12. Gentle as Falcon
Thig trì nithean gun iarraidh Three things come without seeking
An t-eagal, an t-iadach 's an gaol jealousy, terror and love
--Anonymous, "Thig trì nithean gun iarraidh"
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The next morning, rather later than Halpan had wished, he and a sore-headed Partalan set out for the mountains and the lands beyond the Lune, leaving Dírmaen guardian of Habad-e-Mindon.
At the time when he would have most wished to have Saelon's kinsman and hound here, they handed him their duties and pursued others, tying his hands. He could not plead his suit in their absence: if Saelon refused him—which seemed all too likely—how could she avoid him or send him away, leaving Gaernath as huntsman and defender? It would be dishonorable, an abuse of the trust he had been given.
So began a season of gentle torment, for he could not see Saelon without wanting her, and faint hope fed on suspense.
Some respite he got when she went to attend Fransag, who gave Maelchon a third daughter; and again when Muirne was brought to childbed. No man stayed within the hall, to be riven by the cries that came from Artan's chamber, but fled to the little cave to talk desperately of everything and anything save birthing and babes all the night through. Yet is was Saelon who came to them in the milk-mild Nórui dawn bearing Muirne's victory, another fine son. Watching her handle the tiny new life with tender care, Dírmaen wondered why she had not wed already, that she might have babes of her own.
Of his own.
Thereafter he spent more time away from Habad-e-Mindon, on the excuse of hunting. A good excuse, for they needed more fox pelts and a pair of wolves for their rent, and he had seen no sign of wolf near the sea. The fur would not be good, taken in summer, but they had no choice for this year, and his forays into the edges of the mountains, learning the land there, occupied his body and thoughts. Since one missed much from horseback, he tramped long weary leagues, enough that he slept without dreams.
Gaernath, suffering still more as Leod's suit prospered, he often took with him, teaching him the finer points of tracking, toughening his sinews, and giving him what ease could be found in exhaustion. At first, he had not thought a lad of the Edain could bear many such journeys, but Gaernath had a generous measure of hardiness from his Dúnedain grandmother and refused no opportunity to go abroad with him. As summer deepened, Dírmaen wondered whether there might be a place for a red-headed Ranger, conspicuous though he must be.
One day, when Gaernath had stopped back to help Canand cut hay, Dírmaen looked down from the crook-backed ridge to see if deer were cropping the berry bushes below and saw instead that slight brown figure, trim as a doe. For a long time he crouched in the bracken and watched her pick berries, debating with himself; free, in his wretched solitude, to gaze with naked yearning.
She should not wander alone this way. It was a temptation to ill.
Then her single-minded hands faltered, and Saelon began scanning the land about her with an uneasy eye. Doe-like, she had sensed his fixed gaze. A reassuring thing to see, but nonetheless . . . .
Abruptly Dírmaen rose from the dense green fronds and waved to catch her eye. It would not do to leave her unsettled, breaking into her work. He must not be peculiar. Trial though it would be, he would step down and ask what sign she had seen. If he could not do so much without disgrace, he ought not to remain in Habad-e-Mindon.
"Greetings, Dírmaen!" she called, as he came down the slope. "Is something amiss? You range so much of late that I've scarce seen you."
"Lady," he returned, with a respectful bow of his head. "No, all is well, so far as I can tell. Yet with Halpan and Partalan away, I must do three men's work. How are the berries this season?"
"Very good. Here—" she dipped into her basket, and held out blaeberries. "Have some. You are beginning to look gaunt, even for a Ranger," she jested.
Was he falling off, lovesick? Perhaps he had been eating less of late. That would not do. "Thank you." Her slim, tanned hand, stained by the fruit, touched his as she poured the dark morsels into his palm.
"I should thank you," she told him, "for taking such pains with Gaernath."
The fruit slaked thirst as well as hunger, their taste richer for the sun's warmth. "He is a fine lad. A pity that he favors the Edain, else I would recommend him for a Ranger when he is older."
How did she manage to look pleased and contrary at the same time, as sweetly tart as the berries? "In some things," she defended her young cousin, "but not in all." As if to avoid even so small a disagreement, she changed the subject. "I hope you are more comfortable, now that you are properly settled in the hall."
"Yes, thank you." It was a luxury to sleep between weathertight walls, lately shared only with a tidy lad who did not snore. "How, Lady," he ventured to ask the question that had often perplexed him over the ferocious winter, "did you endure gales in that drafty cave?"
She chuckled, proud of her tenacity. "I kept to my box-bed as much as possible, and set a burning peat on the high rock shelf to preserve my fire." Sparing a glance for the sun, which stood high overhead, she set down her trug and went to where her packbasket leaned against a particularly stout bush. "Have you eaten yet?"
Glancing back over her shoulder, she gave him a wry look. "You need not be so formal, Dírmaen. Or shall I call you 'Ranger'?"
"I would rather," he told her, knowing he sounded stiff and fearing she would think him pompous; but he did not trust himself to take even that small step nearer intimacy. Not when propriety was one of the frail pales for her protection. "Even," he allowed, in a feeble attempt at lightness, "if you must call me 'Ranger' in return."
Those keen, sea-grey eyes were baffled, trying to make sense of his strangeness. "Does my simplicity distress you so much?"
Simplicity? What was simple about this woman, save her dress? "No, not distress." As she waited for more, he knew he had ventured into a mire. "Not your simplicity. I am trying," he said desperately, "not to rebuke you for wandering alone."
He was rewarded by a quirk of her generous lips. "Then please, keep me company," she invited, drawing a cloth bundle and waterskin from the bottom of the large basket.
He had run his head well into the noose. How could he excuse himself now? "Truly?"
Saelon settled onto a grassy hummock, her shapely feet, bare as those of any shepherd lass, peeping from beneath her tattered skirt. "I hope I have not," she said regretfully, "given the impression that I dislike you, Dírmaen. You have sometimes vexed me, but—" a resigned shrug of her shawled shoulders "—who has not? You, at least, meant well."
She was magnanimous in victory: having secured her home by the sea, she held no grudge against him for his opposition. "I did," he affirmed, bowing his head in acknowledgment. His motives at present he would not vouch for.
"Will you not sit?" she asked, gazing up at him. "I hope you will be like my brother, and forgive me for not taking your counsel. I am a peculiar creature," she smiled ruefully, "there is no help for it—but not an ungrateful one."
That smile, touched with melancholy, banished the quiet inner voice that urged him to leave her, and he sank down on a tussock. "Certainly I will forgive you, Lady." Though he had no wish to be as her brother, no matter how praiseworthy the man had been. "I have never known a woman like to you." Had there ever been her match? Tar-Ancalimë, perhaps . . . or Tar-Telperien; though either comparison boded ill for his love. Fearing his eyes might reveal too much, he brought forward his scrip and began rummaging for the hunk of cold mutton and bannock he had thrust in before setting out in the grey light of dawn.
"Who has?" she wondered dryly, bitterness darkening her voice as she unwrapped her own dinner. Looking from the cloth on her lap, which neatly held two bannocks filled with cheese and cress, to the broken bread on his knee and the meat he was taking from the leather wallet that protected all else from its grease, she murmured, "You have no more?"
She was restraining herself; the line between those dark brows reminded him of Aunt Ailinel when, as a boy, he would try to slip out without his cloak on a fine, frosty morning. "I need no more."
Those keen, narrowed eyes scalded him as they ran up and down his limbs, assessing him. "If you were a horse," she said bluntly, "I would give you a generous measure of beans in addition to your usual feed." Taking one of her bannocks, she held it out to him. "There is no need to stint yourself, Dírmaen. We are no longer on the edge of famine, and I would not have it said, when you return to the Chieftain, that I begrudged a Ranger the food to keep him."
"Though you resent that the Chieftain sent no grain to your people."
"All the more reason."
Such pride—it was like the glint of steel. More apt to give than take, Halpan had said; yet Dírmaen thought her generosity sometimes had a double edge, shaming the recipient . . . and wounding herself. "I would not have you go short on my account, Lady. You are none too generous on your own behalf, I know." Her body was more rounded now than when he had first met her, though she was still thinner than was right. A wonder that she had not fallen ill that winter, as she labored to nurse the sick. So light she had been in his hands when they danced.
With difficulty, he shook his mind free from the delightful memory, to find her gazing on him with lowered brows and pursed lips. As her silence drew out, he cursed himself. Where were his wits? Why had he not accepted her gift? So small a thing—and by refusing, he had reminded her of the root of all their disagreements. How could he hope to win her, if he guarded his tongue no better than this?
She drew back the bannock . . . and broke it in two. Offering the half, she said, "Let us not compete in self-denial. There are so many berries, neither of us need go hungry."
"True!" His relief was so great he feared his smile was rather foolish, so he filled his mouth with what she offered, to stop his awkward tongue.
She did not speak either as they ate, the warm midday stillness broken only by the calls of plover near a plashy hollow and the cheerful notes of a thrush plundering the berry bushes closer by. Dírmaen soon regretted starting his meal with Saelon's morsel: the insipid grease of unsalted mutton killed the savoury bite of cress, the mildness of new cheese. As he wiped his fingers fastidiously on the grass, Saelon shook the few crumbs from her cloth and rose. Picking up her laden trug, she came and set it down beside him. "Here," she told him with a knowing smile, "these will take that taste from your mouth."
"Thank you," he said gratefully, taking a handful of the small berries.
Sitting down just the other side of the basket, where she, too, could easily dip into it, she observed, "You did not come here for the blaeberries, then?"
"The hope of venison," he replied promptly, not wanting her to think he dogged her steps from lack of confidence—or other reasons. "Have you seen any sign of deer today?"
"Mm, venison," she sighed. "Alas, no; nor yesterday, neither. Hares and a few grouse as I came across the moor. When haying is done, I suppose I will have to set the lads to fishing."
Game had indeed become scarce hereabouts. Tomorrow he would take his horse and ride into the mountains, to the broad, high glen he had found where stags had gathered for summer. The beasts were putting on flesh quickly; since they were only allowed a score, there had been little point in taking one earlier. "Why did you come so far to pick these?" he asked as he reached for more, curious. "The heath north of the river is thick with blaeberries."
"I have left those for Fransag." Plucking out and discarding a few unripe berries that had slipped in, she explained, "Even if she felt able to walk far yet, she and Tearlag fear to roam. I enjoy tramping about—" There was defiance in the glance she gave him. "—and seeing how the plants fare, so I know where to harvest."
Dírmaen swallowed what came first to his mind with the fruit, and took another handful. They had disagreed—nay, quarreled—on this but a few months ago, to no avail. He had found her haggard, and would not tempt her to his hand by insisting on a creance. "And your niece? I am surprised you do not take her with you, so she can learn your herblore."
"Her talents lie elsewhere and, save for dyestuffs, she has little interest. Which is as well," Saelon allowed, picking moodily at her skirts, where even patches had been patched. "We are in sore need of cloth. I wonder if flax would flourish here?" she mused.
He had seen her plots of wheat and oats, which fared well. "You have not already made the trial?"
She shook her head. "No. Retting flax is tiresome work. Urwen used to supply me with linen in return for herbs. I suppose we will have to trade for it," she sighed. "At least for this year. What we have really cannot last much longer. It is mortifying to look so beggarly!"
"You do not look like a beggar," he assured her. He had seen beggars, and they did not have such lustrous hair, nor flawless complexions. There was nothing downfallen in her bright, clear eyes, though his heart ached to see her once more fretted by cares. Her temper would not be crabbed, he thought, if she were not overburdened.
"Come," she chastised him, arching a suspect brow. "Do not tell me that, on the road, you would not look twice at someone so ragged."
"Only to see if I knew them," he jested, smiling. "Many a Ranger has looked worse." And cast a telling look down at his own gear and garb, hard-used this last year. "I had thought you above such trifles as dress. We are all rather shabby, it is true, but that will not be hard to mend now that your folk are secure. Lady," he insisted, hazarding a touch on her hand at the look of skeptical dissatisfaction on her face, "you have kept them all hale and well. Do not misjudge that. A captain who lost no more than one in ten of his men, if so ill-supplied, would be considered a paragon."
"One in ten?" She sniffed. "Well, men—they would probably feast on game, and wonder why they grew feeble."
Wary of the turn of her temper, treacherous as the tide, Dírmaen did not linger, but shouldered his bow and took his leave, with thanks for the additions to his meal. At the crest of the ridge he paused and looked back. She was at the berry bushes again, refilling her trug, and though he gazed long, she did not pause or falter.
That had not been so bad. He had not disgraced himself, nor had they disagreed. How often, he wondered, might he happen across her as they rambled, without arousing suspicion or vexation?
Early though he rose the next morning, Unagh was already at the hearth when he stepped quietly out of the chamber he shared with Gaernath. He pulled the door to with extra care; not so much for the sake of giving the weary lad a little longer abed as to slip clean away. Gaernath was a keen hunter, and if he learned Dírmaen was off after a stag, there would have been no keeping him on the hay meadows.
"A fair morning to you," he murmured to Unagh with a smile as she set more bannocks on the griddle. "Do you have something that might keep a Ranger through a long day?"
"Oh, aye," she replied with an unexpected grin, eyes sharp with curiosity. Instead of reaching into the basket of bannocks straight off the griddle, she leaned down and came up with a neatly wrapped bundle. "The Lady says this is for you."
"What is it?" he asked. Taking it, he turned back the top layer of cloth: bannocks, no, scones from the scent, studded with blaeberries. Somewhere beneath lay cured cheese and herbed mutton.
"Are you away on a journey?" the cottar lass wondered.
"I am going into the mountains," he admitted. Was this meant to break his fast as well as for dinner? Snagging one of the scones, Dírmaen put it in his mouth while he closed the bundle and set it in his scrip.
Unagh looked grave. "No wonder, then."
Fortunately, the scone kept him from smiling. Five leagues, perhaps six; a good morning's ride, no more, now that he knew the ways well. Yet save for the flight here from Srathen Brethil, this girl had probably never been so far in her life. "My thanks to the Lady," he told her, having made short work of the honey-sweet, cream-rich cake. Saelon's own baking, he was sure; no wonder the lass was so inquisitive. Was this a mark of special favor, or merely an extra measure of beans to his feed?
Tasty as it was, he had done nothing to merit a favor, and he did not want the lasses, sensitive to the nuances of love from their meddling in Murdag's affairs, turning their fancies and gossip in other directions. "I hope," he added, "that I might have your good wishes for my quest . . . and some of your baking, as well?"
"Of course!" Unagh declared, a pleased flush turning her pale cheeks pink as she took the top two bannocks from the basket. "Fare you well, Dírmaen."
A sweet lass, he reflected as he headed out to the byre-cave to collect his tack, munching on the hot barley bread. She would have made Aniel a good wife, and doubtless would find another man when her heart had finished grieving him. Yet how was he to quicken the heart of a woman who looked on a man merely to see if he needed better feeding?
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Gentle as Falcon: From John Skelton's "To Maystres Margaret Hussey": Mirry Margaret, As mydsomer flowre, Jentill as fawcoun Or hawke of the towre. "'Jentill as fawcoun.' Nothing to do with gentleness, clearly. Gentility, rather; nobility. John Skelton's allusion is to the term 'falcon gentle,' usually a synonym for the peregrine" (Cummins, The Hound and the Hawk: The Art of Medieval Hunting, p. 187).
Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum): a tall (often 6.5 feet or 2m high) fern, which grows on moor and hillsides as well as woodland. Poisonous to livestock, it is an unwelcome invader of hill pasture, but in the past was widely used for bedding for humans and animals, roof thatch, and as a medicinal plant.
Trug: a shallow, oblong basket of wooden splints, used to carry fruit, vegetables, or flowers.
Tar-Ancalimë: the first Ruling Queen of Númenor. A proud, willful woman; the ill-match of her parents gave her a distaste for men and marriage. Her own marriage, made to stave off the ambitions of her cousin, was not happy. For a time she evaded suitors by living as a simple shepherdess; her future husband met and wooed her then, in the guise of a shepherd.
Tar-Telperien: the second Ruling Queen of Númenor, who never wed.
Scrip: a small bag or satchel.
Plover (golden plover, Pluvialis apricaria): these birds breed on moorland and bog, then move to coastal mudflats or farmland in late summer.
Thrush (song thrush, Turdus philomelos): the more mundane cousin of the long-lived and magical thrushes of Dale, who have a taste for berries as well as snails.
Haggard: originally a female falcon, taken in adult plumage and not (yet) tamed to hand. Only later did the word take on the meaning of appearing worn and gaunt, as the falcon did before it adjusted to captivity.
Creance: a long line attached to a falcon's jesses or leg-straps, giving it more freedom than a leash and used to train it to return to the falconer's hand.
Flax (Linum usitatissimum): an annual plant widely grown for fiber and oil, although there are different strains for each purpose. The process of turning flax into linen is very time-consuming. The plant must be pulled before the seeds are fully ripe, then retted by soaking in water-filled pits for two to three weeks to rot the outer bark; the decayed stalks are then dragged across a heckle board studded with spikes of various sizes to separate the fiber from the remains of the stem (heckling or hackling); only then can the fiber be spun. Although retting pits are known from England since the Bronze Age, flax was only introduced into Scotland in the early medieval period, apparently by the Vikings.
"wonder why they grew feeble": wild game is notoriously lean, so much so that it is usually larded with some other fat (such as bacon) in modern cookery. While lean meat is high in calories and very nutritious, protein requires more calories to metabolize than it provides. This is why Yukon prospectors who ate snowshoe hares all winter died of starvation, the Inuit (Eskimos) eat blubber in addition to meat, and high-protein diets promote weight loss.