The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Of Like Passion: 16. Trade Mission
That virtue which requires to be ever guarded is scarce worth the sentinel.
--Oliver Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield
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Wolves. Saelon stared at the great shaggy beasts, patched with clotted gore, and her heart sang with relief—and pride.
"Leod," Gaernath said, as sharply offhand as ever his father had been, "come take Coll's head. He does not like his load."
For a few heartbeats, the cottar lad stared at him with insolent indignation, and Saelon heard Murdag's breath hiss with anger on her chosen's behalf. Gaernath simply waited, eyes narrowed and bloodied spear in hand . . . until Airil trod pointedly on his grandson's toes, jerking his chin towards the horse, mouth tight-set.
With a chuff and a shrug, Leod stepped forward and took the weary but wild-eyed gelding's bridle, as was his duty.
Gaernath gave his spear to Hanadan, who gazed on it with admiring awe, and hauled the first stiff carcass off the saddle. "Here, Lady," he proclaimed, with justified consequence, "are the pelts Lindon requires." He cast it down before her, followed by the second.
The third went rather astray, landing almost at Murdag's feet. No slip or weariness, that. The lass started back with an appalled grue, as Gaernath turned pointedly from her with a look of haughty disdain to tell Dírmaen, "There were two more that escaped me, taking the pups."
"You have hounds, do you not?" Gwinnor gazed on the beasts with satisfaction, Elvish eyes fiercely keen.
"Aye. Let me have a bite and get a fresh horse, and I will go back with you."
"Teig," Dírmaen called to the houndsman, "will you come, or might we have your horse?"
Hunting-mad, all of them, even the Elf.
"Take him, sir, for Coll is done in, sure. Get yourself some dinner, lad," Teig told Gaernath, clapping him solidly on the shoulder, "while I bait the horses and hounds. I'll see to the skinning after. Leod, get that bloody harness off the poor beast, then take him down to the sea and swim the wolf-stench off him. Phweu, that saddle is going to take a deal of cleaning!"
Gaernath ate as ravenously as any wolf, fish after fish, as fast as they came off the griddle, paying no heed to Saelon's warnings not to burn his mouth, telling his tale in snatches between. Dírmaen and Gwinnor followed it as closely as hounds on a scent, their approving attention cream to the lad's cake.
Gwinnor—she had hardly had a moment to consider his sudden appearance. What had brought him back, and how long had he been in the hills? He could not be here for the game, though he was clad as a huntsman: as he had said himself, deer and birds were scarce, they having taken so many. Yet there was more to hunt here than hart and herb . . . and one who knew Dwarves might well seek their mines in the mountains, rather than by the sea.
Perhaps she ought not to dwell overmuch on an Elf in his presence. Though engrossed in her cousin's shaft-by-thrust description of his maiden wolf-slaying, Gwinnor's gaze kept flicking to her, as if aware of her thought. When Gaernath finally stopped his mouth with a sticky honey-cake, the Deep Elf turned to her, lips pursed as if choosing his words with care. "Lady, it has come to my attention that Men might think my mare has been taking . . . liberties with your stallion." Dírmaen turned a frown on him: for speaking of such things to a woman, or the free use of the beast? "Do you expect some compensation from me?"
If he thought that was why she looked on him doubtfully, that was all to the good. "Yes," Saelon allowed, wrenching her mind back to the matter of Môrfast, "it is the custom among Men to command a price for such service as Môrfast has rendered Tinnu. If we had known there were mares other than our own about, we would have taken care to secure him . Yet—" she must leave the question of his presence "—since you were generous with us this spring, I do not grudge you a foal of his getting . . . but if you sell it, I should like some part of the price." Surely that was not unreasonable.
Gwinnor bowed his head, accepting her condition. "How large a part, Lady?"
She had no idea what was usual. "Whatever you think is proper. You know how slender our resources are," she sighed, with a deprecating smile, "and can well judge how we depend on our stock to raise our fortunes." Indeed, they must find some market for Môrfast's colts; Halpan and Partalan would know what would be best.
"Ah," the Elf said in mild yet knowing reproach, "there you go again, not asking for your due. Do you hope to get more from me so? As for raising your fortunes, do you think I was blind to the quarry in the far cliff? I hope you got a good price from the Dwarves." He gazed about the hall appreciatively. "This stone is very fine."
"The agreement was for use of the land, not the right to sell it," Saelon reminded him shortly. "I told the Dwarves as much, and that they must do as they felt right by Lord Círdan."
Gwinnor laughed and reached for the mead, broached to celebrate Gaernath's blooding. "You are all of a piece, Lady. What the Dwarves make of you, I would dearly love to know. They are not, I hope you know," he warned amiably, "all so honest as friend Veylin . . . and any of them might be led astray by strong temptation."
He seemed to take a positive delight in baiting her. Drolly, Saelon observed, "I have heard tell of a few Elves who had a like fate." Had he been tempted here by curiosity and his love of gems, or did he consider himself a guard on Lindon's rights against encroaching Dwarves? He called Veylin honest; yet he also called him friend, which Veylin denied. Who had the right of it?
"Indeed. And which of them was not embrangled with Dwarves?"
Gaernath, understanding little of this and no doubt caring less, rose. "I will bring the horses to the door." He drained his cup. "Will you have Môrfast or Mada, Dírmaen?"
"Mada," the Ranger decided. "We had best leave Môrfast in the byre-cave for now, lest he grow too fond of certain company."
Gwinnor sighed and shook his head. "You are a heartless Man. Tinnu will tire of him soon enough. Why not let them enjoy each other's company while they may?"
"How long did you think to stay?" Dírmaen asked dryly.
The Elf shrugged, his gaze going to Saelon. "It is a pleasant country—but I would not outstay my welcome."
She smiled and began clearing the board. What was she to do with him—and how was she to get word to Veylin, without leading Gwinnor to him? There was no sending Gaernath this time. She could go herself, but that would indeed look as if she and Veylin were conspirators. She needed some excuse to go, and a good one, so she could outface Gwinnor's insinuations; and she needed an escort, or there would be talk of another kind. Who? Maelchon would be acceptable, though not entirely proper . . . yet he had never been to Veylin's halls, and Saelon was loathe to reveal them without leave save at dire need.
When Gwinnor left to see to his mare, Dírmaen lingering to finish his mead, Saelon hesitated at the Ranger's shoulder. He would be a proper escort; he had been in Veylin's halls . . . yet he did not look favorably on her friendship with the Dwarf. "What is it, Lady?" he asked.
"I have need of you," she said quietly. "I would be grateful if you would stay back."
His dark brows dipped in puzzlement, and not a little vexation. "For what? Can it not wait until we return? We will be gone three days, no more than four."
"No, it cannot."
He was caught between curiosity and annoyance. "What am I to tell the others?"
"Whatever you please."
"Will you tell me no more?"
"I would do as you have advised."
Now he was completely baffled, having advised her on so many subjects; but he was not pleased. "Very well, Lady."
By the time she dared come forth from the hall, Dírmaen stood on the edge of the cliff-shelf, watching Gwinnor and Gaernath ride away. Saelon went and stood beside him, uneasy in her mind. Had she been too unsubtle, keeping Dírmaen back? Would Gwinnor slip from the lad in the wild and turn back again, to see what she was about, or was the call of the hunt too strong?
This must be what Veylin had meant, when he said he did not trust himself where the Elf was concerned.
"For months," Dírmaen's voice was low, "I have labored to find the wolves you needed to remain here by the sea, and now I have lost the pleasure of killing them. How am I to serve you, Lady?"
He had worn himself almost to gauntness with the work, despite better feeding. "I require an escort."
His look was cutting. "To gather your herbs, or bait from the shore?"
"To visit our neighbors. Bersa was much disappointed by the lack of honey," she told him. "Now that we have opened the hives, I would trade for linen." True; it was all true. She had spoken of doing so to him before. As Dírmaen frowned, perhaps wondering why this errand could not wait, she prodded, "You have been to their halls, have you not?"
"You do not know the way there?"
"It is not right that I go alone." He was her harshest critic in such matters; he had no one to blame but himself it if now inconvenienced him.
The Ranger gave a quiet huff. "No, it is not. Did you wish to leave now?" He cast a pointed glance at the sun, nearly overhead.
It would take time to select and pack what she meant to trade; more to ride three leagues up the coast. And the Elf's sight was long. "What, and stop the night, uninvited? No; early tomorrow."
Dírmaen bowed his head in stiff submission. "Very well, Lady." Then stalked away to join Teig over the dead wolves.
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That night, Saelon dreamt she lay soft and easy, with a man's bare warmth at her back, his close-muscled arm over her flank.
It had been long since she last had such a dream, so clear; she thought her body had forgotten Necton's touch. In the dream, there was no bitterness, no regret . . . only the sweet lassitude of love. He stirred, arm tightening to draw her closer—
Faded tatters now, as all dreams after waking, like the pallid ghosts of last year's leaves. Yet she could not shake off the sense that the arm had not been Necton's: the hair dark, not fair; a hardened man's rather than youth's.
Saelon cast a discreet, troubled glance at the man riding beside her, once more the dour, silent Ranger who had come with Râdbaran to take them back east. Not that he had ever been affable: he it was who insisted on "Lady," when most of her folk would call her by name; who upbraided her, by look more often than speech, for what he considered impropriety; who disapproved of her policies and her allies. At times, she despaired of doing anything that pleased him.
Though lately she had thought he was resigned, if not reconciled, to her ways. He had honored his agreement with Veylin to speak no more of their leaving and, as the summer went on, grew less censorious and more conversable . . . when he was not in the hills. He had been so generous with his strength and skill on their behalf. Could it be that it was not from disinterested nobility, but—?
No. She should blush to imagine such things. Her age alone made it ridiculous, even were they not so contrary of mind. Dírmaen was a very fine man; she would not be sorry if he pled for Rian's hand when she came of age; but she had seen no sign that he admired her. His eyes were dark and brooding when turned her way, not bright with delight. Three leagues they had traveled that morning, and not a word from him, sweet or sour.
"Ho!" A stern Dwarven voice broke her reverie, and Saelon looked sharply up the slope. There, perched on a great boulder, stood Fram, Bersi's prentice, his carrot-colored hood difficult to see among the browning bracken and his hand on his axe helve. "Where are you going, Lady?"
"Greetings, Master Fram," she said courteously, for there was a frown in his fawn-brown beard. "At your service. To your hall, I hope." She turned in the saddle to set a hand on one of the burden baskets. "I have brought honey and other things to trade. Is Master Bersa at home?"
Fram gave a short bow and took his hand from his weapon. "At yours and your family's, Lady. Yes, Bersa is within." His dubious gaze seemed to linger on Dírmaen. "Wait here, and I will see if he is at liberty."
"Very well." Odd; she did not recall a guard set so far from the door before. Did they already know of Gwinnor's presence? "My regards to Master Veylin as well, of course."
"Of course." The Dwarf hopped down from the boulder and began trotting up the hill, but within a furlong she lost sight of him, though cover was scarce.
The wind whispered in the tall grasses; saddle leather creaked, and the horses' teeth tore the green at their feet. After a time, oppressed by Dírmaen's relentless silence, Saelon contritely offered, "Thank you."
She had begun to fear he would not reply, when, low and brusque, he murmured, "If you meant to keep this place secret from Gwinnor, the effort was wasted."
Saelon met his storm-grey gaze unflinching. "I have come to trade, as I said." Had he told the Elf himself?
"And that could not wait a few days? Duplicity does not become you, Lady."
Her face went so hot the coldness of her voice shocked her. "Are you saying I am false?"
"I thought," he answered, severe as any lord, "that you prided yourself on forthrightness."
This was too much to be borne. If she were a man, she would have drawn on him. "Then let us be honest," she flung furiously back. "Did you know Gwinnor wandered here?"
Dírmaen's shrug was careless. "No. But what matter if he does? You have acknowledged that this is Elvish land."
"You do not find it strange that he hunts here, after complaining that we have ravaged the game? Or is in no hurry to depart, after insisting they do not wish to mingle with Men?"
"I do not claim to understand Elves."
"Yet you take his part over mine!"
That, he bridled at. "In what way, Lady?"
"Did you tell him where the Dwarves dwell?"
"Why should I not?" he demanded.
She gaped at him, aghast. "Because they are our allies, and do not wish it widely known."
"Why should you pay Lindon to dwell here," Dírmaen's voice was searing, "and Veylin not?"
"Our cases are different!" Always, this suspicion that Veylin took unwarranted advantage. "The Dwarves dwelt in these mountains before ever the Elves came, and have rights here. Gwinnor allowed as much, and I have told you of it. If Veylin has trespassed," she defied the Ranger, "why does Gwinnor not say so, instead of calling him friend?"
His horse shuffled beneath him, and he looked down towards its hooves. "You should keep clear of their quarrels," he said with grave sententiousness, "whatever they may be."
"I should repay my friend for his support by standing aside?" Saelon could not believe what she was hearing. Did Dírmaen give such craven counsel because Veylin was a Dwarf, rather than a Man, or because she was a woman?
He raised his eyes to hers again with a discomposed frown. "I doubt his friendship is disinterested, Lady."
"Of course it is not! He is a Dwarf! Yet that does not mean it is false—or so Elrohir told me," she sniffed, "if you prefer the word of an Elf over mine."
"Peredhel," Dírmaen muttered. "The Brethren are half-Elven."
"Friends of the Chieftain, at any rate, and more civil to Veylin than you are—as is Gwinnor! Such fixed mistrust, without cause, speaks more to your character, Dírmaen, than his. Or mine!" Turning her face angrily from him, Saelon glared towards the slope above them . . . and started at the sight of Bersi standing beside his prentice.
As the Ranger's head came around, falcon-swift, the coppersmith bowed very low. "Welcome, Lady. Veylin is occupied at present, and could not come to greet you himself, but my brother would be glad to trade with you."
Hoping the sun-struck brownness of her cheeks hid her flush, Saelon bowed her head. "Thank you, Master Bersi. I am at your service, I am sure."
"And I at yours." Was there a particular emphasis in that deep voice? Bersi was a dear friend of Veylin, she knew. How much of her tirade had he heard? Had she said anything untoward in her rage? "If Dírmaen—a Man of honor, we know," the Dwarf bowed to him as well, but not so deeply, "will but give his solemn oath not to reveal the way into our halls, we can go within."
Saelon stared from Bersi to the Ranger. "Have I misunderstood? You have been in their halls, have you not?"
Dírmaen frowned on the Dwarf rather than meet her questioning gaze. "My word as a Ranger," he offered, with offended dignity. "I will tell no one the way to your door."
Saelon looked back to Bersi, seeking an answer to her question, but the coppersmith simply gestured up the hill. "This way."
"You do not require the Lady's word?" Dírmaen asked pointedly.
"We are satisfied with her discretion." A plain statement of fact, revealing nothing of her two previous visits; and after matching gazes with the Ranger on his tall horse for some breaths, Bersi led them to where the rill, a feeble thread after this dry summer, trickled over the edge of the shelf.
They unloaded her mare and Fram charily took their reins, leading the beasts back down. Saelon let Dírmaen and Bersi take the small casks of honey through the narrow cleft, carrying the more delicate berries and herbs herself. There must, she decided, be another way into their halls. Surely they did not bring all their supplies—or the blocks of stone from the cliff—in through this narrow way!
Once through the wondrous door of stone and having exchanged greetings with Skani, who had the doorwarden's place, Saelon did not find it difficult to gawk as if she had not been here before, for truly, it looked a different place entirely.
The creamy stone they had hauled away rough-cut on their sullen ponies seemed to glow in the lamplight, polished to a gentle sheen. In the passage, the walls were plain . . . but the hall was breathtaking. It seemed larger, now that shadows did not mask its noble proportions; the ominous, mysterious dark banished by a brightness familiar from her own hall, set off and mellowed by the black boles of the great pillars. There were more tables and seats, in strong hues of brown and green, picked out here and there with the gleam of shining metal; against one wall was set a scaffold, from which Aðal gazed down on them, tools in hand.
Saelon bobbed her head in acknowledgement, tearing her eyes from the intricate patterns the carver was sculpting into the stone. So rich, so handsome a hall—no wonder Veylin was anxious for its security.
"Come to make amends, have you?" Bersa did not rise from his broad chair as they approached, but eyed the little casks with candid greed.
Beside her, Bersi huffed disapprovingly at his brother's discourtesy, setting the cask he carried on a low table beside another fine, leather-covered seat. Saelon chuckled and dropped the fat Dwarf a curtsey. "I have spared you a weary journey, Master. You will be grateful, I am sure."
"Grateful?" Bersa's tawny brows bounded upwards as nimbly as any deer. "I thought you had some acquaintance with Dwarves, Lady." Turning to his brother, he said, "Step into the kitchen, Bersi, and fetch me a tap, so I can be certain she has not brought me the dregs of her hives. While you are there," he muttered, "I suppose you ought to pour the Lady a cup of mead . . . and," a final afterthought, "bring along a plate of seed-cake."
Hiking a brow, Bersi rumbled, "I am not your prentice, brother." Glancing over to where the Ranger stood by the nearest pillar, he asked, "What will you have, Dírmaen? Wine? Mead? Ale?"
Dírmaen bowed his head with stiff formality. "Wine, thank you."
"What else have you brought me?" Bersa asked, craning his neck to peer at her deep basket.
Saelon carefully drew out her bundles and boxes, laying them on the table. "This season's bilberries, well-dried, and new brambleberries, on the brier two days past. Fresh cheese and butter. Kale and cress. Sundry herbs for cooking. The wax that came with the honey."
"Hhmph." Yet he seemed pleased as he heaved himself to his feet. "Let me see."
He took his time about it, fingering and sniffing and tasting her produce, so long that she had started a second slice of seed-cake. Sucking a stray smear of honey from his thick thumb, Bersa settled back into his ample seat. "What did you want for this, Lady? Coin?"
"So that I may hand it back to you again? I would rather have linen, if you can spare any."
"Do I look like a tailor?"
From where he sat, near to Dírmaen, Bersi cleared his throat. "Auð has some, I am sure."
Auð? Ah, yes; the silent Dwarf, beard as red as that of Thyrnir and his brother. Near kin, Rekk had said. Yet he had never been to Habad, and seemed less genial than even Rekk.
For a moment Bersa looked blank, staring at his brother, then stirred uneasily in his chair, looking from Saelon to Dírmaen and stroking his broad beard as if to soothe himself. "Will Auð like to be disturbed?"
Bersi shrugged. "You can ask."
"I?" Saelon wondered if the fat Dwarf's horror was due to Auð's temper or the effort of the errand. "It was your idea. You go."
If Bersa found Auð fearsome, his brother did not. "Very well," he said, rising readily.
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Grue: Scots, a feeling of horror or revulsion; the twisted expression that accompanies such feelings.
Bait: to feed and water an animal, during a break in a journey; akin to "a bite."
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