33. Heart's Blood Ascending
Scho is my verry harte, I am hir howp and heill;
Scho is my joy inwart, I am hir luvar leill;
I am hir bound and thrall, scho is at my command;
I am perpetuall, hir man both fute and hand.
—Anonymous, "My Hairt is Heich Aboif"
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With the clack of hoof on stone, the horse back on its haunches, they came down the devious deer track onto the machair. "Where are you taking me?" Saelon murmured. Mird by mead, she did not recognize this place in the pallid light of the slow dawn, though she must have been by scores of times. They could not be more than a league . . . two . . . from her bay. She had been sure of her bearings until they came to where the ridge ran down from the tower hill to lose itself in the peat hags. There, Gaernath and Randir sought to seize them: dim, ghostly faces in the dark; hands snatching at reins; shouts, and the horse beating the air above—
How, she did not know, but they escaped, Dírmaen laughing exultantly as the pelting footfalls faltered and faded, his arm clutching her fiercely close.
So it still did, and the only answer she got when she twisted to look at him was the hunger of his lips. Wedged between the saddlebow and his belly, she could feel the hardness of the man. He had taken her from her folk, and was taking her to where he would take her to wife.
If they had stayed, she would have had him already. "Is it far?" she breathed, with a catch, in his ear, as he tasted the softness of her throat.
"No," he assured her, curt, voice rough, and set the horse into a canter again.
Above the low cliff on their left, the sky gave pale promise of a fair morn, while the sea soughed somnolently in its dark bed. Saelon leaned into Dírmaen's warmth against the chill of the air and let the mead she had drunk have its dreamy way with her. What she would do with him, when he brought her to a bed . . . .
Perhaps she drowsed, for a strange tug on her arm brought her swimming up to find the horse standing beneath the cliff. "Wake, love," Dírmaen murmured, with a coaxing kiss..
Or was this but a part of her dream? "We are there?"
She gazed at the cliff, heavy-eyed, as he dismounted. Deeper darkness gaped beside a bushy covert; the sweet scent of rose told her where they were. One of the small caves beyond the Ram, with a shelly floor and pool nearby: a bower very much to her taste. Once he had lifted her down from the saddle, she lavished her appreciation on him.
He drank deep until, when he tried to take her in both arms, she grunted, her bound right forced askew. Something like a growl thrummed in his throat as he drew unwillingly back, eyes narrow as a baffled hound's, raising an answering quaver within her—but as she tugged at his hand, drawing him towards the cave mouth, he turned her into the curl of their joined arms and stooped, catching her up behind the knees.
For a few breaths, he gazed down on her with sharp-set satisfaction, then carried her in to their bed. A rough frame of sea-cast logs it was, tightly packed with springy heather, the tender tops covered with blankets that smelt, when he laid her down upon them, of him and horse. Her Ranger gallant . . . . As he lay beside her, she reached over and stroked a lock of wind-blown hair from his brow. So fine a man . . . .
"I cannot bear this shackle," he muttered, when their lips parted, free hand bunching her skirts at the hip. "Or make out how to undress you."
Saelon laughed low in her throat, grasping the buckle of his belt. "You cannot. Not yet. But so long as we can get these breeks off you . . . ."
Settling for less than all his desire did not please him; nor did she like that she was so awkwardly situated for caressing him into better humour. "Later," she urged, when he suddenly remembered his boots. "Take me, so we can be free!"
Free—though what loosed their hands would bind them straitly in other ways. Yet it was easy to drown such thoughts, and other fears, in what her urging loosed. A year—more—Dírmaen had yearned for her, and now she felt the potency of his pent desire. Felt it and reveled in it: as he rose over her, her roving hand brushed the scar across his loins, from the wound that had bled him white. She had saved him; his strength and vitality were from her, and to her he should give them. She wanted him: his dogged admiration, a bulwark against her doubts; she wanted—
He was no maiden, either, though as little practiced as she. Or perhaps not—more than forty years it had been since she took a man—but his ardent mouth craved earnest pardon for gracelessness before he came home, sword in sheath, face rapt.
For two-score years, she had remembered the pleasure of being filled. The heart's pleasure . . . but not the body's, carnal as gluttony, the striving abandon of the rut.
Panting like a stag, he shuddered in the clutch of her thighs, breath catching like a sob as he spilled.
It was done.
When he would have removed himself from her, Saelon held her husband fast. "Bide a while," she murmured, savoring completion.
"I am not a burden?" Light as a skiff of breeze, his fingers smoothed a strand of sodden hair from her cheek.
His softened face had a glow, comely as the dawn. "No." She had feared she, being so small, would find him so or that he would pain her in other ways; yet the warm solidity of him was a comfort.
Belly to belly, she felt his breath ease, and his lips tenderly praised her sturdiness. Yet sleep pressed harder upon her, strengthened by satiation and mead and last night's restlessness. She made a small sound of mild complaint when Dírmaen turned them, finally leaving her, and would have snuggled against his breast . . . but he leaned away, groping for something beside the bed. "Mh?" she wondered, laboriously lifting her eyelids.
He showed her his knife before setting it to the cord that bound them. Yet when she set both hands on him, he did not settle back down beside her. "I must see to Mada," he said, with regret and an apologetic kiss. "I will be quick."
Whether he was quick or not, Saelon never knew, but when she roused from slumber, the warm length of him was at her back and his breath, slow and deep, soughed in her ear like the sea. It was very pleasant to wake so, unhurried as the long Midsummer dawn, with her husband's shapely arm—bare now—about her waist.
Had she not dreamt this, once?
This, too, might have been a dream, save for certain vulgar, importune needs. Reluctantly, she drew away from him, lifting his arm while praying she did not wake him . . . but he was a Ranger, and stirred. "Stay," she soothed, slipping from the blanket he had drawn over them. "All is well." And with a mumble and a moue, he curled closer around where she had lain.
Without, it was a very fair morning; a little way off, Mada lifted his head from grazing to gaze at her. The air was cool in the shadow of the cliff, but there was every promise of another balmy day. Not, Saelon reflected, that she would care if it were a dreary day of settled rain, given where she was like to spend it. Lips quirking, she straightened and made her way to the linn, where she slaked her thirst and bathed her face. As the ripples cleared, she caught a glimpse of her reflection and considered the wreck of Muirne's careful work. A few battered rose petals still showed pale against her dark, disheveled hair; smiling, Saelon plucked them out and wandered over to the rich green of the may bush to pick fresh blooms from the briars that festooned it.
When she came back to their bed, Dírmaen had stretched out and there was a gleam beneath his lids. "I would like to do that," he murmured as she began to undo her girdle.
How lascivious it made her feel, to lower her hands and smile and say, "Very well." Might all her wifely duties be this pleasant!
Beckoning her nearer the bed, he rose no further than his knees. Eye to eye they appraised each other as his fingers loosed the bent leather, unhurried. There was a deep peace in his face, happiness and satisfaction and appetite together, grimness taken quite away. "You are pleased by the bower, I hope."
"How can you doubt it?" she chided, and let her lips give him her gratitude in a kiss, as slow and savoring as his hands upon her body. The only thing that could have been better would be to have him in her little cave at Habad, and the others all far, far away.
He drew gown and shift from her together, letting them fall to the floor as he gazed on her nakedness like one bespelled. "You are pleased with your wife, I hope," she echoed, pert as her paps in the chill of the cave.
"How can you doubt it?" he replied with a laugh, glancing down at his ready yard. "Come—lay beside me, and let me take that gooseflesh from you."
The heat of him was better than any blanket, and for a while she was content to have him simply hold her close, but when she had warmed her hands at his breast, she reached for that proud flesh. How often she had handled it while he was ill, with dispassionate touch; now she could linger shamelessly over the captivating contrast of soft skin and firm flesh . . . .
Dírmaen's breath juddered and he shifted his hips restively. "You have the advantage," he complained, eyes narrowed with pleasure. "What do you not know of my body, after nursing me? May I not have leisure to learn more of yours, which I have only just seen?"
"You never spied on me as I bathed?"
"Never," he assured her, stroking her flank to haunch with a strong, proprietary hand. "Who would not have seized such beauty?"
Saelon laughed indulgently at such flattery. "More than a few, I am sure. But please, discover what kind of bargain you have made."
There were moments when she regretted the invitation extremely—but they were few, an exquisite torment, beyond the most heated imaginings spawned by her years of solitude. He scouted her as only a Ranger could, exploring every swell and fold with touch and scent and taste, pausing only when she quivered and groaned like a stricken doe.
Necton, that simple, lusty lad, had had a brisk way with pleasure . . . but this man, thoughtful and reverent and slow, brought her near to madness before he finally covered her, and his rapture was a blessed relief, for then he was still. "How I dreamt of this," he whispered in her ear, once their breath had quieted, "when the fever ate at me. Your hands—" he lifted one, languorously kissing first a fingertip, then the palm—"your cunning hands were always on me, the more tortuous the more tender, for I despaired of winning you."
She gave him her mouth, to take the taste of old pain away. When they parted enough to lie together, cheek by cheek—long-armed, Dírmaen snared the blanket from where it was rutched against the rough stone wall of the cave, drawing it over their cooling bodies—she sighed, though more in contentment than regret. "I am sorry I harrowed you so. Yet your despair assured me that your love was true . . . and," she finished roguishly, misliking this shadow of old unhappiness, "I plainly saw how well you are made."
His tone was light as hers, but did his jaw tighten? "How many men have you seen, that you are such a judge?"
"Enough. Truly," she said, turning to lay a hand on his heart and fix his eye, "none that I nursed have I wanted, save you."
"I am yours," he assured her, setting his hand over hers with a serene smile. "What else does your heart desire?"
It was hard to think of anything wanting. "Oh . . . what have you provided to break our fast?"
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This time, when Dírmaen woke, the place beside him was no longer warm from Saelon's heat. Rubbing bleared eyes, he sat up and peered about him. How long had he slept?
Beyond the cave's dark arch was a sky of purest blue, and by the fall of light, it must be near midday.
Late. Shamefully late. Though it had been his wedding night. Yet where was his wife?
Her clothes were not where he had let them fall . . . nor were his where he had placed them, save for his sword belt and boots. Was this some new prank? Had Randir tracked them and stolen her away? He was on his feet before he remembered other mischief—despite all his care to provide a bower that would please her, he had neglected to lay in a store of food.
Saelon had taken his appalled contrition in better humour than he had any right to expect, with a snort and a laugh, setting her teeth to him in jest before soothing his mortification at her breast. Yet her discontent may have grown with hunger.
This was not how he had wished them to begin.
The breeze shifted, bringing a waft of smoke and the faint sound of wordless song into the cave, and his heart unclenched. That was Saelon's voice, and it was glad, not ominous. Wrapping the blanket around his loins, Dírmaen ventured forth, unsure of what he would find.
On the apron of shelly earth before the cave was a small fire of driftwood, shore cobbles set in the embers; close beside a rough stone box about a span square had been set into the ground, and it was filled with some liquid that steamed faintly. Eyeing it with trepidation—there was seaweed in it—Dírmaen made for the singing, which came from where the stream-fall had cut back the cliff and made a pool.
When he rounded the corner of rock, his eye fell on Saelon, washing linen in the pool, the bare curve of her haunches fair in the sun.
His heart was ravished anew at the sight, and beneath the blanket, his slaked yard stirred gamely. Her loosed hair was dark and otter-sleek; drops of water glinted like gems across her pearl-white shoulders and back. What man entire could see such beauty and not be consumed by desire?
Song rising like a lark's, she wrung out her gown and reached for another garment, which he recognized, after she had plunged it into the water, as his shirt. "You did not need to do this," he protested, as she paused in her song to beat the cloth.
The smile she bestowed on him was no less entrancing than the supple curve of her turn, though it quirked when she saw the blanket kilted about him. "We should return to the hall in linen soiled by our pleasure? However would your dignity bear it?"
He went to her, unable to resist the marvel of possession, the right to touch and hold her shapely flesh. "How could it be worse than failing to provide for you?" he wondered ruefully.
She laughed at him. "If you must fail to provide, may it always be for the table! It is long since I wanted a man to feed me. Have a bathe," she advised, after salving his wounded pride with a kiss of unreserved sweetness, "while I spread these to dry, and by then dinner will be ready."
Halpan had once said none would ever starve in Saelon's keeping. Though she lacked pot and spoon and knife, she spread the other blanket beside her kist-cauldron full of sea-stew and they supped from the shells of the cockles that made the broth. There was purple sea-kale and roots seethed to tenderness, but the green seaweed was uncommonly tough. Drawing an invincible strand from his mouth, Dírmaen frowned at it. "Was it necessary to include this?"
"Slake will support a man through a long day of hard labor," she replied, amorously droll. "You seem to need recruitment."
He could not let such a challenge pass unanswered. Taking the shell from her hand, he scooped her up and carried her to the nearest greensward, where he peeled her still-damp shift from her and served her as a buck served his doe, while she laughed and moaned and writhed bewitchingly beneath him. To bring her to bliss was almost as pleasurable as his own release.
"Has that satisfied you?" he asked once he unfolded from around her, after a last lingering taste of her sun-blushed shoulder. That she was passionate to recklessness, he had long known—had he not seen her rebuke high elven lords?—but her austerity made her seem abstinent, and her appetites were spare. When she first reproached herself with wantonness, he had thought it a ploy, to put him off. But this—
"For now," she allowed, throwing an arm across his breast and resting her chin on his shoulder.
Her rosy complacence made his heart sing. "Then I suppose I had best finish my dinner."
"It will keep," she assured him, holding him fast.
"As you wish." Anything, so long it assured him her smile. He prayed she might hold him forever.
Yet the sun was too strong to lay in its warmth for long. They finished the stew with her shift draped across their shoulders and then retreated to the shade of the may bush, where he nipped lengths of blooming briar, stripping them of their thorns so he might weave a chaplet to crown her beauty. She lay on the daisy-flecked grass and watched him, lips curved in an indulgent smile. "Shall I find something for our supper?" he asked, once he had set the wreath on her tousled hair. He had slumbered while she found their dinner, and her eyes were so heavy . . . .
Her sigh widened into a yawn. "I would like that. Yet," she mused, idly as one woolgathering, "would it not be better to return to Habad? Feeding ourselves will be more trouble than a little ribaldry, and I would not want them to fear you have stolen me away entirely."
If only she would consent to being carried away from her unwonted responsibilities for more than a day! Though he might have prevented this with better preparation. "True . . . but it is long before they will sit down to supper. We need not hurry away."
"No," she agreed, closing her eyes.
He stretched out alongside, setting his arms carefully about her—yet sleep had already claimed her.
How lovely she was when she was at peace, his falcon! How slight in his arms! Such trust, from so fierce a creature, was precious beyond words, and for a long time he kept watch, lest anything disturb her long-deserved rest. But there was nothing here to guard against, close by the sea where she had found refuge for so long, save the birds that flitted in and out of the boughs above and the breeze, cool in the shade. The hush of the waves; the reassuring sound of Mada's teeth on turf nearby; the low, soft breathing of the woman in his arms . . . all these wove their lulling spell, and soon he was carried off as well.
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Mird: Scots, meddled or dallied with.
Linn: Scots, a waterfall, or the pool beneath one.
Briars: thorny stems, particularly those of the rose.
Girdle: no, not the tight-fitting undergarment, but a belt.
Gooseflesh: goose bumps.
Entire: whole; that is, uncastrated.
Sea-kale (Crambe maritima): a distant wild relative of the more common garden kale, native to pebble beaches in western Europe.
"roots seethed to tenderness": these probably include wild carrot (Daucus carota), which Hebridean women traditionally gave their men as gifts after Michaelmas horse races; sea beet (Beta vulgaris maritima), eaten in northwestern Europe since the Mesolithic; and sea holly (Erynigium maritimum). The last was traditionally considered to "strengthen the spirit procreative."
Chaplet: wreath to wear on the head.
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.