The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Hand to Hand: 26. Shake the Darling Buds of May
For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May.
—Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur
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Saelon sat on a slab of stone amid the purling water of the burn, humming softly to herself as she combed her hair in the blessed sun. This was the Lothron of song, the very heart of spring: on one hand stood the eaves of the oakwood, vividly green—brief, enchanting perfection—and on the other the many-colored gaiety of burnside flowers, scattered among the white purity of blooming may. The flowers were, in fact, her object . . . but when Dírmaen had glimpsed a roebuck and slipped off in silent pursuit, she could not resist the calm clarity of the pool just upstream.
There had been a time when, secure in her solitude, a bathe was a commonplace; yet it had become a luxury, furtiveness making it an almost guilty pleasure. Now, the risk run, she sat clean and clad and cool, hair damply dark and sleek, savouring the warmth of the sun and the fragrant sweetness of the air. After so dreadful a start, spring had grown in kindness week by week: rain enough for her garden and the tender young corn, and no more; mild air; an abundance of milk; greater accord in the hall since Leod was with Maelchon . . . even Tearlag improved, a little, allowing herself to be coaxed out into the sun, where Canand brought her presents of birds' eggs and posies, quite like a lad for all his grey hair.
Peace, too, between her and Dírmaen. For some time, he had asked most penitently to be allowed to accompany her on her more frequent forays, though of late it had become a matter of course: when she readied her basket and took up the sturdy digging stick of blackthorn he had made her—so she might always have at least a cudgel to hand, he said, without looking the least droll—he would collect his bow and follow. She had tried other companions; had gone out one day with Rian and Randir, for dyestuffs and to observe how matters stood between them; yet none suited her as well as Dírmaen, so often silent and self-effacing. Nor did he always keep close, as he had before. More and more he would range further afield, seeking game as she hunted out flowerheads and new leaves. Whether he trusted her more or himself less, Saelon did not know, but she hoped he would bag the roebuck. Like the grand salmon he had taken while she gathered butterbur and horsetails on the river last week, it would be a welcome change from the white foods that now served as their chief meat.
She had been woolgathering long enough: if she had nothing to show by the time Dírmaen returned, she would feel idle indeed. Rising, she leapt from stone to stone to shore, taking her sickle and old cloak from the packbasket she had left at the foot of an aspen, whose young leaves whispered pleasantly where the breeze caressed its top. Surveying the bounty of herbs before her, she decided to pass over the cuckoo-flower, which would not keep, and the orchids, which required digging, for a flourishing patch of cancerwort.
The birds, which had fallen silent or fluttered away when she shook out the threadbare, stain-dappled woolen, had only just returned to their songs when a rattle of branches betrayed someone thrusting their way through the hazels at the edge of the wood. Tossing a handful of pink-flowered plants onto the cloak, Saelon straightened up and craned her neck to see who or what it was, sickle poised. Broad, hulking . . . with a hitch and a grunt, the figure paused, shifting the burden across its shoulders.
"You got him!" Saelon cried.
Dírmaen trod the remaining distance with the measured deliberation of a burdened man, the roebuck's slim legs crossed over his breast. "Yes," he said, voice strained, before ducking his head to swing the carcass to the ground beside her old cloak. "Though it is only a gerle."
Dainty the deer might be, yet it was well-fleshed for its slender kind. "There may be little honor in such a quarry," Saelon replied, bending to feel a haunch, "but meat is meat, and no less welcome for delicacy." What would be best to flavor such young flesh? An older beast benefited from juniper berries, but thyme and ramps might suit better, an altogether more spring-like taste. Ramps grew in profusion a short way within the wood, and there was charlock and sourock at hand— "Have you hurt your arm?"
Dírmaen left off kneading the place where the reiver chief had cut him. "No. It is only stiff. Do you think I could have made this shot if it were still weak?"
Why, then, did he reach for the lashings securing his bow case to the back of his belt with his right hand only? "I would not know. Have you used all of the balm I gave you?"
"Nearly. You have not harvested much," he observed as he laid his case and quiver beside his quarry, puzzled as well as defensive.
With a roguish urge to prick his stern pride, Saelon said off-handedly, "I had a bathe." Pointing upstream with her sickle, she added, "There is a very fine pool above. Would you not like to visit it?"
Thin-lipped disapproval; a glance at the state of his shoulders; suspicious eyes: the play of expression across the renewed keenness of his face almost made her laugh. "Foolish woman," he dismissed—whether her actions or her suggestion she could not tell—and turned to gaze thoughtfully at the lower branches of the aspen.
Saelon gave a light huff and stooped again to her work. "As you will."
She moved along the bank, taking a few plants here and few there, to be sure of more next year. Going to the tree, Dírmaen laid a hand on one of the sturdiest branches, and when it satisfied his testing heave, proceeded to hang and bleed the buck. Wrinkling her nose at the butcherly smell, Saelon was pleased to see a particularly flourishing stand of cancerwort just beyond a broad bush of may, whose sweet bloom masked the unpleasantness.
When she had followed her harvest all the way around, Dírmaen was not to be seen. Frowning, she straightened up and looked around. Where had he gone? Not to the edge of the burn, to scour his hands clean with sand from its bed. Surely he could not have been tempted, so soon, by another glimpse of beast or bird—he had taken as much meat as he could carry, and they had no need for more. And his bow, she found when she brought her armful of herbage to the spread cloth, still lay where he had set it. With a shake of her head, Saelon glanced about for more cancerwort. If he did not appear for their midday meal, then she would begin to be concerned.
Her search led her upstream, patch by patch: twice she bundled her cloak and shifted it further on, turning briefly aside for a ring of white caps of Lothron, which would go very well with the venison. So it was that she found herself looking down on the pool where she had bathed, eye drawn by a pale flutter in the sun.
A linen shirt draped over a branch to dry; and on a mossy bank beside, Dírmaen sat, dark head bent, trimming his nails with his knife.
He was pale also, save for the fading weal above the elbow, lightly flushed like the petals of a dog-rose from the sun or the chill of the pool, not the pallor she had grown weary of. Nor was he any longer too thin. That she had felt as a reproach, proof that she was wanting: as hostess, healer, woman. Not that she would have him stout; men, like the horses and hounds they doted on, ought to show a fine play of muscle . . . .
She should not be here, spying on him in this way. That she had come to know his form intimately during his convalescence gave no license beyond the sick-room. What if he should see her? It would—must—encourage his ardour; be mistaken for attraction on her part. Mere chance had brought her here—she had had no notion, after his scoff, that he would heed her suggestion—and it had been pleasant to see him so much improved, a gratification to her skill. Yet she must not linger, lest he sense her regard. Gathering up her bundle with silent care, she soft-footed back the way she had come.
When the sun stood overhead, he found her sitting doucely beneath a gean a little way beyond the burdened aspen, weaving reedmace leaves into a soft basket for the mushrooms. "What have you there?" he asked, hanging his bow and quiver on a stub of a branch. "Lothron caps? That is a lucky find! They will go well with the buck."
"That was my thought," Saelon said, tucking the tapered end of the blade-like leaf into the weave.
Sitting down beside her, Dírmaen snagged a stray fragment of mushroom and popped it in his mouth. "Mm—" an approving noise "—yes, that will be good. What do we have for now? Hunting has spurred my appetite."
She passed him the cloth-wrapped parcel. "Bannocks and cheese. Here are sourock leaves, if you would like to liven the flavor."
With a shake of his head, and after offering her first choice, he set to.
Something had changed; he was different, or she was. She had always known he was tall—had craned her neck to fix his gaze in anger or vexation often enough—but here, now, she felt it. His stature, the sweep of shoulder beneath imperfectly dry linen . . . . How did such spare brawn give that impression of strength?
He was a good-looking man, very good-looking, when he was in temper.
Saelon nibbled on sourock leaves, wondering about the state of her own humours. Could this glamour simply be the flush of health, striking after long illness and disorder, and her pleasure in it a kind of vanity, taken with her accomplishment and not the man?
He had not been ill when first he came; nor had he been disordered until those last months before he left them, crabbed by disappointment . . . perhaps despair. How was one to tell with so proud and taciturn a man?
"May I?" he asked and, right hand full of bannock, reached for the mushrooms with his left.
There; a hitch in the movement, slight but jarring. "Your arm is not right," Saelon murmured, not wanting to start a quarrel.
His sword-grey eyes grew wary. "Not entirely. Though it grows better, week by week."
"I am glad; that is as it should be." For so able a man to be crippled, even in his off arm, through having come to her aid would have been a weight indeed. "Yet, might I—would you allow me to examine it? I do not insist," she assured him. "I do not believe you have neglected it, or used it ill; but there may be more I can do to ease the scar."
Having considered while he chewed, Dírmaen shrugged and began unlacing the bracer he wore on that side since his wounding. Hastily Saelon finished her bannock, wiping her fingers carefully clean on the cloth that had wrapped the barley cakes as he pushed his sleeve as high as it would go and held the linen there.
She had not seen his arm close-to almost two weeks now. Drawing near, she lightly traced the proud flesh of the scar with a single finger. Such an ugly wound it had been, poisoned by the filth on the reiver's blade. The livid color was fading—
"Have you dealt with many sword-wounds?"
He sounded more curious than skeptical, at least. "Sword-wounds, no," she allowed. The scar was harder than she liked. Strange, if he were using the balm she had given him, for elderflowers did not draw. "Knife and sickle, axe and bill-hook, however—they were common enough in Srathen Brethil. How much of the arm's strength has returned?" Some of both great muscles had been cut, but the sinews were unharmed.
"Somewhat more than half. So it was in Srathen Brethil that you learned healing?"
"Where else? Tell me if I give you pain," she told him, though she knew he would not.
Nor did he; his face only took on its familiar grimness as she pressed deep into the fleshy part of his arm, seeking hidden knots or carbuncles. "I do not know. Yet if you have dwelt so long by the shore—"
What of her did he doubt? "Do you think I was a girl when I left Srathen Brethil?" she wondered. "The rudiments I learnt from my mother; when plague took her, her mother took me in hand."
"Narwen, was it? From the Tower Hills?"
Who told him that? Ah, yes; he was there when she named her grandam to Gwinnor, that trying day last spring. "Yes. A most formidable beldame, so spare me your severe looks—I was hardened long ago."
"I did not mean to criticize," he murmured, gravity turned penitent.
Saelon snorted softly, easing her grip on his abused flesh. "I am sure I gave you pangs enough to excuse sharpness. But all is well: there is no great wrongness, though many minor ones. I am most concerned about the hardening of the scar," she told him, stroking his arm to soothe it. "Yet if that did not give you some pain, I will worry that you have lost feeling in the limb."
When he lifted his gaze to hers, Saelon suddenly felt how little distance stood between them. "I have not lost feeling in the limb," he assured her, voice changed.
The warm substantiality of his flesh was within her stilled hand, the only roughness the scar; his scent in her nostrils—not the sick sourness of the invalid she had nursed, but a man's musk, unsullied by muck or sweat.
It went to her head like the mead of the Dwarves. Shutting her eyes against the light in his, she turned her head away.
His breath was in her hair. "Saelon, if you will not have me, I must go."
"I . . . ." Oh, how had she come to this? She had feared to encourage his ardour, yet it was her own that had roused, famished as a long-somnolent dragon.
More than his breath was in her hair, and still she clutched his arm. "Why," a murmur as soft as the questing press of his lips, "will you not have me?"
The thunder of her heart drowned thought. "I— I am too old. We do not agree!" She must not be shameless. Not again.
"Saelon." She had never dreamt he could be tender in reproach. "I have said age is nothing to me; nor will I hear anything against your height or beauty. Can you doubt, any longer, the sincerity of my regard?"
She dared no more than a shake of her head.
"If I am disagreeable, why have you so often suffered my company?"
"Because you were right," she conceded, voice small, eyes pricking with tears. "It is not safe."
For a moment she thought—feared? hoped?—he would take her in his arms, but instead he laid his head against hers. "I wish it were not so."
Silence fell between them, like the spent flowers drifting down from the gean: silence but not peace, as Saelon strove to subdue her desire. She was out of her senses, or too much in them; bewitched by spring's sweet riot and the vital passion of this man, this maddening, admirable man. To take him, and be taken in return . . . .
Mad. She was mad, to entertain such heedless lust. If she gave way, he would not disdain her, for all his honor—not until after. Would he plead for her hand then? Drawing a tremulous breath, Saelon bit her lip and let go his arm. "I did not say you were disagreeable, only that we do not agree. Can you deny it?"
Dírmaen straightened. "How can I," he protested, "without proving what you say? I have tried to mend my manner. You have not found me more congenial?"
"I have, but—oh, let us not quarrel! You will make an excellent husband, I am sure; for a woman of less independent mind."
"I went home and looked for a wife," he told her, voice harsh, "to put you from my mind, yet none could compare. They were young, yes, prettily got up and eager to please—too eager, silly or sly. That I did not find agreeable. I do not want to be mated to a lapwing, who will feign weakness to lead me where she will. Let me have a falcon who does not fear to strike!"
An afflicted sigh broke from her, and she shook her head. "You are no tiercel."
"Lady, we are here, where you would be, for all my efforts. I am the one who abandoned the field. Must I lay my sword at your feet for you to acknowledge your triumph?"
A more emphatic shake of the head. "No! Do you think I wish to see you humbled?" What she admired in him was the strength and stern Dúnedain pride that made him a living blade against the foe. If he surrendered that, what would there be to love?
"Then please, do not make me beg. Saelon, I am yours, whether you will have me or no. Tell me what I am to do."
How could she, when she could not command herself? "You do me too much honor," she protested. Must she tell him? No. Not if she refused him. If she took him, however, it could not be concealed. Yet would it not be the surest way to destroy his regard? Life was cruel, so cruel: now that her bones ached for his touch, she must repel him.
Fingers, feather-light, on her hair. "I have no gems, nor any land you would want; all I can give is myself. Will you not let me prove your own kind prize you higher than any Dwarf or Elf? Saelon, will you not look at me?"
This time, when she bit her lip, she tasted blood, but she raised her gaze to his face. Naked yearning, balanced on that knife-edge between hope and despair: oh, to take him to her breast and comfort him, make amends for her many past unkindnesses . . . . "I am not a maid."
For a dreadful moment, she thought he had not heard her, that she would be forced to repeat herself. Then his face took on the denying vacancy of a man who had been told he must lose a limb, or that his wife had died. He had not, then, believed the lies that coupled her with Veylin, for all his jealousy; nor had older tales reached his ears. But from whom would he have heard them? Few of the folk who came here from Srathen Brethil had been born at the time of her disgrace, and nothing had been spared—nothing—to preserve her reputation.
Though he had gone so terribly still, Dírmaen did not draw away; his fingers still rested on her hair behind one ear. "Of your own will?"
He took his hand back; otherwise he did not move, only stared on her as though she were a stranger. Perhaps she ought to have lied, that he might place the blame elsewhere. But had he not just lauded her indomitable spirit?
The silence stretched out so long that she was near rising, to pack her basket and go, when he asked, very low, "Will you tell me who?"
"No one you know. An Edain lad, long ago."
She could not tell if that was any comfort to him. "Did you love him?"
"Yes." If she shut her eyes, the heat of her blood conjured him: sweet Necton, no taller than herself, the sunny gold of his hair utterly unlike her Dúnedain kin. When her elder sister Minuial, mistress of the hall once Mother died, was again displeased with her ignoble want of stature or clumsy needlework or neglect of finery, Necton could always turn her rage or tears into laughter. If Halladan had been at home, may be she would not have been driven to such a refuge . . . but he had been abroad in the Chieftain's service, earning his right to inherit, and her father too much occupied with lordship to see, let alone check, the unkindness of her siblings.
If . . . . If Mother had not died; if Minuial had not been soured by Dírhavel's rejection; if Brassar's temper had not been ungovernable—
"Why did you not marry him?"
Never, it seemed, could she satisfy her high-minded folk. "My younger brother killed him." Brassar had happened upon them in their bower; the wonder was that he had not put them both to the sword where they lay. Would that not have been less cruel? "I was told—" repeatedly, continually "—that my father exiled him for dishonoring me, but it was not so. Only when Narwen was on her deathbed and my father in his grave did I learn the truth." Bitter, that those two, chief among the few she loved, had lied to her; bitter as the tisane her grandmother had given her when she was distraught with shame and separation from her swain. It had not been grief that made her ill, but pennyroyal, whose uses she did not learn till long after, their assurance that she would bear no half-blood bastards to put off a proper suitor.
So she had nothing of Necton save memories, of a time too brief. Doomed to brevity, it was true—he had been a few years older than Canand—but who else would recall him now, a simple cottar-lad? Did even his kin remember him, wherever the raugs had driven them? She could not but weep, slow, hot tears of anger and regret and grief, undimmed by years, and once she began, she could not stop.
At some point Dírmaen drew her to him, cradling her as though she were an inconsolable child, hushing softly in her ear and rocking her in his arms.
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White foods: dairy products.
Cancerwort (also herb-robert, Geranium robertianum): a plant prized for its medicinal uses and ability to repel insects.
Gerle: a yearling roebuck.
Charlock (also wild mustard; Sinapsis arvensis): a weedy plant eaten as a green when young.
Sourock (also sorrel; Rumex acetosa): a versatile plant eaten as a green, with a sharp, acid taste.
"white caps of Lothron": St. George's mushrooms (Calocybe gambosa), one of the few edible fungi to be found in spring. Their name comes from their habit of reliably appearing on or around St. George's Day (April 23), which by my estimation is very nearly the first day of Lothron.
Dog-rose (also brier or briar-rose, Rosa canina): a common wild rose used medicinally and for dyeing. The label "dog" signifies it has no scent.
Gean (also wild cherry, Prunus avium): a small woodland tree valued for its fruit (if it can be harvested before the birds get it) and its wood.
Reedmace (also cattail, bulrush; Typha latifolia): a waterside plant used for basketry; its roots are also edible.
Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus): a crested plover noted for the female's practice of luring predators from her nest by pretending to have a broken wing. Its name in Greek is "luring on deceitfully."
Tiercel: a male falcon. Tiercels are smaller and weaker than females.
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