The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Hand to Hand: 23. Ensnaring Women
If I were asked . . . to what the singular prosperity and growing strength of that people ought mainly to be attributed, I should reply: To the superiority of their women.
--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
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The next day, Saelon went down to the shore for shellfish and weed. Hanadan accompanied her, lugging the pails for her harvest with manly pride.
Dírmaen watched them cross the machair, careless of wind-flung spits of rain, beneath low, dark-bellied clouds, then sought out Gaernath to ask the use of Coll. He ought to have fetched Mada a week, a fortnight ago, when his strength began to return, instead of leaving him idle while he dallied about the country in Saelon's train. Let Randir say what he would about late-lying snows in the heights and burns in spate: he was fit to cross the mountains. Argonui had said he did not want to see him until Spring Day, and that was now past.
He ought never to have come back.
There was a dour peace in his ride to the glen of pools through the soft gloom, the first touch of spring's fresh green muted beneath streaming cloud. How long had it been since he was alone? So long ago as his ride to answer Halgorn's call from Srathen Brethil? Weeks; months, nearly all in Saelon's company.
No doubt she had taken him about with her out of duty at first . . . but he had not required her close attention as a healer for many days now. She might have claimed others as escort, if she chose. She had not. Until today, he was the one she asked to accompany her, whenever she wandered abroad.
Oh, why had he let himself be drawn by that patronizing Dwarf, complacent as if he had already gone?
Yet he had already gone, once; given Saelon up. How could the presumption that he would leave her again give offense?
He ought never to have left.
Round and round his disordered thoughts went, like a blind nag bound to a mill. By the time he reached the broad pools in the lower end of the vale, he was as dismal as the grizzling sky. Even the new foals, for all their gawky charm, peering out at him beneath their dams' bellies, did not lift his heart. This was the wrong herd; the geldings and colts must be further up the glen.
Pulling his dripping hood down to keep the rain from his eyes, Dírmaen set Coll to a trot. The sooner he found Mada, the sooner he could go home.
Home. Where was that? Not the snug hall at Habad. Nor the chill of the lonely house kept for him in Tum Melui. The only place for him was the road, and a Ranger's bed, where he would be no drier than he was now.
The whole world was colorless grey, the thrum of rain deadening all sound, so Dírmaen started when his mount suddenly shied. "Hai! Did you not hear me call out?" Randir exclaimed.
Where had he sprung from? "No." How had he missed him, even though his cloak was but a darker patch of grey?
"Single-minded beast," his fellow scoffed good-naturedly. "Come and get out of this wet! There is a scrap of shelter over here, and Finean says the rain will soon blow over."
It was the merest scrap, a great solitary stone with a bit of an overhang, eked out by the early leaves of a shrubby willow, but there was room enough for the three of them, shoulder to shoulder. "What brings you this way?" Randir asked after Finean's laconic greeting, as Dírmaen arranged his cloak so the wet would stream away from their seat. "Did my report of the new black finally rouse your passion for fine horseflesh? Or have you come to make sure I am not spoiling that feisty young bay?"
Yes; on the days when he did not ride the bounds, Randir usually came here to help with Saelon's horses. There was too much work for one man, he said: three sturdy hobbler colts and as many fillies, plus two high-bred fillies and the bay colt that had besotted him, four of them of an age to be bitted and backed. "I came to get Mada."
Randir grinned. "He will be glad to see you. But you cannot leave without seeing the Mariner."
"Gwath's foal--the black, with a fine white star."
Dírmaen snorted softly, wondering who had given the beast such a pretentious name. "I caught a glimpse of him as I passed the mares."
"Oh, he is worth a much longer look! It will do your heart good, I am sure."
It would take more than a winsome young beast to lighten his heart, but Dírmaen nodded to spare himself further cajoling. Randir rattled on, giving him the particulars of each foal and beast whose training was in hand, while Finean sat twisting supple withies into a headstall. Gusts of wind lashed the stone with willow branches; the rain's grey pall crept across the glen, hissing and spitting on their boots.
The downpour passed, finally.
The cheery patter of his friend, however, did not abate. When Dírmaen stepped out into the last dashes of rain, Randir followed as a matter of course, to guide him to the gelding herd . . . and, no doubt, sing more praises of the young bay.
They had a fair way to go--that prince of horses was old enough to vex the reigning king--their saddles as sodden as their mounts, and it took some time to find the beasts, the rain having made a mire of their tracks. Yet when they discovered them sheltering amongst the alders about the burn, Dírmaen was not baffled by their rain-darkened coats. Recognizing the cock of a hind that had not made it into the thicket, he whistled and swung down from Coll.
Mada's head popped up through the first tender green leaves, ears pricked and swiveling. Dírmaen whistled again, and the gelding whinnied in reply. The beast's efforts to get quickly out of the scrubby trees was almost comic, though once disentangled, the sight of him coming at a canter was what brought a smile to Dírmaen's face.
Even wet, with his winter coat coming out in patches, the gelding looked very well; he appeared to have put on a little flesh, even though Randir had taken him out on patrol occasionally, for exercise and to rest his own steed. When Mada pulled up, nostrils wide to scent him, Dírmaen blew back, and was rewarded with a welcoming butt from that shaggy head. Snorting softly at such nonsense, he scratched the beast's favorite spot on his forehead, then began checking him over with his hands. As he stroked down Mada's near fore, Randir said, "He was lame for a fortnight in the off hind after our chase, but rest seems to have cured him. I would not have ridden him if he were not entirely sound."
Dírmaen grunted as he felt the horse's pastern through his feathers. That mad run was a blur in his mind; all he remembered clearly was the briar of fear about his heart as he crouched low over Mada's withers, racing to slay the Northman before he reached Habad, horrified that the outlaw chief made such a direct line for the place. It was a wonder he had not foundered his mount, driving him breakneck across the treacherous footing of the peat hags.
Mada whuffled in his hair, breath warm.
Having satisfied himself that he had done no permanent harm to the good beast and rubbed the worst of the mud from his back and belly with a grass wisp, he turned back to Coll, unbuckling the saddle girth. "So," Randir asked cheerfully, "you are ready to take your turn on patrol?"
"I am ready to return to Arnor." When his fellow did not immediately reply, Dírmaen glanced his way and found his smile dimmed. "Do you not think it is time we left?"
"Are you fit enough?" Randir pressed, his long face dubious. "You were very ill, and have been afoot less than a month. Your arm has still not regained its strength. Would it not be better to wait a little longer?"
Such coddling irked him greatly. "If I am fit enough to beat the bounds, I am fit enough to cross them. My arm will regain strength through use, not dawdling about here." With an effort, he heaved the saddle off Coll. "Besides, we may be needed--we get no news here."
"Partalan was just here," Randir scoffed. "If there was need of us, Hanend would have sent word, or been withdrawn himself. There is rarely much trouble at this season, as you know well, and should there be any, it would be better that you were well able to meet it."
"I am not an invalid," Dírmaen growled, hoisting his burden onto Mada's back, feeling the burning weakness where the outlaw chief had cut him.
"I did not say that you were!" Randir protested. "Why are you so eager to leave this place? Do not tell me you pine to sleep out in the spring rains."
"I am sick of being useless. I want work."
"Then come and lend a hand with the colts, and take a turn on patrol. There is plenty to do here."
"Guarding these people is not our duty." He tugged the girth tight; perhaps too tight, for Mada gave a reproachful snort and shifted his feet.
Randir stared at him strangely. "Come," he said, as Dírmaen loosed the strap a notch, "they are our kin, even if they are recalcitrant--or at least the Lady and her niece are, and the boy. How can you be so hard of heart?"
"I am as I find."
His friend seemed taken aback by such terse bitterness, frowning disapprovingly on him. "That is not very gallant, after all the Lady's tenderness towards you."
Tenderness? "What does gallantry have to do with it?" Dírmaen snapped. Had his carefully concealed infatuation been discovered?
"Courtesy and care are a woman's due," Randir reminded him, with earnest gravity. "How else can we repay them for their many pains? And these have borne more than their share. Have you ever seen their like, for courage and fortitude? Or even heard of such, save in the old tales?"
"Once or twice," Dírmaen answered dryly. It had been hardly more than a hundred years since Orcs last made forays into Eriador: his grandmother had captained the defense of Gellnen against a band that ravaged the North Downs while the men battled the larger horde near Fornost.
Randir gave a crooked, deprecating grin. "All right--perhaps there are a few, here in the west. We have less blood of the old kings in Cardolan. Yet I will not believe it is so common that you would scorn these ladies of Srathen Brethil, humbled though they have been by their hard fate. Are they not a credit to their royal stock?"
Humbled? Clearly his friend had spent little time in Saelon's company. "To be sure." The line of Elros had always been masterful . . . on occasion, too much so.
"As well as lovely and mild," Randir's praise rolled on, a softer smile playing about his lips.
"You cannot," Dírmaen declared, heart clenching in alarm, "be speaking of the Lady."
His friend broke out in a hearty laugh. "No, I would not call her mild--though my great-aunt is worse! I suppose I have given myself away," he confessed, half-sly, as Dírmaen continued to stare doubtfully. "I am rather taken with Rian."
"Rian?" The band about his breast loosened. "She is too young to wed."
"A little . . . but is she not a beauty? And so gracious, despite the many burdens on her time and temper! She will never vex her husband about trifles of housekeeping. I believe," Randir said hopefully, "that she inclines to me, or begins to. If I could be sure of her attachment, I should not mind waiting a few years. Much," he added, grin returning.
That would explain why he was so agreeable to Saelon; he wished her to look favorably on his suit. "You will have to have her brother's good will, as well as the Lady's."
"I must have Rian's, first!" Randir reminded him. "So would it not be best to give your arm a few more weeks to recover its strength? Truly, I do not doubt that you are fit to make the journey across the mountains, but I would not be easy in my mind if you went alone."
Weeks. As Dírmaen weighed his many debts to his friend against his own conflicting desires, Randir's suasive smile waned. "I hope I am not afoul of your own chase, brother," he finally said, gravely.
"No!" Dírmaen hastened to assure him. "No--Rian is a fine girl, very fine. I wish you well."
Randir looked no easier of mind. "Then whence comes this hesitation and ill mood? Does your wound break out again?"
Yes; but not the wound he meant. "I have angered the Lady. You will have to decide whether my remaining will aid your suit: I cannot judge."
"What have you done?"
How was he to answer, without exposing Saelon or making light of their differences? "Disagreed with Veylin. We came across him yesterday, but it is an old quarrel," he explained. "His counsels have ever run counter to mine, and I have rebuked her for preferring them."
Randir snorted softly. "Is that why you left? You should know better than to try and come between fast friends . . . strange though such a friendship seems. How do you believe Veylin has misled her?" he wondered. "I confess I have seen little to fault in her judgment."
Turning away, Dírmaen took the lead rope from the saddle and ran a loop through it to make a halter for Coll. "He has encouraged her to remain in Lindon, instead of returning to Srathen Brethil, or across the Lune."
"From all I have heard, that would be no great feat, her attachment to the sea being what it is."
As if that were laudable. "She ought to be attached to her own kin and kind."
"How can you say she is not?" Randir rebuked him. "Rian will hear nothing against her, and the Edain are well content. Have you ever known folk love a lord who did not care for them? Here--" he reached down for the lead rope "--I will hold him while you bridle Mada. Nor does the Chieftain seem wroth, since he has not recalled us."
Argonui had said he wished someone posted here, where Men and Dwarves and Elves were coming together. Perhaps Randir would be better suited than he . . . if his liking for Rian did not blind him. "He expects they will return to Srathen Brethil, in time--but you have seen how the Dwarves have laboured to establish them here, to serve their own ends."
"Which are? How can I share your suspicions, if you do not tell me what they have done to rouse them?"
What had the Dwarves done, that he could complain of? Their trespass was against Lindon, which chose to stay its hand; they took food out of these folk's mouths, but had provided the plow that prepared the field. "I do not know! They are secretive folk, and will not say. Why not, if their business is honest?"
His friend gazed down on him, thoughtfully grave. "Is that not their nature: tight-fisted and taciturn?"
"You were at the Tuilérë feast--do you call that taciturn?"
Randir smiled, fondly reminiscent. He had danced much to their music that evening, often with Rian. "I suppose not."
He did not take his reservations seriously; he did not care. Tearing up a fistful of wet grass, Dírmaen scrubbed fiercely at Coll's bit. "Or ever heard of a Dwarf that gave a pin for friendship, let alone a great gaudy gem?" Timely news to a friend, Saelon had explained it, when he found Veylin putting the sea-jewel into her hand among the shadows, last harvest; showed him his way to his heart's desire, was the Dwarf's defense. What could Saelon know of that would profit the dwarf-lord so much? If the exchange was upright, why had they been so surreptitious?
"Gem?" Randir stared at him. "The Lady's jewel came from Veylin? I thought it an heirloom of her house."
He had said too much. Feeling astray amidst a treacherous bog, Dírmaen shook his head and gave all his attention to the necessary adjustments of the bridle.
"What ails you, man?" his fellow demanded. "That you are close-lipped, I knew; but never that you were mealy-mouthed. Why will you not tell me plain, if you know something to their discredit? Are you in love with the woman, and seek to shift blame on the Dwarf?"
The wet strap twisted, jamming in the buckle, and Dírmaen stopped, fearing to tear the leather, face burning with mortification. The wind murmured in the alder leaves; Mada shifted his feet restlessly.
Dírmaen nodded, staring at the bridle.
His friend's saddle creaked. "That is why you drove us at such a pace, after the outlaws." One could almost hear the pieces coming together in his mind.
"Does she know?"
Another nod, his heart too clenched for speech.
"And spurned you?"
Randir's tone was aggrieved rather than pitying, and Dírmaen hastened explain. "We have often quarreled, as I said, and I am graceless with women, I find. Nor," he sighed, shaking his head, " is there anything she needs from a man."
"Credit she deserves for dealing with the first outlaws to find them," Randir riposted, "yet she certainly required assistance with the rest."
"Would she, if we had not driven them from the oakwood? Or from Srathen Brethil?"
His friend's eye was rather too much like Saelon's, when gauging his fever. "If you must find fault with yourself, remember that you had no part in the last. She is a valiant and noble woman," he granted, more sympathetically, "but is she not somewhat . . . ripe for courting?"
"That is what she says," Dírmaen muttered, picking carefully at the fouled cheekpiece.
Randir left him be until he had set it straight and bridled his horse, yet once he was mounted, observed, "I should never have guessed she misliked you, seeing how often you are in company together. Has she refused you outright, or is she but testing your devotion?"
Heart and conscience panged him. Saelon had obliged him by giving over her solitary rambles; even more, by choosing him as her companion. And how had he repaid her? "No, she has not absolutely dismissed me. Yet she gives scant heed to my counsel, and requires me to keep peace with the Dwarf."
"Your honor will not permit that?"
There was an air of delicacy in Randir's question that put an edge on his reply. "The intrigues I suspect are those one finds between a great lord, old in cunning, and any heir ill-prepared for office and new-come to their estate--not those between man and woman. At the least, they are in league against Gwinnor of Lindon, his rival gemsmith. Yet that is a trifle beside his aspersions against the Chieftain. How am I to stomach that?" Turning Mada's head downstream, he gave him a touch of his heels.
Frowning as he fell in beside, his fellow Ranger asked, "What has he said?"
"He is forever harping upon our neglect of these folk: deliberate, he claims, meant to force them across the Lhûn, where they would be landless beggars, living at the sufferance of others."
"I have not heard him say as much," Randir murmured, "though there was ample opportunity, once the outlaws were dispatched. Still, how much weight would such words carry with the Lady? She is determinedly self-reliant--not unnatural, in one who dwelt long alone--and has openly forsworn any claim to our aid, or Lindon's. The Dwarves' efforts she has scrupulously repaid."
"Is that not what they desire, to batten on her gratitude?"
Randir rubbed his chin. "It cuts both ways, I think. Some grumble over her generosity, feeling they begin to be in her debt."
Was that not his own predicament? He had done Saelon a service, and found he was the one beholden for kindness . . . belying his accusations of coldness. "What can one offer such a woman, who needs little and reckons obligation to a nicety?"
"Need is not the same as want," his friend observed. "Cannot you play upon her desires?"
"All she desires," Dírmaen said bitterly, "is peace and freedom."
"Who does not? Surely, though, there are other things she would like, more within your reach."
He did not understand her; had not seen her native austerity. "She would like a coracle to go to sea in."
Randir looked blank for a moment, then laughed. "That I can see. Why do you not make her one?"
"And help her drown herself?"
"Wherever did you get such an opinion of her?" Randir exclaimed. "It is a wonder she survived so long without a keeper."
That was too near what Veylin had said. "Besides, I know almost nothing of such craft."
His friend cocked a brow at him. "I have always heard you described as a man of resource and sagacity."
Dírmaen snorted. "It is futile. What can I give her that is of any consequence, beside the generosity of a gemsmith?"
"Who woos a woman with things of consequence? A song--a rose--a pretty pup, or a brace of plump partridges."
Dírmaen grunted. That was the ordinary way of things, yet such seemed too trifling for Saelon's desserts, or the depth of his feeling. Though she dearly loved partridge, which were uncommon here. "That will do nothing to reconcile me with Veylin."
"If you think he wishes to supplant the Dúnedain in her affections, why accommodate him by abandoning the field? If she is worth your love, she must be worth fighting for."
"That is what has angered her. She objects to being quarreled over."
Randir gave him a long-suffering look. "So you must eschew open battle . . . yet what is new in that? You are a Ranger, are you not?"
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"blind nag bound to a mill": in some areas, particularly where there were no streams suitable for running water-powered mills, horses or other animals were used to turn the grindstones.
Backed: taught to accept a saddle and rider.
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