The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Hand to Hand: 19. The Cunning of Women
The desire of knowledge, like the thirst of riches, increases ever with the acquisition of it.
--Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy
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Auð picked at the hash on her supper plate. Three hours on the way, at least; the same back . . . how long they would remain at White Cliffs was incalculable. They would have stayed for dinner, unless the Elves were offensive; Vígir must view the cuttings. Otherwise, she did not know what might occupy them. Contention could delay rather than hasten their departure, but then so might courtesy. Or brigands.
Whatever had possessed Sút to go off with them? If she did doubt Veylin's assurances, it was rank foolhardiness. It had taken Auð days to pry more than Veylin would tell from the rest of her menfolk, and what she got was as grim as her brother's stark sketch. Biddable Thyrnir bluntly refused to speak of such things to his mother; Thyrð was disgruntled that he had been kept from the ravaged house, grumbling that he was no longer a child. When she and Sút asked Hlin what Bersi had revealed, the leatherworker could offer no more than common report, for her husband had remained at the cliff-hall, where the brigands never came.
So Auð had asked Rekk to confer with her regarding the boys and unlocked his tongue with a judicious measure of her carefully hoarded triple-distilled liquor. She was uncertain of the worth of what she got, however, for he seemed to take a sinister relish the telling, lingering on the horrors. The worst kind of Men, he had rumbled ominously, eyes gleaming darkly in the lamplight; so like Orcs as to make no difference. Other Men not only cast them out of their communities, but hunted them like beasts if they had the strength. Killers of their own kind, violators of women, shameless thieves--
Just thinking of it made Auð want to check the locks on all the doors and take up her axe, even though the malefactors were only Men, weak and weedy. The dangers of so small and isolated a delf were no longer potential; evil had been--might still be--lurking outside, waiting to take a Dwarf unawares. Hlin could afford to be placid, for her men labored in the stone beneath them; but Thyrnir must go out for timber, Thyrð and Veylin for gems . . . . How were the fears that now gnawed at her to be laid?
Perhaps Sút was not so foolish, after all. A flesh-and-blood foe could be hewn down, unlike doubt.
"More ale, Mother?" Thyrð asked solicitously, pitcher poised, breaking into her dour thoughts.
"I told you," she heard Veylin pronounce, from the direction of the great doors, "that we would be home in time for supper."
Twisting around, Auð saw her brother several paces inside the hall, looking self-satisfied, helm already tucked under his elbow, as Sút unbuckled hers. Beside them, Rekk shrugged.
"What is this?" Bersa glanced up from his laden fork. "Did that Lady stint you?"
Nordri, who came through the doors in time to hear this, paffed and rolled his eyes, walking over to join them at table. "Far from it, though I would not mind a glass of ale."
"Nor I," Sút agreed.
"Is there wine on the table?" Veylin wondered. "Thyrð, go and help your brother with the ponies."
"No wine," Bersi replied, as Neðan, the younger of Nordri's new prentices hastened to fetch more glasses from the pantry. "How was your journey?"
Veylin set his helm on the table and took Thyrð's place beside her, rubbing at his lame knee. "Surprisingly pleasant, for Súlimë. Lindon's marchwarden was civil, and the Lady has invited us to feast on lamb and veal with them on Spring Day."
Nyr laughed. "One might almost hope the Men were frighted more often, when they are so keen for our company. But is it not prodigal for them to spend their stock this way?"
"Less than you think," Prut replied, with his jaded air of authority. "They kill some of the young to take more milk from their beasts."
Bersi gazed on the crabbed Longbeard. "Is that the reason? I thought it was mere greed, after the dearth of winter."
"Well, I will not scorn veal, even if it is slaughtered to make more cheese," Grani declared.
Veal. Auð could count the number of times she had tasted veal on one hand, and even lamb was a rarity in Sulûnduban. The lambs Bersi and Grani got from Saelon in trade last spring had been a toothsome change from mutton and beef. "Is the Lady willing to trade such delicacies?"
Sút, taking a seat across the table near Hlin, slid a sly glance towards Bersa. "She says she has honey on offer, and is interested in truffles."
"Truffles would be wasted on her," the stout cook muttered, digging into the heap of hash that remained on his plate.
"Is that why you put so many in the goose-pie, when she came to dine?" Barði gibed, grinning at his uncle.
Leaving his brother and son to chaff each other, Bersi asked Sút, "How did you find the Men?"
"Pleasant enough, once one grows accustomed to their strange appearance," she answered. "But shockingly destitute! The only silver I saw was a simple little ring-brooch on the Lady's niece."
Gamal, sitting between his father and Nordri's folk, smiled knowingly. "The Lady has a very pretty piece of silver. Did she not wear it for you?"
The sea-jewel! "It was not stolen, I hope," Auð exclaimed.
"No, no," Veylin assured her, interrupting himself with, "Why, many thanks, Neðan," as Nordri's young cousin set down a tray of glasses and passed him a goblet of wine. "For those of you little acquainted with the Lady Saelon," he continued after taking a draught, "she favors plainness, save on high occasions, on account of her craft."
"What is her craft?" asked Balnar, the elder of Nordri's prentices.
"She is a master of herb and root, especially those that heal."
"So she follows the Earth-Queen?" Prut shoved his empty glass towards Neðan. "More here too, lad, while you are at it."
"She keeps closer to the Lord of Waters, from what I have seen," Rekk observed, taking a glass and drinking deep.
Bersi brought this touchy turn of conversation to an end with, "Healing--how fares Dírmaen? Has the Lady saved him?"
Auð watched her brother closely, for there was no friendship between him and the Man of the Star who vexed Saelon. But Veylin seemed indifferent. "From his wounds, yes. Though he now has some weakness of the lungs. Coruwi, who has a liking for the Man, sent the forester who came with him to fetch some herb beyond the Lady's present reach."
"Enough of the Men!" Haki said. "We know them well, and can hear more on Spring Day. Tell us of this Elf who comes from the Shipwright. What is he like, and will he trouble us?"
Long they sat over ale and their pudding, listening attentively to all Veylin and the others could tell of the marchwarden and his companion, and weighing to what extent it was practical to conceal their number and works. Though Coruwi had made it plain that he knew where the delf was sited, the doors should still be hidden . . . and if their spells were proof against so cunning a Noldo as Gwinnor, how could a Wood-elf gain entry? The Elves had seen the quarry at White Cliffs and the stumps in the oakwood, yet the mine beneath their feet could not be spied out. Some of the newcomers cast sidelong, expectant glances towards Veylin, but he said nothing of his lodes and those senior among the company respected his silence.
Her brother had founded these halls, Auð knew, to further his search for gems where few Dwarves had ventured before. There were riches here . . . but they were not easily won, and Veylin's patience had been sorely tried, again and again: by grievous wounds, the jealous mírdan, and the call of his duties as chieftain. Did he mean to content himself with his hoard of fire opal and give over prospecting until he reached a settlement with Círdan, or would he venture forth as soon as it seemed likely these Elves had withdrawn back to their usual bounds?
His judicious attentiveness, as he listened to the views of all who desired to speak, gave no glimpse of his own interests.
In the end it was decided that they would stand on their rights and go about their work regardless of the Elves. They were here and meant to remain. Their claims were just; to skulk suggested otherwise. Due attention must be paid to guarding the approaches to the doors, but it was nonsensical to spend much effort concealing what might be betrayed by the indiscretion of a child of Men and the ways beaten into the earth by the hooves of their own beasts.
The conference broke up, and the prentices began to clear the table. As Sút rose, Auð asked, "Would you like help disarming?"
Her friend smiled, the corners of her eyes crinkling. "I would not mind it."
"So," Auð said as they followed Nordri's party through the arch and down the winding stair, "tell me of White Cliffs. Did you see the hall?"
"Yes. Not that I would call it a hall," Sút qualified. "A few chambers, no more. Your suite is nearly as large."
Looking back over his shoulder, Nyr came to the defense of his work. "It is a hall by Men's standards. Remember, it was not delved as a permanent home, but as a shelter against winter storms."
"Yet still they are there."
"All except Maelchon, whose house you also built," Sút pointed out. "What do Men do for shelter, when they do not have Dwarves for neighbors?"
"Build their own . . . though not very well, for the most part, I grant you." The young stonemason shrugged. "These Men are accustomed to work with wood, but there is less of that here than in Srathen Brethil and the Elves will allow them only one tree a year for timber. That is why Maelchon turned to us. To our advantage--his corn is good, and saves us the labor of bringing more over the mountains."
"One tree? Who can build a house from one tree?" Sút scoffed.
"Who would build their home from wood?" Auð went further. "Is it not like living in a box?"
Nyr laughed. "The Elves certainly meant to balk the Men, but there is no shortage of stone and Grani can frame a stout roof from a single tree, if it is large. Wood and thatch keep out the weather well enough, if they do not fall into disrepair. Against foes . . . ." He shrugged again.
They had reached the bottom of the stair, and their ways parted. "Are all Men so unguarded?" Sút asked soberly.
Nyr paused, one hand on the baluster's brass finial, to consider. "Most that I have seen, here in the west. Usually they rely on numbers for protection: where there are many eyes, warning is soon given. But the Lady's folk are few, a remnant driven from their homes; which," he observed, "is why they are so poor, though no Man is rich. Still, they do not shun work, and their fortunes are already much improved from when I first saw them. If they continue as they are going, in ten years we might get most of our food from them."
"If their fortunes are much improved," Sút said for Auð's ears alone, as they went down the corridor to her chambers, "I cannot imagine how they lived before."
"How destitute are they?" Auð asked, once the door was shut behind them, thinking of the Lady's reworked gown and Hanadan's tattered hems.
There had not been time to delve Sút rooms or a workshop to her taste, and the parlour of the guest suite was furnished partly with the silversmith's own effects and partly with the plain but serviceable pieces Grani had knocked together in the delf's early days. The sideboard was one of the latter, and Sút dumped her helm on it with little care for the already dunted finish. "Well, I would not care to live without plumbing or a table better than boards laid on trestles, but they seem not to feel the lack. Most of them go barefoot through the mire of the paths and the muck of their beasts." Shaking her head, she began unbuckling her axe-belt. "And the only one, save the Ranger, armed with more than a scrap of iron on the end of a stick had a child's soft curls on his chin."
"The red-headed one?"
"You would remember that," Sút chuffed
Auð drew a hand down her fiery beard. "How could I forget the only tolerable feature on such a gawky creature? Gaernath is the youth's name, and he is kin to Saelon, though his father was not of the West-Men."
Sút cast her axe onto the arming chest that sat across from the hearth. "I do not understand this thing about some Men having beards--and only the men--and some not. Maelchon's is respectable, but aside from Gaernath, only the ancient one and one of the lesser Men have any to speak of. There are four other Men, none Dúnedain, and their faces are nearly as naked as the Elves'."
"Thekk once told me," Auð confided, "that some Men shave their beards, to look more like Elves."
"Painting a board may make it look more like marble," Sút declared scornfully, "but who would be deceived? Come, be useful as you promised and help me get out of this hauberk with some grace."
Auð chuckled. "Without snagging your hair on the rivets, you mean?" Stepping forward, she hoisted the weighty mailcoat's patterned black and silver skirts so Sút could bend and shake it off.
"How do the men do it?" came a part-muffled grumble from within the bunched fabric of closely meshed steel rings.
"Practice, I suppose." When the silversmith emerged, red-faced and disheveled, Auð asked, "So Elves are very different from Men?"
Sút lifted her hauberk and shook it out, the rings chiming pleasantly. Draping it over the back of the nearer chair, she pursed her lips and examined it closely, lightly rubbing a soiled place with her thumb. "Not to look at, from a distance. Both are spindly and over-tall, with knobby naked chins. Yet there is a quality about the Elves, like true-silver beside the common sort."
While Sút stripped off her quilted sable gambeson, Auð went to the hearth to light the fire. "How much of a threat are they?"
Auð glanced back over her shoulder. "Who else? Or were you speaking lightly when you scorned the Men?"
"No. They seem inoffensive creatures: well-disposed, even familiar, yet without presumption. The boy was a fair example."
"That was what I saw in those who have visited here. But then the Lady is said to be exceptionally friendly to Dwarves."
Sút grunted, and sat down to take off her boots. "To one Dwarf, at any rate."
To Veylin, she meant. Auð set coal atop the crackling kindling. "How exceptionally?"
Perhaps the edge on her voice had been sharper than she meant--or the situation graver than she feared--for her friend did not answer promptly. "Nothing that would be improper," Sút allowed, though her tone was grudging, "from what I saw . . . if the Lady were Khazâd."
Auð turned and fixed her with her eye, beard bristling. "Do you say--"
"No! That is not what I meant!" Sút hastened to protest, going crimson, a boot in her hand. "They are like--" she cast about "--Lukla and Fagr. Yet how can there be such confidence between them, when she is of alien race?"
That was reassuring, but only somewhat. Lukla, a bachelor locksmith, and Fagr, a spinster enameller, were such fast friends most wondered they had never wed, even though he was three decades her junior. "She found him, broken and dying, and mended him, without thought of reward."
"She might have made a better job of it," Sút muttered, yanking off the other boot and scowling at the mud-crusted leather, "if she had considered compensation. Veylin's part I can grasp," she allowed. "He would repay magnanimity with magnanimity, and if he has a flaw, it is his interest in strangeness, like those wispy Elvish designs he toys with. Obligation and curiosity mingled incline one to give and take. But why should the Lady favor him with her trust?"
Half a year ago, Auð had put almost that exact question to her brother. Taking a seat on the nearer footstool, she considered her reply carefully. "Veylin--and Thyrnir--tell me that relations between men and women among Men are very different from ours. What," she asked, careful not to lead the answer, "did you see?"
"Aside from every woman among them, including one who will be a mother shortly?"
Nodding affirmation, Sút went on, "Girl-children younger than Hanadan ran outside unwatched, and the gravid woman sat at table with us all, including the Elves. Indeed," she drawled, "she seemed quite taken with the Elves."
Surely Sút did not mean-- To admire another--a man of other race!--while the life created in loving collaboration with your spouse took shape within your womb . . . . "Her husband was not jealous?"
"Perhaps. He drank much and had a sullen set to his mouth, but watched Gaernath more than the Elves."
Auð scowled. "I have been told that Men dominate their women. Beat them if they are displeased, while the women are weak and untrained in arms, so any contest is uneven." There was too much she did not know: how was she to understand this? What was the character of the Men she had not seen? If women of Men, even only a few, behaved so outrageously, Veylin and Thyrnir may have seen deserved retribution.
Sút raised her eyebrows and shrugged. "If so, Murdag may rue her indiscretion; but I saw nothing of the kind. Their women are smaller and slighter than the men, yes; though most of the men seem equally innocent of arms. As I said, only the Ranger and Gaernath bore swords. There is a fine troll-spear hung on the wall of what they call the hall--a memento of the fiend-slaying and memorial for their slain huntsman, who lies beside his kin in Srathen Brethil. Otherwise, I saw nothing beyond a few crude hunting weapons." Having taken off her socks, she stretched her feet towards the fire and wiggled her freed toes. "The Elves had little more, although their spears and bows were finer. So, to answer your question, no, I do not think the Elves much threat, not unless they come in force."
Unconvinced, Auð drew on her beard. "And what would prevent that?"
Her friend chuckled. "Caution is good, but this is too much, truly! The Elves are no happier with monsters and brigands on their marches than the rest of us, but are too few to see to their borders. How else did the Men establish themselves here, or our men? Why would the Shipwright's marchwarden be amiable, if we were not useful to them?"
"I do not know," Auð muttered, mistrusting her own hope.
Sút had that daring glint of mischief in her eye. "Well, the Elves will be gone by Tuilérë. If you have ever fancied to see Men for yourself, in their own homes, come to the Spring feast! Most of our men will go--we will probably outnumber the Men, if you do not count their children--so the risk, if any, will be slight."
"You are going?"
"For veal and lamb? I am seriously tempted. And there will be trading, in a small way. Surely the Lady can see that it is not right for her niece to wear finer brooches than she." Sút smirked. "If Bersa has gotten too fat to go so far, I might try for the honey myself and wring a premium from him later, when the larder is not newly stocked. Also, if there is honey, there must be wax; one cannot have too much of that."
Not for the complex castings her friend favored. Auð chewed on the fringe of her whiskers. Saelon had invited her to come to White Cliffs, to see their woolens--but she had said she could not. "Tell me more, and I will consider it. I make no promises!" she insisted, as glee she had not seen since their hoyden youth flashed across Sút's face.
"Of course not." Sút tucked her grin away, but the gleam, a hint of impetuous silver, lingered in her dark eyes. "What else do you wish to know?"
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Cunning: while this now usually has the meaning of artful deceit and Tolkien made good use of its older connotations of trained skill and the craft of magic in reference to Saruman, the word originally derives from "to know," preserved in the Scots "ken" (D'ye ken John Peel?).
Hash: a dish of finely chopped reheated meat and, often, potatoes; the word is akin to Germanic hache, "battle-axe." Like truffles, one suspects this might be a Dwarvish specialty.
Earth-Queen: Kementári, one of the names of Yavanna, Aulë's spouse. Given the couple's discussions after the making of the Dwarves (The Silmarillion, "Of Aulë and Yavanna"), one suspects Dwarves are ambivalent regarding her--she seems very much a step-mother.
Pudding: used here in the sense of the dessert course.
Baluster: a pillar supporting a handrail.
Finial: a crowning architectural ornament, such as a decorative knob.
Trestles: a horizontal bar supported by two pairs of legs; modern sawhorses are essentially trestles. Trestle tables were common in the medieval period, particularly in hall; many smaller homes, like Maelchon's, had no tables at all. Trestle tables were much like modern folding tables: easily set up for special occasions, and put out of the way again afterwards.
Muck: soft wet manure.
"on the rivets": in the best chainmail, each ring was individually welded and riveted closed, for greater strength.
Gambeson: a heavy leather or cloth tunic worn beneath armor, particularly mail. Mail of any type--chain, ring, or scale--only prevents weapons from cutting or piercing the wearer. It does not absorb the impact of the blow, so padding is desirable.
Castings: in most parts of the world, the traditional way to make molds for metalcasting was the lost wax technique. The desired shape was modelled in wax, then encased in clay to make the mold, leaving holes to pour in the metal and vent trapped air. Before use, the mold was heated and the liquid wax poured out.
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