5. Fast Friends
Great things are done when men and mountains meet;
This is not done by jostling in the street.
—William Blake, Poems from Blake's Notebook
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Grimr had been on the Long Lake during a storm, when cresting waves had threatened to swamp the boat, but they had been a child's first tentative hammer-strokes beside this. "Mahal," he muttered, shifting in the saddle, feeling a need for the Maker's protection. "This is what keeps her here?"
They had paused atop the low ridge that ran from the high white cliff to the churning, muddy-grey sea. "As the gleam of gold keeps the miner at the face," Veylin affirmed, turning his eyes to the field of grain that filled the flat between a turf-patched ridge of sand and the talus-slope below the cliff. "I have seen her come back from a gale-shore giddy as a courting lass, with foam in her hair."
"Storms with winds like a torrent in spate," Nordri explained, rising in his stirrups to look back at the long train of pack-beasts climbing to join them. "They are common in the winter months, which is why we housed the Men in the cliff. Only stone is sure shelter against such blasts. Nyr! Tell the lads to picket the ponies rather than hobbling them—we cannot risk them getting into the corn."
If it were not for the menacing throb in the air, Grimr would suspect they were trying him with tall tales. Still, this was a mild morning, with scarce a ripple across the grass. What must that vast expanse be like when the wind howled?
"Would you like to see the quarry first?" Veylin asked him. "Or go across for introductions?"
"Go!" Nordri told them both. "The stone will stay, until we carry it off, but the Lady may set out after berry or blossom."
"If she is not gone already."
The din from the sea did not drown out the doubt in the chieftain's tone, the first Grimr had heard from him. Last night, he had been keenness itself, glad that the mason's expedition provided so prompt an opportunity to make Grimr known to his neighbors; and despite the early hour of their departure, Veylin had begun the day in cheerful mood.
Through the leagues between, however, he and Nordri had told him the story of the fiends and Men, pointing out, as they passed it, the cairn Gaernath had raised over Thekk and Vestri. A noble tale, full of courage and endurance—but revisiting such tragedy, even though avenged, doubtless cast a shadow on one's heart.
"Or they may still be breaking their fast," Veylin reflected, drawing uncertainly on his broad russet beard. "It would be rude to push in."
The mason chuffed. "You know you are welcome—and the ironsmith, too! Do not cheat Grimr of a second breakfast because you are growing stout."
It was hard not to stare at so gross a liberty, but there was no missing the ferocious glare Veylin gave the mason before kicking his pony into motion. As his employer headed down the slope, Grimr cast his gaze about, at a loss whether to follow.
Nordri smiled reassuringly and jerked his chin after his chieftain.
A stream ran along the northern edge of the little plain, and he caught up with Veylin at the ford. The way was well-worn, though it did not look as if it had seen much use of late; an untidy line of stepping stones staggered along the upstream edge. Men's work . . . yet the field beyond gave a more favorable impression.
"This looks more promising than anything I saw across the Lune," Grimr hazarded, when they had gone a few chains along the narrow path beaten in the short turf between the field's edge and the sandy bank of the stream. "Spring was late, and uncommonly wet." Part of this year's misery: some of the foulest tracks he had ever seen; clothes and boots never dry, for weeks on end.
"Spring is always uncommonly wet here," Veylin came curtly back. "But the sand drains."
So it would. "They are fortunate to have such ground. Are they able to spare much of their crop for trade?"
"We already take what they can spare. Maelchon, their husbandman, has a large family, and his wife desired a house of her own, so he came to an agreement with Nordri and Grani. You need not fear for your own profit, however: he is richer in cattle, and their cheese and butter is good."
"And the Lady?"
"She has many resources," Veylin said.
Grimr returned to silence, uncertain what to make of this hash. Should he be troubled, about the company he found himself in, or the Men? Everything had seemed well until they crested the last rise. Had Veylin's more familiar eye seen something that made him uneasy? Why had Nordri goaded him so ruthlessly? He did not know them well enough to make out the riddle, let alone the answer.
Their way joined a broader path that came in from the left, no doubt following the water's course between the cliffs, and ran along the foot of the southern slope until it reached a rutted way climbing up, more like a winding gully than a track. Veylin muttered under his breath as he put his reluctant pony up it, and soon Grimr's beast was snorting at the loose stones underfoot.
"Welcome, Masters!" a voice called from above, and Grimr looked up to see a young Man with coppery hair leaning out to salute them. "You are just in time for breakfast! Master Veylin! Greetings!"
Veylin raised one hand briefly, then gripped his saddle again.
When Grimr's mount scrabbled onto the grassy terrace below the almost sheer face of limestone, a dark-haired boy was taking Veylin's bridle and bowing. "At your service, Master Veylin!"
"At yours and your family's, Hanadan," Veylin answered gruffly. "Is the Lady Saelon at home?"
"Welcome to Habad-e-Mindon, Master," the redhead greeted Grimr very civilly, taking his pony likewise. "I am Gaernath. At your service!"
The Lady's Edain cousin, who rode across fiend-infested hills to fetch assistance for her, though only a lad. "Grimr, Linr's son, at yours and your family's." How long it had been, since he had met Men of courtesy! The boy Hanadan had taken Veylin's pony to a rock where the lame gemsmith could dismount more easily, rattling happily away about blueberries, so Grimr swung down from the saddle. "Where shall I put my beast?"
"Do not trouble yourself," Gaernath assured him. "Hanadan will take him, with Veylin's sorrel, over there, to the cave we use as a stable." He pointed to the larger of two openings beyond a hurdle-fenced garden. "Did they drink at the ford, or shall he water them for you as well?"
"That would be kind," Grimr replied. "They did not drink."
"Where are the cottars?" Veylin asked, drawing his blackthorn stick from its straps on his saddle.
"Mowing hay on the river meadows. You would have met them if you came that way. Here, Hanadan," Gaernath ordered, holding out the reins. "Take Master Grimr's grey as well. Unsaddle them, and—"
"—and when they are cool, take them to the burn to drink," the boy declared with haughty impatience. "I know what to do!"
"Then do it!" Gaernath told him, amused.
"Master Veylin." The voice behind them was less shrill than usual in the women of Men, more like a shawm than a flute. "I am very glad to see you here."
Turning, Grimr saw Veylin bow deeply to a barefoot woman in a patched gown of plain brown woolen. "Lady. You are well?"
Was this the Lady of White Cliffs?
Her curtsey matched his bow for dignity, making her appear less like a peasant's wife. "Very well," she assured him, smiling warmly. "And you? You had a pleasant Midsummer in Sulûnduban?"
Her pronunciation was barbarous, naturally, yet the attempt itself was engaging, an effort even the Men of Dale had seldom made. "Profitable enough," Veylin allowed, glancing back to him. "May I introduce the newest member of our company? Grimr, son of Linr."
Grimr bowed low. "At your service, Lady."
"At yours and your family's, Master. Will you take a cup of ale?"
A cup of ale, a dish of blueberries and cream . . . . The Lady's niece, far more noble in appearance, as delicately fine as any of those maids of the lordly West shielded from his sight, offered bread as well, though it was only barley bannock. "Is the feast quite fixed for next month?" she pressed Veylin eagerly.
"As soon as the moon is full again," he assured her, "the first fair evening. You will come, Rian?"
"Of course! There is hardly music fit for dancing here, since Partalan has gone. You Dwarves play wonderfully. I think," the lass made a show of confiding, casting a sly glance towards a young blonde woman scraping the griddle clean by the hearth, "even Muirne may come, if you promise us music."
"I would like that very much," the blonde hastened to agree, though she seemed bashful under the attention, "but the boys would be a bother, I am sure."
Veylin tutted, setting down his cup. "We should not mind them—they could get into no mischief atop the hill—but you must do what you think best."
"Do you think Murdag will stay at home?" Rian scoffed.
"Meig is so little, she will stay in her basket. Ailig, it seems, must be into everything, and now that Dornach has begun to walk—"
"Fransag has Malmin as well," the Lady pointed out from her seat by Veylin, sounding as pragmatic as she looked. "I am sure something can be arranged. More ale, Master Grimr?"
"A little, if you please." Not too much: the day was hardly begun, and he already felt bemused, though it was the effect of hospitality rather than the ale. When had he last met with such kindness from Men? Years; he could count on one hand the number of Mannish thresholds he had been civilly invited to cross since the War. Without being in the least improper, these women were extraordinarily easy, alone with two Dwarves . . . but then Veylin had supplied the roof they sat under.
In return for the Lady's succour. She poured for him herself. "What brings you across the mountains, Master? Are you, like your fellows across the way, drawn by this stone?"
"No, Lady, though I can see why they love it. Iron is my trade, and I understand your folk want the services of a blacksmith."
"Very much!" She cast a speaking glance towards Veylin, but he was drinking, and did not heed. "When you have finished, I will take you to the hay meadows to meet Maelchon, our husbandman. His need for ironwork is greater than ours."
"A new pair of cloth-shears would be welcome, Aunt," Rian demurred, "and Hanadan is of an age to have a knife."
"You have the wherewithal to make your own bargains," the Lady replied. "Leave Hanadan's arming to me! Scythes and sickles come first, and horseshoes next, if Master Grimr can oblige."
"I can, Lady." Draining his cup, Grimr rose. "Let us go now, if your men are mowing and in need of scythes."
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"Thank you," Saelon said.
Veylin looked over at her from where he leaned on his blackthorn. The cottars had gone back to their mowing; Grimr and Maelchon were deep in talk, the Man drawing on his black beard as he weighed his wants. "I said I would find a blacksmith more amenable to you than Vitr. I am sorry it has taken so long."
"I hope I know better than to hurry a Dwarf!" she answered, with a smile. "Although Master Grimr seems brisk enough."
She smiled much; more than before. Otherwise, the only difference visible was a thong knotted about her right wrist and her hair, neatly put up in a restrained style that spoke to him of Dírmaen's hand. It looked very well. "He has fallen on hard times and is eager to mend his fortunes." There: that should be warning enough for Saelon, and fair to both of them.
"Not entirely through us, I hope! Our needs are grave enough, but few."
Too true. Grimr had not been expecting such austerity, it was plain. Perhaps he should have said something of Saelon's simplicity as they rode hither, yet it defied explanation. One either saw past the appearance of meanness, or one did not. Hopefully the ironsmith, reduced by ill fate himself, would not judge hastily. "No," Veylin assured her. "We have work enough for him at Gunduzahar."
"Then thank you for sparing him from his work there."
"There is no need for thanks," Veylin replied, crossly sharp. Why must she insist on being indebted? "If we want your grain, we must make sure you have the tools you need to plant and harvest."
Still she smiled. "True enough. What would you give for fresh blaeberries?" she wondered, sea-colored eyes suspectly bright. "Or should I dry them and wait until your feast, to deal with Bersa?"
That harvest required naught but a basket, and she could make those herself. She was chaffing him. "Would you not rather trade with Grimr?"
"I do not think we have enough berries to buy Hanadan a knife! No, Maelchon and Fransag's needs are greater," she said more soberly. "I can wait. I will take coin," she allowed, "if that is convenient."
Veylin regarded her with narrowed eyes. Was she in earnest, or only trying to put him in a better humour? "Can you spare cream as well?"
"Certainly. Maon!" Saelon called out. Maelchon's second son set down his hayfork and came running. "Go to the hall," she instructed him, "and tell Murdag to set the cream in the burn to cool. We will not make butter today. How much will you want?" she asked Veylin, as the lad dashed away.
How much? A gill apiece would be more than ample for the berries, but Bersa would be displeased if there was not more for cream-cakes or some other dainty. "Two gallons—three if you have so much."
Saelon pursed her lips. "I would guess I have somewhat less than two, but Fransag may be able to make it three. Shall we go ask?"
"Very well." If they were to establish regular trade between their peoples, it seemed they would have to set the example.
The day was fair and Saelon's pace unhurried, surveying the herbage on the banks with the familiar eye of one judging the ripeness of a crop. As she paused to pluck and nibble a leaf, Veylin ventured, "Where is Dírmaen?"
"On the south pastures with Randir, training the colts." He must have frowned—what was it that kept Randir here, if the Men of the Star were sorely needed elsewhere?—for after a pause, Saelon asked, low, "Are you very aggrieved by my handfasting?"
"I am not," he assured her stoutly, pained by the anxiety now on her face. "As I said in Lothron, you must be the best judge of your own happiness. Are you as contented as you appear?"
He suspected she blushed, though it was hard to be sure, so brown she was from the sun; she certainly looked self-conscious. "Yes."
"Then I am glad." He had no right to be otherwise. "If I gave you cause for worry, please pardon me. I was sorely tried the day you told me. Indeed, all of Lothron was trying." Veylin started down the path again. "I had no notion Dírmaen had gained so much of your affection. When I had last seen you, you were very wroth with him. I believe I was chiefly astounded." On many levels.
"Everyone was astounded," Saelon confessed, wryly abashed. "There is no end to my peculiarity, it seems."
Veylin considered her sidelong. "Your kin and folk are not displeased?"
"That I should finally do what I ought to have done long ago? No, Halpan gave his approval very readily, once he understood we were in earnest. Rian is delighted. Everyone else is exceedingly diverted. In truth, though, I think they are pleased to have Dírmaen settled here, after what happened in Nínui."
Not so long ago, he had considered her reckless for living apart and unprotected. How could he now fault her for taking a spouse to defend her? If she were inconstant, would the sea resent her infidelity? His only concern could be the straitness of Dírmaen's defense: how jealously he would guard Saelon. "A great reassurance, I am sure. And Randir? Is he settling here as well?"
Saelon laughed. "No, but he wishes to settle something before he departs. He admires Rian," she generously explained when he knit his brows at the cryptic reply, " and hopes she will promise herself to him."
The Men of the West were suddenly keen in repentance for their earlier neglect of their kinswomen. "You approve?"
"Randir is a good man," she allowed, "and Rian likes him . . . but no more. She will not be of an age to wed for some years yet, and she knows she might do better. They will dance indefatigably at your feast and then, I believe, he will go. I may," Saelon mused, "send a couple of colts to the Chieftain with him. They are vexing Môrfast, and it is past time I gave Argonui some token of my fealty, especially now that I have taken one of his men from him."
Having not the slightest interest in horses, Veylin made a noncommittal sound of acknowledgment. Silence was apt to seem disapproving. Yet it brought to mind the other tribute she must pay. "That reminds me: the West Council will be held in Sulûnduban this autumn. One year is it with us, the next with the Broadbeams in Barazdush. My custom is to take in the Havens on my way to Barazdush, so I will not be going that way before Yáviérë. I hope that will not inconvenience you."
In truth, he hoped it would not disappoint her; but his heart knew better, and was not displeased when her face fell. "Oh . . . no, I do not think so, but we will miss your company. How fortunate, that you were able to guide us on our first journey that way!"
"Gwinnor would have seen you safely there."
"Perhaps. Yet what shelter could he have provided on that day of rain, when Bersi's cousin took us in?"
Whiskers twitching with satisfaction, Veylin asked, "Have you seen Gwinnor since we left the Havens?" Last summer, he had hardly dared look twice at rock outside the delf, lest the Noldo gemsmith spy out his lodes; now that he had time to prospect seriously, he must weigh the risk.
"No. Coruwi was in the oakwood a fortnight ago, however, and spoke to me as I gathered there. His men have seen no one abroad, he said, save your folk and mine."
Green Elves, who cared more for trees than stone, worried him less than Noldor, but they saw as keenly, and unlike Men, did not shun the night. No doubt the marchwarden would report all he observed to Círdan.
He must have sighed in vexation, for Saelon looked grave. "Do they constrain you as well?"
How had she come to be more familiar with his nearest concerns than all but a few of his own folk? This was how water wore away stone, creeping almost imperceptibly into any crack and gradually widening the opening. "How can I hope to profit by prospecting, with such shrewd and far-sighted neighbors?"
She was silent for many paces, then asked, low, "Is that why you are more often at Sulûnduban?"
Veylin stopped, halfway up the path that climbed to Maelchon's house. "No, it is not. Nevertheless, Saelon, you can be dreadfully discerning."
"I know. I cannot help it."
"I do not suppose you can," he allowed, gazing on her with dissatisfaction. What precisely he was unhappy with, he could not say. Not with her: she was what she was. If one did not like a stone, one should not meddle with it. With Fate, perhaps, for burdening him with such awkward gifts; or with himself, for finding her so congenial. Was there not something wrong in that, when they were of such different kinds?
"If there is something I could do. . . ."
So different. She looked lightweight, ragged and frail, of no account; but she had a remarkable fund of resource and the temper of a blade. Only a fool would spurn an ally of her mettle. "To blind Elves to my comings and goings, in such an open land? If you know of any such thing, tell me, and I may give you another jewel!"
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Scythes and sickles: a scythe is a long-bladed and long-handled tool used to mow down vegetation while standing upright, especially grass for hay; a sickle is a short-bladed and short-handled tool used to reap crops while stooping. Death is traditionally shown with a scythe.
Gill: a quarter of a pint.
Cream-cakes: cakes filled with custard.