10. House Divided
Open rebuke is better than secret love.
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Throbbing in his shoulder and his leg; the scent of stone and open air; dim, indirect sunlight. For a moment, waking, Veylin thought he was in Saelon's little cave, wounded by the fiend . . . yet the soughing in his ear was someone's breath, not the mutter of the sea, and a warm weight lay across his breast.
Guardedly he peered from slitted eyes. The roof above him was the dressed stone of a dwarf-house, though a long rift let in morning light and breeze, and the weight on his breast was Sút, her head pillowed on his shoulder and one arm clasped about him.
The Riven House, where he had brought the half-drowned Sút with toil and pain, through pitiless rain. They lay where they had huddled for warmth in sodden clothes beside a meager coal fire, now choked by clinker and ash, with only the pony's saddle blanket between them and the unyielding hearthstone. Their only other blanket, his cloak, had drifted during the night, tangling about their legs. Yet though his clothing was still unpleasantly damp and his feet cold, it was not the mortal chill of yestereve, which had sapped his strength like a gushing wound. They had endured: it was day; and with the blessing, aid would be here before nightfall with dry clothes and a comfortable supply of coal and food.
If Thyrnir and Oski had pushed on through the night, they might be here considerably earlier—a heartening thought, until Veylin realized it must be near midday for so much light to come through the cleft in the roof. A tolerably sunny midday too, which would speed the lads on their way. "Sút," he murmured, hesitantly. Necessity could excuse much, but the youngsters must not find him lying in a woman's arms. Besides, her not inconsiderable weight, pinning the shoulder wrung by hauling her from the flood, began to oppress him.
Her soft snoring quieted as she stirred in her sleep, but she did not wake. She must be deep down, as near as a common Dwarf came to the restorative slumber of the Reborn.
"Sút." He supposed he must not blame her, for this at least, but his embarrassment at her embrace grew. He did not even like the woman, and their beards were mingled, russet curls amid the black.
She did not open her eyes but snuggled closer, a smile curving her lips.
Something stirred in his vitals, and he prayed it was apprehension. This was beyond awkwardness. Reaching for the hand that clasped his waist, Veylin considered riding out to meet Thyrnir, leaving Sút to wake to solitude and, may be, somber contemplation of her unwisdom. No. She was sorely battered and without any other protector; worse, she could not be trusted to sit still. If they returned to find her missing, how would he explain himself, especially to Auð?
Prying her boulder-barked fingers from their hold was what roused her, and she groaned, clenching the hand into a fist. Blinking in blank bemusement to find herself nose to nose with him, Sút sat up, slowly, her bruised face hardening as she stifled her pain. "Where . . . ?"
"We call this the Riven House. Thyrnir and Oski will meet us here, with a mount for you, as soon as they can, and if you are fit to ride, we will rejoin the company."
"The Riven House?" She stared up at the lichen-stained rift in the roof, still dripping water from yesterday's rain. "Why . . . ? Oh." Her face changed as memory woke, behindhand. "My pony is dead? Then how did I get to this place?"
"You rode mine. Now you must pardon me, for I should step outside to make sure he is still with us. I will return shortly."
Yet when he tried to stand, pain went through his game leg like a crossbow bolt and he froze, hissing.
Sút reached out, steadying him. "What have you done?"
"What have I done?" Veylin growled, smacking at the hand she laid on his knee. "Nothing I have not done before. Hand me my stick."
Though she had shame enough to put some color in her cheeks, where they were not already darkly bruised, she did not leave go. "Do not be a fool from pride—as I have! No wonder your leg does not mend, when you tax it so. Sit down. Why did you not ride as well?"
He did not sit, but nor could he creditably rise, not without his stick. "It would have overburdened the beast."
Sút chuffed. "That is what ponies are for, burdens. You would rather cripple yourself than a beast?"
"My leg is not so bad as that," he dismissed. "The damp and cold have made it rusty. It will be well enough once it is rested."
"Then rest!" she insisted, pressing him down.
Veylin resisted, mouth set. "Give me my stick."
Sút did not move, the black of her eyes more like obsidian than jet, hardly a handspan from his own. "A woman of Men may succour you, but I may not?"
A setting sometimes seemed nonsensical when its heart-stone was lacking. Now, with her hands tenacious upon him, a possibility occurred to Veylin that threw light from facet to oddly-angled facet, casting Sút's queer behavior suddenly, awfully into meaning.
At one time, Veylin had been intimately familiar with the signs of that vice, for when he returned home after the War with the Orcs, the bidding for his hand had been uncommonly warm. Just of an age to wed, a chieftain's only son and rising gemsmith, his reputation burnished by valour in battle, he had known he would be zealously wooed, and for the first year or two he had relished the ardent attentions of so many talented women.
Yet women strove for spouses as men did for mines, and the pleasure palled as their rivalries sharpened. He had been expected to end them by making his choice: but the measured deliberation of dwarven courtship had shown him that his suitors were more enamoured of his prospects than his person or character. He would not have minded a pragmatical spouse, not so long as she kindled some particular warmth in his own heart; but no one struck that spark. Perhaps it was the fault of his shrewd eye, quick to detect flaws, even deep in a stone; perhaps his expectations were too nice, with Auð and Thekk's love as his example. Whatever the reason, none suited, and Safna's resolve, recognizing no refusal, became such a trial that he had left Sulûnduban with his father's blessing, traveling widely in search of knowledge, skill, and hopefully a woman he could love.
Craft of mind and hand he had found in abundance, but not a wife, and as the decades passed, marriageable women ceased to invite his interest. After the War, there were already too many youths who lacked a father's support as they came of age. Who would deliberately handicap their children by taking a husband who could not live to see them wed?
Therefore this was doubly astounding. Sút had never been one of his beaus. As his elder sister's bosom friend, she would have had formidable advantages—but the only one she took was to tease and provoke him, a liberty he resented even as a child.
The clasp of her hand on his thigh—just above the knee, at the seat of the pain—was far beyond such liberties, however. "Being more dead than alive when she found me, I had no say in the matter. Leave go, Sút, and I will sit."
He had been silent too long. Now her mouth was as hard as her eyes, and she did not let go. "Do not tell me you have been blind all these years, rather than unfeeling."
"What are you speaking of?" This ground was too hazardous for conjecture.
"You are like those opals that enchant you," Sút replied with bitter scorn. "All the show of fire, but no heat. Why I should still care for you, I do not know."
"Care for me?" Any mortification he felt on account of his ignorance died. "If you did, how was I to know? You are always finding fault and quarreling with me!"
"You hate flattery and love argument, or you would not enjoy councils so much. Why have you always sought my company, if you dislike me?"
Even if one enjoyed debate, there was no winning against such arguments as these. Since she was so close to Auð, he must often see her, if he was to spend time with his sister.
His sister. By the Deeps, did Sút's friendship with Auð come first, or was it only a means to keep near him? "Did you come all the way to Gunduzahar merely to see whether I was too amiable with the Lady Saelon?"
"Lady," Sút sniffed. "What did you give her that jewel for? The silver was nicely done, by the by—I do not always find fault with you."
"Not as a love-token, or she would not be betrothed to Dírmaen."
The look Sút gave him was curious, perhaps disdainful. "Do you truly believe they are betrothed?"
If she detected his consternation, Veylin hoped she mistook its root. What did she know of Saelon's vows to Dírmaen, and how had she come by the knowledge? "What do you mean? They are handfast," he declared stoutly.
"Did none of the Men tell you that there are two kinds of handfasting, and only one is a betrothal?" Sút clearly relished the opportunity to demean Saelon in his eyes. "That is not the kind that joins your Lady and her paramour."
"Who told you so?" he demanded.
"Murdag," Veylin scoffed, with some relief. He did not think Sút could have found opportunity to unearth such scandal in the crowded confines of the hall at White Cliffs. Their own feast was more likely, where there had been drink and darkness aplenty to encourage confidences—yet he had heard no rumor of Saelon's irregular union among the rest of the company. Sút had held the secret close. "A discontented wench of so little sense she wedded Leod when she might have had Gaernath. Why should you trust her understanding?"
"How much wit does it take to see they share a bedchamber?"
"Murdag has dwelt in Maelchon's household since the spring. How drunk did you get the lass?"
"You are defending her," Sút accused, scowling. "You always defend her, no matter how outrageous her conduct."
"Outrageous?" Veylin put his eyebrows up. "What do you find objectionable, save for this rumored liaison?"
"Your countenance of her freedom! She comes and goes as she pleases, with no restraint, often unaccompanied, I am told. And you admire her boldness! Yet if I want to go abroad, even to your trusted neighbors with a strong escort, I am a rash creature, indecent."
Jealous, yes; and of more than his attention. "She is not Khuzd."
"It is no more natural for the women of Men to rove than for our kind," Sút countered sharply.
"Men value their women less than we do."
"They are all—even your Lady—careful enough of Rian."
"Like us, the Dúnedain are few. Of course they guard of their women."
"Your Lady is not Dúnedain?"
"Not always, in their eyes. She is," Veylin said with bitter distaste, "stunted."
Sút looked on him with contempt. "And that is why you treat her as kin?"
She did not understand. She did not desire to understand, so explanation would be useless. "How can you want me," Veylin wondered, aggrieved, "when you think so meanly of me?"
"There is nothing wrong with you that a Khuzd could not fix," Sút assured him, her hand drifting on his thigh. "You have been too long among aliens. Come," she murmured, leaning closer. "Let me repay you for your pains on my behalf. Perhaps we will mend each other."
When he said she wanted him, he had not imagined her desire was so alive, or he would never have invoked it. "It is too late for that," he objected rather wildly, alarmed by the black heat of her eyes. They were alone in this ill-fated place, and she was a daring woman, with scant respect for propriety. "I wish you had spoken long ago—"
She did not give him a chance to finish. "I would have spoken, if you had not fled the mansion without warning to escape Safna."
"I did not flee."
Sút snorted softly. "Very well. You carried messages to the Iron Hills for your father, and did not return until Safna was safely wed, twenty-three years later. Do not look so aghast," she chided, as he continued to stare. "I am not proposing we wed. That would be a scandal, at our age. Auð would be grieved."
The thought of his sister's reaction to any of this cleared Veylin's head like the sight of naked steel. Reaching down, he captured Sút's licentious hand and removed it from his leg. "Stop this, Sút, before I regret pulling you from the water. You have deluded yourself. I do not desire you. I never have. If you were not my sister's friend, I would have nothing to do with you. Have I made myself plain?" he asked, fixing her with his sternest glare.
"More than amply." Now the heat in her eyes was that of resentment, the perilous offense of a woman spurned. He had made an enemy today, unless long desire had bent her mind irrevocably towards him.
Veylin would rather she hated him. Hate was straightforward, and if she slandered him, her reputation was the more fragile. Thwarted lust, however, led down queer, sometimes abhorrent paths. She was already some way down that road: with one breath, she disparaged Saelon for taking a lover out of wedlock, then with another, she suggested they do the same.
He was not dead to carnal desire, but neither did he burn. One would have to be desperate indeed to give oneself to so unsteady a woman. "Good. Now, if you truly wish to repay me for fishing you from the flood, hand me my stick."
She did, holding it by the very end.
The stab of pain as he thrust himself to his feet was almost a relief after the mortifications he had just suffered. With as much dignity and ease as he could find, Veylin walked across the chamber, rent in the ancient tumults that had wrecked Gabilgathol and Tumunzahar, and through the short passage that led to the open air.
There, outside, he fell back against the stone that had framed the long-lost door, his breath coming as if he had just climbed a steep slope.
Yes, he had fled Safna, all those years ago. Was that not a man's final defense against the implacable will of women, to refuse a fight they could not win? Dwarves who could not agree were stones grinding against each other. One could always escape: to the workshop, to the road, to war . . . . Why must he catch the fancy of the one woman who would not stay safe at home? Where could he go, that Sút might not follow? She had two sound legs to his one.
Not a furlong off, his pony lifted its head and gazed at him with something like curiosity, placidly chewing.
Five. Five legs, if he could catch the beast and stay on it without a saddle.
The shrillness of that thought and the pounding of his heart made him take hold of himself. It was not as though the woman was a dragon. A message to Bersi would see her locked out of Gunduzahar, her goods packed and sent to Sulûnduban. Hopefully she would make no difficulty about selling her share in the company. If she did, he must give some cause in quarter court, and she would have the right to answer. He hoped it would not come to that: Auð and his sept would be mortally embarrassed if Sút chose to vent her spite publicly.
Auð. Would it be better to say as little as necessary to ensure she did not bring him together with Sút again, or ought he provide a fuller account, to guard against any claims Sút might make?
Veylin sighed and began rubbing his knee into something nearer suppleness. There was no point in fretting over such things now. He must see what attitude Sút took when the lads arrived, and Auð's when they rejoined the company. She overlooked much in her friend, but surely she could not ignore the destruction of a bridge.
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Sitting in the sun and smoking atop the lookout rock, Veylin saw the lads come down the dale some hours later. Each led a second pony, gazing earnestly about for the stonemarks that pointed the way to the house. Veylin clambered to his feet, drawing deeply on his pipe, and waved his stick at them.
Thyrnir spotted him first, giving a great halloo and waving back before kicking his mount into a brisk trot, tugging impatiently at the head of the barebacked pony trailing behind. When he reached the foot of the rock, the lad leapt from the saddle, crying, "You are well?"
Veylin slid the last paces down the rock and stepped into his nephew's relieved embrace. "Now that my clothes are finally dry, but I will be better if there is food in those packs." Oski led the pack pony, a sullen creature that would not be hurried no matter how much he stretched its neck. "I have had nothing since last night."
Taking the pipe from his mouth, Veylin spat. "Battered but unbowed. Go in, Oski," he directed, as his prentice dismounted, "and see how she fares."
Bobbing his head, the Longbeard ducked beneath the cracked lintel.
"Thyrnir," Veylin said, once they were alone, "Sút and I have disagreed, irreconcilably. I will have as little to do with her as I may."
Thyrnir did not seem much surprised. Nodding, he asked, "Shall I tell Oski?"
"No, I will tell him myself." After a pause, Veylin said, "I do not know what your mother will choose to do. Sút has long been her friend. You should be polite, but if you will take my advice, you will also be on your guard with her. As you have seen, she is a reckless woman."
Again his nephew nodded. "We had thought to rest here overnight and set out for the wayhouse in the morning. There is no track and the way through the dale is very bad in places—rocky, sucking bogs. We feared to lame the ponies, without the moon, but the clouds have scattered. Would you rather hasten to rejoin the company?"
The lads were worn and the ponies jaded; he would not punish them for Sút's sins. "No. We will all travel more swiftly after sleep and food." The presence of others should restrain Sút, and decency required that she be given a chamber of her own. "The spring is over there, where the rushes grow. Is your mother very distressed?"
"I had little time to see before we left. She was shocked, of course."
Veylin hoped so.
By the time he re-entered the Riven House with Thyrnir, after the ponies were tended, Sút had already withdrawn from the broken hall. Oski had a bright fire on the hearth, and onions and rashers of salt pork on the griddle, the scent of which wrung Veylin's empty stomach. Thyrnir gazed up at the dripping cleft in the roof with awed unease. "What could rend a house so? Was it ill-delved, on a fault? Are any of the chambers sound?"
"I do not know," Veylin replied, to the middle question. "Was the Great Fortress ill-delved? It too was riven in the War of Wrath, when the very Earth was split to open the Hell of Iron beneath the Mountains of Tyranny. Much that was fair and well-made was destroyed in those days, through no fault of the makers." What were his woes beside such tragedy?
"There are two small chambers down the surviving corridor," Oski answered, with the matter-of-factness of one whose kin had been rendered homeless by the Enemy's latest hammer blows. "The others are flooded or choked by rubble. Sút has taken the drier of the two. Shall we take the other, or sleep here?"
Veylin eased himself down by the fire, glad to stretch his aching leg. "I do not care. You were the ones without any roof last night—do as you please, and spread my blanket beside yours. Have you given Sút her share?"
"Yes, and one of the lanterns. I do not know if she will join us for supper, though. Her head is still sore," Oski said.
Veylin did not think it was her head that was sore, but at least she had given a plausible excuse for keeping apart. "Take her a plate anyway. She will need her strength for tomorrow's ride."
They all needed their strength for the ride, for the way was even worse than Thyrnir had said. The rains had turned the dale's bottom to mire, and the heights above were bald rock or so steep-sided there was no getting up and down. As they passed the wrecked bridge, later in the morning than Veylin liked, he muttered to Thyrnir, who rode beside him, "We will have to rebuild that." Oski lagged behind, vexed by the sluggard pack-pony, and Sút kept beside him, a mum and lumpish figure made more awkward by the lack of a saddle.
Whether because of the labor rebuilding the bridge would entail, his disfavor, or their own disapproval, neither of the lads had given up their saddles, something they might have competed for, were she any other woman.
"Can it be done this winter," Thyrnir asked, "or must we wait until low water next summer?"
"I am sure we could get another slab in during the winter, but it might be better to rebuild with masonry, now that our traffic increases. We will see what Nordri thinks." Masonry must wait until frost was past, and the spring floods. In the meantime, they would have to use one of the other routes between Gunduzahar and the mansion, all longer and with inconveniences of their own . . . though trifling in comparison to the difficulties of the ford that was the only remaining practicable way across Rough Beck, deeper and more tumultuous than he remembered, and the sloughs they slogged through.
They did not reach the wayhouse until the last light was fading from the hilltops, and Balnar's hail from his post beside the door was very welcome indeed. As Veylin pried himself painfully from his saddle, Neðan and Ingi were insisting Thyrnir and Oski leave ponies and baggage to them.
Veylin left them to it and stumped doggedly up the short stair, leaning heavily on his stick. Once he stopped, he was not sure he would be able to move again. As he entered the passageway, the clatter of hurrying hobnails reached him barely before Auð, who flung her arms about him in as unreserved an embrace as he could remember. Steadying himself against her, Veylin leaned his head against his sister's for a moment, then set her aside as Rekk joined them.
"We were beginning to worry," the waterwright said cheerfully. "Were the lads laggard on the way?"
"No, the way was very bad. You are all well?"
"Impatient, but well. Come and have supper."
Hearing Sút's step behind him, Veylin watched to see what Auð would do.
His sister looked on her friend without a word, face profoundly grave, eyes narrowed in the close consideration that usually made Veylin squirm when it was turned his way. Then, stepping past him, Auð took Sút by the arm and marched her ahead of him, into and through the common room to the chambers beyond.
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Obsidian: volcanic glass, usually black in color. Jet is soft, its color matte and dull unless highly polished; obsidian is brittle, with a glassy shine where freshly broken. Its edges are also extremely sharp.
Khuzd: Khuzdul, "a Dwarf."
Great Fortress: Gabilgathol, known to the Elves as Belegost, one of the two great dwarf-mansions of the Blue Mountains in the First Age.
"the Hell of Iron beneath the Mountains of Tyranny": Morgoth's fortress of Angband, beneath Thangorodrim. Veylin would not use the Elvish names in this context.
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.