The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Hand to Hand: 29. Times That Try
A thing moderately good is not so good as it ought to be. Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.
—Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man
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Veylin pressed his thumb into the bone-deep ache above his knee and shut his eyes briefly before asking, "How many beasts are mired this time?"
So it had been, all the way from Sulûnduban. Haust, that dull fellow—what else could be expected from one who found joy in lead?—could not manage his train of ponies. There had not been a day when two or three did not stray from the track into some bog. Veylin began to think it one of those diabolic pony tricks: a way to rid themselves, if only briefly, of their heavy burdens.
"Two," Thyrð reported, the jut of his fiery beard boding ill for the welcome Haust's prentices would find in the hall. "Can we not leave them, now that we are so near Gunduzahar, and send Sannir and Hogga to dig them out? Or fetch the lead home with some of our own beasts, and leave these here to feed the crows?"
"Do not tempt me," Veylin grumbled, shifting vainly for a better seat. What should have been a journey of four days had stretched beyond a week with such ineptitude. "Lend me a hand out of this infernal saddle. Haust's lads can unlade the creatures themselves this time, to pay for their bungling."
His nephew's clasped hands as a step and shoulder for security eased the way down, and once his boots were on earth, Veylin gazed towards the flat-topped mount that sheltered Gunduzahar. It was little more than a league distant. Perhaps he would walk. A glance back the way they had come showed Haust and his prentices arguing atop a hummock near the unfortunate and sullen-looking ponies, hock-deep in the deceptively green bog. If he left them now, he would certainly reach the doors first, halt though he was.
His own mount snorted, a sound rich in contempt, and lowered its coppery head to crop the tussocky grass with sensible industry.
"We will miss dinner," Thyrð muttered.
Veylin drew his sturdy blackthorn stick from its place behind the saddle. "I fear so."
Just above Gunduzahar's roof hung the moon's last quarter, pallid in the blue sky: the sea would be falling now, but the tides moderate, exposing little of the opal dyke. Even so, he would get back on his pony this moment and ride to survey it, if that were not madness in broad daylight with strangers to hand. He must be patient. The dark of middle night was more discreet, though the sea more ominous then, only the white teeth of its waves showing in the lamplight . . . but to visit the dyke without working was also unwise, increasing the risk of its discovery. In a week, when the moon was hid, the sea would fall lowest during the long twilight dawns and dusks. If the weather was unfavorable then, wind warping the tides, he could wait until the full, and try with better light at moonrise and set. When the next new moon came, however, he must be on his way to Sulûnduban.
Blowing through his whiskers, he stumped down the slight rise towards the mired beasts to stir Haust and his blockheads to greater activity, only to be brought up short by a Man's cry of "Greetings, Master Veylin!"
By Mahal, it was Dírmaen, standing on the crest of one of the many ridges in this disorderly spoil-dump of ground. How long had he been spying on them—disdainful, no doubt, of their bad management? Veylin bowed stiffly. "Greetings, Dírmaen," he called back. "I am surprised to see you. No ill has befallen the folk of Habad, I hope, to keep you here."
Did the Man smile? "No, they are all quite well. The Lady is but a few furlongs off, harvesting roots. I would be glad to fetch her, if you like. Or may I be of other assistance?" He cast a glance towards Haust and his ponies.
Whatever else one could say of this Man, it had to be allowed he was tenacious. Surely this courtesy was in aid of his pursuit of Saelon. "To meet with the Lady is always a pleasure, though perhaps she would not like to be interrupted at her work."
"Shall I ask her?"
"If you wish." It was always a pleasure to see Saelon, though he would rather not be seen with such mortifying companions.
"Very well," Dírmaen said. "I will bring her—or her word—shortly."
As the Ranger strode down off the ridge and out of sight, Haust left off staring and began to shove his way past the rest of his pack-ponies, still tied nose to tail and straggling across the narrow way. "Who was that?"
"One of the Men who dwell at White Cliffs," Veylin said curtly, taking the bridle of Drig's rusty bay. Ten heavily laden ponies in a single string, entrusted to a youngster: had the plumber never been out of the mansion before? "Thyrð, try whether the nearer beast can be drawn to firmer ground without unloading it. We do not want the Lady to see this botch." Or Dírmaen shifting the small but weighty chests. From their heft, he might think they carried gold.
Frowning as they took charge of his beasts without leave, Haust pressed, "And who is this Lady?"
"You have not heard tell of the Lady Saelon of Habad-e-Mindon and Srathen Brethil?" He must be one of the few: between their friendship and the outlandishness of a woman ruling in her own name, she had excited gossip even in Sulûnduban. Once Thyrð had the lead rope of the first mired beast in hand, Veylin walked Drig's bay on, drawing the rest of the ponies away and onto higher ground. "She governs the westernmost of the Men of the West and is a good neighbor to us."
"What ails you, that you stand and watch?" Thyrð growled at his fellow prentices, taking up the slack on the lead rope and setting his feet. "Why do you not get the chests off the other?"
Haust scratched his shaggy brown beard with a dubious look. "Yet she wanders abroad digging roots?"
The elder of Haust's lads, Svart, black brows bristling at Thyrð's temerity, snapped back, "If you like wading through such muck, do it yourself! Drig, go and cut brush to pave the way—if any is to be found in this barren land," he sniffed, glaring at the boggy moor around them. "Why should you want to live where there is not even a decent track, let alone a road?"
Veylin cocked a forbidding brow at his nephew, and Thyrð shut his mouth, putting his anger into a heave on the rope instead. "The Lady is also a master of herbs and devoted to her craft. It is not unusual to find her out prospecting."
"Her menfolk cannot do that for her?"
The thought nearly made Veylin snort, but he would not scorn Gaernath and Halpan before one whose failings could not be excused by youth. Nor diminish Saelon's dignity by telling how few men she had. "Men divide work differently than we do. Fruit and leaf and root fall to women, corn and beasts to men."
In the contest between Thyrð and the pony, the balance of stubbornness began to shift. Neck stretched out and ears back, the beast finally drew up one foot despite the audible sucking of the bog, and came a little nearer solid ground. Thyrð took a fresh grip on the rope and leaned back into his stance.
"Men are very peculiar," Haust dismissed. "If you lame that beast, Thyrð, you must buy it."
"If we were a little nearer Gunduzahar," Thyrð declared hotly, "I would buy all these nags and sell them to the folk of White Cliffs to feed their dogs."
"Fish are cheaper, I am sure."
Many Dwarves found the women of Men shrill, their voices high and strange as birds', but Veylin had never misliked Saelon's mellow tone, even when she sounded this droll. "Hail, Lady!" he greeted her, bowing. "I wish I could say well met, but as you see, all is not well."
She, however, looked very well as she came down from the rise to meet him with a smile, save for a smudge of mud where she had shoved back a flyaway tress and a workmanlike smutching on her skirts. "You shall soon be on your way. That mire is not deep, only soft from the recent rain, and I saw one of your companions chopping bog myrtle a little way off. Hai!" she cheered as Thyrð finally drew the first pony onto the track. "I am sorry I have no ale to offer you, Master Thyrð, after such labor."
"I have some," Dírmaen offered, shrugging off his pack and untying the flap.
Saelon gave him an odd look. "You do?"
"Aye." The Ranger drew out a skin and tossed it down to Thyrð. "Your health, Master."
Catching it neatly, his nephew regarded Dírmaen with narrowed eyes, anger quite quenched by curiosity. "At your service."
"At yours and your family's," the Man answered, very properly.
"Will you not introduce me to your companions?" Saelon pressed, as Veylin stared suspiciously at Dírmaen.
Offended by his interference, Thyrð's impertinence, and the familiarity of the Men, Haust was repulsively reserved and Svart followed his master's example, but Saelon was too well-bred to take notice. Having made her bob and offered her service, she drew off a little to finger consideringly the reddish flowers of some plant. "Your journey was prosperous, I hope," she addressed him.
"I will not complain," Veylin replied, with great forbearance. "And you? Things are well at Habad?"
"Yes, and tolerable in Srathen Brethil. You have just missed Halpan." She moved on to another patch of flowers.
"Shall we help your fellow with the brush he is cutting?" Dírmaen asked as Thyrð capped the aleskin.
Veylin found it impossible not to stare at the Man. Thyrð simply said, "You are too kind."
Yet the Ranger only smiled. "Should I not speed you on your way? No," he added, when Thyrð would return the skin to him. "It is your uncle's."
So it was: the owl mouthpiece, carved of horn, was no Man's work. It was the one he had left with him when last they met. Something very strange was afoot, but Saelon remained silent, lashing the heather with a flowerstalk, watching Dírmaen closely with hooded eyes.
Insensible, Haust harrumphed. "In return for a fee, no doubt."
"That is not our custom, Master," the Man replied coolly, gazing down on him with a hauteur greater than the plumber's. "Though if it is yours to pay, I will not balk you."
Glowering at Veylin, Haust growled, "Come, Svart. Let us see what delays Drig."
"This is too much, Dírmaen," Saelon said, once the two had stomped over the eastward rise.
"You wished them gone, did you not?" There was an ease and familiarity in the Man's manner Veylin had never seen before, and he smiled like one who had drunk deeply. "And Master Thyrð, at least, seemed to want a respite from their company."
Thyrð prudently kept silent. "What is he about?" Veylin asked Saelon bluntly.
She shook her head at the Ranger, though her frown lacked conviction. "I have charged him to be civil to you. Do not make a mockery of it, sir!" she warned.
Dírmaen bowed low. "Pardon me, Masters. I mean no disrespect, but I find it hard to be sober."
He had never been otherwise. "Why so?"
Reaching out, the Man took Saelon's hand. "The Lady has consented to be my wife."
"Dírmaen!" Saelon exclaimed in reproach and with something like anxiety—but she did not deny it, nor free herself from his grasp.
She had found some faith in the Dúnedain, it seemed. "Felicities to you both." Veylin took care to match the Ranger's bow. "When is to be the day?"
Now it was Dírmaen's turn to look disappointed: no doubt he had hoped for astonishment or even dismay to gild his triumph. "Midsummer," Saelon answered. "You will come, will you not?"
Midsummer! Why must everything take place at Midsummer? "Lady—" he regretted such an answer extremely in the face of her suspense "—I would, but my king particularly desires me to keep Midsummer at Sulûnduban."
As he clasped Saelon's hand closer, the Ranger's grave gaze of suspicion, long familiar, returned. Did he think it a mere excuse, that he would slight Saelon from spite towards himself? Why had he ever wished the Man well? He always misunderstood him. Giving way to the burning pain in his knee, Veylin sat down on the nearest boulder and scowled back at the Man, crossing his hands on the head of his stick.
Only to be surprised again. Leaving go Saelon's hand, the Ranger murmured to her, "I will go and refill the waterskin." And go he did, striding back the way they had come without a backward glance.
So, he was magnanimous in victory as well as honorable. That might bode well for Saelon.
"You are displeased," she said quietly.
Veylin gave a huff of a sigh. "By many things at present. Do not take it to yourself."
Saelon came and settled on another rock near to hand. "I am sorry to add to your vexations."
"Who said you did?"
She sat there, mum, plaiting and replaiting her fingers in her lap, and Veylin felt a churl for damping her joy. "When did you plight your troth?" he asked, to turn the conversation from himself.
"A few days ago. You do not like him."
Why would she not leave it be? "No. Though neither do I think any great ill of him. I have met many a worse Man." Indeed, the Ranger was moderate in his mistrust; adverse, but not abusive. It was only in comparison to Saelon and those who followed her that he seemed hostile. "You are, however, the best judge of your own desires."
"He has said that he assured you that he does not believe there has been anything dishonorable between us," Saelon said with deliberate care. "Is that so?"
"It is." Veylin gazed on her with a frown. "You doubt him, yet you will wed?"
"Is there not always some doubt?" she countered. "How can one be certain beforehand?"
Long courtship; the trials of negotiating the marriage settlements, which laid bare not only the tempers of those betrothed but the characters of their kin; the desire that welded one soul to another. Had the sparks these two struck from each other finally kindled to flame?
Yet the lusts of Men were fickle, it was said: vacillating and feeble. Was that any foundation for a lifelong bond? Veylin shook his head. "Your folk are strange to us; our customs are not the same. You must do as you think best."
"We have disagreed, it is true, but his manner is much improved. I like him now very well—his silence suits me."
Did she mean to reconcile him to the match, or to persuade herself? "I am glad to hear it, and wish you both very well." If only for her happiness.
Such tepid commonplaces did not please her. "I would be grieved if this injured our friendship."
"So would I." Yet only time would tell. Those who wed grew alike as time passed: would the Ranger become wiser, or she more narrow in her views?
They sat there for a time in the silence made when there was too much that ought not to be said. Like contemplating a flawed gem, one hesitated to cut it, fearing it would shatter. If she had come to love the Ranger, would she not resent criticism of him? Or, Mahal forefend, should she come to rue her choice, would not her bitterness be compounded by the knowledge that she had spurned his warnings? Friendship fell to ruin on rocks such as these.
Once again, Saelon's courage—or recklessness—was greater than his. "Well," she observed, "we will see. It is only a handfasting, after all."
Veylin frowned at the "only," which sounded far too cavalier for marriage. "A handfasting? What is that?"
"Has no one ever done this save the folk of Srathen Brethil?" Saelon exclaimed with a reassuring flash of anger, more like herself. "It is a trial marriage, the term fixed. Yes, I have doubts. I doubt whether he can bear my temper, and refrain from trying for lordship. He swears he can, but a man so smitten with love will submit to anything. Think of Beren's mad quest!"
Veylin stared, taken aback, stupefied by the contradiction of a trial marriage. To be wedded was to be joined, to make common stock not only one's possessions but one's very self. That was why couples traded their true names, unlocking their souls before giving full admittance to body and mind. How could such things be done on trial? Secrets learned could not be taken back again. Was it not uttermost folly to place oneself so totally in the hands of another without the surety of trust?
At their last meeting, he had asked Dírmaen why he did not trust Saelon's judgment, and now he was the one questioning it. Were not all Men careless of security, or at least prized it less than other things? And Saelon was singular: one who dared spurn society for a score of years and defy the wishes of Elves and Men would not fear to take the path she thought best, even if it were perilous. Nor, if she had plighted her troth, was there wisdom in attempting to dissuade her. He must hope that her shrewdness had not overreached itself. "What is the term?"
"A year and a day."
So brief a time? "That will be a sufficient test?"
"It is generally reckoned so."
Veylin rubbed at an imperfection on his stick with his thumb, wearing it a trifle smoother. Perhaps so, for a Man. A Dwarf would consider it nothing, the barest term for a betrothal even in time of war. Dírmaen had not been able to bear her resistance for so long as a season before abandoning her . . . though he had come back again, timely to her need. Was this gratitude on her part? She was ever wont to overpay, to prove she was not mean. "As I have said, how can I speak on such a matter? Our people are too different. Were you Khuzdul, you would be too young to wed."
That drew a wry smile from her. "Whereas for Men, I am too old."
"Even for Dúnedain?"
"We endure longer," she told him, "and expect more of ourselves—else wise, there is little to choose between us."
What was too old among Men? Dwarves frowned on couples who would not last long enough to see their children wed. He had recently crossed that border himself, which was why many of his own people looked on him with less favor than previously. Not that they did not respect his decision: yet they wished he had chosen otherwise. It was wrong of him, perhaps, to leave them all in Vitnir's care or that of his son, who promised to be little better . . . but he had looked for a woman he could partner with through all the mansions of the West, as far as the Iron Hills.
Gems he could find, in the unlikeliest places, but not a spouse. If Saelon chose to be pragmatic and take a Man who, though flawed, would be of some use, who was he to say that was unwise? Had he not once told Dírmaen that he had never met anyone who needed helpmate more? "Truly, Saelon, I hope you will be very happy. From all I have seen, Dírmaen is a very able Man."
"If only we can keep from quarreling. I hope," she said earnestly, "that his jealousy will cease to vex us, at the least."
Shaking his head, Veylin snorted. Plainly she had never been in the grip of that possessive passion. "Jealousy is rather accounted a virtue among us, so long as one's rights warrant it." Presumably even a trial bond would provide Dírmaen better grounds for resenting Saelon's preference for a Dwarf's counsel. "It shows that one prizes the treasure they have won."
"Treasure," Saelon scoffed. "I am no prize."
On that point, Veylin was sure that he and the Ranger could agree—to disagree.
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