7. Spears in the Sunset
áðr gangi fram
um skygnask skyli
þvíat óvíst er at vita
sitja á fleti fyrir.
At every door before you enter look around with care;
you never know what enemies aren't waiting for you there.
--Jean Young's translation of Gylfaginning ("The Deluding of Gylfi")
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Veylin's heart, already ravaged by what they had laid to rest this day, burnt to black. They were outnumbered, two to one. These were tall Men on tall horses, with long spears in their hands; the other three Dwarves were afoot and weary from the burden he had become, while he could not even stand to face the foe. Thyrnir had thrust his axe into his hands before taking his place at his back, but while the helve was a comfort in his grip, Veylin did not think he would get much opportunity to use it. The horsemen had pulled up in a circle around them, spears leveled. They were too far away for a sudden lunge that might grasp a spearshaft and dismount the rider—war-wise and wary. And even if they could get them down from those great beasts, some of the Men were clad in mail, while his companions' had been left in the cave to lighten their burden.
Perhaps Oddi had been right. Perhaps he had led them all to their deaths in this forsaken place.
Looking around at the faces behind the spears, seeking some weakness in the ring, Veylin was astonished to see one he knew, though the wild red mane had been braided back. "Gaernath!" he exclaimed. "Is that you, boy?"
The weight of menace shifted from the stability of the circle to rest, with all eyes, on him and the boy, less balanced by far. Gaernath did not bear the pressure well. "Aye," came his curt reply. "Where is Saelon?"
Despite the hostility in the boy's voice, hope flickered up again in Veylin's heart. "We left her at her work this morning. She will be glad to see you. I am glad to see you," he assured that young face, whose nakedness so clearly showed a sense of betrayal.
The rider in front of the litter, blocking the line to the track, said, "You must be Veylin, son of Vali."
This was their leader: the tallest among them, with a fine old helm on his head. The eyeguard was dwarf-work, and left only a grimly set mouth to read. "I am."
"I am Halladan, lord of Srathen Brethil."
"Lady Saelon's brother?"
Veylin set his axe aside. "At your service," he told him gravely, with as much of a bow as he could manage seated on the litter, "and your family's."
"From what I hear, you should be. Who are these others, who ambushed Gaernath and drove him into the wild?"
The implacable, judicial tone nearly quenched the spurt of hope. Veylin remembered the cold, contained anger on Saelon's marked face when she had returned to the cave with Rekk. This had much the same flavor. "Kinsmen and friends who came seeking my companions and I. They did not know then what foe they should seek." How much of Saelon's forbearance had been politic, wisdom in a woman alone and unarmed? Now that their lives were at the tips of her kinsmen's spears, she might not be so charitable.
To his left, Oddi stuck his axe in his belt and took a step closer to the spears. Giving a short bow, he declared, "Gaernath, I am Oddi, son of Nidi, the archer who drew on you. Do not be wroth with Veylin: he had no part in what we did, and scathed us for being unkind to those who had done him nothing but good. For my part, the sight of my son's bow in your hand fired my grief and rage. I have since heard of and seen the care you gave my son and his companions, and they strangers to you, not even Men. Come with us to Lady Saelon's, so I may return to you, with a father's thanks, the bow that Veylin gifted you."
The boy was too tender for the strain. He sat there, striving for a man's dignity while pleasure at Oddi's generous words warred with long-held anger on his face. As his silence stretched on, one of the older Men prodded impatiently, "Speak, Gaernath. Yea or nay?" The little hair the Man had left was faintly tinged with red. That Firebeard hue was uncommon in Men. Was he close kin of the boy?
Resentment settled in the tight clench of Gaernath's jaw. "You speak justly, Oddi son of Nidi. Yet the last sight I had of my kinswoman, she was being dragged away. I will take nothing from you until I have her good word."
"Do not lay that on Oddi," Rekk cut in, resting his axe at the ready on his shoulder. Veylin's heart sank further: Thekk's brother could never understand that plain speech was not always a virtue. "I am the one who had her by the hair. If you attack a Dwarf, even bare-handed, you are fortunate to fare no worse. And if you would spare your kinswoman the consequences of such courage, you should not leave her undefended. In any case, the Lady Saelon and I have settled the misjudgment between us."
He had excelled himself this time. Such a compound of high-handed distain and back-handed compliment— Had Rekk been lovingly crafting this against just such an occasion these last three days? If both his legs had been serviceable, Veylin would have gone over and knocked him down himself merely for that brutally clear image of Saelon in his clutch.
And her brother sat above them, his spearpoint toward their throats. "You must allow me," he stated with ominous restraint, "to assure myself on that point."
Across the ring, one of the other mailed Men cleared his throat tactfully. "Saelon comes," he observed.
She strode briskly across the turf, as poised as if she were entering a hall full of expected guests. "Welcome, brother!" she called in cheerful greeting. "And you other men of Srathen Brethil." She was fighting to keep breathlessness from marring her dignity. "I am glad to see Gaernath safe, though there was no need to bring him back in such state."
Her brother looked down on her and his face, if anything, grew more severe. "Saelon," he demanded, "have these Dwarves mistreated you?"
Veylin found that he was holding his breath.
"They are my guests," Saelon declared, matching his austerity. "I hope you will treat them with courtesy, brother."
She had not answered his question, and for a time they locked gazes and wills, neither yielding. Veylin wondered which was the elder, and whether that made a difference among Men.
Abruptly, Halladan gestured brusquely to his men, and the spears were raised. "Provided you can also be hospitable to your kin. We have ridden hard for two foul days and risked the fell-beasts, only to find a mare's nest."
"Of course," she assured him soothingly. "Come up to the cliff. I think the byre-cave will hold all the horses, unless you prefer to sleep under cover yourselves. My sheep have not been molested, here by the sea, so you may choose to leave the horses on the machair to graze. Gaernath," she said, "could you please gather the flock back in? Cut out the crook-horned wether, and perhaps Handir and Halpan can gather wood from the strand to roast him."
Halladan turned to the fair-haired Man on his left. "You know the track, Tarain. Take the others up. We will camp in the large cave; the horses can come back down here. I will join you as soon as I have had a word with my sister."
"Very good, lord. Haldorn, Gede—this way."
The steel-toothed ring broke apart, some riding one way and some another. Four rode for the caves, leading a fifth, riderless horse. Only Halladan remained, reining his horse aside from their path before thrusting his spear into the turf. "Masters," he said shortly, "pray continue on your way. I would speak privately with my sister."
Veylin studied the two of them as the others put away their axes and took up the litter again. On a trading venture to Dunland, he had once seen a Man beat his sister as if she had been a cur, merely because another Man had spoken lewdly to her; blaming her for the dishonor instead of his own lack of protection. Saelon stood, arms crossed and head high in defiance, but when Halladan dismounted, she came no higher than his shoulder. Fearing that she would again dare the wrath of the ready-handed in defense of others and her own honor, he hazarded, "This is your will, lady?"
Sister and brother turned to stare blankly at him, then the brother growled an oath and reached for his sword. Saelon caught his arm, arresting him mid-stride. "This outpouring of concern is unwonted," she cried out, with the same fey humor she had displayed the day of the storm. "If I wanted you to slay each other, you would probably make friends!"
Halladan pulled off his helm, fixing Saelon with a furious glare. "I came to punish your abusers, not to be accused of it myself!"
"Go," she asked them.
When Veylin glanced back, he was reassured to see that her brother held her against his breast, one dark head bowed over the other.
The terrace seemed full of Men and horses, even though half of them were still down on the plain. They went straight to their delf, and once inside its comparative privacy, Oddi muttered in Khuzdul, "Abandoned by her kin? Whatever possessed you, Rekk, to put that word-picture into their heads, and her still with the mark of your hand on her bare face? They are not Dwarves, but they are jealous of their women's honor after their own fashion."
"You call that honor? No dwarf-woman would have been so unprotected, or suffered such an insult if she were. If her menfolk are unwilling to look after her, they have forfeited the right to take offense."
"No." Thyrnir stepped between them, hands raised. "Do not start. This is no time to argue amongst ourselves. Be glad it has turned out no worse so far, and keep your helms to hand. Give me your bottles; I will go for water and judge the temper of the Men."
In sullen silence, Rekk set to work rekindling the fire while Oddi took stock of their provisions. "What is their mood?" Veylin asked Thyrnir when he returned with full bottles and a pail of water for washing.
"Unfriendly, no more." Thyrnir set down the pail and went to dry his wet hands over the fire. "At least they have taken the horses away. They are busy seeing to their own comforts."
"Saelon and her brother?"
"They are just coming up the track, and appear on good terms. What do we have for supper?" he asked. "With eight unexpected kinsmen at her board, we must not expect Saelon to feed us as well."
"There is waybread and salt beef enough," Oddi reported.
A grief-riven day; a grim evening; and now it looked like a cheerless night. With Thekk and Vestri finally laid to rest, Veylin yearned for the security and comfort of his own hall. He was coming to loathe this place.
Not long after they had cleaned off the mud and shifted into drier clothes, a tentative "Masters? Are you within?" came from the passage.
Gaernath. Thyrnir went to the curtain. "We are. What do you want?"
"May I speak with Master Veylin?"
"Come in, boy," Veylin called out, and sighed.
The great gangling child had to duck low to avoid the heather, and stopped just inside, shuffling his feet. "I'm sorry, masters, to have brought you such trouble. But it did look as if—"
"Yes," Veylin cut him short. He was in no mood for apologies. They mended nothing. "It certainly did. So much looks ill in this troubled world. But I am still glad to see you safe. Saelon has missed you very much."
The boy flushed and looked doubtful. "She has given you all her good word, and asks if you will join her and her brother for supper."
A ploy to draw us out? Oddi gestured.
If they have decided to slay us, Rekk countered, it would be easier to fire the passage.
"I will come," Thyrnir replied, pointedly ignoring the others. "Uncle?"
"Of course." You two prefer salt beef in this hole?
So they took themselves to Saelon's more spacious chamber, pulling their hoods off and bowing politely once they maneuvered the litter through the doorway.
"Thank you for coming," Saelon said, stepping forward to take their hoods. "Let us start afresh. Masters, this is my brother Halladan. Halladan, here are my guests: Veylin and Oddi you already know by name; this is Rekk, and this is Thyrnir."
"Saelon thinks well of you, Master Veylin, which is praise indeed," Halladan said. Stripped of his arms, he was a lean Man with the same strong, dark face as his sister, but it was deeply worn, and by more than two days on a perilous road. "My sympathy for your losses." He offered Veylin a cup of ale. "It seems we share an enemy."
Veylin accepted the ale and drank, eyeing the Dúnadan over the rim. "Saelon speaks as if there are many of these things."
"We have at least two, perhaps three," Halladan told him, as he went around serving the others. "Our best huntsman has never seen the like of the tracks. They have slain herdsmen and their beasts from Aegas Cerch to Cîl-en-Ostrad, and now that we are bringing the herds down for the winter, they have started attacking lone steadings. No Man has seen one and lived. What can you tell me of these slayers by night?"
The evening began to look more promising. Aegas Cerch to the old road, and now one just north of here . . . these fiends were ranging across the whole width of the mountains, only two day's march from the mansion. "Less than your sister," Veylin admitted regretfully. "I took a blow to the head, and remember nothing of the attack. It was a week before Rekk and Oddi reached the place, and by then all trace had been washed away by rain. Apparently it was sorely wounded; perhaps that is why we have been left in peace since."
"Wounded?" Halladan looked to Saelon, who was bringing a pot to the board.
"Their axes were clotted with foul black gore," she said tersely, "and it had left something hand-like behind: dun hide the corbies could not tear, talons as long as my fingers. I have never seen a hand so large, though."
"Twice this size?" Rekk asked, holding his up as if to measure a span.
Saelon considered. "Near enough."
Oddi grunted. "Troll-sized."
Veylin shook his head. "I told you the smell was wrong."
"What is this about the smell?" Halladan wanted to know. "The hounds hate it."
"Troll-blood smells like stone, the dark green-grey one we use for road metal. This was ranker, something like polecat musk."
"Where do the tracks lead?" Rekk wanted to know.
"Sit, please," Saelon told them, "or supper will get cold."
"To bogs, or shallow meres, where we cannot follow. Saelon tells me you were attacked on a boggy moor."
They talked of the foe all through the meal, piecing together their scraps of knowledge. Halladan told of their attempts to hunt them, with hounds and by staking out cattle, and in return listened to what they had to say on the finer points of troll-slaying. Saelon followed it all with close attention, though she said nothing. As they sat cracking still-warm hazelnuts to fill up the corners, Halladan asked, "So you have not seen such things before? I had heard that your people have been here since the beginning of the world."
"Not quite," Veylin allowed, smiling, "but nearly." Good venison stew, ale, and useful talk on vengeance had a wonderfully mellowing effect. These Dúnedain might be as fierce as falcons, but they were not as arrogant as many lordlings he had met. Halladan had already expressed an interest in acquiring a few troll-spears, to try what they could do. This was a Man they could do business with. "At least none of us—" he gestured at the other three "—have heard tell of creatures like this. Perhaps we can learn more when we return home."
"You do not live nearby?"
"We dwell some way off, and were caught traveling." Liking was one thing, but trust was another. After all, he had been staring up the shaft of the Man's spear only a little while ago.
"Ah." Halladan looked down the length of the board to where Saelon sat. "I am sorry to hear that. My mind—and heart—would be easier if my sister had neighbors such as you."
"You cannot mean to leave her here," Rekk exclaimed.
The Dúnadan continued to gaze at his sister, who sat unmoved, fingers steepled in front of her face. "I would not leave her here," he agreed. "There is a horse for her down on the machair. But she will not go."
"Why not?" Thyrnir asked, curious.
"The more I hear," she said simply, "the more I am convinced that it is no safer in Srathen Brethil than it is here."
Her brother's mouth tightened, but he did not dispute it.
"But there you will have armed kinsmen between you and these fiends," Rekk told her.
Saelon turned a cold eye on him. "You have seen the broken bodies of your dead," she replied, with a callousness the equal of his own. "Dwarves, renown for their toughness and armed with weapons few of my folk can match. What defense is that? You put your faith in stone; I will put mine in the sea."
"You are a healer," Thyrnir pointed out. "You preserved my uncle's life. Do your own folk not need such service?"
"They may need it, but they do not desire it. Fortunately, there is another woman there almost as skilled."
"Are they fools?" Veylin was incredulous, then, catching Halladan's scowl, hastily added, "Present company excepted."
"I see why you get along with these Dwarves," her brother observed dryly. "They do not mince words either."
"Not fools, exactly. I do not see things as they do, and we grate on each other." Saelon shrugged. "It is kinder to us all for me to keep apart."
Looking at her brother's face, Veylin had his doubts about that.
"Or is it that you will not leave the sea?" Thyrnir suggested.
Halladan regarded him strangely. "They are of your mind about the sea," Saelon told him.
"Ah." He shook his head. "I have debated with her on this for a score of years, masters. I do not think you will change her mind in one night. What is the use of argument once a woman's heart is given?"
To the sea? That was a strange thought. Yet, was it all that different from his devotion to gems? For the fire opals in his pouch, Veylin had dared to approach the sea, and despite the death of his friend and his apprentice, he was still contemplating a new home away from his kin, closer to his heart's desire.
"None," Oddi declared with the certainty of a married man. Rising, he bowed to Saelon. "A fine supper, lady. We have a long road tomorrow and ought to make an early start."
"I will not press you to stay, then. A good night to you all, and a fair morning."
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The morning did promise to be fair as they and the Men prepared to leave. The Dwarves kept to their side of the terrace as they went through their packs one last time: Veylin, litter, mail, and the contents of half a dozen packs to be borne by three made a heavy load. Oddi had ventured among the stamping horses in Saelon's dooryard only long enough to find Gaernath and present him with Vestri's bow, as promised, the broken bowstring made good from his own.
As the Men strapped their saddlebags and blankets onto their mounts, Halladan walked over. "Good morning, masters," he greeted them. "I do not know which way you are heading, but if you would care to keep us company for part of your journey, you would be welcome."
"A kind offer," Veylin said, glad to take his attention from the discussion about whether some of the tools might be left behind and, if so, whether they might retrieve them later. "We cannot keep up with your horses, however."
Halladan smiled. "I suppose not. Would you ride? Can you, with your leg?"
"I would not ride one of those great beasts even if both legs were sound," Veylin emphatically objected. "Ponies are one thing, but a horse's back is too far from the ground."
"Even if you would slow us, we would still value your company," Halladan maintained, courteously passing over the unwelcome suggestion. "Your weapons bite these fell-beasts. My men would rest easier at night for the assurance. As for speed, some of us might spell your folk at the litter. I would take a turn to talk with you further."
Very flattering; but even if they trusted to Men to carry some of the gear on their horses—and him!—they would probably make better time heading directly for the mansion. Veylin was calculating whether it might be worth some lost time for better relations with the lord of Srathen Brethil when someone bellowed, "Gaernath! Where are you?"
Veylin and Halladan both looked towards the shout. It was the Man with the faded hair, standing, reins in hand, in the middle of Saelon's dooryard.
"Here, father." Gaernath was over by one of the younger Men; they seemed to have been debating the merits of the dwarven bow.
"Where is your horse? Why are you not ready to go?"
The boy frowned. "I am not going," he said.
"You most certainly are," his father declared, taken aback and scowling, "and you are delaying us. Hurry and make ready."
"I promised Halladan I would look after Saelon, and in any case I was to stay for a year," Gaernath protested. "The year is up at Yule."
"The agreement was for Yule because that was when Halladan would fetch you. You are needed at home, with Mais newly married and the worry over these fell-beasts. Now, do as you're told."
Beside him, Halladan's face was closed, giving no opinion of another man's dealings with his son. Looking for Saelon, Veylin saw her on the far side of the dooryard, where she had been serving bannocks and drink to the riders; she, too, was silent and still.
With every eye on him, Gaernath said, "No."
His father stared as if the boy was a hound that had snapped at him. "What did you say?"
"No. I am staying."
"Are you a coward?" his father demanded in angry incomprehension. "Do you think to hide from the fell-beasts here?"
"There is a fell-beast here, too," Gaernath bit back, voice rising. "I raised a cairn over those it slew—and rode to Srathen Brethil through the land they haunt, because I thought Saelon needed rescue. No man can call me a coward, and I will not leave Saelon to face such a threat alone!"
Now his father turned cold. "Then you are a fool, or as mad as she is. Lis said no good could come from letting you stay with her. I should have listened to her. Bred," he ordered the Man by his side, "go fetch his horse and saddle it. It will go home, even if he will not."
Bred mounted and rode down the track. The other Men were suddenly occupied with small business of their own: checking girths, fetching their spears, or surveying the nearly cloudless sky, brightening to blue overhead. Rekk sniffed and muttered, "The child knows his duty, at least."
From the look Halladan gave him, Veylin knew those two would never be friends. "We are flattered by your offer," Veylin told the Dúnadan, "but the inconvenience would be great to us both, I think. I will look for someone willing to take the troll-spears to Srathen Brethil, however, and if I am better able to travel in the future, I will come to see you myself."
"I would like that." Yet the Man's face was disappointed and discontented. He gazed across the dooryard, to where Gaernath had gone to stand by Saelon. "I would like it even better if you were able to look in here on your way."
"I owe your sister a great debt," Veylin acknowledged. "I will not forget it."
Halladan was just clasping his shoulder in wordless thanks when one of the young Men came up; the one who had been talking to Gaernath. "Halladan, I'm of a mind to stay myself. Would I be welcome, do you think?"
"Gaernath would be glad of your company, I am sure."
"Would Saelon, though?"
"Ask her," Halladan advised. "How does your brother feel about this, Halpan?"
"Oh, I have his blessing," Halpan said with a grin. "I would not raise ill feelings between the two of you. The ride home will be unpleasant enough with Gede in a foul temper."
"It that why you are abandoning us?" Halladan jested. "Go and get my sister's blessing then, or you may find it more unpleasant here."
"Will she have him?" Veylin asked when Halpan strode off. This one was full a man, he judged, though still young, and closer kin, Dúnedain-dark and tall.
"For Gaernath's sake, probably. For her own, she would as soon see the backs of all of us, I expect." Though he shook his head, Halladan looked less displeased. "So I had best get my men moving." He held out his hand. "May you have an uneventful journey, and come safe home."
Veylin accepted his handclasp. "The same to you. Good hunting."
The Dúnadan smiled grimly. "Many thanks."
They rode out as they had come, a close-ordered line with a single riderless horse. Halladan had left the other for Saelon, a return for her pony. Perhaps to distract the boy from his father's leavetaking, Halpan was urging Gaernath to fetch the beast and show him the country round about; they might get some venison as well. "Take it and go," Saelon told them, with a dismissive wave of her hand. "Do not think you can lounge about here, with me waiting on you hand and foot. If you want good suppers, keep my larder full!"
Once the two went down with Halpan's horse and the harness for the other, Saelon came over to them. "And now you are off as well," she observed.
Veylin nodded. "I fear you have been long wanting us gone." They had spoken little since she had given him the shell, between his disquiet over her strangeness and the necessities of mourning, but neither had she taken the opportunity to say much last night.
"Yes and no. A little dullness, if fate will grant it, would be very welcome. If you come this way again, however, I hope you will stop by. I would welcome news of you."
"You have not seen the last of me," he warned lightly, glad that she had not taken offense at his distance. "I still owe you much." Looking around, he saw the others had drawn off, so as not to disturb them with the renewed wrangling over the fate of the pick and mattock. Gesturing her closer, he added quietly, "A word, for your ear alone."
"Yes?" she murmured, drawing nearer. She tweaked at the brace on his leg as if it dissatisfied her.
He cocked an eyebrow at the familiarity, but let it pass. "I must return home for a time, yet soon we may be neighbors. Not too near," he assured her, "but perhaps close enough at need."
"In days such as these, that would be a gift. Go safe home, and come again when you may."
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Gylfaginning: this part of Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda is the source of much of our knowledge of Norse mythology, and also includes the Dvergatal, the list of dwarf-names Tolkien mined for The Hobbit. Young's translation is almost criminally free, but I've always found the idea that enemies might not be waiting intriguing. For the purist, a more literal—but less relevant—translation (Brodeur 1916) would be "All the gateways/ Ere one goes out/ Should one scan/ For it is uncertain/ Where sits the unfriendly/ On the bench before thee."
Firebeard: one of the seven kindreds of the Dwarves, whose ancestors (with those of the Broadbeams) woke in the northern Ered Luin (HoME XII: The Peoples of Middle-Earth, p. 301).
Wether: a castrated male sheep; they produce more and better wool than ewes.
"stone, the dark green-grey one we use for road metal": gabbro, a tough igneous rock often used for road construction.
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