1. Casting Off
I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving: To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it--but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.
--Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table
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Saelon had never journeyed so far herself, nor with so much baggage, but her menfolk were mortifying her already, and they had not even set forth. The rolled hides and sacks of down and wool they must carry to the Havens were awkward things, it was true—but surely it should not have taken Halpan and Partalan and Gaernath together half the morning to lash them and the two tight-jointed kists that held the herbs securely onto Maelchon's three sturdy workhorses.
Even more unaccountably, Dírmaen sat idly by on one of the great logs that had been brought up from the strand for seating at the harvest feast, the reins of the ready-saddled riding horses in hand. From his look of shortening patience, the Ranger appeared to be in accord with Veylin, for once.
They had appointed to meet the Dwarves at Maelchon's house, beside the river track, by mid-morning, and were now so late that the russet-bearded dwarf-lord and his younger nephew had ridden the rest of the way to the high dooryard of the cliff-set hall to see what had delayed them. "Come, Halpan," Veylin chastised the last Dúnadan of Srathen Brethil, scowling as the three disagreed in low hisses over how to load the gear and supplies onto her own dun packhorse, "we are losing good daylight!" Shifting in the saddle, he cast a reproachful gaze her way. "This is poor management, Lady."
Conscious that the keen eyes of Gwinnor were upon them—the raven-haired Elf seemed amused by the ineptness, though he was accompanying them to Mithlond—Saelon drew her ragged brown cloak more closely around her against the brisk breeze off the sea and answered as evenly as she could. "I have never traveled with so many beasts or goods. I had thought," she added, in a more private undertone, "that Partalan, at least, understood such things."
"Cannot we head out with the horses that are ready?" Veylin suggested, with the practicality of his kind. "Your beasts being so long-legged, Gaernath could surely catch us up with the last in an hour or two. If you fear he might go astray," he added, cocking a bushy, inquiring brow at the Elf, "perhaps Gwinnor would keep him company."
"Gladly!" the Noldo declared, courteous as ever, though Saelon thought there was a glimmer of mischief in his smile. Turning to the Ranger, he asked, "Will you set out with the Dwarves? I will follow with the Lady and Gaernath."
Dírmaen shook his head. "I would rather wait. It is too easy for mischance to separate companions." Looking over at Veylin, he said, "If you would start, Master, do not let us delay you further."
Veylin considered first one, then the other, rubbing the leather of his reins with a blunt thumb, before turning to her, his craggy face betraying nothing. "What is your wish, Lady?"
This was a knot as needless as the tangle Gaernath had made of harness an hour ago. "I wish," Saelon said tartly, "that I still had my old garron, if it is not fitting for me to ride astride. I do not like riding pillion." The dappled mountain pony had been staid and low enough that she could have sat doucely across his broad back, but she would never dare that on the tall, spirited horses of her brother's breeding.
Nor would she perch behind Dírmaen, her arm about his waist day-long. It was unwise, given the depth of his passion, only recently revealed to her; and cruel, to excite desire she would not return. Could not, given her misgivings about his motives and character. Having had her own will for more than a score of years, his censoriousness and jealousy had inspired distaste rather than regard, despite his many fine qualities.
Saelon almost wished she was brazen enough to ask Gwinnor if she might ride with him, for surely the sight of her embracing so exquisite a man would drive Dírmaen's absurd suspicions of Veylin from his head. Yet she mistrusted the Elf, with his fey, changeable moods . . . and he, too, was a rival of Veylin's, though for gems rather than her regard.
How had it come to this, that she should find herself vexed by the antipathies of Elves and Dwarves and Men? She did not want to take this journey, and all that made it bearable was the prospect of so many days of Veylin's company and conversation. Too seldom did she have the chance to see this most unlikely friend, and too often their meetings were marred by the hostility of others. Innocent, respectable conversation, as hopefully Dírmaen would see, while she sat modestly behind her young Edain cousin, who was as biddable as could be expected of a lad his age and charmed by both Dwarves and Elves.
Yet fretting on such things would not get them forwarder. "Halpan," she asked, not troubling to conceal her displeasure at such botchery from the one she was leaving in charge during her absence, "can you at least say how much longer you will all be at this? If it takes so long to load the beasts every day, Gaernath will not be getting much sleep."
Her red-headed cousin straightened up sharply, as if pricked in his pride, but Partalan lurched in his direction, catching an ill-balanced bag—and Gaernath in the side with his elbow. "Here, lad," the bearded swordsman growled, "is that the best job of lashing you can manage?"
Her not much older dark-haired cousin left off fussing over the straps on an off-side pack, awkward and abashed. "Ah . . . well," Halpan cast his strangely desperate gaze over the beast, its load, and the ground round about, where only a few items remained, "it should be but a little longer—"
"So you said when the sun was a span lower," Saelon pointed out pitilessly.
"Yes," he allowed, looking more and more like a guilty hound, "but there is still something missing—"
"Still? What?" He could not burden four beasts for a month's journey in an expeditious manner, yet he wished to serve as her steward in Srathen Brethil, when their scattered folk began to return next spring? Why had Dírmaen not taken the task in hand long before? To clearly show how much she had come to rely on him, or to annoy Veylin?
"Here she comes!" Muirne cried, in glad relief.
Saelon turned and stared in puzzlement at the usually shy young cot-wife, whose infant son lay at her breast, cradled in her knotted shawl, then followed her gaze along the shelf at the base of the pale cliff.
Her niece Rian, who she had been told was at Maelchon's, was slithering down the precarious track from the tower hill as if she cared naught for her neck, a bundle in her arms. She broke into a run when she reached the level, bare feet flying over the short turf, and came to a halt beside Saelon. "Finished!" she exclaimed in breathless triumph, green-touched grey eyes bright and perhaps a little anxious, holding out her burden to Saelon. "Forgive me, aunt, for delaying you, but I worked as quickly as I could!"
"On what?" Saelon's heart gave a sudden leap of hope, feeling naught but cloth in the bundle. Rian was a fine seamstress . . . .
"Look and see!"
Turning back the coarse but clean sacking, she found a swathe of fine blue-green woolen. "Where did you get this?" Saelon demanded, uncovering more—not simply fabric, but a dress, new and whole.
"Do you like the color?" Rian asked earnestly. "Halpan brought it back with him, along with the linen for the underdress, which is beneath. It will go so well with your jewel!"
For the second time in a week, Saelon was speechless; yes, there was an underdress, of fine silver-grey linen. She had been so dreading going among the Elves in a hand-me-down, turned gown.
Veylin stood in his stirrups, craning his neck to see over her shoulder. "Aye, so it will," he pronounced with satisfaction, settling back into the saddle. "You have some taste, it seems," he allowed, gazing on Halpan with a riffle of approval over deeper dissatisfaction.
Halpan laughed. "I knew nothing of your jewel, I swear. Yet I thought I could not go wrong with a color so like the sea."
"It is beautiful." Saelon looked from Rian to Halpan and tsked. "But you ought not to have!" With her new appreciation of the value of cloth, she thought of all the other things they lacked.
"We cannot have our Lady look meanly," Halpan maintained.
"I did not have time," Rian lamented, " to do the broidery upon it I would like."
She embraced her niece and gave her a hearty kiss on the cheek. "It is already too fine for me; but when I come home, you may finish it at your leisure. And you—" Saelon eyed Partalan narrowly. "I suppose your harping purchased the cloth?"
The short, crook-nosed Dunlending, who had swiftly bound all that remained but her pack onto the dun, shrugged carelessly and held the bag out to her. "It brought a little silver . . . which Halpan won of me at dice."
"Come here, you knave," Saelon commanded her Dúnedain kinsman, holding out the arm that did not cradle the timely gift. "You ought to have gotten yourself boots, instead . . . but thank you." She embraced and kissed him as well. "Take as good care of them all while I am gone."
"I will do my best, Saelon," he promised, then broke into a scapegrace grin. "I would rather face the raugs again, than the rough side of your tongue."
Veylin gave a cough that sounded suspiciously like stifled derision.
Saelon pushed Halpan away and took her bag from Partalan. "So, is all ready now?" As she untied it and carefully slipped the wrapped dress in—she could pack it properly when they stopped for the night—Dírmaen rose with a gusty sigh, and handed Coll's reins to Gaernath.
Rian, at least, had manners enough to drop an apologetic curtsy to the Dwarves. "Please pardon the delay, Masters," she asked. "I have found it hard to steal time to work on the Lady's gift, between the storm and the harvest feast." Indeed, her fair hands were still marked where the straw had cut her, as they worked feverishly to save their crop.
"Hmm, well. In the future," Veylin advised her, beard quirking with a smile though his tone was stern, "get me word of your stratagems. If you leave your allies out of your counsels, they are apt to complicate matters."
Though she ducked her head, Rian smiled in reply. "I will remember that, Master. Fare well, on your journey."
Veylin bowed courteously. "And you keep well, Dúnadaneth, until we meet again."
Dírmaen and Gaernath had mounted; Partalan had secured her bag on the dun. Finean was passing the lead rein for the first horse in the pack train to the Ranger, while Artan stood by with their spears. "Fare well, Saelon," Halpan wished her, interlacing his fingers and offering his hands as a step, before boosting her up onto Coll's haunch as Gaernath caught and steadied her. "We will have the grain threshed and in store by the time you return."
"I should hope so!" She found a tolerable spot and arranged her cloak and skirts. "Rian, be sure to get as many hazelnuts as you can, and sloes."
"And meadowsweet; yes, aunt."
Veylin had started down the track, Thyrð close behind him. Gwinnor shouldered his pack and cased bow, and strode lightly to the edge of the cliff-shelf, giving a piercing whistle. Below, on the machair, his grey mare lifted her proud head and whinnied in reply, then came running to meet him.
"Safe journey, Lady," Artan said, as he handed Gaernath his spear. "And a swift one."
"The sooner I am home again," Saelon assured Muirne's fair-haired young husband, "the better I shall like it."
Muirne waved as they set off, and Unagh beside her. Saelon only managed a short sweep of her arm before she had to brace herself against Gaernath's slim back as the horse picked its way down the steep, rutted path, Dírmaen following after.
They were on their way to Lindon, at last.
A shame, that they had lost any of the morning, for it was a fair day for traveling: the fresh, clear air had brought out all the richness of autumn's early hues and tempered the warmth of the sun. Veylin and his nephew were nearly to the little river on their steady-trotting ponies, one hood ruddy as the dying bracken, the other green as the well-washed turf where Gwinnor, also clad in the colors of moor and hill, leapt onto his mount. Beyond, amid the black cattle grazing on the golden stubble of their fields, Canand lifted his drover's staff high in farewell.
Saelon barely had time to return the gesture before they came down onto the greensward, and Gaernath pushed Coll into a canter, setting off in pursuit of the Dwarves. She had only just snugged more securely to the lad's back when a furious drumming of hooves came from behind. Tinnu, head contemptuously high, black mane and tail streaming, charged past them, clearly unwilling to follow.
"Hold tight!" Gaernath warned, and gave the brown gelding his head.
It was not much of a race, the Elvish horse being of such quality and only bearing a single rider, but Saelon laughed for the thrill of it. "Ho!" Veylin cried with alarmed displeasure as they pounded past the dwarf-ponies on the narrow track, setting the stolid beasts to dancing. A few furlongs brought them to the path up the higher bank, where Maelchon's house stood. Unchecked, Gwinnor's mare continued along the river track, while Gaernath turned Coll neatly and put him up the way between the hazel-brakes.
In Srathen Brethil, that fair glen east of the mountains, they had built their homes of timber, but there were few trees here between the mountains and the sea, and one of the conditions of their tenancy was that they should take no more than a single tree each year. For a blessing, they did not need wood for firing, peat being so plenteous; yet it would have taken years' worth of timber to raise even a small house—and Maelchon's family was large. So the burly husbandman had struck a bargain with the Dwarves, who had built him a fine house of stone.
Little surprise, therefore, to find the rest of Veylin's company awaiting their arrival with jacks in their hands, their ponies—at least a dozen—hitched to the may bushes where Fransag spread her linens. The smaller children were among them, petting the shaggy beasts under the watchful eye of Fram. Fransag was passing around with a stoup, while Tearlag, their serving woman, carried a basket of bannocks, refreshing their guests after the ride from their halls, some three leagues to the north. Maelchon sat on the bench by his door, conversing with Vitnir and Bersi.
The green-hooded coppersmith looked around at the sound of Coll's hooves. "Greetings, Lady," he hailed, as Gaernath brought their mount to a halt. "Where is Veylin, and your goods?"
"At your service, Master Bersi," Saelon replied, with particular courtesy. "They are behind us, but please, accept my apologies for our tardiness. My kin had a parting gift for me, which was not completed until a very little while ago. We have come, as you see, as quickly as we could."
"I do not think," Fransag said, glancing sideways at Skani with a knowing grin on her broad face, "they minded an excuse for a bite and a draught." Vitnir's prentice, whose jack she had just refilled, looked rather conscious. He had been perhaps a bit overfond of drink at the harvest feast, led off by his fellow prentices when he could not be kept from singing.
"No, indeed," Bersi allowed, smiling. "Your ale is good, Mistress."
"So, do you like your present, Lady?" Fransag wanted to know.
Had everyone known of it save her? "Very much. A timely gift indeed."
"A pity we cannot see you in it, before you go." The goodwife heaved a sigh, then looked around at hoofbeats from the east. "How did he go astray?" she wondered, as Gwinnor brought his mare cantering back along the high flat.
Boyish shouts of admiration turned Saelon's head in time to see Hanadan come tearing up the bank, with Guaire and Maon on his heels; all three looked as if they had thrust their way through the hazel-brakes. Halpan's young nephew did not hesitate to approach Tinnu as the mare came to a reluctant, prancing halt, tossing her head with impatience, though Maelchon's two boys hung back, still in awe of the Elf and his horse. "How do you stay on, without a saddle, when she goes so fast?" Hanadan demanded.
Gwinnor laughed; truly, he made sitting such a spirited beast appear effortless. "Long practice, child, and her good will."
"Will you have a stirrup cup, sir?" Maelchon asked, rising and coming forward. Like his sons, he was shy of the High Elf, even when mostly shorn of jewels. Saelon herself sometimes found it hard not to call Gwinnor lord. He denied the title, but his manner contradicted him.
"Thank you, yes."
The husbandman carried the jack himself. "Once again," he said, deferentially offering the drink, "my thanks for your aid in securing our roof during the storm."
The Elf waved the gratitude off gracefully before accepting the cup. "So the Falathrim have always done in such blasts, throwing their nets over all."
Vitnir drained his ale and sniffed, gazing with disdain on the weighted ropes that had been thrown and interwoven over the heather thatch as the tempest winds rose. "Slates would have been better."
"On the whole, I would agree with you," Gwinnor told the ironmaster. "Yet during the fiercest storms, even slates tear free, and become terrible missiles. The only sure roof in such weather, Vitnir, is one such as yours."
"What would you know of our roofs?" the Dwarf asked, not too discourteously.
Once more, the Noldo's melodious laugh rang out. "Did I not live in Nargothrond with Felagund?"
"Did you?" Bersi asked curiously.
"Aye, and visited Khazad-dûm many times in the days of its glory, when the West Gate stood ever open to us in Eregion."
Veylin's second prentice, the blond Oski, returned his jack with a bow to Fransag and headed for the ponies . . . which proved to be good timing, for just then Veylin rode up, with Dírmaen and the packhorses on the heels of Thyrð's pony.
"There you are, Master," Maelchon greeted him heartily. "A stirrup cup, before you depart?"
If he had meant to clear the foreboding look of displeasure from Veylin's face, it was for naught. "No," the dwarf-lord declared curtly, "we have tarried too long as it is. Come," he urged his fellows, "let us mount and be on our way!"
Maelchon and his wife came over as the Dwarves readied for the road. "Fare you well, Lady," the black-bearded husbandman told her. "May Lindon be pleased with our scot and the agreement."
Gwinnor, who had negotiated it on behalf of Lindon's lord, shook his head with a reassuring smile. "You think Círdan will have thought better of it in half a year?"
"How can we know?" Saelon asked. "None of us know him—and little of Elves," she reminded him. "Your moods are changeable enough."
"My mood, but not my intent, I hope!" the Noldo protested. "Have I not been well-disposed to you and your folk?"
Courteous, always; a help during the great storm, there was no denying; but she could not forget how unsympathetic he had been to their desire to remain near the sea, until Veylin found a way to plant doubt in his cool heart. Nothing she could say had moved him.
Veylin, who had drawn up between them, gave a most expressive snort. "After some persuasion," he rumbled. "Do you intend to ride at that pace for the whole trip? If so, I will see you in Mithlond in a sennight or so."
The Elf's smile flashed in the sun, like the gems he was not wearing. "You did not think I would ride you down, surely, Veylin. Tinnu must have a run, if she is to pace alongside of your good beasts all the day long."
"She need not."
Saelon held her breath, looking from Veylin, decked in no more than russet wool and bright copper, astride his stubby pony, to the tall, raven-haired Noldo on his high horse. She had not dared to refuse Gwinnor's offer to accompany them to the Havens . . . but she had never been there, nor any of her folk. Veylin's trade had taken him there often, and he knew the way well.
"Come, Veylin," Gwinnor chided, almost plaintively, "do not take that tone. I would enjoy your company, and that of the Lady—" giving a little bow in her direction "—on my journey home, which would otherwise be tedious, though shorter. Must I beg your pardon for my exuberance, especially after the morning's frustration?"
Veylin chuffed, regarding him through narrowed eyes. "Then see that we enjoy yours! Go on," he waved his hand, "lead off. Will you follow the mountains, or the sea?"
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After Stormy Seas: author's notes
This is the fourth story in the Dûnhebaid ("Westshores") cycle, which is set on the north coast of the Ered Luin during the mid-29th century of the Third Age of Middle-earth. As explained in the author's notes for Rock and Hawk, this cycle takes its sense of place from the West Highland coast of Scotland and draws heavily on the archaeology and traditional lifeways of that region, as Tolkien drew on the languages and lifeways of the English West Midlands. For the fullest appreciation of the characters and events, I recommend that you read the preceding stories, Rock and Hawk (T.A. 2847), Fair Folk and Foul (T.A. 2848), and Of Like Passion (T.A. 2849). From this point onwards, I will restrict definitions in the author's notes to new, especially pertinent, or particularly obscure words; if you find an arcane or oddly used word that is not clarified in the notes at the end of the chapter, please go to the Dûnhebaid Dictionary.
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Hazel-brakes: hazel thickets.
Jack: a leather tankard.
Stirrup cup: "one for the road"; a farewell drink, taken on horseback.
Falathrim: the Elves of the Falas, the western shore of Beleriand in the First Age; presumably Gwinnor is referring to those who followed Círdan to Lindon, or their descendants.
"the weighted ropes that had been thrown and interwoven over the heather thatch": in the Outer Hebrides, where strong gales are common, criss-crossed ropes or old nets, weighted with large stones, were used to keep the roof-thatch from blowing off the blackhouses.
Scot: a payment or local tax; what you don't pay if you get away "scot-free." Saelon and her people are at some difficulty about what to call their payment to Lindon, since they don't want to confuse them with the tribute they owe their traditional overlord, the Chieftain of the Dúnedain.
Sennight: seven nights; i.e., a week.