. . . after all that is bewitching in the idea of a single and constant attachment, and all that can be said of one's happiness depending entirely on any particular person, it is not meant--it is not fit--it is not possible that it should be so.
--Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
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When the music stopped, Mereth laughed with breathless delight and tugged him towards the pine-wreathed doorway. "Air! I must have a breath of air. Let's step outside for a moment!"
Although he would also welcome a respite from the sweltering din of Beldir's festive hall, Dírmaen hesitated. "Where is your cloak? It is bitter outside."
She shrugged carelessly, drawing him determinedly on. "Do you think we women less hardy than you men? A minute or two will do no harm."
Dírmaen would not have let a horse stand uncovered in such weather, if it were as heated as they. When they passed his brother, who had just come in with Candíl, arguing passionately about hounds, he snagged the cloak from his shoulders.
Outside, the night was crystalline. Mereth gasped at the shock of the cold, and Dírmaen swirled Taratal's cloak around their shoulders, quickly leading her a little away from the raucously tipsy bucks who would not bear the cold long enough to reach the privy. "Oh! Thank you," she murmured, drawing the vair-lined leather close about her—and herself to him. She cast her gaze upwards and smiled at the bright stars, whose light glimmered in her eyes. "So beautiful a night is worth a little chill, is it not?" She turned her face to his, her breath a silver mist before her lips.
Lovely. It would be sweet to set his lips on hers, to keep the chill at bay; their breath already mingled. Yet her headlong ardour made him uneasy. "A little," he murmured, catching the hands that sought his breast beneath the cloak. "Come, let us go back. I should not want to face your brother if you took ill."
Even her pout was pretty. "My brother," she sniffed. "Are you not the raug-slayer?"
"That is no reason to abuse his trust." She was making matters worse, not better. He meant to find a wife, not be ensnared. Stepping out from beneath the cloak, he offered his arm. "Come."
Mereth allowed him to lead her back inside, and when the heat smote them, he slipped Taratal's vair from her slim shoulders. "Let me return this, and I will fetch you a cup of mead." Thin-lipped, she nodded.
Was that a stifled snuffle? Foolish, to dash out into the freezing night in no more than a gown cut for dancing. Perhaps he should bring her mulled ale, instead.
Predictably, Taratal was by the casks. "Well?" he demanded with a knowing grin, pitching his cloak onto one of the nearby benches.
Dírmaen frowned, for Candíl, too, waited as if for a huntsman's tale. "Well, what?" he cast back, irritably. "It is too cold outside for clipping."
"Clipping is the only thing that might keep one warm, on such a night," Candíl laughed, smirking.
"Two cups of mulled ale," Dírmaen told the serving woman behind the board. "I will not throw myself into the first net spread across my path."
"Mereth's is hardly the first," Taratal pointed out.
"If memory serves, you led the lasses a lively chase."
"Only until I found one who could keep the pace," his elder brother dismissed. Eight years wed, with two young sons and a big-bellied wife snug at home, he clearly felt authorized to dispense complacent advice. "Yet you must leave them hopes of catching you, if you want to see their mettle!"
"Why else am I fetching her ale?" Turning his back on their amused faces and taking the cups—warming to hands still chill—Dírmaen set off to find Mereth, skirting the wide, whirling circles of the current dance. He finally caught sight of her huddled in a corner with her two bosom friends, Brennil and Finnelrin. Brennil, glancing up as if she felt his gaze, gave him such a look that he pulled up short.
Mereth peeked his way, hand over her mouth; she appeared to be weeping.
Dírmaen stood where he was, a cup in each hand, feeling foolish and dismayed. Against the wall where the matrons sat, his elder sister Nellind, who had been watching her girls flounce and flirt in the dance, shook her head in despairing contempt.
For a moment longer he hung undecided, then veered away to find Racheron, who was always glad to see a cup of ale. Let him talk a while of chases and quarry he understood well, until his certainty returned.
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For a wonder, they were all together in his father's hall at Gellnen this Mettarë and Yestarë, the first time since Nellind wed and went to her husband's people at Harnan. She had convinced Laegadan that their two remaining girls would profit by widening their acquaintance in a different part of the Downs; her only care was that her Ranger son might find a little cheer for the holiday, and her only disappointment that her eldest had been unable to persuade her husband to leave his kin down Fornost way, so Mother could see her two great-grandchildren.
At the moment, Dírmaen did not much regret their absence. He had drunk rather more of Beldir's spiced ale last night than he had intended, and though he had laid long in the bed he did not reach until midwinter's late dawn, he thought Dunech's three children—with the addition of Míliel's two youngest boys—enlivened the house more than amply, as they put their gifts to good use. The spirited clatter of wooden swords in the passage; a perilous passage through painstakingly arrayed, ankle-high Rangers and Orcs, and he finally reached the sideboard, well-spread even at this untimely hour with cold dishes. Yet it might have been worse: Taratal's wife being so near her time, their two were home with her; and his brothers, by birth or marriage, and Míliel's two older boys were not about. Since the weather was not foul, they were probably riding to Taratal's pack, looking for something to restock the larder after days of feasting near a score. Aside from the children, there were only the women in the hall, quietly companionable over their stitchery about the long hearth.
They were a remarkably large and cheerful family, for Dúnedain. Dírmaen had begun to wonder if it was truly necessary for him to add to it.
Mother looked up from her broidery to see if he was well, and he gave her a smile as he took up a plate, to reassure and hopefully turn any questions. She must have been satisfied, for when she spoke, he was not the subject. "Is anything amiss with Merilin?"
His next-to-eldest niece was not with her mother and younger sister. "Oh, no!" Nellind laughed, looking very content. "Only fatigued, from dancing so much with Beldir's eldest. I do not suppose," she wondered, "you would like her to stay a while longer? Laegadan is impatient to return home, but there is such a liking between her and Bregol. It would be unkind to put so much distance between them."
Mother smiled, sagely gracious. "Of course she may stay if she wishes. I would be glad of her help restoring the house to order after the holidays. And you, Dírmaen," she finally asked, glancing his way with a deeper curve to her smile, "did you have a companionable evening as well?"
Nellind chuffed and rolled her eyes. "Racheron was not the companion Mother meant," she pointed out.
Míliel, who had stayed home with Mother, stopped sewing to gaze at him forlornly. "Oh, Dírmaen . . . . Have you fallen out with Mereth as well?" His younger sister dwelt near enough to know some of the history of his search for a wife.
"There have been others?" Nellind exclaimed.
"I have not fallen out with her," Dírmaen insisted, slapping a slab of venison pasty onto a plate. "I do not know why she is upset with me."
"What did you do to her, when the two of you slipped outside?" Nellind asked, suspiciously.
"Ah," Míliel murmured significantly, and Nellind looked on him with sisterly disdain. "Such a fool you can be, Dírmaen! What is wrong with the girl?"
"Nothing is wrong with her. Mereth is a lovely, sweet-tempered girl."
So was Alphil, and Limchen. He found the lasses he met likeable enough; a half-dozen quickened his blood. Any of them would make a satisfactory wife. Indeed, he was fortunate to have so much choice: the third son of a second son of a third son had little to offer a woman except the honor of his name, the dignity of his blood, and a house even smaller than Taratal's, in a bleak angle of the dale.
Satisfactory. Aye, as his brothers would take whatever fell their way for the kitchen's sake. Yet they were all rascal beside Saelon.
Nellind allowed him to get halfway through his meal before prodding at him again: a grand talker, she could never bear his silences. "Perhaps," she suggested to Míliel, "Mereth was too forward. Was that her fault, brother? You men are keen hunters; it must be disconcerting to find yourself the quarry. But you are well worth catching, you know."
"If that was her fault," Mother observed quietly, "you can hardly expect him to confess it."
"I do not see the use of maintaining so fine a sense of honor," Nellind came back frankly. "It is not as if it will win him a woman of high birth."
No. It had not. If anything, his overnicety had cost him such a one. Stomach closing, he shoved his bench from the board and stalked from the hall.
Outside, clouds were coming in, making the day drear but less bitter. Glad of his new cloak and sheepskin jerkin, Dírmaen walked about the steading with no fixed purpose. The stillness was eerie. No one moved in the yard, carrying wood or forking hay from the ricks for the beasts kept in stable and byre; not even the fowl were underfoot. He had to remind himself that it was only the weather and the season that made it seem desolate: the bondsmen and servants were keeping snug within, recovering from last night's celebrations or making merry anew, doing only the chores that were needful. Ought he go to the stable and take out Sarbôd? The colt was working up well, but the exercise would do him good . . . and perhaps they would happen across Dunech and the others—
No; he did not want to face more gibing from Taratal, no matter how good-natured, and maybe Míliel's husband as well. Kicking a well-gnawed bone back towards the midden, he wandered down to the beck, which gurgled quietly between ice-rimmed banks, crossing on the stepping stones before climbing the low rise beyond to gaze up and down the dale.
Tum Melui was a fair place in summer, lush green between the dark, heather-clad arms of the high downs; even now it had a muted beauty, wanly verdant beneath snow-capped heights and thickly flecked with white-fleeced sheep. Thin plumes of smoke marked the scattered tofts of the Edain. The bleating protest of sheep caught his attention: looking down into the croft of Bosa, their nearest neighbor, Dírmaen saw his father standing tall beside the round-headed sokeman, both of them watching as a shepherd sought to pin one beast from the flock. Curious, he headed down the knoll to join them.
Some of the ewes, it seemed, were poorly in a way Bosa had not seen before, so he had appealed to Father's long experience. After examining their feet and tongues, Father assured him that it was not the murrain that had struck in Bosa's grandfather's time, nor the one that felled cattle to westwards that spring, then advised better feeding and a watch against further decline. Leaving the sokeman with hearty blessings for the new year and a bracing clap on the shoulder, Father headed homeward and Dírmaen fell in beside him.
"Have you ever seen the like?" Father asked, when they were well away.
Dírmaen shook his head. "Is there cause for alarm?" If a plague broke out among the flocks as the ewes neared their time, it would go hard on folk; even his family, though they kept almost as many cattle as sheep.
Father shrugged, the lynx lining his hood rippling in the fitful breeze. "I doubt it, yet who can tell with sheep?"
They continued a ways in easy silence. "How," Dírmaen asked on impulse as they neared the beck, "do you keep on good terms with Mother?"
That earned him a sidelong glance: beneath his silver brows, Father's eyes were still Ranger-keen. "You have quarreled with Mereth?"
No doubt he had heard the story when the others broke their fast. "No, not quarreled." Dírmaen tried to imagine that doe-eyed lass raising her dulcet voice, and failed. "Cares sit too lightly on her for that."
"Or she would have you think so," Father replied judiciously. "Some men find that pleasing in a wife."
"You did not."
Father's smile quirked; from the expression in his eyes, as much at his recollections as Dírmaen's words. "You think your mother was never blithe? Mereth is less than half your age, son; you must expect some frivolity. Marriage settles a lass: she has cares enough then, especially if her husband is a Ranger. Sobriety will come, do not fear. Enjoy her light-heartedness while you may."
True enough . . . . Yet he had not answered his question.
When they reached the yard, Father turned aside to speak to his own shepherd, leaving Dírmaen adrift once more. Should he return to the hall? No, not before the hunters returned, bringing fresh matter for conversation.
His whole day had been disordered by last night's follies, leaving him crabbed and idle. Or was hunger the cause of his ill mood? His stomach reminded him that he had eaten little since yesterday; yet supper was still hours away— The kitchen, of course! Why had he not gone there straight away? After weeks of tempting his appetite, Heiu would not refuse him a bite to keep the inward wolf at bay.
She did not, and so Mother found him there, sitting on a stool in the corner like a cosseted child, licking brambleberry juice from his fingers. "Ah, here you are," she said, smiling with relief before chiding in jest, "Do not spoil your supper, now!"
"No, Mother." For a moment he dreaded she would recall how spare he had been when he returned in Hithui, but the moment passed and she turned to give Heiu directions for serving supper and orders for tomorrow's dishes.
After consideration, Dírmaen helped himself to one more slice of tart, being careful not to dribble; the purple could never be got out of his fawn tunic and breeks.
When Mother had finished her business with the cook, she stopped beside him. "Have you made up for dinner?" she asked, smiling.
"Yes. Thank you, Heiu," he said, mindful of his manners as a favored lad ought to be, and bent to retrieve his jerkin and cloak from beside the stool.
When they stepped out of the kitchen's cozy warmth to cross the few paces to the hall's side door, Mother murmured, "You must not take Nellind's words to heart. She would not chaff you so, if she loved you less."
"I know," he assured her, taking her arm. Nellind had always been a domineering sister, ready to put her littlest brother right. It had been good to see her again after so many years; but he was glad she and her husband would depart the day after next. She had nothing but courting on her mind, with two daughters of an age to wed, and no sympathies for a man's part. For her son's sake, Dírmaen hoped a score of years would alter her views. "She has always been shrewd to find where I am galled."
Mother, too, was shrewd. "This Lady Saelon . . . . You have not said much of her as a woman."
Had he betrayed himself with his abrupt departure after Nellind's fling about high-born women? "What can I say of one who is more a lord than a lady?" It had been impossible not to speak of her. When he first came home, he had to defend her against the charge of neglect . . . and how could one tell of the raugs without bringing her into the tale? So extraordinary a story—a Haleth, in this late Age—excited keen interest, though he told it very ill.
"She is proud, then?"
Dírmaen sighed. "As proud as one can be, who digs her own garden."
Mother halted beside the door with a puzzled frown. "Digs her own garden? She does not trust her servants to do it to her satisfaction?"
"That may be. But she has not your household, Mother. Her only servants are a cowherd and a kennelman. The young wives of two of her bondsmen and the daughter of the third do much of the meaner work, while her niece weaves and sews. You must not imagine her a fine lady."
"I have no picture of her at all." Drawing him to the bench beside the door, she sat down. "What is she like? Dark-haired and grey-eyed, one presumes."
Dírmaen looked down on his mother, who waited expectantly for him to sit beside her and answer. He did not wish to speak of Saelon, but if he refused, she would believe she had discovered the cause of his discontent. "Yes," he agreed, settling down on the weather-worn wood. "Though she is small for one of the Dúnedain."
"Does she have Edain blood?"
"If so, it has not dulled the noble light in her eyes. I know none keener among mortals, save Argonui's." If he desired to conceal his admiration, such praise might not be the wisest course; still, it was the truth.
"What is her age? She cannot be young, if her brother's children are youths."
No. Thirty years too late, Saelon had cried, when he declared his love. "No older than Nellind, I would guess; near my own, perhaps."
"And she never wed?"
"Not that I have heard."
Mother pursed her lips. "How queer, particularly if she is high-born! Does she have a tragic tale of love lost?"
What else could creditably excuse a woman from marriage? "All one hears is of her love for the sea."
"The men of Númenor loved the sea, but that did not prevent them from taking wives."
"Have I not heard it said—" by the hearth within, but a few evenings back "—that men are as jealous as stallions? I have never heard of a Númenórean who shared his wife with the sea, but the woman who objected to sharing her husband thus was so singular we tell the tale still."
That earned him an amused tsk. "You should not eavesdrop on your sisters' dissatisfactions!"
Dírmaen raised his brows. "How else is a man to learn what vexes a woman?"
"The best way," he was told, "is to ask her."
"If," he replied, "she will be candid."
Mother sighed. "True. Yet too much candor is often as bad as too little. I am sure many Númenórean wives disliked sharing their husbands with the sea, but were too wise to say so. One cannot have all one's will once wed—man as well as woman!" she warned him. "Accommodations must be made, and graciousness is the best promoter of peace."
Peace. One of the two things Saelon desired . . . yet the other was to be free. "And if one will not parley?"
Mother's dark grey eyes regarded him thoughtfully, trying to understand his difficulties from what he was willing to say, as he might puzzle out an elusive beast from its spoor. Surely by now she knew it was not the biddable Mereth who baffled him. "There are folk, women as well as men, who delight in battle, never happy unless striving to triumph over someone: neighbors and kin, if no better enemies are to hand. You are not such a one, Dírmaen. You have foes enough, and require a restful place to come home to. Find a woman who will make that for you."
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Vair: the fur of the a grey variant of the European red squirrel, usually found around the Baltic; the striking contrast between grey back and white belly when pieced together made it a favorite among nobility.
Mettarë and Yestarë: the last day of the passing year and the first day of the new year in the Steward's Reckoning (Yule is the term in Shire Reckoning).
Rascal: for the true huntsman, the noblest quarry was the stag (male red deer, Cervas elaphus: North American readers, picture wapiti elk, which are the same species). To be fit quarry for a hunt in the classic manner, a stag had to be at least a "hart of ten"—have ten points on his rack of antlers. Any other deer, whether a younger stag or hind, was "rascal," annoying beasts that distracted the hounds from their proper prey.
Tum Melui: the northernmost dale on the eastern slopes of the North Downs, Dírmaen's ancestral home. The name has been borrowed from Rosedale in Yorkshire. For those who care about such things, I equate the North Downs with the North Yorkshire Moors (including the Cleveland and Hambleton Hills). This would put Fornost—"Northern Fortress"—in a position not dissimilar to York, the northernmost Roman legionary fortress in Britain.
Tofts: a toft is the collection of buildings that made up an English medieval farmstead.
Croft: an enclosed piece of open ground associated with a toft, between it and the cropland. Most were used as pasture for selected livestock, although some may have included a garden.
Sokeman: a free peasant farmer, holding land in return for rent or service. Socage required attendance at the lord's court.
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.