Thar na sìorruidheachd, thar a sneachda Across eternity, across its snows
chì mi mo dhàin neo-dheachdte, I see my unwritten poems,
chì mi lorgan an spòg a' breacadh I see the spoor of their paws dappling
gile shuaimhneach an t-sneachda; the untroubled whiteness of the snow:
calg air bhoile, teanga fala, bristles raging, bloody-tongued,
gadhair chaola 's madaidhean-allaidh lean greyhounds and wolves
a' leum thar mullaichean nan gàradh leaping over the tops of the dykes,
a' ruith fo sgàil nan craobhan fàsail running under the shade of the trees of the wilderness
ag gabhail cumhang nan caol-ghleann taking the defile of narrow glens,
a' sireadh caisead nan gaoth-bheann making for the steepness of windy mountains
--Somhairle MacGill-Eain/Sorley McLean, "Coin is Madaidhean-Allaidh/Dogs and Wolves"
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The keen bite of the wind at his face; the tuneful music of horn and hound behind; and ahead, two shaggy beasts flew over the snowy moor at their utmost stretch, each striving to win their fatal race. Low over Mada's neck, Dírmaen urged the brown gelding to close, clenching his gloved hand on the spear shaft to supple chilled fingers. The wolf ran strongly, but Baude was fleeter and would be on him in a furlong, before the pack could come up.
By Aldaron, that bitch was a gallant beast! Candíl must have bred an alaunt into her line, for greyhounds, no matter how large, were rarely eager to come up with a wolf. A length between them; half a length, and she snapped at his tail. The wolf surged forward, a last desperate burst, tearing clots of snow from the ground, flinging them at his foe. Uncaring, Baude lunged, teeth flashing at his hocks.
Both animals went down in a spray of white, a momentary veil over their tumble. A roil of iron-grey and fawn; Dírmaen could hear their snarls under Mada's gusty breaths and the excited yells of the laggard pack. The wolf seized Baude's throat and was thwarted by her stout, studded collar, as his bristling ruff clotted her furious fangs. Dropping his head, the wolf snapped at a clawing foreleg, and the bitch gave a piercing yelp--
Dírmaen drove his spear into a dark haunch that showed clear, tearing the beast from Baude. Mada snorted at the stink of wolf and blood as the steel ripped free, and then the swiftest raches leapt onto their writhing prey. Leaving the kill to them, Dírmaen turned back to the wounded hound, who stood three-legged, gazing at the bloody melee with yearning in her brown eyes. "Hssh," he breathed soothingly as he dismounted and drew off a glove. "Brave lass. Lie down--down, and let me see."
After a moment of doubt, for he was almost a stranger to her, she obeyed, and began licking her rent leg. Caressing his way by careful degrees from her shaggy, slaver-daubed head, Dírmaen had just reached the wound when hooves thudded nearby and a pair of boots hit the ground. "Cursed luck!" Candíl cried, as the bitch looked up at him and whined piteously. "How bad?"
"The smaller bone may be broken," Dírmaen answered.
"Coifi!" Candíl called towards the huntsmen whipping the pack from the rent carcass, and stooped to fondle Baude's ears. "Tend her," he ordered when the man trotted over, tucking his whip into his belt, "and make sure she gets first feed from the carcass."
"Baude down?" Halforod asked, pulling his broad-breasted grey up beside them.
"Thankee," Coifi murmured in Dírmaen's ear, and he moved aside for the huntsman. "Aach, who's my bonny lass?" The bitch whimpered as Coifi felt her gory limb. "Not so bad as might be," he judged. "Long as the wolf wasna wood, she'll make whelps if naught else."
Candíl gave a huff of lessened displeasure, and looked to Dírmaen. "Then you shall have your pick from her next litter, for that spear thrust of yours."
A generous gift; but the younger son of the Lord of Rhassarth had always been open-handed. "Thank you," Dírmaen said, smiling. "She is a splendid hound. I hope she mends well enough to run again. Yet Taratal is likely to get more use from your gratitude than I."
"Why?" Candíl was not best pleased with Taratal at present. The invitation for a fortnight's hunting had been to him, and extended to Dírmaen instead when he rode over with his brother's apologies. The only man in the Downs keener for hunting than Taratal did not think a new babe sufficient excuse to neglect the chase, especially since it was a girl.
Dírmaen gave him a wry grin. "It is hard to keep a stable and kennel while in the Chieftain's service."
"As you would know," Halforod observed dryly to his son, "if you would leave off slaying beasts long enough to kill a few Orcs."
This sounded like a well-worn subject; indeed, Candíl was nearer the age for marriage than that at which likely men sought a recommendation to the Chieftain. "Who would keep these vermin--" he glanced to where Coifi oversaw the unmaking of the wolf, one of his varlets chopping the goat's haunch they had brought to reward the hounds "--from the flocks and herds, if we were all on the borders? And train your horses and hounds, since you cannot attend to such trifles while ranging?"
Since his heir was well-placed among the Rangers and had already gotten his own heir, Halforod apparently felt content enough to roll his eyes and snort at such wrong-headedness. "Coifi and I could manage quite well without you; I have earned the right to such pleasures! You are like one of those dogs that finds coursing after hares so thrilling he will not settle to tracking worthier beasts. But if you are content with such prey, and do not choose to run with Argonui's pack . . . ."
"My brother is no better," Dírmaen said, seeking to shield his host a little.
"At least he served enough years to earn a bride! As for training hound and horse, no man needs a hound to track Orcs. And when have you let a horse go," Halforod asked his son, "unless it had a fault?"
Candíl raised his brows questioningly. "Have you not always taught me that the best stock should be kept back for breeding?"
His father shook his head and looked to Dírmaen, lips quirking in a smile. "Let this be a warning to you: sons ever twist your words to suit themselves--and do not take a mount that has been through Candíl's hands on patrol!" As Dírmaen went to catch Mada's reins and collect his spear from where he had plunged it into the turf through the snow, the lord considered his gelding thoughtfully. "I would not have guessed that fellow had such a turn of speed," Halforod confessed. "Is he one of your father's, or did you pick him up while you were in the west?"
"Neither," Dírmaen replied, mounting. "Arathorn gave him to me. I was told he came out of the South Downs."
"Hm; yes, they have some first-rate studs down there: most of the Númenorean and Rohirrim blood came up the Greenway. A pity he was cut." That regret seemed to lead his thoughts to other losses. "Halladan bred very fine horses, better suited to these climes than most of the southern stock. Do you know what became of his stud?"
"Many were lost to the raugs, I fear, or are running wild in the hills. His best stallion and three mares of quality he sent to his sister with his children; she also has two of his hobby mares." That he could now speak of Saelon without feeling the pangs of want pleased him.
"They are being bred, I hope." Halforod frowned. "Has she a man who understands such things?"
"Her cousin--Halpan, next in line after Halladan's son, who has been fostered with Râdbaran--sees to such things." When he was at Habad-e-Mindon. "The only other stallion is his, but Halladan's has sired all the foals these last two years."
"Râdbaran has taken Halladan's boy in hand?" Rhassarth's lord pursed his lips. "Was that Arathorn's doing?"
"Râdbaran asked, and the lad and the Lady agreed, I believe. Yet Arathorn must have given his blessing."
Halforod's noncommittal tone and silence bespoke differences in counsel or policy among the lords, something beyond Dírmaen's ken. He had served Arathorn and found him a just master; he had served alongside Argonui and liked him as a man . . . the little the Chieftain had yet asked of him gave him no grounds for complaint. Not knowing the preferences of the lord over his father's lands, however, it seemed wisest to leave the matter lie.
With Candíl, they watched as Coifi carried Baude to the gutted carcass, so she could eat the goat's meat and blood-soaked bread of the róma from it, while the rest of the pack was kept back by the other huntsmen. They blew the mort while the varlets hallooed, and when the valiant bitch had had her share, she was taken away and the pack let in.
They were making their way down off the moor, hounds trotting happily alongside, when a horseman was seen, pounding up the slope as if to meet them. "Who is this?" Candíl asked, frowning in puzzlement.
Halforod shaded his eyes, for the sun was low in the west. "Is it Borthir? Dírmaen, your eyes are younger than mine."
"Yes." It was the young Ranger from the north shore of Lake Evendim, who was serving his term as a message-rider.
"Why did he not wait at Dungarth for our return?" the lord wondered, pressing his grey into a canter.
The message must be urgent, Dírmaen reflected, as he followed close. Though the days were lengthening, they could not have stayed out much longer, and if Borthir had ridden hard or far in this weather, he could hardly be faulted for sitting a while with a cup of ale before a good fire, rather than chasing after them on the white, wind-swept hills.
"What news?" Halforod called, as soon as they were near enough, and Borthir finally halted his laboring, sweat-stained bay.
"Here you are, Dírmaen!" the rider cried out in relief. "Mixed news, Halforod, but my message is for Dírmaen."
"For me?" If ill had befallen his kin, the news would have been brought by one of the folk of Tum Melui, not a Ranger. Did Argonui have a need for men so pressing that he must recall him in such haste? "What is it?"
"Halgorn, who has been harrying the outlaws beyond the Lune, begs you will meet him in Srathen Brethil, as soon as you can. The outlaws have taken to the mountains and eluded them, and he craves your knowledge of the area and skill in tracking."
"When did you leave Halgorn?" A hundred and fifty leagues lay between them and Srathen Brethil by the straightest way. Even a message-rider, swapping horses with such patrols as he met on his way, must have taken near a week to reach him; there would be no time to return to Gellnen for farewells and the oddments left behind.
Borthir shook his head. "I have not come from him. I left Fornost yesterday morning, and lost the better part of a day seeking you in Tum Melui."
"Come," Halforod said, starting back down towards Dungarth at a brisk trot. "There is much to do, if we are to put you on the road at first light. You will need another horse--my stable is at your service. Do you lack anything in the way of arms or gear?"
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Too warm for snow, too cold for mud; when he could, Dírmaen made camp where the pale yellow primroses, peeping timidly out at the grim grey end of winter, had found shelter. Nínui was a dire month for travelers, though its icy grip on the earth allowed him to ride across rather than around many bogs, saving at least a day. He ought to have been discontented--never warm, eating leather-hard beef instead of larded venison, naught to drink but water--yet in truth he was happier than he had been in a long while.
The respite from duty's demands had done him good, but the satisfaction of being wanted was better still. Halgorn did not beg easily, or often.
After crossing the Lune he kept a little north of west until the peaks of the Blue Mountains could be made out, sharp-white against the clouds' drear grey. A day further, and he struck the course of Allt Lim, whose ice-rimmed waters led him into the sheltered glen. There were the birches that gave Srathen Brethil its name, their slender silver trunks starkly bare; there the frosted surface of the pool--no golden flag-flowers at this season--beside the ford, which the swift current kept from freezing.
"Hai! Dírmaen!" cried a glad voice from the slope above.
As he scanned the trees, a patch of shadowed snow rose, revealing itself to be a Ranger's grey cloak, and the wearer threw back his hood. "Randir!" Dírmaen called back, grinning. "I thank you for not knocking me from my horse!"
In the winter stillness, he could hear his friend's nettled huff at the reminder of their inauspicious first meeting in the confusion of a night melee. "If you do not leave off, I will happily lay you low again. Where were you that you are so long in coming? Rivendell? Or the Pony's common-room?" Randir slid more than strode down to join him.
"Hunting wolves with Halforod . . . but wolf's-heads in the mountains in winter sounded more entertaining."
Randir snorted. "Entertaining. That is one word for it."
"Have you left any for me?" In the more than a fortnight since Halgorn's message was sent, much may have happened.
"We have . . . but the weather may leave us little to do." Glancing at the snow-mantled peaks all about them, Randir drew his hood back up. "A bleak place, this. Why will its people not settle across the Lune, as the Chieftain has commanded?"
Dírmaen sighed and shifted in the saddle. "In midsummer, it is fair." As fair as Saelon, dancing in Lothron; even now, it had a severe beauty, no less familiar. "The mountains breed thrawn folk, and not only Dwarves. How many are you, and where will I find Halgorn?"
"Five, now that you are here. We have taken the lord's hall." He pointed across the ford, and Dírmaen saw a faint thread of smoke rising beyond the lea. "I will not keep you longer: Halgorn is anxious to consult with you, and there is a pot of stew on the fire."
"Keep warm," Dírmaen wished him, leaning down to clasp his arm, "and I will see you when you are done your watch."
When he had last looked on the hall of Saelon's kin, it had been desolate, raug-broken, sheltering naught but sparrows. Stopping to let the horses drink at the ford, Dírmaen reflected on how much difference a little smoke rising from the louver made: proof of life and warmth, like a puff of breath on the lips of a fallen man. The snow no doubt cloaked many signs of decay--he wondered what, if anything, they had done about the gaping hole where the corner-post had been broken--but so long as the roof did not give way under its burden of white, he would not complain.
The homely thump of someone splitting wood; two men looked up from their examination of a horse by the door of a stoutly built stable as he rode into the yard, one of them Halgorn. "I knew you would come! The One love you--is that a spare horse?"
"Yes, one of Halforod's."
Dírmaen dismounted, gratefully, and jerked his chin at the chestnut, who was standing on his heels. "What is wrong with this fellow?"
The other Ranger, an older man with grey beginning to streak his dark hair, made a sour face and stroked the beast's neck. "The cold and wet have gotten into Rust's hooves."
"May I?" Dírmaen gestured towards the gelding's feet.
Halgorn took Mada and Halforod's roan while he looked over the chestnut. A well-made beast: his legs seemed sound enough, but there was a tenderness in the feet, and the horn of his hooves was not as hard as it ought to be. Southern-bred horses were sometimes prone to such complaints; it was well they had caught it early. "I see he was shod."
"He was; but it is long since we saw a farrier."
That was a common problem with Ranger's horses. "If there is not the wherewithal to shoe him again, all that can be done is to rest him and keep his feet tolerably dry. How is the stable?" Since Halladan had been devoted to horses, it ought to be good.
"As dry as anything, in this weather," the older Ranger said, shrugging, "unless we bring him into the hall and stand him by the hearth. Faelnoth," he named himself, offering his arm.
"Dírmaen. You are welcome to the roan, Pegeb. He was raised on the North Downs and scorns snow, unless it comes higher than his knees."
Faelnoth bowed his head in thanks. "Who could refuse such an offer, in this place? May I see to your horses for you?"
"Who could refuse such an offer, with a good fire finally in reach?" Dírmaen returned, smiling. "Some of the bags on Pegeb are oats and beans: I thought your supplies might be running low. The dried apples and meal, however, are for our feed."
Halgorn clapped him on the shoulder and laughed. "For such kindness, you may have the best piece of gristle left in the pot. Come; let's get in, so you can start to thaw."
By the modest woodpile, Hanend waved a welcome. From this angle, Dírmaen saw that the hall had been hastily repaired: the broken post replaced with a rough-hewn log, boards wrenched back into place, pine boughs draped over the hole in the roof. "You have been busy," he exclaimed. "Is there no kitchen, or smaller building that would do?"
"That is not our work," Halgorn said dryly. "The outlaws took a fancy to the place. It seemed a shame not to enjoy their only efforts to do something creditable."
Dírmaen gave a sardonic chuff. "So they were here."
Halgorn held the door for him. "As you can see."
It was not so bad as the house where he had stayed on his return from Habad-e-Mindon, but probably because his fellows had cleared away the rubbish and mended what they could during interminable weather-bound days and long, tedious evenings. Still, the furniture that remained was scarred by blade and fire, and a faint odor of piss underlay the strongly resinous scent of the new-cut pine boughs strewn thickly on the floor. At least the outlaws had left the pot-chain, and a few hangings survived, not too badly cut by the figures upon them being used for targets. "That is our bedchamber," Halgorn said, nodding towards the corner the hangings screened off, furthest from the one wrecked by the raugs, where a little snow wafted across the floor, blown in through the unchinked planks. "And here is the kitchen." Lifting the lid from the pot by the modest fire at the nearer end of the long hearth, he dipped Dírmaen a bowl of stew. "No ale, I fear, but at least we can give you something hot."
"For which I am heartily grateful." After a week in the wild, a roof and hot food were not trifling comforts. Still, as he sat and sucked the meat from the bones of an unlucky hare, he could not help wondering what Saelon would make of the ruin of her childhood home. Or Rian, since her memories were fresher and heart more tender.
Perhaps it was as well that Saelon had kept her little band by the shore, else they would have been here when the outlaws came.
"How many outlaws are there?" he asked Halgorn, who was rearranging the fire. More than a few, to manhandle a new corner-post into place . . . and at least one among them with intelligence and perhaps ambition, able to command his fellows. If there was not some cunning among them, Halgorn would have quickly put an end to them.
"Eight or nine are left, we think. Meagvir claimed his patrol slew seven, and we have killed six: three here and the rest further up the valley, as they retreated through a storm. But they slipped away through one of high passes and the snow covered their tracks." Halgorn thrust his stick into the embers as if they were the foe. "They did not go by the tarn where the raugs laired, that I know. You have been in these parts more than I--are there other ways they might have taken, or places they could find shelter?"
"So many?" Dírmaen exclaimed, dismayed and not a little alarmed. More than a score, before they began harrying them. "I had no idea there were so many lawless men in the whole northwest! Where could they have come from?"
Halgorn sighed. "I do not know. Meagvir suspected some had come from the hills west of Carn Dûm, but others are surely men of this valley. Who else could have led them to escape? We purposefully held our attack until the the blizzard was thickest, to prevent their flight."
The hillmen of Carn Dûm were as inured to cold as any living--and rapacious as Orcs. "South of here, I am told, there is a good pass that leads towards Côfgelion." There were no sheltered places in the mountains; the corries he had hunted through last summer must be full of snow. The only fit place for man or horse would be along the shore.
"No, they did not go south," Halgorn declared. "We drove them up the valley, beyond the tarn of the raugs." The fear that had suddenly bloomed in Dírmaen's breast was no more than anxiety in the troll-slayer's eyes. "If some were men of Srathen Brethil, might they have heard of the settlement at Habad-e-Mindon, and gone that way?"
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Aldaron: Lord of the Trees; one of the names of Oromë.
Alaunt: a gazehound, which pursued and brought down prey it could see, larger and burlier than a greyhound. Though slower, they were stronger and more reckless, suitable for quarry such as bear. Greyhounds, which are also gazehounds, were more variable than they are today, including larger, rough-coated types we would now call deerhounds. Both of these were auxillaries for most hunts; the pack proper would be raches or running-hounds, very like their fox-hound descendants, which tracked game by scent. The term "bitch" is used here in its proper sense, to indicate a female canine; males are dogs.
Wood: mad; infected with rabies. This was a serious concern when hounds were bitten by wolves, for healthy wolves usually avoided men.
Rhassarth: "region of cliffs," a name of my own invention; the northern North Downs and surrounding country. In my vision of scattered and decayed Dúnedain lordships, this honor is about on a par with that of Srathen Brethil.
Varlet: generally, a page or servant; in hunting, the next-to-lowest position in a hunting establishment, usually held by a teenaged boy learning the art.
Númenorean blood: while some writers have proposed the existance of Arab-like horses from Harad (which is perfectly plausible), I have chosen to infer that the finest equine bloodlines--the horses brought from Valinor by the Noldor and mearas excepted--could be traced to Númenor. Their excellence was probably due to a higher proportion of Valinorean blood, since only the finest horses would have been transported to the island kingdom. Many Númenoreans settled about the Bay of Belfalas before the Downfall; indeed, Umbar was their chief naval base in Middle-earth.
Róma: Quenya, "trumpet-sound"; also "shoulder." I am using this in place of curée, the Middle French term used by English nobility for the ritual rewarding of the hounds at the end of the hunt--often the only time, unless they were sick, that they got meat. The term seemed appropriate, since horns (Oromë's horn was called Valaróma) were blown throughout the curée, and with smaller game, some of the flesh was given to the dogs along with the entrails. I chose Quenya rather than Sindarin because the elaborate ritual of such hunts seems more in the Noldorin line.
Lake Evendim: the lake beside the Emyn Uial; Annúminas, the ancient capital of Arnor, was on its southern shore.
Dungarth: Halforod's hall.
Nínui: Sindarin, the month of February.
Larded: wild game is lean, which can make the meat dry; it was often laced or covered with fat or fatty meat like bacon to make it more succulent.
Allt Lim: compound; Gaelic allt, "stream" (compare Sindarin ôll, mountain stream), and Sindarin lim, "swift."
Wolf's-heads: outlaws, to be hunted down like wolves. A bounty was paid for bringing in the head of a slain wolf.
Carn Dûm: the chief fortress of Angmar.
Côfgelion: Sindarin, "bay of Gelion"; the bay north of Forlindon and southeast of the Isle of Himring. A comparison of maps of the area in the Third and First Ages shows it is in the approximate location of the upper valley of the River Gelion, and so I have conjectured that the bay was named after its ancient headwaters.