2. Corn and Copper
My grandmothers were strong.
They followed plows and bent to toil,
They moved through fields sowing seed.
They touched earth and grain grew.
--Margaret Walker, "Lineage"
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Now that the gale had blown itself out, the sky pastured clouds fair as grazing sheep and the air was mild for Gwaeron: a perfect day to turn out the winter woolens, sour from long use. Rian and Finean's lasses sang as they stamped the cloth in the burn, jesting and splashing amid the rush of water. Having pinned a blanket firmly onto the thorns of one of the may trees growing along the foot of the high-perched cliff, so it would not be loosed by the blustery wind, Fransag paused to gaze down at the machair, shading her eyes and frowning.
"Is something amiss?" Saelon asked, with sudden misgiving. It had been near this time last year when an elven-ship put into the bay, and Círdan's coastwarden took offense at the ploughed and newly planted ground. Fransag's husband Maelchon and the cottars were down on the levels behind the dunes now, breaking the tough green turf to extend last year's field. Had the Elves returned to forestall sowing, and see them off their land?
Bending to her basket, Fransag took out a dripping cloak and shook it. "It seems not. Gaernath has returned without the others, but he paused to bespeak the men, and they have gone back to work."
Leaving a shawl fluttering by one end, Saelon walked to the edge of the cliff-shelf to see for herself. Behind her, Fransag called out, "If you would fall in, now is the time, Murdag!" The younger of Finean's daughters gave a cry of scandalized protest, then all the lasses broke out in laughter and splashing.
While Maelchon and the cottars readied the land for planting, the men of her household had gone out with Dírmaen to see what the last pups of Aniel's breeding might do with the mad hares. Yes, there was Gaernath, his blazing red hair unmistakable, trotting his chestnut mare along the edge of the field; gazing up, he gave her a vigorous, cheerful wave.
Nothing ill, then. She scanned the country round about and, seeing naught but the horses cropping the northern headland, went to the head of the track to meet Gaernath as he rode up. "What news?" she called, as his mount picked its way through the mud and stones of the steep, badly rutted path.
He grinned at her. "The Dwarves are coming to call." Swinging down from the saddle, he began, "Master Veylin and some—"
A burst of giggling from the burnside distracted him. He turned his head to scowl, ready to rebuke mirth at the expense of their uncommon neighbors, the soft curls of his maiden beard doing their best to bristle . . . then stood suddenly still as a hound at gaze, while the lasses regarded him, frank as hinds.
Saelon slid her gaze from Murdag, skirts kilted high, face flushed, to her young cousin, his lanky frame filling out to manhood. "You were saying?" she asked, pursing her lips to keep from smiling.
"Hm?" His ears had gone a heated pink. "Ah," he answered, almost haphazard, eyes still on that winsome, white-limbed lass, "they crossed our path just this side of Cailcàrach, on their way here."
Fransag ambled over to join them, casting an encouraging grin at the lasses as she caressed the burgeoning fullness of her belly. "And can you remember how many guests we are to expect, lad, or has the sight of so much beauty struck you witless as Beren?"
That roused him, pricking the irritable pride of youth. Turning hot eyes on the goodwife, he answered sharply, "One short of a dozen. They are a few miles behind me, no more."
Saelon laid a hand on his shoulder. "Thank you, Gaernath. Would you help Rian spread what has already been washed?"
"Once I see to my horse." Asserting the priority of manly duties . . . but lending his cousin a hand would give him ample excuse to linger near his sweetheart. "Oh," he added, turning back, "Bersi brings your cauldron."
"Does he?" It seemed an age, now, since she had struck that bargain at the harvest feast, before the quarrel. What was still owing? Two sheep, two geese, and two bushels of honeycomb? The sheep and geese would be no trouble, but this was not the season for honey, and they did not have so much left in store. Looking to Fransag, she asked, "What might we give so many, on such short notice?"
So many guests, and so little notice: but at least there was something to give them, and things other than honey to trade. Such a difference a year had made.
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Standing under the overhang of the cliff by the door of their hall, poised to receive their guests in her one good gown, Saelon watched as the first pony followed Halpan's bay onto the beaten greensward: a stout sorrel, bearing a figure that sat as tall in the saddle as his stature allowed, the russet of his hood a welcome warmth amid the faded colors of late winter. Hanadan ran to claim the pony's bridle, and Veylin jested with the lad, who laughed as he led the beast towards the stone that served the lame Dwarf as a mounting block.
More ponies, crowding the cliff-shelf: Rekk and the coppersmith Bersi; Nordri the mason, with a Dwarf she did not know; Nordri's cousin Grani . . . and the prentices after. Veylin's Oski; Rekk's Ingi; Veylin's nephew Thyrnir, prenticed to Grani, riding beside another stranger; and one last new Dwarf, bringing up the rear of their train. As he led a pony bearing a great gleaming copper kettle, she thought he might be Bersi's prentice.
From the perch of the stone, Veylin was scanning the dooryard, looking for—
Their eyes met, and before he stepped down from the rock, she saw his beard twitch by the corner of his mouth. Amused; by her feeble show of finery, most like, or the formality that came so hard for her. She could match him neither in wealth nor practiced courtesy, and never would.
Yet she would give her best, so there could be no doubt of her regard, despite the constraints her position had laid upon their familiarity.
When he approached at the head of his company, Veylin leaned only a little on his sturdy blackthorn stick. Good; that was an improvement on what she had last seen. Not that she would speak of it—a liberty even Veylin would resent—but as the one who had labored to mend his leg, she retained an interest in it. That he could walk gave her great satisfaction; that he had gone to battle so, and still walked, was a wonder to her, a testament to the hardihood of his kind.
"Lady Saelon," Veylin greeted her, sweeping off his hood and bowing low. "Hail, and well met again."
She curtseyed in return. "Welcome back to the hall you delved us, Masters." She glanced over the Dwarves behind him. Rekk and Nordri were pleased by her acknowledgement of their work; those whose acquaintance went back no further than the harvest feast wore civil expressions. There was cool reserve, even doubt, on the bearded faces she did not know, save for the Dwarf beside Thyrnir, who regarded her with ill-concealed curiosity. "You have had a prosperous winter, I trust?"
"Not bad." There was a gleam in Veylin's deep-set eyes that suggested this was gross understatement, and an easy complacence in his smile. Dissatisfaction in a Dwarf was as plain as a storm on the sea; this unruffled aspect could speak only of content. "And you, Lady?" he asked, with more concern than civility required in his deep, harshly accented voice. "Did the season treat you and yours more kindly this year?"
It could not have treated them much worse, and left them standing. "Kindly enough that I need not barter with you for something to fill your cups. Please, come in, Masters, and take some refreshment after your ride."
"Gladly. Though there are some new members of our company you should know." Veylin gestured to the foremost of the strangers, the one by Nordri, who stepped forward. "Aðal, son of Aðr, at your service, Lady," he said, drawing off his deep mustard-colored hood and bowing.
"At yours and your family's," Saelon replied, making her bob. "Welcome to Habad-e-Mindon."
When Aðal stepped aside, turning his attention to the cliff-face, Veylin fixed his gaze on the Dwarf who had regarded her curiously. "This," he rumbled, brows lowered, "is my newest prentice."
"Thyrð, son of Thekk." With his midsummer-green hood in his hand, he bowed very low, his red-gold hair blazing in the sun. "At your service."
Saelon smiled, understanding Veylin's stern look. "Ah, you are Thyrnir's brother—" they had the same fiery mane "—and the nephew of the redoubtable Rekk." Of Veylin, as well, through his sister; but since they misliked speaking of their womenfolk, she merely said, "Triply welcome, then. It is good to meet the kin of such friends."
"And the Lady of Habad-e-Mindon," he returned, "of whom I have heard so much."
"No doubt!" Saelon laughed. A youngster, she judged, warned to be on his best behavior. Turning her smile on the final newcomer, she asked, "And you, Master?"
"Fram, son of Feyn," he replied, with a brusque bow. "I follow Bersi."
Had her particularity offended him? "At your service," she told him punctiliously. "So I thought, when I saw the burden borne by the pony you led."
Bersi bowed. "The veal was so good, I am keen to conclude our bargain. Nor would I deprive your guests of what you might brew in it."
Now that sounded like the pretty speech of a seasoned packman; though she had forgotten he had a taste for her ale. "Of course, Master. Yet take a draught and a bite, first." Hopefully it would put him in better temper for any disappointment about the honey.
They had ranged the benches around the far end of the hall. At the long hearth down the center, Fransag was making scones with the last of the dried blaeberries, and these Rian served hot and hot, with new butter and cream, as Saelon went around with the heather ale. This gave her the opportunity to speak to the more familiar guests, while her kinsmen entertained the company at large.
"Master Nordri." She proffered one of their better cups, filled to the brim. "Such a grief, to hear of your son's death. We cannot but remember him, seeing his work every day as we do."
The stonemason sighed deeply as he took the turned alderwood, and looked to the panels of birches by the door. "Indeed, Lady. It is some comfort, that you value his work so."
"Nyrað did the carvings?" Aðal asked, solemn appreciation. "They are very fine. I see why you think so highly of this stone."
Saelon smiled somberly as she passed Aðal a cup. "Are you also a mason, Master?"
"A stonecutter, Lady."
Wiping traces of ale from his whiskers, Nordri observed gravely, "Aniel must have been a sore loss, Lady, so good a huntsman as he was."
"Yes." Though Dírmaen had proved a better, and Halpan and Gaernath grew more skillful under his tutelage. "Yet in truth, we miss his good cheer more than the game. We Dúnedain are a grim lot."
"You have had ample cause for grimness." Nordri lifted his cup in toast. "Now that our foes are slain, may we have the peace to find prosperity."
"A hearty aye to that." Long years of peace she had had here, when she dwelt alone, the land empty save for beast and bird, with only a rare glimpse of Elves faring their obscure ways. The tranquility of those days was lost to her now that she bore the care of her scattered folk, but soon she would be able to recapture snatches of the solitude she craved, as spring brought herb and shrub to leaf and flower. Her store of simples had been much diminished by a sickly winter, and she would have to roam far to replenish it.
Passing to the next bench, she found Grani smiling consideringly at her as she filled a horn for him. "Did I hear, Lady," he wondered, "that you might wish better ware to serve your ale?"
"I seem to remember that Veylin suggested as much, and recommended your work." Saelon raised an eyebrow. She had not noticed, in the days of their poverty, that Dwarves' minds ran so much on trade. "Do you have a taste for lamb, Master?"
"One of the delights of spring, is it not?"
Saelon laughed. "Is this a neighborly visit or a trade embassy?"
Sitting beside his master, Thyrnir asked, brows knit in puzzlement, "Is there a difference?"
Perhaps not, to them. Was that not their nature and pleasure, to make and mend, buy and sell? And these others did not have cause, as Veylin did, for less self-interested good will.
Not that even he was disinterested. When she finally took her place at the head of the company, the dwarf-chieftain rumbled, "Halpan tells me that Argonui favors your return to Srathen Brethil, now that the fiends are slain."
"Did you expect otherwise?" She had benefited from Veylin's counsel last summer, when the Rangers sent by Argonui's father took for granted that she would bring her folk east across the Lhûn—and from his support, ablaze with gems at the head of a train of stern Dwarves, when the sons of Elrond came to collect them after Arathorn's death in Srathen Brethil. Her gaze sought Dírmaen and found him, removed as ever he was, near the door. Watching.
When the other Rangers had gone, he had remained: a remote kinsman, token of their distant Chieftain's care . . . and authority. He, too, wished them back in their ancestral lands, nearer the rest of the Dúnedain.
"Have you heard aught else from Lindon?" Veylin asked.
He was also far from where he ought to be, in the peaks of the Ered Luin. What had brought and what kept him here, Saelon did not know, and she valued his friendship too much to pry. "No," she sighed, and considered him thoughtfully. "You have some acquaintance with the Elves of the Havens. Having protested our presence, will they continue to ignore us? Maelchon will sow in a few weeks, and then we will be bound here until harvest."
Lowering his cup, Veylin gave a wry snort. "Who can tell, with Elves? One year, even several, often means little to them. They may be waiting to see if you return to Srathen Brethil of your own accord, or something else may have their attention just now."
"You are not concerned on your own account?" Halpan asked, reaching for the stoup to refill his drinking horn. Though only half Saelon's age, he was the eldest man surviving of the Dúnedain of Srathen Brethil, and wished to be more of a captain and steward to her.
Veylin shrugged. "Not particularly. I have negotiated with Círdan before, and claims that cannot be lightly dismissed."
"Would you speak on our behalf?" Halpan proposed.
The Dwarf's gaze slid to her, and he smiled in rueful sympathy at her uneasy frown. "Do you not know the lore of the Elder Days, as your Lady does? I have traded with Lindon, but I have no friends there. Certainly I will stand by you at need, as we stood together against the fiends in Srathen Brethil, but you would do better to make your own peace with Círdan. Your forefathers were long the allies of the Elves. They remember Dwarves otherwise."
Her cousin gave her a puzzled look. "What tale is this?"
"Thingol's death, and the battle of Sarn Athrad." Saelon sometimes told the ancient tales in the hall, to while away the long winter nights, yet that one she had avoided, though Veylin claimed descent from Belegost rather than Nogrod. "Perhaps," she mused aloud, watching the Dwarf, "it would be better if we left you out of it altogether. Srathen Brethil is not so far."
His russet eyes narrowed. Veylin misliked the sea, but he understood the hold it had on her . . . and honored it, as no one else living did. "You must do as you think best, Lady," he rumbled, setting his cup aside. "I have told you, however, that I consider my own interests touched by this." And that she should not shield him from quarrels.
Halpan looked between them, dark brows lowered.
Saelon smiled, to reassure them both. "Master Veylin, have I not made sure that you had the chance to speak on such matters in the past?"
The Dwarf chuffed, and his narrow look grew amused. "Well, see that you do not neglect it, now that you have grown so seemly."
Rekk, who had been watching all this in silence, gave a bark of a laugh and stuck his face into his cup, as if to hide a smirk. Halpan stared at the Dwarf, then back at Saelon and Veylin. "I think," her cousin murmured, so that his words might go no further, "I missed much, last year."
"You kept other counsel, then," Rekk reminded him brusquely, staring back across the length of the hall at the Ranger, whose eyes had rested on them for some time now.
"This is no place to be plainer." Veylin did not look at Dírmaen. "Lady," he asked, with careful formality, "would you and your kinsman, here—" bowing his head to Halpan "—do us the honor of visiting our halls, so we might make some return for your generous hospitality?"
"I should like that." It would be a relief to be able to loosen the guard on her tongue. Since Halpan and Dírmaen had dwelt there a few days before setting out against the raugs last autumn, Saelon feared some comment might reveal her own familiarity. "Though might I ask," she wondered, uncertain if she presumed too much, "for you to extend the invitation to one other?"
"Gaernath." He was the nearest thing she had to a confidant regarding the Dwarves, and her messenger to them. It seemed unfair that he should know the way to the front door—as even Halpan did not—and not be granted entry.
Veylin's disapproving look lightened. "Ah, your young champion. Yes," he allowed, after consideration, "he will be welcome as well."
"And how," Halpan asked dryly, "are we to guarantee our kinswoman's honor, as you lead us all blindly to your door?"
"We will manage something, I am sure," Veylin replied. While his tone was mollifying, Saelon could see irritation in the set of his brows and something like irked mischief tugging one side of his flowing beard. Any insinuation that he was a threat to her honor angered the Dwarf, and she hoped he would not make sport of Halpan in revenge, since her cousin had never credited such slander.
"Lady." Saelon looked around and saw that Bersi had come over. "Shall we conclude our bargain now?"
"Certainly," she said, turning to face him. Beyond, Fram and Oski were carefully maneuvering the copper cauldron through the door, which was little wider. Fransag paused in her cooking to watch as they brought it past her. It was a thing to admire: more than twice the size of their largest kettle, gleaming warmly even in the lamplight. With this, she could provide hospitality fitting her station, the Lady of a lineage, not merely a few households cobbled together from surviving scraps of kin.
"Do you remember what is owing?" Bersi asked.
"Two sheep with good fells, two geese, and two bushels of honey is what we agreed, is it not?"
The coppersmith looked pleased by the exactness of her memory. "It is."
Best to be forthright. "I have sent Maon for the sheep, and save for my two best laying pairs, you may have your pick of the geese, but I am sorry to say, Master, that I do not have so much honey at this time. Unforeseen circumstances depleted my stores, and it will be some months before I have so much again. Would you be willing to wait, or is there something of comparable value you might take in its stead?"
"What would you offer in its place?" Bersi's frown turned calculating.
"You first asked for more geese. Would that be acceptable?"
"In part. I think I heard," he angled his head, "that you have lambs to spare?"
The matched cups might have to wait. "You did."
"When you have approved the cauldron, make an offer."
Saelon rose and went to where the great vessel sat on its three stubby legs. It did not wobble when she laid her hands on it. Such a massive, weighty thing, cast all in one piece. Her mother had owned a cauldron so large, of beaten bronze; a seam had parted one day, as they seethed the meat to feast some high guest. As children, they had giggled to see it piss the fire out, but her mother had not found it funny. That would not happen with this: the metal was thick and, so far as she could feel, even. When rapped, it gave a deep, true note, like a mellow-mouthed bell.
What was a fair price? The eyes of all the Dwarves were on her, as well as some of the most judgmental of her own people: Fransag and her old mother, Dírmaen. A beautiful thing; but truly, an extravagance, beyond their present need. Saelon wondered if her brother had felt like this, when buying the blood horses he loved. She regarded the coppersmith, who waited with the inexpressive stolidness of his kind. A dear friend of Veylin, she had gathered, but never more than polite to her. Might he have invited the inspection, counting on just admiration of his work to join with guilt in fixing a higher payment?
Geese: meat and grease and feathers; honeycomb: sweetening and wax. "The sheep, two geese, and a lamb."
"No honey at all?"
That sounded almost plaintive. "I could give you a pint now, in place of a goose, but no more. Wax is not so scarce."
"Light wax or dark?"
She thought Bersi cast a glance at Veylin, but their chieftain continued to watch with the same close but detached interest as the other Dwarves, not even acknowledging the look. "The sheep, four geese, the honey, and half a stone of wax."
Looking to Fransag, Saelon asked, "Do we have so much wax?" That was more than thrice what he would have gotten, a generous recompense for the disappointing lack of sweetness.
"Oh, aye." The goodwife was staring at the cauldron again, besotted. "The crooked oaken box, atop the little keg of fish oil."
Saelon smiled. So much for striking a better deal. "Would you like to come and pick out your geese," she invited Bersi, "while I unearth the wax?"
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Hares: the hare (Lepus sp.) is a larger animal than a rabbit, with longer ears and legs, and does not live in burrows; they usually breed in March (which is why they are "mad" then). Young hunting hounds were often started on hares.
Hinds: female deer, especially red deer (Cervus elaphas). Readers in North America should think wapiti elk (also Cervus elaphas), not white-tailed (Odocoileus virginianus) or mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus).
Scone: originally, a flour-and-milk bannock cooked on a griddle.
Blaeberry (also bilberry, Vaccinium myrtilis): one of many closely related small shrubs producing edible berries. This is not the same species as North American blueberries.
"Thingol's death, and the battle of Sarn Athrad": a terrible tale of the potency of gems and vengeance (The Silmarillion, Ch. 22, "The Ruin of Doriath"). Thingol desired Dwarvish craftsmen of Nogrod, one of the two great dwarf-cities of the Ered Luin, to set the Silmaril into the Nauglamír, the Necklace of the Dwarves; and when the greatest works of the Elves and Dwarves had been united, they disputed its ownership. Thingol scorned the Dwarves shamefully, and in rage they slew him. Only two of that company survived to bring word to Nogrod. In their grief and wrath for vengeance, Nogrod asked aid of the Dwarves of Belegost, who rather tried to dissuade them, to no avail. Dwarves took and plundered Menegroth, the Thousand Caves their forefathers had delved for Thingol; but as they returned home, their numbers diminished by battle and burdened with the spoils, they were utterly annihilated at the ford of Sarn Athrad by Beren and the host of Elves at his command.
"Light wax or dark?": newly laid wax is white; it darkens as it ages, and impurities work their way in. Lighter-colored wax is therefore more desirable for candles and craftworking. Since Saelon keeps her bees in skeps, most of the wax harvested is older, darker brood comb. Thanks to Gwynnyd for getting me in touch with a beekeeper!
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.