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The Dûnhebaid Cycle

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Hand to Hand: 32. Hand to Hand

Yet I would not have all yet,
Hee that hath all can have no more,
And since my love doth every day admit
New growth, thou shouldst have new rewards in store;
Thou canst not every day give me thy heart,
If thou canst give it, then thou never gavest it:
Loves riddles are


—John Donne, "Lovers infinitenesse"


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"Wait," Randir commanded, putting out his arm to bar the door.


Dírmaen scowled at the tiresomeness of his friend.  Voices were raised in the hall: women's voices, Rian's above all.  "No!  You may not!  Not today!  All is in hand, and Fransag will be here shortly, should I need help.  You are not to worry yourself with such things."


Saelon answered, too low for him to catch the words, but there was no mistaking the tone.  Mad.  He was mad, to be taking this woman.


"Whatever you please, so long as it is not work and you keep away from Dírmaen until midday," Rian came back, undaunted.  "Go to the sea, if that will soothe you!  Or to the hidden pool.  But return in time for Muirne to put up your hair!"


Meeting Randir's look of amused pity, Dírmaen muttered, "You two are enjoying this."


"Helping our friend and our kinswoman to happiness?  Who would not enjoy such a charge?"


"There is no call for this foolishness.  This is not a wedding."  What other nonsense would they subject them to?  Bad enough that he had found an all-too-willing Murdag in his bed last night, insistent on teaching him a husband's duties.


"If Saelon is kind, it will be.  Would you tempt fate by neglecting the customary rites?"


"I do not think fate cares one way or the other."


Randir laughed.  "Confess!  You would have Saelon as Beren had Luthien, if you dared, wandering together in the wild heedless."


"Who spoke of tempting fate just now?" Dírmaen said, very sharp.


"There is no fell father to forbid," Randir dismissed.  "Stay, while I see if your lady has gone."


"She is not mine yet—and may never be, if you try her temper too much!"  Randir did not hear, putting his head out the chamber door to speak with Rian.  Dírmaen blew out a vexed breath.  If this was what good will inflicted, perhaps they would have done better to take each other under a may-bush.


Such thoughts stirred things prematurely.  Never had he felt this restless, keen and anxious together, save in the dawning dark before his first battle.  Maybe he should not have sent Murdag away so peremptorily.


"All clear," Randir reported, grinning, and held the door for him.


"Good morning, Dírmaen," Rian greeted him, with a smile that must be turning Randir's bones to water.  The graciousness she had not given her aunt was all for him, it seemed.  "A most blessed Loëndë to you!  Can we give you a good breakfast, or will you save your appetite for the feast?"


"And a very fair Loëndë to you, Rian.  Whichever you please; I would not add to your work."


She laughed at him and gestured towards the end of the board that was not cluttered with bowls and joints waiting to be barded and trussed.  "Sit, please!  Muirne, we can spare an egg from the baking, and there are rashers hid under the pot lid—just put them to the griddle to rewarm them."


Then she darted to her chest, which sat by the chamber that had been Finean's.  Once again folk were being shuffled about: Rian would move back in with Unagh, and Finean and Canand would join Randir and Gaernath so he and Saelon would have her chamber to themselves, as they did when he was fevered.  Throwing open the lid, the young Dúnadaenth drew out a bundle of cloth and brought it to him.  "I hope you will be very happy," she prayed, pressing it into his hands, then set a swift kiss on his cheek.


Dírmaen stared at her in astonishment.  "Lady, what is this?"


There was the prettiest flush on her cheek, and the sight of Randir's jealousy was a revenge he could relish.  "A bridal gift, I suppose, or I will hope so.  I should be glad to call you uncle."


Even though Dírmaen kissed her hand, such words soothed her swain.  "Thank you, lady."  Unfolding the bundle, he found a shirt and breeches of clear grey, plain but very well cut.  "There was no need for you to go to such trouble."  She had been toiling over Saelon's dress, he knew, though they had taken care that he did not see it.


"I will not have Saelon finer than you," she declared, and went back to the hearth to hurry his breakfast.


So his morning went, a mix of good-natured wit and kindness that went to his heart.  He had not known these folk thought so well of him.  Like Saelon, he was not allowed to lift a useful hand: Gaernath had taken his patrol, riding out before dawn to be sure of returning in time to witness the handfasting, and Hanadan blacked his belts and boots with great care and Artan's help.  Teig, that simple man, more at ease with his dogs than his fellows, put the leashes of a pair of hart-hounds in his hand without a word, while Airil begged him to take a seat beside him in the warmth of the sun, on the edge of the cliff-shelf where the busy women did not come.  There the cottar gave him a great deal of earnest advice on the management of a wife.  Out of respect to the gaffer's grey hair—he was the only man older than Dírmaen here save Canand, who still sought a wife—he listened attentively, even when Airil assured him that a woman wanted beating once and a while to be sure of her husband's care.


"Beat the Lady," Finean scoffed, coming over to them from where he and Leod were setting out the boards for the feast.  "You did not see the reiver she bled like a pig.  The lads say she is returning, sir," he warned Dírmaen.  "You had best make yourself scarce until she is within."


"Thank you, Finean."


When they had gone a few paces together, the grizzled cottar murmured, "I have seen to Mada, sir.  All will be as you asked."


Clapping Finean on the shoulder, Dírmaen took himself off towards the steep path that led to the tumbled ruin of the tower.  That should be far enough out of the way for a little peace, and he would like to look down on the track that led from the cliff over the ridge to the shore beyond during the light of day.


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Saelon sat on her kist, trying not to fidget as Muirne tucked roses into her braid-crowned hair.  Her hand kept straying to her neckline, which Rian had cut lower than she liked.  Not that it was very low, yet—


"Will you wear your sea-jewel, Lady?" Muirne asked, surveying her handiwork and reaching for another rose.  They had found some that were only touched with pink, which went very well with the silvery willow-green of her gown; more were twined in the boughs of blooming rowan and elder that festooned the chamber.


A deep bed of heather, both long and wide, had also been laid while she was bathing, and Saelon eyed the pale linen upon it with trepidation.  "No.  Master Veylin and Dírmaen are not friends."


"Surely Dírmaen does not believe the wicked things Lis said!" Muirne exclaimed, hand and rose poised.


"No, but you know what men are like."  And women.  She and Dírmaen must remember to counterfeit the stain the sheets ought to bear before morning.


Smiling, the young woman twined the rose in with a cluster of others at her temple.  "I have been fortunate.  Artan is a dear, always loving and patient with my faults."


Saelon could not help but return her smile.  Though they were two years wed and had two lusty weans, the couple were still winsome as sweethearts.  "Bless you, lass, your only fault is shyness, and I never heard a husband complain of that."


Muirne colored up prettily, pinker than the roses.  "I am timid," she agreed.  "Suffering strikes all around me, and I cannot help thinking it is only a matter of time before it finds me."


"Do not believe such things!" Saelon protested, taking her hand.  "If there is any justice in the world, we have had our full share of woe and the wheel turns now in our favor."


"Is that why you are so brave?" Muirne murmured, as if taking a great liberty.  "You believe the god over the water is just?"


"Brave?  I am not brave, lass."  Otherwise her stomach would not be in such a knot.  She did not even have the excuse of dreading the loss of her maidenhead!  "Only cussed."  She cocked an eye at her.  "Why do you think I get on well with Dwarves?"


Muirne threw up a hand to muffle her laugh as the door opened.  Rian, in a kirtle of fresh green and with a wreath of sunny buttercups on her dark hair, came to consider Saelon with a critical eye.  "There now!  That should ravish him.  Even Mother could have found no fault with you."


Saelon snorted and dabbed at the bunch of roses, uncertain that they were secure enough for dancing.  "If it were not for the raugs, my handfasting might have been the death of her."


Rian huffed in exasperation and rolled her eyes.  "Insufferable woman!  If it were not for the raugs, you should never have met Dírmaen.  Come, Muirne—let us take her out to him so he can mend her bitterness with mead and kisses."


Mead and kisses might lead to regret as well as repair . . . but it was too late to balk now, after Rian and the others had gone to so much trouble.  "If he can cure that," she sniffed, rising with dignity, "I will acknowledge him as my master."


As they came out into the hall, Unagh hastened to take the griddles from the fire, wiping her hands on her apron before snatching it off and hurrying after them.  Everyone else was already outside, and as Saelon stepped out of the cliff's slender shadow, their eyes smote her.


Unaccountable, when she had dared fleer at Círdan's court, but the fixed regard of her own assembled folk struck the breath from her body.  Mute, she sank in a deep curtsey . . . and when she looked up at their murmur of approbation, there was Dírmaen.


He was like a living blade: long and lean in the simplicity of steel-grey; a plain man, but a very noble one, and the shining of his eyes was the light of the West.


Slowly, he stretched out his open hand to her . . . and she went to him and laid her hand in his.  Lightly he clasped it, lifting it to his lips, and though the day was warm, his breath scalded her skin before it was brushed by the tenderness of his kiss.  Then, turning her hand over, he buried his face in it, repeating the salute more fervently on her palm.


Sliding her hand up his clean-cut cheek, she drew him down to her.


After a time, Maelchon called in his bull's voice, "Well, that seems plain enough, but we must hear some oath if we are attest to it."


As one, they both turned their faces to him.  "Is it midday?" Saelon asked, ignoring the sniggering and smirks about them.


The grinning husbandman squinted skyward.  "Near enough," he judged.


"Get on, Lady!" Airil demanded querulously.  "Fransag will nae let us drink until we've pledged your health!"


"Fransag," Saelon reproached, this being taken as license for open mirth.


Though she beamed on the pair of them as benevolently as her husband, the goodwife's eyes were knowing.  "On with you, woman.  How much longer d'ye expect the man to wait?"


Why Rian bothered to give them an appearance of dignity when they were to be treated with such irreverence, Saelon did not know.  "Very well," she huffed, lips quirking, and looked back at Dírmaen.  Her vision of the high Man of the West was dispelled, but the ardor of his kisses had driven off the cold uncertainty coiled in her belly as the sun burned away a mazing mist.  "Give me your hand, sir."  Let her have her desire and learn how imprudent it was.  "Dírmaen son of Dûnthand of Gellnen, I make this vow before these good folk and the One above all: lady and wife I will be to you, for a year and a day."


Such a grip he had!  "Saelon, Lady of Habad-e-Mindon and Srathen Brethil, I vow likewise: husband and defender I shall be to you, for as long as you will have me."


Those were not the exact words they had agreed upon, yet the hazard was all his.  "The One bless us and keep us."


"May it be so."


This time their kiss was not surrounded by silence.


Maelchon came forward with two cups.  "The gods give you joy," he said in hearty benediction, placing one in their joined hands, then turned to those thronging about them.  "Health to Lady Saelon and her husband!"


"Health!" rang off the bright stone of the sun-struck cliff.


Dírmaen gave her the cup first, then drank deep before kissing her again, his mouth all the sweeter for the mead.  Husband: aye, he was hers now, and if it were not Loëndë and her favorite dishes on the board, she would wish all these good people away and feast on him.


"Now that you have tasted the sweet," Maelchon pronounced, with a gravity absent from his face, "you must feel the restraint.  Clasp hands—no, your left hand to her right," he corrected Dírmaen, who was reluctant to change and looked on the bearded husbandman, bemused.


Leaving him the cup, Saelon took his near hand, twining her fingers in his.


"What is this?"  So swiftly the Ranger, glaring at the braided cord of leather in Maelchon's hand.


"You are handfast, sir," was the phlegmatic answer.  Used to binding beasts, the husbandman's blunt fingers were swift and sure, setting loops about their wrists as if hobbling a horse.  "It is part of the rite.  Fast find, fast bind."


"No one told me of this," Dírmaen muttered, still nettled.


Ambling up, jack in hand, Finean observed, "He does not sound very willing, Lady.  Are you sure you know your mind?  These high-bred chargers can be rumbustious."


"Why d'ye think she takes him on trial?"  Fransag came and leaned back into her husband's arms with saucy complacence.  "Mind the womman, noo," she advised Dírmaen, "or it mebbe long till you have both hands agane."


"I must please my lady to be freed?"


"Freed," Finean scoffed, as many around them burst out in rude laughter.  "We will hope you please her!" Murdag shrilled.


Saelon's face burned, for custom required their wrists to be bound until they had coupled themselves by the conjugal tie.  Had the men not told him this, and of the curse, should they cheat them of their fun?  The awkwardness it made was part of the merriment of a handfasting, more coarse and sportive than a wedding.  The Edain were earthy folk.  She had been prepared to endure the unpleasantness in return for its fixed term, but if this galled Dírmaen to ill humour, they might steal away between feast and dancing . . . though the ribaldry on their return would be unrelenting, and neither would ever again be allowed to lay claim to restraint.


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Dírmaen came down on the bench with a thump as Saelon fell against his breast, alternately gasping and giggling.  His head swam, but whether it was from the exertion of the last dance—Saelon's favorite, where they swung as dizzyingly as courting eagles—the mead, or her lively, maddening weight on his lap, he could not begin to tell.  Directly beneath his nose, another of the disheveled roses was losing its petals, so he let his head sag lower to breathe in her own scent, nuzzling the bewitching place beneath her ear and wrapping his free arm over her bound one to hitch her into a slightly less tormenting position.


She giggled a little more coherently and arched her neck back to capture his lips.  This brought his left hand high beneath her breast, and it took all the will he had remaining to resist the urge to take one of those sweet mounds into his hand.  Soon.  Very soon.  But not now; not here, before all her folk.  Once he began, he did not trust himself to stop until he was spent.


"Mead!" Saelon called, panting afresh once she had released him and fanning herself with her free hand.


Randir set a cup in her hand, and she drank thirstily, but when she offered it to him, Dírmaen shut his mouth and shook his still-giddy head.  Joviality had not disguised the look of calculation in his friend's eye.  The sky was as dark as it would be on this shortest of nights, when dusk ran into dawn; the children were all abed in Rian's chamber or tumbled like exhausted puppies in the shadows cast by the reduced bonfire . . . only the youths were unwearied, and even they half-stupefied by drink.  The last and lewdest ceremony remained, and would not be long delayed . . . yet Dírmaen was determined to escape it if he could.


If they could.


Unless Finean was false, Mada stood saddled and bridled at the head of the track, a shadow among shadows.  To flee would have been a frivol, petty even by a lad's standards save for his own drunkenness and his lady's.  He had taken that into account.  But he had not known he would only have one free hand, and Saelon likewise.  However were they to mount, swiftly?  He should not have drunk so much of that sweetly insidious mead . . . yet it was hard to gauge, when sharing a cup.


Nor was Saelon much help, for though she sat quiet now, cuddled close and dreamily watching Rian whirl away from Randir into the curve of Artan's arm, her free hand trailed idly along his thigh, a wonderful distraction.


Across the fire, Murdag leaned nearer Fransag and spoke, then looked their way with vixen's eyes.  Was she suggesting he was so pithless more drink would unman him, or Saelon nearing insensibility, and urging their bedding?  If there was any malice in this blithe company, it was there.  Defender, he had sworn—and clasped Saelon close: he must prevent!


With a little grunt, Saelon shifted in his arms.  "Not so tight, love," she murmured.  "Or let us go to the whinnie bush."


Advantage loomed like a hedge in the mist.  "Not the whin," he said in her ear.  "Leod just went that way.  Let us go behind the hurdles of your garden."  It was perhaps the only excuse that would let them escape their watchers, even briefly.


She nodded mutely and swayed when he set her on her feet, but was steady enough as they walked into the moonless darkness, if they went slow.  Yes, Mada was there; Dírmaen heard him snuff and shuffle, and sensed the lift of his head in the gloom.  The horse, at least, was ready.


He let Saelon squat first, beneath the cover of her skirts, then, as they had worked out earlier with provoking amusement on her part, she lent a hand with his belt and breeks.  Now, however, she simply stood, keeping them from the ground and staring blankly into the night.  "They will take us to our bed soon," he said, low.


"Yes."


"What is done, when couples are bound?  At home, the women ready the bride and put her to bed before the men bring in the groom.  Surely they will not strip us both before all!"


"No," she answered, stirring herself.  "They could not, while we are tied.  They will put us in our chamber, I suppose, then listen at the door."


Not so bad as he feared, yet bad enough.  "Is that what you wish?" he asked, rebuckling.


"No.  Yes."  The hand bound to his turned to stroke him, and the other sought to bow his head.  "When the door is shut, I will not care."


He would not care either, until he must open the door and face those without.  If it were only Randir and their own kin, he would not mind so much . . . but how were they to rule the Edain if they did not keep some dignity?  "Let me steal you away," he begged, with the urgency roused by her kiss, "to a hidden bower.  There we can do as we will, free of all restraint.  Mada stands ready—come!"


Only starlight and the creeping pallor of foredawn limned her face, obscuring more than it showed.  Was that a gleam in her eye?  "Where?" she breathed, with a throaty laugh.


Taking her hand, he pulled her after him.  She stumbled, but did not fall; a few strides brought him to Mada's head, and he jerked free the tether.  Instinct sent his hands to the girth: loose.  Finean was trustworthy, but only to a point.  "Randir looks this way," Saelon hissed, as he heaved it tight.


"When I lift you," he told her, "put your leg over, and sit forward."


Though small, she was not light, and they nearly came to disaster as his still-weakened left arm hitched, but she got her heel across and levered herself into the saddle.  Mada snorted, sidling a step.


"Hai!" Randir shouted, as he grasped the saddle bow.  "They flee!"


Too late.  Stirrup, and spring—  Saelon shrieked as Mada surged forward, pitching onto the breakneck track, and they plunged downwards, her peoples' bereft cries echoing vainly behind them.


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Notes


Barded: covering lean meat with strips of fat or bacon to keep it from drying out during cooking.


Bridal gift: a gift given, by a bride or her kin, to the bridegroom on the occasion of their wedding.  (Among the Noldor, the bride's mother gave the gift; as in other matters, the Dúnedain may echo Elvish practices.  Rian is Saelon's nearest surviving female kin.)  Saelon's insistence on a handfasting is causing confusion, as people try to give it the formality they feel her station deserves.


Hart-hounds: running-hounds bred and trained to hunt red deer; think of something like Scottish deerhounds.


Elder (Sambucus nigra): a shrub with white flowers and edible berries; it has many medicinal and practical uses and, like rowan and may, was considered a defense against supernatural evil.


"the stain the sheets ought to bear": in patrilineal cultures it is not uncommon for the bloodied sheets of a bridal bed to be formally inspected by the groom's kinswomen or even triumphally displayed to the entire wedding party as proof of a bride's virginity.


"god over the water": Classical sources tell us ancient Britons believed that in a land far to the west slept a powerful god who had been deposed by his junior.


"Fast find, fast bind": a traditional proverb.  Here, fast does not mean "swift" but "firm, constant," as it does in fasten, steadfast, and fast asleep . . . yet the "swift" meaning is almost as old, leaving latitude for wit.


"swung as dizzyingly as courting eagles": as part of their mating rituals, some eagles clasp talons in mid-air and spin around and around as they fall together.


Whinnie bush: whin or gorse.  For details, see Whin in the Dûnhebaid Dictionary.



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Last Update: 13 Dec 08
Stories: 5
Type: Author List
Created By: Adaneth


Dúnedain and Dwarves--and oh, yes, some Elves--on the northwest shore of Middle-Earth, not quite a century before adventures first befall Bilbo. Rampant Subcreation and Niggling in the margins. The ever-lengthening saga, in order.

Why This Story?

Dûnhebaid V: the romantic and political ramifications continue . . . .

 

Story Information

Author: Adaneth

Status: General

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - The Stewards

Genre: Drama

Rating: Adult

Last Updated: 03/24/11

Original Post: 11/28/08

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