The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Rock and Hawk: 6. Reap What You Sow
I seek not what his soul desires.
He dreads not what my spirit fears.
Our heavens have shown us separate fires.
Our dooms have dealt us differing years.
Our daysprings and our timeless dead
Ordained for us and still control
Lives sundered at the fountain-head,
And distant, now, as Pole from Pole.
--Rudyard Kipling, "Two Races"
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The emptiness of the cave felt strange, without even Gaernath's restlessness to disturb the deep quiet of the earth. Where was the lad? Would she ever learn what had befallen him? Even without raugs, the land between here and Srathen Brethil was wild and harborless. Though it was some hours before dawn, Saelon surrendered to wakefulness. Rising, she wrapped her shawl close about her head and shoulders, pausing only to put a few peats on the fire before stepping outside.
The wind was freshening, warm and salt off the sea, and the high moon turned the dappling clouds to silvery fish's mail. The weather was changing at last.
She cast a glance along the cliff-foot towards the Dwarves' cave, but all was dark. It would have been surprising if it was not. All but Veylin had had a weary day, and labor was the friend of sleep. She had hopes of sleep herself later, given the day before her. The bere must be gotten in before rain fell, and the plot was more than twice as large as usual, sown with Gaernath's appetite in mind. The digging of it had been laid on his youthful back, and she had expected his help at harvest as well. There was no remedy for that void except to fill it with her own busyness. The Dwarves had made it plain they had their own concerns—so be it. If they had their work, she had hers.
Saelon banished the no longer familiar stillness in the cave with baking and brewing, using up the dregs of last year's corn, until there was light enough to go down to the sheep. She debated shifting them from the machair to the river meads, where there was still high grass, but after casting a glance at the thick mare's tails overhead, their dusky violet brushed with the rose of the coming sun, she decided against it. She might rue the time spent later. Tomorrow, or when the Dwarves had gone, she could begin to restore the order of her days and the seasons.
She broke her fast with the milk and warm bannocks, waiting until it was bright enough to take Veylin's whetstone to the sickle, dulled on the woody stems of heather. A single pass along the crescent of blade showed her why he had scorned the use of her stone. This was a welcome gift indeed, and would save her precious time today. Rekk and Oddi departed while she whetted, with no more than a short nod of acknowledgement as they passed.
Perhaps that was much. At least it was something.
Drawing a stoup of water from the basin and kilting her skirt, she went to the corn.
Reaping was punishing work: stooping to cut the stalk close to the ground, for the length of the straw, and pausing only to twist a scant handful to bind the sheaf, leaving it to lay and moving on. It had been a good season and the straw was thick and strong. Saelon was glad, after a dozen sheaves, to hear an odd noise, a good excuse to straighten and ease her back.
Over in the dooryard, Thyrnir was taking an axe to the log she had dragged up from the beach. Veylin sat nearby, hands busy with some small task.
Smiling, she bent back to her own. Sheaf followed sheaf; mid-morning she stopped to drink and put a fresh edge on the sickle. Thicker cloud was coming in from the west: already soaked with sweat in the warm, heavy air, she was glad not to have the sun beating down on her as well, but worried that rain might come before nightfall. By midday, as near as she could judge through the grey roof of the sky, she had cut a very little more than half, but her back and arms were near rebellion. She refilled her stoup and bolted some bannock and cheese; fed the fire and sharpened the sickle; then carried the cut sheaves into the byre-cave, stacking them in the far corner by her other stores. It was reassuring to have so much safely in, but she must alternate reaping and carrying for the rest of the day, to ensure that little of what was cut would be soaked by a sudden shower. The standing grain could bear the wet well enough.
It became a race against the sun's waning, both its fall from the zenith and the louring of dark-bellied cloud. The expanse of stubble, muted gold, grew behind her; every sheaf was a few more days of bread. So lost was she in the rhythm of the work that she stopped with a start when Thyrnir said for the second time, "Saelon?"
She straightened in surprise, and regretted the suddenness of the movement. "Yes?"
He had refilled her stoup and passed it to her. "Your pardon. I see you have no time to spare. Yet I need more timber, about as much again." Reluctantly, he looked down on the bay: the surf was rising and the tide near high, leaden waves slapping the strand. "As you said, the wood is very good."
She bowed her head in acknowledgment of his concession, then rubbed her aching neck. "I will get more once the bere is in or the rain comes, or tomorrow morning."
"Will the weather permit it?" he asked dubiously.
"Yes." She must remember they neither understood nor trusted the sea. "The tide is ebbing now, and will be low this evening and again tomorrow morning. There will be no difficulty." Taking a draft from the stoup, she set it aside. "I must get back to my task."
"Of course." He bowed and withdrew.
The first light patter of rain caught her a half-dozen paces from the end. Thrusting the sickle into her belt, she caught up an armload of sheaves and dashed for the cave; by the second armload, it was a fair shower. Once the last sheaf was in, she stacked the dampened corn in a loose stook and turned to look out. The rain was coming down like a curtain beyond the overhang of the cliff, a soft hushing drum of heavy drops. Aching in every joint but well satisfied with the day's work, Saelon stepped out into the downpour, letting it sluice away the sweat-plastered grime and cutting flecks of straw.
She was discomposed, however, when she stepped back under the shelter of the cliff by her door and found Veylin on the bench, carving trenails. "I am sorry you did not beat the rain," he told her. "Will the loss be great?"
Was there a smile hidden behind that russet beard? A puddle was forming at her feet, and her hair was draggled, dripping in her eyes. Reaching up, she twisted it into a sort of order, wringing out more water. "No. What is still standing will not be so good for flour, but often it makes better malt for the soaking. There is ample dry enough for long keeping, even with Gaernath's appetite."
Any suspicion of a smile vanished, and he set aside his knife and peg to take up a cup. "Would you like a draught of mead? You need it more than I, I think," he said, gazing at the spreading pool beneath her.
"It would be very welcome." She had not meant the mention of the lad's name as a reminder or rebuke. "Where is Thyrnir?"
"Seeking the makings of a fit supper. We cannot expect you to keep slaughtering your beasts and fowls to feed us."
The mead was as sweet as she remembered, giving a grateful warmth, but she did not drink much. Its smoothness was not innocent, and weary as she was, it would go straight to her head. "It grows dark early with this rain," she observed, handing back the cup and gazing out into the gloom. "I hope he does not go far. My flock has never been so large—another beast would be little missed."
"Not far," Veylin assured her, "and warily. I am more concerned about the others. They are near to where the fiend attacked us."
"Surely they will be on their way back, with this weather."
"Perhaps." His tone was like the shutting of a door.
Dwarves were known to be close with their business, but it did not take much wit to guess what they would be about, two stout Dwarves going out with picks and mattocks to where their kin had been slain, and returning weary and cross-tempered. A fit grave could have been dug in less than a day. From stone they came and to stone they returned, it was said. Perhaps they were out of the storm.
"Maybe I will meet them as I go down to the sheep," she replied noncommittally. "As it would be best to do before shifting into something dry," she added, looking down at her sodden state. "My thanks for the mead."
Save for feeding the poor collie, even more sodden than herself, with no better shelter than a clump of whin, she might have saved herself the errand. The best of the season was past, and with the milking erratic this last week, the ewes were going dry earlier than usual. Half of what was in the bucket was rainwater despite the cover; the whole fit for little but pottage or brose. She looked across the machair towards the dunes. She had promised to get Thyrnir more wood, but her back and shoulders shrieked at the mere thought of dragging a log across the machair. Or tomorrow, she had said; tomorrow would do.
The sea might be glorious tomorrow.
At the bottom of the track, she met Thyrnir trudging from the direction of the river, bent under some great burden. When she saw what it was, she gaped. With a complacent smile, he hoisted the salmon from the pad of leafy branches on his back for her inspection. Even with both hands holding the stick through its gills over his head, the tail touched the ground. "Good fishing you have here. Will you join us for supper, lady?"
"Gladly." She knew such fish frequented the lower reaches of the river, but she had no line that could have held such a monster, and they scorned the small weir that kept her in trout. Feeling hollow after the day's labor, her mouth watered at the prospect of such a feast.
"You have not forgotten my need for timber?"
"No, I have not," Saelon sighed. She considered the dunes once more. "But my very bones ache. Tomorrow will do?"
"It will," he relented, with no more than a hint of pity in his smile.
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When she first woke, it seemed tomorrow would be worse rather than better. On days such as this, Saelon doubted the strength of her Dúnedain blood; but if one was heroic enough to move and keep moving, the painful stiffness eased.
When she stepped outside and heard the roar of the waves below the keening of the wind, nothing could have kept her from the shore.
It was foul: not so bad as a winter gale, but a harbinger. The west wind drove the rain against the cliff so that the overhang gave no shelter, and neither leather nor greased wool could long keep the wet out. She had to twist her face down and sideways as she crossed the machair, into the driving sand and rain, salt now. But when she struggled across the dune top and slid down its hissing face, her breath was taken by more than the wind.
Great grey-green waves strode towards the shore, foam-helmed, falling into curves too potent to be called graceful. Where they struck the rocky headlands, fountains burst, blooms of spray fairer than may blossom. Though the tide was at the ebb, so the surf broke far down on the foreshore, wide sheets of water raced up over the sands, driving the scudding foam before them. The earth trembled underfoot; the pounding roar was like never-ending thunder—air and water and earth commingled in wild tumult, the play of the Powers.
How long she sat, entranced, she could not say; but the chill slowly crept in, even through layers of greased wool. Getting up, she walked along the thick belt of wrack at the feet of the dunes, seeing what the sea had cast ashore. Windrows of weed, good manure for her garden when it had dried enough to be less of a burden; bits and pieces of wood, many bleached and polished by sun and weather; strange shells and seeds, from who knew what land. Finally she clambered back up the dune face, seeking the oak log she had stowed safely out of reach of the waves the night before last.
Wrestling it up the track warmed her, and she dropped it at the entrance to the Dwarves' cave with a virtuous glow of duty done. They had blocked the higher part of the cut with heather to keep out the wind and blowing rain, while below a cloak had been hung as a door. Stepping up, she called, "Did someone want wood?"
A moment later, Thyrnir drew the cloak aside enough to peer out, a shocked look on his face. "Come in!" he urged, hardly looking at the log. "You have been down to the sea?" He might have been speaking of a dragon's lair.
Saelon could not help but laugh, and turned to seize the log. "Do you want this or not?"
The red-bearded Dwarf nodded, dumbstruck.
Ducking beneath the heather, she hauled it far enough that Thyrnir could pull the rest in without going out into the rain. "Saelon, are you mad?" Veylin exclaimed as she set it down and draped her streaming cloak over it, to keep as much water as possible out of their haven. Craec, perched on a high ledge, drew his head from under his wing and cocked his head, blinking drowsily.
Pushing straggling hair back from her face, her hand came back smeared with creamy sea-foam. "This? The wind blows it everywhere." Smiling at the two, she tried not to enjoy their horror too much. "Do you think the sea is washing over the machair, or that I was sporting in the waves like the fish that breathes?"
"Who would know?" Veylin rumbled, displeased by her amusement. "You are wet enough for either."
"I love to sit and watch the stormy sea," she said simply, without much hope of their understanding, "and see what it brings to shore. Here—" Reaching into the bag slung over her shoulder, she drew out a shell like a large winkle, but delicate and purple as a spring violet. "Have you ever seen such a shell as this?"
They stared at it. "I do not think I have ever seen a shell aside from those of snails and river mussels," Veylin confessed. "Pearls, yes; but not a shell from the sea." After a moment, hesitant as if he were asking much, he hazarded, "May I handle it?"
Were they afraid of anything that came from the sea? "Of course." She passed it to him.
Not fear. Veylin turned the open-ended spiral over and over, the touch of his blunt fingers as delicate as the shell, and held it between his eye and the lamp that lit his work. "It is beautiful," he admitted, in almost grudging wonder. "Like sculpted fluxspar." He offered it back to her on the palm of his hand. "Aside from pearls and nacre, I did not know the sea held such gems."
"Most shells are no better than river pebbles," Saelon dismissed. "Pretty because they are polished and shiny with wet. They fade like plucked flowers as they dry. Yet I have never seen one like this before, with such a color. If it pleases you, keep it."
"Lady," Veylin rumbled, bushy brows lowered in warning, "you are too open-handed." He still held the shell out on his palm. "I owe you too much already; I will not take more."
"Nonsense. This is something I chanced upon, like an odd flower on the machair. I am glad to have seen it, for it is beautiful, but no more so than other things. Do what you will with it."
"You do not value it?" he asked, undisguisedly perplexed.
Saelon opened her mouth to answer . . . and then shut it again. "I think we are talking at cross-purposes again," she reflected. "I value its beauty, but beauty is brief. As a thing, it has no use. What would I do with it?"
"To what purpose?"
"Because it is rare, and a pleasure to behold. As a reminder of the sea."
She smiled. "I have the sea itself. Who needs a token?"
Veylin's gaze was grave as he ventured, "You may not always dwell here."
She looked on the shell. "Then it would be a thing of bitterness and regret. It would be better if it were a reminder to you, when you have gone, that there is wonder as well as dread in the sea."
He considered her as he slowly closed his fingers on it. "I do not think I have ever met a Man like you."
"Alas," she sighed, cocking a sardonic eyebrow. "I would fain meet such a man myself."
They stared at her as if she was fey, and under that unyielding incomprehension, her elation began to ebb. "I have dampened your chamber enough," she observed, taking up her still-dripping cloak. Was she storm-drunk? Certainly she was not sober. "I will leave you to your work. If you need aught else, I will be at my hearth."
Saelon saw nothing of them the rest of the day, nor in the evening. The rain beat down, reason enough to keep under a roof, but she sensed she had disturbed them deeply, even more than she troubled her own folk. It grieved her, yet what was she to do? She could understand their unease no more than they comprehended her joy in the waves, and to conceal it was impossible, an ingratitude. In a day or two, they would depart, and then she would be free once more.
Save for the threat of the raug.
They and the weather were all gloomy alike in the morning. The Dwarves had the best excuse: as she had gone out to her chores the evening before, she had heard them singing a deep dirge in their strange, harsh tongue, a reminder of what held them here. Coming out in the grey light of what might have been dawn, she found Veylin seated on the litter, with Thyrnir arranging his cloak behind; Rekk was filling four water bottles at the spring basin. Doucely, she approached Veylin. "You are leaving?" she asked.
"For the day," Veylin replied, taciturn. "Tomorrow we will depart for home."
She bowed her head and went about her business, but after they departed, she stood on the edge of the cliff shelf and watched their slow progress across the machair. They would have a hard and dreary journey, bearing Veylin over the rough, heather-tussocked ground . . . and a longer after. She wondered how far it was to their home.
And then she turned to her own difficulties. Although she accomplished much with her hands that day, her thought made no more headway than the tide, marching back and forth across the same confined reach. How could she stay? She had seen what these things were capable of, and a league was nothing, a short tramp. Halladan was not a timid man, nor these Dwarves either, save for the sea. It did look like madness for her to ignore the counsel of tried warriors, a slender woman, alone, armed with no more than a faith in the ward of the wave and rowan-berries. How far did that protection reach? Was she right in thinking the raugs were abroad only by night, or was that ill-founded hope? Winter was coming, when the hours of light would be short, and twilight long. How far would she be able to safely range for food and fuel?
Yet, how could she leave? Even if she would, would it not be more perilous to set out, alone and afoot, across the mountains? Halladan had said there was more than one raug there; perhaps the one that had attacked the Dwarves had died of its wounds. Fear oft drove folk into danger.
As the day waned, Saelon made a last effort of hospitality, preparing a good supper for her comfortless guests: the last of the dried venison made a hearty stew, and there had been a bounty of hazelnuts in the thickets by the river meads. If they would not accept her generosity, that was their right; but she would not stint them. Still, she often found herself going to look out over the machair, as if anxious for their return. Foolishness . . . but though the wind had torn great rents in the clouds, and the sun shone fair on the green turf, glinting on the clinging drops from the last spit of rain, she found she was uneasy.
Too much brooding on the evil that might befall, casting a shadow as long and stark as the setting sun. She turned her mind and body away, going down to the burn for butter. It took some effort to fish the box out without getting drenched, with the water in spate after the storm. Here, too, where she usually found peace, there was no reassurance; instead of the summer's easy chuckle, there was a rushing haste and the grumble of shifting stones.
Climbing back towards the cliff shelf, she started at a sound she had not heard for years. Hooves; many hooves, galloping. Saelon snatched up her skirt and bounded up the slope. When she reached the crest, there they were: a line of horsemen racing onto the machair from the river, the leaders already swinging wide to circle something on the green turf. Not her sheep—they were bolting for the northern headland, the collie running distracted.
A litter, surrounded by three Dwarves, their axes in their hands.
The lead horse was Halladan's roan; his helm was on his head and his spear in his hand.
Saelon dropped the butter and ran.
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Stook: a collection of sheaves set butt end down to dry.
Trenail: wooden peg used to join timbers.
Brose: a peasemeal porridge (more commonly oatmeal, today) made with milk or stock.
Weir: a fish trap, usually an enclosure of posts or stones in a watercourse or tidal bay.
"like a large winkle, but delicate and purple as a spring violet": a violet sea-snail (Janthina exigua), a pelagic snail sometimes washed ashore during gales.
Fluxspar: a term of my invention for fluorite, an easily carved mineral that comes in a wide range of colors and often used as a flux for smelting metallic ores. Spar (from Old English spærst?n, "gypsum") is a British term for lustrous, transparent to translucent non-metallic minerals with well-defined cleavage, such as fluorite.
Nacre: mother of pearl.
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