The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Hand to Hand: 34. Like Him That Travels
The day after that wedding night I found that a distance of a thousand miles, abyss and discovery and irremediable metamorphosis, separated me from the day before.
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Shaking her skirts into order, Saelon watched her shirtless husband saddle his horse with warm satisfaction. Tormented as she had been by long-denied desire these weeks since she spied him in the pool, she had sought no more than honorable relief from the hunger his comeliness and dogged passion had finally roused. Delight she had not expected; or at least not so much as he had given her. Tender as she felt within, she was already anticipating the night, when she would have him in her own bed.
It was true, it seemed, that appetite grew with feeding.
"Do you not have a comb?" Dírmaen asked as she raked her fingers through her wild hair, trying to smooth it enough to braid.
"No. Someone stole me away, leaving me no more than the clothes upon my body." Yet that was more arch than reproach. Indeed, she found it difficult to remember any grave dissatisfaction with him. They had quarreled, yes; and he had vexed her, often . . . but what was that? He had never truly baulked her will.
Or perhaps she was still giddy from last night's mead, though she had drunk nothing but water and his kisses since before the early dawn. No; if she were drunk, it must be on his love.
"Here," he offered. "You can have mine." Drawing it from the pouch at his belt, he hesitated, then asked, "Or may I dress your hair?"
Saelon laughed. "If you can manage half so well as you do with the horses' manes, I will be content."
Gesturing her towards a convenient rock seat, Dírmaen gave a soft chuff of dismissal. "Why do you demean yourself so?" he wondered, capturing the ends of her flyaway locks. "You have lovely hair."
"You, sir, seem to be taken by wayward things." She had always found her tresses a trial, but then she did not have the patience to tease out the tangles, at least not as gently as he was doing.
"I like to take care of things. I find it makes them less wayward."
"Hm." If he meant to cozen her, he was making an excellent start. The steady strokes of the comb were likely to lull her back to sleep.
"Do you have any sweet oil among your simples?"
"Of course. Did you not see us boiling hazelnuts last autumn?"
No: he had left by then, fleeing her heartlessness. Saelon bit her careless tongue. "Well, there is plenty. How much would you like?"
"A little will do." His hands ran through her tamed tresses, dividing them. "It will smooth your hair, so it does not tangle easily."
Did he think she did not know that every other woman—? No. Saelon caught herself. There were many things she had lost the habit of, in the long years she was alone; niceties that had not mattered. But she was not alone now, and a wife had a duty to please her husband, at least so long as he pleased her in return . . . and the deft touch of his hands, even in her hair, was very nice. "Would you anoint it?"
He bent to kiss her throat beneath her ear. "Gladly."
"Is there a scent that you like? Aside from rose." What did she have to scent oil? All the violets hereabout were dog violets, and white wood-lilies had been rare even in Srathen Brethil, but there was woodbine and thyme, pine and juniper, heather and sweet gale. Rian used rose, and Muirne woodbine—
"I am not sure I could tell one from another," Dírmaen confessed, with a rueful chuckle. "But you usually have a pleasant scent about you from your herbs."
"If you like any particularly, tell me."
She felt the warmth of his breath before his lips touched her hair. "I will."
When he had done—after some muttering about proper hairpins—he went to retrieve his shirt from the may bush. "Are you ready to go, Lady?"
Lightly touching the filet of braids and knot at her nape, Saelon went to the linn to look at his handiwork. Simple, but neat, and more dignified than her usual braid or bun. "Did you remember your blankets?"
"They are already spread for you."
Saelon saw, now, the folded wool behind the saddle. "Must I ride pillion?"
This was an old quarrel. Dírmaen gazed on her, brows knit. "Why do you dislike it so?"
"Have you ever ridden pillion?"
"Yes, several times."
"No," he allowed, still uncomprehending. "Do you think I would let you fall?"
Her choices, then, were to be fearful or untrusting. "It is not what I think, but what I feel. I am not used to such tall beasts! If you will not let me ride astride, I would rather walk."
Now he looked completely confounded. "You rode pillion and aside behind Gaernath, when we traveled to Mithlond!"
"At your insistence."
"Ladies do not ride astride."
"This is absurd!" Saelon declared, angered by the marring of the day more than his obstinance. She had known his mind. "Who will see me who has any notion that I am a proper woman? Ladies do not take a man by handfasting, either, nor dig their own gardens! Do you think you will mend my reputation with sleek hair and a show of douce propriety?" Fury—bitter disappointment—boiling up, she yanked the wooden pins from her hair and threw them at him, then stalked away, tears starting in her eyes. He did not love her; he loved some dream of her, the lady she might have been if Minuial and Núneth had had their way.
A year and a day? It had hardly been a day.
"Saelon!" he cried, as astonished as distressed. She heard his swift feet; feeling the loom of his height, she rounded to face him. Hands flung wide and open, he stopped dead and dropped to his knees like a poleaxed stirk, with much the same expression. "My love! How else can I show that I honor you before your folk? Tell me, and I will do it. Take the saddle, if you will—I will walk!"
How could one be irate before so beseeching a face? "Fool! Can we not go as we came? If you are determined to make a show, very well—but do not inflict it on me until there is someone to see!"
He still looked very unhappy. Touching a streaming lock of her hair, he asked, "Was this an affliction?"
"No. Oh—" Heart suddenly leaden with remorse, she reached out for him, tears welling afresh. "Forgive me, love, for I cannot help myself."
His arms wrapped warm around her. "Shh." Kissing her softly on the cheek, he murmured, "The fault is mine. I ought to have remembered that you disliked it."
And so they were silent together, while the breeze bent the grass. "Will you do my hair again?" Saelon asked in a small voice, ashamed of the temper that had spoilt his work.
"If you like."
"Please? It looked very well."
The strokes of the comb and gentle touch of his hands were soothing, but did little to assuage her sense of guilt, or the shadow on her heart. They had been so happy—she had been so happy—and then her bitterness had stooped, like a falcon from the cloudless blue.
"There," Dírmaen told her when he had finished, as lightly as though they had not quarreled. "Would you like to look at it in the pool?"
"No. Let's go home."
He was a quiet man, and set her in the saddle without further words; nor did he speak as they rode unhurriedly along the shore. Yet he held her close, and his cheek often rested on her hair.
Oh, why had she taken him, even in handfasting, if only to scathe him? She had warned him, but love had made him heedless. Still, that did not excuse her. He deserved better.
When her breath trembled on the verge of tears, he halted the horse. "Lady . . . what is wrong?"
"Must you call me that?" Saelon cried. "I know you mean no ill, but others have, and I cannot forget it."
"Who?" The sternness of his voice boded ill for anyone she might name, as did the strength of his embrace.
She gave a dry sob of a laugh. "No one you can punish, my champion—they are dead, raug-slain in Srathen Brethil."
The horse stomped, and bit a fly. "That place has grieved you much," Dírmaen observed, low and grave.
"Why do you think I left it?"
"Will you tell me of this trouble as well?"
Saelon shifted in the saddle. "It is paltry—childish, even. And they are dead. I do not want you to think all my kin were unkind."
"No one can doubt that Rian loves you well, or that her father was dear to you."
That tipped her over. "How can they, when I cannot think of him without weeping?" Dashing the quick tears from her cheeks, she twisted to look at her new husband. "Must you have the tale?"
"No." He set the horse to a walk again. "I only wish to know how you have been galled, to avoid pressing the place."
It was not so much a sore as a boil, old foulness that had slumbered long; yet the demands of society had inflamed it, and its eruptions were unpleasant. Lancing might clear it, but it would be squalid.
Squalid, yes; yet there was no real dishonor in it, unlike her connection with Necton. "Very well," she sighed, as they passed the black wall of the Ram. "You know that my mother died when I was still a child."
"And your little brother as well."
"Yes." She had told him that much: plague might strike any. There was no shame in it, especially for a healer who had saved many before being overwhelmed herself. "My sister Minuial, the eldest of us, took up her duties with pride—indeed, she welcomed the chance to display her abilities, for she had just reached marriageable age. Father did not stint her of opportunity: many Dúnedain came to hunt with him and our brothers in those years . . . yet none asked for Minuial's hand."
"How can I say? I was a child. But Minuial's excellence was exacting, and I often displeased her. I did not care for the finery she dressed me in, as if I were a doll, nor did I show a proper delight in needlework. When I escaped to my grandmother's, and came back dirty and scratched from collecting herbs, she would berate me for being a hoyden and pile extra mending into my basket."
"In vain, it seems," Dírmaen murmured, nuzzling her ear, "since you are still a hoyden. Did your grandmother take your part?"
Did he like her wildness, or did he not? He seemed not to know his own mind. "It did not help, and she was too wise to make matters worse. Especially as it became clear that I would never be tall."
"Why should she be so careful of that?"
The question itself was too careful, and she could feel the tension in his stillness behind her. "Have you never had doubts of my parentage?"
"Surely your own sister did not!"
"I do not know—but she found it easy to blame men's reluctance to close with her on their misgivings." How could a woman flaunt her high breeding if her sister looked like she had been sired by one of the Edain? "Since I did not look like a lady and would not behave like one, she must be a spinster." As in many things, Brassar had been quick to follow Minuial's lead, disparaging her for the shadow her want of height cast on their dead mother's honor. Perhaps he had had cause for wrath, when he found her beneath Necton in a field: it must have given substance to whatever doubts were in his own heart.
"Did your father say nothing against this?"
"Who would say such things where he might hear?" Although surely he could not have been ignorant of the aspersions. "And who knows, now, what the truth was? They are all dead. But that is why I mislike 'lady': it was what I must be and could never be, by turns."
Dírmaen did not speak for several furlongs. "I will not think ill of the woman," he decided. "The manner of her death has repaid any cruelty. But surely, love, you cannot have any doubt regarding your mother's virtue. Your longevity alone belies it: you are my elder, and have fewer grey hairs than I do! And did not Círdan hail you as a daughter of the line of Elendil before his people?"
"My mother was of that kin as well."
"Do Elves reckon kinship through the woman, rather than the man?"
"Not that I have heard."
Setting his hand on her cheek, he turned her face and craned his neck, so she could see the forthrightness in his eyes. "Truly, Saelon, you are the noblest woman I have ever met."
What else would a new husband say? "Then I am sorry for your kinswomen, who must be in a piteous state."
He huffed, and took a kiss before setting the wondering horse back in motion. "Obstinate creature! If you are determined to think ill of yourself, wait until tonight, and then I will use you as basely as you could wish."
Reaching down, she caressed his thigh. "I deserve no better." She did not, taking this good man for no reason but to serve her unseasonable lust. Yet she would strive to give satisfaction in return.
So when they reached the tower hill, she let him seat her behind him, to return to Habad in far more dignified state than they had left it. It was not unpleasant to sit with an arm about his waist, gazing out across the evening sea as the horse ambled along the clifftop. "We must stop at Maelchon's," she said. Though they would face the worst ribaldry there, husbandmen's tongues being freer than cottars', it would be uncivil not to accept their compliments, pleasing or otherwise.
Though a thin thread of smoke rose from the louver in the still air, the only greeting they received as they rode into the houseyard was the hopeful thump of Luath's tail, beating in the dust. The unpeopled silence prickled Saelon's nape: it was unnatural, too like the dreadful day when she found the reivers here, though the only horse to be seen was Maelchon's white-footed mare, staring placidly as she stood in the shed. Dírmaen's hand went to his sword as he looked from the open door of the house to the black hound, then around the yard, seeking ill.
The soft sound of a babe's fussing came from within the house, a homely sound.
"That must be Meig," Saelon whispered. Only Murdag and Leod's daughter was so young. But where were her parents? And Maelchon and his family?
"Wait," Dírmaen told her, slipping from the saddle.
And do what, if anything evil was afoot, other than fall off? "No." Sliding down, she hissed, "Give me your knife."
From his expression, she would be told off later—but he passed her the knife.
It was longer than the one Veylin had given her and did not balance so well in her hand, but its weight was reassuring as they moved silently to the door. As Dírmaen leaned to look in, Saelon peered around him.
The cradle stood by the hearth, where a few peats smouldered; cold meats and bannocks, which looked like leftovers from the feast, lay on a bench alongside a pair of jacks. That looked peaceful enough . . . but where were Leod and his wife?
As Dírmaen turned to gaze back towards the shed, brows knit, Saelon slipped past him. A glance in the cradle assured her Meig was well enough: wet or hungry, no worse. Padding to the inner door, she glanced into the ben—and clapped the hand that did not hold the knife over her mouth.
Swift as thought, Dírmaen was at her side as she reeled back, catching her with one hand as he began to draw with the other. Shaking her head wildly, she seized his swordhand, snorting with hard-stifled laughter.
Within, Leod and Murdag lay sprawled across Maelchon's broad bed, bare legs tangled and her black hair spread over the golden curls on his breast, as he snored softly.
Drawing her husband firmly away, Saelon hastened outside, where her hilarity finally burst free. "Will we find Maelchon and Fransag in our bed, do you think?" she wondered, pressing his blade into his hand. "Could Rian have put butterwort in the mead?"
"We had better not," Dírmaen muttered, boosting her onto their mount's rump without ceremony. "What are they about?"
She rolled her eyes, grinning. "One cow breaks the fence, and a dozen leap it."
"In their master's bed?!"
As he settled in the saddle, she slid her arm about his waist; hand straying below his swordbelt, she found the cottars' abandon had not roused his ardor as it had hers and firmly clasped his buckle instead. "Just as well I sent them to Maelchon, then. There was always that shade of impudence about them."
"Shade? Impious dogs."
Saelon thought such outrage harsh: the couple was young and full-blooded, and Murdag had but recently recovered from bearing Meig. They must want a roof of their own, even if it was over the merest hovel. Maelchon had probably sent Leod back to tend the beasts and Murdag to ready the house for his family's return, and the opportunity proved too tempting. They had only wanted the liberty she and Dírmaen had enjoyed.
If the husbandman was only waiting for their return to head home, she would have to find some excuse to delay them, for a little while at least.
As they neared the machair, she ran her hand up Dírmaen's breast and murmured, "I hope you do not look displeased, or they will think I have vexed you." There was a stern rectitude to his spine that could be easily misunderstood.
Laying his hand over hers, he glanced back over his shoulder, showing her a softer look than she had imagined. "Never fear, love. If they have any doubts, they will not last longer than it takes to feed us. Do you think there will be any venison left?"
That set her to laughing, so they were both smiling broadly when they were spotted by Canand, milking the sheep in the twilight; and once he hallooed, all peace was lost. Clamorous as kittiwakes, the voices raised in cheers and good-natured jeers echoed off the cliff so that the horse pinned back his ears as Dírmaen urged him up the track.
They looked quite a crowd even without the younger children, who must be abed, gathering close as they reached the flat: there was Rian, beaming with great relief, as Randir bent to whisper in her ear; Gaernath grinning like a looby. Otherwise all looked much as it had when they had left, the boards still standing about the fag-ends of the Midsummer bonfire.
"Well," Saelon said coolly to those knowing, smiling faces, "has anyone given thought to mealtimes in my absence, or have you all simply lain about, gnawing on last night's leavings?"
"Hoo!" Maelchon exclaimed. "You have not sweetened her temper, Dírmaen!"
Fransag snorted, looking from one of them to the other. "More like he has taken all the honey for himsel, and left nane for us. Come, ye two: I set a good meal aside agin yer return. However ye hae been hammering on each ither, I expect ye hae an appetite."
"We do," Saelon said as Dírmaen helped her down, with as much dignity as she could find. "I take that very kindly, Fransag, though surely Rian could have managed."
"So I told her!" Rian protested, pink-cheeked, as she came forward to be kissed.
"No doubt. Yet," the goodwife's not entirely placid eye rested meaningfully on Randir, "I thought I would keep an ee on the young folk, lest spirits run too high."
Knowing how high they ran elsewhere, Saelon could not but grin. "Thank you," she said, and bussed her cheek as well.
Fransag colored, then laughed. "I am glad to see ye baith so blithe—the Good God knows ye deserve it. Come in, come in. We have saved eneuch of the mead to welcome ye home properly."
Home. Before, she had always welcomed the sight of the place: the sure shelter of the cliff, the sweet water of its spring, the view it gave of the mighty sea. But had the place welcomed her, as these people did? Here was a warmth greater than that of the sun, great and golden though it was above the wine-dark sea.
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Sweet oil: a plant oil with a pleasant odor or taste, especially olive oil.
Dog violet (Viola riviniana): a common, but scentless, Scottish violet.
White wood-lilies (lily-of-the-valley; Convallaria majalis): a fragrant, spring-blooming flower found in lime-rich dry woodland.
Woodbine (also honeysuckle; Lonicera periclymenum): a woody vine with fragrant flowers.
Sweet gale (also bog myrtle; Myrica gale): an aromatic shrub used for flavoring, dyeing, and medicinal purposes.
Poleaxed: a poleaxe, an axe with a hammer head opposite the blade, was commonly used to kill animals before butchery. This is not the same thing as a military poleaxe, which is either a short-handled axe with a spike or hook opposite the blade, or an axe on a long handle.
Butterwort (bog-violet; Pingvicula vulgaris): while its common name comes from its use in the dairy to curdle milk for cheesemaking, it was also a protection against evil and a potent love-charm.
Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla): a small, cliff-nesting gull.
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