4. Axes Unsheathed
When I have ceased to break my wings
Against the faultiness of things,
And learn that compromises wait
Behind each hardly opened gate,
When I can look life in the eyes,
Grown calm and very coldly wise,
Life will have given me the Truth.
And taken in exchange—my youth.
—Sara Teasdale, "Wisdom"
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"How does it look?" Veylin asked.
Saelon considered the three great weals marring his back and, since the Dwarf could not see her, shook her head in mute wonder. Less than a week before, she had steeled herself to burn out the filth poisoning his flesh. Now the wounds were sloughed nearly clean, merely seeping a little. "How does it feel?" she countered.
"Weak," he grumbled, flexing his arm. The play of muscles was broken by the furrows, and the tender pink at their edges strained almost to tearing point. "Stiff."
"Do not force it," she warned sharply. Her people prided themselves on their stoicism and strength of will, but he surpassed even the set purpose of her grandmother, who had been so merciless to herself those last years. "Be patient. You heal faster than anyone I have tended, but you may still try more than your flesh will yet bear."
Veylin snorted. "I know the strength of my own flesh. It is the slow reforging of bone that galls me."
To that there was no answer. As she salved and dressed his shoulder in lightly padded linen, Saelon gave thought to how she might deal with a fretful Dwarf. Now that his fever had broken, he slept little and chafed in idleness. Since they had given him the dwarven gear, he had spent part of each day cleaning it, soaking the blood from the leather and buffing the axes until they shone. Two evenings ago, after watching Gaernath labor over the shafts of new arrows, he had begun showing the lad a few simple tricks of craft. Once he had oiled his leather and polished it fine, what could he turn his hand to next? She did not have the tools he might want—he had thanked her for the loan of her small whetstone graciously enough, but she saw the nick still remained on his axe blade.
Would he be offended if she asked him to mill with the quern? He might start on a crutch, but he would surely finish the work before it was safe for him to get about on it, and how could she take it from him until then? "I need to go out for some hours to replenish my stock of herbs," she told him. She had used prodigious quantities of meadowsweet and goldenrod on him, and she was loathe to face winter with little in store. The flowers were past their prime, but they would still have virtue, though not for much longer. And being out in the open air might blow the clutter from her mind. "You will be all right?"
"Of course." He sounded as if she had insulted him.
There was something else he might do, and maybe it would soothe his mood in other ways as well. Before tidying up the ends of her housekeeping, she put water to warm on the fire, and when her pack basket stood ready by the doorway, she carried a steaming pail of it to Veylin's bedside.
"What is that for?" he asked, looking up from compounding clear butter and beeswax for the leather.
Saelon laid down bannocks and cheese with one hand, and a clout of flawed linen, soap, and a comb with the other. "I have cleaned and mended your clothes, and I thought you might like to see to yourself as well as your gear while I am away." Going over to the chest, she brought him the pile of neatly folded cloth.
His dour face lightened as he took them from her. "You are kind." He stroked the good russet wool of his hood and fingered the linen of his shirt: a simple garment, but a pure shade of saffron, with subtle broidery at cuff and neck. Saelon had felt clumsy as a girl when she patched the rents in the shoulder, knowing her own stitching was strong rather than fine.
"Be careful with that leg," she reminded him sternly, "and keep the wrapping on your shoulder dry."
"I will be mindful of your work," he promised. "Be wary as you go," he warned her in return. "I would not be left with Gaernath as nurse."
"A grim fate indeed," she agreed with a quirk of a smile, shouldering the basket and striding out into the sunshine.
It was a beautiful day: the sky was flecked with white clouds; the wind fresh after the closeness of the cave, the worse for being a sickroom. Saelon breathed deep and savored the rich hues of the land. Autumn was upon them, and soon the rains would begin to bleed the color from dead and dying leaf. She could see the flock high up on the shoulder of the northern headland, Gaernath getting the last good grazing from the rocky slopes.
Walking along the cliff shelf, she stopped to check the bere. The corn was golden, full-ripe yet not quite hard; if it dried, she would not need to parch it, and the weather seemed like to hold for a day or two. Tomorrow she could harvest or, if the weather remained fair, she might put it off another day, and bring in more of the peats that had been curing through the summer. Then there were the hazelnuts and sloes . . . . Such a crowded season; an ill time to lose a week, and to fear lingering outside beyond dusk.
The goldenrod grew best along the dry top of the cliff, where she could look out across the boundless sea, its blue-grey surface wrinkled as freshly washed linen, flecked with white like the canach-tufted bogs. From the west, they need have no fear. Yet eastward the folded land hid much and beyond the peaks of the mountains, sea-colored at this distance, pierced the bluer sky like blunted teeth. North and south she gazed, up and down the coast; but all was peaceful, with naught moving but bird and beast, wind and wave.
Somewhat reassured, Saelon left the heights, traipsing down to the banks of the little river behind the machair. In the meads along its edges she found the last of the meadowsweet. Not as much as she wished, of course, but hopefully more than they would need before summer came around again with fresh bloom. So warm was the air in the sheltered curve where the sun fell full upon the water that she decided she could use a bathe herself, plunging into a pool where the current's chill was tempered and spreading her hair over her shoulders to dry as she gathered the last of the berries and a generous measure of crimson rose hips.
It was such a glorious afternoon, dripping the kindliness of the harvest season like honey from a comb, that she lingered longer than she had planned. The freedom of solitude; the untroubled flit of the finches and wrens, with a thrush singing atop a tall hazel . . . it was a balm after the worry and vexation of the last week. She filled her shawl with early hazelnuts as an excuse for delay, but when the sun drew near the top of the ridge, she could tarry no longer.
Crossing the machair, Saelon saw Gaernath bringing the flock down and waved to reassure him all was well. If she hurried, she could make it to the cave and unload the herbs and fruit before going down to milk the ewes. Starting up the track, she noticed a raven perched on the point of rock by the burn; a lone raven, at a time when they usually traveled by families. Like the one on the moor, where they had found Veylin.
"Halt!" commanded a booming voice, and a Dwarf in helm and hauberk stepped around the boulder at the turning, a naked axe in his hand. Hearing booted footfalls behind her, Saelon turned her head. There was a second armed Dwarf astride the track, broadhead arrow poised on drawn bow. "Where," growled the first as she looked back, startled and affronted, "are our kin?"
She gazed on him through narrowed eyes. Little of his face could be seen behind the guard of his helm, hardly more than the glint of eyes above a beard as fiery as Gaernath's hair. "Who are you?" she asked with cold dignity, refusing to be daunted.
From his curt tone, he considered her of little consequence, and insolent to boot. "I am Thyrnir, son of Thekk. Answer my question, woman!"
"Safer than I found them, Thyrnir, son of Thekk." She was silent for the moment that took to bite, then added, "Are you daunted by a woman and a boy, that you come in such force to redeem them?"
"Keep a civil tongue," threatened the Dwarf with the bow, "or you may lose the use of it."
They stood poised thus, on the bitter edge of discourtesy and ignorance, when Saelon heard Gaernath's light footfalls coming up the steep side of the slope, his usual shortcut. She glanced swiftly to where he would appear, to order him to peace until the misunderstanding was exposed, and as he crested the ridge, he stopped stock-still, staring astonished at the scene below him. Before she could speak, the archer swung his aim—and the lad dropped before the Dwarf could loose. A confused noise of threshing and scrambling told her he was half-rolling, half-sliding back down the slope through the heather.
The Dwarf leapt up towards the crest of the ridge, bow at the ready. Did he mean to shoot the lad? Saelon bounded after him, heedless of Thyrnir and his axe, and the heavy pack on her back. Yes, the archer paused to sight and reach full draw. Saelon did not pause, but ran against him, bruising herself on his mailed back. They both tumbled down the tussocky slope. A packstrap parted and she lost her load; the Dwarf cursed; two sets of booted feet ran belatedly after her.
When she finally snagged on a young whin, she saw Gaernath running for the grazing garron like a hounded buck.
The archer, who had not slid so far, cast aside his broken bow with an oath, then gave a cry of joy and sprang into a dense clump of heather, coming up with another bow. The one Veylin had given the lad. But the archer's triumph turned to cold, silent rage as he stared at it.
A powerful hand knotted itself in her hair, tearing her from the whin and dragging her to her knees. "Isn't that Vestri's?" rumbled a deeper voice. This was a heavier Dwarf, his braided beard dark brown.
"Yes." The archer's voice chilled Saelon's blood. The bowstring was broken, however. Gaernath was beyond their reach.
Thyrnir gazed after him. The lad had caught the dapple and was kicking him into a laborious canter, heading for the break in the cliffs. "He is a beardless stripling," Thyrnir observed, but the others paid little attention. "Enough of this," the brown-bearded Dwarf declared and started marching up the slope, his remorseless grip forcing her to stumble after him. "Let us see what awaits us under this high cliff."
The red-bearded Dwarf went first, peering suspiciously among the rowans and may as if expecting an ambush, but all they found was the geese, yammering and hissing, beating the air with their wide white wings. As they paused in the dooryard, frowning with puzzled disdain at the heather-thatched wattle walling the cave, there came a deep growl from within; growling and a stumping, dragging noise. Saelon opened her mouth to protest, but the Dwarf cruelly wrenched her hair, stealing her breath long enough for him to shift his grip and clap his hand over her mouth. All three hefted their axes—
Thyrnir dropped his as Veylin caught the side of the doorway and raised the axe he had been using as a crutch. All sound, save the geese, died as the Dwarves stared at each other. Then, as Veylin faltered, Thyrnir flung himself forward and caught him. "Thyrnir?" Veylin asked in wonder.
"Yes, uncle." Thyrnir sank to his knees, easing Veylin down. "We have come." The red-bearded Dwarf reached out hesitantly towards the splinted leg, its dressings blotched with fresh blood, then drew his hand back, his voice becoming harsh once more. "What have they done to you? Where is my father, and Vestri?"
"He is dead. They are both dead." The grief he had not shown before her cracked Veylin's voice, and the Dwarf's grip tightened so that Saelon feared for her jaw. She dropped to her knees in pain and her own grief: for the needless damage to Veylin's healing leg; for Gaernath, riding into the fiend-haunted night, weaponless; for the senselessness of this moil.
The movement caught Veylin's eye and he turned towards her, staring in disbelief. "Rekk? What are you about?" Veylin's voice slid from relieved surprise to outrage. "Unhand her!"
Rekk's hold loosened, but he did not let go. "She attacked Oddi, bare-handed."
Veylin looked around sharply. "Where is the boy?"
"Fled," Thyrnir answered.
"With night falling?" Veylin met Saelon's gaze, and she shut her eyes against his distress. It was vain; the harm was done. "Let me understand," Veylin rumbled ominously, "you have abused this lady, who saved my life, and driven her kinsman, a child, into the hills where the fell thing that killed Thekk and Vestri roams?"
"He had Vestri's bow," Oddi said, voice like an over-wrung cord.
"I gifted it to him." The hand fell from her face. "Saelon," Veylin said, breaking the awful silence that had fallen, "help me to my bed. I fear I have not been as mindful of your work as I promised." She rose and went to him, taking him from his nephew's arms without a word. When she got him inside, she sat him by the hearth, with her kist as a backrest, and began unstrapping his leg.
He touched her cheek with uncertain gentleness, and when he drew his hand back she saw a smear of blood on his fingers. "Your pardon, lady," he murmured. "When our hearts are hot, we have little patience. My kinsmen's wits have been led astray by their grief."
"I hear you," she replied flatly. "But I, too, have a kinsman astray, and he is alone and unarmed."
Veylin was silent as she checked his leg, though she knew he must be in great pain. The broken bone had pierced his flesh again; it must be cleaned and reset. And this time he was not senseless. When she went out to fetch water, the other Dwarves were gone. For the moment or for good? She found she did not care. Meadowsweet and goldenrod . . . her basket of autumn's bounty, tumbled and lost among the heather. Where would the lad go? Would he stay close, foolishly hoping to come to her rescue, of keeping his word to protect her? Or would he be wise enough—or frightened enough—to run for home? Which was worse, for him to be near that bloodstained moor, or crossing the mountains where more than one of the raugs might roam?
As she finished laving the reopened wound, there was a hesitant knock on the doorpost. When she did not turn, Veylin touched her shoulder and nodded towards the door.
The three had returned, without helms and mail, their hoods in their hands. Saelon glanced at Veylin's face: it was stern with disapproval, but he longed to be with them, his own folk, for comfort and to share their grief. He was not looking at her, or thinking of his leg.
Without warning, she heaved on his ankle, so the bone fell back into place.
Veylin's howl rang from the cave's roof. She began salving the wound, ignoring his gasps and the shaky hand he held up, with a forbidding glare directed over her shoulder. It did not take her long to wrap it with moss and linen, and restrap the splint. "There," she said coolly. "It might still knit, if you stay off it." Rising, she collected her pail and looked from Veylin to the three Dwarves standing in a tight knot just inside the doorway. "Now, I must milk my sheep before dark, and I expect you have much to say to each other." Then she strode past them, out into the dusk.
Later she could not remember going down the track or milking the ewes, but when she finished it came to her that she had not been down to the shore since before Veylin came to them. Although the western sky was fading to purple, she climbed the dunes. The wind was picking up, and short, choppy waves were breaking high on the foreshore. Releasing her disheveled hair, she let the wind flow through it, as the river had earlier, and watched the day darken to black.
She should go back to the cave.
Why? Was it safer there? To tend Veylin, when that kindness had brought her so much trouble? To see to the comfort of the most unwelcome guests she had ever had?
Unwelcome they were, but they were guests and the discourtesy had not all been on one side. The sooner that leg knitted, the sooner they would be gone, and she would have her peace again.
Only when they fell did she realize tears were streaming down her face.
She would not have her peace again. All the nights she had sat out beneath the wheeling stars, drinking in the crystal clarity of the wind, alone and free . . . . Now there was evil in the darkness. How had she acquired so many ties, so many duties?
The collie needed his supper.
Saelon walked down onto the strand, out onto one of the dark rocks, and knelt. Cupping her hands, she washed the tears from her face with salt water. It stung where the whin had scratched her, but it was a cleansing bite, and its chill was welcome on her bruised mouth.
Something moved among the dunes.
She stayed still, but her heart lurched and pounded. Foolish, to stay here so long! Yet the slap and hiss of the waves had spoken to her anger, drawing it out. "Who is it?" she challenged. If it was the raug, she could always throw herself into the sea . . . .
The dark shape came a little further down the strand. Drawing off a helm, it bowed low. "Rekk, son of Ekki, lady. At your service."
Saelon fingered her aching jaw, remembering his clutch. "What brings you here, Rekk?"
He straightened and resettled his helm on his head. "We feared you might have come to harm, lady, being gone so long."
"I have been cooling my heart."
The Dwarf did not reply for some time; he might have been one of the worn stones on the shore. "That would take time," he eventually agreed. "Should I leave you?"
Saelon gazed out over the dark sea. "No," she said and sighed. "I will come." Picking up the milk pail, she crossed onto the sand and headed for the dunes.
Rekk fell in beside her, respecting her silence, watching the darkness around them, so she let her mind turn to what needed doing. Feed the collie and feed her guests. There was the remaining mutton ham, and dried fish aplenty, but little corn and that unground. Butter and honey needed bread. If the nuts hadn't been lost, she might have eked the bere out with them, if there had been time to roast them—
The geese hissed as they came into the dooryard, still unsettled at the presence of strangers. A goose? If they stayed more than a day, she might stew the old gander; he would be too tough to roast.
They had let the leather curtain down across the door. Rekk stepped ahead to hold it aside, and bowed her through.
Three bearded faces turned towards her, expectant yet uneasy as the geese. Even Veylin, though his tone was hearty. "Ah, good. We were beginning to fear something had happened to you." As Rekk set his helm and axe against the far wall, Veylin said, "Oddi, some mead for Saelon."
The cave was well-lit, with several more—and better—lamps than she remembered possessing. Her basket leaned against one wall, her shawl still bound across the top. The board had been set up to one side and was laid for dinner. There was a pile of bannocks in the middle, flanked by honey and butter and cheese, and at the hearth, Thyrnir was cooking onions and mutton on the griddle.
Oddi bowed and offered her a small silver cup brimming with mead. "Drink, lady, and keep the cup in token of my regret for putting your kinsman to flight. May he come safely home again, so I can thank him for his care of my son."
Saelon gazed into the Dwarf's dark eyes. Grasping, they were called, and proud; quick to take offense and unforgiving. He had not asked for forgiveness; yet this was open-handed, in honor and in wealth. The cup was a beautiful thing, as fine as the one her brother used on high days though not so ornate . . . but it did not touch her heart. She would accept no wergild for Gaernath, were he living or were he dead.
But he had not asked her to take it for Gaernath, only for his regret. A guilt-payment, not a blood-price, where what mattered was that he valued what he surrendered. To refuse would be a declaration of implacable enmity. Bitter though she was, she did not hate them. "Thank you for your good word on him," she replied, choosing her words with care as she accepted the cup from his still-waiting hands. "I am sorry for your loss."
Oddi bowed so low his black beard brushed the floor, murmuring something she couldn't understand.
When she drank, there was a kind of sigh, as if the Dwarves had been holding their breath. The mead was sweet and smooth, but almost as warming was the thought that they had not taken her good grace for granted.
Now Rekk came forward, drawing something from his neck. "Accept this," he asked.
A chain of gold gleamed on his horny palm. "In return for what?"
He was blunter of speech. "I should not have handled you as an enemy."
She lifted it from the hand that had torn her hair and crushed her mouth. A fair thing, sun-bright, warm from his heat. "Why did you treat us so?"
Rekk gave a low whistle, and dark wings threshed the air. A raven—the same lone raven she had seen twice before—flew down from the top of the wattle wall to settle on Rekk's outstretched arm. Cocking its head to fix her with a shining eye, it shuffled nervously, almost guiltily. "Where is Thekk, Craec?" Rekk asked.
"North," the bird said mournfully in an eerie, almost human voice. "Dead. Dead," it repeated.
"Who has done this?"
Craec ruffled up his black feathers and drew his head down, but his only response was a harsh croak.
"Who?" Rekk demanded. "Who has them?"
The Dwarf threw his arm sharply upwards, and the raven caught the air awkwardly, beating back to its perch on the wall. "Craec is a young and unpromising bird," Rekk said harshly, "but my brother had a fondness for him, and when the bird returned alone, so I questioned him. With what ill result you know."
"I saw Craec where they fell," Saelon told him. "He guarded their bodies from the corbies."
Rekk grunted. "Will you take my ransom, lady?"
A less generous heart, though perhaps it was unfair to judge when the need for vengeance lay so heavily on him. Many a man had been bent under that burden. "I will." Setting the cup on the board, she drew back her wild hair, twining the gold into her dark tresses. Let him see it there and be reminded of the ill his impatience had wrought.
It was a strained, awkward meal, though the food was good. The bannocks had not taken the last of her bere, as she had feared, but were made from some lighter, sweeter grain. She had little appetite, but ate dutifully: she would need her strength, and elsewise the mead would go to her head. Even so, she could feel it when she rose from the board. "I must leave you for a time, masters, and go down to the machair to feed the dog that keeps my sheep."
"Cannot you wait until morning?" Veylin urged.
"It is unsafe," Rekk declared.
"Of course. Nevertheless, since my kinsman is not here to see to it, the dog needs feeding."
Rekk scowled, but before he could say more, Veylin cut in with brusque haste, "As you will, lady."
Thyrnir rose from the bench. "May I guard you as you go?"
Saelon considered him. He had said little but listened much, and she had the impression that he was younger than the others, though there was not much difference to the eye. "If you wish." She did not say that whatever had wreaked the carnage on the moor would not be stayed by a single axe.
It was blacker outside for the light within, and as Saelon paused to regain some night sight, the red-bearded Dwarf hurried after her, helm still in hand. "You need no light, lady?" he asked.
"No. My feet know their way well enough. Do you?"
Was that a smile in his voice? "Do not let it be said that a Dwarf called for light where a Man needed none. Lead on!"
After collecting several of last winter's sgadan from the byre-cave, she led the way down to the machair. High, scudding clouds dimmed the starlight. A whistle brought the collie running, though he halted with a growl when he saw the strange figure near her. "Come!" she ordered shortly, and to the Dwarf, "Here, give him this. He will not bite," she assured Thyrnir when he held back. "It is the only way to have peace between you."
It was hard to tell who was more reluctant: the Dwarf, who held the oily fish at his fingers' ends, or the collie, who took the morsel with his front teeth before backing away. At least now there was one Dwarf whom the collie would not bite except under dire provocation. Saelon laid the rest of the fish on the turf as Thyrnir scrubbed his fingers against the grass to clean them. "Why do you not bring the sheep up to that other cave?"
"If a hungry fiend roams at night, I would rather it feast down here than seek meat by my door."
Thyrnir made a short sound of approbation. "Are you not afraid, lady?"
"Of what? A murderous raug, or short-tempered Dwarves?" She regretted it as soon as it was out; that was the mead speaking.
"You do not find the Dwarves biddable?" His tone cooled suddenly.
"Dwarves are not known for their complaisance," she observed. "But—" she added, feeling him bristle at her side on the narrow track "—you have made such amends as you could. That has taken the edge from my anger; do not think it has blunted it entirely." He made a short bow and was silent. A few paces further on, Saelon asked, "You called Veylin uncle. Are he and Rekk brothers?"
"Veylin is my mother's brother," Thyrnir corrected.
"How does Oddi come into this?"
"His son, Vestri, was prenticed to Veylin."
These three had lost blood kin . . . . She had seen how Veylin ached to avenge their deaths, yet his ties were not so close, by marriage and duty, or friendship. "Your grief must be great."
"Yes, it is. Yet," he continued, "it would be greater but for your care of Veylin. He is very dear to me." After a pause, he asked, "Will he walk again?"
Saelon sighed. "If he were a Man, I would say no. Still, if he were a Man, he would have died before we found him; or during the journey from moor; or the fever would have taken him. I do not know Dwarves. I cannot judge."
Thyrnir's hand touched her arm, staying her at the edge of the dooryard. "You have judged well so far," he told her.
And that was a gift of greater value than silver or gold.
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Clout: Scots, piece of cloth.
Sgadan: Scots Gaelic, "herring" (Clupea harengus).
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.