The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Hand to Hand: 21. Taking the Air
It is easy to go down into Hell; night and day, the gates of dark Death stand wide; but to climb back, to retrace one's steps to the upper air--there's the rub, the task.
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"Why do you mistrust them?" Randir asked, as he snugged the cinch on the saddle-girth down tight. "I have never known Dwarves so amiable."
Dírmaen shrugged, and stifled the cough that followed. "Perhaps that is why." And their numbers continued to increase: seven of those who had come to eat at Tuilérë were new to him. Veylin's strength grew . . . yet Coruwi made no objection. He did not understand.
Though grateful for the sunshine here beyond the cliff's morning shadow, he would rather have been by the hearth within, where it was warmer. His blood was still thin, and walking even the few paces across the cliff-shelf made his weakness plain. He had been forbidden the hall in mild weather, however; bundled in woolens and sent out like a child to take the sun and air.
Randir hmmed, lengthening the stirrup leathers. "There is that. Though to what advantage? When I pressed him, Coruwi assured me the Dwarves' claims to the land are based on prior right alone, and Círdan sees no threat to Lindon in the alliance. They seek cheap meat and grain, without doubt . . . though," his fellow Ranger grinned, "it seems uphill work. Saelon's gratitude was short-lived!"
Dírmaen drew his cloak more closely about him, sour-faced. "Her quittances are as prompt as they are generous." His own account, he was sure, she would consider repaid by weeks of assiduous nursing. Staring at the short, weedy dun, one of the outlaws' nags, he asked, "Why are you saddling that beast, instead of Ruin?"
"Because I am not riding him," his friend answered equably.
Then why were the stirrups so low? Who else here had such length of leg?
Saelon came to the door of the hall, turning to speak to someone still within. The fine gown she had worn at the feast had given way to workaday plainness and patches, and despite his leaden mood, Dírmaen's heart caught when he saw the wicker packbasket on her back.
She was going out after herbs. She must, he was sure; she had used so many on him. He was as sick of being dosed as of his feebleness, and could still taste the thyme of this morning's brew. Yet Coruwi's repeated assurance that his scouts had swept hill and shore notwithstanding, he could not quell a pang of fear . . . and futility. How could she, after what had happened, ignore his warnings and rove alone, unguarded?
Coming over to join them, Saelon looked from the horse to him. "Thank you, Randir. Is he up to it?"
"You would know better than I, Lady!"
That earned his fellow a droll, narrow-eyed look. "I meant the horse."
Randir chuckled. "It will do him no harm, especially if the grazing is good where you are going."
"Where is that?" Dírmaen asked, frowning at their nonsense. He thought his friend too complaisant towards Saelon, and resented the ease between them.
Saelon's gaze--the healer's gaze, critically appraising--came back to him. "To the bay where coltsfoot grows, two leagues south. I must collect what I can, before their season is past. Will you come with me?"
Dírmaen gaped--and fell prey to a fit of coughing, lungs racked to clear the settled phlegm from their depths. Finally, he gasped hoarsely, "Two leagues?" Did she mean to kill him after all? He could not climb the track from the machair without sitting on the boulder at the turn to catch his breath, and the feast had exhausted him, though he did nothing but sit and eat and watch, drinking watered small beer. He had slept most of yesterday, recovering.
"Riding at a footpace. You can rest along the way, if need be, and while I harvest."
"Shall I lash you to the saddle?" Randir asked, not at all solicitously.
They had conspired, arranged this without his leave. "What purpose would that serve?"
Taking no notice of his petulant tone--more wretched weakness--Saelon said, as if she had never thought otherwise, "I should like company, going so far; and the exercise would do you good."
"Why can you not take her?" he demanded querulously of Randir.
"Finean wants to move the horses into the hills, to the dale with the pools, to rest the shore pasture. I promised to scout that way."
"Gaernath could do that."
"Gaernath," Randir replied patiently--another cosset Dírmaen had had too much of--"is patrolling around the Bald Heads."
A pair of bare, rounded hills a little north of east, on the way to where the lad had slain the wolves last year; the glen of pools lay beyond the oakwood, southward. Randir greatly admired Saelon's bloodstock, especially the two-year-old bay colt . . . but if he hoped he could cozen her enough to gain that mettlesome beast, the last of her brother's breeding, he was deluded. "One of the cottars, then. Even Teig would be more use, if ill befell."
"Come," Randir said in his sensible way, concern creasing his brow, "I thought you would be glad to get out. Two leagues is not much, ahorse, especially on one so dull as this. The Lady will take care that you are not overtaxed."
Perhaps he would have been glad to escape Habad, even if only for a time . . . if she were not his companion. Was this meant to humble him further still, by making him recant his former objections or feel his frailty? He regarded her balefully as she stood there, waiting, self-possessed, dispassionate.
No. Her thought was for the herbs she required; the benefit of the outing to her patient a felicitous adjunct. His refusal would move her not at all, except perhaps to set an extra portion of blood sausage on his plate--she would go, with or without him. "I will need my sword."
Randir ran to fetch it, a happier smile on his face.
"You need not go, if you do not feel equal to it," Saelon remarked quietly.
Did she think he would not hang back without her permission? "If you say it will do me good, I am sure you are right."
Randir brought his spear as well as his sword, and held the nag's head while he mounted. "How will you go, Lady, should I need to seek you?"
"We should not stray from the strip between shore and cliff, once we are past the ridge, unless the weather turns bad. In that case, seek us in the caves along the foot of the cliffs."
"Good hunting!" his friend wished her, and clapped him--softly--on the back.
The dun was a dull beast, setting its feet with tedious care on the track down to the machair and plodding thereafter; yet the motion jarred his lungs, sending him into another fit of deep, wrenching coughs. Chest heaving and eyes streaming, he clung to saddle and spear, praying for it to pass. To be forced to turn back, before they even left the machair . . . .
By the time they turned at Maelchon's, he had gotten the better of it, hawking up a great gobbet that he spat into the rough grass. Breathing seemed a little easier then, and he was able to look on what he had last seen as the field of battle.
There was nothing here that recalled that bloody day, save two of the outlaws' horses in the pen beside the house, ears pricked at the approach of their former companion. Beneath him, the dun whickered in greeting. Three of the younger children played in the yard, while a black hound--Luath, Dírmaen thought--lay tethered and forlorn beside the door. It was the children, not the dog, that gave tongue at their approach.
Fransag put her head out of the door, her expression hard until she saw them. "Hei! Where are you off to?"
"After coltsfoot," Saelon explained, stopping in the dooryard. "Murdag might be having pangs . . . though this is her first. I ought to be back long before she births, but if not, will you go to her?"
"Aye," the goodwife answered stoutly. "Any of the lads can fetch me. Will you stop by the new field on your way and leave word with Maelchon, so he does not fear if he comes home and finds the house empty?"
"Of course. You will take the children with you?"
"There is no one to watch them, Tearlag sweir as she is," Fransag groused, wiping her broad hands on her apron. "What ails the quean?"
Dírmaen kept very still, stifling the threat of another cough. From disjointed snatches of low-voiced conference as he drifted in and out of fever, Muirne coming in great distress to Saelon for counsel, he knew the serving woman had been cruelly violated by two of the outlaws. How could her mistress be so unfeeling?
Saelon sighed heavily. "She has not your strength, Fransag. The memories prey on her."
"If she came home to her work, she would have no time to be waesome. I know I have not, with a man and six bairns to see to; nor the lads, doing Fokel's work as well as their own."
He had learnt of the deaths of the babe and Gràinne only two days ago, at the feast. He ought not to have left these folk. If he had mastered himself and not run away like a heartsick lad--
"I have been thinking," Saelon interrupted her. "Would Leod and Murdag be a help to you?"
That halted the rising tirade; Fransag considered, eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"
"If everyone is agreeable, Maelchon could take up Leod's bond. Cottars are not servants, yet Leod could tend the cattle as well as the fields, and you would have an extra pair of hands about the house."
"And a squalling babby," the goodwife pointed out, with the same jaded expression she had given Grani when bargaining for a stout iron-bound chest that locked. The key hung from her belt now. "Why would you be rid of them?"
Saelon gave her a knowing look. "Leod does not sort well with Gaernath."
"Still? I thought he was sour because her big belly stinted him."
"That may be," Saelon allowed, shrugging. "But I would prevent quarrels, if I can. I think well of the young folk, otherwise."
Fransag pursed her lips. "What would you want in return?"
"I could take on Tearlag; stock, perhaps, since you need bere to repay the Dwarves; peat-cutting."
"Have you spoken to Maelchon?"
"Not yet. What point, if you would not like it?"
"Mmph." The goodwife seemed pleased by this, her look of discontent easing. "I will talk to him."
"Good day to you then," Saelon said.
"Fare ye well." Fransag gave Dírmaen no more than a curt nod. She held his abrupt departure last autumn against him, it seemed.
The two of them continued on, up the sloping back of the cliff to where Maelchon and Saelon's cottars were breaking fresh ground, Leod encouraging the horses while the husbandman and Artan wrestled with the plough, helping force it through the dense virgin turf. Behind them, the earth showed pale as in the Downs, the white stone of the cliff sweetening the soil. When they reached the end of the furrow, pausing to rest the horses and wipe the sweat from their brows, Saelon hailed them. "This looks very good, Maelchon!"
Ruddy with exertion and pleasure, the husbandman came to join them. "We will hope so, Lady. Greetings, Dírmaen! It is good to see you out again."
Saelon ran her eye over the furrows. "How much more do you mean to plough?"
"As much as we can get through before sowing," Maelchon declared, gazing on the growing field. "The machair is sweet land, but we cannot plant it endlessly. If the crop in the south field falls off half as much as last year, we will have to let it go back to grass for a rest."
"Three years of bounty would be marvelous indeed," Saelon agreed, stooping to take some of the soil in her hand, rubbing it between her fingers and tasting it. "This is nice; it should not be as droughty as the sand. What do you think of planting beans and pease?"
The two of them talked of dung and their stock of seed, the various kinds of corn, and the difference in climate between the shore and Srathen Brethil. Artan listened attentively; his brother hoisted one of Whitefoot's hairy hooves, frowning over its imperfections. Dírmaen shifted in the saddle, seeking a more comfortable seat. Randir had thrown a woolfell across, a cushion for his wasted hams; he was ashamed to need it.
He must strive to conquer this fretful peevishness, which was more shameful still. Folk were only being kind--even Saelon. Doubtless she wished him away again. Her care was surely in service of that: the sooner he was fit, the sooner she would be rid of him. If this outing was but another medicine, he reflected as Saelon warned Maelchon of his wife's possible absence and wished the plough good speed, let him choke it down and shorten the agony of mortification. Taking a firmer grip on the reins, he pressed his listless mount to follow as Saelon set off once more, striding up the slope towards the ridge.
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He started awake, momentarily bemused to find himself lying on the ground, with the sough of the sea in his ears and cloud-dappled sky overhead. Where . . . ?
The slim hand that went with the voice, exquisitely familiar now, settled lightly on his shoulder. "Did you have a good sleep?" Saelon asked.
The shore, south of the Ram, where she had brought him. Good . . . . Was his sleep good? He was not sure; could not remember dozing off on the blanket in the sun. His mind was thick, stupefied by heavy, untimely slumber. Heavy. Unbroken by coughing. Laboriously he sat up, still blinking, and nodded. "I suppose."
Now he felt the hated tickle in his lungs, and began to hack.
When he had had his fit out, Saelon returned--when had she left?--a steaming cup in her hand. "Here," she murmured, one hand on his back to steady and soothe him.
The brew was grateful to his racked throat, warm and syrupy-sweet with coltsfoot and honey. "Thank you," he husked.
From her smile, you would think he had never thanked her. "You are welcome."
Though, in fact, he could not remember the last time he had thanked her. He had been too weak, at first, and then gratitude had grown oppressive, tangled with the tormenting intimacy of her touch. Unable to bear her gaze longer, he looked about as he took another draught, cradling the heated leathern cup in his chill fingers. A small fire of sea-cast sticks sent up a drift of smoke from the nearby pavement of shingle; the dun cropped greedily on new grass, over by the larger gorse-bush; the sun was well past its zenith. They must start back soon, or Randir would worry. "Were you able to get enough coltsfoot?"
"We will hope so," she said, so soberly that he had to glance at her to see the droll quirk of her mouth. "More of it is leaves than I would like, but they are nearly as virtuous as the flowers. I have dug some plants as well. It is not always convenient to come so far."
What was he to say to that? He could not tell whether it was a complaint or simply an observation. Draining the cup, Dírmaen set it down and gathered himself to rise. "Shall I see to my horse?"
Such cool eyes, cool as the sea that hissed in the cobbles of the strand, assessing his strength. "If you like."
He understood why Saelon had hobbled the beast when he set out to catch it, for the only cunning it had was in evading capture, subsiding back into spiritless resignation as soon as he seized its bridle. For a time, all he could do was lean against its bony shoulder and wheeze. Saelon did not come to help, to his great relief, busying herself with putting out the fire and packing blanket and cup into her basket.
Dírmaen forgave the horse when he replaced the bit--a severe curb, which made him wonder what Randir was about--and saw how its mouth was scarred. Had nothing the outlaws touched escaped their brutality?
Hoisting her obviously weighty pack-basket, Saelon settled its straps on her shoulders and waited, stolid as the horse, for him to mount, his spear in her hands.
In his mind's eye, he could still see her, there in Maelchon's dooryard, drenched in gore, locked in the wolf's-head's clutch. How had that dreadful day touched her? For she had been touched. Perhaps not as Tearlag had been--she had said not, though how could a woman admit otherwise?--yet even a heart of stone would not have been unmoved. Had not been: Randir had spoken uneasily of the queer, contained anger of Veylin and Thyrnir; of how unsettling so much wrath was, in such small folk. Dírmaen remembered it well, from the day they drained the raugs' tarn . . . the Dwarves' eyes flat as stone, hot as the coals of a smith's forge; alien, the enmity there as immovable as the mountains that spawned them.
Outlandish folk, who gave nothing away, not even their feelings. Dírmaen thought Veylin's relations with Saelon a little reserved, more correct, at the feast. Had his regard for her been tarnished by the sullying hands of the outlaws? Was it the presence of the silversmith who was kin to his king that made him more circumspect? Or had he merely echoed some difference in Saelon?
For there was a difference in her, though what is was, Dírmaen could not say. She had not, so far as he could see, grown fearful. Nor harsher, as Fransag seemed to have done. Maybe she was more careful. Not chary--she had always been watchful--but more attentive to folk, more concerned with their welfare. Perhaps it was only that he was now more aware of it, having been so long the object of her care.
Care . . . . Though his body--which could hardly get creditably into the saddle of this smallish nag--remained torpid, his mind burned at the memory of her touch. What had he done to deserve so cruel a fate; that she, who had no desire, should be granted the right to handle his flesh at her will, while debility left him limp?
When he turned the dun and went to join her, she was gazing northwestward, frowning abstractly at a line of darker clouds beneath a shading hand. "I do not like the look of that," she said, giving the spear up to him. "Do you feel equal to a brisker pace?"
"You are the one afoot," he told her--and his tongue balked at the ceremoniousness of her title. After weeks of intimacy; here, when no one else was by . . . surely such formality would seem stilted and cold, ungrateful. Besides, she did not like it. "If this beast cannot match you, burdened as you are, he is fit for naught but dog-meat."
It was kind of her to smile at so lame an attempt to cover his awkwardness. "Let us test him, then," she said, though she stroked the dull, coarse-coated neck before stepping out. "I have been considering how we might best use these beasts. Or, rather," she corrected herself, "what I should do with my share of them."
Dírmaen stared at her, surprised, for the goods and chattels of criminals belonged to the lord who brought them to justice. "You did not keep them all?"
"What would I do with a half dozen scabby jades?" she scoffed, with the double complacence of one who owns many fine horses while preferring shanks's mare. "No; I divided them in proportion to the harm suffered. Maelchon took the chief's stallion, which is lame, and a gelding for the loss of his daughter and Fokel; Fransag two geldings, for the death of her mother and her own distress. One of the mares is Tearlag's, and I took the other, plus this fellow, to replace Cloot."
"What happened to Cloot?" The patchy skewbald had been a headstrong beast, but like all the horses she had inherited from her brother, a sturdy, good-hearted creature. This animal was in no way his match.
Saelon huffed. "Killed under Partalan, as he defended Canand. That is the second horse in nearly as many years!"
Dírmaen left that lie: in the year of raids out of Rhudaur he had gone through half a dozen mounts, and the Dunlending was no friend of his. "Why do you not ride," he asked what he had often wondered, "particularly when you come as far as this?"
"It is easier to see the herbage, nearer to the ground." To prove it, perhaps, she suddenly stooped, hardly breaking her stride, and came up with several fleshy, heart-shaped leaves. "Here--eat these."
He knew better than to ask what is was by now, for she would take that as an invitation to discourse on the varied uses and habits of the plant. It had a sharp taste, more pleasant than otherwise. "You might use this fellow as a packbeast, to spare yourself the burden of your harvests."
"I might," she agreed, nodding-then sighed. "I had an old grey garron I took about with me, who carried my peats and sea-ware, but Gaernath rode him to Srathen Brethil when the Dwarves came. I wonder what became of him?"
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Sweir: Scots, reluctant, unwilling; also lazy.
Quean: Scots, a young woman; a hussy.
Waesome: Scots, sorrowful.
Bairns: Scots, children.
"planting beans and pease": older historical accounts to the contrary, crop rotation was not a medieval innovation. Evidence suggests that legumes, which help fix essential nitrogen in the soil, were grown in some kind of rotation with cereals almost as soon as people began to farm.
Curb: a bit with a chain or strap that runs under a horse's jaw (the curb), and upper and lower shanks. The upper shanks attach to the cheekpieces and the lower shanks to the reins, so when a rider pulls on the reins, pressure is applied not only to the horse's mouth but to the poll (where the headpiece rests, behind the ears, bringing the head down) and chin groove. Curb-bits are used for greater control and when rapid response is required, so these were the norm for war-horses. The longer the shanks, the greater the force that could be applied; additional features might press on other parts of the mouth, tongue, or nose. Some medieval bits were extremely severe by modern standards: once a horse's mouth grows "hard" from harsh bitting, more force has to be applied to get the desired response.
Skewbald: a horse with patches of white and a color other than black. While Americans tend to call all parti-colored horses "pintos," the British distinguish black-and-white piebalds from skewbalds.
Sea-ware: seaweed, especially the coarser kinds used as a fertilizer.
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