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The Dûnhebaid Cycle

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Hand to Hand: 9. Unbidden Guests

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

--Robert Frost, "Fire and Ice"

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WARNING: This chapter contains graphic descriptions of violent physical and sexual assault.  The story's rating has been changed to ADULT.  Readers who would find this traumatic may wish to skip this chapter and, if very sensitive, the next as well.

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Though the wind was keen, Saelon cast her hood back, enjoying the freedom of the air.  It had been a stormy winter, wracked by gale after gale, and snow lay low on the flanks of the hills to the east.  This day of pale sun was a welcome sign of the season's passing; she was glad to get out of the close hall and tramp, sloppy though the footing was, by Fransag's side, the goodwife's grumbling washing over her like the mutter of subsiding surf.

The missing cattle; her mother's labored breathing--Fransag could speak of nothing else, yet she said nothing Saelon had not heard a half dozen times before.  Gràinne's phlegm-clotted lungs were beyond cure; had been this year at least, and the winter's relentless damps had cruelly worsened them.  Ground-ivy, coltsfoot, and thyme had done what they could . . . all Saelon had left to offer was bramble-root and pennyroyal, ample supplies of which she carried in her scrip.  With the blessing, that might ease Gràinne so far as the drier warmth of summer.  Further than that, Saelon dared not hope.  Perhaps the Elves knew of other simples, that did not grow in these lands; she would ask when she went to the Havens at Yáviérë.

As for the cattle, that had thrown everything into confusion this morning when Maelchon arrived at the hall seeking news of Fokel, who had not come home last night.  Normally all the kine would have been in Canand's care, but the poor state of the grazing at this season had led them to spread their beasts thinly over the land.  The horses had the machair south of the tower hill, favoring the mares as they neared their time to foal; the sheep and new lambs were spread about the bay from clifftop to southern hill, watched over by Maelchon's two eldest boys and Finean as well as her collie; and the cattle had been divided, Canand taking hers beyond the southern hill while Fokel drove Maelchon's towards the oakwood.

It ought to have been a simple matter of getting Partalan or Gaernath to ride out and seek him--he might have twisted an ankle, or a cow might be stuck in a bog.  Maelchon confessed, however, somewhat shamefaced, that his servant had begun roving in search of better grass for his beasts, and he was not sure where Fokel had taken them the day before.  Then all the men must argue about where he might have gone, and who ought to look for him, and what should be done with the stock whose keepers were searching, while Maelchon kept craving everyone's pardon and fretting that his beasts were lost . . . .

It was so good to be in the open air, with only one person to listen to.  Even Guaire and Hanadan, who were supposed to be keeping them company, had lagged behind, playing at something or other.

Murmuring commiseration to Fransag's angry worry about the kine, Saelon smiled at the blushing buds of the sallows and first brave hazel-flowers as they walked along the riverbank.  Spring was coming; soon it would be time to take up her pack and begin to walk about the land, seeing how its growing things fared, marking where it would be best to harvest flower and berry and root this year.  Nor would anyone quarrel with her for doing so.  Halpan and Partalan would be off to Srathen Brethil as soon as the ways across the mountains were clear; Veylin and his company would return.  She could make a coracle, and try it on the bay.

The coming year seemed as full of promise as the buds upon the alders.

When they had carefully climbed up the mud-slick track to the higher bank where Maelchon's sturdy stone house sat, Fransag halted so suddenly Saelon nearly ran into her.  "Who is this?" the goodwife exclaimed, wondering.

Abashed to be wandering more in mind than in body, Saelon peered past her.  "What is it?"

"There are two horses tied to the thorn--horses I do not know.  Who could it be?"

Saelon's first thought, that it might be Coruwi or other Elves of Lindon, vanished as soon as she saw the horses: thin, dull-coated things that stood with lowered heads, their tack as poorly kept as themselves.  "I do not know.  Some of those returning to Srathen Brethil, perhaps?"  Halpan had appointed to meet them there in the middle of Nínui; they may have come to seek him.

"But the heights are still buried in snow," Fransag objected.

A glance would seem to confirm it.  "Where else could they have come from?  The mountains may have shielded the glen from the storms," Saelon suggested.

Fransag clucked.  "I hope so, if their horses are that sad.  I wonder if it is Uven and his brother?  Drustan would have walked, rather than ride such gaunt beasts."  Continuing on, she fell back into her grumble.  "They would come while Maelchon is off looking for our kine . . . though I am surprised he and Halpan did not see them, since they are searching upriver.  If Tearlag has set aside her mending to entertain such guests, I will make her rue it.  That lass is far too ready," she huffed, "to quit her work and serve our ale to any who stop by."

Saelon did not comment, since her men were the less than welcome visitors.  Finean and Canand were courting Tearlag, now that it was clear Fokel could not secure her: properly, Saelon thought.  Their work--and neither was an idler--left little time for visiting . . . although she supposed to Fransag, who would lose her servant if the woman wed into the hall, any attentions were too great a distraction.  "Where are those boys?"  That seemed a safer topic, and Saelon turned to look back.  "Hanadan?"

From the hazel-brakes came a yelp and high, angry yell, followed by the clatter of headlong flight through still-bare branches.

"Hanadan!" she called again, sharply.  Fransag walked on, long since hardened to the squabbles of boys.

Her young cousin emerged from the hazels, thoroughly spattered with mud and scrubbing at a red weal on his glowering face; Guaire came a bit later, looking half hang-dog, half triumphant, the switch still in his hand.  "If you hadn't called," Hanadan said reproachfully, "he wouldn't have got me."

Reaching out, Saelon took his cheek in her hand and considered the welt.  How they managed to avoid blinding or maiming, she did not know.  "Must you two always be attacking each other?"

"We are practicing to be Rangers," Hanadan declared.

"Hmh."  She plucked a bronze hazel-flower from his dark hair, and smoothed out the worst tangle.  "Well, my Rangers, now you must practice your manners.  Guests have come."

"Who?" Guaire asked.

Hanadan, having spotted the horses, was staring at them with a fine contempt.  "What sorry beasts!  No one who visits us rides nags like that."

"No, just stubby little ponies," Guaire shot back.

"Tinnu was no pony!"

"Is this your idea of manners?" Saelon demanded.  "If you cannot keep from quarreling--"

A shriek, from the house.

Saelon turned, staring.  Another cry came, this one colored by fury as well as fear, and was suddenly muffled.  A man's harsh curse, and a figure in a dun cloak broke from the door, running towards them.

No man of Srathen Brethil.

Whipping back around, she seized the boys, who stood rooted, mouths gaping and eyes wide as owls'.  "Run!" she commanded.  "Run back to the hall, as fast as you can!  Get everyone in, and tell them to bar the door.  Go!"

Hanadan obediently bolted, but Guaire hung there, torn, staring towards his mother's cry.  He could do nothing for her; nothing but--  "Run, you fool, and get your brothers into the hall!"

A shove finally moved him, and as he flung himself between the hazel-stems, Saelon also ran.  Not towards the hall--she must buy the folk there time: time for Hanadan to make himself understood, for everyone to be gathered in.  If she could reach the peat hags, she might play at tig with him among the cuttings . . . .

The thud of feet drew closer; she could hear the rasp of her pursuer's breath, but did not dare look back.  Who--her own breath came short, after winter's confinement--was this?  Had the men not seen them?

Fokel and the cattle.  Reivers.  Oh, where were Halpan and Partalan!?

The low bank that was the last lip of the pale cliff: she leapt, but slipped on the mud.  Before she could scrabble up, he was on her, seizing the scruff of her cloak and jerking her backwards.  "Stupid bint," he growled, barbarous speech, and clouted her in the head.

Saelon clawed at her cloak-pin, trying to writhe free of the ragged but still stout wool; he struck again, felling her.  As she gasped and clung to the suddenly unsteady earth, he took her arm and dragged her to her feet.  "Don't make it worse for yourself."

His voice was as cold as his mud-brown eyes; his breath almost too foul to smell the ale he had been drinking.  Stumbling unwillingly along in his clutch, half-dazed, Saelon fought a rising gorge: his rankness, the swimming of her head . . . fear.

When they reached Maelchon's house, the door was still open.  Striding in without hesitation, he flung her carelessly aside.  Though her head had cleared somewhat, Saelon did not notice the goods heaped beside the hearth until she tripped over the smaller of Fransag's pots.  Down she went, again, the silvery sheen of the flagstones tearing at her hands as she caught herself.

"Was your mother a sow, that you must rut everything you see?" the reiver who had captured her was shouting at his companion, who still grappled with Fransag.  "The brats have gone to fetch help.  Leave her, and get that corn on the nags!  We will have them all later, when their men are slain."

A leering grin seemed fixed on the other's scabbed face.  "Aach," he slurred, "they are slain already, unless Oleg's cocked up.  Why bother to pack stuff out, only to bring it back again?"  Leaving go Fransag's face, he sought to capture the hand that beat awkwardly back at his head, her other arm already pinned at her waist.  "I wager Oleg will keep this toothsome bit for himself--the only one of the lot that is not nobbly bone and whimpers!"

Fransag cried out in rage, pushing back against him as he groped between her legs . . . but it appeared that her struggles only heightened the reiver's lust.  To fight the dread that threatened to petrify her--the men slain already!--Saelon cast her eyes about the room, seeking . . . something, anything that might aid them.  But the house had been ransacked, a crumpled shirt forgotten by the door to the ben, showing the inner chamber had not escaped.  Across the hearth, Tearlag huddled, clutching her torn clothing about her, staring at them with the blankness of despair.

"Fool!" the one who had captured her dismissed, going to the ale barrel and plunging the stoup deep, as if they had drunk it nearly dry.  "Stay then!"  He drank greedily, careless of what spilled down his front, then pulled the largest fish from the strings set to smoke above the hearth, stuffing them down his shirt.

Saelon shrank back as he strode her way, what wits she had recovered scattering like buzzard-struck partridges.  However, he only scooped up a bundle of woolen garments and Fransag's meal kist before heading out the door.  She had hardly sagged against the sack of corn behind her before the ripping of cloth and Fransag's redoubled cries made her ashamed of any relief.  Too much--too terrible; her head had begun to throb in time with the desperate beating of her heart, and she shut her eyes, not wanting to see, wishing she could close her ears.

Something hard pressed against her hip where it was cradled by the grain sack, and her mind was so disordered that it took a few breaths to remember her scrip, full of simples for Gràinne . . . .  Her knife.  She had her knife, bright keen dwarf-steel that made naught of the toughest hide, the strongest sinew.

Opening her eyes a slit, she saw the remaining reiver had given himself entirely over to ravishing Fransag, his face buried in the hair about her neck, the hand that did not shackle her wrists sullying the paps that had suckled so many babes . . . .  Babes!  Where was the babe, and the children?  They should be squalling the roof down, and Gràinne--

Hate cleared her head like the pitiless blast of a winter gale.  He would regret ever coming here, but not for long.  This Oleg thought to take them all?  If he had slain Gaernath and Halpan and Partalan, Maelchon and Finean and Canand, she would put on Halladan's helm and place bows in the hands of Artan and Leod and Teig and Gormal.  They would shoot the reivers down like dogs as they struggled up towards the cliff-ledge, and tumble their corpses at the cliff-foot for the corbies to feast upon.  Their weapons they would take and set on the wall beside the raug-spear, to keep the memory of their vengeance green.

If she did not take them to the Havens, and cast them at Círdan's feet in lieu of rent.

The knife was naked in her hand beneath her cloak, and she was calculating where to stick it, when the other reiver darkened the doorway, coming back for more plunder.  "Not done yet?" he gibed derisively.  "Did the old one's frost wilt your stalk?"

Death.  The steel sang to her, craving their blood.  Saelon lowered her eyes, lest they see her fear was gone.

Fransag cursed them, her hoarse voice cracking, calling upon the unseen powers since her own strength had proved too feeble: that stoats should devour them alive from within and raugs fill their mothers' bellies with monsters; their kinsmen's stones rot in their cods and kinswomen miscarry, unto the seventh degree.

"I'll give you a monster, first," the reiver sneered, and bore Fransag down to the floor.

The one nearest Saelon watched a while as his fellow rode the goodwife as if she were an unbroken horse, until he was able to bring his yard from his trews as she lay blowing and sobbing with exhaustion.  Leaning over Saelon to take up the larger kettle, the reiver who had caught her gave her a goatish smile.  "Wait for me," he said.

She laid the soft underside of his arm open to the bone, cutting the great vessel.

Jerking away, he found the arm did not obey him and clutched at the wound, trying to stem the livid stream pumping his lifeblood away.  A kick knocked the knife from her hand, and she cried out in pain.

The other reiver left off drawing up Fransag's skirts to howl with laughter at his fellow's misfortune.  When he began to curse him, the ravisher only fell deeper into sotted hilarity.  So grotesque in its callous cruelty was the scene that Saelon wondered if she had slipped into madness: one man, standing heedless amid a spreading pool of his own blood, bellowing at another, who crouched over Fransag's all but bare body, his ready yard bobbing as if it guffawed with him.

From where she lay, hugging her pain-numbed arm to her breast, Saelon could see Fransag's hand, freed by her tormentor's inattention, groping about the edge of the hearth as if seeking something, clawing and worrying at one of the curbstones.

The reiver she had cut grew unsteady on his feet, the swartness of his skin giving his bled-out face an ugly color; when he fell silent and sank down on one knee, the other also quieted, wiping tears of heartless mirth from his scabbed face.  "You must always feel the bitches over, Yaro," he crowed.

That was when Fransag wrenched up a curbstone and smacked it against his head: a weak blow, but surprise lent it force, and he fell from her, face twisting into anger as she reared up over him.  "You want to play rough?" he snarled, reaching up to catch her wrist.

She gave him the left one, and brought the stone down on his head again with the right, from a better angle this time, with all the weight of its fall and the strength remaining in her arm.  Again, and again, and again she struck him, grunting with the effort like a farrowing sow, until the reiver's face was a red ruin and her creamy breast speckled with his gore.

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Notes

Thyme (wild thyme, Thymus polytrichus): a very versatile herb of dry grasslands and dunes, this was commonly used as a tea and to scent linen.  It was also considered one of the strongest tonics, particularly for nerves and chest complaints.

Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium): a medicinal herb, taken to aid digestion, clear phlegm, and for menstrual complaints; it also repels insects and mice, so was widely used as a strewing herb.

Peat hags: moorland with a thick layer of peat.  This is the one where Saelon and her folk cut the peats they use for fuel, which has left deep trenches (the best peat is some way down).

Bint: a derogatory term for a woman, analogous to "wench."  It came into British English from Arabic after WWII, but I use it here to reflect foreign influences in Angmar.

Ben: Scots, the inner chamber of a two-roomed house, the bedchamber.

Paps: nipples or teats.

Stoat (Mustela erminea): a small weasel, reputed to be one of the most bloodthirsty animals; I was told a horror story in Scotland where the young couple making out in the car were devoured alive by a swarm of stoats.  Stoats are brown in summer, but their coats turn white in winter, except for the black tip of their tails; their pelts are the ermine of royalty.

Cods: a cod is a purse, or the outer pod or husk of a seed; therefore, a euphemism for the scrotum.

Yard: a rod or pole; therefore, a euphemism for the penis.



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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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