The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Hand to Hand: 14. Old Wives' Tales
Doubt grows with knowledge.
--Johann Wolfgang van Goethe, Proverbs in Prose
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"Would you like a little more?" Sút asked, as the boy scoured the last traces of gravy from the bowl's glazed curve with what was left of his bread.
"Yes, please!" Hanadan flashed them a broad, avid smile. "It is very good. My aunt makes nothing like it."
Auð considered how swiftly the first portion had vanished, then cut him another wedge of ham pie nearly as large. He had been equally voracious at breakfast, downing a great stack of muffins with disarmingly candid delight at their novelty. Taking his bowl, she slid in the pie and passed it back to him. Although she could not see those scrawny wrists without thinking he had been starved, she was beginning to wonder how much feeding it took to raise a Man to his full height. Maybe it was as well that Bersa had not taken her wager.
"I have heard that the Lady Saelon keeps a fine table," she observed. "But I do not understand: she is your aunt, and Halpan is your uncle?" Auð was sure Rekk had said Halpan was Saelon's father's younger brother's second son. Surely she could not also be the sister of this child's mother!
"Thank you," Hanadan said, cutting the crust with his spoon. "Saelon isn't my aunt, really," he confessed, with a child's shameless indiscretion. "I cannot call her mother, though, because Nana did not want her to foster me."
Sút stared at him with perturbed fascination, sable brows knit at the casual falsity. "Who is Nana?"
Auð was surprised that her friend had returned to the hall to keep them company. Hlin had not ventured out since the boy arrived, and the delf seemed empty with so many of the men abroad, after the crowded bustle of their arrival. At least Veylin had sent Haki and Gamal back last night with the news that they had missed what fighting there was, and their neighbors had taken less hurt than feared. Most of the brigands were slain, and they would return when all had been brought to account, but Halpan or Gaernath would come to retrieve Hanadan. With only three leagues between them, she had expected the Man before now. Had something unforeseen occurred?
The boy's answer was unclear at first, not merely because his mouth was full. "Naneth. My mother."
As bewildered as Sút, Auð said, "Foster you? What is that?" She had never heard the word before. How could a child call anyone mother who was not?
Hanadan regarded her curiously as he chewed. "When you live with a noble who treats you as his son. It is a common thing, for heroes. My cousin Halmir, who will be lord of Srathen Brethil, is fostered to a lord of the Rangers."
"Do you mean prenticed?"
He shrugged and shoveled more ham in his mouth.
No; it could not be the same thing. No one would part with so young a child. His mother had not desired it. "Do you not live all together at White Cliffs?"
Reaching for his mug, he shook his head.
At breakfast, Auð had learnt that his father and eldest brother were dead, slain by the same fiends that had left her own sons fatherless. Was he . . . ? "You do not live with your mother?" Did not, he had said of her.
He shook his head again. "Nana was sick," he said, without the least reserve, "so she went home to her Nana. Handin went too, to take care of her and our sisters. I stayed with Halpan, to keep my father's place."
Sick; something else Auð did not clearly understand. Some affliction of Men, that enfeebled them. That a woman who had lost her husband might seek security among her own kin was not strange; and it was praiseworthy that a son, though of tender years, should wish to hold fast to his patrimony. Yet that Men would not choose one or the other, instead allowing their contrary impulses to divide the family . . . . That was wrong. There had been selfishness somewhere. But the blame could not be laid on this brave young creature who found delight in the simplest things: crockery, coal; water from a tap; risen bread.
How was it that they were marvels to him? Could anyone be so poor?
"Sisters," Sút muttered, plainly wondering what a girl-child might be like. "You are blessed with more than one?"
"Three," Hanadan said, screwing his face up as if displeased and reaching for another slice of bread. "The same as Guaire."
"Three! And you had two brothers?"
He nodded and stuffed his mouth.
Auð answered Sút's disbelieving stare with a sign for discussion later. She had been amazed--skeptically so--by reports that the farmer Maelchon had seven children, but taken it as a freak, like that gem-making Elf who had seven sons. Were all Men so prolific? She was trying to imagine bearing and raising half a dozen children when Fram strode into the hall, helm under his arm. His step faltered when he saw the three of them together at the table, but his surprise was swiftly concealed and he turned their way.
She rose and went to meet him. "What news? Is all still well?"
"With us, very well," Bersi's prentice assured her. "The Men have suffered no new calamity; are lucky," he rumbled, frowning at Sút, who continued to converse with the man-child, "to have fared no worse, careless as they are. Bersi is bringing Halpan to the front door now. If you do not wish to meet the Man, you should withdraw."
Was a prentice presuming to tell her how to attend to her own security? "I have met Halpan twice before, when he was welcomed in this hall. Has something changed to make him less trustworthy? If so, why will he be allowed to enter?"
"I did not say he was less trustworthy," Fram grumbled, looking disgruntled. "I was only tasked with bringing you word of his arrival."
Then he ought to confine his words to that. Yet should he to be faulted for liking Men less than his master? "The warning is welcome," she conceded. Sút would certainly appreciate it. "How many of our men are returning with Bersi?" She was willing to stay to greet Halpan and give her charge back into his kin's keeping, but she would be easier if their guest were well escorted.
"Four: Grani, with Aðal and his friend, and the haughty Longbeard as well."
None of her own menfolk, though Sút would welcome Aðal, the stonecarver being the nearest to kin she had here. "What delays the others?"
"The Men of the Star say two of the brigands may have escaped them. Rekk has taken some to join the hunt; Nordri oversees the cleansing of Maelchon's house; and Veylin has taken charge until Halpan returns."
"The cleansing of Maelchon's house?" Auð stared at him, a chill touching her heart. That was not the word for the plying of broom or mop, and bespoke defilement rather than dirt. And why must her brother do the duty of the masterful Lady?
"That was Thyrnir's idea," Fram said. "Two of the brigands were slain within, yet the Men intended to remain in the place, with their enemy's blood in the dirt of their floor."
Enemies inside one's home! Auð's beard bristled at the very thought. "I am sure you are all hungry," she turned the subject. Her questions must wait until Veylin and her sons came home; she would get better answers then. "Will you step into the kitchen and ask Bersa to bring out a second round of dinner? I will tell Sút of our guest."
"Girls are silly," Hanadan was declaring with an authority quite unbefitting his age as she came back to the table. "Nothing but pests. Is it true that there are no girl Dwarves?"
Sút's face closed and she drew back from the table and the boy, offended by his opinions or his forwardness. Or both. "Why should you think so?"
"You all have beards," he said blithely. "Gaernath says so. Girls don't have beards."
"You don't have a beard."
The child jutted out his naked chin with pride. "I am high-born Dúnedain, with the blood of Elves in my veins. I will not grow a beard until I am very old. Elves grow beards when they are very old--did you know that? My aunt says Círdan's goes down to here."
So much queerness in one day; Auð did not know how Sút bore it. Setting a hand on the boy's shoulder, she caught her friend's eye. "Your uncle has come to fetch you, Hanadan. He should be at the door now."
A great smile flashed across the child's open face and he leapt up from the bench--then caught himself. "May I go to meet him, Master Auð?"
You will remain here? Sút signed curtly.
"Yes," she said, to both of them.
So swift that boy was, flying across the hall on those long legs! "You are staying?" Auð asked her friend, when she also watched him go.
Sút snorted and rose. "This Man cannot be very perilous if one as prudent as you will meet him. Besides," she confessed, a rascally glimmer in her eye, "I have a curiosity to see one of these bald-faced creatures full-grown."
Hanadan was tugging at the heavy hall door--blackened steel chased with the warmth of copper; the child might be dwarf-high, but he was not strong--when it abruptly swung inwards, almost knocking him down. Halting the great panel with one hand as he came through, Bersi smiled. "Ho there, youngster! Are you so eager to leave?"
"Uncle!" the boy cried, and flung himself, arms wide, at the towering Man beside the coppersmith. Halpan stooped to catch him, long arms wrapping around the child's slender shoulders as his nephew buried his face against his breast and hugged him tight about the waist.
The silence of the two kinsmen as they held fast to each other touched Auð more deeply than she expected. No; the child was not starved. Poor in goods they might be, but not in affection.
"Hanadan," the elder eventually murmured, loosing his embrace enough to peer into the boy's face, "you were very foolhardy to come here as you did. Partalan and Canand were attacked by reivers not far from the way you must have taken. And what would you have done if the Dwarves were still at their home across the mountains?"
"I did not know where to find you," the child muttered low, hiding his face in his uncle's moss-green tunic. "Or Partalan, or Gaernath."
"But you knew where to find us?" Bersi rumbled, mildly severe.
"Sorta," Hanadan confessed, meeker still. Perhaps he found the armor daunting; his uncle wore none.
"No one would tell me where you lived." The boy was not too fearful to complain. "So I tracked them when they came to see you. Dírmaen taught me. He can track anything! I will be a Ranger like him when I am old enough!"
There was pride as well as exasperation in his uncle's face, and Bersi snorted. "A proper Man of the Star you will make, creeping up on friends by stealth as though they were foes. This time," he allowed, with a pointed finger and a bit of a growl, "we will pardon you, for you came in need and not for amusement, but do not forget: Dwarves do not welcome uninvited guests!"
The grey eyes that had risen with defiance fell again. "I will remember," Hanadan promised.
"What else must you say?" Halpan prompted sternly.
"I am sorry, Master Bersi."
The coppersmith chuffed, knowing eyes amused. He had raised sons. "Do not make it worse with dishonesty. You are not sorry: not that you hunted us out, nor that you found aid for your kin. Nor should you be. It was a brave deed. So it would be better if you thanked your hosts for the trouble you have given them."
Hanadan stared at him for a moment, head to one side, then pushed away from his uncle and faced her. "Thank you, Master Auð," he said gravely. "I am sorry if I have been a bother."
She bowed. "No more than my kin have sometimes been to yours, I am sure. I am pleased to have met you." She was, truly. So much she had learned from his unguarded innocence; more of Men in one day than the previous century and a half had taught her.
"I--all my folk--cannot thank you enough," Halpan added, and his bow was gratifyingly deep. "For your promptness in coming to our aid as well as your care of my nephew. Two stirks I have brought in token of our gratitude, one from our Lady and one from Maelchon. May the beef amply recruit the strength you have spent on our behalf!"
Now that was handsome; very handsome indeed. Auð had not expected repayment, not given the quantity of opal Veylin had gained by the Lady's intelligence. "Our thoughts will be with you when we feast on it," she assured him, bowing low in return. Fresh beef at the beginning of Súlimë! Steaks for breakfast; a great roast for dinner; proper gravy, rich and brown . . . .
"Two?" Bersi, who had removed his helm and run a hand through his flattened hair, looked quizzically up at the Man. "You brought three beeves."
"Yes," Halpan agreed, and now his bald face was nakedly embarrassed. "Two are our gift, yet the Lady hopes you will like to buy the third."
Auð frowned at him. This was strange practice. "Certainly we will buy, if she wishes to sell." Yet they could not value the meat as much as if the gift had not been given. Even with nearly thirty mouths to feed, there would be plenty to hang and the excess would have to be salted. Had they a pressing need for money? Was someone held ransom, or did the Men of the Star require payment for their aid? "What price do you ask?" She would buy it herself, and get her price from Bersa later. To stand and watch the fat cook wring this abashed young Man for an extra farthing would be intolerable.
"Six pennies is usual," he said, "but the beasts are lean at this season. Shall we say five?"
Prut, who would not let anyone forget that he was descended from the Eldest, for all that he was only one of Bersi's pick-men, paffed. "That sorry bag of bones? The hide and the glue one would get from its bones are worth more than the meat. Thrippence would be kindness!"
Auð fixed him with a withering glare. And if I choose to be kind, what business is it of yours? "I have not seen the beast," she confessed, jaw tight under the jut of her beard. "Bersi, what do you reckon it is worth?" She had meant to ask him privately, through iglishmêk, until this fool of a Longbeard thrust in.
Bersi ended his own silent admonition to the newcomer by closing his fist in finality. "They are nowhere near so bad," he said stoutly. "You did not look at them properly, Prut. That price would be just for hill beasts, which are sad wrecks so late in winter, but the grazing is better here by the sea. They carry good horn, too. I cannot say less than four."
"Will you take four pennies?" Auð asked Halpan, expecting him to ask for the half and willing to give it to him.
"As I have nowhere else to go," the Man said with a strained smile, "yes, I will. I understand, Master Auð, that you sell coarse linen at four ells to the pence. The Lady Saelon has need of such. It may be as coarse as you like," he told her. "She would like four ells; or, if coarser is cheaper, a penny's worth."
Auð believed his nephew could have bargained more shrewdly than this. The Lady would have done better to come herself and bring some of her niece's woolen, as they had discussed in the autumn. "I have some that would be cheaper, but it is thin stuff. What does she need it for?"
"To dress wounds," he said.
Ah; that explained why she had not come. "I am sorry you have such a need. Were many of your folk wounded?"
"Not many, but two gravely."
"The Lady is a skillful healer, I know. Sit," Auð invited, " and take some dinner while I fetch the linen. It is only a ham pie, but your nephew likes it very much."
As she headed for her workshop, Sút, who had stood far back to avoid formal acquaintance, fell in beside her. Once they had left the hall, she murmured, "I did not think they were that tall."
Whiskers twitching, Auð remembered her first sight of Men. She had always admired Sút's composure. "Halpan is Dúnedain, from the line of their kings. I understand they are loftier than the common sort."
Auð shrugged. "I do not know. Perhaps it is the elf-blood they are so proud of." That was another thing she could not comprehend: that any would boast of being mongrel. How could Men give their loyalty to rulers who had divided hearts? Or was it one of those alloys that produced a metal of greater utility, as when soft copper and tin were mingled to make hard bronze? "Yet their men also overtop the women. That I have seen."
Sút stared. "Truly?"
"The Lady is almost a span lower than her cousin." Some Dwarves were nearly so different in height, but it followed no pattern save perhaps that of prosperity and poverty. Did Men starve their girls, so they might dominate them? It seemed inconceivable, but no more so than not teaching them the use of arms.
That would be why Veylin had wasted no time in riding to the Lady's aid. To be attacked, and unable to defend oneself creditably-- The mere thought was enough to make one's flesh creep. Would this put an end to Saelon's reckless audacity? Unless she truly were mad, it must put some dent in her daring; and Fram had spoken of the Men of the Star. What were they doing at White Cliffs, if not defending the people there? Auð longed for her brother's return, so she could hear how he thought these things would effect their plans and hopes for Gunduzahar. The Lady and her Men were not of great importance to their work here; supplied them with little that could not brought from elsewhere . . . yet there was more than mere utility between them.
Could the peculiar friendship between her brother and Saelon endure if the woman of Men grew cautious? She did not know. There was nothing to compare. But surely it must be more difficult for the Lady to maintain the balance of obligation and generosity between them if her independence were constrained.
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Muffins: Americans, picture "English muffins," not a cupcake-like sweetbread.
Naneth: Sindarin, "mother."
Farthing: a quarter of a penny.
The Eldest: Durin, the Father of the Longbeards.
Thrippence: three pence.
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