3. Little More than Kin
One would be in less danger
From the wiles of the stranger
If one's own kin and kith
Were more fun to be with.
--Ogden Nash, "Family Court"
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A fair green place, with children chasing through the heather and women sitting in the sun, gossiping over their work . . . but where were the men, and why had he been allowed to come so near without challenge? Sitting his horse by the ring of fallen stones, where he would show clear against the sky, Dírmaen frowned. No watch, and the people unwary.
Careless. Yet the emptiness of the land would breed such errors. Three days they had ridden north along the coast, since crossing the mountains at the headwaters of the Little Lune and passing through Thôntaen, and seen naught but bird and beast and the subtle sign of Elvish camps. So pleasant was the land that he could understand why Lindon was jealous of its borders.
Yet even here, evil had come. They ought not to be so unguarded.
From his perch above, it seemed a child saw him first, pointing and running for the track that led to a high shelf under the cliff. The curve of the cliff cut off his view of what lay there, but shortly after a pair of horsemen, spears in their hands, plunged down the winding path and galloped towards the break between the cliffs. Going to alert others, or taking the shortest way to bring horses to this height?
When they reappeared, cantering towards him along the clifftop, Dírmaen glanced back down at the slope and broad lea below. Little knots of women and youths and some children, huddled like alarmed sheep, staring up; no one with so much as a bow. Not that a shot would reach so far, but at least it would have shown some spirit, some readiness.
As the horsemen came up the slope from the clifftop, Dírmaen raised his hand palm outward in token of peace. The lead rider, a short, bearded man with a nose that had been broken and an easy grip on his spear, pulled up a prudent distance away. The other was a red-haired youth, his face set in earnest gravity.
"Hail, stranger," the man greeted him coolly. "Who are you, and what brings you to us?"
"Dírmaen is my name. I seek the folk of Srathen Brethil. Who are you to ask?"
"You have found us, such as are left," the man replied, with a grim smile. "I am called Partalan, and I serve our lady." Bringing his mount nearer, he studied him closely. "Why do you seek us?"
The man looked more like a Dunlending sell-sword past mark of mouth than a man of the North, and though the cloak-star was plain to be seen, apparently it told him nothing. Dírmaen debated how much he should say. Srathen Brethil had been an outmarch, with few Dúnedain; neither of these were of the West. "Your lady asked that word be sent to her kin of your plight."
Partalan curled his lip. "And this is what the Chieftain sends us? One man?"
"No," Dírmaen answered, with a blander contempt. "We have seen no watch, and did not want to ride in amongst you unannounced."
"We have better things to do than stand watch, with men so few and the country so quiet," Partalan answered brusquely. "How many are you?"
From the divided look on the man's face, that was still too few for his pride, but also too many armed strangers for comfort. "Gaernath," he told the youth, "find the Lady and tell her of our guests."
"Aye." Yet before the redhead turned his mount, he eagerly asked Dírmaen, "Are you Rangers?"
At least this one had heard of them, and saw them as cause for hope. "Yes."
With a whoop, the youth kicked his horse and galloped back the way he had come. Partalan's jaded face did not change a whit. "How far are the others?"
"Near enough. May I signal them?" When the man nodded curtly, Dírmaen pulled his spear from the turf and, raising it over his head, waved it slowly from side to side. He did not bother to look along the craggy ridge to where the others would be dropping down to the hollow where they had left their horses, but watched Partalan instead, as the man scanned the land, seeking some sign of them.
It did not take him long to spot them. Harsh he might be, and apparently resentful, but he was no stranger to arms, and he considered them narrowly as they came, judging in his turn.
"Greetings," Râdbaran said courteously, as he pulled his dun up beside Dírmaen's bay.
"Welcome to Habad-e-Mindon, lord," Partalan replied, bowing his head stiffly. "Come down to our hall, so the Lady can greet you properly."
"Lead on," Râdbaran invited, gesturing towards the downward path.
Halgorn fell in beside Dírmaen as they trotted sedately along the top of the cliff and cocked a concerned eyebrow. "Why do they send a sell-sword to greet us?" he murmured, hardly loud enough to hear.
"He does have that look, doesn't he?" Dírmaen replied, as low. Gazing towards the lea below, he sighed bleakly. "I saw few men of any kind as I waited. They are mostly women and children."
"How else would they have a Lady?" After a discontented pause, he grumbled, "I suppose we must get them packed up, then shepherd them to wherever they may have kin." He had wished for at least a glimpse of whatever had harried these folk from their valley; even more, for a chance to slay one. The uncertainty about the evil—was it beasts twisted into unnatural malevolence, or trolls, or some new thing of the Enemy?—nagged at Halgorn, who took a fierce delight in destroying such creatures.
"Perhaps not. There are fields of corn between the cliffs and the sea." Dírmaen wondered why they had troubled to till and sow. Had they thought that the Chieftain would abandon them? That might explain Partalan's bitter distain.
Halgorn rolled his eyes with a resigned smile. "Farmers. How are we to budge them before harvest?"
The cliff track swung inland as they reached the gap, running some five hundred rangar down to where the cliff failed, then turning back on itself alongside a broad stream fringed with lush watermeadows. Here, in the shelter of the notch, small trees grew in tangled thickets. From one patch of leaf-shadow, eyes peered: a clutch of young boys, staring and whispering amongst themselves.
He hoped some of them were Dúnedain.
As they came level with the tumbled slopes below the cliffs and even the willows failed, he looked up to the shelf for some sign of their dwellings. Those would give a clue to their numbers, and to how long they thought to stay. Though if men were few, and with timber far to seek . . . . None. There were no buildings, not so much as a booth or a shed. Frowning, Dírmaen turned in the saddle to scan the whole curve of the land around the bay. They were passing the fields of barley; there were horses grazing on the far side of the lea and sheep on the surrounding slopes; and there was the clutter of a dooryard at the foot of the southern cliff, with linen drying on thornbushes and folk gazing down at them. Where did they house?
It was only once you neared the top of the track that you saw the caves beneath the cliff. As they dismounted, Partalan spoke sharply to a couple of older boys—bondsmen, by the look of them—who came forward to take their horses. Râdbaran had Hanend go with them, then walked over to where a tall Dúnadaneth, over-pale, her beauty ravaged by grief and travail, waited beneath the overhanging stone.
"Lady," he greeted her, bowing, clearly moved by her distress. "I am Râdbaran, Ranger of the North. Tell me how I can aid you."
Her thin face lit a little at his courtesy, but there was a twist to her answering smile. "Alas," she replied gently, "I fear you have mistaken me. Urwen I am, widow of Haldorn, and not the Lady Saelon."
"I see more than one lady here among you," Râdbaran insisted, in his gallant way, and smiled on the young woman and a pair of nearly-grown girls in fine linen at her side. The young woman's smile was thankful on her elder's account, but the girls looked askance and tittered. "You are all our kinswomen, are you not?"
Now Urwen's smile was unreserved, grateful for the grace of his recovery. "Take care, Râdbaran," she warned lightly. "We are desperately short of men, and my daughter or cousins may set their hearts upon you."
"I am already spoken for, I fear. Who are your kin, Urwen?" he asked. "From your speech, you have dwelt near Evendim."
"My father was Halglas, from Calen Amon."
"Then we are cousins," Halgorn broke in, grinning. "I am Halgorn, of Gelltunn, Dírnuir's son."
Urwen held out a hand and he stepped forward to take it. "It is good to see a kinsman," she said, voice trembling as if between tears and joy. "We are at the end of the world, here."
"Literally," Meagvir agreed dryly.
There was the thudding of hooves on the track behind them, and they turned to see a chestnut mare rounding the turn halfway up, bearing two riders. Dírmaen recognized the horse, and the red-haired youth who now sat pillion behind a dark-haired woman, awkwardly clutching a basket as well as his spear with his free arm.
"Ah," Urwen said, abruptly composed, stiff. "Here is the Lady Saelon."
Once they had dismounted, the woman handed the reins to the youth and shook her kilted skirt of stained woollen down over bare feet. "See that Eapag gets the limpets," she told him. Dírmaen was just thinking what a drab she was, despite the gleam of gold in her straggling hair, when she faced them and he was struck by the keenness of her eyes. "Welcome to Habad-e-Mindon," she greeted them forthrightly, dropping a courteous curtsey. "I am Saelon, lady of what is left of the folk of Srathen Brethil."
"Lady." Râdbaran bowed, taken aback and retreating into formality. "Râdbaran is my name, and Arathorn has sent me to aid you as I can."
She was short for a women of their kin, and looked up at him with a grave smile. "I hope you had a safe journey. These are your men?"
"Let me introduce them: Meagvir, my second; Dolladan; Halgorn; Dírmaen; and Hanend is helping your folk see to our horses."
Those eyes, grey as the sea, went to each of them as they were named to her. "We are honored that the Chieftain sent so many. Please, come into the hall and take some refreshment," she invited graciously, gesturing towards the smallest cave. "Rian, in the kist with Oddi's cup you will find a skin of mead; please fetch it and cups for our guests. And I believe we—" she gave her soiled hands a rueful glance "—could use some water for washing. Will you see to having my cave cleared out, Partalan, and heather cut for beds? Bereth, I believe Maelchon has a barren cow he was saving for loëndë; ask Fransag if we might have it a little early."
Urwen, the heroically suffering Dúnedain matron, had immediately excited their pity, but Dírmaen wondered what, if anything, this commanding woman might want from them. Râdbaran had recovered from his initial surprise, and was regarding her with thoughtful curiosity. "After you, Lady. Where exactly is your hall?"
She met his gaze, equally thoughtful. "Did news of us reach the Chieftain from those fleeing Srathen Brethil, or from the Havens?"
"Hhm. This way, Rangers."
When Dírmaen saw the massive door of oak set in the back of the grot, welcomingly open but strongly strapped with iron, he knew they were not simply going to shepherd these people back east. And when he saw what lay beyond, he finally understood why one so high as Râdbaran had been sent to gather in fear-bolted strays.
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As the long mild twilight of Nórui settled kindly on the land, their menfolk came home. A sturdy husbandman of the stock of the North, with his former neighbor's son and their servants, came in first, their draft horses blowing under the drag of good oak; later, a hunting party of younger men, including the boy heir, riding hell-for-leather at the sight of so many strange horses grazing on the lea.
After the scrappy but joyous feast thrown together for their welcome, Râdbaran invited Halpan to join them in the cave where they had been housed, promising him a draught of what had been sorely lacking. There was no need to ask twice. The young man, younger even than Hanend, had been relieved as well as pleased to see them, having borne the burden of being the chief man among them for many months. Dírmaen thought him a pleasant fellow, with the promise of greater consequence to come.
"Your people are in surprisingly good heart," Râdbaran complimented him when they were all gathered in the rough cavern, passing a cup. "Especially given the lack of this."
"Oh, we feel the lack," Halpan assured him, and lost no time in drinking. When he lowered the half-drained cup, he sighed with heart-felt appreciation. "Thank you, kinsman. How I've missed a long draught of ale. It is almost as good as Saelon's."
"Indeed?" Râdbaran handed the skin off to Dolladan and sat down on one of the benches with his own cup. "She seems a remarkable woman, your lady."
Halpan grinned. "I know few who have not found some cause for remark, on her appearance if not her behavior. She has always gone her own way—and a blessing that has turned out to be," he added, sobering.
"Your sister told me," Meagvir commented, "that she has long lived here, alone."
"Alone?" Halgorn exclaimed, frowning, as he handed Dírmaen the ale.
"Yes, here in this cave," Halpan answered, trying to pass it off as nothing very extraordinary. "If she had not known the land so well, there would be fewer of us. It was a hard winter, with so many mouths and so little corn."
Dírmaen's companions at the board, the huntsman Aniel and his brother Teig, had had little but praise for their lady, and their complaints were of her insistence that they eat strange weeds and things like snails from the sea, not of her unwomanly independence or the odd company she kept.
"How many did you lose?" Meagvir asked, his tone condoling.
"None," the young man declared proudly. "In fact, there are three more now than there were at the turning of the year, and another due shortly." That was good cause for pride, even if he was hardly more than the Lady's strong right hand, and he basked in the surprise and murmurs of approval from the older Dúnedain.
Halgorn was still frowning, baffled, but it was Hanend who voiced his disbelief. "How could she survive, alone, so far from Srathen Brethil? Surely she must have had a man to hunt and keep her."
Halpan glared at him, taken aback, then affronted. "Am I to sit here and listen to you slander my cousin, and you her guest?" he demanded, coldly furious.
Râdbaran silenced Hanend's protest with a cutting glance. "Please forgive our young kinsman," he pled. "I am sure he did not mean to question the Lady Saelon's honor. He is too fond of romances, and probably imagines father-crossed lovers plighting their troth in the Wild. Dírmaen, if you are not going to finish the ale, give the rest to Halpan as a peace offering."
Dírmaen went over and topped up Halpan's cup, emptying the skin. He did not understand how a woman—how anyone—could long live alone, far from aid and the company of others. Accident, sickness, the indifference that crept over one's heart when it little mattered what one did . . . or whether one did anything at all, save find enough food to keep hunger at bay. How could one avoid such things? Yet that might explain the carelessness of Saelon's appearance and the brusqueness of her manner. What were the niceties when there was no one to be nice for?
Halpan gave him a curt nod of thanks. "If no dishonor was meant, pardon my angry words," he said, dutifully forgiving; yet his mouth was still dissatisfied. "If you were only repeating what others have hinted, let me advise you to judge Saelon for yourself. I know," he allowed sourly, "that many of the women say such things, even my own sister." Dírmaen suspected there would be words between the siblings over this. "And, no offense to your cousin, Halgorn, there is an old quarrel between Saelon and Urwen, that they will not speak of. Grief and dependence have crabbed Urwen's temper. They are both great-hearted ladies, in their different ways, and justly proud, but we are on Saelon's ground here."
"I cannot imagine," Râdbaran replied sympathetically, "that two ladies would share a hall more peaceably than two lords one domain, whether they were kin or no. My own lady is as masterful as Saelon in her bounds. Even I must bow to her will in many things."
"As I have found it wise to do with Saelon," Halpan declared. "Halladan did not lightly send his children, or his people, into her keeping."
Râdbaran weighed this. "He sent, upon consideration? This was not simply the easiest way to flee?"
"It was not easy to cross the mountains, Râdbaran. Not in Girithron."
"I suppose not."
Dírmaen did not know what the Ered Luin were like in winter. The passes were lower than those of the Hithaeglir, which he had crossed, but they must be near as far north as Carn Dûm here. Short and drear would be the days of Girithron; long and icy the nights, cruel if haunted by evil. It should have been easier to retreat across the Lune, and that was what at least a score of families had done. But none of the Dúnedain, and none of those who held to their oaths to them. He drank and pondered that.
"And for all that she chafes here now," Halpan pointed out, "Urwen was the first to take refuge here, in Narbeleth."
"Why here," Halgorn asked, "and not with us in the Emyn Uial?"
Halpan's silence stretched on until it fired curiosity; yet Rangers were practiced in patience. "She will not say," he finally told them, when no one would relieve him of whatever his burden was. "We suspect she may have had some foresight of what befell."
That was cause for silence. Such warnings were a grave matter, and to be respected.
Meagvir was the first to speak. "What brought Saelon to this place?"
"That is no secret: she loves the sea." Nevertheless, his hands turned his cup round and round, worrying at it. There was more than he was willing to say here, too. One Dúnadaneth drawn hither, one driven, and no great love between them. Strange.
Râdbaran regarded Halpan solemnly. "She would be loathe to leave it, then?"
"Very." There was no doubt in the young man's voice.
Setting aside his cup, Râdbaran folded his hands and rested his chin against them. "We are in Lindon, and the Elves do not look favorably on your settlement here."
"So they have told us," Halpan muttered.
"Are the rest of you wedded to this place?"
He did not have to consider long. "No. Some would be eager to leave, if there was a safe way out . . . although others will cleave to Saelon."
"Would she even consider going?" Râdbaran asked.
Halpan drank while he thought. "Perhaps, but only out of duty to us."
"Where would your folk go, if they could?"
"Home," Halpan said. "To Srathen Brethil."
"Save for these fell-beasts, or raugs, or whatever they are," Halgorn pointed out.
"Save for them, yes," Halpan replied shortly. "Saelon has made a pact for vengeance with Veylin, but these things are so deadly that we dare not stay abroad after dark. We cannot even scout across the mountains. A single man would be a dire loss, as we are."
"We can help you there," Râdbaran told him. "Tell me about this Veylin. The Dwarves have suffered from these raugs as well?"
Halpan nodded. "How much, I do not know, but at least two slain and Veylin lame for life."
"Dwarves take vengeance very seriously," Dolladan observed. He had more experience of Dwarves than the rest of them, from his time near the High Pass. "Yet their lives being longer, they sometimes have more patience in such matters than Men, preferring to be sure of their stroke."
"Veylin has been counseling Saelon to wait until we are stronger, or at least better fed," Halpan confirmed, with a wry smile. "I admit his arguments are sound, but they carry less weight with Mais and Aniel."
Dírmaen was glad someone was keeping these courageous but ill-prepared young men on a tight rein. Hunting fell creatures was a grim task, and the attempt had already slain their elders.
"If these raugs are ranging so widely in the mountains, how are the Dwarves coming to you?" Dolladan asked.
The young man shrugged dismissively. "Veylin and his people dwell only a few hours from here."
"West of the mountains?" Râdbaran exclaimed.
"Yes," Halpan replied, puzzled by his astonishment.
"Do the Elves know this?"
"I do not know."
Râdbaran rubbed his jaw. "Will you tell us where their mansion is? It would be useful to speak with them about the raugs."
"I would if I could," Halpan assured him, "but I am ignorant of that as well. They come to us."
Dolladan snorted. "That's Dwarves for you." He looked to Râdbaran. "A hall like this is not delved for a season's shelter. The Dwarves must desire these folk for neighbors."
"Why?" Râdbaran wanted to know. "To weaken Lindon's claim?"
"Who can tell? At the least, it would save them carrying grain from the Shire or Bree; there is little to be had nearer."
"What do you think?" Râdbaran asked Meagvir.
"I think we should get these folk back to Srathen Brethil or across the Lune, as soon as may be. Between Elves and Dwarves is not a good place to be."
"But the raugs—" Halpan protested.
"Perhaps we can deal with them with greater dispatch than the Dwarves," Râdbaran asserted. "Halgorn has some experience with fell creatures. Have any of your men fought these things?"
"All who fight them are slain," Halpan said bleakly. "Save perhaps Veylin. The only ones who have seen more than menacing shapes and the bodies of the slain are Tarain and Aniel."
"Speak with them tomorrow," Râdbaran told Halgorn, "and see what you can learn. They are abroad during the darkness, you say." He gestured out of the cave's mouth at the lingering gloaming. "I see your nights are very short, so far north. Perhaps at loëndë there will be so little darkness that something may be accomplished."
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Past mark of mouth: the age of horses was and is commonly judged by seeing how much their teeth have worn down. This is quite accurate until about 8 years of age; after that most of the best markers have worn away. A horse past mark of mouth was therefore comparatively old (especially in the days before modern veterinary care, when they were often worked very hard); you would not be getting too many more years of work out of them.
Rangar: the plural of ranga, a Númenorean "yard," approximately 38 English inches.
Bondsmen: someone dependent on a bond or contract with their lord for their support; i.e., one without land in their own right. This is approximately equivalent to the term the folk of Srathen Brethil use, cottar, but places greater emphasis on the dependence, being bound. The shadings of meaning found among the wide variety of labels used for lower class people in the early (and later) medieval period are as significant as they can be subtle, with different flavors in different cultures.
Pillion: the position of a second rider, sitting behind the saddle; before sidesaddles, women often rode pillion.
Limpet (Patella sp.): gastropod with a cone-shaped shell that clings tightly to rocks in the intertidal zone; while some people assert that they are only good for fishbait, in Argyll they were commonly made into a broth, which was supposed to be particularly good for nursing mothers.
Arathorn: this is Arathorn I (2693–†2848), the great-great-grandfather of Aragorn Telcontar, the King Elessar.
Loëndë: Mid-Year Day.
Grot: grotto, cave.
Hithaeglir: the Misty Mountains.
Carn Dûm: the chief fortress of the Witch-King's realm of Angmar, at the northwestern end of the Hithaeglir.
"Short and drear the days of Girithron": if the Shire is at about the same latitude as the English West Midlands, Habad-e-Mindon and Srathen Brethil are at about the same latitude as Argyll (56° N). Consequently, the length of the day varies dramatically with the seasons. There would be around seven hours of daylight at the winter solstice (Yule/mettarë and yestarë) and seventeen and a half hours of daylight at the summer solstice (Midsummer/loëndë).
The High Pass: Cirith Forn en Andrath, "The High-climbing Pass of the North," over the Misty Mountains east of Rivendell; this leads to the Old Forest Road or Men-i-Naugrim, "The Dwarf-road." This is the way Thorin and Company took—or tried to take—to the Lonely Mountain, and would appear to be the main route for traffic between Eriador and the Vale of Anduin after the Bridge at Tharbad was broken.
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.