28. Rules of Engagement
Marriage . . . is a damnably serious business . . . .
—John Phillips Marquand, The Late George Apley
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Hiding a yawn behind her hand, Saelon plucked up a boiling stone from the hearth with the wooden tongs and slipped it into her cup, breathing deep of the sharp green smell of mint.
"You are not feeling unwell, Aunt?" Rian asked with concern, sparing a glance from the fish on the griddle.
"No," Saelon dismissed, smiling a little and not, she hoped, too secretly. "I had a broken night and wish to have my wits about me, that is all." However so many might be left to her, after sitting half the night by the shore in Dírmaen's arms, drinking the sweetness of his kisses, heady as mead. Indeed, she was somewhat giddy still. "Where is Gaernath?"
Unagh, packing butter into a kist, laughed. "Dunking Hanadan in the burn. The scamp helped him clean his catch, but made a mess of himself."
"Better him than I," Saelon observed, though she joined in the smiles. "And the Rangers?"
"Looking gravely at Whitefoot's hooves, when I passed," Unagh said.
Saelon's heart shied, pricked from languor by conscience. "Maelchon is here?" She had hoped to put off thought on how to reveal the attachment between her and Dírmaen at least until after her tisane, but the chance that the husbandman might see something that would arouse suspicion brought such concerns to the fore of her mind. She believed them unsuspected; had heard no chaff or ribaldry, seen no sly glances, no half-hidden smiles or scowls. How should there be, given her coolness to him? Yet that was all overthrown, and the state of things between them was now beyond concealment. Once she was in his presence again, she feared she would be so conscious of him that her distraction would be plain. To avoid whispers, it were best they declared their love openly, and soon.
Last night, Dírmaen had wanted to take horse for Srathen Brethil at first light, to seek Halpan's approval of their alliance. While that would doubtless have been the most honorable course, keeping both of them from temptation and assuring that her kin had word of her proposal before others, she did not trust the two men not to talk themselves out of a handfasting if she were not present to insist. It had taken much talk—and more kisses—to convince him that there was no need for him to go, that Gaernath could fetch Halpan here to give his approval before their folk, that he would be foolish to leave her to grow cool again.
It was an effort to think beyond Dírmaen and herself. What did the others matter, truly? Her kin had no authority over her and were inferior in judgment, the eldest not half her age; though a woman, rule was in her hands. None could gainsay her. And why should any object? Had her family not always harped upon her duty to wed a worthy Dúnadan? Dírmaen might not be high born, but his valour and honor were beyond doubt.
No. She must not be peremptory. She need not heed others, yet it would be unpardonable presumption to give them no chance to speak. Even a great lord lost respect if he did not consult with those concerned on the occasion of his marriage, and as Lady, she was more dependent upon the good will of those in her care. Cradling the warmth of her cup in both hands, she breathed in the vapor that rose, fragrant, from the too-hot liquid. Whose approval must she seek?
Of her kin, Halpan had most right to speak, by age and virtue of his office as her deputy in Srathen Brethil, and he had enough knowledge of Dírmaen's character for his opinion to have some worth. She would send Gaernath for him once the lad had eaten; he could be here in three, four days. Surely she and Dírmaen could keep discreet so long. They could take Halpan aside soon after he arrived and, when he gave them his blessing—Saelon knew no reason why he should not—then they could present themselves to her folk, gathered all together to welcome Halpan with a feast. Would that not satisfy propriety and precedence?
Among those here, perhaps. But there were others. Her nearest kinsman by blood was her brother's son Halmir, heir to Srathen Brethil, for whom she held the lordship. Yet he was in fosterage near Fornost, more than a fortnight's journey distant, and had been but a few days in Dírmaen's company two years ago. To wait months, perhaps, for the word of a youth of fifteen years . . . if the word would be his. Saelon was sure Râdbaran, who stood in the place of his father, would not approve. His condescension she remembered as keenly as his too-shrewd courtesy: he might say he only desired to protect his fosterling's inheritance, but that would license a great deal of interference, and no one could curb so high a lord save the Chieftain himself, who surely had no kind opinion of her.
Did Dírmaen mean to send word to his family? They were as distant, though Randir might go on his behalf. If so, it would be hard to defend neglecting to her nephew, even if she did not wait for his consent. Yet Dírmaen had said nothing of his kin. Perhaps he was ashamed of not securing her outright, of agreeing to a custom of the Edain, and would wait in hopes of a full marriage. Though that, too, would be awkward, since he would not bring his bride home, as was customary. And should he invite his kin here to witness their felicity, they would learn that they were not new-wedded. A shabby business, to be giving offense to people she had never met, who ought to be as kin to her.
And Veylin—how would he take this news?
Sighing, she set her tisane on the wide hearth-rim to cool. "I will fetch them in," she said, in answer to the half-attended conversation that had carried on around her preoccupation, "before the fish grow cold."
Outside, she drew her shawl more closely about her in the chill shadow of the cliff, and took a deep draught of the sea-scented air for whatever bracing it might provide. Yes, there was Maelchon, at the head of his stolid mare, turning her and walking her back towards Dírmaen and Randir, who watched each footfall critically. The beast did not appear lame, though perhaps there was a slight hesitation in her gait. "Good day to you, Maelchon," she greeted the husbandman as he halted his horse by the Rangers. "Is this the old problem again?"
"Aye, Lady," Maelchon sighed, stroking the mare's neck. "It is hard to keep hooves in trim with the tools we have, and the wet does not help. If Master Veylin cannot find us a smith, I will have to seek something to trade for a proper hoof-knife and rasp."
Randir came to pick up the near fore, running his fingers over the cracks that were spreading from the overlong toe. "Bring your stoutest knife this evening, and I will put as fine an edge on it as my stone allows. We will shave the worst of this off, but it would be as well to move her back down to the shore pastures, which are drier."
Maelchon nodded. "Aye. Would grease be better than oil to dress them?"
"No," Dírmaen said, brusque. "Leave off the oil, or her feet may grow hot."
"Poor lass," the husbandman murmured, chastened, turning back to stroke the mare.
Poor man: Maelchon was attentive to his beasts, but they had always had a smith in Srathen Brethil, who did such farriery as was required. "There are new-caught fish coming off the fire just now. Will you take some, Maelchon, and a cup of ale before heading home?"
"Your ale is always welcome, Lady, but I have broken my fast already, thank you."
"As you wish." The husbandman was not very fond of fish. "Dírmaen," she said, finally daring to look her swain full in the face, "may I speak with you?"
Those clear, sword-grey eyes, which had been no more than a gleam in the dark last night, turned to her, so full of warmth and desire that her breath caught and belly tightened. For a moment: bowing his head in an affirmative, he dropped that perilous gaze.
She led him past the byre-cave, coming to a halt by the bed of pease, where they could be seen but not overheard by Maelchon and Randir, who continued their commiserations over the placid horse. Dírmaen stopped several paces off, as though he trusted himself no nearer. Fingering a few twining tendrils that were clambering over the edge of the hurdle fence, Saelon asked, "You are well this morning?"
"You are of the same mind as last night, Lady?"
The look of reproach she gave him—mild; mild; he had some cause for doubt—silenced him, though she could hear the quickening of his breath. "I will set Gaernath on his way to Srathen Brethil as soon as he has eaten. Though, I wonder . . . ought I send word, at least, to Halmir? Who, though, would carry the message, that could be spared so long? And," she declared bluntly, "I do not want Râdbaran meddling in my affairs again. Do you mean to send word to your family?"
"I do not know. What is your thought?"
Saelon clasped her hands together, so she would not reach towards that low voice and do away with its uncertainty. "How can I say, when they are strangers to me? Will they be much offended by a handfasting?"
"Offended?" Dírmaen's long face was solemn. "I do not think so, save perhaps my elder sister. My brothers—" a deprecating twist of his lips "—are more likely to rag me. But they will never understand it, I am sure, from a mere message."
"Randir could not explain on your behalf?"
"I doubt I could explain myself. No, I would not put such a burden on him . . . and, if he went to the Downs, it might be difficult for him to return. He would not thank me for sending him from your niece."
Saelon gazed towards his friend, now chaffing with Gaernath and a thoroughly damp Hanadan, as Maelchon hitched his mare to one of the may bushes. "He seems much attached."
Dírmaen smiled, though there was a shadow of caution on it. "I would not say 'much,' not by my lights; but yes, he thinks very highly of her. He would like to secure her affection before departing, so he may wait until she is of an age to plight her troth in some security. He is a worthy man," he spoke for his friend. "You do not disapprove, I hope."
"No." How could she look coldly on affection, when her own heart was so full? "There has been nothing improper in his attentions, and his open temper suits her well. Yet," she warned, "I do not think Rian desires a fixed attachment at present. She enjoys his company and thinks well of him, but would like to look about a little, I believe. Though how that is to be accomplished here . . . ." Saelon sighed. That was another problem, for another day. "So, you send no word over the Lune."
"I must send some message to one. Argonui expected me on Spring Day."
"You were not fit to travel then!"
"How is he to know it, if I do not tell him? A scrap of skin and ink can say all that is needful, however, if Gaernath will carry it to Hanend."
An explanation for his somber gravity struck her. "You would not resign your service?"
Dírmaen's eye came back to her, keen, searching. "Would that please you?"
In some ways; it would banish several of their most obstinate quarrels, certainly. But if ever any man was a Ranger, he was. "No. I want you, yet that is no warrant for denying your talents to others. If I do not always agree with your duty, that does not mean I would have you abandon it." She would think less of him if he did.
Two long strides and he took her hand; for a heart-lifting moment, she thought he would kiss it. He did not, though the glow in his eyes was nearly as ravishing. "Lady," he murmured, a wealth of praise in a breath. "I have hope of contenting you both. When I spoke to Argonui at the end of Narbeleth, he was not pleased that I had left Habad. Too many paths now cross here. I had thought to leave Randir in my place, but since you will have me, I would let Argonui know I am willing to remain."
Saelon was not altogether certain she was pleased by this, but if Argonui wished to keep a watch over her, there was little she could do to prevent it. Better it should be someone she knew well and might sway, beneath her roof where she could watch in turn. "You must hasten, then, if you wish your message to go with Gaernath."
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Soon after Gaernath left, pleased to be entrusted with so arduous an errand, the clouds drew in and rain drummed down: welcome for garden and field, yes, but Saelon felt badly for having sent the lad out into such unrelenting wet . . . and Halpan as well, as it stretched into a third day.
That it prevented her from going out to dig orchids as she had planned was also vexing, the more so since it deprived her of the opportunity to be alone with Dírmaen. Once well away from ground the others tread, out on the bog-moor, she could have taken his hand, tracing the long strength of his fingers, and stolen a kiss—or many, drinking deep of his flattering desire. If she dwelt on it overmuch, she could feel the curve of his back as though it were beneath her hand, marked by the wound she had daily dressed; the tuck of his ribs and clean line of his flank . . . .
Maybe it was better the weather was so foul, for since her long-quiescent lust had roused, it gnawed at her incessantly, ravening. Once she had her hands on him, they would be hard to rule.
Dírmaen had suffered this for a year. She could bear a few weeks, until Midsummer. She must.
After a restless morning of interference within the hall, nearly overturning all domestic order and quite bewildering Rian, Saelon took herself off to the shore again. Frustration whetted eye and tongue, making her unfit for mortal companionship; but the swash of the waves soothed her, and she came back resolved to occupy herself with the chore of going over all her growing store of herbs. Determining what was spoilt and what too old for efficacy demanded close attention; if she must be critical, let her do good rather than ill.
She was going through the last bags and kists in the byre-cave when Halpan and Gaernath rode up the track through the dreary dusk. "Saelon!" Halpan called in greeting, swinging from the saddle and leading his mud-splattered bay under the shelter of the cliff. "All is well?"
"Very well," she assured him, putting aside a bundle of rose roots.
Coming after, Gaernath muttered, "So I said," shaking his dripping head like a wet dog.
With a reproachful look, Saelon drew the kist's lid over her herbs. "I am sorry you both had so wet a journey, but I am in need of your opinion, Halpan. Leave your horses here—Artan can attend to them. Let us get you dry and fed." Halpan's face was leaner than it had been, and less cheery. "How do you fare in Srathen Brethil?"
The look her Dúnadan cousin gave her, as he tied Auril to the hurdle, was dubious of so determined a turn of subject. "Well enough. The reivers despoiled most of the houses and the bere was late into the ground, but we will hope autumn lags as much as spring. Can you spare us more corn? There is little game larger than a hare, still, and repairing house and byre is hard work."
Dry linen, two cups of ale, and a generous portion of salmon restored some of his humour. "So, Saelon" he ventured, when Rian had told him all their news, reaching for another bannock and glancing at Dírmaen and Randir, who sat against the wall oiling their tack, "what has arisen that requires my counsel?"
Voice schooled to placidness, she replied, "Let us withdraw to my chamber. Dírmaen, will you join us?"
Brows knit in bafflement, Halpan glanced from her to her niece and then the Rangers. Rian looked nearly as puzzled; Dírmaen was laying aside his bridle. Randir's gaze, however, went swiftly from her to Dírmaen and back, full of keen surmise.
He was his friend. Even if Dírmaen had not confided in him, who was more likely to have seen a difference in his silent reserve?
Dírmaen, coming last, shut the door behind them. "What is it this, that we cannot speak before the others?" Halpan demanded. "Has there been trouble with the Elves? Has the Chieftain commanded you to return across the mountains?"
"No—nothing of that kind," Saelon assured him. "Please, sit! Finish your bannock. It is not something that cannot be spoken of before all, but I—we—would have your word first. Dírmaen has asked for my hand, and I am inclined to accept."
Halfway down her cousin halted, staring first at her, then, almost as blankly, at Dírmaen. "Your hand?" he repeated, straightening up and leaving his cup on the bench. "You would wed?"
"You do not approve?" Dírmaen was quick to counter, low and possibly ominous.
"No!" the younger man protested. "That is, I have no objections. But—you know her age, do you not? She is not so young as she appears."
As Saelon tried to decide whether to be offended or pleased, Dírmaen answered, with a suspicion of dry drollery, "I do. She has called my attention to it every time I pled my suit."
Did he think she had spent all those years alone for want of choice? "If I desired naught but an echo," Saelon huffed, "I would have shouted into a cave. Will you not sit down and hear us out?"
"Forgive me," Halpan muttered, sinking to the bench. "I am astounded."
"That any man should desire your kinswoman?" Dírmaen sounded as indignant as she.
"That she should want a man!"
"There is want and there is want," Saelon said shortly. "I was not taught to fight or hunt, and when such things are needful, I must perforce have some man to do them. Necessity, however, is not desire. Knowing my temper, I chose to do away with need rather than resign myself to dissatisfaction."
Deeply discomposed, Halpan took refuge briefly in ale. "I am sure you know your own mind. The only quarrel I ever had with Dírmaen was over my failings, not his. If you think he can content you, how should I gainsay you?" Yet the look he gave Dírmaen spoke eloquently of the incredulity one man feels at another's actions. "You know you will not get a biddable wife, or become the lord of Srathen Brethil thereby."
"Srathen Brethil is Halmir's," Dírmaen affirmed, coming to stand beside her, "and your line his heirs until he gets his own. I do not seek to rule, only to be of greater service to this most admirable lady." Reaching out, he took her hand, stroking her fingers before twining them with his own. "She bears the burdens that have fallen on her nobly, but they are like to make a jade of her."
Halpan looked between them, his youthful face unusually grave. "Do you love him, Saelon?"
The stirring warmth of their clasped hands: was this love, or merely lust, a hunger that would be sated by feeding? "If not, I am in a fair way to being so. Time shall prove if it be true."
"Will you have a long betrothal?"
Dírmaen's hand was still against hers and he glanced at her sidelong, but she resolutely held Halpan's gaze. "Wherefore? We are not youths, and have kept close company seven seasons. Long courtship will not improve our knowledge of each other's character. Some trial is desirable, yes," she acknowledged, seeing her cousin's unease increase. "That is why I have consented to be handfast to Dírmaen at Midsummer."
Staring, Halpan opened his mouth—and shut it again, perhaps mindful of her earlier testiness. Once he had taken a very thoughtful draught of ale, he set his cup aside. "In the Edain manner?"
"This was your proposal?" he asked Dírmaen.
"No; hers. She fears she may be barren and will have us free to part without blame."
That was not her chief reason, yet it sounded less licentious than what was in her heart, the more so for coming from so stern a face.
Halpan grunted and drew on his chin. "What am I to say? The matter is irregular from the start. A woman of your age, taking a man of the Chieftain you defy, and by Edain custom . . . ."
"Will you not say you wish us joy?" Saelon beseeched.
Her cousin looked from one of them to the other. "Very heartily!" Yet she could see the misgivings in his eyes.
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Narbeleth: Sindarin; the month of October.
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