After Stormy Seas: 6. A Different Tack

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6. A Different Tack

There is nothing--absolutely nothing--half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats . . . or with boats . . . .  In or out of 'em, it doesn't matter.

--Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

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"Do not," Saelon admonished, "try to show away before the Elves, or let them lead you into recklessness.  You are a mortal; there is no shame in acknowledging that."

"Yes, aunt," Gaernath said dutifully, shoving the better half of a breakfast loaf and two apples into his scrip.

His inattention displeased her, for she set a fist on her hip.  "Take pity on Coll, if not yourself!"

The lad flashed her one of those scapegrace grins Men used to such effect, leaning over to give her a quick buss on the cheek.  "Dírmaen has already tasked me to keep my place, and will have my hide if I delay them any longer.  Do not worry!" he urged, then bolted for the door.

She followed to the doorstep.  After consideration, Veylin set down his cup and came behind.  From the door arch, he looked over the hunting party gathered in the fog-dimmed courtyard, several of whom amiably gibed Gaernath for his tardiness as he plucked spear and reins from the groom's hands.

The leader, Coruwi, Veylin did not know: a marchwarden, he had heard, and a scion of the Green Elves.  Neither wore many gems, and those who remembered Ossiriand often had a distaste for Dwarves.  Ramaeron, the builder of quays whose father had come out of Gondolin and followed Eärendil, ought to look kindly on those descended from the Sea-kings.  Were those moonstones he was wearing?  Hard to tell, in this mist.  Two others ahorse, who looked to be some of Coruwi's rangers; three more clad in green who scorned to ride; six couple of hounds . . . a fair-sized company, though they might be joining one of the great hunts held to celebrate the turn of seasons.  Saelon's menfolk must be on good terms with their hosts, to be favored with such an invitation.

She, however . . . .  "The lad seems to have recovered from his disappointment," Veylin observed, as Saelon turned back from waving farewell and shut the door against retreating hoofbeats and fog.

"Yes," she agreed, with a quirk of a smile, putting her shawl to rights.  "But let us hope he does not become enamoured of an elf-maid."

Veylin snorted disapprovingly, uncertain if she spoke seriously or in jest.  Queer folk, to look beyond their own kind; yet their blood was long ago alloyed with that of Elves.  As they walked back to the table together, he asked, "And you?  You have not been charmed by the sight of so much out of your ancient tales?"

Going to collect her tisane, Saelon brought it to his end of the table.  "I am finding it bittersweet," she confessed, taking Bersi's empty place.

Perhaps now they could finish the conversation interrupted by Dírmaen's jealousy, before they set out on this journey.  His companions were already about their business: Bersi and his son off to see how the larger ships were coppered to preserve their bottoms, and Skani's interest taking Vitnir to the forge of a Noldo who made sea-steel, to buy a sample if naught else was to be had.  The prentice would outdo the master, Veylin judged; if Skani could discover the secret of sea-steel, he would pay him well to remain at Gunduzahar.  Catching Oski's eye, he ordered in iglishmêk, Take Thyrð and set up the solar.

As the youngsters emptied their plates and Saelon brooded over her bowl, Veylin wondered why she was still troubled.  She had brought the rent as agreed; surely she did not fear to lose her holding by the sea.  If Círdan were displeased, Gaerol, his kinsman, would be less attentive.  Even he, with no claim to friendship and under suspicion of offense, had found the keeper of the guest-house uncommonly obliging this season.

Usually he simply housed and dined here during his brief visits; to conduct his business, he accepted invitations from those who wished to trade, so their negotiations could be properly private—one did not haggle over gems in the market square as if they were fish or cloth—but his game leg made him wary of continuing the practice.  A lame Dwarf with a box full of jewels might be a temptation to those who thought old debts were still unpaid, and he had no desire to rekindle feud by slaying an Elf, even in defense.

Not that he had put it so, of course, when he asked Gaerol for a chamber in the hall where he could meet those who wished to buy or sell.  Yet it seemed propitious that one with the silver hair of the kindred of Thingol, who might easily have denied the request or offered him some mean, lightless closet, had granted him a fine room, whose windows—if this blasted fog would lift!—would give good light for examining gemstones.  It might almost lead one to believe the fine things that had been said about missing him of late.

So neither did Saelon have cause to fret for his sake, as she seemed wont to do, despite his insistence that he could manage his own affairs with the Elves.  What was left?  Did she pine for the growl of the sea?  They had been far from the shore for many days, and here, at the head of the firth, the water was quiet, hardly more fearsome than a lake.  Her own excuse of fatigue he did not accept, for she was made of metal so stern her chief weakness was brittleness.  Aye . . . might that not be the root of her trouble?  "As you found my halls not quite to your taste, on your first visit?" he wondered, as his prentices' boots thumped up the stairs.  If that had wounded her pride, so must this; and if she was daunted, was it not by mere strangeness?

"I had been vexed by Râdbaran."  Though she had the grace to look shamefaced.

"Hm; yes.  So vexed you would not stay and gossip with me," he reminded her, with a smile that invited her to laugh at past folly.

Instead she fixed him with her fierce hawk's gaze.  "How do you bear their scorn?" she demanded.

Ah.  Very deliberately, Veylin folded his hands together.  "Long practice.  I mark those who hold my dignity cheap and, should they desire to trade with me, take redress in gold.  For the most part, I pay them in their own coin: the chatter of squirrels is easily disregarded.  Is it their despite of Dwarves that has soured your pleasure, or have they sneered at you?"

"Both."

"The one cannot be helped," he told her soberly.  "Some who walk these streets saw the blood shed by Tumunzahar's madness; others are akin to those who were slain."  Though Dwarves were not immortal, they did not forget; how should Elves?

"Do not tell me," Saelon huffed, "that bloodshed spawned the name of Naugrim."

"No, it did not.  But I will not tell you what we call them in our turn."  For his folk often used it for her race as well, who were as liable to disregard those less lofty than themselves.  "They are not all discourteous, Saelon, else I would not trouble with their trade.  Whomever has crossed you, you need not suffer them.  There are Elves enough here—find some more to your liking," he counseled.

"And how am I to do that?"

The door opened and Sirorn walked in.  "Mae govannen, Veylin!" he called.  "Have I come too early?  You are still at table, it seems."

"Nay," Veylin assured him, picking up his stick and rising.  "I have merely lingered awaiting you.  Do you know the Lady Saelon, of Habad-e-Mindon?"

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Pleasantries past, the two of them went up the stairs, Veylin attending closely to Sirorn's poetical descriptions of the precise shade of green he sought for his jewel: the leaves of a birch at the start of the year, the feathers on the back of a blue-headed tit in the sun . . . .  Saelon sat down to finish her dose of borage, shaking her head and marveling how the Dwarf made sense of such things.  Long practice, indeed: a facility for comprehending other folk must be a great help in gaining and keeping their custom, when one's craft was not a necessity.  He made it look effortless.

Yet even Dírmaen, taciturn as he was, had made acquaintance enough to fill his day, and the other Dwarves, less genial than Veylin, had also found occupation.  She must give over this childish diffidence.  What might she do?  What Elves might be to her liking?

As she pondered this, one of the servers came and began to clear the board, stacking plates and cups high on his tray.  Saelon raised her bowl to drain it, then paused to watch.  Elf or no, he would never be able to carry that—

"Your pardon, Lady.  I thought you had finished."

Perhaps she would be easier around them if they were not so soft-footed.  "Very nearly," she said, turning to give Gaerol a reproachful look.  Luckily little had been left in her bowl, else it would have slopped when she startled.  "I am thinking of visiting your healers," she hazarded, watching to see if he thought this presumptuous.  "If we are to send simples every year, it would be good to know what they would find of use.  Can you tell me where to find them, or provide me with a guide?"

"Alas," he replied, with such courtly regret that she was unpleasantly reminded of Râdbaran, "I am afraid I cannot recommend a visit to our healer, save at necessity.  A skillful man, Neldor, a true Golodh, but . . . temperamental.  I have heard," he ventured, "that you have a fondness for the shore.  Would you not like to see something of our sea-crafts instead?"

Saelon drank the dregs of her infusion and considered the lordly, silver-haired Elf before her.  Golodh; Deep Elf: Veylin had told her that was what their less friendly kin called the Noldor.  Was that why they had not seen Gwinnor since they arrived, because Círdan's steward did not look favorably on those who had returned from Aman?  Yet Gaerol was civil to the Dwarves . . . .

Perhaps she had better turn the stories of the Elder Days over in her head.  Ancient they might be, but it seemed offense given in years that were dead and gone to Men still lived in elven minds.  How vexing that the great tales said so little of the Elves of the shore!  "Anything concerning the sea is of interest to me," she assured him, setting her empty bowl aside.  "Though I would rather see something that might be of use to my people than wonders."  By way of example, she gestured to her empty plate.  "These kippers are very good.  What sort of fish are they?  I do not recognize them.  Are they only found here in the Lhûn?"

The server straightened up and stared at her.  "You do not know herring?"

His eyes were pale in his bronzed face, as though faded with much sun, but bright with lively curiosity.  "No, not like this.  Perhaps if I saw one whole . . . ."

"I suppose I must relieve you of your kitchen duties today, Sercherch," Gaerol allowed, with a smile of pleased satisfaction.  "Lady," he explained, "though he obliges by serving here during the middle-days, Sercherch's true calling is to net and line.  There is little he does not know of the finny tribes."

"I do not want to disrupt your kitchen—"

"Oh, I am no great loss," Sercherch dismissed her concerns, with an almost rueful grin.  "Most in the house feast abroad, and it seems the Dwarves will not eat fish."

Saelon glanced towards Gaerol, to see how he took this forwardness, and found he was already halfway back to the kitchens.  "Some they relish.  The largest salmon I have ever seen on a board was served by Dwarves."

"River-caught, I suppose."  Lips pursed, the fisher laid the last dishes on his tray.  "Then while we are out, we will see if there are any to be had.  Let me take this to the scullery, Lady," he told her, "and then I will be at your service."

Eyeing the precariously tall piles as he took his grip, Saelon dared suggest, "Should you not make two trips?  The whole day is before us."

Sercherch laughed gaily and hoisted the burden with an easy grace.  "This is nothing to a thrashing tunny."  Pausing for a moment, tray poised, he gazed at her, brows knit.  "I do not suppose you know tunny, either."

"No," she admitted, heart sinking.

"Then you are in for a treat," he promised her.

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"Tell me," the pale-eyed fisher-elf asked, as he joined her at the door, "what you catch, on the northern shore."

Despite the morning's gloom, the fog was burning off; Saelon peered out at the sky and decided the day would turn fair.  Her shawl would do.  "Cuddies, mainly; some eels, lythe, sgadan, and flatfish."

"Cuddies?  Which are those?  I do not know that name."

Saelon knew them by no other.  That was what Buain, the irascible old Edain drover who sometimes took his herd across the mountains, had called them, when she could coax him to tell of the coastlands, before she left Srathen Brethil.  "The dark ones with three fins above and two below."

"With a whisker on their chin?"

"A small one, sometimes."

"Ah, saithe."  Sercherch matched his longer strides to hers as they started across the courtyard.  "So you fish from the rocks, then, rather than from boats?"

Saelon sighed.  She was weary of admitting the things they did not have.  "We have no boats."

He stopped dead, there under the beautifully carven arch of the guest-hall gate, taken aback.  "None at all?  Not even coracles?"

"What are coracles?"

"Come," he urged.  "I will show you."

Yet instead of turning right, the way that would lead to the quays, he turned left, towards the great gate of the town.  Bemused, Saelon followed.  Yesterday, from the top of the wall, she had been shown how Mithlond sat on the point of land where the Ethir Lorn met the Gulf.  The river's mouth had been Círdan's first haven when the tide ceased rising over Beleriand, before the stone quays were built into the deeper waters of the firth for the ships that sailed to Tol Eressëa and from Númenor.  But outside the wall there were only orchards and gardens, save for the homes of the Sea Elves across the river, by the shipyard.

Sercherch traded chaffing greetings in the Elvish tongue with the guards at the open gate as they passed through, something about his catch and their lack of one, then took her along a well-beaten path that led towards the river.  At first, it was screened from view by thickets of water-loving willow and alder, taller and lusher than those in the north, full of the song and flit of brightly colored finches.  The birds did not startle and whirl away as they passed through a gap, coming out of the green shadow onto a grassy bank that stood a little above the placidly flowing stream.  "Here," Sercherch said, striding to the edge of the willows, where several dark shapes, like low, rounded boulders, lay.  He reached down with a hand and flipped one over.  "This is a coracle."

Drawing closer, Saelon stared at the strange thing.  "That is a boat?"  It was naught but a great basket of withies, covered with—her fingers came back tacky—well-greased hide.

The fisher-elf laughed.  Picking it up, he carried it to where a line of rocks had been laid out into the river and set it down on the water, where it bobbed lightly as a dry leaf.  "It floats, and will bear you across the water . . . what else could it be?"  Crouching down to hold the slight craft against the current, Sercherch pointed towards the place where it had lain.  "Would you bring the pole and paddle?"

"These?"  The pole was long, more than three rangar, the ends barked by stone and rounded with wear; beside it lay a much shorter stave with a broad, leaf-shaped blade at one end.

"Indeed.  Now, step in: keep your feet on the thicker withies, and sit as soon as you find a place to your liking."

Saelon looked from the cockle-shell of a boat to Sercherch's pale eyes, as calm as the surface of the river.  "It will bear us both?"

He met her gaze steadily, neither smiling nor frowning.  "I had heard, Lady, that you were bold."

"I am out of my depth," she murmured, abashed, her mind going back to the stark words spoken by Falathar, the first Elf she had ever met, at their parting two springs ago.  At Habad, no matter what befell, she knew her ground; here, she was asea.  She had been proud of her understanding, and yet there was so much she did not fathom—

Sercherch held out his hand.  "No one," he assured her, a gentle smile curving his lips, "has ever drowned in the Havens."

Contrary it might be, but she did not desire cosseting.  "No one?" she challenged, raising skeptical brows.  "Ever?"

His solemnity broke, swept away by a puckish grin that made him look no older than Gaernath.  "Well, perhaps there were a few Men of the Sea who drank too much of the old king's wine and dove head-first onto stones, but that was long ago.  Can you swim?"

"Well enough," she answered plainness with plainness.

He gestured into the coracle once more.  "Then trust yourself, even if you do not trust my craft.  What is there to fear in a plunge on such a fine day?"

Yes, the day had turned very fine.  Overhead, the sky was now unclouded blue, and the sun glittered brightly off the few riffles that graced the surface of the river, painted there by a breath of breeze that would keep summer's last heat at bay.  Somewhere in the softly rustling willows, a wren was rattling and scolding; further off, downriver, Elvish voices were raised in song.  "Very well."  Saelon hoped she was not smiling as mischievously as her guide: it had suddenly popped into her head that she had wanted a bathe.  Taking his hand, she stepped gingerly down into the coracle, which settled deeper into the water but made no more alarming motions.  "And how does this take us to fish, in the end?"

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Notes

Tack: since boats cannot sail into the wind that pushes them, they move in that direction by tacking, zig-zagging on angles as close to the wind as they can.  Each individual zig or zag is a tack.  If you don't make progress on one tack, you try a different one!

Green Elves: the Laegrim, or Elves of Ossiriand, which became Lindon after the drowning of Beleriand.  They were noted for their habit of wearing green, superb woodcraft, and singing.  It was the Elves of Ossiriand, led by Beren, who destroyed the Dwarves who sacked Doriath, at the Battle of Sarn Athrad.

Moonstone: certain varieties of feldspar, especially the pale andularia species of the orthoclase group; light bouncing between microlayers in the stone produces the characteristic schiller or "moonshine" iridescence.

Tisane: a cuppa brewed of something other than the dried leaves of Camellia sinensis (tea), usually for medicinal purposes.  The word comes from the Greek for crushed barley; Saelon is taking an infusion of borage (Borago officianalis), which is supposed to impart courage and good cheer.

Iglishmêk: dwarven gesture-language.

Tumunzahar: the Khuzdul name of Nogrod; it was the smiths of this mansion that slew Thingol, and their people sacked Doriath in revenge for their deaths.

"the leaves of a birch at the start of the year": not January, obviously.  The Elvish year began with the season of ethuil, or spring (LotR, Appendix D).

"a blue-headed tit": the blue tit (Parus caeruleus), a colorful and rather tame woodland bird.

Golodh: Sindarin, "Noldo."  A less than flattering term, based on the root gûl, "long study/magic," with connotations of the black arts and the insinuation that they learned much of their craft from Morgoth.  If you have read Greywing's "O, Cruel Fate," you will understand why this term is particularly appropriate for Neldor!

Tunny: the tunas, particularly the bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus); a very large predatory fish found in the open ocean.

Lythe (also pollack; Pollachius pollachius): like cuddies, a gadoid fish closely related to the better-known cod (Gadus morhua).

Sgadan: herring; another fish Saelon knows by the Edain name, represented here by Scots Gaelic.

Coracle: a small hide boat with a light wood or wickerwork frame.  They are usually the size of a small rowboat, but some are big enough to carry a cow, and St. Brendan ventured far into the Atlantic with several companions in a large one.  Coracle is the term common in Wales; in Gaelic-speaking Scotland and Ireland, they are called currachs.

Ethir Lorn: "river mouth of quiet water/anchorage"; a name of my own invention.  Many walled towns are sited where one river runs into another, providing both natural water defenses and a wider water transport network; examples include London (where the Fleet meets the Thames), and York (where the Foss meets the Ouse).

Withies: willow branches.

Cockle: a clam of the family Cardiidae with ribbed shells.


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.

Story Information

Author: Adaneth

Status: General

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - The Stewards

Genre: Drama

Rating: General

Last Updated: 02/26/11

Original Post: 12/12/07

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Playlists Featuring the Story

The Dûnhebaid Cycle - 5 stories - Owner: Adaneth
Dúnedain and Dwarves--and oh, yes, some Elves--on the northwest shore of Middle-Earth, not quite a century before adventures first befall Bilbo. Rampant Subcreation and Niggling in the margins. The ever-lengthening saga, in order.
Included because: Dûnhebaid IV: pride and prejudice in the Grey Havens.

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