7. Before the Mast
Picked sparingly without noise by thee old ocean, chosen by thee,
Thou sea that pickest and cullest the race in time, and unitest nations,
Suckled by thee, old husky nurse, embodying thee,
Indomitable, untamed as thee.
--Walt Whitman, "Song for All Seas, All Ships"
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"You eat these?" Saelon exclaimed, as the slender pink armoured creature waved its long stalks and threatened her with its pincers. It was much like the burly blue-brown things she often saw peering from crevices in tide pools, whose kin clacked crossly in the shaded, stone-lined basin beside her.
"Greedily!" the elf-woman laughed, smacking Sercherch's hand, so that he dropped the beetle-like thing back into the tub with its fellows. "Do you want some for the guest-hall?" she asked him.
"Not if you will not let me inspect them," Sercherch sniffed. "How long has it been since they were caught?"
"Long enough for them to be purged of any dirt," she came back. "Do you think you will get any new-taken, when the fog deadened the wind all night?"
"There are always shellfish," he mused, with a vaguely threatening air.
She huffed. "I would like to see you lay oysters before Dwarves."
"They are very fond of pearls, I am told," Sercherch countered, and turned to Saelon. "Shall we see how good the oysters are?"
"Certainly," she acquiesced, careful to keep her smile small and polite. When they had ambled what she considered a safe distance along the sandy strand where the fisherfolk displayed their wares, Saelon murmured, "What are oysters?"
Her guide looked askance at her. "Do you take anything from the sea save finfish?"
"More than many of my folk care to eat," she declared stoutly. "Winkles and buckies and cockles and spoot-fish and limpets, as well as several kinds of weed: slake, dulse, carrageen, and linarich."
Sercherch's slight frown grew more quizzical. "I know some of those, but not all. Spoot-fish?" he repeated carefully, as if tasting a dubious dish.
"They have long, narrow shells. I dig them from the sands when the tide is very low."
"Ah, sichalf! Yes, they are nice, but not so good as oysters or mussels." He gestured the way between boards where formidable pike and sturgeon lay on beds of dripping eel-grass. They had already inspected the catches of the river fishers and bespoke a dozen fine trout for supper. "Where did you come by your sea-lore, Lady? It seems strangely motley."
Pausing to peer at the knot of eels writhing in a wicker trap—they would make a fine dish—Saelon replied, "Wherever I could come by it. It has been long since we held any coastlands."
Shaking his head at the hopeful-looking man beside the trap, Sercherch asked simply, "Do you resent us for fencing you from the sea?"
Saelon stopped to stare at him, confounded for a moment by his artlessness. "What? No, of course not! Few of my kin care for the sea—my brother had dreams of the Downfall that made him loath to approach it." If he had not, would he have stayed in Srathen Brethil until so bitter an end? "I am grateful that your folk tolerated my presence at Habad-e-Mindon for so many years . . . and have permitted us to remain."
"My folk?" Sercherch echoed, continuing along the strand. "My folk care not one way or the other. The fishing is very good off those shores, but if you lack boats you will hardly trouble us. I imagine it was the Laegrim who urged your removal, fearing for their venison."
"A limit has been set on the deer we may take," Saelon admitted, racking her memory. Who were the Laegrim? "And the timber we may cut."
"Aye, that will be the Laegrim, or the Iathrim." Sercherch shrugged and gave her a commiserating smile. "The land is not so enduring as the sea, so they have some grounds for concern. Mae govannen, Norneth," he hailed a woman sitting on a clump of dune-grass, surrounded by baskets of light and dark shellfish. "Have your beds recovered from the flood?"
"Would I be sitting here if they had not?" Norneth wondered dryly, setting another piece of driftwood onto the embers of the fire beside her. Like most of the Elves Saelon had seen, she was tall and slender, dark of hair, but more than other elf-women her complexion spoke of a life spent in sun and wind and water. The grey eyes she turned to Saelon were keen, but content to skim the surface, her interest offhand. "Who is this with you, Sercherch?"
"Where have you been, not to hear that Gaerveldis has come to Mithlond?"
Saelon was fixing a courteous smile on her face at this confirmation that she was the talk of the Havens when Norneth waved a hand in summary dismissal. "I would as soon listen to the squabble of gulls as gossip from within the walls, especially during the enderi. Who are you, adaneth, besides a friend of the sea?"
"My name is Saelon," she told her, glad of the chance to say so. The constant use of her title was becoming oppressive. "I am one of the Dúnedain of Srathen Brethil, who has dwelt many years on your northern shores."
"You cannot be from Brethil, child; that land drowned long ago." Norneth sounded like her grandmother, correcting errors with firm impatience. "Although you do have the look of the Haladin."
Promptly and with authority, Saelon clarified, "Not the Brethil of the Folk of Haleth. Srathen Brethil is a glen of many birches in the east of the Ered Luin." If one did not set strong-minded people straight at once, they were liable to persist in their mistaken notions.
"She is the lady of the remnant of its people," Sercherch put in, "who sought refuge by the sea when fell creatures drove them from their homes."
"Very sensible," Norneth commended her. "Have you come to ask Círdan for aid?"
"No, the raugs have been slain. I am here to requite Círdan for our use of your land."
The elf-woman nodded with approval. "Just what one expects from the Dúnedain. So," she asked, turning back to Sercherch, "is it to be oysters or mussels?"
"I have discovered," he revealed, deeply grieved, "that Saelon has never tasted an oyster."
Norneth fixed her long-suffering gammer's gaze on him. "If she is from east of the mountains, it would be strange if she had."
The fisher-elf flashed Saelon a swift roll of his eyes and lopsided grin. "She has been dwelling on the coast by the ruin of Caranthir's tower for many sun-rounds, Norneth."
"And is that not a stark, unsheltered shore? Oysters—" she reached into the nearest basket and pulled out a rough, sand-colored shell, as big as her palm and shut tight against the air "—like quiet waters, where fresh and salt meet. Have you seen these there, Saelon?"
Accepting the oyster, which was not unlike a cockle, thick-shelled but flatter, Saelon turned it over a few times, studying it. "No, we do not have these at Habad-e-Mindon."
"Would you like to taste it?" Norneth asked.
Smiling regretfully, Saelon offered it back. "I cannot pay you, I fear."
Norneth took it and set it on the coals of her fire. "Poor hosts we would be, if I cannot spare a single oyster for a guest during a festival. Sit, if you please. They are stubborn creatures, and it may take a while to open." Cocking a brow at Sercherch, who was peering into one of the baskets of smooth, dark shells, she asked, "Does your decision depend on Saelon's judgment?"
"No, I would like to make a trial," he mused. "We have other guests. Set aside three dozens of each, and Gaerol will send someone to fetch them."
"Who will bargain better than you, no doubt."
"No doubt," Sercherch agreed, laughing. "I am only entrusted with cooking the seafood, not with paying for it."
Going over to look at Norneth's other wares, Saelon exclaimed in relief, "Blackmouths! We had these in the river in Srathen Brethil." A few, and prized more for the luster of their inner shell than their meat, but every thing that was familiar seemed specially dear in this place.
Sercherch glanced at her, his pale eyes both amused and bemused. "What queer names you give things!"
"It fits them well enough," Norneth allowed, bending to pluck the oyster from the coals by its raised upper shell and free the meat with a deft flick of a short knife. "Those that drink brine have a different flavor, of course—and these are even more unlike. Shield your hand with your shawl," she advised, holding the gaping shell out to Saelon. "You do not want to lose any of the juices."
Taking it, Saelon stared at the translucent grey and cream flesh. "Thank you, but . . . should it not be cooked?" Buain had told grim tales of folk in such want that they ate limpets raw, like seabirds, but even in her worst days, she had never been so desperate.
"And destroy the delicacy?" Norneth sniffed, holding her hand out again. "If you will. It will take but a moment to roast it."
Her guide had slipped behind the elf-woman and now he gestured for her to sup from the shell, with an encouraging smile. "No," Saelon decided. She did not think they were playing her for a fool. Strange this might be, but she could do it. "I will try it." She tipped the oyster into her mouth—
—and fought the urge to gag. The slippery softness of the barely warmed flesh was disagreeable, and she found the flavor anything but delicate. Lifting her hand towards her mouth, she conquered the impulse to spit it out—she must not do that, like a mannerless babe! But the thought of bursting that yielding sack with her teeth . . . .
Her dignity was likely saved by the antic sight of Sercherch earnestly miming for her to gulp or swallow, for the look of mingled distress and apology on his face was extraordinary. With great effort, she managed to bolt the gobbet, and closed her eyes as it went down.
The elf-woman's wholehearted laughter rang clear as bells; yet when Saelon opened her eyes again, cold with the heave of her stomach and humiliation, she found Norneth holding out a leathern bottle. "Here," she said, smiling. "Wash it down. Like love, the first is the worst. After that, one can attend to the subtleties."
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"Put your back into it," Sercherch urged. "Use your hips!"
"Use them how?" Saelon demanded, thrusting with all her might. The long pole was unwieldy, and the coracle wanted to spin rather than move upstream, against the current.
"You are a woman: your strength sits low in your body. Do not stand so stiffly! Take a firm hold on the pole, and bring it back by turning."
As she struggled to make sense of this and drive the coracle where she wished it to go, Saelon glowered on her guide, who lounged negligently in the bottom of the boat, trailing one hand and the opposite foot in the water. "This is not as easy as you made it look!"
His laughter was so merry she could not help but smile, despite her vexation. "You are the one who wished to try your hand! If you have already wearied of the sport, bring us to shore, and I will take your place."
"No," she grunted, digging into the bottom of the river. Thankfully it was good sand, not mud. "A little further, then I will give over."
He watched her labor, pale eyes coolly appraising. After a few more thrusts he said, "There—that is easier, is it not?"
"Perhaps." They were making better progress along the rush-lined stretch of shore, at least. To take her mind from the burning of her shoulders, Saelon asked, "Will you tell me of the different kinds of Elves? I know a little, from our tales of the Elder Days, but I am finding it—like my knowledge of sea foods—sadly motley."
Sercherch dabbled idly in the river. "What kinds do you know, so I do not weary you needlessly?"
"The Noldor, who came back from the Blessed Realm. The Grey Elves who dwelt in drowned Beleriand, and the Green Elves of Ossiriand. The Sea Elves of the Falas, kin to the Teleri of Eressëa, friends of the Faithful. That there are other kindreds, east and West, I know, but our tales tell little of them."
"There seems little I can tell you, Lady," he declared, appearing taken aback but not unpleasantly so. "I had heard there were few Men left in the West who knew much of us."
Saelon hoped she was not blushing, but her face was so hot from the effort of poling that even an Elf might not note it if she was. "I would not say I know much," she demurred. "Who are the Laegrim and the Iathrim you spoke of earlier?"
"Ah, it is our delight in names that has confounded you. The Laegrim are the Green Elves. This—" Sercherch swept a hand in a wide arc "—was Ossiriand, and many of its people still dwell here, loath to leave their homes. The Iathrim are those who dwelt within the Girdle of Melian, the people of Doriath. Few escaped the double rending of that realm, and fewer still the assault on their haven at the mouths of Sirion, but they are kin and some remain with us."
The Green Elves had been unwelcoming to Men since the days of Bëor the Old and had helped slay the Dwarves who sacked Menegroth; these Iathrim were surely hostile to Dwarves, and perhaps also to the Noldor, for the grief wrought by the sons of Fëanor. "I can see," she allowed, "why they might be displeased by our encroachment, and an agreement made by Gwinnor. What of you Sea Elves? Are your views regarded? You do not dwell in the town, I see."
"By choice!" he assured her decidedly. "Do you like being cut off from wind and wave? A gondren place: a good refuge, and useful in the days when we had more traffic, but more like a pound than is nice. Do not worry overmuch about the old divisions," he advised, shaking his head in droll resignation. "Most of us are Lonnathrim, folk of the Havens. My parents dwelt in Eglarest before it was broken, but I was never in the Falas and know no other shores than these."
With relief, Saelon saw a stretch of sandy beach ahead and drove the coracle towards it. Only once she had grounded the hide boat and stepped carefully ashore did she notice a beating noise, as if folk were hammering not far beyond the high bank, some of the blows sharp and others a dull yet rhythmic pounding. "What is that?"
Sercherch rose with easy grace from the bottom of the unsteady craft. "The shipyards. Did you not stop here apurpose?" he asked with a pleased smile, stepping into the shallow water.
"No," she admitted without shame. "All I sought was a clear landing."
"You did well," he granted, "for one who never touched pole before today; but then seafaring is in your blood." Bending down, Sercherch lifted the empty coracle and carried it towards the bank. "Since we are here, let us go and look. Surely you would like to see how craft more sturdy than this—" he smacked the hide covering, which thumped like a drum "—are made."
"Yes I would." Not that she had any hopes of learning the art. A coracle she thought she might hazard, and meant to study the withy frame more closely when Sercherch paddled them back across the river. Yet having seen how Dwarves, who loved sturdiness, handled timber during the building of Maelchon's house, she was curious to see the woodwork of a people devoted to trees.
Having laid the pole beneath the overturned coracle and accepted Sercherch's hand up the steep face of the high bank, Saelon found they were in the midst of the yard. A part-built boat stood but a short distance away, and the two Elves laboring on it straightened to gaze curiously at them. "What is it that brings you popping up from the river like an otter, Sercherch?" called one, a hammer in his hands.
"The Lady Saelon was trying her hand at punting, and desired to see your art," he explained, leading her towards them. "Is that Gaelannun's new skiff?"
"Aye. Mae govannen, Lady," the Elf with the hammer said. "I am Maedoron, and this is my cousin Tavor," nodding towards his companion, who held a curved plank, one end of which was already fixed to a high, swan-neck post. "It is your luck and our misfortune that you find us working during the middle-days. The recent gale was out of season and took many boats from their moorings. Did you lose any craft, there in the north?"
Perhaps not all lack was an evil. "No, but only by virtue of having none. It was all we could do to bring our crop in before the tempest struck." And where could they have sheltered a boat on that open, ironbound shore? "Please, if you have so much in hand, do not let us interrupt you!"
"Better still," Tavor suggested, "lend a hand, Sercherch. This strake remembers its lordly days in the forest, and does not wish to bow."
Saelon watched as the two elf-men bent the plank, with much effort; Maedoron came close behind, driving trenails at intervals to fix it to the board below, the upper overlapping the lower enough for security. "Is that oak?" she asked, as Maedoron secured the angled end flush against the shorter post at the rear of the craft. It looked like oak, but she had not thought that tough wood could be so pliant.
"Yes," Maedoron confirmed, running his hand along the strong yet graceful line of the plank with a pleased smile. "Riven oak is best for the sea."
Riven: casting her glance towards the dull, measured pounding that had not ceased, Saelon saw three Elves plying mauls over a quartered log of great girth. If they used boards fresh-split, yes, they would be more yielding . . . but not, she would have believed, so supple as this. And her experience was that green wood was apt to warp, straight lines growing crooked with age; though if her eye had not deceived her, the plank had not been even in Tavor's hands, but cut in long, subtle curves—yet now it ran beautifully level along the length of the boat.
If this was not magic, it was craft indeed, an art very different from the four-square building of the Dwarves and her own folk, who set planks flat across post and beam. Here there were only two posts and one beam running along the bottom, the boards swelling out unsupported. "It appears," she murmured, baffled but wary of giving offense, "a mere shell. How can it withstand the waves?" She tried to remember the interior of the ferryboat, but in her apprehension she had not attended to such details. The sides had looked much the same, with the same overlapping planks; it had been much larger than this, but their horses and ponies had not been penned by the balks of braces.
"Is a shell not strong?" Maedoron countered. "Though the hull is not meant to have a shell's obstinacy. What is strong enough to defy the Sea? A good craft will yield to the waves, as its boughs yielded to the wind while it stood in the forest. A few frames and crossbeams are all that is required."
Saelon looked over to where a much larger vessel, which looked nearly complete, sat cradled by props. "Even for your great ships?"
Maedoron looked deeply amused. "Go and see!"
Bemused yet intrigued, Saelon walked over to the long ship; Sercherch remained, conversing with the shipwrights. Wandering around the imposing, swan-fronted craft, taking care to keep clear of the supporting timbers—its shapely bulk tapered to a narrow foot—she could see no more than the outer form. The lap of its planking—where did they find trees tall enough to give such lengths without knots, and how did they split boards so long and even?—was not unlike the ridges found on many shells. But how was she to see within? Saelon glanced back at the Elves about the unfinished boat, and found Maedoron watching her; he waved her towards the rear of the ship. Frowning, she looked about, seeking something that would allow her to mount without disturbing the ship's precarious balance.
There; one of the props was notched to make steps, and though they were cut for longer-legged folk, she clambered up high enough to peer over the side of the ship—and was startled to see someone within. A man was kneeling in the bottom, bent over the wood he was shaping with a drawknife, his strokes delicate yet sure. A greybeard—what was an old man doing here in the Havens, working in an Elvish shipyard?
One last pass, and then he sat back on his heels and met her gaze. "Mae govannen," he greeted her, laying aside the drawknife and brushing curls of woodshavings from his long, tarnished-silver beard.
"Mae govannen." This was no Man: his speech had the mellow music of the Elves, and if his eyes were less bright than Gwinnor's, they were as deep as the sea.
An Elf, who was a craftsman and had a beard.
"Yes," he said with a smile, "I am Círdan. Glad am I to meet you at last, Saelon."
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"slender pink armoured creature": Nephrops norvegicus, the Norway lobster or Dublin Bay prawn, a large shrimp that lives on sands or muds in deeper water. The burly blue-brown things are common lobsters (Homarus gammarus), which are found nearly everywhere there are rocks.
Buckies (also common whelk; Buccinum undatum): edible marine snails found on sand and mud in shallow waters.
Spoot-fish (also razorshell clams): molluscs of the family Solenidae, which burrow into sand in shallow water. The scientific name comes from the Greek sól?n, "pipe," in the sense of a musical instrument—from which I have posited Sindarin sichalf, "flute-shell." I very much appreciate Darth Fingon's opinion on the Sindarin word for flute and certain phonological matters.
Pike (Esox lucius): an aggressive predatory fish of fresh and slightly brackish water; mature specimens can be as long as 6 feet (1.8 m).
Sturgeon (Acipenser sturio): an odd-looking fish covered with bony plates; it lives primarily in brackish water, but spawns in freshwater rivers. Mature specimens reach nearly 20 feet (6 m) in length.
Eel-grass (Zostera sp.): an aquatic grass with long, narrow blades.
Eels: this is the common eel (Anguina anguina), which is found in fresh and salt water, not the marine conger eel (Conger conger). Mithlond sits at the inner reaches of an estuary, over 50 leagues from the sea: a day's sail even for a swift boat in strong winds. Fresh ocean fish would not be a regular offering in its markets.
Iathrim: the people of Doriath.
Haladin: the Folk of Haleth, to whom Saelon is sometimes compared. They were not so tall as the other Houses of the Edain, and many loved solitude, as Saelon does.
Oysters: this is the rounded, common European oyster (Ostrea edulis), not one of the elongated Crassostrea species.
Mussels: Norneth's are the common mussel (Mytilus edulis); Saelon's "blackmouths" (a translation of the Scots clabbydhu) would be freshwater mussels.
Girdle of Melian: the wall of enchantment Melian the Maiar, wife of Thingol, cast about their realm after Morgoth returned to Angband. When Thingol was slain, she departed and its protection was lost.
Sirion: the Great River of Beleriand; the survivors of Doriath and Gondolin took refuge where it entered the Bay of Balar. The surviving sons of Fëanor attacked their settlement, slaying many of its people, seeking to gain the Silmaril held by Elwing, granddaughter of Beren and Luthien.
Bëor the Old: the leader of the first Men to enter Beleriand.
Menegroth: the dwarf-delved cave-palace of Thingol and Melian.
gondren: Sindarin, (made) "of stone."
Pound: an enclosure for animals; more specifically, in this case, the part of a fish or lobster trap where the catch awaits collection.
Eglarest: one of the two havens of the Falas in the First Age, taken by Morgoth's forces after the Nirnaeth Arnoediad.
Skiff: a small boat that can be rowed and sailed.
Strake: a single plank or line of planking that runs the length of a boat.
"it was craft indeed": along with metallurgy, shipbuilding is one of the most complex premodern technologies, so it's little wonder that Saelon is at sea. Premodern shipbuilders did indeed use green rather than seasoned timber, for ease of working; since wood shrinks and warps as it dries and watercraft are usually aswim, the deformations are minimal. Additionally, the strake was steamed and set on a form beforehand, to encourage it towards the proper shape. The long, subtle curves in the unfastened strake are there because if you take a straight board and bend it into a complex three-dimensional curve, its lower edge will not match the curve at the top of the board below . . . and gaps in your planking are undesirable afloat.
This is classic lapstrake or clinker-built boat construction, which developed in northwestern Europe during later prehistory as logboats were expanded by the addition of another—and then another—board to the gunwale. Unlike frame-first carvel-built vessels—where you build a strong "skeleton" and then put flush-laid planking on to keep the water out—the structural strength of a lapstrake vessel lies principally in the planking, and a minimum of interior bracing is required. This creates a more flexible ship, which "gives" with the forces of wind and wave rather than rigidly resisting them. If that sounds less than reassuring, remember that Viking langskips (warships) and knarrs (cargo vessels), some of the finest lapstrake vessels ever built, commanded the North Atlantic in the centuries around AD 1000, making regular voyages to Iceland and even Greenland. The reason why carvel construction became the standard for later shipbuilding is that lapstrake construction requires substantial quantities of high-quality timber . . . and as fine ancient oaks grew uncommon, it became cheaper to slap any old boards that came to hand onto a frame.
Drawknife: a U-shaped tool, the handles on the arms and the edge on the inside of the curve, used to shave down wood.
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.