2. Debateable Land
Wrætlic is þes wealstan; wyrde gebræcon Wonderous is this wall of stone; shattered
burgstede burston; brosnað enta geweorc. the city broken; the work of giants decayed.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras, Its roofs are falling, towers ruined,
hrungeat berofen hrim on lime gate rungs destroyed, rime on lime
scearde scurbeorge scorene, gedrorene, the storm shelter battered, rent, collapsed,
ældo undereotone. Eorðgrap hafað undermined by age. The earth has grasped
waldend wyrhtan, forweorone, geleorene, rulers and wrights, perished, passed away,
heardgripe hrusan, oþ hund cnea bitter grip of the earth, while a hundred
werþeoda gewitan. of men pass away.
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The leisurely clop of ambling hooves up beyond the curve of the river did not disturb Saelon as she gathered cuckoo-flower in the watermeadows. In this fine Lothron weather, now that the crops were sown and food easier to find, many were venturing abroad to explore beyond the cliff shelf and bay. Just yesterday, hadn't she seen Tarain and Sorcha returning from the direction of the oakwood? Tarain had flushed, but since they were on two mounts rather than one, she had merely lifted an eyebrow and done her best to restrain a grin. Mais could be angry that his sister was going about with a landless man, but Sorcha was a shrewd lass; unless she set her sights on Halpan or waited for Gormal, the only unmarried men were landless. The lord's favored swordsman was a catch indeed, in these waters. Humming the refrain of the song for golden-headed lads, Saelon moved on to the next patch of tiny pink blooms.
One of the hooves struck a stone with the ring of metal. She stopped still and listened with closer attention, since the osiers and alder brakes were too leafy to see through. Few of their beasts had been shod to begin with, and now only two of the horses had any shoes at all. Halpan had been grumbling about it, after Dûnsûl came up stone-lame, and wondering whether the Dwarves were skilled at farriery.
Someone spoke low, a deep rumbling voice in a harsh, guttural tongue; and another answered shortly.
It seemed Halpan would have a chance to ask. Saelon picked her way through the brakes towards the clearing that would give her a glimpse of the track. Vitr and Vitnir had come between gales in Nínui, talking closely with Maelchon and Mais for two days before setting to work on a plough and the metalwork needed to repair harness. She had left them to strike their own bargains—Maelchon was a canny husbandman, and unlikely to overreach himself—but she had gathered that a portion of the future harvest had been promised in return. Perhaps they were visiting to see how the crops fared, or if other work was needed. She wondered what Halpan would be willing to trade for horseshoes.
Three ponies came past the hazel thicket, but the two riders were not hooded in blue. The first, gazing towards the rustling of her movement with Dwarven suspicion, was like a patch of autumn dropped into the freshness of spring, the strong russet of his hood well-matched to his flowing beard; and the second wore the dark pine green that so brought out the fiery hue of his curlier beard. "Veylin! Thyrnir!" she called, waving. "Welcome!"
"Ah, it's you," Veylin chuffed, smiling, as she went to join them. "I was wondering if we were about to be ambushed by Hanadan, or perhaps Maelchon."
"Maelchon would have made much more noise," Thyrnir pointed out, drawing off his hood and sketching a bow. "At your service, Lady."
"At yours and your family's," Saelon replied, matching his formality. She looked at the pack pony, which seemed loaded with little save delving tools. "Were Vitr's terms so demanding?" she asked lightly. "I have not heard Maelchon complain."
"If Vitr and Maelchon are content," Veylin said, almost primly, "we should not speak of their terms." But his deep-set eyes gleamed like the copper on his braids and a corner of his mouth twitched beneath his beard. "How have things fared with you, Saelon, since we parted?"
She fell in beside his pony as they started down the track again. "Well and ill, as must be expected. We have lost no one, although everyone is heartily sick of eating seaweed and fish. Lambing and calving was better than we hoped, but Maelchon wishes he could have broken more land for sowing. Yet even the fields we have were far more than the coastwarden from Lindon liked to see."
"Elves of the Havens have been here?" Veylin's smile disappeared. "What did they want?"
"To see how many Men were camped in their dooryard, and find out if we intend to remain," Saelon said dryly. "Rumors had reached them of our troubles."
"Is that what they said?" Thyrnir asked, as Veylin frowned, his brawny hands knotting on the leather of his reins.
"Not in so many words."
When Veylin remained silent, Thyrnir told her, "More than rumor reached them. Some of us journeyed south early in the year, to see what our kin might know of the fiends, and left report as we passed through Mithlond." He seemed to be watching his uncle closely from the corner of his eye. "We thought, given the ties between your peoples, that they might aid you."
Saelon sighed, remembering her meeting with Círdan's emissary with deep dissatisfaction, and not all of it for the Elf. "Perhaps they will. At present they have promised to send word to the Chieftain of the Dúnedain, since I have asked leave for us to remain here until he can give us counsel."
"You do not need their leave," Veylin growled. "Círdan's word does not run north of the Little Lune."
"That is east of the mountains," Thyrnir reminded him. "We have never challenged their claim to the coast."
"They claim it, but have they done anything with it? How can they be injured if we dwell here?"
This land was disputed? Veylin, too, was new-settled on this side of the mountains. She wondered what Falathar would have had to say about that. "In fairness," she said, "I have seen them, sometimes, though we never met nor spoke until this spring. This is a fair land in summer, and a rich one in autumn."
"So they wander here and there. Let them wander elsewhere for a time."
"Please," Saelon asked, laying a hand on his forearm, "let it lie. I can ill afford to be on poor terms with any of my neighbors." When Veylin turned his scowl on her hand and raised his smouldering eyes to hers, she quickly removed it. She did not understand how it could offend, but she valued his good will too much to try a Dwarven temper. "Who knows when we might hear from the Chieftain," she continued, shaking her head doubtfully, "or whether he will be able to aid us with more than counsel. Yet it is his place to treat with the Lord of Lindon on our behalf."
"True," Veylin admitted sullenly. They continued on in dour silence to where the track reached the machair; there, he halted his pony and faced her. "Promise me, Saelon," he charged her, "that you will send me word if there is more talk of your right to dwell here, whether with the Elves or your Chieftain. We are allies. I have an interest in this."
"Of course," she assured him, wondering what his place might be among his people. He had told her, back in the autumn, that he was not a king; and the folk he brought to delve their hall had not treated him as a lord; but she could not believe he was a common Dwarf. "If you will tell me where we might find you." For all she knew was that his halls were now no more than three hours' ride distant.
His stern earnestness broke with an abashed cough. "Hhm, yes," he muttered, with a wry, almost apologetic quirk of his mouth. "It would be difficult, otherwise."
"So I would guess, since our men regularly scour the country for game, and none have mentioned meeting with your folk."
That was most definitely a glint of self-satisfaction in his eye. "We are a private people, as you know," Veylin murmured, casting his gaze around as if someone might be concealed among the blades of grass. "So you will not be offended if I ask you to keep the knowledge close."
Among Men concealment on such a point would have been cause for deep suspicion. Why would you hide from other folk, save known enemies? Still, Dwarves were notoriously secretive; Veylin had paid his debt faithfully without prompting, and these Dwarves were proving helpful neighbors. What use would offense be? "If you wish. I would not want my people to annoy you, and," she said drolly, reflecting how pleasant the years had been when she had lived here alone and private, "well I know how troublesome they can be."
"You are not enjoying lordship?" Veylin asked, brows raised.
"No. The foolishness of folk is a never-ending wonder."
Veylin gave a great guffaw, then snapped his mouth shut and sniffed; even that beard did not quite cover his smirk. "So I have found myself." While she was trying to decide if he was laughing at her—or at Men—he briskly said, "Near two leagues north of where Gaernath raised the cairn for Thekk and Vestri, there is a high tableland, half a league from the sea. Do you know it?"
A great round of green with steep sides of dark, harsh stone; you could see for miles from its level top, if you were willing to toil up the slopes. She had visited it a few times during her early years along the shore, but had seldom gone so far lately, even before the raugs. "Yes."
"There is a rill on the northwest. Follow it to where it falls over the shelf."
"Those small courses often go dry in summer," Saelon warned, lest they depend on it for water.
"Rekk swears this one will not." Veylin kicked his pony back into motion. "Speaking of water, is that still all you can offer thirsty travelers?"
"No," she assured him. "Bereth has put up some cowslip wine."
"Cowslip wine?" His look was dubious. "I think I should ask what cowslip is."
"The very early flower, yellow, like a primrose."
"Nothing to do with cows, then?" Thyrnir pressed.
"Only that cows eat them. It is a virtuous herb, good for the overwrought, and poor skin."
"Is the wine any good?" Veylin asked, more to the point.
"The coastwarden of Lindon did not think so."
Veylin stroked his beard thoughtfully. "I disagree with Elves on many things, but never on wine." Turning in the saddle, he tugged loose a thong and hefted a skin in his hand. "A skin of Dwarven mead for the story."
"Done." He pitched it to her, and she tucked it into her basket alongside the cuckoo-flower with a laugh and a shake of her head. "You would have had the story in any case," she told him.
"And we would have drunk the mead in any case. But now you can be the resourceful Lady, with unsuspected means for doing honor to guests in her hall."
"Honor to Dwarves." Rather than a repeat of their shame before Falathar.
"You are learning," he observed with satisfaction.
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Habad-e-Mindon, the Elf had told her. Shore of the Tower.
Like all Dwarves, Veylin found the Elvish propensity for giving everything names in their own tongue grating; resentment, however, came from the fact that their names stuck. They might not be the true names, but it gave them a certain power nonetheless: Elvish names made it sound like Elvish land.
He had first heard of the tower as he lay in Saelon's cave with his head half-cracked by the fiend that slew Thekk and Vestri, for then she had no name for this place that she would tell, describing its features instead. It had been of no account amid the first flare of vengeful wrath and the perilous misunderstandings of those days, or during the busy delving of his last visit; not that he had been fit to climb this height. Even now it was a stiff pull for his lame leg, but he set his teeth and braced himself with his stick when he must. A year ago, he would not have given so short a slope a thought . . . but he felt his luck with every grinding step. The knee would never be right again, it was true; but it would carry him, and the more he tried it, the stronger the leg became. So long as he could still hunt gems, he could bear the pain.
Still, he was glad, when he got to the top, to sit on one of the fallen blocks and look down on the shape of the land.
The tower had been well-sited. This great boss of schist overtopped the inland-sloping limestone of the cliffs beside, so that it commanded as wide a view as the roof of his new hall. If he had wished, he might have come on his pony by going roundabout, up the river to where the cliff failed and then along the clifftop, for a grassy slope ran down to it. It seemed the common way; feet had begun to beat a track into the turf. A craggier ridge trailed away to the southeast, losing itself in peat hags before it reached the knees of the mountains. On the south and west, rugged slopes ran down to the restless heave of the waves that covered half the world. Nesting seabirds wheeled overhead, their cries piercingly raucous.
Veylin rose and circled the ruin, which was little more than dwarf-high in places, until he found the gap that had once been a doorway. Within the broad ring of stone, he need not look on the sea; its sound and that of the birds was muffled; and the hollow held the warmth of the sun secure from the wind. Finding a better seat, he leaned back against the wall, took out his pipe, and, as he filled it, turned his thoughts to what had brought him so near this awesome water.
The hall had been delved, steps had been taken to secure local supplies—if the Elves would leave these folk alone!—and his short forays into the nearby hills had produced enough gems and ore to justify the move to the others, as well as drawing attention from his chosen lodes. Only Thyrnir knew where they lay and how rich they were; Rekk was content to know there were fine gems nearby and asked no more.
But getting to them . . . that was a greater problem than he had realized. When the sea was out, it was not that difficult. For him, at least, though Thyrnir was loathe to stand with nothing between him and the waves but a stretch of flat sand, no matter how wide. The sea was not always out, however, and it was vexing to ride all that way to find the surf crashing onto the rock he wished to mine. A half-dozen times this spring they had gone by devious ways to the opal dykes, yet only once had he been able to reach the stretch where the stones clustered. Granted, the score of opals he rescued from the hammer of the Lord of Waters was payment enough for all the trips, but the oftener they went, the more likely they were to be seen. And he would not subject Thyrnir to the sea more than he must.
What could he do? To watch the sea long enough to learn what he needed was, he knew, beyond his strength of heart and will. Therefore he must ask someone versed in sea-lore. He might ask the Elves when next he went to Mithlond . . . but such a question from a Dwarven gemsmith would kindle their curiosity. There were a few Noldor there still, who delighted in gems nearly as much as himself and would welcome an excuse for hopeful prospecting. No; that was closed to him as well. It was bad enough that Thyrnir had turned their long-sighted eyes to these northern shores, thinking they might trouble themselves over the plight of mortals—a tender beardling's indiscretion.
There was only one person he knew who had the knowledge he sought, who was not an Elf. But sometimes she saw nearly as far into things as they did, and already knew more of him and his affairs than was proper. When he had been standing on the shore yesterday, glaring at the surging grey-green water that drowned his treasure, coming here to seek her counsel had seemed wise. Now he was not so sure. Things were becoming as tangled as a carelessly handled chain.
"Ah," a mellow woman's voice broke into his brooding, over his head. "I knew I smelled smoke."
Glancing sharply up, he saw Saelon peering over the top of the tumbled wall. "I was turning various matters over in my mind." He leaned back again and considered the spare, dark-haired woman through narrowed eyes. Naming called; but he had not even thought her name. "Pipe-weed is a friend to thought."
Coming around to the gap, she sniffed the air. "What herb is that? I do not know it."
Like the rest of the folk here, she was thinner than she had been, but while her taller Dúnedain kin looked gaunt, she had been tempered into wiry toughness. She had a basket settled against her hip, half full of greenery and flowers, as she had yesterday. Herbs were her ores, part of her healing craft. "I know it only as pipe-weed," he told her. Reaching into his pouch, he drew out the small bag that held his supply; taking some, he offered it to her. "It comes from the Shire and Bree."
Rubbing the dried leaf between her fingers, she smelled it, then delicately touched a fingertip to her tongue. After a moment of consideration, she spat, then took an herb from her basket, chewing it as if to cleanse the taste. "Not unlike some of the lobelias," she judged. "Too much would be unwise, I think."
How much was too much? "I have smoked it for fifty years, without harm."
Saelon shrugged. "For a Man, then."
There was that. She knew the frailties of her race well, but did not expect Dwarves to share them. He watched as she crossed to the other side of the ring to finger the leaves of some plant, her mind turning back to her work. Water and herbs were her passions; she seemed to care no more for stone than he did for greenery. Her drab shawl was even pinned with a thorn rather than a brooch. If she owned a jewel other than Rekk's chain, its gold twined in the windblown umber of her hair, her sole mark of lordship, he had not seen it.
"Will you tell me," he asked, "about the tide?"
She turned to stare at him, as if misdoubting her ears. "Whatever for?"
Veylin clenched his teeth on his pipestem. Her disinterest in riches might be some surety, but he had not considered how the request would strike her, coming from one who avoided the sea. Mere interest was no excuse; the curiosity of Dwarves was never idle. He had forgotten how keen her gaze could be, like a hunting falcon's. "Must I say?"
"No," she hastened to assure him. After a pause that lay heavy between them, she asked, "What would you know?"
He had said too much; but to say no more would make much of the question. If he must risk his secret, she was less of a danger than the Elves. "Is there a pattern to its rise and fall?"
"It follows the moon." Saelon still considered him closely, brows slightly knit. Veylin was reflecting that, as in all matters of craft, vague questions brought answers of little worth, when she continued, "It goes from flood to ebb and back twice in a little more than a day, near as much longer as it takes for the moon to rise between one day and the next. The tide is at its highest and lowest when the moon is full and again at dark; middling at the quarters. That is the pattern, though wind and storm can alter it."
"Very interesting," he rumbled thoughtfully, gazing at her as he puffed on his pipe. That was exactly what he wished to know. So exactly that he wondered how much she already knew . . . or was it only surmise?
"There is something I would know," she said slowly, in return.
"What?" Was she about to disappoint him, prying for more than he was willing to reveal?
She laid a hand on the upper course of the slighted wall. "Anything about this ruin. It has always caught my fancy, but it does not speak to me. Can you tell aught from the stones?"
Relief widened his smile. "You like such riddles?"
"My mother's mother knew many tales of the Elder Days, and taught me to love them. It is not easy, though, to believe that such things happened on this same earth we tread." She rubbed her thumb along the battered edge of one block, pensive. "There is so little that one can touch or see, to make it real. Is it from the Elder Days? Or the time of Númenor?"
"So you are a mistress of lore as well as herbs?" Veylin had never given thought before to the rootlessness of Men, always moving west or east, north or south, driven by the Shadow or the sea or their hunger for land to till.
"That is too grand a claim," Saelon objected, with a unpretending smile. "I know such stories as my people have preserved, but so much was lost when Arnor fell, and more forgotten since."
"That is true of others besides Men." Yet at least he knew his ground, and still held part of his inheritance. Stroking the still-smooth face of one tumbled block, he told her, "This looks to be the work of my longfathers from Gabilgathol."
"I have never heard that name."
"It would be a wonder if you had," Veylin admitted, with a touch of the old bitterness. "Belegost, the Elves called it. It was one of the great dwarf-cities of the First Age, lost when Beleriand was broken and drowned."
She gazed out towards the water. "Is that why you mislike the sea?"
He shook his head. "No." Rising, he limped to the break in the circle, considering the coursing and bond of the unfallen stones, the broken doorpost and the hollows that would have held bar and bolt. "This was a watchtower, I guess. We are near to where Mount Rerir stood, the march of Thargelion and Lothlann."
"It seems you know much lore yourself," Saelon observed.
"How can one not know one's own? The Father of my fathers woke in these mountains ere the rising of the Sun. We delved Menegroth for Thingol, and when the Noldor crossed the sea, they sought arms from us for the war against the Enemy. When Gabilgathol and Tumunzahar, which the Elves called Nogrod, were broken, many went east, to Khazad-dûm, the city of the Longbeards, and to other places. Yet some of our fathers loved their homes too well to leave. And now," he sighed, gazing on the ruin of this masterful work, "Khazad-dûm, too, is lost, and Erebor, and the chief of the Longbeards has taken refuge with us in the south."
She looked thoughtful, rather than bemused. "I did not know you had such strong ties to these lands. So this was a dwarf-tower?"
"Dwarf-built, for the Noldor," he clarified. "Our towers are the peaks of the mountains."
Saelon's smile was neither indulgent nor pandering, which was so often the case when others were forbearing enough to listen to Dwarves speak of their ancient works. "Your forefathers must have had great skill, for even this much to have survived the wreck of two Ages of the world."
"They did." Yet as she had said, so much had been lost: mansions and treasure; folk and skill. The mountains were all but tapped out, save for iron and coal, or he would not be facing the sea.
"Some still lingers," she noted drolly, challenging his melancholy. "Enough to compel Lindon's coastwarden to praise. As I suspected, you did not value yourself meanly."
Veylin snorted. "The hall is of greater worth to you for the opinion of some passing Elf?"
She sobered. "I could not value it more than I did during that four-days' blow in Nínui," she assured him, with the respect for utility that he expected from her. "Yet I know I do not appreciate the artistry as it deserves."
That took him unawares, warming his heart. To look at her, you would think she did not know what beauty was; she did, though she prized it differently than he. "That is Nordri's doing, not mine," he demurred. "I will be sure to tell him, however, that his work has been praised by Elves and Men."
"Do," she urged with a smile . . . but now there was some uneasiness behind it. As Veylin gazed up at her, puzzled, she asked hesitantly, "Will you tell me how things stand between your folk and the Elves?"
There were other things besides the finer points of stonework that she was ignorant of; yet she had the wisdom to recognize that, too. "Have we troubled you with our growling at each other?" he chaffed, but kindly. "We are not friends, but neither are we foes. Much of my trade is with Lindon. This Falathar, who spoke ill of us," Veylin muttered, "I do not know. But there are some of Doriath still among them, or their kin, and they rarely trouble to distinguish the children of Tumunzahar from other Dwarves."
"Did they bear the guilt for the slaying of Thingol and the sack of Doriath?"
"Aye. Do your tales not remember it?" He sighed. "They came to Gabilgathol for counsel and aid, and my longfathers told them they were mad, that they had been caught up in the curse of that perilous jewel. But their hearts were hot for vengeance, and you know what we are like in that fell mood."
"Indeed." Saelon rubbed her naked jaw, which had once borne bruises from Rekk's wrathful grip. "I would not have my harried folk caught between Elves and Dwarves, not for ancient grievances or disputed lands. I allied with you against raugs, Veylin, not Elves."
"Lady," he said in all seriousness, honoring her candor with his own, "as they are, I would as soon trust those sandhills against the sea's fury as I would put your folk between me and my enemies. Do not fear—whatever quarrels I have with Elves, I can fight unaided. I have not forgotten the fiends," he assured her, clenching his hands on his stick, "but we must be patient: you have too few menfolk to spare for rash forays, and those ill-fed." Reluctantly, he allowed, "It would be wise to see what your Chieftain sends, before we spend our slight strength against this evil."
She let out her breath as if she had been holding it. "I am glad to hear you say so. It is true, they are not strong. It was a hungry winter, and I am grateful merely to have lost none. I know how to keep them," she declared, "but I know little of battle and war."
"Do not expect what you have heard in tales," Veylin warned. "This is like to be closer to a warg-hunt than a battle. We must run these fiends to ground before we can slay them."
"How do we do that without remaining overnight in their hunting grounds?" Saelon asked.
"If there was a good answer to that," he observed, "the Elves might not be so troubled about how long your folk will remain here."
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The Debateable Land: a small, bitterly contested section of the 16th-century Borders between England and Scotland, just north of Carlisle; English and Scots were both allowed to pasture stock there by day, but were not allowed to leave them there overnight or build permanent dwellings on the land. Doing so was legitimate grounds for the other side to raid and destroy.
"The Ruin": a fragmentary Old English poem about the decay of Roman Bath (Aquae Sulis, "the waters of Sul"). While I found half a dozen translations, I wasn't satisfied with any of them; this translation was radically reworked from Cook and Tinker (1930) with the help of a recent glossary (Mitchell and Robinson, A Guide to Old English, 1986).
Cuckoo-flower (also ladies' smock, Cardamine pratense): a medicinal plant.
Osier (Salix sp.): a type of willow, especially those used for wickerwork.
Canny: in Scots, a double-edged word—prudent and shrewd, especially thrifty; and also natural, free from supernatural powers (usually used in its negative sense, uncanny).
Tableland: a small plateau. This one is based on Healabhal Mhor, also known as Macleod's Table North, on Skye.
Rill: a small stream, rivulet.
Cowslip (Primula veris): since the common name is said to derive from Old English c?slyppe, "cow dung," the Dwarves' suspicions might be forgiven.
Peat hags: moorland with a thick layer of peat.
Lobelias (Lobelia sp.): some species are dangerously potent medicinal plants, with high levels of bitter alkaloids; Lobelia inflata ("Indian tobacco," not to be confused with true tobacco, Nicotiana rustica) was used to help people stop smoking, since it eased nicotine cravings. While L. inflata and most of the other medicinal lobelias are native to the Americas, the name of a certain Sackville-Baggins (too much of whom would also probably be unwise) suggests that, like Nicotiana, these plants may have found their way to Eriador.
Coursing and bond: in masonry, a course is a row of blocks or bricks; the bond is the pattern they are laid in.
Father of my fathers: Veylin and Thyrnir are Firebeards; the Fathers of the Firebeards and the Broadbeams awoke in the Ered Lindon, whose remnants are the Ered Luin (HoME XII: The Peoples of Middle-Earth, pp. 301, 322). There is not enough evidence to determine whether each kindred had their own city, although I surmise they would have intermingled to some extent, as both surely did with the Longbeards when they took refuge in Khazad-dûm at the end of the First Age.
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.