The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Hand to Hand: 17. Men of Peace
Witness the nature of the creatures, their caprice, their way of being good to the good and evil to the evil, having every charm but conscience--consistency. Beings so quickly offended that you must not speak much about them at all, and never call them anything but the "gentry," or else daoine maithe, which in English means good people, yet so easily pleased, they will do their best to keep misfortune away from you, if you leave a little milk for them on the window-sill over night.
--William Butler Yeats, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry
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"There is no more meadowsweet?" Rian glanced back across the brittle bundles of stem and leaf, the small bags of root and seed, that lay atop whatever was handy in the part of the byre-cave that served as their storehouse.
"It seems not." Saelon refolded the last wallet--wood pease roots--and set it aside before upending the kist, shaking out green dust and dry curls of leaf. She had been sure none of that useful febrifuge remained, but it had done no harm to turn over all that was left of her store of herbs. The gowans might be useful. A pity she had used so much of what strengthened the lungs on Gràinne, who had let go of her pain and now lay beside her granddaughter on the high bank above the river, may bushes planted at head and foot.
Their first dead, in this place. Aniel had died in Srathen Brethil and was buried there, among his longfathers. Perhaps it was good that the little one was no longer alone. So small a patch of raw earth was a desolate thing.
"Oh! Forgive me," Rian begged, as Saelon righted and began repacking the kist. "I ought to have been more careful in drying what we gathered while you were away!"
Tsking, Saelon paused to rub at the ache in her hand. "Fretting now does no good. It is difficult to avoid spoilage, in this damp climate. Pass me the spearwort, and the groundsel. I will forgive you if you fetch sallow bark--there is plenty along the river bank. It is nearly as virtuous as meadowsweet, though it does not taste so nice."
Relief, that her carelessness would not be fatal to Dírmaen, eased Rian's anxious face, her habitual cheer flashing out like a gleam of spring sun. "Gladly! How much would you like?"
A shadow crossed the light; dark wings beat at the cave's mouth, ominous.
Startled, Saelon stared as a great black bird swooped in, landing on one of the hurdles that fenced the horses from their stores, hardly two paces from her. "Craec?" she hazarded as it folded its wings, head cocked to fix her with one gleaming jet eye.
"Elves," it said, in an eerie voice.
How many ravens were there that could speak? "You found them?"
Craec preened one already sleek shoulder. "Yes."
"Will they come?"
"Nearly here. Half sun-fall."
Half--? Saelon ducked her head to peer at the sky outside the cave. Heavy cloud was rolling in from the sea, hiding the sun; yet it was well past midday. "How many?"
The raven put its head to one side as if considering. "Two."
Saelon bit her lip, uncertain whether to be relieved or disappointed. Two guests could be easily housed and fed, though two seemed too few to scour the hills.
"Mead or ale?" Rian asked.
"Would it be better to serve them mead or ale?"
With a surge of alarm, Saelon realized she did not know what was in the larder--then determinedly dismissed her qualms of negligence. Rian could manage. "I would offer them mead and your bramble wine. Is the small cave fit to put them in?"
"It will be," Rian promised. "You truly think my wine good enough for Elves?" No doubt she was remembering Bereth's humiliation, when Falathar refused a cowslip wine of her making.
"Truly." The smile that brought to her niece's face lightened Saelon's burdened heart a little. "Go--I will put all away here." As Rian dashed off, she turned back to the raven, which gazed on her without the wariness of a wild thing. An uncanny bird; more inscrutable than its Dwarvish master, if Rekk were its master. He had disparaged the bird . . . but Rekk approved of little. Saelon recalled the first time she had seen the raven: out on the bog-moor, guarding the raug-slain Dwarves from carrion birds such as himself.
If he had misspoke when bringing news of those grim deaths to their kin, it was surely through strangeness of tongue rather than malice. A young bird, they said. "Thank you, Craec, for carrying my message." Gathering up bundles of foxglove and bloodwort that lay atop the box of part-rancid dried fish that went to the dogs, she set them aside. "Can you tell me who is coming?"
"Coruwi." He watched with keen interest as she took up the box.
"You found him?" she exclaimed, surprised.
Raising his feathers to swell his sable bulk, Craec angled his stout bill in what looked like haughty pride. "Yes."
Saelon smiled at his posing, as well as in relief. Not that she would not have welcomed any of Círdan's men, but Coruwi was less daunting than many; and he had been courteous to Veylin. Taking the lid from the box, she drew out a generous handful of strong-smelling fish. "Pray accept this as some repayment for your labors, and do not doubt your welcome here."
Eyes bright, Craec spread half-opened wings in a bow as she laid the oily flesh on the head of a keg. "Lady."
"Will you do me one more favor?"
Perhaps it was crouching to spring that gave him a chary look. "What?"
"Take word of Coruwi's coming--say that it is Coruwi!--to Veylin."
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Saelon slipped back into her chamber after changing in Unagh's, to put away her ragged old dress and find a shawl that would suit the sea-foam color of her gown. Made by Rian that winter, this was the first occasion she had had to wear it. She was rummaging through her kist when a low cough came from Dírmaen's pallet. Stilling, she prayed he would not fully rouse.
In vain. "What is afoot?" he rasped.
Abandoning her search, she went to him. "Nothing ill. Coruwi is coming."
"Coruwi . . . " he muttered, brows knit, and coughed again: deeper, an unpromising sound.
She had feared this. His wound was healing, but the fever, though lower, had not left him, and seemed to be shifting to his lungs. Would that it were not the spiteful tail of winter, the days either too wet or too chill to take an invalid out into the free air! Clotted lungs would break his rest, stealing the sleep that was his greatest ally. "Here," she said, lifting him a little. "Drink this."
"No." He turned his face away.
"It will ease your cough."
"I do not want it."
Saelon huffed. Fretfulness bespoke returning strength, hopeful after so many days of enfeebled passivity, but must he be a trial now? "Then Coruwi must get all his news from Randir. You can spare energy enough for a brief visit, or for coughing. Choose."
The look he turned on her was wanly baleful. "Why will you not let Randir nurse me?"
"Because he cannot be spared from keeping watch."
Another cough racked him. "Very well," he agreed after a long pause, petulant.
When he had taken a few swallows, she rearranged the rolled blanket beneath his head to raise his shoulders a little more. "Sleep, if you can," she urged.
"I am sick of sleeping."
She was sure he was. Ten days he had lain abed now, confined, and he was an active man. "If you are no worse tomorrow," she told him, combing his hair with her fingers to neaten him for guests, "you may come into the hall for a while, at a time of your choosing."
A soft tap on the door, and Muirne peeped in. "Lady, they are coming up the track."
"Thank you. Is there anything else you need?" Saelon asked Dírmaen.
Shaking his head, he shut his eyes and turned his face away.
Quickly she returned to her kist, digging deep to bring up pale golden lambswool, one of the last gifts from her brother, too fine for life here. The scent of thyme came with it, soothing to the agitated mind. Shaking off a few clinging leaves, Saelon cast about for a brooch, hoping Rian had left one behind. Apparently not. She hastened out, draping the fine fabric over her shoulders, through the hall and into the raw grey afternoon.
"Ah! There you are!" Coruwi called out, hand at his breast as Rian curtseyed before him. Artan was leading Coll off to the byre-cave as Gaernath made the introductions; the second Elf, standing behind Coruwi with both their spears in hand, was Eregai, who had spoken to her of herbs at their supper in Mithlond. "Well met, Lady!"
"Mae govannen," she replied, making her own reverence as she joined them. "Thank you, Coruwi, Eregai, for coming so swiftly."
"It is nothing," the marchwarden dismissed. "We intended to visit you before Tuilérë, to help you bring in the new year. Any excuse to sample your famed hospitality is welcome, although I wish it had been one less grievous to you and your folk."
"How much have you heard of our troubles?" Surely Craec had not told them the tale, yet Coruwi gazed on her as gravely as if his keen eyes could still see some trace of the bruises that had faded from her face.
The Elf nodded towards Gaernath. "Your kinsman told us much, as he brought us hither."
Above them, the threatening clouds finally broke, rain pattering down. "Come into the hall," Saelon said hastily, drawing her shawl over her head, "and we will talk more."
Once inside, the wet shaken off and cups of wine in their guests' hands, Eregai wandered back towards the door, gazing on the panels of carved birches. "Who did this?" he asked, lightly touching the slender boles. "Surely it is a remembrance of Srathen Brethil."
Saelon sipped her mead, studying the forester. "It is." Which of the many kinds of Elves was he, and what were his views on Dwarves? He had said nothing when the subject was broached at the marchwardens' board, in the autumn. Like his captain, he was clad in muted green leather and bore no sword. Were they Laegrim, Green Elves of the wood, or was this the livery of their service? "Nyrað, Nordri's son, carved it."
Eregai's surprise appeared mild. "Truly? I should like to meet a Dwarf who has such a feel for trees."
"Alas, he was one of those slain freeing Srathen Brethil from the raugs." Although she had not known Nyrað well and more recent sorrows pressed on her heart, there seemed a special grief in this, as at a child stillborn. "His father and brother, however, are our neighbors. I do not think," she ventured, as the Elf drew his hand from the stone, "that Nyrað's taste was peculiar. The pillars of Veylin's hall are carved in the likeness of trees--the boles of great ash trees."
"Indeed?" But Eregai's interest had palled.
"You have been in Veylin's hall?" Coruwi asked, before murmuring, "Thank you," to Unagh as he took a nut cake.
Saelon shook her head at Unagh, bidding her pass on. "Yes, I have. That surprises you?"
"Perhaps not." The Elf's shapely lips quirked into a smile. "How fares your friend? What can we do, that he has not already done?"
"Nothing, maybe. Gaernath told you that we are not certain all the reivers have been slain?" His other question she left lie, unsure of the answer. She had seen little of Veylin while he was here.
Coruwi nodded. "Craec, as well. The rest of my company is already scouting shore and hill for the ruffians." Looking around at the others in the hall, for the most part women, he declared, "If any remain, we will roust them out, never fear. Our own folk will soon be coming to this country, so we thank you for the promptness of your warning."
"The terms of our tenure require us to watch and guard." That others might not be taken unawares, as they were.
If the bitterness that edged her voice wounded the marchwarden, it did not anger him. "You give all that could be asked, Lady; more. Círdan will hear of the price you have paid."
She did not want to be always angry at them, or fearful; could not, if she was to remain here, on their shores. "Forgive me, I did not mean--"
Coruwi laid one long-fingered hand over hers, briefly, the warm strength of his clasp a comfort. "I only meant to assure you that we would search diligently, and to praise you for your resource. I had not heard that you were a friend of birds, as well as Dwarves."
"I am not, but the Dwarves are, of Craec at least. That is how I came by his services."
"Trees and birds and the Sea!" He arched one brow. "Will we be seeing Veylin and his companions while we are here?"
Saelon shrugged, fingering the stem of her dwarf-turned cup. "I cannot say. They are not so near that we see them often." Veylin usually came, swiftly, when she sent word of Elves . . . when there was some fear of their removal, or the Elf was his rival gemsmith. Would he come merely to meet Coruwi, so soon after marching in force to their relief? She would spare him the trip and take the Elf to Gunduzahar, were it not for his injunction of secrecy.
Yet that had been made two years ago, and many of them had been to his halls since. How hidden could they be, when even Hanadan knew the way?
Smiling, Coruwi drank his wine. "Yes," he allowed, "three leagues is a fair distance. If he comes, I will be glad: I would like to hear what--if anything--the Dwarves are doing to guard the mountains against such interlopers."
"The reivers came over the mountains, to be sure, but not from the mountains. They were on Coldfell, beyond the Lhûn, when the Rangers first had word of them."
"Then took refuge in Srathen Brethil, when harried?"
"That is what the Rangers Faelnoth and Randir told me."
The marchwarden took a thoughtful bite of nut cake. "Whither your kinsman Halpan and your swordsman have gone, with Faelnoth."
"They were appointed to meet with three of our husbandmen who desired to return there, in time for plowing and planting."
"Yes, you said you intended to resettle the vale."
That was what she had declared before those assembled to witness the payment of their rent in Mithlond, true; yet she had told Círdan, privily, that she and others of her folk would remain here. He had not welcomed it . . . but neither had he objected, and the ambiguity in what had been spoken before his people was his. Who was she to dispute his wisdom? "Halpan was loath to go, but Faelnoth urged us to hold to our plans, lest the glen become a lair of wolf's-heads."
"What was Dírmaen's counsel?"
Coruwi had been friendly to Dírmaen during their time in the Havens; the Ranger had first introduced her to the marchwarden. "Did Gaernath not tell you? He was gravely wounded in our defense, and has been very ill."
"I grieve to hear it. Has been, you say? He is recovering?" the Elf asked, with every sign of concern.
"He is . . . though he is not yet out of danger. Would you care to see him? I am sure he would like it, and a brief visit would do no harm."
"Certainly! Whenever would be convenient."
Smiling, Saelon set down her cup. "Then come now, if you will."
As she had suspected, Dírmaen was not sleeping; she did not doubt he had been striving to follow the conversation in the hall, muted though it was by stone and oak. "Here is a fresh face for you," she said, stepping aside so Coruwi could enter.
The Elf spared one glance for the chamber before striding to Dírmaen's pallet. "What is this, friend?" he asked, hunkering down beside him. "Laid low by a few foul hillmen, after mastering the monsters of the mere?"
Standing unregarded by the door, Saelon frowned as Dírmaen's answer was delayed by a cough; two, three: a dull, flat sound that cleared nothing. "As you see," the Ranger rasped, taking the proffered hand . . . but only for a few breaths. "I am glad you are here, Coruwi."
"Rest easy," the marchwarden told him. "If any of the rogues escaped you, we will have them. Gaernath said some were Men of Carn Dûm. Is that true?"
Dírmaen gave a faint nod. "The leader. Many of the others."
"Did the leader escape?"
Eyes glinting under heavy lids, fierce satisfaction scudded across the Ranger's gaunt face. "No."
Coruwi smiled. "That was worth a wound . . . provided you are soon afoot again. Sleep now, and we will talk more on the morrow. No mae!"
Yet the Elf's face was grave when he rose to leave, turning back towards Saelon. Once she had drawn the door closed behind them, he asked, "Lady, will you show me your garth and garden? The rain has passed, and the day bids to end fine, for Gwaeron."
For Gwaeron. "If you like." Taking Rian's cloak from the peg by the door, she settled it high about her throat as Coruwi reclaimed his, so the blue woolen would not trail in the mud. Hers, already old and frayed, had been condemned for rags after the wrenchings and blood of the reivers.
The rain had passed, though its threaded curtain still veiled the sheep-flecked northern headland; to the west, slanting brilliance pierced the cloud, cascades of light that made dappled silver of the sea, defying the gloom.
So beautiful, in all its moods.
At her shoulder, Coruwi gazed seaward as well. Did it speak to him, an Elf of wood and lea, or did he hear the call that had drawn so many of his people beyond the circles of the world? "Little wonder you are attached to this place," he said, as thicker cloud dimmed the light. "How long have you dwelt here, Saelon?"
She had to tell the years over in her mind: the wet summer that she came; the next, when Halladan found her and they quarreled; her first plot of corn . . . . "Almost two dozen years." Had it been that many? So often they had passed like the long, sweet days of Nórui, each one as welcome as the last.
Turning, he considered the pale rampart of the cliff, Artan sitting on the bench outside the byre-cave, cleaning Coll's bridle. "Why does this Maelchon not dwell here with you?"
"Not for any lack of liking," she assured him. "We are used to having a little distance between families, and Maelchon's is large, with many children."
The marchwarden gave a soft chuff. "Little wonder Dírmaen is care-worn, watching over you all, with so few men of arms among you."
Saelon set her mouth. What did he mean by that? "Dírmaen left us as soon as we returned from Mithlond. I understood that if we will not cross the Lhûn, or at least return to Srathen Brethil, we cannot expect the Chieftain's protection. If Dírmaen has been wearied, it was not by us."
For what seemed like a long time, Coruwi gazed on her, saying nothing, until she felt her face flush. Yet when he did speak, all he said was, "Do you have all you need to care for him?"
"Not all I would like," she admitted with a short shake of her head, kneading her hand. "His wounds are healing, but now his breathing is ill. Lung-fever has carried off many who seemed saved. I have no more meadowsweet; Rian was going to fetch sallow bark when Craec brought word of your coming. Nor is there much left in my stores that strengthens the lungs."
"Have you gotten the sallow bark?"
Coruwi took her hand. "I will go fetch it now, and after supper, you can tell Eregai where he can find the herbs you require."
"Thank you," she murmured. What would be best, at this season? Bogbean from the lochan by the cairn; coltsfoot from the shingle strand where she had met Gwinnor--
Her breath caught as Coruwi's thumb pressed into the soreness of her hand. "What is this?" he asked.
"A trifle." She would have drawn it back, but his grasp, though light, was unyielding. "One of the reivers kicked me. It is mending."
"Not rightly." His eyes, silverweed green-grey, were as searching as the fingertips he ran along and between the bones of her hand. "You suffered no worse?"
Saelon shook her head. Many times she had sought the cause of the pain, but the precise injury eluded her. "I was fortun--ah!"
The Elf pursed his lips. "Your pardon, but the trouble is deep and your hands are strong. I cannot be delicate."
"If you believe you can set it to rights, do what you must." She had inflicted pain enough on those under her hands. Now her turn had come. "I did not know you were a healer."
"Move your fingers," Coruwi asked, his over the painful place. "I would not call myself one. I have taken life too often, but many long-years on the marches teaches one how to succor the hurts of war. How did your foe come to kick you here? It seems a strange attack." Setting his fingers carefully, he took a firm grasp on her second and third knuckles.
"I cut him."
He laughed--and pulled, with a swift strength that made her gasp, astonishment rather than pain. "Gwinnor warned me of your merlin's temper. Try the hand now. You dealt the villain a shrewd blow, I trust?"
"Shrewd enough." Cautiously, she clenched her fist and waggled her fingers, yet felt no more than a vague tenderness. "This is wonderful! What did you do?"
"Merely returned the joints to their proper places. I would show you the trick," he said, smiling, "but I doubt you have that kind of strength. At least you should not try when your hand is mending. Have you or your folk any other hurts that have defied your skill?"
As if a cloud returned to cast its pall, Saelon sobered, thinking of Tearlag. "Yes. But I do not think you can aid her." Like Urwen after the death of her husband, the serving woman's wounds were not of the body . . . and she shrunk even from men she knew well, hollow-eyed and listless.
Elves looked so young; from his comely face, Coruwi might have been of an age with Halpan. Yet his gaze was old, old and unsurprised and grieved. "Then let me fetch what Dírmaen needs and spare your niece the errand. We can speak more of the evils you have suffered when I meet Maelchon and his wife."
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"Men of Peace": in Scots Gaelic, the Fair Folk were traditionally called Daoine Sìth, "Men of Peace," in hopes of them being so.
Wood pease: a vetch (Lathyrus montanus or Orobus tuberosus) whose sweet roots were chewed to deaden hunger.
Febrifuge: an herb or drug that treats fever.
Gowan (also ox-eye daisy; Leucanthemum vulgare): medicinally, this was used to treat lung complaints.
Spearwort (Ranunculus flammula): an herb used to treat toothache and for blistering.
Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris): an herb used to treat boils and inflammation.
Sallow (Salix sp.): the shrubbier types of willow, for instance, the pussy-willow; like meadowsweet, willow bark is rich in fever-reducing salicylates.
Bloodwort (also St. John's wort; Hypericum perforatum or pulchrum): one of the most prized Highland simples for controlling bleeding and treating wounds. When crushed, its flowers ooze a bright red fluid that can be used as a dye.
No mae: Sindarin, "be well."
Gwaeron: Sindarin, the month of March.
Nórui: Sindarin, the month of June.
Silverweed (Potentilla anserina): a plant of dune grasslands with silver-green leaves, whose sweet roots were often chewed by children.
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