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Rock and Hawk: 2. Blood on the Heather

As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies making a mane;
The tane unto the t'other say,
"Where sall we gang and dine to-day?"

—Childe ballad 13b

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 Despite the foreboding, it was a kindly summer.  Rain came timely and in due measure; on her small plot, the barley grew tall and green.  As she walked machair and moor, hill and glen, replenishing her stock of herbs, Saelon looked carefully for signs of disturbance, of unease among bird and beast, but saw nothing amiss.  The sea lapped softly as she sat drowsing with her baited line on the warm rocks, and downy goslings cluttered the dooryard.  The only violence was that of swift summer storms: the crash of lightning and, minutes later, rainbows struck from the still-falling drops by the brilliance of the sun.

The lad, however, took his promise to Halladan to heart.  His lack of a weapon vexed and unsettled him, so in the long, mild evenings, he began making a bow.  She sat on the flat rock overlooking the whole bay, carding her wool, while he groped his unskilled way forward, spoiling two staves before remembering the curve needed to give it spring.  A gawky fledgling still, but soon he would be a man.  At Midsummer, she gifted him with a bowstring made from her hair and left him to exercise his wits over the lack of heads for his arrows.

One evening he came swaggering up the track, a red deer calf draped over his shoulders, a blooded hunter at last.  They feasted his success with its tender haunch and a high-day sauce of raspberries and juniper berries, and he had a horn full of heather ale.  They sang the stars down with lays of the great huntsmen—Oromë and his shining steed Nahar, the slaying of Carcharoth, and Argeleb's pursuit of the Black Boar of Rhudaur—and the lad seemed to grow half a span in the space of a night.

As Urui wore on, she began to think she had encouraged him overmuch.  Twice, when she traipsed to where the sheep grazed to bring him a bite, she found them alone but for the collie.  He looked at her quizzically, but had tended the flock so for many years before the lad came, and Saelon worried more about Gaernath than the beasts.  The lad always brought them in dutifully at day's end, but he must be roving in search of game.  After his initial triumph, there had only been a couple of brace of grouse.  Yet they were coming to the season when the stags would begin to roar in the hills, calling the hinds to them and dueling for their favor.  No hunter could not feel the pull of those cries, the distraction of the antler-crowned king of the chase.

She was working in the garden early in Ivanneth when the beat of hooves caught her ear, down on the machair.  Who—?  Straightening, she strode to the edge of the cliff-shelf and gazed out over the plain, fearing to see a rider from Srathen Brethil with ill news.

It was Gaernath, low on the dapple's neck, switching the beast to keep it at a canter.  For a moment, she thought he was larking, and her mouth set.  Stalking the deer when he should be herding; racing her poor old garron . . . perhaps it was time he went home to his father.

Just as she turned back towards her work, she realized he was flogging the beast with his precious bow.

She ran down the track to meet him, and caught the garron's halter as they slid in a tight turn.  The beast was lathered and blowing, the lad's eyes as wild as the pony's.  "Dead!" Gaernath cried, hands knotted in the black mane.  "Blood—"

"Who?" Saelon demanded.  "Where?"

He threw a trembling arm back the way he came, pointing north and somewhat east.  "The myrtle moor, near the foot of the bald hill.  Three—"  The gush of words halted, and he drew breath as if fighting a rising gorge.

Taking his arm, she drew him off the garron.  "Steady," she murmured, her arm around his shoulders.  "Three what?  People?  Beasts?"

"People," he replied, shuddering.  "But not our kind."

Saelon stared.  "Not the Fair Folk?"

"No."  The lad gave a short shake of his head.  He was trying to collect himself.  "Dwarves, I think, though I have never seen one before."

Very ill, but somehow less fearful than the slaying of Elves.  She knew that there had been Dwarves in the mountains since the Elder Days; twice they had come to Srathen Brethil during her youth to trade.  Yet she had seen none here, so close to the sea.  "Was it a fresh kill?"


"Was the blood bright, or dull and dry?"  The lad continued to stare at her, appalled.  "Had they been slain by day or night?  When does the killer walk?" she demanded, when he remained mute.

Gaernath looked inward and balked.  "There were birds."

Saelon glanced up to judge the time.  The days were shortening quickly now, but it was not long past noon.  It was at least a league to the moor—the lad was wandering further than she had guessed—but the dead might tell them much that was needful to know.  The lad was shaken to his soul: he had not read the signs, or could not bear to remember them.

She stroked the dapple's nose.  He had caught his breath and was watching them, head high; not too tired.  "Take me there," she told Gaernath, mounting.

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 It was the season of heather.  The hills were cloaked in rich purple and russet, but the clouds were drawing a blanket of grey across the sky.  That promised rain, settled rain.  Saelon kept the dapple at a brisk trot, and the lad loped alongside.

Let him run, run himself to exhaustion.  He might not sleep, else.

The myrtle moor was a pocket of bog tucked between three rounded hills and a ridge of gravel and cobbles that cut off the sea.  She often came here for the plants that did not grow on the drier skirt of the land along the shore: myrtle and orchids, butterwort and moss.  Gaernath skirted the southern edge, going more slowly now, picking his way among the hummocks and looking up frequently to orient himself by the peaks inland.  Thickets of myrtle and bearberry and cowberry crowned the hillocks, and mires lurked in the hollows, flecked white with canach, where the garron might bog down.

She knew they had reached the place when he crested a higher hump and stood stock-still.  "There."  He pointed onward.

At the sound of his voice, a pair of corbies rose, protesting the intrusion.  Odd that there were only two.  Saelon slid off the dapple's back and held out the reins to the lad.  "Wait here," she told him, though it was plain he would go no closer unless ordered, and he came down gladly.

From the crest you could see a flatter place just beyond the next thicket, a patch of green turf with a spot of blue unnatural in this place, a crumpled hood.  As she wove her way through the myrtle stems, a raven beat its wide wings and took to the air, giving a deep, bell-like cry.  Perhaps that was what had daunted the corbies, though it was also odd to find a lone raven at this season.  The oddness troubled her: if the killer was unnatural, would not birds shun its haunts?  Foreboding was heavy on her as she thrust through a last screen of leaves and looked down on the narrow level of turf.

They had died fighting.

Dwarves they were, clad for a journey rather than a battle; though their weapons lay near to hand, black blood staining the bright blades, they bore neither helm nor mail.  And no blade had shed their blood.  Saelon had thought herself hard, inured to wounds and gore . . . but this was terrible.  One had been broken as a man might rend a roasted fowl, the one part paces from the other.  Another lay headless.  Their gore had painted the grass brown, like the blight of an early frost.

And here and there were patches of black, the blood of something else.

She found she had sunk to her knees, hands pressed against her mouth.  Not against carrion-reek: they had been dead some time, but not long enough for that in this weather.  It was the stark bestial savagery of the attack—malice beyond reason, or mindlessness.

This was what had brought Halladan so near the sea, to warn her of such a threat.  Truly, an awful thing, and her blood ran cold.

Forcing her mind to practicalities, she clambered to her feet and moved closer.  The third Dwarf lay a little way off, as if he had been flung aside like a child's dolly, one leg unnaturally bent.  The least gruesome, Saelon went to him first, heaving him over to look on his face.  They would have kin, somewhere, and she wondered how she might get news to them.

He gave a rattling groan as he settled onto his back.

Staring incredulously at his slack face, she laid a hand on his breast.  He breathed; his heart beat.  He was alive!  "Gaernath!" she shouted, standing.  "Gaernath, bring the garron—one still lives!"

Lad and beast came, both skittish in the presence of so much blood.  Taking the reins, she tied them firmly to the nearest shrub.  "Take your cloak," she ordered, "and get as much moss as you can: wringing wet, without mud.  Understand?"

"Yes, aunt."  He was bewildered, far out of his understanding, and gladly fled to do as she bid.

When he had gone, Saelon stared at the carnage around her, trying to order her thoughts, shrill and whirling as fleeing plovers.  So much ought to be done, yet there were only the two of them and a single beast, and the sun halfway down the sky.  In her bones, she felt this thing came by night.  It was out there somewhere, not far off, wounded and perhaps hot with malice.  Woe to them if they did not come to shelter before dark.

Woe to them in any case, perhaps.

She gathered the weapons and took such of their gear as would help keep the burden on the garron.  As she stripped the belt from the headless body, there came the harsh croak of a raven.  The bird had come back and sat in the thicket, watching her with its dark eyes.  Impatient to return to its meal, no doubt.  Yet when she turned back to her grim task, she noticed that, rent as the bodies were, they had not been torn by the beaks of birds.

What were they doing here, then?  She looked around and spotted the corbies a little further off on the other side of the level, glancing uneasily between her and something on the ground near the mire.  She walked over to look, prepared for horrors.

It might have been a hand, or it might have been a sort of paw; the birds had stripped it to bone where they could worry aside the tough dun hide.  It had ragged claws almost the length of her fingers, dark with blood and filth, and it was far larger than the hand of any Man, or Dwarf.  The heavy bone had been cut cleanly—a mighty stroke.

She could not bring herself to touch it.  Let the corbies have it.

Gaernath came back with his awkward, dripping burden and between the two of them they wrestled the wounded Dwarf onto the dapple's broad back, for all his sidling and snorting.  Once they had hung the weapons and moss on him as well, they turned their backs on the dire place and plodded homewards, their heads bent beneath the rain that began to fall in thick sheets from the louring sky.

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 An early dusk was coming down as Saelon urged the weary garron up the track to the caves, drenched to the skin, chilled in bone and heart.  She had sent Gaernath off when they reached the machair, charged to fetch his abandoned flock and milk them before full dark.  The running would warm him, and it would be good to keep him away while she first tended the Dwarf.  Saelon wondered if he still lived: laying wounded a night and a day without succor, and such a ride in such weather would have killed all but the strongest of Men, but it was said Dwarves were the hardiest of the Free Peoples, enduring as their mountain homes.  If so, she had a long night, perhaps many long nights, before her.

Wrenching a hurdle from the garden fence, she lowered him onto it as carefully as she could, favoring his damaged leg.  He still breathed, but with a harsh rasp that boded ill.  Saelon dragged the hurdle under the shelter of the cliff eave, then ducked into the cave.  She stirred the dying embers of the fire to life and heaped it with peats; grabbed the larger pot and set it under the spring to fill before leading the dapple to his stable.

Horsetails in the large pot for the Dwarf's wounds; the smaller pot to give Gaernath and herself something hot.  On the bench, she set out cheese and some of the dried venison for the lad; she ate some as well, but tasted nothing.  What else would she need?  All-heal and goldenrod, orchid root and meadowsweet; butter; moss and linen; something to splint and pad the twisted leg; candles for clear light.  When all was ready, she brought the hurdle in, set it down by the fire, and looked at her patient.

Like all Dwarves, he was broad and brawny, with a long chestnut beard.  Drawing off his russet hood, she found bright copper ringing his braided hair and caked blood where his scalp had been scraped almost raw.  His thick, labored breathing suggested a broken skull, but it felt sound beneath her gingerly probing fingers.  There was little she could do there.  Blunt, dirty claws—the half-eaten hand came back to mind—had grazed the side of his lined face and clutched deep in his shoulder.  Ugly wounds, and they had sat for near a day.  The rain had saved her the trouble of soaking his clothes to peel them away; good wool and linen, but with shreds missing at the tears . . . in the wound, no doubt.

Saelon had heard that Dwarves grew from stone and returned to stone at death, but his pale, clammy flesh felt no different from a Man's under her hands as she washed it clean, laying a salve of all-heal and goldenrod on the lesser hurts.  She would return to the shoulder later.  Bad as it was, the leg—twisted, white bone jutting from the shin—might be worse.

She had cut off his trews and sluiced the bits of heather and turf from the naked bone when Gaernath came in.  He looked like a half-drowned whelp, shivering and drooping as he set the pail by the door.  "Here is the milk, aunt."

"Drink as much of it as you like," she told him.  "I have set some supper on the bench for you, but you might see to the dapple first.  Water him at the burn, and give him a measure of beans and an armload of the new hay.  When you are both fed, come back—I will need your help setting this leg."

Gaernath looked mutely on the wounded Dwarf; perhaps he still saw the blood that she and the rain had washed away.  "Yes, aunt."  He was not gone long, however; little longer than it would have taken to tend the beast.

"Come," Saelon said gently.  "Take his shoulders and hold him steady."

With the lad as an anchor, she carefully straightened the leg, realigning the knee and broken bones as well as she could, glad that her patient was limp and senseless.  "Thank you."  Laying a hand on the lad's shoulder, she advised, "Make yourself a posset and get into dry clothes.  I do not want you falling ill."

Nodding, he rose and went to his kist.  He came back to the fire with his cup, dressed in some of his warmest clothes, an oiled cloak around his shoulders.  Saelon looked up from splinting the leg and frowned in puzzled worry.  "Are you so cold?"

He knelt by the hearth, dropping one of the boiling stones into the milky ale.  It hissed, raising fragrant steam.  "Someone must keep watch, and you must tend him."

His courage almost brought tears to her eyes, and she smiled on him with wan, grim pride.  "Take one of the axes," she urged him.  "The geese should warn us if anything comes up the track, but call if anything is amiss."

Tossing off the posset in one draught, he set the cup down and met her gaze.  "This is what Halladan warned us of, isn't it?"

"I do not know what else it could be."

Gaernath turned his gaze to the Dwarf.  "Perhaps he can tell us what it is."


Saelon stepped out with him to refill the large pot.  It was black now, a dreary night.  Rain poured down beyond the cliff, and gusts of wind threw spray even into the cave's mouth.  Across the machair and dunes, the surf muttered angrily.  It was almost a relief to step back inside, even given what awaited her.

While the pot heated, she trickled a thin stream of warmed water between the Dwarf's dry lips, and was heartened when he swallowed.  Broken heads were chancy; but if they could not swallow, there was no hope.  She allowed herself a posset and changed into a dry gown, pinning her old, thick shawl closely on her breast before coming back to the shoulder.

She probed with a long bone needle, to gauge the damage and trying to draw out the filth and shreds of cloth.  It looked as if he had been facing the raug when it seized him: there were three ragged wounds in his back, so deep that two touched his shoulder bone, and one in the front, under his collar bone and running upwards, thankfully missing his lung.  There was no way she could clean them properly as they were, and there was already a whiff of mortification.  The only thing she knew that might help was to lay them open and cauterize them . . . but could he bear further wounding, the loss of yet more blood?

Laying a hand on his breast, she could feel his heart beat, strong and even; his breath, though rasping, was steady.  If it had to be done, now was the time to do it—in his stupor, he would feel nothing.  She boiled her best knife and set the worst in the fire; when it was red-hot, she hardened her heart and coldly cut him until the blood flowed and she could wash out the poison; laid on the burning blade, grimacing at the stench of seared flesh.  Only when all were done did she poultice them well with orchid root.

Then began the hard work of nursing: hours of watchfulness and small attentions, reading the signs of improvement or decline to aid him as she could in his battle against death.

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 A light touch on her shoulder woke her.  "How does he?" Gaernath asked quietly, placing another peat on the fire.

Saelon scrubbed her face with her hands and yawned as if to split her head.  There had been little change in the night, except for rising fever, and when he had made it through the dangerous hours just before dawn, she allowed herself to doze.  She watched the rise and fall of the Dwarf's chest, and laid her hand on his forehead.  "No worse."

"It will be another wet day," the lad reported, then passed her the milk pail.  From the heft, he had been down to the flock already.

"Have you slept?" she asked.

His face closed.  "A little."

She had forgotten that he had set himself the task of night guard.  "Then take your rest now.  I suppose you are hungry."

"There is plenty of venison," he said dismissively.

"Hardly plenty, and you need more than that," she sighed, and climbed to her feet, stiff after a night on the flagged floor.  "Get to bed; I'll wake you for some proper breakfast in a while."

He went to his bed, but she could hear him toss and turn below the grumble of quern.  If he had not been so composed this morning, she would have thought him too haunted for sleep; instead, she suspected that he had slept more of the night than he would admit.  She was unwilling to have him fidgeting about all day . . . and there was something else that badly needed doing.  So when he finished his fourth bannock after a steaming bowl of pottage, she sighed.  "I suppose you will sleep the rest of the day, the better to watch tonight?"

"A part of the day," he allowed.  "I thought I might take a line and see if I can catch some fish.  Fish would be good for an invalid, wouldn't it?"

He was not adverse to going out into the wet, then.  Good.  "When he wakens, perhaps.  If you are not weary, though, there is something we have neglected."


Saelon looked to the Dwarf.  "His companions lie on the moor, carrion for bird and beast.  That is not right."  Meeting the lad's eyes, she said, "Will you go back, and raise a cairn over them?"

"Go back?" he protested, and his voice was almost shrill when he added, "Alone?"

"Would it be worse than last night?"

He opened his mouth, then shut it again.

"The rain will have washed the blood away," she pointed out.

At that he flushed scarlet, ashamed of yesterday's squeamish terror.  "May I take the dapple?" he asked.

"Of course.  It would be easier to move the bodies to the ridge, where there will be plenty of stones, than haul the stones to where they died."

Gaernath considered.  "They are not Men, aunt."

"No, they are not," she agreed.  "Yet they are also Children, and we hear that they go to great lengths to recover their fallen.  If we were to die here, far from our kin, would your father wish that a passing stranger might keep the corbies from you?"  Rising, she gathered the bowls and cups—last night's as well as the morning's—and went out to wash them in the burn.

The rain had slackened, but she lifted her face to the grey sky, welcoming its cool kiss on her drawn face.  Once the dishes were clean, she ducked her head in the chill, rushing water, shocking her wits into sharpness and washing the sweat of her own fear away.

The lad met her at the door.  He was wearing his oiled cloak and carrying the dwarven bow.  "I am going to the moor," he told her, and kissed her brow.  "I will be back before dark."

"Else I will come looking for you," she threatened.  "Be wary, and don't stray after the deer."

She stood on the flat rock, her shawl over her head, and watched him ride away, his dark cloak and the dapple's hide fading into the mist.  It was her fate, it seemed, to send her kinsmen from her, out to the hills where fell things prowled.  She wondered if Halladan had come safe home, and whether anyone would have sent to tell her if he had not.  Was there some dwarf-woman waiting now for the return of her men?  If so, would she ever learn their fate?

Pulling the wool closer around her throat, Saelon went back to her charge.

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Corbie (Corvus corone): carrion crow.

Canach (common cottongrass; Eriophorum angustifolium): a sedge with fluffy white seedheads.

Horsetails (Equisetum arvense): a water plant use for scouring pots and medicinally.

All-heal (also self-heal; Prunella vulgaris): medicinal herb.

Goldenrod (Solidago virgaura): medicinal herb.

Orchid (early spotted orchid; Orchis maculata): medicinal herb, root used to cleanse infected wounds.

Meadowsweet (also queen of the meadow; Filipendula ulmaria): medicinal herb used to treat fever; original source of salicylic acid for aspirin.

Moss (Sphagnum cymbifolium): highly absorbant, mildly antiseptic bog plant used for wound dressings as late as World War II.  It was also traditionally used for menstrual pads and nappies.

Posset: a hot, rich drink for those who have been chilled or invalids, made of sweetened milk or cream curdled with ale (or wine).

Boiling stones: a quick low-tech way to heat liquids is to put a fire-heated stone into the container.  This is how people boiled food before they had ceramic or metal pots.

Raug: Sindarin, "demon."  Compare Old English scynscaþa, "demonic foe," in Beowulf.

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Last Update: 13 Dec 08
Stories: 5
Type: Author List
Created By: Adaneth

Dúnedain and Dwarves--and oh, yes, some Elves--on the northwest shore of Middle-Earth, not quite a century before adventures first befall Bilbo. Rampant Subcreation and Niggling in the margins. The ever-lengthening saga, in order.

Why This Story?

Dûnhebaid I: hammering out an unlikely friendship between a Dwarf and a Dúnadaneth.


Story Information

Author: Adaneth

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - The Stewards

Genre: Drama

Rating: General

Last Updated: 02/26/11

Original Post: 09/22/06

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