13. Watch O’er Man’s Mortality
The day has been
When I could never pass this road but she
Who lived within these walls, when I appeared,
A daughter's welcome gave to me, and I loved her
As my own child. Oh, Sir, the good die first,
And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust
Burn to the socket.
--William Wordsworth, "The Ruined Cottage"
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Thyrnir sat on the high bench beside the door of the house he had built, his naked axe on his lap, and wished he could not hear the piercing keen of grief through the stone of the wall. Or that the walls had kept out--
No. The fault was not in Nordri's walls, nor in the door he had made, laboriously fashioned from wood seasoned iron-hard by the awful sea. It hung square and snug in its frame, planks unmarred by ram or axe, bar unbroken. These folk, these heedless, harmless, hospitable folk, who freely gave--though so poor--whatever could be decently asked, had left it open to all comers.
And been punished for their ready welcome. The little he had seen, carrying water and peats in for Saelon while his uncle sat watch with a look he had not seen since they had avenged themselves against the fiends, had been too much. Gouts of blood, soaking into earth and stone; the dark-haired serving woman, hunched as with pain, staring into the steaming pot she tended with eyes as blank as a skull's; the dreadful lamentation shut in the inner chamber . . . .
What horrors were concealed there? The babe dead, the Ranger had said. Thyrð and Ingi had taken the remaining children to the hall, the younger two perched on Veylin's pony and Ros clutching Ingi's horny hand, all mute as birds beneath a hawk's shadow. But what of Fransag's mother, frail and faded as last autumn's leaves, and the goodwife herself? How much worse must they be than Saelon and Tearlag, for even Men to shut the door of decent secrecy upon them?
This was why Dwarves dwelt behind locked doors; this was why they went warily, keeping what was dear to them close and guarded, even where Orcs did not prowl. On his first journeys beyond the mansion, Thyrnir had seen that Men could be mean, cruel to those they found outlandish, but he had not known they would prey even upon their own kind. No Khazâd would treat another so. They were ravening beasts, savaging peaceable folk to sate their lusts--
So deep was he in dark thoughts that the voice startled him, and he turned a forbidding face to the door.
Yet Saelon seemed not to notice. "Would you fetch more water?"
Veylin had been wrong when he described her as steel. Only granite could bear the blows she took without bending or shattering. Her marred face was set in endurance and she alone among those who had suffered still attended to the work at hand. There were times when his uncle's regard for this woman of Men struck him as unnatural, as wild a freak as his flouting of the sea's menace . . . but this was not one of them.
"Is the need urgent, or can it wait until Veylin returns?" Thyrnir nodded towards the council of war across the yard, where his uncles and Nordri debated guards and scouts, direction and numbers with the two Rangers. "I would not leave you unguarded."
Saelon sighed and leaned against the jamb of the door, resting her head on the smooth-planed oak. "No, it is not urgent. I only wish to set the blood-soaked clothes to soak, and sluice the floor clean, so the place is not such a shambles."
"Sluice the--" Thyrnir stared at her. "Whose blood is it?"
"Theirs," she answered, in a voice that would have been hard if it were not so weary. "The two that we slew."
"That you slew?" This he had not heard.
"What," Saelon asked, with a shade of her habitual wryness, "have the Rangers claimed credit for all?"
Thyrnir suddenly recalled the gap in the hearth curb, beside one patch of gore. "Not claimed."
"Nor given, neither." Saelon's voice was dry, resigned. "Men do not like to think their women capable of such deeds."
"Whyever not?" Though his mother had never raised a weapon in wrath--he devoutly prayed she need never do so--it was a comfort, especially seeing this violation, to know she wielded a cunning axe. Had she not given him his first lessons in the art, playing the goblin who pounced from behind the door?
Saelon gazed on him, a speculative look in her eye. "I have a very great curiosity about your women, you know," she murmured. "I should dearly love to meet one."
Thyrnir hoped his blush of shame did not show in the deepening dusk: his indiscretion, the first night they met, had betrayed the existence of their women to her. Anxious to make his amends for their attack on her, he had escorted her through the darkness made fearful by the fiend that slew his father, and answered when she asked how Veylin and Rekk were both his uncles if they were not brothers. At least she did not suspect Auð. "Why waste the effort, Lady?" he hastened to return to their first topic, unsettled by so much candor. "You will all be in the hall as soon as men can be spared to escort you."
She shook her head. "No. Dírmaen cannot be safely moved for a day, perhaps two. I do not think Fransag will leave, either."
"Why?" So peculiar these women were, to remain where they had been abused when greater security was near at hand!
Rubbing her swollen arm and wrist, Saelon considered. "Because she slew her fear when she killed that pig," she finally hazarded, weariness settling upon her again. "Because this is her place. Do you not know how much she loves this house?"
He had not been here enough to see more than Fransag's first delight, yet the thought that she valued a thing he had helped create enough to hold fast in the face of such torment made him feel quite strange, proud of his work and taken aback by its power. "Then you must not wash the blood into the earth! How could anyone be easy knowing something of their foe remained beneath their feet, exerting who knows what malign influence? Wait until the others return from their search of your cliff and the tower hill, and I will get some to help me dig it out, so no trace remains, and we will pave the floor afresh. Do you know where Maelchon keeps his spade?"
"No. But I will ask Tearlag." Saelon set a hand on his shoulder, the nailbeds dark with blood. "Thank you."
Not all Men were beasts. Thyrnir wondered if he should move his helm aside and invite her to sit--surely she stood here so long to escape the reek of death within--when a low, distant drumming came to his ear. The beat of hooves upon the earth . . . a horse . . . coming at a gallop from the cliffs. Who--? The Rangers, like Saelon, had lifted their heads and were staring towards the track.
When the rider crested the bank, Saelon's breath went from her in a great gust and she stepped forward, waving her unwounded arm. "Gaernath!"
Gaernath; yes. He had not recognized the lad at first, the fine red of his hair dulled by twilight. "Saelon!" There was no less relief in the young Man's voice, yet he looked sharply about and fixed his stare on the tall Rangers, who had drawn nearer, their hands on their swords. "Who is that? Speak!" he challenged, though his only arms were a cased bow and the knife at his belt.
"They are Rangers of the North," Saelon said, brusque with impatience. "Come to our aid, no less than Veylin and his folk. Where have you been? Were you set upon by reivers? Have you seen Halpan or Maelchon, or Fokel?"
"No--what is this about reivers?" Gaernath dropped from his mount and strode towards them. "Nyr said you had been attacked!"
"I am a little battered," Saelon passed over her own injuries, and perhaps a Man's feeble night-eyes would not see how much. "But the women here suffered more. You saw no sign of reivers? What kept you so long, then?"
The Man would need more beard than that fringe to conceal the guilt that alloyed his distress. "Oh, aunt . . . ." The hand he laid hesitantly on her shoulder and drew down her arm seemed as much for his reassurance as hers--but he was still very young. "Where is your cloak?" he exclaimed. "Come, let us go inside, where you will be out of the chill."
What had he been doing that could not be told? Or was he merely trying to shield his stripling pride from public reproof?
"No." Saelon would not be moved, by hand or worried words. "I am well where I am. You have not answered my questions. Where have you been?"
"South, where I was sent! Finean and I saw no one, until we came back to the cliff-top and a strange Dwarf brandished his axe at us." Thyrnir marveled that Gaernath dared to sound so aggrieved. He certainly would not have taken such a tone with an elder kinswoman, especially one of keen temper who had been ill-used. "I had a bad moment," the lad confessed, showing a smile that invited affable remembrance of the past to Veylin, Rekk, himself--those who had been present at his ignoble first encounter with Dwarves, "until Nyr appeared and vouched for us with the fellow. Vígir is his name."
"Did you ride all the way to Mount Rerir," Saelon sharply recalled him to her questions, "that you should return so late?"
"No. A league beyond the Ram, and saw no cattle and nothing amiss, only the trace of a grand stag. And since you said the other day that you would like a nice haunch of venison for Halpan's farewell feast--"
"Partalan and Canand were attacked while they rode in the north," she cut him off, "and Halpan and Maelchon have not returned. Will you go out with these men--" her gesture encompassed Dwarves as well as Rangers "--as guide, to seek them, living or dead? You are the only man trained in arms I have to send."
If the intent of her harsh words was to jar him into an awareness of his duty, it did not seem immediately successful. "The only--?" Gaernath gaped, as if still not grasping how grave matters were.
"Hanadan ran all the way to Gunduzahar to fetch the Dwarves."
The comparison to a child was cruel: but Men often seemed insensible to subtler prompts, dull as the oxen they goaded along the road. "Of course! Let me go and fetch my spear," the lad said hastily, turning to Thyrnir's uncles and the Rangers, "and I will be with you."
"You have wasted enough time. Take Dírmaen's," Saelon ordered.
"Lady," the Ranger called Randir began in a warning tone.
The look she turned his way silenced him, and there was a note in her voice like the warning shrill of overwrought steel. "It is not as if he will be needing it. Why are you all still standing about here, talking? Must I go myself? I have dared worse things in the dark than a few skulking curs of the Witch-King!"
"So you have," Veylin agreed placidly, stepping forward, which was more than Thyrnir would have dared. The woman looked as if she might snatch the spear from his hand, and use it on any who balked her. "But who would tend the wounded, if you were to go? None of us have your skill. We are ready, but the Men may need some light to help them on their way. Are there torches to hand they might use?"
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Saelon sank down beside Dírmaen, clenching her hands together to keep them from shaking: not from the cold of the night air, but impotent rage, howling like a wolf in her mind. If she could savage those who had savaged them--
Her ferocity wrung her throbbing hand, which kept time with the beat in her head. No; madness. Her wits were astray, shaken by blows and the evil she had witnessed. Even if they were not, her strength was spent, her right hand enfeebled by pain. It was as well that she must not give Dírmaen meadowsweet until the danger of further bleeding was past, for she did not think she could resist taking some herself, and she must not, not until perhaps tomorrow.
Why had she been so angry with Gaernath? How was he to know that aught was amiss here? Perhaps it was as well that he had gone chasing after deer, else he might have been caught up in the fighting: injured, killed. Had he brought down the stag? She had not given him a chance to say. If so, they would have something to feed all these men. They must feed them, after their efforts; but with Maelchon's cattle lost, a stirk would be dear.
A haunch for Halpan's farewell feast . . . . Pray that it would not be for his burying.
Now the tears came, which she had been too occupied to shed before. She spread her left hand across her bruise-tender face to muffle the sobs she could not contain, for Fransag's weeping had finally quieted, and Tearlag was slumped in the corner as though asleep, the greatest kindness any could have given the poor woman. Dírmaen she did not fear to wake, for he was deep, drowned as much by exhaustion, she judged, as by the loss of blood.
Yet he lay pale and still as death, save for the slight but steady rise and fall of his breast beneath the layers of blankets that preserved what warmth he retained.
What would have happened if he had not--
Mind shying from the prospect, Saelon rose and dipped a cup of the honeyed water she had set to keep warm by the fire and drank it down. She ought to eat something, but the meal kist had been carried away by the wounded horse when it bolted and her stomach rebelled when she regarded the fish that remained among the rafters. Not cuddies; no. Ought she to ask Thyrnir to go to the hall to fetch something? Fransag, too, would benefit from a bannock and a posset, and both Veylin and Thyrnir must be hungry after their march . . . .
How had Hanadan known where to find them? At least Veylin had been there. So many Dwarves. How was she to repay them for this?
She wanted to crawl into her quiet little cave like a wounded beast into its den and wish this all away; wake to find it no more than a nightmare. Weary; so weary . . . unnaturally weary. Sitting down on the bench, she leaned her head back against the stone of the wall. She must not sleep, but she must close her eyes on this still-awful scene, at least for a little. Just a little . . .
More than a little, for the crash of the door against its stop did not register until the hulking man was in the room. Saelon woke on her feet, heart leaping desperately in her breast, as Tearlag screamed--
"Where is Fransag?" the wild-maned man demanded. "The children?"
Maelchon: muddy, disheveled, face distorted by dread. Mute with the terror that still poured through her veins, Saelon pointed, hand shaking, towards the ben.
The woman who opened the door to him gave him pause--clothes torn, bespattered with blood, face slobbered--but Fransag hurled herself into his arms, weeping afresh, and after a moment he folded around her, clutching her close.
Still trembling from the fright of Maelchon's abrupt entrance, Saelon went to Tearlag, who stared and panted like a harried ewe. "Shh," she soothed, taking the serving woman in her arms. "It is only your master. No ill can come now: Master Veylin sits by the door with a raug-spear, and Thyrnir beside." Tearlag did not seem much comforted by such protectors; yet she might reassure herself. If Maelchon was well--she saw no blood about him--surely Halpan could not be harmed; not grievously harmed. She longed to ask . . . but how could anyone with a heart break in on such a reunion?
When Tearlag's breath had grown quiet again, Saelon tucked the woman's patched cloak close about her listless form before going to the door, which someone had drawn shut. As she set her hand upon the latch, she heard low voices without: Veylin's unmistakable rumble, a stony shore beneath the wave; the measured reply of one of the Rangers; and Halpan's familiar note, though flat, all cheerfulness beaten out.
She opened the door and slipped out to join them.
Someone had built a pair of fires in the yard, far enough from the door to give ample warning of approaching foes. "Halpan? You are well?"
Turning towards her threw his face into stark shadow, but she heard the sharp draw of his breath. "I ought to be asking that of you," he murmured. "Forgive me: four of the villains pursued us, and I could think of nothing better than to take to the hills."
He might have shaken them quickly in country he knew so well, on high-bred Auril, but Maelchon's Donnan was dogged rather than fleet, and the husbandman no lightweight. "The important thing is that you preserved your lives." Saelon did not know what she--what they all--would have done if the two men had been lost, and reached out to take her cousin's hand.
As left clasped left, he set two fingers of his right beneath her chin, angling her face towards the fire. "Has this been requited with gold?"
A poor attempt to make light of the abuse she had suffered, but an attempt nonetheless. Saelon was glad for it, though she could not match it. "No. He had nothing I desired, except his heart's blood."
"Was that the one whose arm was cut?" Veylin asked matter-of-factly, tamping his strong-smelling weed into his pipe.
"Yes. That is a good blade you traded me."
His whiskers, warmly russet as flame in the firelight, twitched, and his grunt had satisfaction in it. "I am glad it has served you so well."
"Here, Lady," the archer-Ranger said, drawing off his cloak and settling it about her shoulders. "How are the folk within?"
It was too long, dragging in the mud before the door; but Saelon stroked the napped woolen gratefully, glad for the warmth. The man--Randir, was it?--had been much abashed to find he had spoken to the Lady of Srathen Brethil in the heat of battle as if she were no more than a serving wench. "I think Fransag will rally, now that Maelchon has returned: her woe is grief more than any hurt. She has lost Nannag, her babe, and her mother, Gràinne . . . is frail, ill able to endure such shocks." No need to tell them how outrageously the old woman had been insulted; she must preserve what honor any of them could keep after their time in such depraved hands. "Tearlag . . . ." She shook her head. "Halpan, will you take her to the hall and entrust her to Muirne's care? And have someone bring my kist of simples, and some food? Milk and ale, as well: we would all be better for a posset."
"You should come to the hall," Halpan said.
"Would you kill Dírmaen?" she countered, as bluntly.
"How does he?" Randir asked quietly, perhaps as earnest to avoid an argument as to know.
Saelon raised her hand to her head. Her wits were astray indeed, to speak so brusquely before Dírmaen's comrade. "Your pardon: he is sleeping quietly and not in present danger. Yet if he is moved, he may bleed again. It is ill that he should be so weakened, with the risk of fever from his wounds."
"I would be honored to keep guard over you here, Lady."
Veylin's cough did not come from the pungent smoke he was making, but Saelon cast a glance his way and he remained watchfully silent. "Are there many more of the foul creatures abroad?" she asked.
The Ranger looked at Veylin. "Two or three, perhaps. Now that your men are here to guard you, we will go out as soon as it is light and track them down."
"You would not mind company, I hope," the dwarf-lord rumbled, deep-set eyes glinting like the gems he loved. "We would assure ourselves that no brigands lurk about our doorstep."
"I will let you men settle such matters between you." Dwarves or Dúnedain, Saelon did not care who slew those that were left, so long as they were slain. "How we are to thank you for your aid, I do not know."
Veylin paffed. "For what? A brisk march with ale at the end?"
"Such is our duty, Lady!" Randir dismissed as readily.
Halpan laid a hand on Saelon's shoulder. "Go and tend those who need you," he told her, and she knew she looked ill from the grave concern in his eyes. "Rian and I will see that our guests want nothing."
"Thank you," she sighed. Taking off the cloak, she handed it back to the Ranger. He would need it more than she would, within the house. "Thank you all."
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Shambles: originally, a slaughterhouse or meat market.
The Ram: from Sindarin, "wall"; the great dyke a league south of the tower hill.
Meadowsweet (also queen of the meadow; Filipendula ulmaria): medicinal herb used to treat fever and pain; this, not willow, was the original source of salicylic acid for aspirin. Salicylic acid is a blood-thinner as well as an anti-inflammatory, which is why neither Dírmaen nor Saelon--even minor traumatic brain injuries increase the risk of bleeding in the brain--should take it just now.
Cuddies (also saithe, Pollachius virens): fish related to pollack and cod, easily caught with a handline from rocky shores.
Posset: a hot, rich drink for those who have been chilled or invalids, made of sweetened milk or cream curdled with ale or wine.