The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Rock and Hawk: 9. Measure for Measure
It is the nature of men to be as much bound by the benefits that they confer as by those they receive.
--Niccoló Machiavelli, The Prince
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"What is this?" Veylin muttered, as their ponies crested the hill and they looked down on the cliff-backed plain. It was well-stocked with black cattle and sheep, and a few horses were gathered in the corner nearest the track to Saelon's cave.
Thyrnir shaded his eyes, peering towards the further cliff. "There is something pale up there," he observed. "A great deal of washing, or booths. I can't be sure from here." Looking at Veylin, he asked, "Do we go on?"
"Of course." Veylin urged his beast forward, to pick its way down the heather-clad slope.
As they reached the plain and drew near the cattle, children broke from cover like grouse: two flew off towards the track with light-footed speed, while a half-grown boy stood his ground with a sling ready in hand, watching them warily. Veylin raised an empty hand in token of greeting and peace, and after several pony strides, the boy raised his likewise.
That was something.
By the time they reached the track, half a dozen children and a few women had gathered to stare, as if they had never seen Dwarves before. Perhaps they had not. But where were their menfolk? This looked ill; very ill. Pulling his pony up when they reached the dooryard, Veylin looked around at the mute, fearful faces. "Greetings, good people," he said as mildly as he could. "I am Veylin, and this is Thyrnir. We seek the lady Saelon. Is she here?"
One young woman bobbed a quick curtsey. "I will fetch her," she said, and hurried off.
As if she had broken some spell, others came to life. A boy stepped forward uncertainly. "Shall I hold your ponies for you?"
"That would be a kindness," Thyrnir said, dismounting and handing the boy his reins. "Hold Veylin's beast steady by this rock, while I help him down."
It was hard to lean on his nephew in front of all these strangers, harder than dismounting itself. Yet the murmurs and whispers he could hear were some reassurance.
"Is he the one?"
"Dwarves, silly. They live in stone—"
"The one Saelon nursed—"
"—Halpan said one slew a fell-beast—"
"Veylin!" Saelon's voice soared above the others, bright with surprise and delight. "And Thyrnir. Welcome!"
Despite her smile, she was careworn, careworn and weary. "At your service, lady," Veylin replied, bracing against his stick as he drew off his hood and bowed. Straightening with care, he gazed significantly up and down the crowded terrace. A few more women and children had come out to join those already gathered. "How have things been with you, since we parted?"
"Ill," she admitted candidly, her smile crooking, "but you are no less welcome for that. Come in and let us sit a while. Urwen," she asked one of the women, "I left Rian tending Gràinne. Would you see to her, while I attend our guests?"
"Certainly." This Urwen was nobler to the eye than Saelon, Dúnedain-tall and proud; but only now did she remember that it was rude to stare, dropping her eyes and an uncertain curtsey. "Welcome, masters."
"At your service," they replied politely.
Veylin stumped with slow dignity to Saelon's cave. She held the leather drape aside for them, then strode across the cave to scoop up a sheepskin, giving it a brisk shake and spreading it on the bench against the wall. Her once-neat chamber was as cluttered as the terrace outside, a jumble of heather beds and blankets and clothing. "Sit, Veylin," she half-invited, half-urged. "I am glad to see the leg will bear you."
"A little," he allowed, grumbling, "but it is getting stronger." Setting himself carefully on the bench, he fixed his gaze on her. "What is all this? Two more guests will be a burden rather than a pleasure, it appears."
"Pleasure," she echoed, as if trying to remember what it was, and drew her hands down her face as if she could wipe the weariness away. "Seeing you afoot is the only pleasure I have had for weeks." She sank down to sit on a rumple of blanket. "I am glad that you came, but ashamed—my hospitality will be so scant. All I can offer you for drink is water."
Was she feeding all these folk from her small supply as well as housing them? "Your water is good, lady, but you need something stronger," Veylin told her, frowning. "Thyrnir, bring the aleskin from my beast. Come, Saelon" he urged when the youngster had gone. "Answer my questions. What has befallen you? Who are all these people?"
"The wreck of Srathen Brethil."
He had talked with a Dwarf who had traded there seventy years ago. A fair and sheltered glen, he had recalled, rich for one so far north, with near two-score steadings like links in a loose chain along the twisting river. Prosperous enough then for its lord to commission a mailshirt for his heir: Halladan and Saelon's grandsire perhaps, or sire. Crowded though this place was, there was nothing like two-score families; not a tenth so many people and beasts, and he had not seen a single man grown. What catastrophe could have driven women and children from their homes and across the mountains? "The fiends?"
Saelon nodded, mute.
"Where is your brother?"
Veylin shut his eyes against the sight of her heartbreak. Calling to mind that dark, stern Man, lordly without arrogance, who had loved his sister well enough to let her go her own way, he said, "That is a bitter loss." Now they had both lost dear ones to these fiends. Words gave no real comfort, but he presented them as a token. "He was implacable to his foes, but did not judge hastily." That he had hoped they might become friends he kept in his heart.
Thyrnir came back in, aleskin in hand. Her brother is slain, and their halls broken, Veylin signed curtly. Fiends. "Find Saelon's cup and fill it for her."
"It is in the kist by my bed," she told him, not knowing Thyrnir was stricken rather than puzzled amid the disorder. "I dare not leave it out these days."
So she did not trust all these folk. He saw she still wore Rekk's gold in her hair. "Who leads your people now?"
"I do," she said bleakly.
"Your brother had no son? No other brothers?"
"My other brothers are long dead. His son, Halmir, is here, but he is younger than Gaernath."
Were none of the Dúnedain men left alive? Or even sisters, to share the burden? Was she, amidst all these people, still alone and friendless?
No. Not friendless.
Thyrnir brought her silver cup. "Drink, lady." It was a dark brew, too bitter for most Men's taste, but she drank deep.
"Tell us the tale," Veylin counseled, as Thyrnir sat down beside him, passing him a cup. "These fiends have injured us also, and a burden shared is a burden halved. I have not forgotten that I owe you a great debt."
She told them what she knew, though it was little enough, gleaned from amid the terror and grief of those who had fled: there were at least three of the creatures; the only weapons that would bite their dun hide had been the heirlooms of her house; and that at the end they attacked hall as well as byre, so that it was uncertain whether folk had been carried off or fled into the houseless wild. She also shared something of her thought for her people's safekeeping. "With the bounty of the sea," she sighed, "I do not fear we will starve. But the winter gales are terrible, and where they are all to shelter, I do not know."
"Enlarge the caves," Thyrnir said, a reminder of the obvious.
"We do not have the skill or tools to cut stone. We build with wood, but as you know we must fare far to fetch it. Most of the men and horses are at the oakwood now."
"There are more than those outside?" Veylin asked.
"These are the women and children, and the sick are within. There are forty-two of us, and like to be forty-six by summer, if we lose none."
So many, to be crammed into this narrow place; yet so few. He calculated how much space they would need, then remembered their height and figured again. A modest work, if one aimed for use rather than comfort. "How many able menfolk do you have?"
She had to tell them over on her fingers before answering. "Sixteen, counting the larger lads."
Sixteen, yet she was so burdened. Shameful. Well, if any useful work could be gotten out of them, in this limestone, with so many to shovel and carry . . . . "Here is a proposition for you, lady." Veylin leaned back against the wall of the cave. "We do have the skill and tools, and I am in your debt. Might I discharge it by taking one burden off your shoulders?"
"Could you?" she exclaimed with naked relief, then recollected herself. "It would be too much."
He snorted. "In this soft rock?" In comparison to where they cut now, this would be a lark, a pleasant change of pace. "You sell your work cheap. A life—even a leg—for perhaps five days delving?"
"So little?" she asked, looking from him to Thyrnir and back in disbelief.
Veylin laughed at her ignorance, but kindly. "I do not mean for the two of us to do it all ourselves." He clapped his bad leg. "That would take too long to be of much use against this winter's storms. No," he explained, "ten or perhaps a dozen of my folk, if yours will help as they can, could see you all snug before the end of the month, provided the stone gives no surprises."
To his dismay, she began to weep, silently, hiding her bare mouth with her hand. "What have I said?" he asked, alarmed. If she could speak of her brother's death dry-eyed—
She shook her head and dabbed at her face with her shawl, though the tears continued to fall. "This is too much kindness," she protested.
If his leg had not been so unwieldy, he would have gone to her. "So I felt," he told her gently. One was hardened to the ill fortunes of the world, but what defenses were proof against aid unlooked for? "May I be of service to you, and have my revenge?"
"Revenge?" The look she gave him was very strange, compounded of bafflement and consternation. "Is this what you meant by cruel kindness?"
She remembered that? Yet she still did not understand him. "It is your pride that weeps, is it not? The need is cruel," he chose his words with care, watching her closely to see if she took his meaning, "but it is the succor others give that brings shame." As he knew all too well after these last months. She had betrayed her true want with that first cry; he must prevent her from retreating. "Relief is oft welded to pain . . . while salving one injury we may, without malice, inflict another. Did you not do so, when you ruined your knife on my shoulder?"
"Cruel to be kind, we say for that," she allowed, "or for my sudden resetting of your leg. But we do not see kindness itself as an insult." She paused, brows knitting. "Or at least we say we do not. That is not the intent," she concluded, though she looked very thoughtful.
Doubtless there were many here obliged to her generosity. "Few can match your open-handedness," he told her plainly. "You may not intend ill, yet one-sidedness breeds resentment. It is better to trade such sharp favors back and forth." Did she not know this, or had she forgotten it, living so long alone? If she would lead her people, she must learn it, and soon. "Let me do this thing for you," he asked. "The debt galls, and I would be free."
She stared at the silver cup by her hand. "Of course." Taking the cup, she emptied it at one draught, then wiped her face with her shawl. "Thank you. The ale and the counsel are welcome, but not as welcome as your work will be. When might you start?"
Veylin studied her from under lowered brows. He had expected her pride to put up more of a struggle, but this looked and sounded closer to the cool pragmatism he remembered. Quickly, he turned his mind to what would be needed, half-fearing she would think better of the concession. It was the same work they were doing at the new hall; there would be little to do except finish what could not be safely left half-done and pack. "The day after tomorrow, if we leave you now. Thyrnir, see if the ponies are still at hand."
"So soon?" she exclaimed, astonishment and disappointment mingled, as Thyrnir slipped out the door.
"We should eat food and take up space you obviously cannot spare, when we are only a few hours from our own hall? If we are to make it back before dark, the days short as they are, we must not linger." Hearing Thyrnir's low whistle from without, he finished his ale and set the cup on the bench to take up his stick.
Saelon started to her feet, then faltered as she stretched out a hand to help, awkward, her expression almost forlorn. Had he misjudged? Had she given way through weakness rather than strength? "Come," he chided lightly, taking her hand to pull himself off the bench, "keep up your heart. Do not worry about feeding or housing us; we can see to our own needs. Let us get your people housed, then we will turn our thoughts to vengeance on these fiends."
That brought a dim smile to her face. "Farewell, then. I will look for you in two days."
He bowed. "Until then, lady." Donning his hood, he went out to the ponies with warmer purpose, his hobble forgotten amid his calculations.
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It was only once everything was in motion that he began to wonder if he had been too hasty.
"Not again," Rekk muttered, as the horsemen rode across the plain towards them.
Thyrnir snorted. "Be easy. The odds are reversed: there are only five of them. And they have left their spears behind."
Vitnir looked from them to the riders. "You have had trouble with these Men?"
"A misunderstanding," Thyrnir clarified, fixing a droll eye on Rekk, "over some rough handling of the Lady Saelon."
"Which was satisfactorily settled between us before the eve was out," Rekk declared testily, as Vitnir and his brother Vitr looked at him likewise. "If she has no complaint, they should have none. Her brother let it lie."
"He is dead, and we do not know how fair-minded these Men may be," Thyrnir reminded him.
"Gaernath is among them," Veylin noted. It was hard to miss that flaming copper hair. Was the boy there from liking, or was he—save them!—now one of the chief Men of these folk? The lack of spears and mail was reassuring; nevertheless, he felt he had strayed onto broken ground.
Agreements of this magnitude were customarily made between men, among Men as well as Dwarves; yet Saelon led the remnants of her people. Of her wisdom and will, Veylin had little doubt; yet he remembered her acknowledgement, as they sat at board with Halladan, that some of her folk did. Were they here among the refugees, or had those chosen to flee in other directions? Perhaps it would have been wiser to delay a day or two, so she could have laid his offer before such Men as there were. Veylin could not imagine such a case ever befalling Dwarves, but even beardlings must resent their women turning to men of alien race for aid. The situation was so peculiar, so cross-cut as by faults: Dwarves and Men; men and women; the repayment of a debt to one that would openly benefit many.
They were here now; if need be, they could turn around and go back again. But if so, these folk were fools.
The horsemen pulled up some way ahead and waited for the Dwarves to come to them, which was courteous, especially in comparison to their last meeting on this plain. "Welcome, Veylin," their leader greeted him, "and the same to your companions."
It was the young Dúnadan who had chosen to stay behind with Saelon and Gaernath when the others had ridden home. "Well met—Halpan, is it?" As the Man smiled, pleased to be remembered, Veylin added, "At your service."
"So we hear, and we would be at yours. You were friendly with our former lord, Halladan: this is his son, Halmir."
Drawing off his hood, Veylin bowed to the boy. "Greetings, Halmir. I was grieved to hear of your father's death. I, too, have lost kin to these creatures."
"So my aunt has told me, Master Veylin." A child's soft face and schooled courtesy, but already so tall.
"Gaernath you know well," Halpan went on, passing over the fair-haired man who sat his horse by Halmir, but Veylin remembered him at Halladan's side likewise. "This is his elder brother, Mais."
Not so ruddy-haired as Gaernath; he could be few years older. "Greetings," Veylin said politely.
"Master," with a bow of his head. "My brother speaks well of you." Behind him, Gaernath colored.
"And I have only good to say of him," Veylin assured him. "Here are my companions. Rekk and Thyrnir some of you have met before—"
"Oh, we are hardly likely to forget Master Rekk," Halpan murmured with a dry smile.
"—but these will be new to you all: Vitr and Vitnir; Nordri and his sons Nyr and Nyrað; Thiolf; and Ingi."
"Welcome to Echad Gaearon, masters," Halpan said. "Come up to the caves. Lady Saelon is waiting to receive you."
They made quite a show, going up the track, and from the rough count Veylin managed on the way up, it looked as if everyone had turned out for the spectacle. The expressions on their faces were mixed: some hopeful; some fearful as two days ago; many sharp-eyed, withholding judgment.
So many children. How did Men multiply so, amid such evil chances?
Saelon stood in the dooryard before her chamber. It was the first time he had seen her in something other than plain linen and undyed wool, and her dark hair had been put up with care. She looked the noble lady . . . but that garnet hue, for all it went well with Rekk's gold, warred with her sea-colored eyes. "Welcome, Master Veylin," she said, formally gracious, "and all your companions likewise."
"At your service, Lady Saelon." He drew off his hood and bowed as low as his wretched leg would allow.
She curtseyed in return. "At yours and your family's. May I present my kinswomen to you? My brother's daughter, Rian; Urwen, Haldorn's widow; and Halpan's sister Bereth."
"Ladies." Bother all this bowing—but it would set her less apart. It could not be taken well if she was the only woman to mingle with Dwarves. Who Haldorn had been, he did not know, but he recalled Urwen from his earlier visit. Rian was the young woman who had gone to fetch Saelon. The curtseys of all three were stiffly correct, their grace marred by unease.
"Please sit," Saelon asked, gesturing towards the benches set along the base of the cliff, "and take some refreshment after your journey."
Veylin planted both hands on the head of his stick and looked up at her from under bristling brows. He had told her they would supply their own wants. If she could not offer a cup of ale to two, how could she afford hospitality for half a score?
"We all thank you for the offer of your skill," she added, laying subtle emphasis on the first two words. "Timely is the hand of a friend."
Was this for her people's sake then, a sop to their crushed pride? "It profits no one to ignore a neighbor's need," he replied, vowing to take it up with her later, when he would not offend tender-spirited Men with his bluntness. "A little something will be welcome, but we are keen to get to work. The weather is chancy this late in the year, and the sooner we have roof enough for all our heads, the better."
"Hear him!" cried a greybeard. "Uncanny they may be, but that's plain sense."
Saelon hid a smile behind her hand as two barely bearded boys belatedly hushed the old Man, and took a seat on bench nearest her door. "Rian, Bereth—the ale, please."
While the younger women served, Saelon invited him and Thyrnir to sit with her and Halmir; Urwen took her own bench with Halpan, who invited Rekk to join them. Saelon had him introduce each of the other Dwarves, courteously greeting each and looking on them carefully, not just at the color of their beards and hoods.
She also named two others of her household for them. The tall, fair-haired Man who kept close to the young heir was Tarain; the other, as watchful of her, was a short older Man, with a respectable if grizzled brown beard that made up somewhat for his near-baldness. Partalan, Saelon called him, and he looked on the Dwarves with the unfriendly eyes of a Dunland cattle dog. An old war-axe, if Veylin had ever seen one; he hoped he would not be trouble.
Looking around at those beyond their party, Veylin could see that there were menfolk among them, but of what Men pleased to call the lower sort: those who were not Dúnedain, like Gaernath and his brother, and that broad, black-bearded fellow who still managed to look prosperous; and their servants. How such Men tolerated their lot—especially such as that Partalan—was beyond him. Dwarves, being the sons of seven Fathers, would defer to an elder, or their superior in craft, but deference was not the surrender of one's life to another's purposes for a morsel of food and a piece of cloth to keep off the weather.
They did not sit long. There might be two hours of good daylight left, and Nordri soon took his prentice Ingi and Rekk off to survey the cliff face and the known caves. Thyrnir oversaw the pitching of their booths in the narrow angle at the southern end of the cliff-shelf, the only space not already occupied. They would be cramped there, but only for a night or two, until they had delved enough to make better shelter. Kept from useful work by his leg, Veylin sat on the bench and talked with Halpan, who brought in the other freemen to share what was left of the ale once the women had withdrawn.
It soon became clear why Saelon bore the burden of leadership. Of the three freemen grown, Halpan and Mais were too young for wisdom; they wished to speak of nothing but fiends, and vengeance against them. The black-bearded Man, Maelchon, went to the other extreme; he thought of nothing but the safety of his large family, and what crops might be gotten from the plain below. Meritorious, both—and the youngsters would want weapons, while Maelchon might grow more than his family could eat—but in times such as these, a people needed someone with both eyes open.
After supper, Veylin gathered Rekk, Nordri, and Thyrnir, and went along to Saelon's chamber. They found her alone, but for Rian, who was clearing the board, and Partalan, who sat in the far corner, mending a knife sheath. "Good evening, masters," she said, getting up to offer them the nearer bench. "What brings you here?"
"We would seek your counsel on how to proceed," Nordri explained, taking the seat. "You have good stone here, that will be a delight to work. But we do not know what Men might want from a hall. It has been long since our forefathers built for the kings of old, and even that was above ground, not Dwarf-fashion."
"What do you need to know?" Saelon sat down again across from him, while Rekk sat down on his right hand, and Thyrnir helped Veylin settle on his left.
"The number and size of chambers, mainly. If there is a particular way you would like them connected, we will do what we can, although the stone may dictate otherwise."
"Will you use the caves already here?"
Nordri was pleased by such a sensible question. At supper Veylin had heard that there had already been words over the necessity of moving a loom to examine the roof of what had been the byre-cave. "It would be best to place the entrance in the one Thyrnir opened on his earlier visit, and cut back from there. The roof of the largest may become unstable if we remove much nearby, at least if we delve in haste. If we disturb this one, Rekk fears we will cut off the spring that fills the basin at your door."
"I would be sorry for that," she told them. "It is very convenient, but I value it for its music as much as for the water."
"Never fear," Rekk assured her. "We will preserve it for you."
She glanced at him, surprised by his earnestness. "Thank you." Looking back to Nordri, she asked, "How do Dwarves order their halls?" and, when he remained silent, lips pursed thoughtfully, stroking his amber-dark beard, she looked to Veylin, "Or is that an indiscreet question?"
"I suppose not," Nordri decided, glancing back to the corner where Partalan sat silently stitching. Rian had taken the dishes out to wash them. "Not in general. Beyond the entranceway, there is usually a great hall, for council and feasting. Other halls and workshops as well, but we will not be making anything so grand here. Then the chambers of different families, and storerooms."
"If we can shift Halpan's family out of the old byre-cave, that can serve as storeroom again," Saelon decided. "A common hall is a good thought, and a chamber for each of the large families."
Nordri pulled out his slate and began scratching a rough plan. "How many families?"
"Four. If it can be contrived for each to have its own hearth," she declared, "that would be a blessing."
"Why?" Thyrnir asked. "It is more temperate underground than above. So long as the entrance is well-designed, to keep out drafts, a hearth in the hall will provide ample warmth."
"I do not know how it may be with your women, but among Men, a woman's hearth is her lordship. We do not share them peacefully."
Nordri looked up from his sketch. "Indeed? Well, we will see what we can do, but I make no promises. Bringing fresh air to the further chambers will be a challenge as it is. Separate hearths would probably require chimneys, and there is a great thickness of stone over our heads. And I cannot promise a garderobe, unless Rekk finds another spring in that part of the cliff."
"A privy," Rekk told her.
Scowling, Veylin kicked Thyrnir with his good leg, so the youngster turned his laugh into a series of coughs. "Only if there is enough water to wash it clean," Nordri explained. "It is less noisome than the alternatives."
The place was already more noisome than it had been. Veylin did not like to think what it would be like in summer, if alternatives were not found. "We are aiming for use, Lady," he cautioned her, "not for much comfort."
"A roof and four bare walls will be far more comfort than we have now," she assured him, "so long as we do not have to lie stacked on top of one another. We will be glad of whatever you can do. Or at least most of us will." She favored them with her wry smile. "I will not pretend that no one will mutter."
"We are used to that," Rekk maintained, with a shrug. "Let me ask: is your heart still hot against me, Lady?"
"No," she said, puzzled. "What makes you think so?"
"The gold is still in your hair."
"Ah." She reached up and touched it, where it had been twined into her crown of plaits. "Truth be told, master, it is one of the finest things I have. I rarely dress as befits my station, but I did not want my people to feel like beggars today."
Veylin frowned: admiring a water-cut basin, flattering his simple gold chain so . . . if she kept this up, Rekk might thaw towards her. "Is that why you brewed ale for our welcome, when I said you need not spend your scant stores on us?"
"Of course. If you insist on bearing the whole burden," she told him, "I will give you an accounting tomorrow, and you can replace it, measure for measure. Will that satisfy you?"
He saw that Nordri had looked up from his sketch, veiled amusement in his eye. "I suppose it will have to," he rumbled.
The stonemason snorted, and pushed his slate towards Saelon. "Do not let him daunt you, Lady. It is his leg that makes him cross in the evenings. Here—will this serve your needs?"
They all bent their heads over the rough plan, but Veylin sat back, rubbing his knee and resenting the formalities that had made it ache so. Daunt her? Rekk could bruise her flesh and tear her hair, and for a trifle of gold, he was favored with pleasing words; he offered her a haven for her people and she burst into tears, then treated him with coolly punctilious courtesy. She was as contrary as his sister. Was it any wonder her own brother had found life less of a burden when she was twenty leagues off?
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They started work the next morning in the cold raw dawn twilight, the breath of Dwarf and Man alike steaming like dragon breath in the glow of the lamps as they cleared the stores from the smallest cave. Once they were into the rockface, the scant hours of daylight at the fag end of the year would be no impediment: all would be lamplit, day or night. There were other tasks, however, that needed the brightness and security of the sun. As Nordri and his sons began to tunnel into the cliff, feeling their way through the rock with their pick-points, and Thiolf and Ingi began showing the Men how to clear the spoil without getting in the way, Thyrnir was assembling a party to go to the oakwood for timber props and frames, and Saelon gathered women to cut withies along the river for more packbaskets.
With so many things that needed doing, everyone could find something that they were willing to do, and if they wished to avoid the Dwarves, they could do so without shirking. All in all, Veylin reflected as he accompanied the delving crew back to their camp, a very fair day's work, considering that so many were unfamiliar with it. Some supper, a chance to beat the chalky rock dust from their clothes, and a little sleep, and they could start opening up the hall tomorrow.
"Masters?" A Man Veylin had not seen before stepped forward into the lamplight, a strangely shaped burden on his shoulder. A sharper glance showed several other folk hanging further back, outside the clearest light; did they think Dwarves would not see them in the dimness?
"Yes?" Veylin replied, as Nyr raised the lamp higher, to show his face plain. "I do not think I know you."
"No, Master. I am Aniel, the huntsman. I was out on the chase when you came, and between your work and mine, our paths have not crossed. But I have a present for you all." He held out his burden, and Vitnir stepped forward to take it.
"A haunch of venison," he announced with relish.
"Is this from Lady Saelon?" Veylin demanded, displeased. First the ale, now this; she would keep giving, no matter what he said. "I have told her that we do not want such gifts, what you can ill spare, straitened as you are. I am the one repaying the debt, not her."
Vitnir gazed on the haunch regretfully; Rekk had a surly look; and even Nordri looked at him reproachfully. The little knot of Men had gone very still and silent, though one on the edge of the group started to slip away into the darkness.
The huntsman looked down on him, brows drawn together, but not quite in a frown. "No, Master, this is not from Saelon, and I do not know what you may have agreed between you, so please do not take offense. This is from us common folk.
"We know you are doing this in return for her nursing of you after you were mauled by a fell-beast, to relieve her and not us. But we are the ones who will benefit most, and we would like to show we are grateful. We can repay her all our lives, however long they may be, but if we do not thank you now, when will the chance come again? Please, masters, do not be too proud to accept it. It is little enough. Corn we are hard short of, it is true, but there is no lack of game."
Truly, one would have to have a heart of stone to deny such a plea. So Gaernath had offered him the plumpest of the grouse he had first taken with Vestri's bow. So poor, these folk, and these the poorest among them . . . and so open-handed it shamed him. "We will accept your gift, Aniel—and you others, there," Veylin relented, bowing. "Indeed, if I refuse it, my own folk might rise up and slay me in the night, for denying them such a treat. Meat is welcome after much labor, and venison is sweeter than salt beef."
There in the dimness, someone dared to laugh; one of the greybeard's boys, Veylin thought. "Sweet it is to hear music again," a girl's voice called, high and clear, "strange though yours is, for we have not had the heart to make any."
Vitnir, who would pick up his pipes as gladly as his hammer, bowed as best he could for the haunch. "If you would have more, encourage your huntsman! After a long day's work and a good supper, how can we not play and sing?"
"Give us a few more days," Nordri told them, "and you will have a hall to hear song in. Perhaps your hearts will lift then. It is hard to be houseless." When the Men had withdrawn and the younger Dwarves hastened ahead with the venison, Nordri kept Veylin's slower pace, glancing at him sidelong. "Your choice of site for your hall seems less strange to me now. As Men go, these are good."
If Nordri thought he had chosen the site for the neighbors, Veylin would not correct him. "We shall certainly not go hungry, unless they starve themselves," he said dryly.
Nordri laughed. "So it is with Men, feast or famine; they drown you in ale or grudge you a morsel of bread. Take while they are in the mood to give, for it will not last."
Easy for him to say; he was not the one enmeshed in this widening net of gifts and gratitude. Veylin wished he was certain this was no more than a passing mood.
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Echad Gaearon: Sindarin, "camp (of) great sea."
Booth: a temporary shelter or tent; from Old Norse b?th, see Scots buith, bothy.
Slate: a flat tablet of fine-grained slate that can be drawn or written on with a slate pencil (or chalk), and erased by rubbing; the predecessor of chalkboards.
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