirn—"
"Forodirn is an old campaigner, and the lad must not be dainty. By thunder, I remember a night when we were right glad to fit half-a-dozen into a bed smaller than this!"
Dírmaen gave a droll snort and brought his blanket. "It must have been chilly."
"Bitter," Argonui agreed, then his smile faded.
The memories were not too grievous, Dírmaen hoped.
They had settled in, Argonui's back to him, and he was drifting off, lulled by the hiss and plink of the dying fire, when his lord asked, "What is the true reason you left Habad-e-Mindon?"
It was like a knife in the dark. "True—?"
"Too many paths cross there to leave it unwatched: Dwarves, Elves, Men . . . . Why should I not send you back?"
Back. Dírmaen threw his arm across his face. "The Lady and I do not agree."
"And you have retreated?" Argonui's low voice echoed harshly off the wall.
Retreat: yes, it must appear so. "I love her, and she will not have me."
The silence was a thing, like the blackness between the roof-beams. The sigh that finally broke it was little louder than the coals on the hearth. "When were you last among your people, Dírmaen?"
How long had it been since he had visited his parents? Before Dollchíll was wounded at the Hoarwell's southern ford . . . . "Some four years."
Argonui turned and cursed the straw in the tick, punching it down. "Go home," he grunted, rolling back into his place.
"Home?" His heart had been yearning that way, but surely—
"Wherever that may be, for you, save the road. And I do not want to see you again until Spring Day!"
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"the ancient dwarf-road north of the Emyn Uial": Tolkien never mentions such a thing, but I have conjectured that a road ran from the northern Ered Luin to Mount Gundobad in the Misty Mountains. Gundobad, where Durin first woke, was revered by Dwarves and the place of assembly for the seven kindreds early in their history; however, Orcs have repeatedly captured and used Gundobad as their own "capital" since Sauron invaded Eriador in S.A. 1695 (HoME XII: The Peoples of Middle-Earth, "Of Dwarves and Men). Since Dwarves do not seem to have reinhabited Gundobad or made heroic efforts to keep it out of Orcish hands, I assume it was desecrated (and desacralized) when first captured, and the road little used thereafter.
Car-e-Dineth: Sindarin, "house of the bride."
Peredhel: Sindarin, "half-elf."
Touched: in the head, mentally unbalanced.
Giddiness: while this now means no more than silly or frivolous, in Middle English gidy meant "mad, foolish," and in Old English, gydig—akin to "god"—meant "possessed, mad." So it could well apply to both sea-obsessed Saelon and hysterical Urwen.
The Last Battle: Arda's Ragnarök, when Good and Evil finally settle things and the world is destroyed in the process.
Wheaten bread: the staple grain among Saelon's folk, like the Iron Age Scots, is bere or barley. When people have both wheat and barley, they make bread from wheat—which has a finer flavor, higher protien content, and gluten (without which bread will not rise)—and drink the barley as beer.
Greenway: the old North-South Road that connected Arnor and Gondor.
Murrain: a livestock plague.
Rhudaur: when the North Kingdom was split into three separate realms by Eärundur's sons in T.A. 861 (paralleling the division of Charlemagne's empire among his three grandsons in A.D. 843), Rhudaur was the northeastern portion. It was the first to fall to Angmar, the few surviving Dúnedain (none of Isildur's line) ousted by evil Hillmen in the fourtheenth century, and in the thirty-first century, Strider observed that "a shadow lies still upon the land" (LotR, "Flight to the Ford").
While much fanfiction places the Dúnedain base of operations during the late Third Age here, in the Angle (on the basis of a single manuscript note of Tolkien's), I do not follow this interpretation, mainly because I believe Dúnedain sociopolitical systems were decentralized, for strategic as well as economic reasons. We know very well that Tolkien thought better of some of his ideas, and without evidence for further development of this one, I have given precedence to practical plausibility. If anyone wishes to discuss this further, please drop me a line in the forum associated with my stories at HASA.
Glanduin: a tributary of the Gwathló or Greyflood, the southern border of the North Kingdom.
Coldfell: high, rugged moorland between the northern Emyn Uial and the Lune, about 50 leagues east by south (101° 15′) of Srathen Brethil. I see this region as being akin to the Anglo-Scottish Borders, and have borrowed the name from a place in the northern Pennines.
"masterless men": in feudal political systems, the only men without masters were those who had opted out of society, i.e., outlaws.
Arvedui: the last king of Arnor († T.A. 1975). When he had been defeated by the Witch-King of Angmar and took refuge in abandoned dwarf-mines in the northernmost Ered Luin, Círdan sent a ship to the Icebay of Forochel to rescue him—but it was crushed by ice and he perished.
Spring Day: Tuilérë; the enderi or middle-day falling on or about the spring equinox.
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