The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Of Like Passion: 3. Woman's Place
I am heaping the bones of the old mother
To build us a hold against the host of the air;
Granite the blood-heat of her youth
Held molten in hot darkness against the heart
Hardened to temper under the feet
Of the ocean cavalry that are maned with snow
And march from the remotest west.
This is the primitive rock, here in the wet
Quarry under the shadow of waves
Whose hollows mouthed the dawn; little house each stone
Baptized from that abysmal font
The sea and secret earth gave bonds to affirm you.
--Robinson Jeffers, "To the House"
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"You have no one to blame but yourself," Bersa scolded, as if their guest were a prentice whose greed had left them on short commons. "If you had kept to your end of the bargain, this would be mead rather than wine."
Veylin was glowering furiously at him, but the Lady only smiled. "I am sorry to have disappointed you, Master—and to be deprived of your mead—but truly, it could not be avoided."
"I think the wine is very good," the red-headed one said, hesitantly.
Rekk glanced Auð's way, eyebrows raised in mute question . . . but his mouth was twitching with hard-held amusement and his eyes bright with mischief.
Folding her arms over her breast, Auð leaned back into the settle between her sons and waited to see how this would play out. In truth, there was much potential for humor here. If the cook did not go back to his saucepans, her brother might break his stick on his fat head; Siggr was still dumb with appalled astonishment, a very satisfactory state of affairs; and the Men looked more ridiculous than dangerous, their seats fitting them so ill.
At least, the menfolk looked ridiculous, the knees of their long, booted legs cocked high. The Lady had drawn her deerskin-slippered feet up under her wine-colored woolen skirts and sat neatly composed in the face of Bersa's temper. Was such assurance careless presumption, or the ease of familiarity? She would not have thought it out of place if this Saelon had been one of Veylin's companions, rather than a woman of alien race. Auð knew not how to judge the fitness of such behavior, never having seen any folk but her own.
Oh, tales she had heard aplenty. Before their courting grew earnest, Thekk had sketched other peoples for her with quick, shrewd strokes on her slate, to shock her and make her laugh. Little Hobbits, who wore their beards on their feet; Elves tall and slender as spears, stylish and perilous. And Men? They had been neither amusing nor elegant: a flabby, besotted publican; a grasping, haughty lordling; a slovenly ploughman, feet clotted with clay. Soft, all said; greedy. Scornful.
Yet Rekk called these threadbare Men allies, and her brother had crafted a jewel fit for a betrothal gift for their Lady.
The tallest, the dark-haired Man—Halpan? Such peculiar names—had topped her by a full pace when they were introduced, and their proportions were odd; long-limbed and lean, stretched like wire. Stranger was the nakedness of their faces. Auð kept wanting to avert her eyes: there was something indecent in such unguarded expressions. But were not beards the mark and pride of the Khazâd? Men did not grow them until they were of full age, she had been told, while Elves had to be ancient indeed to get one . . . and even then, only the men of other races had them. Stroking her own luxuriant whiskers, she frowned. Halpan seemed to be the elder of the menfolk and spoke with more authority, though his face was bald as an egg; Gaernath—the young kinsman the Lady had fearlessly defended—had a ruddy fringe, downy as a babe's, and was plainly a gawky beardling. Thekk had once told her that some Men shaved their beards, to look more like Elves, but that sounded perverse indeed.
Strangest and most unsettling was the Lady's difference in shape and voice from her menfolk, so marked that if Auð had not been told of their kinship, she would have thought her a separate breed. Perhaps that was why she had made no attempt to conceal her sex, though among folk of other race. Or was it only another instance of her dubious daring? A woman who did not scruple to dwell alone might scorn disguise as well.
"You knew the bargain," Bersa growled, unappeased. "How could it not be avoided? You ought to have set the agreed-upon measure aside."
This was trespassing beyond a jest. The Broadbeam was accusing their guest of not honoring a bargain? And not even his own! This was not about the lack of mead, but the frustration of his own voracious hunger for sweetness. Bersa was growing senile, even before his beard whitened.
"So I did, Master Bersa." Despite its high pitch, the Lady's voice was firm, and her spare, bare face, though still civil, unrepentant. "Until my own folk had need of it. It was a sickly winter, particularly among the children, and honey is a part of many remedies."
Sickness: another thing Auð knew by rumor alone; one of the frailties of Men. If children had been threatened, however, it was only to be expected that an agreement with outsiders would go to the wall. Here at last was something womanly about Saelon.
"My brother may find that slight excuse, Lady," Bersi rumbled, casting a louring glance at Bersa, "but I have no complaint."
The cook gave him an ill-served look in return and stomped back off towards the kitchen.
"Some allowance must be made for their recent hardships," Grani observed tolerantly, trying to soothe nettled tempers. Having taken two lambs in return for the carefully packed chest of cups sitting by the door, waiting on their guests' departure, he was in excellent temper himself.
Yet the Lady's mouth grew austere, even as Halpan smiled gratefully at the condescension. Auð knew well the look of those fallen from high estate, that glint of hard-held pride; she had seen it among the Longbeards when they first arrived at Sulûnduban, after thirty years of impoverished wandering. Her gown looked as if it had been turned and altered to fit, but this woman of Men had known better and meant to repair her fortunes.
If all she could spare were a few lambs, however, little wonder that Veylin despaired of ever selling her that striking sea-jewel.
Nordri set down his goblet. "Trifles," he dismissed, echoing Auð's own thought, then turned to the Lady. "A stone here, a bushel there . . . let us talk rather of what you have in abundance." After Auð's kinsmen, he had known these Men longest, and valued them near as much.
"Please," she urged, her quizzical smile plain. "Do you have some need for wrack?"
Everyone, even Veylin, knit their brows and stared. "Wrack?" the mason questioned.
"Alas," the Lady sighed, her smile brightening with what seemed like dry humor. "The weed the sea heaps on the shore."
"The stuff you served us at the Yule feast?" Rekk protested.
Now she chuckled. "No, wrack is the weed you do not eat. We feed it to our crops, but there is plenty and to spare."
With an amused snort, Nordri shook his head strongly. "I was thinking of something more in our province. You know how much I admire the limestone of your cliff. As you can see—" he gestured at the walls around them "—our hall is delved in darker rock than yours. Might we quarry some of your stone to brighten things here? We would not," he hastened to assure her, "take it from the cliff where you dwell, but from the other scarp, across the way."
The Lady gazed around the hall; calculating how much would be required to face it, Auð guessed. When she replied, however, she had grown very sober. "I have no idea what value to place on such a thing . . . and, in all honesty, the cliffs are not mine, not to buy or sell. Though I have long dwelt there, Lindon has claimed the land and wishes us off it. What your own relations with Círdan may be—" she glanced at Veylin "—I do not know. Do as you think best. How could we grudge you the means to make your home fairer?"
Rising, Nordri bowed. "Your scrupulousness does you credit, Lady."
Yes, such candid integrity was praiseworthy in a neighbor and partner in trade; little wonder the men thought so well of her. But it would not hasten the rebuilding of her hoard.
"Are you coming to table?" Bersa roared from the end of the hall. "Or is this great fish to burn black?"
Veylin caught Auð's eye, brows beetled thunderously low. Your friend's brother, she gestured, since Bersi's back was to her. That earned her a grimace before the woman of Men turned to him, one arch brow raised. Veylin rolled his eyes and took his stick from the table beside him. "Shall we dine, Lady? If I recall, you have a fondness for salmon."
Fortunately Bersa was too proud of his reputation to allow ill-humor to mar a meal, for it was a noble fish, like a monstrous trout, with enough rich flesh to feed them all, near thirty filling the long table. The second remove, goose pie thick with truffles, was so toothsome it inclined even Veylin to pardon the Broadbeam. Auð wondered why Bersa should take such pains to feed folk he scorned, until she gathered from the convivial conversation that the Men had hosted many of their people at a sating harvest feast last autumn. He was, it seemed, determined to impress the superiority of Dwarven cookery upon the Lady, who was no novice in the kitchen herself.
Saelon conceded the point after the boar ham and morels, mollifying Bersa by attempting to learn more of truffles from him . . . though the cook appeared to take as much satisfaction from baulking her as the rest of them did from the meal. When the glistening pudding, studded with blackcurrants, and a broad apple tart with cheese had been demolished, and the prentices sent to clear up the kitchen, others made their excuses and rose, pleading work.
Auð huffed into her goblet, as she savored the vintage her brother had brought out to cap the sumptuous meal. Who could do much work, after such a repast? More likely, they would gather to gossip in one of the smaller halls, or in their own chambers, turning the gathering over and over between them, seeking something of advantage in what they had learned of their neighbors.
Only those who knew their guests well, the principals of this venture, lingered over the wine and nuts to confer with their guests: her brother and brother-in-law, Nordri and his son Nyr. And not even all their guests. Gaernath had offered to help the prentices, which impressed her with his manners and industry. He seemed on good if chaffing terms with many of the lads, especially her eldest, who towed the gangling beardling, long arms stacked high with platters, towards the scullery.
Eyeing her, the only newcomer, with uncertainty, Halpan cracked a walnut and said with glaring discretion, "I would like to hear more about what I missed last year."
Rekk snorted and set down his goblet. "You should feel free to speak before Auð, who is near kin, and heard much of you already. What is it you think you were not privy to?"
The Man looked between his Lady and Veylin. "I did not know you two kept such close council."
"Is that not one of the duties of a lord, among Men?" Veylin asked mildly. "To keep counsel with allies and neighbors?"
"From whom else was I to learn aught of Lindon?" the Lady wanted to know.
"Râdbaran?" Halpan suggested, without conviction. Auð wondered who that might be.
"He came too late," the Lady replied coolly, and raised her cup to drink. "And even then, told me little that I had not known when Falathar landed. He did not think I needed to know."
"If we had gone east with them," the Man observed, "you would not have."
Saelon sniffed. "They would have taken Halladan into their counsels and given consideration to his judgment. Am I Lady to our folk, or a dry-nurse?"
"The sons of Elrond did not think you no more than a minder," Rekk assured her.
"I know," she sighed, giving a sardonic smile. "Dwarves . . . even Elves, have given me no cause for complaint, so far as respect is concerned. If anything, you have treated me better than I deserve—especially last summer, when my mood was so black. It is the men of my own race who vex me."
Halpan looked wounded. "Have I ever disputed your authority?" he asked plaintively.
Reaching across the table, the Lady laid a hand on his. "No. Nor is it your fault that youth prevented you from championing me more ably. You would do better now."
Auð carefully schooled her expression to blandness. If Saelon was always this tender with the shortcomings of her menfolk, no wonder they vexed her. She glanced at her own men, wondering if they were so often abroad because they preferred such indulgence.
"You could have done better then," Rekk rumbled, reassuring her. "Where would you be, if Veylin had not upbraided you, to stiffen your resolve?"
Halpan lifted his goblet to Veylin in acknowledgement, grinning, seemingly without shame. "Not here, drinking your good wine."
Her brother chuffed, shaking his head. "You are too easily discouraged, youngster. Rewards—" he paused to take a draught, emphasizing his point "—require perseverance. Still, you have more promise than most Men I have known. Saelon might make something of you yet."
"Dírmaen is a fitter master, I think," the Lady replied, smiling.
Frowning—so many names she did not know—Auð saw this pleased her brother not at all. "Dírmaen is a stalwart fighter, and a Man of honor," he allowed, too respectful for good will, "but I hope you will not take him as a model in all things."
"I cannot," Halpan assured him, rueful regret on his smooth, open face, "so long as you hold my Ranger's star."
Star? This callow youth had been a Man of the Star? And her brother had gotten his badge from him? There were tales here she had not been told.
Veylin turned his cup in his hands. "Was your Chieftain angered by its loss?"
The Man was silent for a few breaths, then shrugged. "It was . . . overlooked. Argonui was glad to hear my plans to encourage our scattered folk to return to Srathen Brethil."
"All of them?" Rekk set the jug down and took up his goblet again.
"I did not say that." Halpan looked to his Lady, who had been watching Veylin thoughtfully through this exchange. "I know Saelon will not willingly leave the sea."
"Maelchon," Saelon pointed out, denying her singularity, "will be loathe to return to the stony soil of our glen, if this year's crop is anything like the last."
"Why," Halpan asked Veylin hesitantly, "do you mistrust Dírmaen?"
Her brother took his time, considering the young Man before he answered. "He is not his own man. He serves another master: one who does not seem to have your best interests at heart . . . and who considers mine not at all. The mistrust is not all on one side."
"No." And Halpan said no more.
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Dírmaen found Saelon more than a league from the cliffs, fingering the buds of an alder and frowning thoughtfully at the ground nearby. For a Lady, she was singularly hard to espy: her undyed homespun blended into the landscape, and her slight stature allowed her to shelter in the stunted scrub of the half-frozen bog like a slim, winter-coated doe. In truth, from a distance, she was easily mistaken for a maiden, or a woman of the Edain.
And she was as vulnerable, her adamant Dúnedain temper and keen-edged dwarf-knife notwithstanding. "What brings you so far from the hall, Lady? Is there not ample alder along the stream at Habad-e-Mindon?"
"More than ample," she agreed, looking around in surprise. "Is anything amiss at home?"
"No," he assured her, then came to his point. "You should not stray so far." What might have crept up on her, if she had not been aware of him when he was not trying to be silent?
Her lips quirked in amusement and she gave a mild snort. "This is not far. How am I to replenish my store of herbs, sitting douce in the hall?" When he frowned at her easy dismissal of the danger, she set a fist on her hip and sighed. "Dírmaen, I have roamed this country for more than a score of years. I will not come to grief here."
So she had . . . and by some blessing, perhaps that of the Elves whose lands these were, found no ill. After what she had suffered of late, however, she ought not to be so assured. "These lands are not as empty as they were. You should not rove alone." Wise she was, in many ways, but in this she was a fool.
Indeed, she laughed at his concern, a bright sound like the clap of a bell. "No, they are not, more's the pity! I cannot escape you all even here, on a frosty bog."
"You would flee from your people?"
"I did," she said, "but they followed me." He never knew how to take her, when she spoke in that sardonic tone. "Oh, do not look so grave, Dírmaen. Surely I am allowed some respite. How can a body think, mewed with folk who chatter like finches? You can hardly hear the sea from the cliff-foot anymore."
"You cannot hear the sea here, Lady," he pointed out.
"No, but you would hear the murmur of water moving under the frost, if you would be silent for a while. And I might recall whether this is where the orchids bloom."
The wind whispering over the land he could hear, and the lonesome cry of an unmated curlew; far off, the yelping of geese, gathering in their squadrons, preparing for departure. Where did they go? North, beyond his ken. "I hear no water. How should I? What is not mired in moss is frozen fast."
From her look and her sigh, he had disappointed her. "What is your errand here, Dírmaen?"
"To guard you, Lady."
"And if I do not wish to be guarded?" Eyes perilously bright, she held her head high, though it was still a span below his. So a wren might face a jackdaw too near its nest.
"Why would you not wish to be kept safe?" Most women would have been flattered by such an attention.
"I have kept myself safe so well for so long that my brother sent his children and followers into my protection," she declared, almost fiercely. "The helm is the symbol of my office, not armor against frailty, or I would wear it. Why should our best huntsman and warrior trail after me like a hound, when he might be useful elsewhere?"
Dírmaen did not understand how anyone in possession of their wits could turn their back on their kin and seek solitude. He had spent much time alone or among strangers, in the course of his duty, and even so quiet a man as he found the lonesomeness a sore trial. Having first met Saelon when she had long been overburdened with caring for her folk, he had been willing to give some credence to whispered tales of sea-madness or the self-loathing of shame; yet over the winter he had come to know her better, and found her one of the sanest people of his acquaintance.
Save for her fondness for walking the strand before the gales quite died, and this habit of tramping about the countryside uncompanioned. She could not think so meanly of herself; she did not. As a healer alone, she was too valuable to risk.
Though there might be a purpose behind her wishing to be out from under his eye, rather than a whim. Saelon had gone riding with Halpan and Gaernath yesterday and returned late. This morning, when asked, Halpan told some facile tale of how she chafed in the confinement of the hall and they had given her an outing . . . yet Unagh said she had worn her good gown. Where would she have worn that, save to see the Dwarves? Dírmaen supposed he should be grateful she had taken her kinsmen with her.
But he was not. "I did not mean to offend, Lady," he apologized, bowing stiffly. "Yet as a Ranger, I beg you to reconsider. I only ask that you take a companion. It need not be me." He would have thought he had earned some trust by now, having been with them nearly a year; but she preferred the counsel of Veylin to that of the Dúnedain.
"I will do as I think best," she said curtly, drawing her cloak more closely about her.
"Then I will leave you to your simples." If only he could be sure that she did as she thought, and not as the Dwarf thought, he would have been less discontent as he walked back the way he came.
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"growing senile, even before his beard whitened": Bersa is elderly, at 225 years old. Dwarvish aging patterns are not like those of Men; once they reach physical maturity around 40, they remain in their prime well past their two-hundredth year. In prosperous circumstances, many Dwarves—like Bersa—grow obese around 200 years of age. Otherwise they show no signs of age until around 240, at which point they decline fairly rapidly—wrinkling skin, hair going white (they never go bald)—and die around 250. These figures are for Longbeards, who are somewhat longer-lived than Dwarves of other kindreds. It is rare for a Dwarf to live past 300 (HoME XII: The Peoples of Middle-Earth, p. 284–5).
Wrack: dried seaweed, or a particular variety of brown seaweed (Fucus sp.). The word is similar to Khuzdul Rakhâs, "Orcs," which is undoubtedly why they all look so bemused.
Truffles (Tuber sp.): the underground fruiting body of fungi, considered a great delicacy (some sell for more than their weight in gold). One suspects that Dwarves discovered them. These would be black winter truffles (Tuber melanosporum), the most pungent variety.
Morels (Morchella sp.): an edible wild mushroom; these are common morels (Morchella esculenta), which have a honeycombed cap.
Pudding: this is a steamed suet pudding, not the cornstarch-based stuff you buy in a little box and mix with milk (which is technically a kind of blancmange).
Blackcurrants (Ribes nigrum): the fruit of this shrub is very high in vitamin C, and was traditionally associated with longevity. In Britain, this is the standard "purple" flavor, as grape is in North America.
Dry-nurse: one who cares for infants, but does not breast-feed them.
Doe: a female deer, usually referring to the fallow deer (Cervus dama), which is smaller than the red deer.
Adamant: ancient name for a impenetrably hard stone, usually considered to be diamond.
Mewed: a mews is a building where falcons and hawks are kept.
Curlew (Numenius arquata): a wading bird with a long, curving bill that nests on rough grassland and boggy moors in spring.
Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes): a small brown bird, so pert and bold that it was sometimes called the king of the birds.
Jackdaw (Corvus monedula): a small crow with a grey body and distinctive pale grey eyes.
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