The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Hand to Hand: 10. Blood-dimmed Tide
"The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity, too great for the eye of man." The virtue of heroism must lie, therefore--according to a view of this kind--not in the will to reform, but in the courage to affirm, the nature of the universe.
--William Blake, "Proverbs of Hell," quoted in Joseph Campbell, Masks of God: Occidental Mythology
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"Saelon." Fransag touched her hair with a tremulous, gory hand. "Are you sore hurt?"
The concern in her harsh, scream-cracked voice was an ember of humanity in this dreadful, blood-drenched place. "I do not think so." Tucking her throbbing right hand--the fingers moved, a little--under the other arm, Saelon cradled her head in the left and sat up. The room heaved like sea-swell, then settled after a few breaths. "You?"
Fransag shuddered, but shook her head. "I must look in the ben," she said, as if trying to command herself.
Her mother and babe should be there. "Shall I go with you?"
Biting her lip, the goodwife regarded her with a doubtful eye. "No," she decided. "Sit a while longer."
Saelon watched her go, clutching the rent bodice of her dress in one hand and scrubbing the bloody fingers of the other against her skirts. When she passed through the doorway, the silence was terrible, hope straining beyond reason--
The keening, when it began, was a wretched sort of release.
Drawing her hand from her head, Saelon was dimly surprised to find it red. Her blood, or the reiver's? She felt over her skull with slow care, finding no more than a tender lump and clotted hair; no bones seemed broken in her hand, but she wished she had a pail of icy water to plunge it in, to deaden the pain.
Lucky, to have suffered no worse. All she wanted was to sit here for a bit, until her head cleared . . . but she must not. Hesitantly she got to her feet and made her way to Tearlag, who had not moved all this while. Reaching out to brush a tear from her bruised cheek, Saelon asked, "And you. How sorely are you hurt?"
"I . . . not except . . . ." She faltered into silence once more, eyes brimming over. "The babe and Mistress Gràinne . . . ."
Saelon leaned against her, setting an arm around her shoulders. "Dead?"
"The babe. Mistress Gràinne . . . I do not know."
"What of the other children?"
"They were playing outside, when they came."
Heaving a sigh that was concern as much as relief, Saelon pushed herself up again, steadying herself on Tearlag's shoulder. "We must find them. Change your dress and fetch your cloak." They must find them, and get to the hall before the others the reivers had spoken of came.
As the serving woman groped for her bundle of possessions beneath a bench, Saelon made her way to the ben. There was less blood, but more disorder. All the kists had been thrown open and overturned, as if the reivers had been angry to find so little of value: children's clothes were strewn across the floor; Fransag's one small cloth for the board, embroidered with twining vines and roses, lay torn, muddied by a grinding boot.
Fransag herself was crouched by her mother's thick bed of springy heather, clutching a bundle that must be her youngest to her breast, racked by sobs. Saelon found, when she reached her side and laid a hand on her back, that Gràinne breathed still . . . but that labored rasp was sensibly weaker, the withered face a silent cry of pain, eyes clenched shut and twisted mouth gaping open. "Was she . . . ?"
The goodwife growled, voice grown awful, "I wish I had not killed him. Now I could make him suffer as he deserved."
"Tearlag says the children were outside; I have set her to find them. Come," Saelon urged quietly, "let us wrap her well, and think of how we are to get her to the hall. The horses should--"
"I am not leaving."
Saelon stared. "Did you not hear them say others would be coming?"
Wrapping her arms tightly around the still, silent babe, Fransag said, "I will keep my house until my husband returns."
There was no arguing with such a tone, yet Saelon tried. "And if he does not?"
"Then I will keep it for my sons."
Perhaps she could find no answer to this because of the ache in her head. The men slain already . . . was it true, or only the reivers' wish, voiced to plunge them deeper in woe? How many of these foul creatures were there, and where had they come from? The one, Yaro--a name more outlandish than his speech--was no man of these parts, sallow as Partalan. They were like the raugs, evil sprung up as if from the earth itself.
If they came, the heavy door of sea-seasoned oak, hewn and hung by Dwarves, should balk them, at least for a time. Yet that would be of use only if aid were in the offing. Who would rescue them, if Halpan and Partalan were dead? Veylin and his folk had gone to their mountain home for the winter; even if Dwarves were at Gunduzahar, three leagues must be dared to reach them.
Surely reivers could not have slain all the men out searching for Fokel, scattered as they were. Halpan and Maelchon had gone towards the oakwood, and meant to continue along the flanks of the hills; Partalan and Canand had taken the rougher ground to the north, Gaernath and Finean the south. Perhaps the reivers knew of only one of the pairs; perhaps they did not know of the cliff-hall--someone must have seen them, if they had ventured to where it could be seen!
Teetering between hope and despair, she could not decide what they must do, beyond finding the missing children. One thing at a time. Let them find the little ones, and then she would think what to do next.
Leaving Fransag to her lamentation, she returned to the but--frighting Tearlag, who had only just begun to unfold another dress. "Hssh," Saelon soothed, as though the woman were a skittish horse, and went to close the door and drop the bar. "Make haste, now." While Tearlag dressed, she found the basket of peats and built up the dying fire, trying to restore some warmth to the house, then approached the reiver Fransag had battered as if he were an adder, prodding him with a foot to reassure herself he was dead.
Quite. Glancing from him to his fellow, Saelon felt her gorge rise: not at the butchery so much as their cruelty, monsters in the shape of men. Their corpses could not lie here, foul and stinking, stark reminders of violation; not if any remained under this roof. Kneeling, Saelon began unbuckling his belt, slowed by disgust and her swelling fingers. When the tongue of leather was free, she drew the belt off, sword and pouch still attached, and flung it all towards the corner. If there was anything of value there, they could recover it later. "Help me," she told Tearlag, going to his feet. "We will put him on the dunghill."
Together they dragged him out, hesitating on the threshold to peer timidly around. Yet all appeared placid without, nothing stirring but the wind-tossed manes and fluttering tails of the ill-used horses, and the bare branches of rowan and may.
Did the trees lose their beneficence with their leaves, Saelon wondered, or was this rowan she had given for the dooryard too young to have much power against evil?
Having tumbled the body onto the midden, Saelon looked about, as Tearlag stood trembling beside her, surely from fear more than cold, so close did she clutch her cloak. "Ros!" Saelon dared to call, hoping the children were near enough to hear. The day was chill, and Malmin at least--not yet three--too tender to bear it long. "Uspag!" How far would they have fled, hearing Tearlag's cries?
Nothing. The wind soughed in the grass, blowing her voice away.
They were hauling the second corpse past the sheep-fank when Tearlag froze, staring at the stubby remnant of the last hayrick with wide, stricken eyes. Heart leaping like a hare, Saelon looked that way.
Something moved, in the hay.
The serving woman dropped the ankle she held and bolted for the house, leaving Saelon there alone. Oh, why had she taken the swordbelt from the body? She did not even have her knife--
What emerged was black and small and bristling with pale stems of weathered grass. "Mam?" Uspag cried out fretfully, wriggling from the rick. "Where's Mam? I'm hungry!"
Saelon ran to him, heedless of the queerness of her head, heart hammering as hard for joy as it had with terror. "Uspag!" Another angry wail came faintly from the hay. Malmin. That must be Malmin.
By the time she caught Fransag's youngest son up in her cloak, Ros had crept from their burrow, her little sister struggling in her arms. "Mamma! Mamma!" Malmin shrieked, before Ros clapped a small hand over her mouth and fiercely hissed, "Shush! Or the monsters will get you!"
"Are the monsters gone?" Uspag asked, looking up at Saelon.
"The monsters are dead," Saelon told those grave young faces. Monsters . . . . These children had already survived raugs. "But more may be about. Run to the house, as quick as you can!"
They were not halfway across the yard when she heard hooves, galloping.
"Go on!" she urged Ros, who slowed when she stopped, turning about to look for the beasts. Who was coming, from where? Their men, returning? Or more reivers? "Get them in!"
The drumming came from up on the peat-moor: two horses; three . . . more? She could not see, from here.
Behind her, Uspag was crying out, high and shrill, "Mam! Mam! Open the door!"
She could not bear not knowing. Saelon ran towards the yard's white lip, to meet the pounding hoofbeats . . . but before she could reach it, a horse leapt down the bank: leapt and stumbled, nearly going down. The rider wrenched its head up, raking already bloody flanks with cruelly spurred heels, and the beast bounded forward, wild-eyed, pink froth flying from its muzzle.
Doom. Still, she fled. Vain, to race such a long-legged steed; vain to cower behind dwarf-laid stone, should they fire the thatch. She had been told, again and again, that her assurance was rash; that she put too much confidence in seclusion and the sea.
The sea was not here. She could not even hear the babble of the river, only the thud of hooves coming up on her left to cut her off from the house. Further back there was the pause in flight and landing thump of another horse taking the bank. She would not make the door. Veering aside, she pelted towards the hurdles of the fank, anything that would hinder a rider.
The second man put his beast over the far side of the fold and reined up, the better to catch her if she sought refuge there. Feeling like a mouse between two stoats, Saelon cast a desperate eye towards the thorny may, wondering if she could reach it, and worm her way far enough in--
A man's harsh cry of pain and dismay snatched her glance back again, in time to see the rider in the fank tumble from his mount, a feathered shaft in his back. Yet another horse dropped from the pale lip of land--one she knew well.
Dírmaen was crouched low over Mada's neck, a naked sword in his hand, its brightness already dimmed by blood.
Saelon gaped, thunderstruck, forgetting flight in her amazement . . . and the first reiver leapt from his horse, knocking her to the ground. For a moment, she was crushed by his weight, gasping for breath, gagging on the rancid stench of a man long unwashed--then his arm was a bar across her throat, choking her as he hauled her to her feet, steel ringing as he drew. "Stop, if you would not see her dead!" her captor shouted, in the same barbarous accent as the one she had slain.
Mada squealed, so sharply did Dírmaen draw him up, sliding from the saddle before the gelding came to a halt. "Release her or die," Dírmaen commanded, voice harsher than Saelon had ever heard.
The reiver laughed, defiant scorn. "Release her and die, you mean! I see your archer waiting for a shot."
Her fingers slipped on the greasy leather of his sleeve as she strove to slacken his hold, struggling for breath. Beyond Dírmaen, atop the bank, a fourth man sat a bright bay, his Ranger-grey cloak snapping in the wind as he held his bow at full draw, arrow ready to fly.
"Why do you hold back?" the reiver cried, almost taunting. "Do not tell me you value this trull. She seems much the worse for wear." He dragged her backward, towards the horses tied to the thornbush. "Come at me now, if she is not a safe-conduct!"
Dírmaen's face was pale; his eyes dark. "You cannot escape."
"Tender-hearted fools!" Her captor moved more quickly, with greater confidence. "Dog me if you like, while my men continue to prey on these folk, but I will keep close-tied to this bitch until I come home. Yaro!" he shouted towards the house. "Dunstan!"
Saelon would have told him they were dead, for spite, had he not throttled it to a gurgle. Her sight was dim about the edges, what wits remained seeking air and escape; escape, so they could slay this beast . . . .
"What men?" Dírmaen jeered, voice rough as a rasp.
They had reached the horses. The reiver yanked the reins of the nearer free with his swordhand, not loosing his hold on her neck. "You know you have not found us all," he came back, a growling sneer.
He must get her on the horse with him, if he would use her for a shield. He must shift his grip then.
"So you hope."
Must Dírmaen taunt him? The reiver's hold tightened, so she could draw no breath at all. She clawed at his sinewy arm, knowing herself too feeble, darkness closing in about her--
When, suddenly, her throat was free, all she could do was gasp and heave, like a fish caught on drying sands, not caring that he clutched her about the breast, hoisting her up with him as he mounted.
"So I know!" her captor flung back, setting his spurred heels to the horse.
The beast cried out and started--but back, not forward, rearing up as an arrow plunged into its breast. Swearing, the reiver let her drop, needing some hand to keep his own seat. Down she went, beneath the stamping, pain-maddened hooves.
Dírmaen leapt forward with a shout, arms flung wide, flashing his long sword at the plunging beast, which shied and spun away, bucking.
When Saelon dared raise her head, the horse was running towards the river, riderless, and Dírmaen was rushing the reiver, who had rolled to a crouch, sword still in his hand. They met with a ringing shirr of steel.
Hoofbeats behind her, again. Saelon swung around, heart in her throat--but it was only the archer-Ranger, and he hardly looked at her as he dismounted a few paces away, closely watching the men beyond her. "Come," he urged, holding out his hand. "Come away! He must not be worrying about you!"
No, he must not. Clambering to her feet, Saelon cast a glance that way. The reiver had found his feet, though he was giving ground before Dírmaen's longer reach and blade. Why was the creature not dead already? "Go to him," Saelon cried.
But instead of rushing to Dírmaen's aid, the Ranger took her arm in a firm yet gentle grip and drew her further off. "He will have him," he hushed to soothe her, regarding her with grave concern in his green-grey eyes before flicking a glance at the battle. "You are sorely wounded, lass."
Fury boiling up, Saelon struck at him, pathetic though the blow was. "The blood is not mine, fool! Kill the dog!" Dírmaen seemed to be flagging, missing an opening, only just blocking a cunning riposte. "Go!"
Yet still he tarried, gazing on her with uncertain eyes. If she had had the strength, Saelon would have ripped the sword from his scabbard and gone to Dírmaen's aid herself. "Very well," he finally allowed, dubiously. "Go into the house, or at least keep well back."
The reiver deflected a sweeping, double-handed blow aimed at his head with his short, thick blade, then whipped it around to chop at Dírmaen's exposed left arm. Saelon flinched as the blow struck, and the Ranger by her side shouted, bounding forward, drawing his own sword as he ran.
Dírmaen hunched, left hand falling from his hilt, sword-arm jerking back--and as the reiver stood open, recovering his blade, Dírmaen punched his point into his foe's body with a savage thrust.
Saelon was running before the reiver fell, though her feet were like great stones, heavy, slow, as she watched blood begin to soak Dírmaen's sleeve. Dírmaen himself seemed insensible to the wound, yanking his blade from the reiver as the man recoiled, staring in astonishment. The other Ranger had halted a little away, standing watchfully by as Dírmaen cut the man's throat, brusque as a butcher.
He did not seem to see her until she was plucking at the cut and bloodied fabric of his sleeve, seeking to know how badly he was wounded, instead staring down on his gurgling foe with a strangely flat expression, face ghastly pale. When he did turn his head to stare at her, however, he started, and caught her by the shoulders. "Saelon! Are you much hurt? They did not--"
"Not I," she assured him, trying to put his hands off. She must see to his wound . . . and after all she had suffered today, a man's clutch was distasteful. "But Tearlag and, rot their souls, Gràinne. . . ."
He looked stricken, his grasp only tightening. "I should not have left you. I--" And then he bobbled, his knees buckling.
She could not have caught him if he were not so close, and his comrade so prompt to leap in and take him from her, a look of startled dismay on his face. Yet even in the brief time she grappled with his long weight, Saelon found Dírmaen's back soaked with a sticky wetness, and her hands, relieved of their burden, came back crimson with fresh blood.
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But: Scots, the outer part of a two-roomed house, the kitchen and main living space.
Midden: dungpile, trash heap.
Fank: Scots, from Gaelic; a sheepfold or pen.
Trull: whore. As an interesting aside, the word is derived from "troll," the monster not the verb.
Close-tied: when dogs mate, the male's penis is trapped inside the female by its own swelling, binding them together for as much as half an hour. This is refered to as a "tie."
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