Rock and Hawk: 8. Storm-Driven

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8. Storm-Driven

      Chaidh a' chuibhle mun cuairt,                           The wheel has come full circle,
ghrad thionndaidh gu fuachd am blàths:              warmth has suddenly turned cold.
      gum faca mi uair.                                               But once I saw here a bountiful castle,
Dùn ratha nan cuach 'n seo thràigh,                   well-stocked with drinking-cups that have
                                                                                      now gone dry,
      far 'm biodh tathaich nan duan,                          a song-haunted place abounding in
                                                                                      good things,
iomadh mathas gun chruas, gun chàs:                 given without stint or question.
      dh'fhalbh an latha sin uainn,                               That day has gone from us,
's tha na taighean gu fuarraidh fàs.                     and the buildings are chill and desolate.

--Roderick Morison, "Oran do Mhacleòid Dhùn Bheagain" (Song to MacLeod of Dunvegan)

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Two lads were less trouble than one.  Saelon seldom saw them except at meals: they moved into the Dwarves' cave and spent all but the wettest days riding over the country.  Patrolling, Halpan maintained, seeking sign of fell-beasts; but they seldom came back without meat for the table, game or fowl or fish.  It was a pleasure to reward them with fine meals and laugh at Halpan's tales at the board.  He was a pleasing fellow, who took Gaernath's manly education in hand with a light touch, yet it did not take long to see that he had a restless heart.  He loved the sea for its strangeness, and told her of the bays and hills and glens up and down the coast with delight.

He would find it hard to stay within the narrow bounds of Srathen Brethil.  Perhaps that was the real reason he had remained here.

With no further hint of raugs, the autumn passed with its usual sweetness, the pleasure enriched by anticipation of winter's pitilessness.  Saelon laid in a great store of hazelnuts, threshed the corn, and spent a long, strong-smelling day digging ramps to season stews to come.  When the weather turned foul, Halpan and Gaernath tried their hands at stoneworking with the mattock the Dwarves had left, carving a great kist out of the wall in the byre-cave.  It was a crude thing, and no doubt the Dwarves would have laughed at it, as they did themselves, but it foiled the gnawing teeth of mice, which was all she wished.

Narbeleth was sobbing to its close, raw with damp and rising wind, and Saelon was gazing down over the machair, weighing how much rawer it would be on the shore against the warmth and savor of the chowder she might make, when movement caught the corner of her eye back near the river.  The lads had planned on riding to the oakwood today.  What could bring them back so soon?

It was not the lads on their long-legged steeds, but four heavily laden workhorses, one with a small boy perched on its packsaddle, led by three weary women.  A larger boy drove a straggle of sheep and kine.

Pausing only to fill the largest pot with water and set it on the fire, Saelon hurried down the track to meet them.  "Urwen!" she exclaimed in dread when she recognized the woman leading the first horse.  "What is this?  What has happened?"

"Oh, Saelon," Urwen cried, stopping dead with exhaustion or relief, tears welling up.  "What has not happened?  Please, will you take us in?"

"Of course!"  Saelon looked them over, bewildered and frightened.  Urwen; Halpan's sister Bereth, with Urwen's little Morwen slung at her breast; Eithel, Handin, and Hanadan.  Only the husband and eldest boy were missing.  "Where is Haldorn?  And Handir?"

"Dead.  Slain by those night-demons."  Urwen's voice was sere as the last leaves.

"Both?"  Saelon drew Urwen into her arms, for what comfort it could give and to warm her, and was further shocked to find her big-bellied.  What would send this tough-minded woman across raug-haunted mountains at this season, afoot, unescorted, and in her condition?  "The creatures have come to Srathen Brethil?"

Bereth came up, shushing Morwen, who had begun to cry at her mother's distress.  "Aye," she confirmed, too weary for much grief.  "As far south as Craigenthôr.  One broke into Frest's byre, and Haldorn took our men to help.  Naugton told us only the swords of the old days bite on the monsters."

Dwarf-wrought, no doubt, from the days when their house could afford such things.  So Haldorn, mailed and with the only weapon that could harm a raug, would have closed with it.  Saelon stared beyond Bereth at the others, willing the memory of the gore-soaked moor from her mind.  "But why have you come here?  Surely Halladan would have taken you in.  Why are there no men with you?"

"Of course—but Urwen would not stay."

Urwen shook her head violently, clutching at Saelon's shoulders.  "Blood," she moaned, shuddering.  "All blood."

"Help me get her up to the cliff," Saelon told Bereth.  "We must get her warm—and the rest of you, too.  You can tell the tale later.  What is that on the cattle?"

"Corn.  Urwen stripped the storehouse."

Bereth said it as if it were further proof of shattered wits, but it gave Saelon a glint of reassurance.  Trust Urwen to figure that she would not have enough to feed six more mouths through the coming winter and do what she could to remedy it.  "Eithel, take the load off that horse and let's get her up.  Someone can come down for the goods later.  Handin, the sheep will do well here.  Bring the cattle up after us so we can unload the corn."

"Where is Halpan?" Bereth wanted to know.

"Hunting with Gaernath.  They may not be back until near nightfall."

"Are there fell-beasts here?" Hanadan asked in a small voice as they led his mother back to the unladen horse.

"Not by the sea, honey," Saelon assured him, pausing long enough to give his hand a quick squeeze.  "Can you hear the sea?"

"What does the sea sound like?"

"That noise like distant thunder over there.  Hear it?  Fell-beasts are frightened of it."

"Really?"

"Really?" Eithel echoed her youngest brother hopefully, holding the horse steady as Saelon and Bereth boosted Urwen onto the broad back with as much care as possible.

"Yes, really."  She hoped her faith was true, for their sakes.

After all that had happened a few weeks back, it was not so difficult to muster food and beds for unexpected and overwrought guests.  When the lads returned, Gaernath dealt with the sacks of corn and introduced the collie to his new charges, leaving Halpan to mourn with what remained of his brother's family.  They got the bones of the tragedy that night, mostly from Bereth.  Having brought her children and her husband's sister to safe haven, Urwen sat huddled in a cocoon of blankets, fire-heated stones at her back and feet, silent tears trailing down her face as she cradled her heavy belly.

Losing a much-loved husband and eldest son in one night, to such a thing, would have been ample cause for most women to lose their wits for a time, but Urwen was a proud daughter of Emyn Uial and had borne her bereavement with the stoicism befitting a Dúnedain matron.  According to Bereth, it had only been when Núneth, Halladan's wife, had pressed Urwen to join them in their hall that she had fled back to her cold hearth and started packing all that could be strapped on a beast, deaf to reason.  Halladan had sent Tarain and Naugton with them, but the men had been anxious to return to the defense of Srathen Brethil.  Urwen had released them as soon as the party had reached the head of the river that morning, since there was no danger of them losing their way.

Having fled from Núneth herself, Saelon was less inclined to see Urwen's flight as proof of madness than Halpan and Bereth, although the tale gave her a cold sense of foreboding.  With the assurance of her own high lineage, Urwen had always been able to laugh at Núneth's striving affectations.  Of course Urwen could not defend herself so now, but she might have simply stayed in her own home and sent for Halpan.  Her muttering about blood may have only been the too-vivid memories of a woman who had pushed herself beyond her limits.

Or it might have been something more.

In the morning, when she stepped outside to fill the stoup at the rock basin, Halpan crossed her path, his saddlebags over his arm.  "Saelon," he said briskly, "pack me some food for the road."

"Where are you going?" she asked, though one of the little ones could have guessed the answer.

"I must go back to Srathen Brethil."

"Why?"

His look was dismissive, impatient.  "Halladan will need every man."

Saelon took his arm as he turned back towards the byre-cave.  "Do not be so heedless," she rebuked him sharply.  It had been a bad night, with half a dozen wailing night terrors among the newcomers, women and children.  "It is foolish to risk meeting a raug on the way."

"If they are deviling Srathen Brethil, they will not be on the road.  If Gaernath could do it on your old garron, Dûnsûl and I can."

"Then give some thought to Bereth, and your brother's widow and children.  Would you leave Handin as their protector?"

"You and Gaernath will look after them."

She set a fist on her hip and fixed him with her sternest gaze.  "How am I to feed them all without you?"

"Gaernath—"

"Is a better hunter than he was a month ago, but not good enough."

"How do you know I am not needed there more?" he demanded hotly.

She wondered if this was youth's reckless desire for renown or a warrior's judgment of their defense.  "Have you seen those slain by these things?" she countered.

He was silent for a breath.  "Yes."

"A sword of Arthedain and mail did not save your brother.  How should you fare better?"

His face was bleak.  "I fear for Halladan.  Let me go."

A shrewd thrust, to the heart.  Hearing it from another fed her foreboding, gave it substance.  "Is Urwen foresighted?"

"I do not know.  I have never heard so.  But what else could have driven her from home in this wild way?"

Saelon gazed out over the waves, striving to drown the ghostly mutter of dread.  After a time, Halpan hesitantly asked, "Are you foresighted?  Is that why you do not want me to go?"

She shook her head.  "No."  Would surety be better or worse?  If Urwen had foreseen . . . some doom—she would not even think it, lest she call it—knowledge did not seem to have reconciled her to fate.

"Then why are you here, rather than at home?  You are neither witless nor astray, no matter what some say."

The uncertainty was terrible, like floundering in a bog: too thick to shake free, but too thin to push away.  "The sea speaks to me," she confessed, the only firm hold she had to offer him.

"What does it say?"

No one understood.  "It does not speak in words.  Do you think Ulmo comes to me, as he came to Tuor?" she fleered in self-scorn.  "I am not sure if these are—promptings, or my own fancies.  If I was sure, do you think I would not have warned you all?"

He stepped back from the snap of her frayed temper.  "If we would have heeded you," he answered quietly.  He gazed down at his saddlebags, then at the doorway of her cave; Morwen could be heard crying inside.  "You advise me not to go."

Saelon sighed.  She should not have told him; now he would put too much weight on her words.  "I cannot cope with these frighted strays without the help of someone who has kept their wits.  Please," she asked.  "Stay."

"And Halladan?"

"If warning it was," she replied, choosing her words with care, as if one could tiptoe past fate, "he will read it as well as ourselves.  Whatever he can do to avoid evil, he will."  She hoped Veylin had found someone willing to carry troll-spears to Srathen Brethil.  She wished a long shaft between her brother and those things.

"He will not," Halpan contradicted grimly.  "He will put himself between it and our folk."

"The lord of Srathen Brethil could do no less."  He must find his own way through, since he could not make friends with the sea.  "I know you would put yourself between him and this evil," she granted, "and I thank you for it, but consider.  Might he have sent your kin here to you, since they would not accept his protection?"

Morwen had begun to shriek, and he grimaced.  "You ask much."  He weighed his saddlebags in his hand.  "I will think on it."

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 He thought on it that day, and the next, and the next, until it was plain he would stay.  Urwen remained so listless and quiet that Saelon feared she had taken ill, or that something was wrong with the babe, but she had no fever and after a week began to slowly turn outward again.  A mixed blessing—for while it meant that Morwen cried less, a great relief to them all, Urwen's will was as masterful as her own.  She was fretted by grief and exhaustion, her growing belly and her dependence on a woman she had been used to pity.

Coming back in from the garden one fine brisk morning, Saelon found Urwen had opened some of her bags and was sorting clothing.  "What are you doing?" she asked, offering friendly interest.

"Trying to restore some order to my life," Urwen replied in a distracted mutter, folding a small tunic and adding it to a pile.  "The snows will be here soon.  There seems to be enough warm things for the boys, but I will have to make some winter gowns for Morwen."

"Do you have the cloth you need?  If not, I have some good woollen.  Enough for Morwen, and a wrap for the babe to come.  Or—" Saelon offered, for Urwen made the finest cloth in Srathen Brethil, far finer than her own "—if we can find room, we can set up the loom, and you can weave your own."

"Thank you, but I have what I need."

The stiffness under the polite words was a rebuff as brittle as old glass.  It would have been one thing if Urwen preferred the calm of silence as Veylin had, Saelon reflected, adding the kail and carrots to the fish stew.  Only yesterday, however, she had overheard Urwen complaining to Bereth of her coolness.  It was hard to keep making overtures when they were unappreciated, but in charity she tried again once she brought out the quern and started grinding for the evening's bannocks.  "It will be a blessing that winters are not so cold here: we rarely have snow, or even frost," she told her, for what comfort it might give.

"Such a kindly place," Urwen replied, her smile with an edge like the dwarven knife.

Did the woman think she was crowing over her?  Flaunting her wisdom in settling here?  "Instead we have great storms of wind, that you cannot stand up in.  They last for days sometimes."

Urwen looked around the small cave, clearly imagining what it would be like for the nine of them to be penned together in such a place.  She shook out and refolded four shirts, however, before saying, "You have been so good to take us in, Saelon, but is there somewhere else we might house?  I fear we are sadly in your way, especially the children."

Why especially?  Because she had none of her own?  Truth be told, Saelon preferred the company of Handin or Hanadan to that of their mother, or even Bereth.  Perhaps it was because their words didn't have one meaning on the surface and another lurking beneath.  No wonder men thought women treacherous.  "You have seen what is here," she replied matter-of-factly, refusing to take offense.  If Urwen insisted on seeking triumph in her words, she would not satisfy her by placing it there.  "We might move the stores into the Dwarves' cave, so you could have the whole of the byre-cave.  It is the largest."

"The byre-cave?" Urwen exclaimed with distaste and a perilous note of insult.

They were saved by the door drape lifting.  Halpan looked in.  "Saelon?  We would like to consult you about something.  Can you come?"

What was it now?  Dusting the flour from her hands, she rose, frowning.  The Dwarves might have been as prickly as Urwen, but at least they had been less bothersome.  Her kin seemed helpless without her direction.  "On what?"

Halpan only answered when she had stepped out to join him, and then too low to be heard within.  "Halladan has sent us more folk from Srathen Brethil."

"More?" she echoed, in double dismay as he led her along the shelf: that things must be worsening there, and that they should be even more crowded here.  "How many?"  They would have to clear the byre-cave.

"Three."

"Three?  Who?"  Only a few of the cottars had households so small.  Unless this was another shard of a shattered family.

"Saelon."  A short brown man, bald on top, stepped from inside the byre-cave and took her hand.  "Your brother sends his greetings."

"Partalan!" she cried in surprise, clasping his burly hand warmly.  "How is he?  Whom have you brought us?"

The bearded warrior's gaze was stolidly grave.  "He is as well as he could be, when things are so ill in Srathen Brethil."

"Have they grown worse?  Bereth said the fell-beasts were as near as Craigenthôr."

"Nearer now."  Partalan drew her to the mouth of the cave, so she could see his charges.

Rian, standing bravely tall, came forward to claim a kiss.  "Saelon," she greeted her.  "Father sends his love, and says you are to teach me to make great-grandmother's heather ale."

She held her niece fiercely close, as if it would crush the foreboding that suddenly flared to life, and threw a hand out towards the lad, who hung back.  "And you, Halmir?  Have you no greeting for your aunt?"

He was at the awkward age, discontented and resentful, but came dutifully for a kiss.  "Thank you for harboring us," he muttered, in a tone that brought Urwen back to mind.

"You would rather have stayed with your father, I think," she said, gripping his shoulder.  He was already over-topping her.  He had his mother's fairness of face and raven-black hair, but otherwise he reminded her of her brother when he was a sulky boy, not quite fledged.

"Yes."

"Then I thank you for coming.  It was good of you to guard your sister on the way; and I sorely need help caring for Urwen and the others.  Will you aid Halpan with his work?"

He nodded sullenly.

"Come, then," Halpan said, clapping him on the shoulder.  "Let's see to the horses.  You have Môrfast, I see.  How did you convince your father to let you have him?"

Saelon leaned back to get a better look at the horses.  There were six: three for riding, and three laden with kists and bundles.  One mount was that great black stallion, the best blood-horse this side of the Emyn Uial and her brother's pride.  He had sent her his stud as well as his children.  Her heart clenched.  He would not have sent those dear ones away, not if he still had hope of the future.  Or at least of a future there, in Srathen Brethil.

Rian's eye was on her, Dúnedain-keen, no longer that of a child.  "Halpan," Saelon called, as Partalan went to help with the beasts.  There was work to do, and that would muffle care.  She must keep her brother's trust, and hold them all safe for him.

When Halpan joined them, she gave him a wry, weary smile.  "Tomorrow we will need to clear this for your family.  Urwen is chafing at my hearth, and a dozen in that small space is far too many.  I will leave it to you, but dump the dung onto the garden and corn plot.  Once it's down to stone, the children can haul water from the burn and splash it clean, so Urwen has no cause to wrinkle her nose.  A good driftwood fire will dry it out quickly afterwards.  I'm afraid," she said, with a rueful sigh, "that you lads will have to give up the Dwarves' cave to the stores."

He shook his head dismissively, his eyes as worried as hers.  "I will see to it," he assured her, and glanced at Rian.  "Can you weave wattle, cousin?" he asked, mustering a lighter smile.

"If the choice is between that and shoveling dung," Rian said decidedly, "I can weave it very well."  She turned back to Saelon.  "Tell me how I can be of use."

"Come and finish grinding the corn while I start the bannocks.  Keep Urwen in passable humor for a few more days, if you can, and," she promised, "I will teach you the secrets of good heather ale as soon as she is safely out of hearing."

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 Perhaps because she was used to her mother's uneven temper, Rian bore Urwen's irritation with such sweet grace that Saelon forgave her for her unhandiness at much of the household work.  It was not the girl's fault that her mother had thought milling and digging dung into the garden too low for the lord's daughter, and at least she was willing to try.  But in the end Saelon found it was simpler to do much of the rough work herself and leave her niece to spin and sew beside Urwen, who praised the fineness of her work.

On a blustery day of sharp showers in early Girithron, after a hard morning carrying wrack from the shore to the garden, it was a relief to sit alone at her hearth, roasting hazelnuts to crack for the next day's pottage.  She had been hindered more than helped by Hanadan, who insisted on showing her every fragment of shell he could find amongst the weed as he helped fill the baskets.

Life was finally falling into a pattern again.  The men and lads divided their days between the hunt and training at arms; Partalan was far from satisfied even with Halpan's skill, and drilled Halmir and Gaernath with stern rigor.  Handin was judged too young and had taken Gaernath's position as herdsman, while Hanadan would attach himself to whomever seemed to be doing something interesting and distract them with his curiosity.  A sweet child, but often a vexing one.  Unless Saelon pressed for help with whatever tasks she thought were needful, the women and girls would gather in Urwen's cave, once the meals were attended to, and spend the day spinning and weaving and sewing, as if they were still in their hall at Srathen Brethil.

Wondering why Partalan did not play his harp in the evenings—it sat in its case there, on the high ledge—Saelon was fighting off creeping drowse beside the fire's warm glow when there came a brusque rap at the doorframe.  "Yes?"

Partalan thrust the drape aside, holding it for a tall figure in a sodden cloak, a helm in his hands.

Saelon flew to her feet and started forward, heart leaping with a relief as dire as pain.

Leapt, and fell.

"Tarain," she breathed, as he shoved back his hood to reveal fair hair.  Seeing the man's harrowed face, she knew her fears had all come true.  "He is dead."

Was it rain or tears on his gold-stubbled cheeks?  "Yes, lady."  He held out her brother's helm.  "He wished you to have this."

Its elegant curves gleamed in the lamplight like silver.  She had never seen it shine so.  Too clean; oh, far too clean.  "That should go to Halmir," she objected, as he set it in her hands.  The boar on its crest looked like the one that had slain their father, snarling defiantly even in death.

Tarain shook his head, flinging water from the straggling ends of his hair.  "I am to give him the sword," he replied doggedly, "to strengthen his arm, but his father said he is too young for this.  You are the eldest surviving of your house, lady.  He insisted that you hold the lordship in trust for his son."

Eldest surviving—Núneth, and her sister Minuial; they were dead as well?  She clutched the helm so hard that its edges bit her palms, fearing that it would slip from her hands otherwise.  "Lordship?" she echoed hollowly.  "Over two broken families."

"More are on their way, lady."

"More?"  Oppression cracked the ice of her despair.  "How many more?"

"Mais and what is left of his kin—"

"Gede?"

"Dead beside his lord.  But Maelchon has brought his family safe away."

"None of the lesser folk?"

Tarain shook his head.  "So many have fled these last weeks, lady, to the east for the most part.  Only a few held to their oaths.  Aniel has sworn to pursue these things to the death, even if he loses his last hounds, but his brother has convinced him to come."

Beautiful dogs, with tapered muzzles and swift feet.  So much lost.  "Can you number them for me?" Saelon pleaded.

As he told them over on his fingers, she dimly noticed they were blue-nailed, trembling with cold.  "In all, near thirty," Tarain finally concluded.

Thirty more?  Nienna, how was she to bear this? "How soon will they be here?"

"Tomorrow, should no ill befall."

She stared at him.

"No further ill," Partalan amended for him softly, setting his hands on their shoulders and steering them both towards the warmth of the hearth.

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Notes

Foresighted: the foresight some Dúnedain (such as Gilraen, Aragorn's mother) have sounds very similar to the Second Sight, a "gift" Highlanders were noted for.  Since most forevisions were of death and woe, it was not something people desired, and its possessors were usually melancholy people.

Cottar: Scots, someone holding a cottage and small plot of land in return for labor services.

Nienna: one of the Valar, sister of Mandos and Lórien; her song is lamentation, but "she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom."


This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: Adaneth

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - The Stewards

Genre: Drama

Rating: General

Last Updated: 02/26/11

Original Post: 09/22/06

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Playlists Featuring the Story

The Dûnhebaid Cycle - 5 stories - Owner: 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.
Included because: Dûnhebaid I: hammering out an unlikely friendship between a Dwarf and a Dúnadaneth.

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