The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Of Like Passion: 14. In Confidence
We could no doubt mistake
These flowers for some answer to that fright
We felt for all creation's sake
In our dark talk last night.
--Richard Purdy Wilbur, "In the Field"
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In such weather, it was a pleasure to sit with a cool stream running over bare feet, slopping water about in a pan. Veylin preferred to take gems straight from their native stone, whole and glittering, but it was good for the lads to try their hands at washing gravel, and gave valuable clues to what lay upstream, hidden under moss and till. Oski had caught the knack quickly, the swirl that spilled the lighter fraction, and now he was peering closely at a large pebble, angling it in the strong light of the westering sun.
Veylin left him to make his own judgment, picking another garnet from the dark flecks in the bottom of his pan and dropping it into the pouch at his belt. They had perhaps a handful already between them. So small and battered, they were of little value as gems, yet they would provide good lessons for his prentices as they polished them into beads or cut the larger to make inlays, teaching them to get the most from what the earth gave.
And, should Gwinnor be spying on them, he was welcome to take his share when they had gone. Perhaps the Noldo would grow weary of such meager pickings, and give over his watch . . . if he was watching.
Oski was still studying the pebble. "What have you got?" Veylin asked genially.
"A rain-stone," the Longbeard replied. "Unflawed, I think."
"It is often hard to tell, when they are rough." Veylin laid aside his pan and stumped carefully across the cobbles of the streambed. "May I see?"
His prentice hesitated, the natural reluctance of a true lover of gems, then handed it over. Veylin bent and dipped it in the water, to see beneath the battered surface. It was a pale blue-grey, clearer than the water it had come from, and large as a thumb-joint. "Very fine," he judged. "Thyrð! Come and see what you ought to be finding!"
Bounding down from the slight rise that gave him a view of the land about—even if his fears of Gwinnor were groundless, the discontented Ranger roamed widely—his nephew halted beside him, gazing on the stone with keen envy. "Is it a topaz?" he asked.
Veylin passed it to him, stifling a smile at Oski's narrowed gaze. A bit of rivalry between one's prentices was a good thing, inspiring greater effort. "No, a rain-stone: near kin to topaz, but blue-grey as distant mountains rather than golden-brown. Many Elves admire their likeness to water, and will pay good prices for them." Looking back at Oski, he said, "If you do not wish to keep it for yourself, you might seek a buyer in Mithlond, when we go south in the autumn."
The sun gleamed on the Longbeard's golden hair as he bowed his head in appreciative acknowledgement. Many masters took all their students found, but Veylin followed his own in making an exception for the occasional stone of quality. He still cherished the first beryl of good size he had ever found: it was hard to let such beautiful things go, and closed the heart. Being granted some share of the treasure whetted rather than blunted youth's keenness. "I will see how it looks when it has been polished before I decide."
Veylin chuckled. "That would be wise." Turning back to Thyrð, he asked, "Do you feel how it is heavier than quartz? That is the best way to distinguish the more precious gems, when they have been rolled to pebbles."
After weighing it thoughtfully in his hand, Thyrð nodded and gave it back to Oski. "Are there more, do you think?" he wondered, gazing hungrily at the small gravel bar his fellow had been working.
"Get your pan and take another turn!" Veylin urged, feeling the thrill himself. They would have to come back tomorrow and explore the banks upstream. If pegmatite cropped out along the stream's course, there might be some grand rain-stones—and other things. He would wash one more pan, then go up and take Thyrð's place on watch, where he could consider the shape of the land.
Then Oski found a second, smaller rain-stone, more grey than blue, almost gloating over his luck. Veylin stepped over to dip his pan near where the Longbeard squatted: once, twice, a third time. They were all three intent on the stones before them, the low skirling chatter of pebbles on metal stilled, when he heard the soft clack of stone on stone from the bank above. Heart leaping, he looked sharply up and around—
—and saw Saelon halt at the crest of the bank, a blank look of startlement on her face, which quickly turned to consternation. "Your pardon, Masters," she murmured, hastily turning to retreat.
"Saelon, wait!" Veylin called, lurching to his feet. "Keep at your work," he brusquely told his prentices, who stared, appalled, between him and the fleeing woman, then limped after her.
She had gone no further than the other side of the rise, where she could see nothing . . . nothing more. "I did not know—" she began, low and earnest, an anxious look on her face.
"How should you?" Veylin dismissed. She was wearing her great basket; she, too, was prospecting. "Yet I can trust you not to speak of this?"
They stood and regarded each other in awkward silence, though Saelon still seemed poised to flee. "You look well," Veylin muttered, not wanting her to think he was angry with her. With himself, yes: it was his fault they had been found at work, neglecting the watch as he indulged his greed for discovery, so long starved. Still, fortune was with them, that it was Saelon and not another.
She did look well; as well as he had ever seen her. Two years it would be next month since fate brought them together, yet she looked much as she had when he woke and found himself in her cave. Save for her present unease, the kindly summer had smoothed many of the lines her late tribulations had graven in her sun-bronzed face. She was lean, yes, but no longer thin.
Veylin was glad the sun had reddened his skin, hiding his flush of mortification as he remembered what state he was in, stripped against heat and wet, wearing no more than a thin shirt and trews, and those turned up as high as could be. When suspicions were abroad, among her folk and his . . . .
Saelon was looking at the pale relief of scar on his bare shin, lips pursed.
Naked, indeed; yet it was her handiwork. She had some right to look on it, though it was all he could do to stand under her acute gaze and not cover the shame of his lameness.
Foolishness. What had she not seen, when she had tended him? She stared for a few moments only, though it seemed long, and when her eyes came back to his face, he braced himself for whatever she might ask.
"I was not able to thank you properly for the wheat and oat seed," she said, "when you slipped them to me, nor since."
Heart swelling with relief, Veylin chuffed expansively, waving her gratitude away. Was that a shade of amusement in her knowing, sea-colored eyes? "A trifle, particularly if your refreshments will be improved thereby. How do the plants fare?" Her delicacy was a balm, the more so now that Auð worried at him.
"Very well, so far." After some consideration, she took off her laden packbasket and sank down onto the green turf. "I have great hopes for the plots." No doubt she had tramped a weary way that day. She must have, if she was turning home with the sun.
"And the barley? Is it as excellent as last year?"
Saelon laughed. "Not quite so bountiful, not even in the newly ploughed land. The summer—" she cast a quick squint up towards the relentless sun "—has been a trifle too fair. A few more rainclouds would have been welcome. We made a prodigious harvest of berries, however, both brambleberries and blaeberries. If Bersa would welcome some, tell him to come and make me an offer."
"I think he would," Veylin grinned, "but do not look for him. You will only get him on a pony so long if you tempt him with another feast."
"Then he will have to wait until we harvest," Saelon declared.
"When will that be?" He sat as well, laying his game leg across the pleasant warmth of a dark, sun-heated rock.
"Mid-Ivanneth, perhaps a little earlier if the weather stays so dry. Will Rekk have returned by then?" she asked, pulling her basket to her and unfastening its cover. "Halpan was sorry not to see him in Lothron, before going east, and if he takes our rent to Lindon before Rekk returns, it may be long before we all meet again."
"I do not know. The Hobbits will want the mill running by harvest, of course, yet if they are pleased with his work, he is unlikely to hasten home. No one," Veylin assured her, "is more devoted to food than Shire-folk, not even Bersa. And they brew excellent beer in Stock."
Saelon offered him her waterskin and, when he waved it off, gave a slight sniff, lifting one dark brow. "Mine will be better," she assured him, "now that Fransag has her own hearth, and is not always peering over my shoulder."
As she drank, Veylin arched his own brows in return. The savour of her hospitality had never quite met the standard of the grand meal she had set before that small company of ill-tempered, grieving Dwarves two years ago . . . but he had imagined it blunted by want, not a desire to guard the secrets of her art. How Dwarvish! "And is Fransag content, at the hearth she so fiercely insisted must lie in the middle of her floor?"
From Saelon's smile, he saw there was no real ill-will between the women. "Very. She gave Maelchon another daughter in Nórui, and is glad Grani and Thyrnir managed the fourth couple of crucks."
"How many daughters have they?" A girl-child was an omen of prosperity among Dwarves, a sign of special blessing.
"Three, and four sons."
Veylin shook his head at the fecundity of Men. "Give them my good wishes, and I will pass their appreciation on to Grani. Have you any other news?"
"Muirne and Artan have a second son, as fair and bonny as the first. Hanadan thought to take eggs from the seabirds that nest near the tower ruin, and came near to dashing his brains out on the rocks below."
He gave a low laugh at her exasperation. "He will be a dauntless warrior, Lady."
"If he lives so long."
"And your other young kinsman?" he asked, to steer her from vexation. "Have Gaernath's fortunes turned?" In Gwirith, when the fiery-haired lad had sought to see his rival off, downy beard bristling, he had seemed to be on a firm footing; yet in Lothron, his losses in ground and confidence had surprised Veylin.
Saelon sighed. "No. We will probably celebrate Leod's wedding at the harvest festival. Dírmaen is being very good to Gaernath, taking him on long hunts into the mountains, seeking the wolf-pelts we need for our rent, and teaching him the lore of the wildlands." A better occupation for a lad so young than courting, to Veylin's mind; yet Men were short-lived. "And you?" she prompted. "How do your folk fare?"
"Well," he replied heartily. "We have delved a new level and expanded the workshops. The hall looks splendid, now that Nordri has finished facing it with the limestone from your cliffs, and the new furnishings are nearly complete. I have been spending most of my time teaching my prentices," he said, pointing back towards the stream with his beard. "Losing Vestri and then Arðri has left me without any skilled assistants. These two have talent, but need training."
"I envy you, that your nephew wishes to learn your lore," she said, a little wistfully. "I should be passing mine on, but Rian's talents lay elsewhere and none of the other lasses care for more than the most basic simples and what might please a man's stomach. Dírmaen would be happier as well, for then I would not wander alone. Although," a wry smile flitted across her face, "perhaps it was as well that I was alone, today."
Veylin shrugged as if careless. "It is no great matter. If it were, you would not have caught us unawares. Here, see—" Reaching into his pouch, he pulled out a few of the garnets and showed them on his palm. They were of so little value, what was the harm? "These are garnets, or wine-stones. Such small ones are not uncommon hereabouts."
She gazed on them with friendly interest, but nothing more. "They do have a lovely color, compared to common pebbles. What can you use them for?"
A great laugh escaped him. "And folk say Dwarves think of naught but the utility of things!" So she had spoken of the beautiful whorl of violet nacre she had brought from the strand soon after they met, storm-wrack admired but not valued . . . which was why it now sat in a niche of his workbench.
Smiling, she asked, "If I look on blossoms and think mainly of their uses, how should I be moved by stone?"
"Do you have any interest in stone, Saelon, beyond roof and quern and whetstone?"
"A little," she maintained. "Insofar as some plants favor certain kinds. The orchid I used to cleanse your wounded shoulder, cowslips, and purging flax grow only where the soil is sweet, near the pale stone of the cliffs. Then there are crottles that favor dykes."
His heart froze within his breast. "Favor what?" he asked, praying he had misheard. He had never said anything of dykes to her.
"Dykes. Is that the right word?" she asked, frowning a little. "The scars of the earth, like the footings of dark walls."
"Yes, that is the word," Veylin agreed. "Where did you learn it?" Scars of the earth: as a healer, she might see them so. Yet who had told her of their nature?
Saelon hesitated, having caught his change of mood. "Gwinnor."
Who else? "How did you come to such a topic?" He could see, clear in memory's eye, her striding north along the coast, the Noldo and Ranger trailing behind, as if leading them to his opal dyke. Had she? He had not dared go there since; perhaps it had already been plundered.
She stared at him as if baffled, even dismayed, by his sudden coldness. "South of Habad-e-Mindon—" she gestured that way "—there is one so broad and high I have always wondered if it were a wall. I thought he would know who built it, and he corrected me."
South of White Cliffs, not north. His heart began to beat again. Yes; her curiosity about the relics of the Elder Days he knew. Of course she would have questioned the Elf about such things. "How far south?" He had not yet explored beyond White Cliffs: it was too difficult to pass without being seen, by roving children if not the Ranger. It might be that Gwinnor had found something to occupy him elsewhere.
Given the richness of the dykes to the north, it might be worth the trouble of visiting this one in the south. Whether Gwinnor was there or not.
"Almost a league beyond the tower hill; it is the next headland. There are others," she offered, "though not so great, further south still, past the bay with the sea-cave." As he digested this, Saelon murmured, "You would rather I did not speak of such things with Gwinnor . . . or others?"
Gazing on her subdued and, once more, anxious face, Veylin drew a hand down the russet of his beard and tried to moderate his scowl. "I would rather." He had revealed more of his interests to her with those few curt questions than he had meant, or liked. Dykes, the pattern of the tide . . . holding such clues, who could not find his lode? Her look of contained dismay confirmed her comprehension. How could she not have guessed, so shrewd as she was? Unguarded; doubly unguarded: he had betrayed himself.
"I hope," she hazarded after a time, as if she could bear the silence no longer, "I have not caused you difficulties."
She had; though doubtless no more than he had caused her. Over-familiar, they all said, his folk as well as hers, and he had dismissed it as ignorance or ill-will. What danger could there be, when they were so dissimilar and she so disinterested?
He had kept this secret even from his kin, save Thyrnir, and would not have revealed it to him save that his leg had been too weak to risk going alone in those first months.
Saelon gathered up her basket, preparing to rise.
"Stay!" Veylin told her sharply and, seeing her eyes hooded like a wary hawk's, added, "Patience! Let me think."
She settled again, folding her long-fingered hands in her lap, and waited.
What he had said could not be unsaid; what could he say that would not reveal more? Yet he must say something. He could not let her leave, not with this unsettled between them. She knew too much, and her mood was shifting to something cooler. Did she think he would be unjust? That he believed she had spoken lightly or in hopes of gaining the Elf's favor?
No—she was too proud to prattle. And he was offending her more every moment, leaving her to imagine he doubted her rather than himself. Getting to his feet—graceless, without his stick—Veylin went to her. The uncertainty in her set gaze was both wounding and reassuring: doubtless she had heard tales of what Dwarves would do to keep their secrets, though it was well that she took this as gravely as she did.
He sat down again beside her, close enough for confiding talk. "Elves are always difficult," he muttered. "As you know all too well. With Gwinnor, I do not even trust myself."
"Indeed?" She looked as if she suspected he was humoring her.
"Would I be trifling with . . . pebbles," he slapped his pouch contemptuously, "if I were easy in my mind? In your wanderings," he asked, lowering his voice further, "have you seen any sign that Gwinnor is still about? Or has returned?"
She looked at him askance for a moment, then gave a minute shake of her head. "Yet he is an Elf, and they tread lightly on the land, leaving little trace. Dírmaen has said nothing of any sign."
Veylin gave a ghost of a snort. "Would he?"
"To discourage me from rambling unaccompanied? He would be glad to declare that a stranger was about, for he has spent his other arguments." After a time, Saelon said quietly, "I would have sent word, if I had heard any rumor of him."
He sighed, feeling more and more like a fool. The best of the season lost, for fear of shadows; now he had come near slighting the keystone of the alliance he desired. "Would that not compromise you, Lady?"
"Master," she replied in kind, "I would be in Srathen Brethil now, were it not for you. I chose the chance of quarrels."
That echo of his words when the Elf and Ranger had her at wits' end between them brought a sour smile to his face: now she was the one who was secure, and he harried. "For one who wishes a retired life, you are singularly adept in contention, Saelon. Or is it all as naught beside the tumult of the sea?"
When she rose this time, he did not stay her. "Why you Dwarves mislike it so, I do not understand. I find your rumble and changeable mood not unlike—which is, no doubt," she shrugged her packbasket into place, "why I find the company of Dwarves congenial." More gravely, she assured him, "I will keep a closer watch as I go . . . and on my tongue."
"Do you truly?" Taken aback, he stared up at her.
"Find Dwarves congenial?"
"Find us like the sea." There was something appalling in that . . . and yet not unflattering.
Saelon paused in consideration before answering. "To the ear, mainly. At present," she judged, "you sound as if the wind is setting contrary to the tide."
Opal having taken him to the shore, he knew the sound: the short, muttering chop of water pushed forward and pulled back. As he was caught between his hopes and his fears. "Hmph. And what does that vexing Elf sound like?"
"Despite his name, there is nothing of the sea in him. He is as the air."
The wind, contrary to the tide.
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Till: the unsorted sediments left behind when glaciers melt; also, very descriptively, called boulder clay.
Rain-stone: a blue-grey variety of topaz. A term of my invention.
Longbeard: the Longbeards are Durin's Folk, the eldest of the seven kindreds of the Dwarves, somewhat fallen from high estate since the loss of Khazad-dûm in T.A. 1981 and Smaug's destruction of Erebor in 2770, the latter well within living memory for Dwarves. Oski's parents were part of the following of Thráin and Thorin, who took refuge in the Ered Luin in 2802.
Quartz: one of the most common minerals in the earth's crust, whose many hues and forms provide a range of semi-precious stones: rock crystal, amethyst, cairngorm, citrine, tiger's eye, and others. These stones are not as dense as more durable and hence valuable gems like diamond, ruby, sapphire, chrysoberyl, topaz, and garnet. The "heaviness" of these stones is what makes panning an effective method for finding them
"excellent beer in Stock": In LotR, Ch. 4, "A Short Cut to Mushrooms," Pippin says, "I had counted on passing the Golden Perch at Stock before sundown. The best beer in the Eastfarthing, or used to be."
Nacre: mother-of-pearl. Veylin is thinking of the violet sea-snail (Ianthina exiqua) shell Saelon gave him in Chapter 6 of Rock and Hawk.
Purging flax (also fairy flax, Linum cathareticum): a medicinal herb used for purging and gynecological complaints.
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