6. Man to Man
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense,
Something there is that doesn't love a wall.
—Robert Frost, "Mending Wall"
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Ducks rose from the river as they rode down from the brow of the cliff, and Randir halted Ruin to watch their wing-whistling flight downstream. "Now that you are settled," he told Dírmaen, letting the bay pull aside to drink from a small, mossy pool where one of the many springs trickled down from the heights, "you should get yourself a hawk. There is a nest of peregrines by the ruined tower."
Yes, where the hill dropped sheer to the sea. Dírmaen snorted. "I already have a fine bird in hand. Why should I spoil my temper with an unfledged hack?"
His friend chuckled and sat back in the saddle. "She does put meat on the table, I grant you, but not birds such as those. I cannot reconcile myself to meat that must be picked from a shell, and a man can only eat so much fish and cheese."
Remembering the summer before last, when nearly all they had was what the sea provided, Dírmaen said dryly, "Be glad Arathorn did not send you here." He would have liked to take one of the young stags that had drifted over the hills into the high vale filled with hazels, but they would be a hundredweight heavier in another month, and in the meantime there was butter and cream aplenty. The sweet scent of new-mown hay on the kindly breeze, and knowing Saelon would welcome him home with a cup of heather ale and more than a smile . . . . Discontent would be ingratitude. "You are at liberty to return to Argonui."
"Without some assurance from Rian?" Randir reproached. "You are growing as cruel as your lady."
"Am I?" Smiling, he slacked his reins so Mada could crop the lush growth where the pool spilled along the path. "If she is anything like her aunt, absence may heighten her regard more than dogged courting."
"Rian is nothing like her aunt," Randir insisted, with a show of mock offense. "You slander the sweetest, noblest maid—"
Secure in his own happiness, Dírmaen let Randir declaim, for what comfort it might give him. He did not consider his friend's suit hopeless—how could he, after the bitter trials his own heart had suffered?—but Randir must wait to learn if he would be blessed with success, and he must leave soon. Dírmaen was obliged that Randir had lingered here to do his duty while he healed from his wounds and dallied with his newly won and ardent wife, yet Argonui would want every Ranger as autumn, the time for brigandage, drew in . . . and it would be unwise to leave Randir here to guard Rian while he accompanied Saelon to the Havens, even if Gaernath were left behind for propriety's sake. Dírmaen understood the temptations too well.
Idly, he considered the muddy patch in the beaten path, guessing who had passed between Maelchon's and the hall under the cliff by the marks left since yesterday's rain. The boys, of course, coming and going, the prints of their bare feet deep from the spring of their running; Maon, it seemed, as well as Hanadan and Guaire. That set not much larger but walking sedately was probably Unagh going to visit her sister. Their own horses setting out—
And smaller hoofprints, the steady trot of dwarf-ponies. Two, lightly burdened, headed up-river, not down to the cliff-quarry.
"What is it?" Randir asked, breaking off as Dírmaen leaned down from the saddle to scan the ground more closely.
"We have missed visitors, it seems."
Tracking was not one of Randir's talents, yet even he could read hoofprints aright. "Dwarves! Who, I wonder? I hope," he rushed on earnestly, "there is no bad news about the feast. Rian would be disappointed."
No, those were not Unagh's prints; there in the firmer soil, Dírmaen saw the mark of a scar on one heel, a curved ridge he knew very well, having often traced it in the dark despite the wriggling of the foot. Beside them a small pair of hobnailed boots had walked, skirting the mud and treading unevenly. More weight on the left, and when he sought it, Dírmaen saw the slight mark of a stick on the right.
Veylin. Afoot beside Saelon here between her folks' dwellings, where there were none to see.
Dírmaen felt the old jealousy stir, a dragon troubled amidst its sated sleep. He had won Saelon, or at least the fullest opportunity to prove he would serve her well, and save for the fixed term of their irregular bond, she had given herself unreservedly to him in return. To know her was joy, and fulfillment unexpected, whose light he saw reflected back upon him from her shining eyes when he held her in his arms.
Yet there was one intimacy they did not share: confidence in the inscrutable dwarf-lord who was her neighbor, as russet and as crafty as any fox. Dírmaen respected Veylin, but he did not trust him, while Saelon treasured the Dwarf's counsel more than the princely sea-jewel he had given her, in payment of a debt neither would explain. Dwarves were queer folk, unfriendly, thrawn as their native stone, yet Saelon treated the dwarf-lord as though he were a kinsman.
And Veylin responded in kind. Having a better claim to kinship with the lady, Dírmaen had frowned on their familiarity as soon as it came to his attention . . . and ever the more as his own misprized regard for Saelon grew, until it became the greatest impediment to his suit. Her friendship with the Dwarf was a rock, upon which he could only come to ruin. Without clear sign of peril, it were best to steer clear.
Had they gone aside with intent, or did he misread innocent acts from animosity? Saelon had more than once charged that he was too ready to see ill where none was purposed. A useful error in a Ranger, who must ever be vigilant, but not so pardonable, perhaps, in a husband. Dírmaen dearly desired to be wedded to Saelon in truth as well as act, to be bound by the noble metal of rings rather than the rude thong of their handfasting, close about his left wrist.
But only if she would be true. Some reserve he thought he could bear, but not dishonesty.
Kicking free of his stirrups, he swung his leg over and slid down Mada's shoulder, flinging the reins to Randir, who caught them, startled. "I will take the short road and find out! Lead Mada around for me, will you?"
Was that unease, fleeting across his friend's face? Randir knew of his rivalry with Veylin. No matter. Dírmaen loped along the track to the faint trace that led up to the near end of the cliff, so steep even the boys seldom trod it. He must know how things stood between him and his lady, to check this poison if he were unjust.
Up he went, striding at first, then clambering, using hands as well as feet to climb towards the scant end of the cliff-shelf, a mere ledge just large enough for a man on watch. Why would Veylin be afoot, lame as he was, rather than ride? Had he come with just one companion, or were there three of them? Surely Veylin had not walked all the way from his halls— As he paused to snatch an extra breath, Dírmaen twisted to gaze towards the other cliff, where Nordri cut the fine white stone he loved. Yes, there were ponies there, grazing on the slope between cliff and corn. They must have come across the lower ford.
His brain worried at the puzzle of what Dwarves where until he could no longer spare thought, the last, steepest stretch requiring all his attention, for hand- and footholds were few, and the grass so thin it was no sure anchor. A clump of low heather, the treacherous temptation of a thorny young whin; chalky dust drifted up into his face as his foot slid, ploughing the loose earth below.
One last heave, and he cast himself onto the ledge like a beached salmon, gasping almost as desperately. Mad; he was mad, to scramble after her like this. What would the cottars think, when they saw him come this way? For they were more likely to be working in the open air than Saelon, and there was no secret way into the hall that would let him take her unawares. Who was sneaking now?
Suddenly ashamed, Dírmaen rose and paced softly along the curve of white stone, peering to see who was out of doors, hoping that there would be none, so he could meet Randir and the horses. An empty saddle would occasion more curiosity than he had considered, and he was on probation with Saelon's folk as much as the lady herself.
No one. Praise be, his foolishness need not be exposed. Hastily he strode across the widening turf, making directly for the beaten ground at the top of the track. He was halfway there when someone straightened up in the kail-patch, hand reaching to ease their back. Like a startled buck, Dírmaen froze at gaze . . . and the pounding of his heart changed tenor as he recognized the supple arch of Saelon's slender body above the wattle fencing.
A fortnight's possession had in no way glutted him. Nut-brown nape, the slow, stretching shrug of her shoulders—he did not know whether to be glad her back was to him or to regret it. Perfectly still he stayed, until she bent back to her weeding, and then he crouched, going low and wary as any wolf, Mada's empty saddle forgotten. Somehow he got across the space between them undetected and, hunkering down in the slight covert of the wattle, Dírmaen heard her humming the roundelay that kept springing to his lips in this season of bliss.
Blood turned to water, or to fire, he reached over the woven hazel-stems and took the sweet roundness of her haunches in his hands.
With the shriek of an outraged falcon, she sprang upright, whipping around in an otter's close curve, weed-filled hand raised to smite. Yet her eye was as quick as her temper, and what fell on his ducking head was more of a cuff than a clout. "Beast!" she accused, sea-storm eyes glinting. "Have you no shame?"
"Not when there is none to see," he assured her, rising to take her in his arms. He loved her light fierceness, and with her blood roused by his ambuscade, their kiss lasted until hooves clattered up the track.
He had hoped Randir would hurry; now he heartily wished he had dawdled on the way, or that one of the horses had picked up a stone, anything to delay him, for Saelon drew away, cheeks flushed beneath her tan. "Did you fly here?" she asked with acerbic wonder, cocking a brow at Mada on a leading rein as Randir halted the horses and grinned at them.
"Like an arrow," Randir answered on his behalf. "It was all I could do to keep him from plunging from the cliff-top into your arms."
Saelon rolled her eyes, as she did when the boys were especially rampant. "How the Chieftain holds the West when he is served by fools such as you, I cannot understand. Go on," she commanded, "see to your horses, for supper will be ready soon. You had best duck your head in the burn," she told Dírmaen, brushing dirt and a lingering stem of goose-grass from his hair more tenderly than she spoke, "or I will be ashamed to sit by you. We have invited Nordri and his men to come for ale when they are done their day's work."
"As you wish," Dírmaen murmured, though mention of the Dwarves brought his earlier misgivings to mind again. Yet hospitality was a woman's duty, as war was a man's, and Nordri was a good neighbor in his own right. It would be churlish indeed to grudge a cup to one who lost a son slaying raugs in Srathen Brethil. "Have they any fresh news?"
She hesitated. "Nordri, no"; and bent back to her weeding. "Veylin stopped by this morning, however, to introduce the blacksmith who has joined their company. Grimr is his name, and Maelchon has already bespoken two new scythes."
"Can he shoe horses?" Randir asked, direct to his own concerns.
"So he says. He will be back the day after tomorrow with the scythes, and tend Whitefoot then."
Dírmaen grunted. Scythes and farriery would be very welcome, if the work were good. "They did not stay?" Two ponies, taking the river track to Maelchon's and not returning hither. If she was loath to speak of Veylin before him, he had given her cause.
"As the scythes are wanted now, Grimr did not linger; Veylin went to show him the way by the upper ford."
"Well then," Randir said, swinging down from Ruin, "we will have to wait a day or two to meet the newcomer. Did he have any news from beyond the Lune?"
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"Beyond the Lune? The harvest will be late," Grimr told the one who called himself Randir, as he drove in the pins to firmly fix the scythe blade to the handle. "Only once have I seen a wetter, later spring in the years since I came west. We will hope summer lingers as well. Here." He offered Leod the scythe. "Is that better?"
The young Man, hair bleached pale as tow from his work in the sun, swung it by way of trial, lopping a patch of nettles. "Aye, that will do," he allowed, with no sign of satisfaction.
"Off with you, then!" Maelchon charged him. "With blades so sharp, you and Finean should finish the upper slope today. And take care not to dunt it on the rocks, or the heifer calf I promised you will pay for mending it."
Leod shouldered the scythe and did as he was ordered, at no great pace, sullenness plain for any to see on his beardless face. Stooping to pick up the old scythe blades, Grimr wondered how much ill will lay between master and man. No such warning had been given to the older fieldhand, who had tried his new tool with a workman's appreciation. Yet the greybeard perched on an upturned tub, mending a wooden hay-fork with gaunt, crabbed hands, seemed little troubled by either admonition or sloth, and he was the blond's grandsire.
"Came west?" the sociable Man of the Star repeated. "The Blue Mountains are not your home?"
Grimr shook his head. "I dwelt in the Lonely Mountain, beyond the Great River, until a dragon fell on us. Do you wish to keep these," he asked the farmer, "or shall we consider the metal part of your payment?" It was indifferent iron, but would serve well enough for barrel hoops.
Maelchon drew on his black beard, weighing the matter with grave deliberation. "I will keep them," he decided. "They will do for my sons to start with."
Four scythes would mow more than two; so a man burdened with debt ought to reason. "Once I have shod the horse, I will see what I can do for their temper." Beating out the worst nicks and properly hardening the iron would be a small thing.
"Thank you, Master. Shall I fetch the beast?"
It lounged, hoof-cocked, in the pen nearby, as tall and brawny as a dray-horse of Dale. "Not yet. Let me get the fire hot." Hopefully the animal would be as even-tempered as its owner. He had shod horses, but none so large as this.
Once the firebox was set up and he was arranging the coals, the other Man of the Star asked, "When did you come to Eriador? After your great war with the Orcs?"
Grimr looked up at the Man. Dírmaen, this one was called. He was more taciturn than his comrade, one who listened before he spoke. "Yes. The Dunlendings grew unfriendly."
The whispered talk between the two boys, the eldest of the children gathered to stare at the strangeness of him and his work, suddenly flared into open argument. "Rock doesn't burn!" the sturdier of the two, Maelchon's boy, declared, as if speaking to a lackwit.
"Coal does," Hanadan maintained with equal scorn. "Wait, and you will see!"
"Then it must be magic," the first replied, the curt dismissal shaded with unease.
"It is not—Master Grimr," the Lady's young kinsman appealed, "is not coal peat that has been pressed hard?"
Grimr sat back on his heels, flint and steel in his hands, and considered the boy curiously. "It is." But what Man could have told him so?
Maelchon's son drew close enough to take up a piece of the good hard coal that gleamed like glass, and stared at it. "What could turn peat into this?" he asked, dubious, almost suspicious.
Hanadan answered, "The weight of the earth. Remember the stone-shell that Master Veylin found in our cliff? It is like that."
"Shells are already hard."
"Enough!" Maelchon rebuked them, taking the coal from his son's hand and setting it back in the sack. "Such things are Dwarves' business, Guaire, none of yours. If you will not let Master Grimr work in peace, I will find you work of your own."
Once he had lit the tiny shavings of tinder, Grimr considered Hanadan, trading sharp elbows and hissed recriminations with the farmlad. Children were the truest test of a community's temper, for they followed their elders without circumspection. By that measure, Veylin's confidence in his neighbors did not seem misplaced. Their numbers were pitifully few, true, and their wealth no more than could be expected among those recently driven from their long-homes. They were ragged . . . but there were no starvelings, none of the frail, sickly children so common among poor Men. Food they had, and food Gunduzahar wanted. Their commerce might be limited until Maelchon's sons had industrious sons of their own, but Thyrnir and Thyrð—and Nyr, and Barði—might find their labors well repaid. His debt, however, was unlikely to be paid off as swiftly as he wished.
Once the fire was well-established, Grimr set the iron for the shoes in the edges to heat and took up the nippers and hoof-knife. "Bring the horse," he told Maelchon, steeling himself.
The beast came placidly, the farmer crooning to it as if it were a babe and stroking its neck as it snuffed at Grimr. Apparently it recalled their brief meeting two days ago, for it looked more dubiously at the fire, even as he ran his hand down its thick, hairy fetlock and lifted a plate-like foot to rest on his thigh. They had trimmed its hooves as well as they could, Maelchon had told him, shamefaced; and indeed, it was a shameful job.
Yet they had not the tools to do better. How should he, bereft of his own, fault them for that?
By the time he had rasped all four hooves to clean, level arcs, the iron was ready to forge. The fascination his work had for Men he never understood: they would stand and watch him beat and bend, hour after hour, and to what profit? The children's wonder was natural enough, but grown men, who ought to have their own work to do, seemed equally transfixed by the sparks that flew as he welded the white-hot bar iron. It was not as though they sought to learn the trade, for they could recall little of what he did afterwards. Yet still they stared at the glowing metal as if bespelled. Perhaps that was why they called it magic.
All went well until he crouched, almost beneath the beast's belly, and laid the first shoe on hot. The fit was fine, but the horse tossed its shaggy head and heaved its foot from his bent knee and grip, snorting at the stink of singed horn and hair. "Hou, hou," Maelchon soothed hastily, tightening his hold on the halter as Grimr leapt clear of stamping hooves, striving to keep the smoke-wreathed metal on the tips of his tongs from any flesh. "Do not mind the smell, lass. It will not hurt you."
"Has the beast never been shod before?" Grimr demanded, quickly setting the shoe beside the hearth to cool, lest they see how his heart was hammering through a trembling of the tongs. Three more to fit, and all four to fasten: what would the creature do when he started hammering the nails?
"Oh, aye," the farmer replied, as earnest to reassure him as the horse, "she has. But not in that way. Our smith did not see any benefit to setting hot metal on hoof, though Lord Halladan insisted on it for his mounts."
Grimr's opinion of their former smith fell further still. "Should I fit the others cold, then?" The bed for the shoe would be neither as close nor as clean, yet if Maelchon did not value such things, why should he risk life and limb for them?
"If it will be less trouble, Master—"
"The heat will drive out the damp," Dírmaen said with abrupt authority, stepping to bearded Man's side. "Give me her head, Maelchon, and you can hold her feet for Master Grimr. She will not kick you."
"Kick?" The farmer seemed astonished that the horse could be suspected of vice. "Nay, she did not kick when we carved away at her feet, sore as they were; she will not kick now."
"She knows us well," the Man of the Star replied. "Come! Your hands will reassure her, and the less she is frighted, the easier this will be in the future."
The same might be said for him. Grimr gave Dírmaen a curt bow of thanks as Maelchon bent to lift the other forefoot, then turned to take the next shoe from the coals.
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Hack: a hack-hawk is a bird taken from the nest as an eyass, before it fledged, and kept in a hack-house at partial liberty to master flight and strengthen its wings before training. Since they had not already learned to take prey, they were trying to train, though easier to tame.
Roundelay: a kind of song; simple, with a repeated refrain.
Goose-grass (or cleavers; Galium aparine): a weedy plant with clingy prickles (it cleaves to things) that has many medicinal uses. It is also a good food for geese, and can be used to curdle milk to make cheese.
Tow: flax-fiber, especially the shorter, coarser strands used as stuffing or to make twine.
Hay-fork: also known as a pitchfork; this is used to turn grass drying for hay and to move the finished hay.
The Great River: the Anduin.
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