The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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After Stormy Seas: 12. Freedom of the Seas
White shell, white wing!
I will not choose for my friend
A frail, unservicable thing
That drifts and dreams, and but knows
That waters are without end
And that wind blows.
--W. B. Yeats, "White Shell, White Wing"
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"We should not speak here," Veylin muttered, so low that she could hardly make out his words. He gazed pointedly at their host on the far side of the chamber, then towards Dírmaen, who stood with his cup at an embrasure some dozen paces away, looking down on the town with slight interest.
Saelon was in no mood to be put off. "Why not?"
The Dwarf jutted his beard towards Círdan. "Their ears are surpassing keen."
"Where might we be out of their hearing, within the Havens?" she challenged in wry exasperation. Or without, if the Elves were determined to spy on them, save perhaps in the deep fastnesses of his people? "We depart at dawn tomorrow for Habad, and you . . . have business of your own." Cloyed by brittle consciousness though she was, she had no right to be indiscreet on his account. "How many months will pass before we can hold council together? Must we go our separate ways in ignorance and doubt?"
Veylin's face was set as stone. "True; but—" more hushed still, encouraging quietude "—they are just there by the door."
Círdan stood with a hand on the age-darkened wood of the jamb, even the back of his courtly robes sumptuous; Galdor and Coruwi were in the corridor: they were also in soft-voiced conference. "And why should that silence us? I would not scruple to speak before their faces."
Only the idle shifting of his stick, one hand to another, betrayed his unease. "Speak, then."
This was mere dwarven reticence, or so she hoped. Saelon did not see how her displeasure might damage his interests, but if it did, she must make amends later. She could no longer bear being creep-mouse, oppressed by her own ignorance more than by Elves. Many, most of her failings were beyond amendment, and dwelling on them sapped such strength as she had. Let those who would deride her as a dupe of Dwarves enjoy their superiority. Veylin would not be taken unawares because she feared to offend those whose respect could not be won. "A marchwarden, hostile to both our peoples, sought to cow me last night, promising to come north to ensure that I do not take advantage of his lord's kindness . . . and you do not thieve."
Veylin was silent so long she began to wonder if the final word had been too blunt. "One named Calennae?"
"You know what befell?" Who had dared or delighted in telling Dwarves of his calumny? Where was Veylin's resentment? Did he know the bitter Iathrim?
He gave a minute shake of his head. "Shards of rumor. High as Gaerol, eyes like a smoky zargun?"
Saelon chuffed, her heart strangely lightened by that cryptic word. "Whatever that may be. Green-grey."
"I have seen him."
"When?" Had the marchwarden a special enmity for Veylin, from some past encounter?
"This morning." The Dwarf's gaze drifted to the door. "He left the Shipwright on no good terms, before my audience."
Her breath caught. "How were you received?" Surely he could speak of that within Círdan's hearing.
"I am satisfied that my claims will be addressed. Patience, Saelon," Veylin rumbled softly. "They are deathless, and my harvest has no season."
She did not know what he and Lindon disputed, precisely, and the only harvest she had seen he dismissed as gleaning, but by the jewel about her neck, he feared no famine. They were allies—though not, they told each other again and again, against Elves. Veylin would keep his case separate from hers, so ill-will towards Dwarves did not jeopardize her place by the sea . . . yet they deluded no one. Their friendship was such that they took each other's part against whomsoever troubled them: raugs, Elves, even—her glance went to the dour Ranger, whose disapproval of their closeness was writ in the rigidity of his turned back—Men.
Was Veylin unvexed by his fellow Dwarves, Saelon wondered, or was that another of those things Dwarvish discretion kept hid? In those first days, raw with grief and rage, they had quarreled openly before her—
Veylin eased away from her: one step, two; putting a more seemly distance between them.
Lifting her pensive gaze, she found Círdan coming their way, Coruwi beside him. Little wonder folk believed she and Veylin were deep in intrigues, when they shuffled guiltily to content convention. Enough: she was done with pretense. She was ashamed of neither her friendship nor her friend.
"Is the wine not to your liking, Saelon?" Círdan asked as the two Elves drew near. She had set her cup down on the council table as they moved this way, and not yet retrieved it.
"It is very good," she assured him. "But I am unused to wine, and wish to keep my wits about me."
The formality of Círdan's smile eased, reminding her that the stately lord was also the unpretentious shipwright. "Then in future I will be sure it is watered for you. You are already acquainted with Coruwi, are you not?"
The marchwarden, clad in green dark as shaded holly, set his hand on his breast and bowed quite low. "Pray pardon the lamentable end of our otherwise charming supper, Lady," he asked with sober contrition, and glanced at the Ranger. "You as well, Dírmaen. All I can plead on my own behalf—slender excuse—is my place among my fellows. As the youngest, I am unable to curb one so veteran as Calennae. I cannot praise your forbearance enough, for sparing us all greater unpleasantness."
Even Elvish regret had a fetching grace, so that she felt a qualm of churlishness for doing no more than bowing her head in acknowledgement. She had not been dragged by the hair, nor had Gaernath been driven into danger. Words, naught but words, on both sides. How was one to know whether they were empty or potent?
Facing the Dwarf beside her, Coruwi offered equal reverence. "Do I have the honor of addressing Veylin, chieftain of the Firebeards, whom the Lady speaks of with such esteem?"
"I am he." Veylin's bow was civil, his eyes charily curious. "At your service."
Círdan watched all this with close attention. "Coruwi joins us at my invitation, for he is taking charge of our northern march. The devotion of my wardens, by sea and by land, has given you unwonted anxiety, Saelon, and I would find one more to your liking, if I can." Above the silver torrent of his beard, sternness darkened his eyes like a cloud crossing the sun. "Do not trouble yourself about Calennae. He has been forbidden the lands north of the Little Lhûn—east and west of the Ered Luin. Does this meet with your approval?"
Saelon sank into a curtsey that was as much relief as gratitude. "How could it not, Lord?" She had not known how seriously to take the Iathrim's threat, whether he would be satisfied with scathing her, or if he would make good on the promised harassment. Círdan's prompt action argued that her concern had not been foolish.
"You have no objections to Coruwi?"
He seemed determined to disarm her, stripping away all excuse for discontent. "None, after an evening in his company, that he has not answered himself." Looking to Dírmaen, who had drawn closer to their circle, she said, "You have been his companion for some days, in council and hunt, and know the work better than I. What would you say?"
The Ranger seemed taken aback, surprised to be asked. "I could not but be glad to see him, across board or border," he declared, scraping up a heavy smile. "But . . . as I may soon leave you, that means little."
A rebuke for indifference? Now, before such company? "I do not know why you should think so." Even she could hear the sharpness in her voice. "I value your judgment." For the most part. Was he drunk on Círdan's splendid wine?
"I—" Breaking off, he strove to recover with dignity. "We do not always agree, Lady. I am not the best judge of what will please you. Perhaps you should consult your friend: as a neighbor, he must also have some interest."
Veylin's stolid composure washed over the disturbance like a wave smoothing sand. "I know less than Saelon of the marchwarden, so I also value your opinion. Will you be often about Habad-e-Mindon?" he asked Coruwi, businesslike. "Save for Gwinnor, I have seen scant trace of your people thereabouts. We would have welcomed your aid when we went against the fiends."
"Fiends?" Coruwi asked, uncertain.
"What Saelon calls raugs."
"Ah. Dírmaen has told me of them. I should like more assurance that they were the last of their kind. Those you slew were not spawned in Srathen Brethil."
"No. Yet we have seen none in the mountains, and I have not heard that Gwinnor found any during his wanderings through the north this summer."
"The mírdan is often among you?"
"Not often. While he was treating with the Lady this spring, and he joined us for the journey here."
To watch them politickly sound each other out was as good as a lesson, but Saelon slipped her glance to Dírmaen, who had drawn off towards the windows again. Was he drunk? He looked dull, morose rather than stern. He had greatly enjoyed the wine last night . . . yet he had been brisk this morning, readying the horses. That had been no slight chore, even with Gaernath's help. More than the work of a few hours.
Had he shrugged off Calennae's barbs and slept soundly on his feather-bed? She had not; but she had not ridden to the hunt with Elves the day before. Precious little rest any of them had got since they arrived—and tomorrow they would take to the road again, the weary way back to Habad.
Too spare, almost thin. He had grown careless of meals again, since she rebuffed him. Yet if she would not have him, what right had she to chide him for self-neglect? Vexing man. How could he care for a woman, when he could not take care of himself?
Silent servers had begun to lay the board; she must trust that an Elvish feast would tempt him to fortify himself. This looked much grander than last night's supper: dishes and cutlery of gleaming silver; crystal goblets displaying rich red and pale golden wine; shapely flagons with swan's-neck handles, the eyes and bills of jet and gold. A feast for all the senses.
One of the servers approached Círdan. "Lord." He spoke quietly, so as not to disturb Veylin and Coruwi's conversation on the War of Dwarves and Orcs. That was ever a safe topic between their peoples, it seemed. "Tinnath seeks admittance."
The Shipwright's gaze touched her, then lingered on Veylin. "For what purpose?"
"He seeks to return something to the Lady."
Saelon stared, perplexed. Tinnath? She knew no one of that name. Nor had any of her belongings gone astray. She had few enough to keep track of.
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The timing was curious; indeed, almost suspect. Círdan wondered what Tinnath could have of hers. Had he not returned the stone-shell while in the north this summer? Saelon, however, appeared bemused, while Veylin cast a narrowed glance over his shoulder towards the name.
He had wished to know more of relations between the gemsmiths. "He may enter . . . and it would be as well to set another place." Their party had already been expanded by the addition of the Dwarf, and five was a graceless number at table.
As Falfaur crossed back to the door, Saelon's brows remained knit. "Who—?"
Círdan regarded her with surprise. "Do you not know Gwinnor's after-name?"
"Gwinnor? Oh." From the crook of her mouth, the knowledge brought a measure of relief but scant pleasure. "No, I did not. Do you have some rule," she asked, "that all things must have many names?"
How many misread the dry bite of her humor, more like wine than the grape? She minded him of Laegeleg, the Sharp-swift, a most gallant ship yet one that had given its best only on the very edge of the wind, prone to gripe under the hand of any but a knowing steersman. "We cannot help ourselves," he pled. "Words have ever been our delight, in speech as well as song, and the finding of fitter names a kind of play. Look," he urged quietly, as the Noldo entered the chamber and the light of the door-lamp caught in his myriad jewels. "Does 'Sparks' not suit him?"
Her lips quirked, or he would have thought her blind to the fancy. "The colors are wrong."
Gwinnor was not so fiery as her friend, it was true, the glints mainly blue and silver-white. "Vingenáro, his father called him; gwing, the flying spray—"
"The gust that flutters wave or flame, rather."
She spoke in an undertone, yet Gwinnor gave no courteous heed to her discretion. "Are you speaking of me, Lady?" he called out as he approached, his wounded tone at odds with his broad smile.
"Who else takes such arch pleasure in caprice?"
Her turn of the allusion was not unapt: the Noldo ever sought such excitement as might whet his lively wit, having little love for calm waters. Not the best quality in a herald, yet no one else among them knew so much of and was so genial with Dwarves.
Though even Veylin appeared to be smirking at Saelon's sally, within the covert of his beard.
Stopping before her, Gwinnor offered a blithe reverence. "Such sentiments grieve me . . . but I am glad to find your spirit, as well as your setting, so much improved!" A little more soberly, he assured her, "Your niece's work is very fine. A pity she did not have time to ornament the gown as she wished; yet that will give me reason to anticipate next Yáviérë."
Courtier's manners won no favor with this lady. "Do not expect much," Saelon warned dryly. "Only what dyed thread can do. And I will not make a habit of borrowing such finery as the guest-hall waiting woman can spare."
"What, you are too proud to go unshod, as your foremother Idril did?"
That deepened the hue of her sun-browned cheek, though she did not drop her gaze to her slippers, cut in no Mannish fashion. "My feet are not so fair any would call them silver."
Gwinnor laughed, having scored his hit. "Who would look at your feet while you wear that noble jewel?"
Indeed. Círdan, too, considered the magnificent jewel at her breast, like an echo of the woman herself, slim sea-beryl capped with stormy silver. Yet which took its resemblance from the other?
Saelon stood momentarily mute, taken aback as if by wind from an unexpected quarter, and Coruwi gallantly twitted the mírdan on her behalf. "Is it one of yours, that you praise it so?"
"Mine?" Gwinnor exclaimed, and the shadow of outrage in his smooth voice did not seem feigned. "Could even a Laegrim mistake that for Elvish craft?"
"As readily as I recall you confusing the slot of boar and sow," the marchwarden riposted. "Forgive my ignorance, Lady. Is it a relic of the Sea-Kings? Well your heart might turn to the Sea, with such beauty as a resemblance."
Círdan waited on Saelon's answer. Even if Gwinnor had not reported the token and whence it came on the eve of their arrival, he could see it was no heirloom of her once-high and long-harried house: its brilliance was unblemished, the lustre on the pearl-foam fresh as a new-opened blossom.
"It is splendid, is it not?" Taking the gem in hand, Saelon regarded it with somewhat self-conscious admiration—perhaps to avoid the compounded gaze of Elves, Dwarf, and Man. "But no: my heart had no such prompt, nor is it the work of Men. Master Veylin made it for me."
"I wonder," Coruwi said, bowing his head to the russet-bearded gemsmith, "that you find Dwarves merely scrupulous, Lady. Truly, that is a most handsome return for your succor."
"Aye, very handsome," Gwinnor agreed. "Even more than the cliff-hall delved at Habad-e-Mindon. I did not know you thought so highly of yourself, Veylin, that housing them did not pay your debt."
Was this chaff, or a pry? Before the Dwarf could craft a rejoinder to his satisfaction, however, Saelon declared, "I do not know the proper value of such things as halls and gems, but I doubt Veylin has prized himself too high. I would hold myself in his debt, for his part in slaying the killers of my kin and freeing Srathen Brethil from their fell presence, save that he insists otherwise . . . and who has ever heard of a Dwarf who would cheat himself?"
"If any misprize themselves," Veylin chuffed, scowling at her, "it is not me. Do you think you did nothing, because you did not carry a spear?"
Little wonder Gwinnor took pleasure from riling them: there was a strange charm in such contrariety, and Círdan found himself thinking well of the Dwarf. There had been no need for him to be either scrupulous or generous to a woman of alien race wanting kin or wealth; the more so since, rumor notwithstanding, she could not support his dispute with Lindon, his claim based as it was.
"What then," Dírmaen asked, "is the worth of carrying of a spear?"
The Ranger's abruptness gave Veylin no pause. "That is between you and your lord. It is your duty to him, is it not?"
"And what is Saelon's duty to our Chieftain?"
"I would not know." The Dwarf shrugged, careless. "That is her affair. Yet it seems likely that her tenacity will return Srathen Brethil to him, when his own efforts were to no avail."
To that, Dírmaen found no answer. "The cares of the Chieftain of the Dúnedain are many," Círdan observed, "and his men are few. I should think he would be glad to have a kinswoman of such resource." To turn the subject, he looked to Gwinnor and prompted, "You have come on an errand, have you not?"
The Noldo left off his speculative regard of the Ranger with a smile. "Yes! I have come to return another gift of Veylin's to the Lady."
"Another?" Coruwi exclaimed, frowning. Friendly to Dírmaen, the Ranger's harsh questions had put him on guard. "Is it strange, Lady, that ill-willed folk suspect your favor has been bought?"
"Not with bits of stone and metal," she dismissed, casting a cross glance at the Noldo. Círdan canted a brow of his own. If there were rumors of aught save the hall, who could be faulted but him? "I am not besotted with such things, as some are."
"No, you are not," Gwinnor agreed, drawing a plain bag of soft leather from his elaborately tooled and studded pouch. Bowing with an air of contrition, he offered it to her. "Your heart is elsewhere, Gaerveldis."
With a look of settled vexation, she accepted the bag from him and drew out the token to inspect it.
"What is it?" Coruwi asked, as she turned the rough lump of stone over.
Seeming satisfied that it had taken no hurt, she passed it to him. "Judge for yourself."
The marchwarden examined the broken piece of fine, pale stone closely. "This would appear to be some sort of whelk," he hazarded, delicately stroking the distorted whorl of silver-grey. "Yet how did it come to be in the stone?"
"Have you never seen a stone-shell before?" Gwinnor asked. "They are common enough."
"In some places," Veylin allowed. "But not in the north, and no others have been found in that limestone."
As Coruwi looked from Noldo to Dwarf, Saelon answered, "Veylin has told me that before the Children woke, there were great tumults of land and sea, and even Habad-e-Mindon's high cliffs were drowned. Is that true, Gwinnor?"
"Surely one of the Maker's Children would know."
"You do not?" she came back, refusing the equivocal reply.
From his tone, Gwinnor no longer found this banter amusing. "Such was the lore I learned in Aulë's house, Lady."
Such mazy ways these currents ran, amid unsuspected reefs! Was the Noldo jealous of her regard for his rival's stones, as the Ranger of her allegiance? "When Saelon told me you were generous, Veylin, I suspected gratitude had made her partial. Now it seems she underspoke. What occasioned this gift?"
"It was not a gift," the Dwarf declared emphatically, "but half a trade. When I was first at Habad-e-Mindon, I admired a shell she had found, new-cast onto the strand by a storm, and she pressed it on me. When I came upon this one as we delved her hall, it seemed the fittest repayment."
A shell from the Earth for a shell from the Sea; generosity for generosity. Strange, the chances which had brought these two together, twining their prickly pride and mutual sense of obligation into a close tie.
With the storm that was brewing in the East, the West wanted all the stout cable it could find. Even a Dwarf could see so far, it seemed, now that the might of the Longbeards was broken and scattered, in refuge among the Ered Luin. That Dwarves should welcome the Sea at their backs, however, deepened his sense of foreboding, the itch that had lessened when he passed Narya into fitter hands, yet never altogether faded. "Well I remember Belegost's greed for pearl! Unless the shell you got was much battered, Veylin, this seems one of your shrewd bargains I sometimes hear complaint of."
"You cleared me—"
"I have no complaint—"
Dwarf and Dúnadaneth broke off, to give way to the other, and Círdan laughed at their indignant confusion. "Nay," he assured them, making his point for Gwinnor and Coruwi, and Dírmaen as well, if he had the grace to take it, "I think you are both shrewd enough to see to your own interests, in your different ways . . . and, for the present, I do not see that they do Lindon much harm. Come; let us not squabble while the fish grows cold." He gestured to the table, where the servers were laying down the first course. Peace he no longer hoped for: yet much might be accomplished during time of truce. "You will have better chance of confounding Tinnath once he has savoured the wine."
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Zargun: Arabic, "zircon." Since there are interesting correspondences between Khuzdul and Semitic languages such as Arabic, I have shamelessly borrowed the word into Khuzdul.
After-name: nickname; translation of Quenya epessë.
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