The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Hand to Hand: 22. Meeting of Minds
Look beneath the surface; let not the several quality of a thing nor its worth escape thee.
--Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Meditations
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"Should I strip another pace?" Oski asked, water bag in hand.
Veylin frowned at the muddy surface of the rock, clearer now that it had been sluiced. Schist, and nothing but schist. "No," he decided, narrowing his eyes and reaching into his pouch for his pipe. "The vein has taken a turning, or finally ended. Cover that back over, while I consider."
Returning to the convenient seat of a nearby boulder, Veylin filled and lit his pipe, watching his prentice replace the earth into the cutting with a critical eye as he reflected on the wry nature of this land. Like the schist, which had been hammered until the rock itself was rumpled, the stone beneath their feet had been forged into patterns beyond his ken. This vein he sought, the finest fraction of earth's blood squeezed into a fracture in the already contorted schist, had followed the line of weakness across half a league, cropping out at the surface or beneath a skim of boulder clay or peat.
Now it--and the gems it might harbor--had turned aside or plunged deep between here and the little burn that had cut it so neatly. They would have to go back and try to pick it up nearer the burn . . . but not now. Prospecting was hungry work, and the sun was high overhead. This was a better place than most to take a bite, the thicket of thorn that screened their work breaking the sportive Viressë wind.
As Oski refit the last piece of turf, a low whistle came from the rise where Thyrð kept watch.
Signing Oski to quickly pack up the tools, Veylin rose, pipe clenched between his teeth. Who could it be? Hanadan, with or without other roving lads from White Cliffs? Randir or Gaernath riding patrol? Or something inimical? If it was an Elf, they were careless. Ducking through a gap in the budding whitethorn and stumping up the slope to where Thyrð now crouched, he gestured, Who is it?, peering in the direction his nephew pointed.
"Saelon and Dírmaen, I think," Thyrð murmured, hardly to be heard.
Two Men, yes; one Dúnadan-high. The other was Saelon, with that great basket on her back; he could not mistake her, even at this distance. "You are sure it is Dírmaen?" he asked, equally low. Dúnedain were so similar: long and lean and dark of hair, as alike as coal from the same seam.
"Fairly. He is slower than he was, or Randir."
True; yet it was strange he should be out with Saelon. If, after what had happened, she felt it unwise to wander alone, as was her wont, surely Gaernath would have been a more desirable escort than a weakened man she did not agree with. Still, what ought they do? Had it only been Saelon, now that the cutting was concealed, Veylin would have hailed and invited her to eat with them. Her discretion could be relied on, and he had been seeking an opportune time to question her about the features of this land, which she knew well from her own prospecting after greenstuff. Although she knew little about stone and cared less, she had an attentive eye and might save them much time and effort if she was willing to share what she had observed. Since Dírmaen accompanied her, however . . . . "Come to the thicket," Veylin told Thyrð. "We will eat while they are about."
Yet as they unpacked loaf, cheese, and the end of the shoulder of mutton, they could hear the Men, drawing nearer. "--strange," Saelon observed. "We were five also, three sons and two daughters . . . though Hallas, our youngest brother, died along with my mother in the plague year."
"The sixteenth year of Arathorn's reign?" Dírmaen asked, and after a pause continued, "I do not remember it--I was but four--but they say that was a bitter winter in Tum Melui, half the sheep dying because of the depth of the snow. My uncle always said that was what spared us from the plague, that none could travel. Who was your other brother? Was he a Ranger?"
"Brassar?" They were close enough now that Veylin could hear the coldness in Saelon's voice. "No."
Naught but the sound of the wind in the branches overhead. Oski stopped cutting the bread mid-slice.
"Here," Saelon carried on, determinedly natural, "isn't this a pleasant spot?" Her pack thumped down, just the other side of the thorn-bush.
"Very," Dírmaen replied, doucely courteous, boots shuffling in the grass.
Veylin huffed. To remain silent invited suspicion, if they were discovered, or farce. "So it seems," he agreed, loudly.
The boots both left the ground for a moment; Saelon's bare feet quickly circled the bush, and she peered into the gap where they sat around their meat. "Veylin?" A smile of pleased surprise brightened her face. "Well met! Thyrð and Oski, the same to you."
"Greetings, Lady," Oski replied, and carried on with the loaf.
"Greetings," Dírmaen echoed, coming to gaze over Saelon's shoulder. The weeks since the feast had much improved the Ranger's appearance, though he was still somewhat gaunt; one end of a strung bow jutted up from behind his wasted shoulder. "What brings you here?"
"What do you think?" Oski said, more affably than Veylin could have managed, lifting the loaf. "And you?"
Saelon chuckled. "The same. May we join you? I have fresh cress, if you would like it."
"Of course," Veylin said heartily, taking a certain pleasure from the shadow of disapproval that passed across Dírmaen's face. "Will you take some cheese in return?"
She would; and hardly had she brought the food out of her basket than his prentices began angling for exchanges of their own: thin rounds of onion for green cheese, mutton for the smoked trout. "If you like our fare so much," Saelon said, smiling on Oski as he slathered his bread with the creamy cheese, "you should come and trade more often."
The Longbeard looked thoughtful as he wiped his knife scrupulously clean on the crust. "What would you take for, say, a stone of this cheese?"
"Are you in earnest?" she asked, passing a pair of bannocks and the trout to Dírmaen.
"Perhaps. Your cheese is very good."
Saelon laughed. "I like yours better, but no doubt novelty adds savour."
"We get it from the Shire," Veylin told her, carving another slice from the shoulder. "You are sure you do not want meat?"
"I will trade," Dírmaen abruptly offered Thyrð. "I would prefer mutton."
"Truly?" Thyrð asked, hand arrested in the act of reaching.
Shaking her head as the Ranger handed his portion of fish to Veylin's nephew, Saelon said, "If food palls with eating, you should be wearier of mutton than anyone."
"I like mutton," Dírmaen responded, heaping slices onto his bannock.
And there she left it, with a soft snort of dismissal. "How are things with you in Gunduzahar?" she asked, turning to Veylin.
"Well." Better than he had expected, after the tumultuous beginning of the season. The new members of the delf sorted well with the veterans: perhaps because Vitnir was not there to breed discontent, or because Bersi's crew had found the spoil from the new level rich in copper. There had even been a pocket of nice peridots from the chamber that was to be the women's bath, which they had celebrated as a good omen. He intended to make the three best into rings for Auð, Sút, and Hlin, in honor of their willingness to make their homes here. "And at Habad?"
"The same." Indeed, she looked content and seemed in good humour, surprisingly so, given the events of late winter and the Ranger's presence. "Leod and Murdag have a daughter; there was corn enough to sow all of Maelchon's new field; and Partalan rode over from Srathen Brethil last week with news that a fourth family is returning to the glen."
"My congratulations to Leod and his wife. So all is well in Srathen Brethil? There has been no further trouble with the outlaws?" Veylin offered her the skin of ale.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Ale--our dark ale."
"No thank you." She passed a large handful of cress to Dírmaen, who dutifully shoved it between bannock and meat. "Things seem as well in Srathen Brethil as could be hoped for: the reivers despoiled the houses that survived the raugs, but there has been no sign of them since. Hanend--do you remember him? He was the youngest of the Rangers sent to us by Arathorn--has remained with Halpan to keep watch."
"Is Randir still with you?" Veylin thought her Chieftain had withdrawn support since she defied him, but more Men of the Star seemed to hang about her and her folk, not fewer.
"Yes, he is."
Conversation flagged as they attended to their meal, though Veylin attributed that to the awkwardness of Dírmaen's presence. He felt the impropriety of ignoring the Man, but what could he say that would not sound false or rouse the hostility between them? Even inquiring after his health might lead to suspicions--not unfounded--of pity or impatience to see him off. Surely, if Dírmaen had recovered enough to keep pace with Saelon, he was fit to return to Arnor. Yet here he was, keeping Saelon company. He must have some lingering weakness, not apparent to the eye, that still required her care. Veylin could think of no other reason she would suffer the risk of importunity, given the Man's peremptory infatuation.
Saelon was the one to break the silence, as she brushed the crumbs from her hands. "There are many things we might take for cheese and other produce," she said, going back to Oski's earlier question, "but the services of a blacksmith would be most welcome. Harness buckles are wearing out. It would be good for Artan and Leod to have their own scythes and sickles, and the boys are of an age to want knives. Shears; shoes for spades, and occasionally horses. Small, everyday things we cannot make or mend for ourselves."
For more than a year he had tried to find someone who would suit them, without success. He had warned her that he could promise nothing, but the failure still galled. "I said I would seek one for you; I am still searching."
Dírmaen reached out a long arm to rummage in Saelon's packbasket, coming out with a small sack of hazelnuts. "It is hard to find a smith among Dwarves?"
The Man's silence had been too good to last. "You were not content to remain here, tending to commonplaces, save for rich reward. How should my people be any different? There is no iron or coal hereabouts, to tempt an ironworker to settle near, and these people's custom would not keep a blacksmith well-employed. Those who have been willing to take the work, I would not trust to make hobnails for my boots."
"Why not?" Saelon asked hastily, as if she would displace any reply from the Ranger, whose mouth had taken a louring set.
"Bersa," Veylin confessed gruffly, "is a moderate fellow." Must he allow that not all of the bitter stories told of Dwarvish avarice were lies, before the Man? "Others are poor craftsmen, seeking any employment."
"Unhandy Dwarves?" Saelon exclaimed, passing over what was more shameful. "Can there be such a thing?"
"Perhaps not what you would consider unhandy," Oski said, with admirable tact, "though not all are equally gifted. Ale, Dírmaen?" he asked, offering the skin.
The Longbeard had always viewed the Ranger more favorably than the rest of his company: Veylin remembered the two of them playing tafl as the troll-spears were reshafted to fit the Men before they set out to slay the fiends. But Dírmaen shook his head, rejecting the token of good-will.
Cursed Man! Let him shut up his wry mouth all the time, if he could not keep peace. He must expect a sharp reply when he gibed. "If you have some pressing need," Veylin proposed to Saelon, "I can ask Haki to oblige you. Nordri and Bersi jostle for his time, now that he is the only ironmaster among us, but as you say, your wants are small things. I had hoped," he gave a vexed sigh, "that Skani would remain, when Vitnir returned to Sulûnduban."
"Skani is Vitnir's prentice, is he not?" Though her question was for him, Saelon's gaze rested uneasily on the Ranger before going to Oski and Thyrð, then back to him again. "Do not prentices follow their master?"
"So long as they feel he has something to teach them." Men arranged such matters differently, he had heard, binding youths for a fixed term whether they were quick to learn or no. Veylin did not see how such a practice encouraged application. Why should a youngster be keen, when neither diligence nor skill would shorten their servitude? "Of the two, I would give my custom to Skani, if he set up his own forge." What kept the lad at Vitnir's beck and call? Had his cousin's meanness prevented him from acquiring the means to furnish a workshop? Surely Skaði would assist his son in his craft . . . unless he wished to preserve the connection Skani's prenticeship gave him to Veylin's heir.
Veylin frowned. The suspicion of intrigue gnawed confidence as rust ate iron. Perhaps it was as well that he was returning to the mansion. He would make an opportunity to talk to Skani, privately, and offer him an independent share in Gunduzahar--and favorable terms on the coin to equip a forge, if that was the hindrance. Could Skani but master the secret of sea-steel . . . . "I will do what I can to convince him," he assured Saelon, "when I am in Sulûnduban. He would be glad of an excuse to come and drink your ale, I believe."
"When do you go?" Saelon asked.
"A few days." After losing weeks to worry over lurking brigands and searching Elves, he hoped to finish tracing this vein and the one that crossed it near the pretty little cascade before he left. Regin had asked that he return early enough to resolve quarrels before the quarter court, but stipulated no particular day. There were nearly three weeks yet, and unless the weather turned absolutely foul, he could be at the mansion in three days. How many disputes could have arisen in two months? He would like to return with a good handful of rain-stones on offer, further proof of the variety of wealth in this land.
"And when will you return?"
Such direct questions . . . . "Not long after the middle of Lothron, unless my peoples' affairs are wretchedly awry." He would be urged to stay and keep Midsummer with his kindred . . . but Auð rumbled that it was not right for the Men to host them regularly without return. The longest day was spoken of as a fitting occasion to repay them, since fair weather would favor entertaining on the broad head of the hill, preserving the security of the halls within. If the feast came off, he must not miss it. "Why do you ask?"
"No reason," Saelon said, suddenly conscious. "Forgive me: I did not mean to pry." Taking the cloth that had served as their board, she gave it a vigorous shake.
Preparing to go? "You have not offended," Veylin assured her, frowning in concern. Had her curiosity truly been mere idleness, forgetful familiarity, or had there been a purpose behind it, one she did not like to confess? "Should you require our aid," he hazarded, "do not hesitate to send word. The others remain, and Rekk or Bersi or Nordri will assist you." Or answer to him when he returned.
Dírmaen chose to resent his presumption. "Do you have some reason to expect trouble? That we could not deal with ourselves?"
We? "No. Yet you will be leaving soon, will you not, and Randir with you?"
"You think us neglectful?"
Had that not been the root of their falling-out? Veylin schooled temper and voice. "How should I judge Men?" By the time he returned from Sulûnduban, the Rangers should be gone. There was no profit in a parting squabble. "Yet I would have the Lady know that if she is in need, Dwarves are at her service."
"For a price." The Man made that sound base.
Veylin gazed on him with candid dislike. "I have never pretended otherwise."
"While I have?"
"Dírmaen!" Saelon stared at the Man, baffled, angry. "What is between you, that you should twist Veylin's words so?"
When the Ranger, eyes cast down and bare mouth locked tight, did not answer, she looked to him, eyes stormy as the sea. "Will you tell me, then? I do not like being fought over, like a bitch between two dogs."
Her crudeness made his face burn. "I beg you, Saelon; do not make such comparisons. It is shameful to speak in such a way. Folk will misunderstand."
"How is your wrangling any different? It was bad enough when only the three of us could hear, but now--" the savage sweep of her hand took in his nephew and Oski "--you do not scruple to squabble before others. I would like to preserve what little reputation I have left! Why," she demanded of Dírmaen, who had begun the quarrel, "do you give way to such malignant jealousy? You must know it does more to harden my heart than any words Veylin could say."
"I have no place," Dírmaen muttered, still not meeting her eye, "not even in your conversation. It is hard. I hope you will forgive me."
"Why should I? Despite my displeasure, you display it again and again. The whole of the morning we have talked, most companionably, and you grudge an hour to my friend? Let me say it again," she rolled on, ruthless as the battering sea, "my friend, and no more. Veylin and I have never coupled, nor have we intrigued together against the Chieftain or Círdan. If you still harbor any hopes of my regard, you will reconcile with him, at least enough for common civility. I am grateful to you both for all you have done for me and mine," she declared, voice tight, "but I will not tolerate this enmity in my presence." Standing suddenly, she jerked her packbasket up and slung it on her back. "Good day. Fare well on your journey to Sulûnduban, Veylin."
The four of them sat like a stock and so many stones, watching as she thrust through the may-bushes, heedless of their thorns. When the thump of her furious tread could no longer be felt through the earth, first Oski and then Thyrð rose and began gathering up the remnants of the meal. All they left, when they carried the bundle off to the pony's saddlebag, was the ale skin.
Veylin stared at it, fingering the smooth wood of his blackthorn stick. The Man would not even look at him: if he followed his prentices, leaving the skin where it lay, would it stay there until it rotted? Or would it be unfeeling to take it and leave Dírmaen with nothing?
Whatever he did would give offense. He would not be mean. If the Man would accept the solace of a drink, he was welcome to it.
As Veylin rose to go, Dírmaen said, low and harsh, "I do not think you have done anything with Saelon that is dishonorable."
Not trusting how his words might be received, Veylin simply nodded once in acknowledgement. He did not like the Man, but he pitied him. The Ranger did not admire Saelon properly, yet his desire seemed enduring and his jealousy heart-felt. To burn for a jewel one saw every day, but could not possess . . . .
"You will look after her, will you not?" Dírmaen grated as he turned to leave.
Veylin glanced back at that spare, severe face. "So far as she will allow me."
That got a humorless laugh. "So far as she will allow."
The desolation on the Man's face was so bleak Veylin risked, "She kept herself for many years; her brother bestowed his people upon her. Why do you not trust her judgment?"
"Because she puts no faith in the Dúnedain."
Veylin grunted. An honest answer, and a hard one. Who broke faith first, he wondered.
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Viressë: Westron/Common Speech (from Quenya), April.
Green cheese: what the moon is made of. ; ) "Green" in the sense of new or fresh rather than color; an uncured soft cheese such as cream or cottage cheese.
Custom: in this sense, the regular patronage of customers.
Rain-stone: a blue-grey variety of topaz. A term of my invention.
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