The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Of Like Passion: 15. Heart of the Mountains
There is an awful warmth about my heart like a load of immortality.
--John Keats, "Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds"
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Dírmaen was putting a final whet on his spear when Teig rode up on his dun hobby, Madamenath's reins in his hand. "We could not find Môrfast," the bondsman explained as the Ranger frowned to see his own mount saddled, when he had ridden the horse so far yesterday.
"You could not find Môrfast?" Staring at Teig, who avoided his gaze and licked his lips as nervously as one of his young hounds, Dírmaen straightened up. That black stallion, near as dear to Saelon's departed brother as his children, was one of the few treasures remaining to these folk. "You are sure Gaernath has not taken him?"
The man nodded earnestly, then caught himself with a look of growing confusion. "Yes—I mean no, Gaernath is riding Coll along the cliff-top, to look for him. He said he would go so far as the Ram, then return."
Dírmaen thrust his whetstone into his pouch and picked up his saddlebags, striding over to Mada. "Were any others missing?" At present, the horses were pastured on the narrow plain between the strand and cliff south of the tower hill. Save for the steep track that led to ridge and hill, there was no path out for horses nearer than the Ram. With plenty of grass and good water in the pool where a rill fell over the cliff, the herd had showed no interest in roving so far.
Perhaps one of Airil's grandsons had taken the liberty of a gallop; such handsome horseflesh was a temptation to any man. It was the sort of fool thing Leod might do, daring the Lady's displeasure to deepen Murdag's admiration.
"Not that I saw," was all Teig's answer, as Dírmaen mounted.
Vexing: yesterday he had finally found wolf tracks in the mountains and a den, not long deserted, and had hoped to have their pelts by tomorrow. Teig was bringing one of Aniel's two surviving veteran hounds and a couple of the more promising youngsters, and Dírmaen had wanted a fresh, battle-trained horse under him. As the time to take the wolves grew short, he had taken to alternating between Mada and Môrfast.
And now their setting out would be delayed, losing precious hours of the swiftly shortening day. If Leod or one of the boys had taken the horse for a lark, he would give them a hiding they would not soon forget.
They stopped at the kennels, which lay along the track to the cliff-top, to pick up the hounds, then cantered along the beaten white bridleway. As they reached the ridge they could see Gaernath riding back, his red hair like a beacon, flaming in the golden morning light. While they waited for him, Dírmaen dismounted and began scouting the track up from the plain, seeking Môrfast's marks.
It was difficult to make anything out clearly. There had been no rain for a week, and the ground had baked hard in the late summer sun; they had brought horses up and down every day. Scuffs and kicked stones were more common than hoofprints, and they might have been left by any beast. The stallion's hooves could not be mistaken, however: he was the largest in the herd, with a long stride and neat round hooves.
"There was no sign that any of the horses have left by the track near the Ram," Gaernath reported when he joined them. "And no sight of him, either!"
Looking up at the lad's grave frown, Dírmaen considered. Gaernath was becoming a good tracker, though even a skilled man might be mistaken on such ground. "What do you think has happened to him?"
"He must have come up this way and strayed. We know there are no wolves," Gaernath said, bitingly wry, "and surely he has not been stolen. By whom? The Dwarves do not go near a beast so high. Unless you think he flung himself into the sea, and swam West."
Dírmaen gave a soft snort, not wanting to encourage the lad's newfound taste for bitter humor. "No, I think you are right. Yet why would he have strayed? The mares are all here—" you could see them from where they stood, grazing undisturbed, the foals they carried just enough of a burden to spare them the long journeys into the mountains "—and there is no lack of grass. Where would he have gone? We must guess, or we will spend all day going print to print, and making little headway." The ridge was a bad place to seek tracks, with its tussocks, bare stone, and heather.
Gaernath gazed across the land from the vantage of his mount. "Not to Habad, or he would have been seen. Did you speak to Maelchon?" he asked Teig. "Perhaps Môrfast went visiting."
"I think we would have heard, or one of the boys would be returning him even now," Dírmaen said. "Though that seems likeliest." The husbandman kept a horse or two by his house against sudden need, though he did not think any were mares.
"He is not on the nearer moor, or you would have seen him as you came," Gaernath acknowledged the Dúnadan's sharper sight. "That leaves the oakwood and the hills."
The Ranger turned his gaze to the hills, and the higher peaks beyond. The stallion had been among them day before last . . . . Had he seen or scented something—say, a wild pony mare—that had turned his heart back that way, once his feet were rested? He had balked where the glens came together, stretching his neck out and giving a great cry that echoed off the cliffs, but bone-weary, with night coming on, Dírmaen had pushed him impatiently on. "Those seem the best places to begin." Looking over his companions, Dírmaen sighed. He would be glad when Halpan and, aye, even Partalan, returned. A half-grown lad and a hesitant houndsman to beat this rough country with. "Teig, will you take the oakwood? Gaernath and I will stop by Maelchon's, and if there is no news there, ride up the river to see what can be found." At least there might be clear tracks along its course.
"Aye. Should I follow after, if I find naught?"
Dírmaen shook his head. "No. Come back here, for he may return of his own will. If he has not, then tell the Lady that he is astray and we are after him."
Teig did not relish such a charge, but gave a reluctant nod. "Will you have the hounds?"
They were trained to pay no heed to horses, not hunt them. "No. They will be of more use to you in beating the woods."
So they divided, setting out after a quarry other than they had intended.
There was no word at Maelchon's; even the children, such as could be gathered hastily, could tell them nothing, though Uspag gleefully babbled of the black horsie's visit two days ago. On they went, along the narrow track their frequent journeys had carved into the heather, whose bright bloom was fading . . . autumn was coming, and yáviérë. Why did he labor so, to find the wolf pelts that would secure these people's place by the sea, when he knew the Chieftain wished them across the Lune? Weary work, that was like to get him thanks from no man—or woman. Twice more he had dared to meet with Saelon, as if by chance, since that sweet day in Cerveth; always, she was conversable . . . but no more. Was she blind, or cold?
When her kinsman returned, he might ask, if his hope did not fail him.
Where the ground dipped towards the level of the stream, soft and moist even in this weather, they found their first sign of Môrfast: the prints of three long, easy strides. Not fresh, nor so deep as to believe he was ridden, yet no older than yesterday. Dírmaen looked up from where he knelt, sighting along that short stretch of hoofprints. Yes, the stallion was making for the hills.
Dírmaen led Gaernath with more confidence and greater speed towards the headwaters of the river, pausing only to look for further sign where tracks might have been left. Gaernath spotted a few hoofprints in a smooth patch of turf, where the stallion had gathered himself to leap a stream coming in from the south; further on, his dung was scattered along the stony ridge bridging a patch of bog. When they came to where stream and glen branched, they found deep marks where he had stood in the muddy gravels, probably to slake his thirst.
Yet despite long searching, there was no sign which way Môrfast had gone: up the broader northern arm of the valley, the way they had come down the evening before last, which led to the higher peaks beyond; or towards the right, into a treacherous maze of blind corries. Looking to Gaernath, Dírmaen asked, "Shall we divide? You take the left, while I go right?"
The lad eyed the northern heights uneasily, shifting his grip on the spear he held. "Could the wolves have gotten him?"
"No common wolf could take that horse, so long as he could run," the Ranger assured him. The prints that he had seen yesterday were not those of wargs. "Do you fear meeting wolves alone?"
That Gaernath considered before answering pleased Dírmaen. Many an older man, disappointed in love as he was, would have grown reckless, or careless. Had he learned this deliberation from Saelon? "No," he decided, glancing at the quiver by his mount's flank. "There were only a few, were there not?"
Such a grave young face; though it had been beardless when he crossed the fiend-haunted mountains to Srathen Brethil, alone and unarmed. "No more than three, and perhaps pups."
"Well," the lad declared with studied coolness, preparing to mount, "if our paths do cross, I hope there are at least two."
Dírmaen gave him a knowing shake of his head, but was glad to ride up into the devious hills with an easy heart, on that point at least. He doubted Gaernath would find the wolves that had so long eluded them, but if they found him, he should do well enough.
Up he went, over heather and stone that gave little hope of tracks. A sweep of bracken, breast-high on Mada and browning towards autumn, finally gave him what he sought: a path, horse-wide, had been cut through. At the foot of the high fronds were Môrfast's hoofprints, clear but still not fresh. The stallion had not tarried on his way. There must be a mare up here somewhere: a pony strayed from the Dwarves, or one of the larger hill ponies Saelon's folk had kept, cunning enough to escape the fiends and avoid the wolves. Odd that she had not followed them down to Habad-e-Mindon, if she were alone on these high, rough pastures. Surely she had heard Môrfast's call.
In a pretty green nook near the head of the topmost corrie, Dírmaen found his quarry. Aye, it was a mare—but no stubby beast of the hills. An elegant grey head lifted alongside the black one at his approach; a familiar elegant grey head, though it was bare of gem-studded leather.
Tinnu, Gwinnor's mount. What was she doing here? Rising in the stirrups, he hallooed, and the shout echoed from the cliffs above. Surely the Elf was near enough to hear: the mare did not look as if she had been running wild. Or were Elvish beasts naturally as sleek as their masters? No answer; no sight nor sign of Gwinnor. Well, Dírmaen was in no mood to wait on him. If he was to reach Habad before night, he must set about catching Môrfast.
That proved more difficult than he had foreseen. The stallion was not at fault; not especially. It was the mare. Dírmaen had found her a touchy, aloof beast on Gwinnor's earlier visit, resentful of familiarity from any save her master. Now she had a wicked look, as if she guessed he meant to part her from her paramour; and she hindered him in every way she could, short of outright attack: inciting Môrfast to roguish capers, bullying Mada . . . even going for the rope with her teeth.
He lost his temper with all three horses before he finally succeeded in capturing the stallion, a thing he had not done in long years, and his mood was as black as the horse when he finally rode the beast out of the high glen, his gelding on the lead rope. The sun was so low in the sky that he knew they would not make it to the moor before dark, let alone the seaside cliffs.
And that cursed Elvish steed was shadowing them. Not close, yet near enough that she was like to cause mischief after dark.
While the horses drank their fill at the fork of the stream, Dírmaen considered their case. He was in a temper to be unwise, and cloud was pushing in, so that the waxing moon's early light would be dimmed. This was no land to stumble across in the blind dark. Sighing, he reconciled himself to a night without supper or roof.
So soft he was getting, to be put out by a Ranger's lot. A mild summer's eve, with no threat of rain, nor foe worse than that hooved hussy . . . .
A little further down the vale was a tall rowan, and there he halted as the dusk drew in. Having hobbled the horses and tied Môrfast to the tree for good measure, Dírmaen was just breaking a stand of bracken for a bed when a light, reproachful voice came from the gloaming. "Heartless man—have you no respect for love?"
Straightening up, he turned to face the Elf. Gwinnor was clad as a hunter, not so fine as he had been during his embassy to Saelon, and gazed on the stallion's hobbles with distaste. "Love," Dírmaen scoffed. "Is that your excuse for making free with your neighbor's stud?"
"I have done nothing," Gwinnor replied, arching a brow at his brusque tone. "It is Tinnu's affair entirely."
There the grey demon was, having drifted out of her namesake dusk to touch noses with Môrfast, who snuffed eagerly before giving a short buck, squealing in furious frustration at his restraints.
"Aye, nothing." He came near to asking whether the Elf would have troubled to see the stallion safe home again, after, but managed to shut his mouth. That was too near an accusation of thievery. "What brings you to these high hills?"
"My visit this spring recalled the beauties of this land to my mind," Gwinnor replied, with the pointed courtesy of a man who need not reply, but did for friendship's sake. "I have spent the summer in the northern Ered Luin, and am heading homeward. Finding your stallion with Tinnu this morning, tarrying was no hardship." Gesturing at the still-protesting horse, he asked, "Will you not release the fellow? He seems a good creature—he must be, for Tinnu to stray after him as she has—and has surely done nothing to deserve such cruelty. You may have me as surety, for Tinnu will remain near me, and I doubt he will go far from her."
Did Gwinnor think he liked to hobble beasts so tightly? "You will come down to Habad-e-Mindon?"
"Gladly, if I am not unwelcome."
Would the Elf be unwelcome? Saelon and Maelchon were not fond of him, though they would not turn away the one who had granted them their holding. Dírmaen decided to let Gwinnor make what he might of him releasing Môrfast from bondage.
He was turning back to his bracken bed when the Elf asked, "Have you supped?"
Casting a sour glance over his shoulder, Dírmaen told him curtly, "No. I would have been home ere now, save for your witch of a mare."
"Ah." Something suspiciously like a smile quirked Gwinnor's mouth, though it was too dim to be certain. "Then I hope you will allow me to make such amends as I can. I have some fine birds here," he declared, holding up a string of plump grouse. "Enough to share. Will you have one or two?"
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"What is this?" Gwinnor asked with interest as the farmhouse came into view, its thatch like a patch of winter bracken in the bright morning.
Dírmaen regarded his companion closely, wondering if he disapproved. "Maelchon felt his family crowded the hall."
"And struck a bargain with the Dwarves, or so I guess from the preponderance of stonework," Gwinnor finished, smiling broadly. "I had hoped limiting their timber would delay this, but these Srathen Brethil folk are clever, it seems. Or did the Dwarves propose the work?"
The two of them rode side by side on Môrfast and Tinnu, who was biddable as a hound to her master. Dírmaen had wondered how the Elf would retrieve his tack from wherever he had camped, surely near that high corrie, yet he had none, it seemed. Mada followed readily, the lead rope little more than a formality, though the Ranger preferred to keep some control over his beasts.
"Something of each." Dírmaen saw the husbandman's older boys come pelting across the dewy grass to meet them, shouting with glee. "Maelchon was lamenting that he could not build a house for lack of timber, and a Dwarf suggested stone."
"You found him!" Gormal cried.
"Gwinnor!" Guaire called delightedly.
They stopped in the dooryard long enough for Gwinnor to trade greetings with Maelchon and Fransag, complimenting them on their house and new daughter before promising to visit properly later, once they had reassured the Lady that her stallion was safe. Discovering that they had not broken their fast, Fransag would not let them leave without bannocks in their hands, which repaired Dírmaen's mood enough that he consented to let Gormal join them as groom. The lad lost no time in clambering up onto Mada's bare back and off they went, his younger brothers jealously running ahead as heralds.
Dírmaen did not think he had ever seen Saelon so caught between expressions as she was when they came into the dooryard before the hall: relief and surprise and anxiety. He had not thought the Elf would worry her so much, yet maybe she feared he had come with word of Círdan's denial. "Gwinnor! Welcome!" she greeted him, the duties of a host winning out. Why was she frowning at Gormal and looking for another horse? "I am relieved to see you and Môrfast, Dírmaen, but where is Gaernath?"
The Ranger scanned the cliff-shelf. Everyone seemed to have come out to see them home, but there was no red head. "We parted at the fork of the river, midday yesterday. He has not come home?"
As he twisted in the saddle to gaze back towards the hills, Gwinnor asked, "He took the northern way?"
"Yes." Had Gaernath found the wolves? His horse might simply have pulled up lame: it was a long walk for an injured beast, or a dismounted rider, carrying a saddle. Yet Gwinnor's eyes were grave as well. Did he know of the wolves? If he had been hunting in the mountains, he must have seen some sign of the pack.
After a long moment, Saelon said, with a lightness that rang false, "He is probably buried in his cloak under a bush, stealing a few more hours of sleep. Come and refresh yourselves, gentlemen. If he is not here by dinner, then we will think of searching for him."
Dírmaen was devouring a third fish, hot off the griddle, wondering which horse he should ride for yet another trip into the higher hills, when Gwinnor asked, "Might I ride with you?"
"You would be very welcome," Dírmaen declared. He put a hand over his cup as Saelon went to refill it with ale. "Enough, thank you."
Saelon had chivvied the cottars out to their work, and the lasses were with Rian, leaving her to serve the pair of them, at board in the cool dimness of the hall. She drew back the stoup. "You said you had found wolf-spoor. Was it in the north?"
Of all her surviving kin, Gaernath was perhaps the dearest to her; more than Hanadan, Dírmaen believed, though the lad was not even Dúnedain. He filled his mouth with fish and nodded mutely. Could he do nothing for her that did not take an ill turn?
"Do you think so poorly of Gaernath," Saelon's voice was chilly, "that you suspect he is already in a wolf's belly, or is there something else in the hills you have not told me of?" Her stare, thankfully, was fixed on the Elf, who looked startled by her suspicion and at a loss.
"I have seen nothing in the mountains save birds and beasts," he hastened to assure her, "and I have wandered there all summer. Still, your kinsman is very young, is he not?"
And that was when the youngest of her kinsmen ran in, almost skipping with excitement, bearing word that Gaernath was coming across the machair, leading his horse.
Shoving back his bench, Dírmaen rose, and the others joined him in striding for the door, to see for themselves. Airil and his grandsons were already at the lip of the shelf, staring down; as Hanadan had dashed into Saelon's chamber to give Rian the news, the lasses were on their heels . . . save for Murdag, who feigned indifference, lagging behind.
Dírmaen shaded his eyes. The horse was walking slow but even, as if laden rather than lame; indeed, something large and dark was slung over the saddle. Had the lad found a stag he could not resist?
Gwinnor laughed and turned to Saelon. "Pardon me for doubting the young man, Lady. I assume this was all that was lacking for your rent?"
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Hobby: a small- or medium-sized horse; a soldier's horse.
Hobbled: hobbles are rope or leather straps used to restrain horses when stabling or a corral is unavailable, usually placed on the forefeet. The horse can move around to graze, but their stride is so shortened that they can't go so far or fast. Many thanks to Súlriel for useful bits of horse behavior!
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