The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Fair Folk and Foul: 1. A Sail on the Sea
We came down among them, but of course
they could see nothing, on their time-scale.
Yet they sensed us, stopped, looked up--even into our eyes.
To them we were a displacement of the air,
a sudden chill, yet we had no power
over their fear. If one of them had been dying
he would have died. The crying
came from one just born: that was the cause
of the song. We saw it now. What had we stopped
I know you felt
the same dismay, you gripped my arm, they were waiting
for what they knew of us to pass.
. . .
We signalled to the ship; got back;
our lives and days returned to us, but
haunted by deeper souvenirs than any rocks or seeds.
From time the souvenirs are deeds.
--Edwin Morgan, "From the Domain of Arnheim"
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"Saelon, something moves on the sea."
Saelon looked up from brewing an infusion of fresh ground ivy for Gràinne's ill-sounding cough, meeting Eithel's troubled gaze. "What manner of thing?" she asked. "Near or far?" Though the girl had lived by the shore for half a year now, the sea was still strange to her, and to the others who had fled here. Strangeness was fearful to them, after the terrors they had faced.
"Something white, much too large for a swan. It is still many furlongs away, but it is coming towards us swiftly, riding the waves."
White, and riding the waves but not a bird? She had dwelt here a score of years, and she had never seen such a thing. Could it be a ship? If it were, where could it have come from, save the Havens? Setting the stoup in the aumbry, Saelon lifted the lid of the kist she had been working on and seized her finest shawl, then found a silver brooch that Rian had left lying. "Is Halpan about?"
"No. He is hunting with Aniel and others."
Of course he was; yet it would have been well to have the only man left of the Dúnedain of Srathen Brethil at her side to meet Elves from the Havens. If he was out of reach, he was out of reach. "Tarain? Or Partalan?"
"I'm not sure," Eithel replied, looking ever more anxious. "What is it?"
Saelon touched her slim shoulder with a reassuring smile. "A ship, I think. So we may have guests. Will you send one of the lads to look for my men, and ask your mother to find something we might offer them? Then come back, pour this off, and take a cup to Gràinne, sweetened with two spoons of honey. I am going down to the shore, to greet them if they land."
Dashing through the hall and out into the fickle sunshine of Gwirith, Saelon went to the edge of the shelf at the base of the cliff and looked down on the bay, drawing on her shawl and pinning it with Rian's brooch. Yes, there was an angle of white that must be a sail out among the rolling, iron-grey waves, running quickly in under this fresh northerly breeze. It was smaller than her imagination had painted it, which was a blessing; they had little enough for themselves, let alone guests.
She hurried down the winding track, wider now and slick from the morning's showers, then across the machair. Here, too, her paths were much changed, as she had to cut along the edges of the newly sown fields that had replaced near half of the green, flower-starred turf. "Where are you going, in such a hurry?" cried Gormal, posted with his next younger brother to keep the birds from their father's seed.
"I will tell you when I return, if you do not see for yourself!" Saelon called back, not wishing him to abandon his post to see this curiosity, at least not until they were sure this was a friendly visit.
Tales told that Lindon was allied to her kin, but since Arvedui the last King was lost with the ship sent to rescue him from the Icebay to the north, more aid had come to the Dúnedain from Rivendell in the east. The Elves of the Havens looked westward, it was said, and attended little to what passed in Eriador. Yet this coast they had held since it became a coast, with the drowning of Beleriand at the end of the Elder Days. They might not look favorably on a band of Men settling, without leave, on their land.
If leave was not given, Saelon did not know what they would do.
When she reached the crest of the sandhills, the broken rampart between turf and tide, the ship was in the bay, its swan-breasted prow pointed towards the mouth of the river that reached the sea where the strand met the dark elbow of the northern headland. It was a beautiful thing, gannet-pale, as easy on the swell as an eider. Three dark-haired sailors it bore; and the steersman raised a hand to her in greeting as the others trimmed the sail.
She raised hers likewise, and headed for the river. It was a small stream, with many sandbanks and rocks in its shallow channel, and the breeze was chancy here in the lee of the headland, but the steersman brought the vessel neatly in to where the current had scoured a deeper pool between the heather-mantled slope and a pier of rock at the foot of the first and greatest dune, almost as if he had known the little haven was there.
Perhaps they knew it well. What were the years she had dwelt here to an Elf?
As one cast a bight of rope about a convenient stone and another took in the sail, the steersman leapt lightly ashore. "Hail, Gaerveldis!" he greeted her, and came up the steep sand-face as if it had been a firm track.
"Well met," she replied, wits suddenly astray. "What did you call me?" He was tall, taller than her brother Halladan had been, and though his face was ageless, that height, and the bright profundity of his green-grey gaze, made her feel like a child again, her elders talking over her head.
He cocked an amused brow. "You look like a Dúnadaneth, although you have not quite their height. Do you not know Gaerveldis, 'sea-friend' in Sindarin? Your habitation here is well known, and though we have not met, we needs must call you something."
She felt as if she must be blushing. Once or twice she thought she had glimpsed Elves, passing by at a distance, but it seemed they had seen more than they had been seen. Dropping a curtsey, she said, "Yes, I am one of the Dúnedain, of the folk of Srathen Brethil, east of the mountains. Saelon is my name."
"I am Falathar, of the Havens." He looked past her, and turning her head, she saw Maelchon, Bred, and Leod watching from a distance with Bereth, who was vainly trying to order Gormal and Maon home. "Rumors reached us of some ill hereabouts, and Círdan sent me to see what was afoot."
Behind him, on the other side of the river, Saelon saw Handin drifting down the slope from where he had left the flock, his sling in his hand. The other Elves were watching him and grinning. "The ill has been greater elsewhere than here, but yes, we have been sore troubled."
"We," Falathar said, no longer amused. "One guest is little burden, and we would not grudge the sea to one who loves it so well as you. But this—" he indicated the ploughed fields with a graceful gesture and an austere look "—this is cause for grievance."
"It is a grief to me as well," Saelon assured him earnestly, "especially at this season, when the flowers are so fair. Yet my people must have corn."
"Must they have it here?"
"If you can tell me of a fitter place, I am willing to take them elsewhere—after the harvest. We have no more seed corn."
"Why can they not return whence they came?" he asked coolly. "We have not heard that the Dúnedain throve so well that there was not land enough east of the Lhûn."
Saelon met those unsettling, ancient eyes. "We know we are interlopers, lord, and must beg pardon. But will you not hear what drove them hither before you judge?"
"I am a coastwarden, not a lord," Falathar corrected her. "Círdan will decide. What would you have him know?"
"It is not a short tale." Saelon sighed. Would it be better or worse for him to see their hall? She did not know enough of Elves to even guess. "Will you have it here, or will you come up to the hall for some refreshment, you and your companions?"
He swept the whole arc of the bay with his gaze, lingering over the foot of the southern cliffs perched high above the machair, cream-colored under the westering sun. She wondered how many people had gathered there, to gape at a safe distance. "I will come," he said, "but my crew will remain here." He called back to them in his own tongue, charging them to wait until the tide reached the flood, then faced her again. "Lead on," he invited, hand extended towards the distant foot of the track.
As they walked together in silence, Saelon wondered what thoughts were passing behind those clear, farsighted eyes. Beside him, she felt small, drab, and younger than she had since her formidable grandmother had died; she was resolved to speak no Sindarin, ashamed of the barbarousness of her accent. The pride of lineage that set her kin above Maelchon and Mais seemed nothing, a silly vanity, beside the fair power of this Elf. Had her forefathers truly kept company with folk such as this, or were the legends vanity, too? That she had some slender kinship with his kind was almost inconceivable. Or had they fallen so far?
The others fell back before him, in awe and trepidation. It was some consolation to see that even Urwen, for all her height and nobility, had difficulty looking Falathar in the face when she greeted him on the cliff-shelf and invited him in, lady to Saelon's lord.
When he passed through the entrance and stood in the hall, he stopped sharply and stared around him. "This is dwarven work, and new," he declared in surprise, curt.
Saelon's heart clenched. How could she have forgotten there was blood spilt between the Elves and the Dwarves? "Yes," she agreed, as Urwen stepped back, distancing herself.
"Who did the work?" Falathar reached out to touch the birches carved beside the doorway.
"Dwarves led by Veylin, son of Vali."
"You had the means to pay them for such work?" he asked, with raised brows.
"Master Veylin owed me a great debt." Saelon gestured towards the one good seat. "Will you sit?"
He studied her anew, and the keenness of his curiosity was like facing the wind that blew without. "If Dwarves come into this," he said, with great reserve, "that may be best."
Once he was seated, Urwen brought him cakes of hazelnuts and honey, and a cup of Bereth's cowslip wine. "I am sorry we have nothing better to offer," she murmured apologetically. "When you have heard of our plight, perhaps you will pardon this as well."
He scented the cup and hazarded a sip, then set the wine decidedly aside. "Fate must have been cruel to you indeed," he said dryly.
"A cup from the spring, Urwen," Saelon suggested. Granted it was the only drink in the place beside whey and water, but how could she have offered such harsh young stuff to an Elf? "He will need something to wash the cakes down with."
When the mortified woman had withdrawn, Falathar baldly prompted, "I would like to catch the tide, Saelon."
Taking a seat on the nearest bench, she began. "My brother Halladan was lord in Srathen Brethil, a glen on the eastern flanks of the Ered Luin, where our kin have dwelt since soon after the fall of Arnor. Late last spring, he came to warn me that evil things were abroad in the mountains between us. He wished me to return to Srathen Brethil with him, fearing for my safety, but I believed there was more security near the sea and remained. In the early autumn, my young kinsman Gaernath, who I had taken in fosterage, happened across a dreadful scene while hunting: something had attacked a party of Dwarves, slaying two of them and gravely wounding the third."
"Here on the coast?" Falathar exclaimed, greatly surprised.
That evil would strike by the sea, or that Dwarves would approach it so near? "On the southern edge of a moor a league north and east, inland. From the savagery of the attack and other signs, I believe it was the same evil my brother had spoken of; yet the Dwarves wounded it, perhaps to the death, for we have seen nothing more of it here. We brought the wounded Dwarf here and tended him—that is how Master Veylin came to owe me such a debt. A raven that speaks, who kept company with them, brought his kin here soon afterwards; Gaernath rode to Srathen Brethil and brought my brother and his men." There was no need to tell that Gaernath had fled in fear from Dwarves hot for vengeance, who had mistaken them for foes. That had all been requited, more than amply.
"Again Halladan pressed me to return to Srathen Brethil, but these raugs had followed the herds down from the braes and had begun to prey on lone steadings there. These things are night-walkers, and may be akin to trolls, though Veylin maintains they are not the same. Dwarven weapons bite on them, but not lesser blades. They rend folk and beast with fang and talon, breaking them with terrible strength." In her mind's eye, she could still see that gore-spattered patch of greensward where they had found Veylin and his companions. She did not think she would ever forget it.
Urwen returned as Saelon strove to push that ugliness away, replacing Falathar's cup and taking a seat a little further off. Taking up the cup, he said, "Yet you remained here."
He was the first person who did not sound as if they thought her mad for staying. "As I said," Saelon repeated, lifting her eyes to his, "I felt there was more security by the sea." There might be a glint of sympathy in his gaze, but there was no comfort; still, it helped clear the memory of horror. "And," she admitted, wishing she was in her old cave, where the soothing sound of the surf had almost always been with her, "I have no peace when I am from it.
"Halpan, my cousin and the only man grown now left of the Dúnedain of Srathen Brethil, chose to stay with Gaernath and I when the others returned. Near the end of Narbeleth, his sister; and Urwen—" Saelon gestured towards her "—his brother's widow, and her children fled to us." She considered the former beauty from Emyn Uial, haggard now from her travails at the end of the year and caring for her new daughter: many suspected she had had some foresight of what was to come, though she still refused to speak of it. Urwen's face was composed but her eyes were fierce, as if forbidding Saelon to mention the rumors.
Falathar flicked his glance between them, but before he could ask some pointed question, Saelon pushed on. "In Hithui, my brother sent his son and eldest daughter to me; in Girithron, his sworn man brought me word of his death, with his helm and his charge that I should lead what was left of our people. The last few families who held by their oaths to the bitter end came to me as well. Only forty-four out of more than three hundred are here. The rest fled to our kin in the east, or have been slain, or lost in the wild. How many others have found refuge we do not know."
"That is ill indeed," Falathar said somberly after a time, folding his hands and resting his chin on them as he regarded her. "It is to be hoped that word has reached the Chieftain of the Dúnedain, so he might send you aid. Although," his gaze went back to the panels of birches by the door, "you seem to have found some nearer to hand."
"This is Master Veylin's ransom," she told him, trying to guess how ill the Elf thought of Dwarves. "He visited soon after all these broken folk fell on me, and found me in despair of housing them against the winter gales. Since he wished to be free of his obligation to me, we soon came to an agreement." He need not know of the agreements they came to after Veylin had heaved the price of his life off his heart.
"I am sure," Falathar replied, sharply scornful. "Though without the debt, your need would have moved him not at all. The Dwarves are not known for kindness."
If her own fate only had rested in his hand, she would have told him the same was true of Elves. "If these were not folk of honor, they could have avoided payment easily enough, since I knew not where to seek them. We did not find them grudging."
"The work is fine," he allowed, grudging himself. "Very fine. Though that may be no more than their pride in their own craftsmanship. So many must be cramped in such a small dwelling."
"Would you have had it larger?" Saelon asked, cocking an eyebrow. He did not seem so high now, and she wondered if the generosity of the Dwarves had made him ashamed of his pitiless words by the river.
Falathar laughed suddenly, his smile breaking out bright as the sun after a spit of hail from dark but wind-driven clouds. "Indeed, no! I suppose I should be glad to find you satisfied so modestly. What then would you ask of Círdan?"
"Leave to dwell here and the use of land and sea to keep ourselves, including tillage, at least until the Chieftain can advise us." Saelon gestured around the hall at those who had found the courage to come in, knowing that more were peeping from behind the doors of their chambers, and not only children. "They cannot go home to Srathen Brethil, and the raugs roam the mountains, making the ways east perilous. Few would have the heart to dare such a journey, so soon after the terror of last autumn, and we have only a handful of men to protect them on the way."
"If you have the wisdom not to be a second Haleth, I doubt we will drive you to it," he assured her. "We will make sure the Chieftain hears of your plight."
If only to be rid of them the faster. "That would be a help indeed, since word may have miscarried on the road, and I can spare no men to take the message."
Rising, Falathar sketched a brief bow. "I must return to my ship."
Saelon stood. "Take our thanks to Lord Círdan for the concern that brought you to us." Whether that was concern for them or concern for his own; it mattered no more than whether Veylin had aided them in friendship or his own interest. With this burden upon her, she would be grateful for whatever help came their way.
She walked from the hall with him. Outside, the clouds had returned, with a grizzle of rain. As she drew her shawl closer about her, Falathar said, "You need not accompany me to my ship. Unless," he added, tone light but eyes displeased, "you do not trust me to find my way thither."
"I am going to the shore in any case," Saelon told him, starting down the track. "Might you answer a question for me?"
With his long legs, he was beside her in a few strides, gracefully picking his way around the worst of the mire. "What is the question?"
"What do you call this place?" She indicated the bay with a sweep of her hand. "When I was alone, it did not much matter, but with so many eyes turning hither, it would be good to know."
They had left the others back at the cliff, save for Gormal and Maon dashing back to the fields, looking as if their father had been angry with them. Rooks scattered before them, rising from the furrowed earth. "Is the sea any protection from such evil?"
Falathar regarded her gravely. "Why did you think it might be?"
They walked the breadth of the field before Saelon muttered, "I do not know." Did he not know, or would he not tell her?
"After all these years," he said, "you no longer trust the sea?"
"I do not trust myself." It was one thing to risk herself for what might be no more than a fancy spawned by too many tales and fattened on too much solitude, and another to hold all these folk here. She did not like this Elf, but who else might know? He certainly would not hesitate to belittle her if she was being presumptuous.
"You do not trust yourself? Or they do not trust you?" Falathar glanced back towards the cliff. "Or have you been listening overmuch to Dwarves?" he added, with a pointed smile.
Saelon remembered Veylin astride his pony, the surf around its fetlocks as he brooded over an ancient shell, an echo in stone. "You think they do not hear the sea?"
"Not if they can help it! I am astonished," he admitted candidly, "that they would stay this close long enough to delve your hall, small though it is."
That nettled him; his look reminded her of her grandmother when she would finally lose patience with what she called pertness, the sere, measured bite of august age—strange on that unlined face. "Do not fish for counsel if you are not willing to give heed to what you catch."
She bowed her head. "Your complaint is just," she admitted, then, perhaps because she could not see his daunting eyes, added, "Yet before you ask me to think ill of the only folk who have aided us, you might give me some reason to think better of you."
"Will you not even give me time to carry your message, Child of the Sun?" The Elf sounded like a vexed parent as he halted by the river's bank. "You are the one who asked not to be judged out of hand. You may think my words harsh, yet I speak as I find. Do not choose friends in haste, lest the long years teach you to regret your choice."
If they did not have some friends, they would not have many more years, short or long. How could she not choose in what he would consider haste? There was, however, nothing to be gained from arguing with him, like a petulant child. "Pardon my churlishness, Falathar," she sighed. "I am over my head here, and I know it. I flail towards such land as I can see."
"Then," he said, and Saelon wondered how she had thought him pitiless before, "you will exhaust yourself chasing shadows. Set a course, or give yourself to the sea." She stared at him, bewildered and not a little frightened by the intensity of what was behind his eyes. Was this truly no more than a coastwarden? "You are paddling in the shallows, Gaermendis," he told her. "If you cannot keep your wits about you, stay out of the depths. Farewell."
"Farewell," she replied weakly. When she looked up from her curtsey, he was already in the ship, whose prow was pointed towards the sea. The river's current carried it away until the wind caught the sail.
There was a touch on her hand, and she started wildly. Hanadan drew back, looking almost as frightened as she felt. "What are you doing here?" she demanded.
He held up a long silver-grey wing feather. "Don't you like the Elves?" he asked in a small, unhappy voice.
"Oh, Hanadan," she choked and, dropping to her knees, caught him to her, grateful for the touch of mortality.
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This is the second story in the Dûnhebaid ("Westshores") cycle, which is set on the north coast of the Ered Luin during the mid-29th century of the Third Age of Middle-earth. As explained in the notes for the first story, Rock and Hawk, this cycle takes its sense of place from the West Highland coast of Scotland and draws heavily on the archaeology and traditional lifeways of that region, as Tolkien drew on the languages and lifeways of the English West Midlands. For those who are interested, links to images of some of the real places that inspired me can be found in the entries under Places in the "When, Where, and Who" at the end of this story.
At the request of several readers, I am trying to cut down on the "dictionary" notes; if you find an arcane or oddly used word that is not clarified in the notes at the end of the chapter, please go to the Dûnhebaid Dictionary. Since many of these words are used repeatedly in my stories, putting them in one place seemed simpler than continually repeating them.
A bibliography of important scholarly sources and reference materials can be found at the end of the author's notes for Rock and Hawk, and, as always, I invite those with questions or a desire to debate particular points to contact me. The major addition to my resources for this story were the fair folk of the Garden of Ithilien, who have provided good fellowship, more than a few laughs, and useful commentary on my drafts, despite their frequently ardent preference for Elves. Special thanks go out to Gwynnyd, for advice on mead and tafl, and to Súlriel, for sharing her equine expertise. Any mistreatment of beasts in this work, however, is entirely the responsibility of the author, for creating characters who would do such things.
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Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea): a medicinal herb used for respiratory complaints.
Furlong: a unit of length 220 English yards, or nearly 210 rangar or Númenorean yards. There are 8 furlongs in a mile, and not quite 5 in a kilometer.
The Havens: the harbors on the Gulf of Lhûn, the Grey Havens at Mithlond being the best-known.
Aumbry: a recess in a wall; a cupboard. This is a term Tolkien used when describing the fittings of a dwarven hall.
Brooch: today this is usually a purely ornamental pin; in the past, it was a sturdy (and often ornamented) clothing fastener.
Lindon: the Elven lands around the Gulf of Lhûn and the neighboring coasts; the kingdom of Gil-galad in Second Age, where those of the Noldor who did not return to Valinor mingled with the Sindarin folk of Círdan and some remnants of Doriath. Círdan was its lord in the Third Age. In the north, it extended as far east as the River Lune/Lhûn, but not north of the Little Lune.
Gannet (Sula bassana): a goose-sized seabird that dives from a height to catch fish.
Dúnadaneth: Sindarin, "woman of the West."
Brae: Scots, hillside.
Haleth: for a time in the First Age, the leader of the third tribe of the Edain, who were afterwards known as the People of Haleth. After the death of her father and brother, she led her people, against the will of many, through the perilous lands on the borders of Doriath to the Forest of Brethil.
Grizzle: to cry quietly and fretfully; fitful rain lighter than a shower.
Rook (Corvus frugilegus): a relative of the crow, with a grey beak and lower face; it frequents farmland, eating grain and insects.
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