20. Give and Take
Talk not of wasted affection! affection never was wasted;
If it enrich not the heart of another, its waters, returning
Back to their springs, like the rain, shall fill them full of refreshment:
That which the fountain sends forth returns again to the fountain.
--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Evangeline"
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A belated harvest feast, but a fine one for all that. And though his complacence gave the Elf's face a suspect cast, Gwinnor had obligingly paid down an earnest for the best of the season's garnets. "So," Veylin wondered, leaning back with his cup, "will you ride with us, Lady, when we go to Lindon?"
The boards had been set up out in the dooryard, where all was fresh-scrubbed by the storm, since the hall was still stuffed with unthreshed barley. Save that the rowans and may-bushes were somewhat tattered, there was little trace of the great tempest, and the sky overhead was lapis-blue, dappled with high clouds shaded like silver in light and shadow.
"I?" Saelon exclaimed as if startled, the smile leaving her face. "I cannot go."
"Why not?" Veylin frowned at her surprise. Had she given no thought to whom would take their rent to Mithlond?
"I have too much to do in autumn," she declared dismissively. "It is my last chance to gather many simples, and there are the rose hips and sloes, aside from hazelnuts. If you wish to buy mead from me, I must brew it, and I promised Fransag that I would show her the best way to smoke stenlock." His smile deepened as the list of her industry lengthened, until she demanded, sharply, "The trip would take what, a month, there and back again?"
Halpan reached across and topped up her mead. "Not so long," he assured her soothingly. "Ten days to Mithlond, did you say, Gwinnor?"
"Less, if the weather is fair." The Elf held out his cup to the Man. "A trifle more, if you please. How long do you reckon the journey to be, Veylin?" he invited.
Stroking his beard, Veylin admitted, "We take a little longer, going by pony on the mountain tracks." In part because they stopped to visit among the lesser mansions and dwarf-houses along the way. "Still, no more than a fortnight."
Saelon shook her head. "I cannot spare so long. Halpan must go."
"I am not home a week, and already you wish to send me away again?" Halpan cried, with wounded eyes and a rascal's smile.
"One of us must go."
"Seriously, Saelon," her cousin replied, setting down his ale. "You ought to go, to confirm the agreement with Círdan. If he desires to alter it, I would not dare speak for you. Besides," he added, grinning at Gwinnor, "I would be overawed by so many Elves."
She cast her gaze over her very assorted guests, beginning to look cross. "Who would escort me? Not Partalan!"
Veylin snorted into his cup, imagining the rude, uncouth swordsman in Mithlond. It might be amusing, for all that Saelon would be mortified.
"No," Halpan agreed, very decidedly. "But surely you have no objections to Gaernath? He admires Elves mightily, and—" the Dúnadan glanced down to the far end of the board, where Murdag sat on Leod's knee, a wreath of late flowers crowning her black hair "—it would be a kindness if he were abroad for a time."
Indeed, the lad had foregone the feast, which celebrated the wedding of the two cottars as well as the harvest. The merriment down there was growing ribald, and to his dismay Veylin saw that Thyrð had left the other Dwarves and drawn closer to those taunting the new couple. The lad was too curious for any good to come of it. Pray that no untoward tales reached his mother!
"Yes," Saelon decided, with a sigh. "Gaernath should certainly go. Yet you do not think—" giving the Ranger a peculiar look "—he would be a sufficient guard, surely."
There was another dour face, who might as well have kept Gaernath company for all the pleasure he took from the evening's conviviality.
"I suppose not," Halpan allowed, then turned to Dírmaen. "That leaves you. Would you be willing to accompany Saelon to the Havens?"
"I?" The Ranger was strangely hesitant, considering his attentiveness to Saelon's honor. "I was not in favor of the agreement with Lindon."
"Do you still oppose it?""
Dírmaen's eyes, steely as his sword, met Veylin's. "The agreement has been made. I accept that it must be honored, or I would not have helped gather the payment."
Good; he held by his word, though it galled him.
"You have no objection, Saelon?" Halpan spoke as if it were settled, raising his cup.
"I cannot go," she maintained. "How can I go to the Havens to treat with Círdan, when I have not yet presented myself to my own Chieftain? That cannot be right!"
Veylin scowled discreetly within his beard. She had never scrupled over her Chieftain before. "Certainly," he told her, choosing his words with care before the others, "it would have been politic to go to Argonui before this, but you can truly plead the press of your many duties. If he is a fair-minded Man, he will forgive the slight—especially," he rumbled, unable to pass over such neglect, "given how little he has done on your behalf."
The offended press of Dírmaen's lips was plain on so naked a face.
"I should spend all my time riding hither and yon?" Saelon objected.
"That is one of the duties of lordship. Do you think I would not rather sit at my workbench, than spend so many days on the road?" Especially now: he could hardly bear to leave his new store of opal, though it was triply secured in the vault he alone had delved.
"Have you no curiosity to see the lands where your grandmother was born?" Gwinnor asked.
The glance Saelon gave him was reproachful, and near as dark as Dírmaen's. "Very well. I see you are all of the same opinion, for a wonder. You must excuse me, however: I must see to what food is left." Rising, she glanced down towards the raucous laughter among the simpler folk. "No one else will give thought to such things tonight."
"You should not either!" Halpan called after her, as she headed towards the hall.
"Do not waste your breath," Dírmaen muttered, and drank deep.
Gwinnor caught Veylin's eye and subtly lifted a slim, questioning brow; he was shrugging his ignorance when Rian dashed up and seized Halpan's arm. "Come!" she commanded joyously. "We are about to start dancing, and I require a partner!"
There between the great bonfires, fed by the prodigious quantities of wood the storm had flung up onto the shore, no one seemed to take notice of Saelon's absence, and after a time, Veylin drifted back towards the darkness until he, too, was forgotten by the revelers, free to seek her without comment. He found her on the other side of the spur just beyond the hall, scouring a kettle by the light of a single dim lamp. "Surely you need not do such work," he murmured, settling onto the bench and laying his blackthorn beside him.
"I want to do it," she said curtly, scrubbing harder.
Willfully perverse; this was more than annoyance. "I sometimes think," Veylin observed, leaning back against the limestone, still warm from the afternoon sun, "that you would be happier digging your own peats and grinding your own grain again."
He gave a low chuff. "You are very singular, Saelon. Why do you not wish to go to the Havens?"
She paused in her work, but it was hard to read her strongly shadowed face. "Foolishness, no doubt. Tell me—what is Círdan like?"
Ah. "What can I say but good," he said lightly, "of an Elf who is a craftsman and has a beard?"
Saelon stared at him, surprised and then dubious. "A beard?"
"Truly. Though he is an Elf, and overfond of the sea." She was not diverted, so he matched her sobriety. "If any will respect your attachment, surely he will. Too, he knows well what it is to be lord over a broken people. You might get good counsel from him. I know no reason why you should fear him," he assured her. "He is wise and just, and has been a friend to your kin."
Going back to her pot, she muttered, "I am not allowed to be daunted by one who has seen more than three Ages of the world?"
There was a roar of Dwarvish voices from the throng in support of Vitnir, who was dueling with Partalan in fiery tunes, to the delight of the dancers; the mocking strains of Thyrnir's bowed strings soared high above. Smiling, Veylin scoffed mildly, "You are not daunted by Gwinnor."
"You think not?"
"No more than I."
She gave a soft snort and was silent a while. "I have not your resources, Veylin."
"Nor I yours." She undervalued herself. "Come, Saelon," he chided, "leave off playing the scullion. It will not make you feel more worthy. I have something here," he reached for the extra pouch he carried at his belt, "that may arm your pride, but I will not give it into your hands when they are in such a state."
She drew back as if he had reached for his axe. "I have cleared my debt to you, by a wonder. Please, do not open the account again."
Perhaps he ought to have waited, since her mood had soured. Yet how long would it be before another opportunity presented? "Debt? I know of no debt between us."
"Veylin . . . ."
"Do not mistake," he rumbled, matching her warning, "my self-interest for kindness. It serves my purposes well to have you and your folk near at hand." He drew forth the casket bound with sea-steel. "Still, I never imagined that you could render me so great a service as you have. I doubt any of your royal forebears ever gave so kingly a gift, not since Camlost gave Lúthien's marriage portion." Holding the box out on the palm of his hand, so she could see how small and plain it was, he said, "I hope you will accept this as a token of my esteem."
She was shaking her head in denial, but not with such vigor as he had feared. "It was nothing—simply a return for the advice you have so often given me."
"It is the work of my own hands, Saelon."
That seemed to tip the balance. After laving her hands in the washtub, she wiped them scrupulously on her threadbare shawl and picked up the lamp, bringing it with her. "You know how little use I have for finery."
"Hhm, yes." How long had she worn Rekk's gold in her hair, before trading it to keep Hanadan by her side? If she should ever again be in dire need, this should ransom all she held dear.
Veylin took the lamp in return for the casket, and saw to the wick as she studied it, so there would be better light when she opened it. "Turn the key," he urged as she hesitated, weighing it. "The box is not the gift."
"No?" A glint of humor returned. "It is very fine."
"Who but you would think so?" It was well-made, of course, but the only ornamentation was the strapping, and that was in the Dwarvish style, which other folk found unlovely. There had not been time to commission another both plain and strong, which would resist the salt air she favored.
Apparently his exasperation and the box's lightness reassured her, for she opened it—then frowned, poking at the chamois wrapping with one suspicious finger. "Nor do I have much use for anything that will not wear."
"It is not for everyday, or I would not have bothered with the casket."
Finding the silver chain, she drew it into the light . . . and the pendant gem with it.
Veylin shifted the lamp so the light caught the long facets of the blue-green stone as she stared, speechless. Yes, he was pleased with the piece: the glimmer of pearl on the dark silver of the waves took him back, for a moment, to the deafening thunder of the strand. The spume, like slaver on an enraged boar's curved tusks, had glowed so in the light of the rising moon, when it broke through the ragged clouds—
He shuddered, and the quaver in the light broke the spell. Saelon's stunned gaze flew to him. "Token . . . ?" she protested.
"It was meant to be my ransom," he confessed quietly, "but you required," glancing back at the hall's door, he gave a wryly amused breath of a chuff, "something that would wear. I am glad of the occasion to put it in your hands, Saelon."
"Then it is too much—far too much!" She tried to return it to the casket with both care and haste, but was thwarted by the chain.
"Have you ever heard of a Dwarf overpaying?" Veylin demanded, offended.
She was unable to untangle the fine links while meeting his glare. "No."
"Do you doubt my judgment?"
Surrendering, she drew the sea-jewel back out, so its weight straightened the chain, and stared at it again. "What am I to do with it?"
Her unworldliness was beyond belief. "Wear it, Lady of Habad-e-Mindon, when next some high lord would look down his nose at you!" Even if she were in rags, there would be no doubting who her allies were.
Finally taking the gem in her hand, Saelon brought it closer to the lamp. "It is beautiful," she murmured, angling it so the light penetrated into its cool depths. "Like a piece of the sea."
"That is why such stones are called sea-beryls."
In this light, it was much the color of her eyes. "I have told you, Veylin, that I need no token to remind me of the sea."
"You will make me jealous," he complained, careful to keep his tone that of jest. "You long wore the gold Rekk gave you. Did you take more satisfaction from his restitution than you do from my friendship?"
"Of course not," she scoffed, then sighed. "But a guilt-price is less easily misunderstood."
"That is not how I remember it," a Man's voice observed, soft and harsh.
Saelon straightened with a start, and Veylin swung around to find Dírmaen standing beside the slight shoulder of stone, as if he had just stepped from its cover. "How long have you been spying?" he growled. Did the Man mean to rebuke him for overfamiliarity again? He thought that had been settled in the spring, when Dírmaen had counseled Saelon to accept his aid in her negotiations with Gwinnor.
"Spying?" the Ranger echoed, his gaze falling back to Veylin from Saelon, a dark gleam in his gaunt, bronzed face. "Nay. I came to speak with the Lady, and found I must wait my turn. Yet I can see how matters might be misunderstood, here in the shadows."
"Dírmaen!" Saelon exclaimed, scandalized.
If the lamp had not cumbered his hand, Veylin would have reached for his axe. "We have had words on this before," he rumbled, narrowing his eyes at the insinuation.
"Which you did not heed."
"How much more convincing do you require, Ranger?"
"Stop this, both of you!" Saelon cried, stepping between them. Turning on Dírmaen, she demanded furiously, "Why do you want me, if you believe such things? Or are you so jealous that you will not brook any rival for my attention, not even a friend?"
Veylin shut his mouth, which threatened to gape. The Ranger was courting Saelon?
"A friend?" Dírmaen flung his hand towards the sea-jewel in her grasp. "What friend gives such gifts? He would buy your favor!"
"You think my favor can be bought?" Saelon countered, livid with offense.
"What have you in common, then? Well?" he pressed, when she found no immediate reply. "Did you care for him before he gave you this lordly hall?"
"She did," Veylin attested, before Saelon could find her voice. Just her anger might be, but her tongue was intemperate at such times, sometimes to her regret. "Else I would be dead. Her generosity began this, not mine. Since then, it has been all I can do to match her." If it were not some service actually in arrears, such as fiend-killing, then she would consider herself indebted for a friend's counsel, and always she was as hospitable as she could afford. Pride, naught but pride . . . . He admired her resource more than he could say.
"What did she do that warranted so rich a return as this?" Dírmaen demanded, gesturing to the gem again.
"Showed me the way to my heart's desire."
Perhaps that was not the best choice of words, given the ambiguity surrounding them, but he would be no plainer before such animosity. As the Ranger looked down on him with unrelenting suspicion, Saelon cried, "Is this why you censure me as you do? Because I give timely news to a friend? Or is it because he is not a Man?"
And maybe that was the deepest offense. "No, he is not."
Since it was impossible that he should ever be in Dírmaen's position, Veylin could not judge. Among Dwarves, deep friendships between men and women were uncommon, but unquestioned, unless a spouse took exception. Yet if Dírmaen desired Saelon for his wife—
Veylin stared at the two of them as he might have stared at a fault cracking the vault over his head, knowing it was futile to run. The stone would fall on your head, or it would not.
"You did not chastise me for being with Gwinnor," Saelon challenged, falcon-fierce head as high as it would go, "or long on the shore alone with Elrohir."
"That is different."
"Why? Because they are too high to trifle with such a short drab as myself, while a Dwarf might stoop to anything?"
How had he thought she needed a champion? Dírmaen looked as if she had planted a spear in his guts, and twisted it. "No! How could you think so? Do you not understand how much I admire you?"
"No, I do not! When have you ever spoken to me of admiration, until the day before the storm?"
"How could I speak, when you had been left in my keeping?" the Ranger wanted to know; but his haughty severity had cracked. "I have been more compliant: I have ceased asking you not to rove alone, though I fear for your safety; I went with you to Veylin's halls, as you wished, instead of after the wolves. I spent weary days seeking those wolves," he declared, as if in desperation, "so that you might stay here, as you desire—the only thing, it seems, you could need me for!"
Though she was a full head shorter, Saelon seemed to look down Dírmaen. "Where do you get such notions? I most certainly have need of you: though Gaernath is a better hunter than he was, and Halpan and Partalan have returned, none of them attend to their duties unbidden. Indeed," she said, fair-minded even in offense, "you do more than all three together. Since you have come, I do not have to nag at them so much, and you are a better example to Gaernath and Hanadan. Do you think I do not see all you do, every day?"
"Are those the only reasons you could want me?"
"Unless you can quell your resentment, yes! You will not warm my heart with such churlishness, and I will not consider your suit until I see some amendment." Having overthrown him and dictated her terms, Saelon relented somewhat. "I swear to you," she assured him, voice low and solemn, though still clipped with anger, "Veylin is no more to me than a friend and allied lord. You have no cause to be jealous of him, as a Ranger or as a man."
None of these Dúnedain gave over after a fall. "So you tell yourself," Dírmaen muttered, though he would not meet her eyes, "but any who see you together know he is dearer to you than that."
"He has stood in the place of the brother I have lost," Saelon declared, with bitter coldness. "Would you be jealous of my brother, if he were not dead?" Casting the chain of the sea-jewel about her neck, she stalked off towards the merriment.
They both watched her go. After a time, Veylin said quietly, "You have my word as well, if you require it."
He was not offended by Dírmaen's forbidding glower: there should be no witnesses when a man was set down so, in matters of the heart. "You think that would reassure me, if I doubted her?"
"No." Nor should it. Veylin set down the lamp and took up his stick. As he stood, he added, as inoffensively as he might, "Good fortune, Dírmaen."
"Do not say you hope for my success."
Veylin looked up at that high, gravely wounded face. The Ranger was a valiant and honorable Man . . . but was he Saelon's match? "I have never seen anyone who needed helpmeet more—but Saelon will judge for herself, as ever. Still, she would not trouble to quarrel with you, if she did not regard you."
Dírmaen snorted his contempt. "I am supposed to take comfort from that?"
"Take what comfort you may," Veylin advised him, "for you may need all you can find."
"You think her so cold?"
Veylin answered the angry words with a chopped laugh. "I have never yet known such a temper that did not come from the forge. But have you not seen that her heart is given to the Sea?"
All he got for his concern was scorn, but he had not expected better. "How could I not," Dírmaen said scathingly, "having long tried to shift her from this shore?"
Yet he had hopes of her affection, after such contention? The strangeness of Men was a lode that could not be exhausted. Giving a bow of the most punctilious courtesy, Veylin followed Saelon back towards light and music. It promised to be a most interesting journey to Lindon.
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Stenlock (also saithe, Pollachius virens): cuddies are the young fish; they are called stenlock when full-grown.
Scullion: the lowest ranked domestic servant, who usually did the dirty work in the kitchen.
Sea-steel: an alloy that resists the corrosive effects of salt spray. I presume that at some point over the millennia, an Elvish smith created such a thing.
Camlost: "Empty-handed," the name Beren took to himself after returning to Doriath one-handed, without the Silmaril. Veylin is very deliberately invoking the contradictory themes of poverty, self-denigration, and greatness of heart worthy of the highest honor.
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