20. A Taste of the Sea
We must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
--William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar IV, iii
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"This is your fault," Thyrð muttered, very low, as they strapped the snugly jacketed bolts of linen to the stolidest of Veylin's packponies.
Taken aback by the injustice, Thyrnir frowned at his brother across the beast's shaggy rump. "My fault? How?" By his reckoning, Sút was to blame--but one could hardly say so. Not to Mother, at any rate.
"You are the elder; the head of the family, since Father went to Mahal. If you had opposed this--"
Thyrnir snorted. Perhaps--perhaps--if he were wed and had provided her with a brace of clever-fingered grandchildren, Mother might give weight to his counsel. "Ten years is not much advantage. Why didn't you give me clearer signs of your disapproval? Together we might have had some effect."
Heaving the last bolt onto the packframe with a sullen set to his mouth, Thyrð grumbled, "I thought our uncles would dissuade her."
"You know her opinion of Rekk." Low, save in matters of war and water, and even he had to allow there could be little peril in traveling a few hours across country thrice-scoured, by Dwarves, Elves, and Men, for any trace of foes. Or danger from the folk at White Cliffs, now that Partalan was in Srathen Brethil. "And Veylin will countenance anything that settles her mind. Anyway, where is the harm? Surely you do not think any ill will befall her."
"It is not right that she should have to go abroad, to be easy in her mind. Or to trade."
Thyrnir sighed as he tied off the final thong. No, it was not. If Father still lived, she would not have felt the need. "She ought not to be here at all, but came in Father's place, for our sakes, to see us advantageously established."
Thyrð scowled. "We are not children," he asserted, abhorring anything that suggested he was still tender. "Nor are we prenticed to strangers, who might misuse us. Does she trust none of us?"
"Can you blame her for doubt, after losing Father? Come," Thyrnir said in his most mollifying tone, for Thyrð had their mother's temper, "one visit should reassure her, and satisfy what curiosity she has. You will just have to be more moderate in your thirst this visit."
His brother's red-gold brows drew lower still. "Do you say I have been drunk?"
"I say you drink more when among the Men than under Mother's eye."
"And you do not?"
Now that was a fair return. Such liberties were one of the pleasures of White Cliffs. "We will both have to be more on our guard, then." As much for Mother's peace of mind as for her safety.
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"What," Auð asked, frowning at the long gouges that ran across the slope rising on their left hand, "is that?" Very unnatural it looked, as if someone had raked a comb across the earth, snatching a patch bald, down to the pale nakedness of the soil.
Although many of the men had been in jovial mood the whole way from Gunduzahar, singing as though the ale-barrels had already been broached, she was startled by Nordri's glad shout. "Ha!"
"A good sign!" Grani called back, grinning fit to split his beard.
Riding beside her on the path along the strong-flowing Fearna, Veylin nodded, stroking his beard with satisfaction. "A ploughed field," he explained. "Maelchon has broken fresh ground for barley."
Broken: that seemed a fitting word. "Why?" Sút beat her to the question. "Was there something wrong with what he already had?"
Auð snuck a sidelong glance at her brother: he was out of humor with Sút for, as he had put it during their terse discussion regarding her accompanying him to White Cliffs, playing on her uncertainties to gain herself a companion. Veylin had not opposed her coming--could not, without casting his own repeated assurances into doubt--but he did not answer the silversmith's question. Perhaps he was jealous of Sút's ability to persuade her.
"They would hardly ask us to help them eat up their corn if there was," the mason assured her friend. "No, more ploughland means more grain, and since they already grow enough for their own needs, this can only mean more for us. Maelchon chafes under his debt to Grani and myself, no doubt."
"Or one of the other Men covets a house of their own. Artan has two sons already, and his grandfather with him," Nyr reflected. "Doubtless his wife also finds their chamber cramped."
The carpenter, who would also benefit from any such construction, scratched his chin through his golden curls. "Artan is a cottar, is he not? How would he pay for even a small house?"
Sút stared at them, raven brows knitted. "Surely he is paid for his work."
"Not much," Grani sighed. "Little more than his family's keep, I believe."
"Who employs him? Maelchon?"
This seemed to require some consideration. "I do not think so," Nordri finally hazarded. "He works with him, often enough, in the fields, but I believe Artan and his brother are the Lady's men."
"So her generosity is only for strangers?" Sút sniffed.
That was no way to reconcile Veylin. "If Artan has no complaint, what business is it of ours? They came here with no more than the clothes on their backs; she fed and housed them. Such a debt must be repaid."
"I thought you--" Sút's sly gaze included Nordri "--housed them."
"My debt was to Saelon, and those at White Cliffs honor that she spent her credit on their behalf. Those who did not," Veylin rumbled ominously, "have sought their fortunes elsewhere."
"Good luck to them." Prut had hung on the edge of their group rather than ride with the other hirelings and prentices, who held no stake in Gunduzahar, and his voice was like flint. "A dry bed and a full belly are not easy to come by among strangers, and Men do not acknowledge kinship they cannot reckon. I have seen many Men, on both sides of the Misty Mountains, who would gladly trade places with any of the Lady's bondsmen. Often their lords treat them little better than the beasts they tend."
Auð eyed the blue-hooded Longbeard thoughtfully. Although his presumption was irritating, eighty years of homeless wandering had given him a broad knowledge of the world beyond the delf. "What makes the difference between lords and common Men? Breeding? Birth? Wealth?"
"They say it is nobility of blood, but in truth it is might--which they use to extort goods and labor from others."
"How, then, do you explain the Lady of White Cliffs?" Sút challenged. "She is a slip of a thing and bears no weapon, yet does not lack authority."
"I have not yet seen her," Prut confessed, reluctantly, "and have never heard of such a thing. It is unnatural; I cannot say." The look he gave Sút suggested she was unnatural as well.
Nordri laughed, saving the situation from rancor. "From what I have seen, it is mostly a matter of wit . . . and courage, which the Lady has in abundance. Most Men do well enough, plodding along their furrows or ambling after their beasts, but when hardship comes upon them they are bewildered and look to those wise enough to guide them. That is why Maelchon defers to Saelon, certainly: he has greater confidence in her judgment than his own, save in matters of husbandry."
Rekk snorted. "Why do you think Halpan has gone back to Srathen Brethil?"
"And Dírmaen left?" Nyr added, with a grin.
"Aye, they are not so shrewd as she," his father agreed, with a knowing air. "But Dírmaen has come back again. I should not be surprised if there was more between those two than meets the eye. The Man of the Star is not blind."
"They are incompatible," Veylin said, with the authority of close acquaintance. "Lye-metal and water. Steel and flint. He vexes her."
"That does not bode well for his recovery," Nyr observed, the set of his whiskers betraying the smirk behind his somber tone.
"If she slew troublesome patients," Rekk pointed out, arching a droll brow at Veylin, "none of us would be here. Her pride in her skill will save the Ranger, even if she hates him."
"If she hated him," Thyrnir said, low, from his place half a pony length behind Auð, "she would have killed him outright, as she did the brigand. But you saw little of Dírmaen that day: his wounds were very grave."
"A florin says he sits at table with us," Rekk dismissed.
Auð watched as her son weighed this: a florin was no small sum for a prentice, and both had been at White Cliffs only nine days ago, so their knowledge should be equal. "Dúnedain are hardier than other Men," Thyrnir allowed, "but no match for a Dwarf. I will see your florin."
High above them, where the limestone of the cliffs began to show, there was a shout, and a for a moment Auð feared Thyrnir had lost his bet, for at this distance the dark-haired Man who waved in greeting looked much like Dírmaen. Yet as they returned the salutation, Nordri said, sounding amused, "Well, there is a Ranger who does not quarrel with the Lady."
"Randir is a decent fellow--" Veylin began . . . but did not finish, for several people pelted madly onto the track ahead, rushing towards them with shrill cries. Auð pulled her pony up short; ahead, Sút's jibbed, fouling Rekk's dun, which squealed and snapped at the offending beast. "Welcome! Welcome!" the leader of the assault shouted gleefully.
Auð recognized Hanadan even as Rekk shouted for order in a battle voice and Veylin gave a great huff, shaking his head at the wrangle. Children: four children, in tearing high spirits, the two littlest giggling at Rekk's roar. A black-haired child only a bit shorter than Hanadan snatched the smallest out of the path and waved Nordri and Sút to ride through, so the quarreling ponies could be parted.
"This is a welcome indeed," Veylin rumbled, gazing down on the young Dúnedain, who had the grace to look somewhat abashed.
The next-smallest, who wore a gown rather than breeks--Auð supposed it must be a girl--came up to him with a wide smile on her bare, red-cheeked face. "Happy Spring Day, Master Veylin," she piped, holding up an untidy fistful of flowers.
"And the same to you, Ros," Veylin returned, gentling his tone as he reached down to take her offering.
"Can I ride your pony?" the smallest asked, without shame or fear.
Now her brother was striving to hide a smile. "Perhaps Thyrð may let you ride his pony later, after we have eaten--if your parents are agreeable, Uspag, and you make sure his cup is never empty."
More likely not, Auð would guess, from the hardened expression on Thyrð's face. But though so wild a greeting was unnerving, it also had a disarming charm. How could one doubt the friendliness of such uninhibited creatures, the younger of whom gaily sang and skipped as they escorted them along the verge of a level field of furrowed sand?
Yet here the ever-present rumble of the Sea, as profound a bass as the groan of tormented stone, was more portentous, damping any sense of relief.
At least it grew no worse as they went up the steep, rutted path to where the white cliff rose sheer as a wall, their ponies laboring and blowing beneath them. "Welcome, Masters!" Red-bearded Gaernath stood at the top, smiling on the long train of guests. "A fine day you have brought us for the feast!"
"May the whole of your spring be so fine!" she heard Veylin's genial reply. He had taken his place in the lead as they crossed the lea, leaving her in her sons' care. "Do you have room for so many ponies up here?"
"Of course! Though we will send them down again once you are afoot, unless they will bear the boards for the feast on their backs."
"His might," Nordri chuckled, "but I would not bet our dinners on it."
With a last heave, Auð's pony crested the slope, and she looked about as she urged it to follow Thyrnir's, making room for Thyrð and the others who followed.
The ledge was much wider than she had imagined, a grand front stoop on which to sit and look out over half the world. One part was set off by a low wall of woven branches: craning her neck to peer within, Auð saw dark dug earth and neat rows of green growing things. The mouths of the two caves were screened with the same rustic panels of branches in their lower parts; the smaller seemed to have draggled old heather layered over the weave. Several Men moved among the mob of ponies, trading greetings and civilly holding beasts as folk swung out of the saddle.
"Welcome, Master Thyrnir." A wiry fellow in a nice shade of green, grey threaded through his brown beard, approached, bobbing his head and casting his eyes briefly downward before taking the bridle of her son's pony. "I am glad to see you have brought your fiddle, and Unagh will be too."
"What of Murdag?" Thyrnir asked, sliding down the beast's shoulder. "She fares well, I hope."
"Fine, fine," the Man said, with a slow smile. "But she cares little for music if she cannot dance, and I doubt she could pace half a figure as she is."
"No grandchild yet, Finean?" Grani asked, pulling up beside Auð as she gratefully set her feet back on the ground. Thyrð was already unloading her cloth, setting the bolts in the shelter of the cliff-foot.
"Not yet, Master," Finean answered phlegmatically, loosening Thyrnir's saddle-girth.
Veylin, blackthorn in hand, came to find her. It is not too much? he signed.
Auð rolled her eyes. Sút was trading pleasantries with one of the slender bald-faced blonds. Did he think her less stalwart than her friend? I have seen Men before, she reminded him.
Taking her elbow, he turned her to face west.
Half the world indeed. And all of it water. With that rumble in her ears, half a tone below a growl, and remembering the pearl-crested waves that held the sea-jewel, menacing even in miniature, Auð could not quell a shiver. More terrible than Orcs . . . . The strong scent of brine that had hung about Veylin and her sons when they brought the fire-opal out of the teeth of the tempest last summer . . . yes, there was a hint of that in the air here, rich as any mineral spring, the blood of the earth.
But if her boys could bear it, and her younger brother--
"Master Auð! You have come after all. Welcome to Habad-e-Mindon. It is good to see you here, this grand Spring Day."
And then there were those who loved that dreadful expanse of mighty water; as if it were a spouse, some said. "Well met, Lady," Auð replied, turning to face Saelon. "A merry Tuilérë to you and your family."
The blue-green gown was nearly a perfect match for the silver-capped sea-beryl, which hung at her breast, and brought out the fleck of color in her grey eyes. "If you will share it with us. Rian!" the woman of Men called, casting a glance towards another, taller, gowned figure, who had just dipped with a graceful genuflection of her skirts to Rekk. "Do you remember my speaking of Master Auð?" Saelon said, as the other woman joined them.
"Of course. At your service," Rian murmured with maidenly diffidence; but her eyes were shrewd as her aunt's, lips pursing slightly as she weighed the quality of Auð's dove-grey cloak and the broidery on the cuffs of her sleeves. Her own gown was an almost cobalt say, ornamented with paler blue and violet flowers, and their twining stems. "You are kin to Master Veylin, are you not?"
"At yours and your family's," Auð returned, bowing. "Yes, I own to the connection."
Veylin huffed, though such evidence of ease seemed to please him. Gazing past the women of Men to where a pair of spitted lambs hung over a crackling wood fire, he said, low, "I hope I have not overreached your wish, Saelon, and brought too many guests to your feast. The reputation of your table joined to fair weather has left our halls all but empty."
The Lady surveyed the crowded ledge beyond them over their heads. "How many are you?" She did not appear greatly concerned. There were other fires behind her besides the one where the lambs roasted: a stout dark-haired matron stirred the fair-sized pot hung over one, while an enormously gravid woman sat by another, tending cakes on a griddle. Two other gowned figures, one fair and one dark, moved with trays of cups among those whose ponies were being taken away.
"One more than a score."
"I do not see Bersa."
"No. He did not choose to come."
"Well," the Lady judged, a smile playing about her lips, "considering his appetite, that may be as well. Without him, I believe there may just be enough."
Just enough? The meal began with still-sizzling grilled trout, pease soup heartened with boar hocks, and a great salad of the season's first greens dressed with eggs. The high table, where Auð sat beside Rian, was favored with sweetbreads cooked in butter and calves' liver with griddled onions, though Saelon sent hers to Dírmaen. He was at the next table, heavily wrapped in woolens, so peaked and bowed with coughing Auð did not recognize him at first.
So Thyrnir lost his florin. Though surely, if the Man could not halt his hacking, it would have been better if he had not joined the company. Were his lungs so weak he could not clear them, or did he make that noise because he resented being excluded from the table of honor?
The courses that followed left little room for irritation: roast lamb with ramps and herbs; a sumptuous white veal stew thick with eggs and cream, the specialty of Maelchon's wife; marrowbones with a dish of beans; veal collops pounded thin topped with egg sauce; and a strange sea-stew. Auð did not like the last--the greens looked suspiciously like the foul stuff she had picked out of Veylin's beard last Yavannië--but Sút, whose kinship with Regin had gained her a place at the Lady's left hand, relished the sweet, pink-tinged meat Saelon said was lobster. Bottomless cups of ale and mead, baskets of barley bannocks, lashings of sweet butter and soft cheese, and sweet dishes to finish . . . .
Poor in possessions they certainly were, but by Mahal, they ate like kings! Discreetly loosening her belt beneath the table, Auð marveled that Bersa had been unwilling to overcome his girth--or his animosity, or both together--for such a repast. Although they might have needed a sledge to get him home again. One did not mind that the cream cakes were made of barley meal when they were drowned in custard-sauce. As she sipped Rian's flower-wine cordial, a welcome finish to such an engrossing meal, she watched as her brother and Saelon discussed the making and mining of salt in a desultory, after-dinner fashion, Randir joining amicably in, as he had seen something of how folk harvested salt from the shores of Langstrand in the south.
Little wonder Veylin and the other men were prepared to travel here on any excuse, if this was a taste of the welcome they received. The question was, how was she to get a larger share of this bounty onto the table at Gunduzahar?
She did not regret coming. It was a relief to have her confidence in Veylin's judgment restored. The scorn and niggardliness of Men was such a commonplace that none could blame her for doubting his assurances regarding the good will and profit to be found among these, confessedly poor, without witnessing it for herself. Yet what excuse would she now have for making such a foray beyond the delf? The country appeared empty and quiet . . . but Thekk had been slain a league from here, by a foe as unforeseen as the brigands that had recently attacked Saelon and her folk. The Men might be trusty, but the land was not--who knew what other dangers lurked, unsuspected, in its bogs and thickets?
Beside her, the Lady's niece doucely ventured, "Master Sút, I have been admiring the broidery on your tunic. Can the thread be silver?"
"Yes, it is," Sút allowed, helping herself to a trifle more bilberry fool.
"I thought it must be," Rian murmured, "as you are a silversmith. A most handsome effect, especially on the black. The thread is very dear, I suppose."
Sút's gaze went from the young West-woman to Auð, one black brow lifted an interrogative fraction. "Compared to linen, certainly. But a silver penny will provide a fair length."
"Auð," her friend appealed, "this is more your province than mine. What price does silver floss fetch, and have you any to spare in your store?"
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Fearna: Saelon's people call the steep-banked river that runs into the sea at Habad-e-Mindon Allt Fearna, "stream of the alder," for the trees that grow along its banks behind the cliffs.
Lye-metal: potassium, a soft, light, silver-white metal that burns with a violent violet flame when put in water. Potassium is, therefore, not found in a pure state in nature, but must be refined from compounds such as lye (potassium carbonate, obtained from wood ash--pot-ash, which provides the element's name--and traditionally used to make soap) and stored in mineral oil.
Florin: a two-shilling gold coin. Florins originally took their name from Florence, which first minted them, and the lily device they bore: in Middle-Earth, they probably derive from an Elvish coin similarly marked.
"the ever-present rumble of the Sea, as profound a bass as the groan of tormented stone": Why, as The Silmarillion ("Of the Sindar") tells us, should Dwarves hate the sound of the sea and fear to look upon it? Thorin and Company do not seem to have felt uneasy at Escaroth upon the Long Lake, nor was Gimli afraid of the great River Anduin, so it can't be antipathy for water in large quantities. I have conjectured--and here Tolkien's "hated the sound of the sea" is most pertinent--that Dwarvish hearing extends into the range of infrasound, the frequencies below human perception. A variety of animals communicate in infrasound: recent research suggests elephants "converse" while several miles apart using these frequencies, which can travel great distances with little distortion. The hypothesis may be supported by descriptions of dwarven voices as low or deep; perhaps there are elements of Khuzdul that are beyond Mannish (and even Elvish) hearing.
The ability to hear lower frequencies would be useful for Dwarves, because rock "groans" in infrasound under stress, particularly before the stone gives way in earthquakes or landslips (which is probably why so many animals are anxious or flee when earthquakes are imminent). However, the ocean also emits infrasound, created by the resonance of long sea swells or the tumult of distant storms. If the Sea sounds anything like an impending earthquake, little wonder Dwarves don't like hanging out at the beach! In order to get Dwarves anywhere near the shore, I have supposed that individual variation in acuity at these frequencies and tolerance for unpleasant noise means some Dwarves bear the ominous sound of the Sea better than others (after all, not everyone flinches at fingernails on a blackboard *shudder*); habituation may also make it less horrible over time.
Sweetbreads: the pancreas and/or thymus of a young animal, usually a calf or lamb; these were (and still are) considered a great delicacy. Organ meats, while not popular today, are more nutritious than muscle-meat.
Collops: thin slices of meat; basically, this is a veal scallopini or schnitzel.
Yavannië: Westron/Common Speech (from Quenya), September.
"sweet butter and soft cheese": butter is usually refered to as "sweet" when it is unsalted; salting increases its shelf life. Since Dwarves trade--especially here, in the Blue Mountains--at some distance for their food supplies, I have presumed that many fresh, short-lived products rarely grace their tables, making them particular delicacies.
Bilberry fool: in this sense, a fool is a dessert dish made of sweetened fruit and whipped cream.
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