7. Of Moon and Men
"Tis ever common
That men are merriest when they are from home.
—William Shakespeare, Henry V, I, ii
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"Here they come!"
Auð put the meat-forks Barði insisted the Men would not use back into his hands. "Very well—but leave them where they can be quickly found if they are wanted!" Hastening to the gentle southern slope of their rooftop lawn, she joined the others who had gathered at Thyrnir's call. "How many are there?" she asked anxiously. Too few would be as bad as too many now, for the food was prepared and must be eaten.
"A score at least," Thyrnir assured her, climbing down from his perch on a dark spur of rock. He had the sharpest eyes among them. "I do not see Canand or the fellow who keeps their dogs, or Tearlag."
She did not remember a Tearlag. Auð shook her head; if they were not at the Men's Spring Day feast, they must be of no account. "All of the women have come?" Shading her eyes against the lowering sun, she peered over the edge of the tableland. There—a train of horses and Men, coming up by the dale that led to the shore, rather than down along the track.
"Where the Lady leads, who would not follow?" Sút asked dryly, and drained her stein.
"Many!" Rekk flung back with a laugh. "Thyrnir, is that Halpan, there beside Rian?"
It might be. The Dúnedain made a little cavalcade, and their men were as alike as needles: long and slim and dark-headed, all clad in shades of grey. The splash of sea-beryl blue at the front would be the Lady; the truer cobalt just behind, steely guardians on either hand, Rian. Then came the common Men, afoot, though two—one was Maelchon, that she could see—led strapping horses laden with packbaskets. Was that one of the small children, perched on the beast's high back? Gaernath, also mounted, brought up the rear of the train; there was no mistaking the fiery blaze of his hair.
"Is the Dunlending there as well?" Veylin asked.
Auð cast a discreet glance towards her brother. His pleasure in this feast was not unalloyed, she knew, since the Lady had given her hand to Dírmaen . . . but she wondered if he misunderstood how deeply his friend had committed herself. In the spring he had spoken, with heart-wrenched candor, of marriage and union; yet the other men spoke only of betrothal. He appeared at ease now, the heel of his game leg resting on a low boulder, pipe in hand.
"No," Thyrnir assured him, then added, "Rian will miss his harping."
Rekk snorted into his stein. "You will miss the chance to put down your fiddle while he plays! Go on—take whomever Bersa can spare, and help our guests get their goods up the hill."
Grimr, however, lingered. "What Dunlending do you speak of?"
"Partalan is his name," Veylin told him, knocking the dottle from his pipe. "A surly fellow, like most of his breed, but a rare hand with blade and harp. He it was who rammed the mother of fiends with his horse. Yet since he will quarrel with all—Dwarf, Elf, or Man of the Star—save the folk of Srathen Brethil, the Lady has sent him there to guard those who have returned. We see him seldom now."
With a nod of thanks, Grimr went after the other hired men and prentices.
"Why did she not simply dismiss him, if he is so troublesome?" Sút asked.
Rekk stared at her. "You are harsh. Where is such a Man to find employment, if not with those he has bled for?"
"Dunlendings readily find pay if they are quick with their swords, or so I have heard."
"If they do not care who hires them," Veylin said curtly, setting his foot down and thrusting his stick into the turf as he stumped to the edge of the lawn. "Welcome, Lady!" he bellowed, with hearty good cheer. "A fine day you have had for your journey!"
"Well met! Indeed, we have," Saelon replied, "and a fine night we will have, too!"
"So it is to be hoped!" Rekk answered, with a grin. "Congratulations, Lady! You have bent that Man of the Star to your will, I hear."
"Or he has bent me to his!"
"That is not likely," the waterwright chaffed.
Watching the Lady and Dírmaen tread the narrow track, hand in hand together, Auð thought they appeared well matched . . . and well content, in a way that argued for Veylin's understanding of their bond. The Man of the Star was better dressed than she had ever seen him before—that must be Rian's work, the linen severely plain but very well cut—and for once there seemed no shadow on the Lady's mood. If the Lady could jest about subordination, plainly she did not feel oppressed.
Seeing the jovial, eager faces of the Men coming up to meet them, Auð felt in her bones that the feast would be a success. It did not matter that some of them, particularly the women with babes in arms, looked somewhat fatigued already: pale summer ale and a few of Bersa's trifles would recruit their strength for talk and trade, debate and dancing, the convivial pleasures of the night.
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"Would you be willing to come to Srathen Brethil?" Halpan asked Grimr, face glowing with earnest hope as much as drink in the light of the soaring bonfire. "Even a week of your time would be a great help. What the raugs did not rend, the reivers stole."
Reaching for the jug, Grimr topped up his stein—and the young Man's. "How far is it to Srathen Brethil?" This was the pleasantest feast he had been to in years; decades, perhaps. The food had been magnificent: cold ham and smoked trout, crisp brown potato cakes and a gratin of leeks, pickled onions and beetroot and a great salad dressed with bacon, finished with flakey honey pastry and a brambleberry cobbler as dark as the sky above. The company, if possible, was even better.
"Two days, at most," Halpan assured him. "One in the summer, if the weather has been fair. We can provide you with a guide, to speed your journey."
Wrapping his hands around his mug, Grimr asked, "Would you pay in coin or cattle?"
Before the Man could answer, Rian swept up to their table, seizing her cousin by the arm. "Your pardon, Master Grimr," she cried breathlessly, "but Halpan must dance."
"Why?" the young Man protested, as she hauled him from the bench. "You should have men enough. You cannot want for a partner, since Randir is here!"
The lass huffed in exasperation. "Leod swears he has danced enough, and Murdag wants a partner. Gaernath is unwilling—"
"—and Gormal is too green for her. Come! She will be flattered, and you can change with Artan after this reel."
"Think on it, until I return!" Halpan begged Grimr, as he was carried off.
Grimr chuckled and took a swig of ale. Formidable women, these ladies of White Cliffs. Once the cup of welcome was drunk, Rian had chaffered long and spiritedly with Auð, the board between them strewn with the woolen she had brought, bolts of linen, packets of broidery thread, and scraps of cloth Auð proffered as samples of what she wanted. Very creditably the lass did, too, for the tailor was as shrewd as she was handsome. Indeed, Grimr wished Auð less knowing, for vivid silk and fine-drawn wire had tempted Rian to spend her profit on finery rather than new cloth shears.
Taking the last piece of honey pastry from the platter, he snorted at his own greed. Not two months ago he had been pathetically grateful for black bread and sour ale, feast-day largesse from strangers, and now he belonged to a rich and affable company. The work was, as Veylin had warned, dull, and it was galling to rank nearly as low as the prentices, but when it began to be intolerable, he could ride to White Cliffs with a handful of harness rings or a new-forged knife and have his sense of consequence restored. To be called "Master" instead of, peremptorily, "Dwarf"—or worse; to be sure of a cup of good ale and a tasty morsel . . . how different these Men were from those in the rest of Eriador! Were they of a different breed, distant kin to the Men of Dale, or was their amity but a happy chance amid the ill fates of the world, perversely forged by mutual foes?
As for the bother of bargaining with Bersa occasioned by their lack of coin, that was repaid by Auð's pleasure when he returned with a brace of fat geese or a tub of new cheese. Sucking the honey's sticky sweetness from his thumb, Grimr gazed along the tables to where she sat beside Nordri, sketching something for him on the wood with a charred stick from the fire.
He did not like to see her here, under the open night sky. She should be keeping Hlin, Bersi's spouse, company below, in the security of the delf, and have left her trading to Rekk or her sons. From talk in the common-room or riding the paths to and from White Cliffs with Nordri's quarrymen, he gathered she had been led to such indiscretion little by little. Removing from Sulûnduban was seen as a noble sacrifice of her own comfort to her sons' education and interest, especially by Nordri and his son, who wished they could entice their own wives to join them in Gunduzahar. She had first met Men when the Lady Saelon came to Gunduzahar, a most peculiar circumstance itself—Grimr could not remember any women of Men entering the Lonely Mountain—but what harm could come from two women meeting, especially in the safety of their own deep-delved halls?
So rockslides started, a few pebbles rattling down a slope. And then Sút had come.
He was not the only one uncomfortable with the silversmith. Most of the men were uncertain of how they should treat her. She was a member of the company, but there was precious little scope for her craft. The mine did not produce enough silver to interest her. She did not trade with them; she was not kin to them; nor was she interested in marriage. The Firebeards felt vaguely responsible for her, since her father had been a cousin of their king, and the rest left her to them with a sense of grateful relief.
Sút it was, he had been told, who insisted on visiting White Cliffs, shortly after brigands attacked the Men—to assure herself of her security, she said!—and convinced her friend to attend the Spring feast there. And this feast repaid that one.
How had Auð, excellent as she was, come to keep so reckless a friend? Was there some bond of debt between them? He could not believe it was a sympathy of spirit. Why ever would she allow the unruly woman to involve her in obligations that exposed her to danger?
"Why are you all alone?"
With a start, Grimr turned to find Sút standing beside him. "Halpan's kinswoman required him," he replied with a smile, hoping it would satisfy her. He ought not to have brooded on her when she was nearby. Like naming, it called.
Sút gazed on the couples rollicking in a wide, interweaving circle, lips pursed. "It is good they get some use from him. You have been much among Men," she said, settling onto the bench and topping up her stein from the jug. "Are all their women as independent as these?"
This was what he did not like: her wry, over-familiar tongue and questions that were difficult to answer decently. "No. The Men of the West in particular are very careful with their women."
Brow dubiously aslant, she challenged, "Then how did Saelon come to dwell alone at White Cliffs?"
Since he did not know, Grimr did not answer.
"Well, she seems to have allied herself advantageously in the end," the silversmith continued, ignoring the reproof of his silence. "Yet it seems very peculiar. When I first came, but half a year ago, all the talk was of how much she and Dírmaen disagreed."
That was so: Grimr remembered the surprise that greeted the news of their handfasting in the hall. Watching Saelon and Dírmaen in the dance, however, it was hard to believe. Their hands clung to each other to the very fingertips, and came back together like lodestones. Yet if misaligned, lodestones also repelled each other.
"I sometimes wonder," Sút mused aloud, "whether the Lady's healing arts have the power to enchant, for all who have been in her hands incline towards her." And so saying, she looked directly at the high table, where Veylin sat drinking his wine and watching his guests dance.
Since he did not have to meet her eyes, black and fathomless as the sky above, Grimr stared at her. He had dismissed the insinuations of unwonted affection between Veylin and the Lady Saelon as mutters of resentment: of the chieftain's troves of gems and metal, and of the time he devoted to them, rather than to his folk in Sulûnduban. Envy was inevitable, and the latter a legitimate grievance—but for such talk to come from the boon companion of Veylin's own sister! Was this some test of his fidelity to his employer? "I have never heard of such sorcery," he replied, blunt yet grudging. "Is not gratitude an adequate explanation?"
"When the obligation has been repaid?"
If he was too brusque, she might tarnish his reputation with Auð, easily. "Can one be sure a debt has been discharged without seeing the reckoning?"
He was saved from further trying by the end of the dance. Halpan staggered back, Unagh hanging, breathless, on his arm. "Ale!" the Man demanded giddily. "Give me ale!"
Grimr handed him his stein, and once he had drained it, promptly poured more. "Thank you," Halpan panted, passing the mug to his partner, who drank as thirstily.
"I will fetch more," Grimr offered, glad duty permitted him to withdraw without dishonor. There was something queer about Sút, he reflected on his way to the cask; queerer even than her wantonness. Was that why her kinsmen had abandoned her?
It was none of his business. He had seen too much madness in the days since the dragon fell on the Mountain; too many lives twisted and broken by the ill of the world. All he wanted, since Heilsa was gone, was peace enough to ply his craft, so he might earn a few homely comforts to ease his longer journey to the halls of Mahal. Sending the full pitcher back in Balnar's hands, Grimr found a seat by Rekk, who readily told him all he knew of Srathen Brethil.
The great lamp of the moon climbed to the vault of heaven, plating all with silver that was not near the ruddy gold of flame. They danced and sang, each folk in their own manner; the boys threw sticks into the bonfire as if they were spears, sending sparks up to rival the stars. The nearest approach to a quarrel was when Halpan and Ingi disagreed in their telling of the Battle of the Tarn, but Rekk and Dírmaen quelled the embranglement before younger, quicker tempers could flare. Another cask was broached; little mincemeat pies and spirit-soaked plumcakes went round; the musicians took up their instruments once more.
Yet as the moon rolled back down, the Men began to flag. Fransag and Muirne were the first, dozing off beside their sleeping children; then the greybeard and the steady-drinking men that kept him company, heads pillowed on ale-soaked boards. The grass flat beneath their stamping, spinning feet, four remaining couples defied night and sleep with a vigor that suggested they would go on until dawn . . . but around the second hour, the Lady gave over, settling down at the high table beside Dírmaen with an expression of happy fatigue. The younger Men carried bravely on, but the pattern of their dances was thin and soon Unagh dropped out as well. And so the dancing came to an end, and they moved into the mellowest part of the night.
Released from playing, the musicians set upon the remaining ale and cakes, and conversation rallied briefly, but how much could one say of the coming harvest without tempting fate? The bonfire was allowed to die, and prentices began quietly clearing deserted tables and putting out their lamps. Seeing Haki and Gamal drain their steins and move off into the darker night, Grimr considered heading for his own bed. Aðal and Vigr were gone; Prut as well. Those who were friendliest to the Men were entertaining the stalwarts, and Grani desired another score of spikes as soon as might be. Even with a late start, he might get through half a dozen—
"Grimr," Oski murmured, as he set down his tray and began piling on crockery, "I do not suppose you would help us? Thyrnir and Balnar and the others who played have been excused from this, so we are dreadfully short-handed."
"Certainly. Is there another tray?" He owed the lad for his good word with Veylin.
"Atop the empty cask."
"I do not know why I am telling you this," Grimr heard Veylin say, as he walked past the high table. "Knowing you, you will follow the shore as close as you can."
"All the way around Forlindon?" Dírmaen scoffed, pouring himself more wine. "Yours was much the shorter way."
"I would prefer fewer mountains," the Lady replied. "If I must ride pillion." From her tone, this was a matter of debate.
Knowing somewhat of her temper already, Grimr took his tray to the lower tables, past Maelchon and Artan talking to Grani about a supply of ash-wood, voices low so as not to disturb their slumbering families, and on to where the sots had early surrendered to drink. There were fewer dishes here; and while the boards would require extra scrubbing, that would be a job for whichever junior prentice was in most disfavor tomorrow.
He had thought he was alone save for the insensible, but as he dumped someone's crusts from their plate to the grass—the crows would feast once the Men were gone—the moon glinted off the dark, humped shape that shifted at the end of the next table. "What a thirst you have!" he heard Sút murmur, as he recognized the silver braid that edged her black hood, its cape lifting with her arm. "Here, lass—let me fill that for you."
"Thankee," came the slurred reply.
Moving around the end of the table and stacking bowls as if he had not heard, Grimr angled his head to see who the silversmith was drinking with. One of the women of Men, when she herself was dressed as a man, and all but alone? That was imprudent, if not unseemly. One of Finean's daughters; from the styling of her now-disordered hair, Murdag, Leod's wife.
Lips tight with disapproval, Grimr gathered up the dishes as quickly as he could without drawing attention. It was bad enough that a mother with a nursing babe should be drunk, but to give her more! Whatever mischief this was, he wanted no part of it.
"Has the night been so unpleasant you would drown the memories?" Sút wondered.
"M' husband has. Why shouldna I?" Murdag gave a feeble, petulant shove to the snoring lout by her side. "Loon . . . one night o' fun, an he wouldna dance!"
"Why did you marry him, if he was not obliging?"
"Och, he was willin' enough afore," the woman of Men grumbled. "Men are fair fine whan wooin'. Mibbe—" she raised her head to gaze towards the higher tables "—mibbe I should hae gone wi' Gaernath."
Sút topped up Murdag's mug again. "Did he offer? He is kin to your Lady, is he not?"
"Aye." There seemed to be regret in her silence; then she swept it away with a harsh, "But who wants a great ganglin' boy?" There was a pause as Murdag drank deep. "I wish," she muttered, "I hae been as canny as Saelon."
"In what way?"
"I should hae tried Leod ferst. If we hae been handfastit, I could hae put him off come harvest."
"You were not betrothed before you married?"
Murdag snorted into her mug. "Ye think thae two are betrothit?"
Sút went still, as Grimr did himself. "The Lady and Dírmaen are not affianced?" the silversmith said, very low.
"Pledged to marry."
If a giggle could be lewd, Murdag's was. "Only if he pleesures her beyon' Midsummer next."
"I do not think I understand you. They are still wooing? They are not promised to each other?"
"Hoots, how daft youse Dwarves can be! But than ye hae no wemen," Murdag allowed, gazing on Sút with a drunk's maudlin pity. "Thae are marrit, but only fir a year an a day."
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"spoke only of betrothal": "handfasting" is normally a betrothal or engagement. The good folk of White Cliffs, though perfectly ready to chaff their Lady and Dírmaen on the vulgar unconventionality of their trial marriage, are less willing to expose them to their neighbors' ridicule.
Waterwright: this is a term of my own invention for a hydraulic engineer, a craftsman who makes things like dams, mill races, cisterns, and fountains. Water moves through rock, and not only there are places you want it to go, there are places you don't want it to go. This is not the same thing as a plumber, who works in lead, plumbum: that's the guy who makes the pipes.
Lodestones: magnetized hematite, a form of iron ore. Like a lode-star, they can show the way (i.e., act as a compass.)
The Battle of the Tarn: the slaying of the fiends/raugs in Srathen Brethil.
"the second hour": the other Peoples of Middle-earth reckon the start of the day from either sunrise or sunset, but I have Dwarves reckon time from the less seasonally variable midnight and noon.