9. Bridge over Troubled Water
Our passions are most like to floods and stream,
The shallow murmur, but the deep are dumb.
—Sir Walter Ralegh, Sir Walter Ralegh to the Queen
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"Nay," Nordri objected, holding his pony back to fall in between her and Sút, "it was a pleasant little party, though I grant we were cramped by the rain. If I had known we would be with them so often, perhaps I would have argued for delving them a larger hall!"
Beneath the leaden and louring sky, Auð was grateful for the mason's enduring good temper. Ever since her return from the feast at White Cliffs, weeks ago, Sút had been quarrelsome, marching on the road of discontent until it was as rutted as this steep, mud-slick path down to the bridge. Rough Beck, the men called this stream, halfway between Gunduzahar and Sulûnduban, and even from here she could see why. There had not been a day without rain since just before the Men's celebration—she was beginning to fear that the double covers of waxed canvas on the chests would not protect the fine garments she had laboured over—and water foamed white about the rocks midstream and high on the bridge's piers.
Stout piers, Auð took pains to observe. Surely they had withstood many such floods.
"I was not speaking of the crush, though that was unpleasant," Sút answered, unmollified by Nordri's smile. "It was commonplace, hardly an occasion at all. That any can recall it with approval is very strange. It certainly fell far below their Spring Day feast, let alone the one we gave them in return."
"Why should you expect so much," Nordri wondered, "from Men so few and so poor? Their Spring feast was unusually fine, to thank us for coming to their aid when they were beset by brigands—and generous that was, too, when none of us blooded an axe—while ours repaid them for years of steady hospitality. Why, every time we go to the White Cliff cuttings, we are asked to step over and take a cup when our work is done. So many cups add up to quite a sum."
Auð glanced towards Veylin, who sat, determinedly silent, on his placid sorrel a few paces to her right, and their eyes met. It was not often that they were of one mind, but a deep vein of blood sympathy ran between them now. He had never much liked Sút; rarely had Auð been so embarrassed by her friend. Yet there was no mending such matters on the road. They would have to bear it as best they could until they reached the mansion, where they could closet themselves and take candid counsel together.
What had soured Sút? Had she been ill-treated at the Men's harvest feast, or did she resent Auð's unwillingness to accompany her there? Sút had pressed her hard, but honestly, there had been too much to do in preparation for the Great Council, and Rian had traded all she was willing to part with in Úrimë. By spring the lass would have woven more; perhaps then it would be worth another meeting. Why had Sút thought going worth the journey? As Nordri said, the Men were poor—too poor for silver, certainly—and now that Grimr went to White Cliffs so often, there was a regular supply of fresh dainties on their own table. Such concerns as Auð had ever had about Veylin's judgment regarding the Lady and her folk were satisfied. He and the other men could deal with the Men. That was their duty.
Ingi urged his reluctant mount back up the track towards them. "Nordri," he asked gravely, "will you come and survey the bridge before we cross? The beck is in full spate, and Rekk wonders if it would be better to cross at the ford."
"There is a ford?" Sút eyed the bridge dubiously. "How far?"
"Certainly," Nordri answered, and he and Ingi trotted down the hill together.
"How far to the ford?" Sút repeated, nettled.
Veylin shifted in his saddle, knuckling the painful place above his knee. "Over two leagues upstream. It would add full a day, and there is no house to shelter in further up the dale."
Spits of rain began to fall, and Auð retreated deeper into her hood. It was bad enough to be exposed all day, but the night as well, and in such foul weather? She fixed her mind firmly on the comfort of her sitting room in Sulûnduban and schooled herself to resignation. If the bridge was not safe, they must go the long way.
As their long string of ponies clopped and slithered nearer the beck, Auð did all she could to harden herself. Full spate? Overfull, more like. She remembered a narrow bed, easily spanned by the three-slab bridge, full of tumbled boulders whose rounded shoulders had always been dry. Now the greenery along the verge was drowned, and water purled over the boulders, sunk deep, breaking into white spray wherever one stood clear.
Though the fierce torrent flung itself ceaselessly at the piled piers of the bridge, Nordri was down on one knee on the center span, a hand spread flat on the stone slab, hooded head bowed in concentration.
Or prayer. Thyrnir called to Balnar and Neðan, telling them to halt the packtrain. What remained of the terrace was already overcrowded, and they might all need to toil back up the hill again.
Rising, Nordri came back to them. "It is sound," he said with assurance. "Auð and Sút . . . would you rather go first, or wait?"
Waiting would make it no safer. "Should we ride, or lead our beasts?" Auð asked. She had always ridden before, but today the slabs looked narrower.
"Whichever you prefer. Would you like me to lead your pony for you?" the mason asked, as she dismounted.
"Thank you. I would."
Rekk swung down and went before her, leaving his mount to Ingi; Nordri came behind with hers. She could feel the force of the water below through her hobnailed boots: the slight, unnerving quiver of the stone as it resisted the flood. Fixing her eyes on the slab ahead, Auð stepped briskly, breathing freely only when she stood once more on the solid ground of the further shore.
"Sút?" Rekk called, turning back, and his brow furrowed. "Where is Sút?"
On the other side, the men shuffled, mute . . . then Veylin jerked his chin towards a clump of gorse a decent distance upstream. "Go on," he ordered, curt, as the rain fell more steadily. "I will see her across. Get the packbeasts over, if you do not wish to be in this muck after dark!"
Auð mounted again, before her saddle grew soaked, glad of the beast's rising warmth against the raw air. Even though she was safe across, her heart was often in her mouth as they brought the cross-grained pack ponies over, especially when the one carrying Veylin's new suit balked at the end of the first span. Neðan hauled on its lead rope, to no avail, until Thyrnir—reckless boy!—squeezed past the beast along the very rim of the slab and hooded it with an empty sack.
"What is he doing?" she demanded. It would never move now!
Ingi chuckled. "It is a trick Thyrð taught us, that he learned from Dírmaen on the road to the Grey Havens. See? When it cannot see what it fears, it suffers itself to be led."
So it did, though very slowly, and two other beasts required the same measures. Across the way, Sút was back on her pony, beside Veylin on his. Auð grimaced, for it looked as if they were quarreling. Sút waved Balnar ahead, the gesture speaking louder than iglishmêk, when he offered to let her cross before Bersi's copper.
Bringing Sút to Gunduzahar had not been a success. Not that she had not been glad of her company; but her friend's roguish daring had become mere recklessness once she was beyond the mansion's bounds, disturbing the men and repelling Hlin. There was no silver, and no market for her craft. Would Sút be offended if Auð suggested she remain at Sulûnduban when the company returned to Gunduzahar? Or would she welcome an opportunity to sell out her share? Blowing a fat drop of rain off the edge of her hood, Auð sighed. There would be ample time to sound her out. After the Great Council was the New Year, and then Yule. They would not travel back to the delf for a full quarter, or more. Much might happen between now and then.
The rain began to come down in earnest. Oh, let them get moving! Though perhaps she should be content that they would be under a roof in a few hours, rather than trudging through the trackless heather towards a wet and windswept camp. How awfully uncomfortable traveling was!
The last of the pack ponies, carrying the coal for their fires, was coming across, hesitant and snorting. Veylin spoke to Sút, who shook her heard and put her pony at the bridge as if she meant to ride across. Though Oski had started the slow-footed pack train on the climb to the ridge above, Thyrnir, lingering by her side, frowned, and Rekk chuffed, muttering something like "mad." Veylin hung on his saddle horns, torn between dismounting and following Sút's lead, his game leg increasing his awkwardness.
As her mount reached the central span, Sút twisted in the saddle, calling back to Veylin. What she said could not be heard over the rushing water—but her pony, stepping wide to balance, slipped on the wet, muddy stone, scrabbled to recover, and put a hoof over the edge.
With dreadful inevitability, the slab tilted . . . and all slid into the flood below: pony, Sút, and stone together, the pony's screech drowning their horrified cries.
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Later, Veylin thought it was Auð's cry that set him into motion rather than the falling pony's shriek. If Sút cried out, he could not recall it. Even as the swollen stream swallowed them, the slab sending up a great splash, he heaved himself back into the saddle. Wrenching his sorrel's head to the right, he kicked him into motion.
The current was very swift. If Sút was not pinned by stone or entangled with her mount, she would come up well downstream.
More than a chain ahead, the black pony's head lifted from the water, drawing a great breath through wide red nostrils. A flash of white-rimmed eye; a scream; and the current drew the beast down again into a boil of froth, battering and rolling it over the rocks, blunt and cruel as troll's teeth.
There! Her hood had been swept off, and there was no mistaking her braids, with the flash of silver near the ends. Gasping, Sút clung to a fang of stone that jutted from the water. A stay, and a welcome one, but how long could she hold herself there against the force of the water? Halting his pony, Veylin surveyed the stream, striving to remember the shape and character of the bed masked by the flood. On the far bank, he saw Nyr snatching a coil of rope from a pack and running towards the shore, but there was a race full of jagged stone on that side.
Standing in the stirrups, Veylin bellowed, as if across the clamour of battle, "Sút! Sút!" When she finally turned her head his way, he waved her towards him. "This way!"
The water was less rough here, running swiftly down the main channel. But was she uninjured, and strong enough to cross it? Could she swim? Did lasses race across the pools of the baths, as lads did?
If ever a lass did, it would have been Sút. Face grim, she loosed one hand long enough to snatch free the pin holding the cloak that half-strangled her—a fine ring-pin of her own making, almost a span long—breathed deep, and struck out towards him.
The torrent took her as if she were a twig, sweeping her along faster than the trusty sorrel beneath him could make its way across the treacherous, half-flooded ground. She was carried nearly two chains before she had crossed half the distance between them, finding refuge on another boulder, this one low and flat enough that she could haul herself part out of the water, sodden and gasping.
On the further shore, the others followed, unable to help but unwilling to abandon them.
If only he had the rope in Nyr's hand! Sút was hardly more than five paces from the bank: he could cast a stone-weighted line so far with ease, and draw her in as though she were a fish. For even if she was not tiring, she was running out of distance to beat her way to the shallows. Less than a chain downstream, the beck narrowed to a rock-cut channel. Near the end, he might reach across it with his blackthorn stick—but if she missed her grip, the water plunged several paces down into a pool, carved deep and round by the grinding of boulders in floods such as this.
Whatever fell into that seething cauldron would be lost beyond recovery.
Leaving her to store breath and strength, Veylin rode down to survey the channel and pool. Rekk was doing the same on the other side, and the waterwright's face was very grave. The flood had spread wide on their shore, cutting them off from the narrows, or they might have tossed the rope across, or even helped catch and hold Sút if she was swept into the chute. Nyr, rope still in hand, gamely stepped into the pool, but he was hardly knee-deep before either the current or poor footing staggered him, and Rekk called him sharply back. The two argued for a time, then both looked upstream, towards what was left of the bridge.
Veylin looked as well, but could see little, and when Rekk waved him upstream, he did not go in much hope. Trotting along the better ground, he became aware of the rain again: a dull, thrumming downpour, as if the heavens hated them. Sitting under its lash, waiting for the others, Veylin glumly considered the possibility. As he had feared, not only the central span had gone, but bits of the piers as well, leaving the end-slabs precariously balanced.
Even so, it was the narrowest place on the swollen beck, and when Nyr edged cautiously onto his end, he was able to heave one end of the rope across tied to a stone. Dismounting and venturing carefully into the shallows where it splashed—he could get no wetter—Veylin drew the rest across.
"Can you get her to the Riven House?" Rekk boomed across the rushing flood. "Thyrnir and Oski are preparing to ride to the ford."
"We will see," he shouted back, wondering how badly Sút was battered. The Riven House—dear Father, that was nearly two leagues down the dale, further from the ford, and Sút would surely need to ride. Which meant he must walk.
If he had marched to the fiend's corrie, he could do this. They must have shelter, for the wet chill was already sapping his strength, and Sút would have little left after battling the cold water. Even the Riven House would be better than nothing.
Coiling the rope, he climbed onto his pony and went back to Sút. As he feared, she was already so weakened that it took her a long time to untie the stone that brought the rope and make it fast about her, clumsy fingers leaving fleeting red stains on the tow, blood washed away by the beck and the rain.
"Ready?" Veylin called, when the pause before she committed herself to the water stretched on and on. He had already wrapped his end of the rope fast about a stout boulder, so she would not drag him if he stumbled. His grip he trusted, but not his lame leg.
Though her nod was unconvincing, Sút slipped from the desperate haven of her boulder into the relentless current.
Veylin did stumble, but caught himself, leaning back hard against the pull. The drag was greater than he expected, for rather than trying to swim, Sút hung, a dead weight, at the end of the rope, striving merely to keep her head above the surface of the roiling water. Alarmed, Veylin set his boots with particular care and heaved mightily, straining to bring her to shore as quickly as he might. Hand over slow hand he hauled her in, forearms trembling by the time he pulled her out of the main thrust of the current.
When he had dragged her into the shallows, he briefly feared he might have to lift her from the water, but she rose shakily to hands and knees, and crawled like a beast, retching and coughing, to the land.
A faint cheer came across the flood, dimmed by the roar of the water and uncertain of triumph.
Casting his sodden cloak about her for what warmth it might provide, Veylin stooped to help her rise. "Are you sorely wounded? Anything broken?" Her hands were battered, with torn nails, but blood would not show on the already drenched black of her garments.
She shook her bedraggled head, clutching the woolen cloak close about her. "Cold," she rasped.
"I am sorry, but there is no place here to shelter a fire from the rain. Can you sit a pony? We will have to go a little way."
"Where are the others?" Sút wondered, leaning heavily on him as she climbed painfully to her feet.
Veylin led her to his sorrel. "Across the water. See? There is Auð, waving. Some of the lads are already on their way to the nearest ford. They will bring you another mount, and then we will rejoin the company."
Sút raised her arm to return the salute and winced; she groaned aloud as he helped her mount, while Veylin clenched his teeth on his own pain. He had not asked so much of his damaged leg since the slaying of the fiends, and now he must ask for more. "Wait here," he told Sút, who had folded down onto the pony's neck, probably for its warmth. "I must speak to the others, and then we will go."
That sounded more like. Still, as Veylin stumped back to the wrecked bridge to confer with Rekk, he caught himself wishing Saelon were here, to tell him whether Sút's slowness could be blamed on the numbing cold of the water or if she had cracked her head on a boulder. Eyeing the tumultuous stream, he decided it would be a miracle if Sút's crown had not taken a dunt or three. Fortunately, her head was extraordinarily hard. He had seen men suffer worse at the hands of Orcs and fight again the next day. Besides, how could Saelon examine Sút without discovering she was a woman?
Not that he cared greatly whether Sút was revealed, given her own criminal lack of caution. But if Saelon, shrewd as she was, learned that their women walked abroad as men, how long would it be before she guessed that Auð was not his kinsman?
Auð stood by Rekk as he called across, "How is she?"
"Chilled and battered, but otherwise she seems sound. I will take her to the Riven House."
"Then you will need this." Rekk threw over a pair of stout saddlebags, one at a time. "Food and coal. Use them sparingly! The lads may not reach you until late tomorrow."
A miserable night suddenly looked a little less cheerless. "Many thanks! Now get Auð and yourselves under a roof! You can do no more for us."
"You can walk so far?" Auð shouted.
Beard bristling, he roared back, "I have and I can. But if my temper is short when we meet, do not complain of it!"
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Iglishmêk: dwarven gesture-language.
Chain: a distance of about 22 yards or 20 meters.
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