5. By and Large
And though thy soul sail leagues and leagues beyond--
Still, leagues beyond those leagues, there is more sea.
--Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "The Choice"
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Saelon breathed deeply of the light, sweet fragrance of woodruff, and nestled deeper under the thick white woolen blankets. She had never understood how people could be bed-loving, but this one was a temptation to sloth. It felt as if the tick was stuffed with feathers . . . . But how many birds would it take, to fill so broad a bed? Did all the guests have one, or was this a luxury granted her on account of her title, or her sex? And the linen . . . . She ran a leisurely hand over the cover of the pillow. So finely spun and woven!
The wine had been very good . . . though she had nearly nodded over the second cup, and had little memory of coming to bed. She raised her head. What time was it?
The night candle had burnt out, and light showed faintly through a hanging on the wall, which swayed gently, as if stirred by a breeze. Rising, Saelon folded one of the fine blankets around her, then put the heavy drapery aside with her free hand. She found herself looking out into the courtyard from above. It was full morning, yet still early; shadows filled the paved square and dimmed the sparkle of the fountain.
The briskness of the air, however, she could barely feel, for the window was filled with a lattice, set with what must be glass. Carefully she touched the chill gleam, so like the clear ice that skimmed a winter pool, and the lattice swung open a little further, silent on cunning hinges.
Wondrous. As rich as Veylin's halls, though here all was airy, light, and smooth. Were only Men poor?
Sighing, she shook her head in self-reproach. For years, she had been content in the spare simplicity of her cave, proud to need no more; but that conceit had proved frail in the face of her neighbors' magnificent prosperity. Not that she envied or coveted their wealth . . . yet it shamed her.
Perhaps she would not have felt so mortified if she had first seen such things in the days when she was free, unburdened by her people, who had been driven from their homes, bereft of lord and kin, goods and gear. Their need had made her a supplicant, dependent on the favor of strangers. How they would have fared if chance had not put Veylin in her debt beforehand, she did not want to imagine.
With him, she had been able to preserve her pride, though the balance of give and take was sometimes precarious; and Dwarves made no matter of her cross-grained temper. But with Elves, there was no mutuality, nothing to salve her dignity. Their forbearance, their generosity—she fingered the fabric of the figured drapery—only increased her sense of inferiority, of irredeemable obligation. She would like to be grateful, as she ought, but her own meanness left a bitter taste in her mouth.
A soft tap on the door. "Lady? Are you awake?"
The voice of the woman who had shown her this room soon after their arrival, and brought her water for washing. She must face them, sooner or later. Taking a deep breath and her manners in hand, Saelon crossed to the door and opened it. "Yes, Ithilith. A fair morning to you."
"And to you, Lady." Like most Elves, her attendant was slender, dark of hair, and surpassing fair; not so blithe as a maiden, but with the brisk cheer of a young wife. "Would you like hot water? Something to break your fast?"
"The water would be very welcome." Last night's hasty ablutions had kept her from soiling the bed linen, but Saelon still felt rank from the road. As she began to unplait her shaggy braid, she asked, "Is nothing served in the hall mornings?"
Ithilith laughed merrily. "Not so early on a middle-day morn, if there are not Dwarves in the house! You may take your meals at the common table, or here in your room, however you prefer. You will have to be quick if you wish to keep company with the Dwarves, however—they are nearly finished."
"How quick can you be with the water?"
Quicker than she was in finding and shaking out her heather-colored gown. Having set the steaming pitcher down on the dresser that held the basin, Ithilith gazed on the roll of dirty clothing Saelon had taken from her pack with a pretty little moue. "Let me have those washed for you. Is there any linen you would like pressed?"
Pressed linen. When had she last worn pressed linen? Her grandmother's burying? There was no leisure for such niceties at Habad. "Yes, please. The underdress in the bag on the left." She picked up the cake of fine soap by the basin; last night she had not noticed its scent of lavender. "What I would really like," she sighed, "is a bathe, so I can wash my hair."
"This is nice," the elf-woman exclaimed.
Turning, Saelon found she had unrolled the sea-green gown. "A parting gift from my niece," she told her, "and my cousin." Nice; yes, it was nice. Nicer than anything else she had. As nice as the primrose-yellow dress her attendant was wearing.
Ithilith's dark grey gaze was not so keen as Gwinnor's, but Saelon still felt her thoughts were as plain as if she had spoken them. "The color suits you well. Let me take these," she suggested, gathering up the clean as well as the dirty linen—there was little enough of either—leaving Saelon only the shift she stood in and the heather-colored gown, "while you dress. Would you like to visit the baths after you have broken your fast?"
Baths? What were they? Another marvel, no doubt. Yet so long as she could face all these beauteous strangers without greasy hair and the lingering odor of horse, she would suffer more sophisticated strangeness. "Thank you. I would like that." Her traveling companions would have to make do, for one more morning, with merely a clean face and freshly braided hair.
Yet, as she came down in her second-best gown, the ominous grumble of dwarven voices echoed up to the landing, despite the many tapestries cloaking the warm brown stone of the hall below. Apparently she was not the only malcontent. "The eggs were good, I grant you—" Bersi, who she had always found easy-tempered for a Dwarf "—but why could you not serve them with rashers?"
"Or a nice piece of ham?" Now she could see one end of the board. Something dark dangled from the elegant meat-fork in Skani's brawny fist, and he surveyed it with marked disgust. Gaerol stood by Bersi, listening attentively to their complaints.
"Because they are Sea Elves," Veylin declared, gazing up at the tall, silver-haired steward with arch suspicion. "Do you try every Dwarf with these when first they come to Mithlond, Gaerol?" Catching sight of her, he burst into defiant laughter. "But here is one who you will not put off with such fare!"
Everyone turned to look at her. Bersi, brows skeptically low, muttered, "Lady, I do not think even you would eat this."
"What is it?" Saelon asked cautiously.
Barði offered his plate, emptied except for the offensive object. "They say it is a fish."
"If you must serve fish," Vitnir rumbled, "why could it not be trout, instead of these things that must be salted and smoked like a hide?"
"It is a kipper, Lady," Gaerol told her, and though his tone was long-suffering, there was a sportive glint in his grey eye. "A very wholesome food . . . and delightful, if eaten hot."
Saelon considered the grey-brown filet with its many fine bones, and broke off a morsel. The flesh was unctuous, and the flavor strong despite the brining, so strong she could not tell what wood had been used to smoke it. "This would be very good, hot, if it were not the whole meal. Did I hear there were eggs?" she asked with a hopeful smile.
Gaerol bowed reverently as a courtier. "Howsoever you would like them prepared, Lady. It is a pleasure to serve so discriminating a palate."
Now he would jape with her? "Howsoever you brought them to my friends will suit me," she replied, taking an empty seat beside Thyrð and surveying the half-emptied board: two kinds of bread, new fruit from the orchard . . . .
Veylin's laughter nearly drowned out the sweet tone of the small, silver-chased bell Gaerol took from the table; lifting the pitcher at his left hand, the russet-bearded Dwarf filled a cup and passed it her way with a pleased grin. "Is there anything that comes from the sea that you will not eat, Saelon?"
"What makes me ill," she replied drolly, taking the cup. "Where are Gaernath and Dírmaen? I know I am tardy," she confessed, setting down the small beer. "Master Skani, can I trouble you for the bread? But surely not so late that I have missed them." Was there no butter?
"The Ranger was before you, and has gone out to explore the town." Bersi reached for a pear. "The lad I have not seen."
Bread basket in hand, Saelon recalled Gaernath's request. "He wanted to go back to the square, the place with the trees and the fountain." Yet Gwinnor had left them before the horses were unloaded. Had Gaernath gone in search of it alone, in this strange place?
"Never fear, Lady," Gaerol reassured her, as the bell-summoned server left to relay his order for her meal to the kitchens. "Your young kinsman fell into conversation with the grooms as they tended your horses, and did not seek his bed until the stars were fading. I believe he is still there. Shall I send someone to fetch him?"
"No." She smiled with thanks and relief. "He has earned his rest."
"You will spoil the lad, Saelon," Veylin warned, shaking his head.
"We are not Dwarves, who delight in toil," she reminded him. "He was dutiful and good-spirited on the journey, more than is to be expected in a lad his age. Let him have his reward! Gaerol," she asked, "is there someone who could take him about later, and show him the town? He is a mannerly lad, and enamoured of Elves; hopefully the task will not be a chore."
Gaerol smiled. "Of course, Lady. And yourself? Do you not wish to see more of Mithlond?"
They were here, two days before Yáviérë. What else was she to do with herself? "Certainly . . . as soon as I am more fit to be seen myself."
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Saelon stared dubiously at the steaming water, and wondered if winkles felt so apprehensive when she brought them to the pot. "Get in?" she repeated. This was more outlandish than anything she had seen in Veylin's halls.
Sitting on the edge of the pool, which was set with patterns in shades of blue and green and grey, Ithilith laughed. "Come—it is not that hot." She put her legs into the water, then, a few moments later, slid in after them. "It is very pleasant, once you are in."
"I have never seen so much hot water," Saelon excused herself lamely.
"I suppose not." Settling onto a kind of bench or shelf under the water, the elf-woman smiled beatifically. "You have come from the coast north of Himling?"
This was foolish. As gracefully as she could, Saelon imitated her guide. She gasped a little at the warmth—not enough to cook, no, little more than blood-heat, yet more than any tide pool under the blazing summer sun—and found the seat. While the water came only to Ithilith's snow-white shoulders, it nearly reached her chin . . . though by sitting lengthways and tipping her head back, she could easily soak her hair, and felt less exposed. "Yes. Do you know that country?"
"No, I am from the south. Eryn Vorn is delightful, but it was better when all Minhiriath was under tall trees. Is it true that there are no trees in the north?"
Once, in answer to her curiosity as a child, her father had knelt to draw the West in the dust for her and tell over its regions, one by one. Minhiriath was one of the empty, wild lands between Eriador and Gondor, the southern march of the North Kingdom. "There are trees, but not so many nor so tall as you have here. Save where there is shelter, the gales of winter are too harsh for anything larger than rowan and willow."
"We have gales as well," Ithilith observed, drawing a leisurely hand along her own arm. "There was an unseasonably strong one not many days ago."
Saelon lifted her head and gazed at her, puzzled. "We had rain south of the Little Lune, but nothing like the tempest that struck Habad-e-Mindon before we departed, a fortnight ago."
Those finely drawn dark brows knit slightly, then her expression smoothed again. "Yes, I suppose it has been so long." She shrugged negligently.
She was an Elf: a year must seem a trifle to her, but how could one say so? To Saelon's relief, she was saved from replying by the opening of the door. Two more elf-women came in: the hair of one raven, and the other gold. Ithilith greeted them familiarly in the elf-tongue, and the ethereal creature of sunshine and ivory poured forth some news that set the three of them laughing gaily. It was not easy to follow their quick, lively talk: their speech was somewhat different from the Sindarin of her Dúnedain kin, with a rhythm like the purling water of a swift burn. Sitting silently apart, Saelon had just gathered they were discussing a new rupture between feuding neighbors when the blonde broke into song, caroling a savage flyting in the purest tones.
Saelon was grateful for the heat, which prevented her from blushing. She had never imagined Elves said such things, and certainly not of each other. As the others joined gleefully in on the nonsensical refrain, Saelon stood and moved unobtrusively towards the steps that led out of the pool. Surely she had soaked long enough to go and scrub in the room Ithilith had shown her—
"Does my singing displease you?" the blonde asked, breaking off mid-verse.
"Oh, no," Saelon exclaimed. The elf-woman's voice—all their voices—were lovely, and, really, the song was merely silly, childish in some ways. Her embarrassment suddenly seemed callow. "Though I would probably find it more entertaining if I knew the parties." Favoring them with a conciliating smile, she urged, "Go on, please. I wish to wash my hair particularly thoroughly, then must hasten back to the guest-hall to meet my kinsman. Do not leave your friends, Ithilith," she begged, as her attendant began to rise. "I can find my own way back."
The raven-haired elf-woman sat up straighter, giving her the keen attention a thrush might give a snail. "You are the Dúnadaneth from the northern shores?"
Checking the impulse to curtsey—so absurd when unclad—she acknowledged, "Yes, I am Saelon, Lady of what remains of the folk of Srathen Brethil."
"I thought the Dúnedain were tall." That black head canted curiously. "Otherwise you have the look of the Men of the Sea."
"My father had no complaints, so I suppose I must be, runt of the litter though I am." It had been half a lifetime since her ancestry had last been questioned, but her old, pert answer popped out before she could think better of it.
The blonde tittered, and Ithilith cast her friend a glance that might have been reproachful, but the raven-haired woman grinned unashamedly at Saelon. "Is that why you keep company with the Naugrim? So you have someone to look down upon?"
For a moment, she could only stare, stricken; aghast. Too much: this was too much presumption, too much discourtesy . . . and from utter strangers, who had not even troubled to give their names in return for hers. "I do not," she declared, furiously cold despite the steam curling about her, "look down on Dwarves." Turning, she strode up the steps out of the water, and from the chamber, with as much dignity as nakedness allowed.
Back in the washing room, the air felt cool after the heat of the bath, but her outrage kept her warm as she scrubbed herself fiercely, trying to sluice away the insinuation with the dirt. They were probably making a satire on her—the uncouth mortal, stunted like her barbarous friends—even now, which they would spread as gleefully as the slanderous rants of their neighbors. Well, as she had said, she could find her way back to the guest-hall. Even if she took a wrong turning, she need only find the water or the wall, and follow them until the wall brought her back to the gate, and so to the great avenue. Should she complain of Ithilith to Gaerol? She would have to give some reason, when she asked for another attendant.
As if thought summoned, Ithilith came in. Wrapping herself in a towel, Saelon moved away from the basins and took a seat on one of the further benches, pointedly turning her back to the elf-woman, and began dragging her comb through her hair.
Save for the splash and trickle of water, you would not have known anyone was there, so silent was Ithilith. . . until, as Saelon yanked impatiently at an especially stubborn snarl, that dulcet voice murmured, "May I, Lady?"
The affectation of care made her savage. "You think I cannot manage my own hair?"
"You are only compounding anger with pain," Ithilith said quietly. "Will you not let me make some amends for my thoughtless friends?"
The temptation to throw the comb at her was great; but she must remain in this place for two more days. She must try not to quarrel with every Elf she met. They dwelt at Habad at Círdan's pleasure. "Very well," she said, trying to sound haughtily gracious rather than sulky, and held the comb over her shoulder.
It was taken lightly from her hand, then those long-fingered hands drew her hair back, gently loosing the knotted strands.
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Dírmaen sat gazing into the flames on the hearth, a cup of wine cradled in his hands. This spell of peace and solitude was welcome, though he expected it would be brief: without, the air was growing damp, the sky grey and low; the harbinger, he had been told, of the fogs from which the Havens took their name. Such weather ought to bring the others back to fire and board. Indeed, there was the door opening now. Turning in his seat, he looked to see if it were the Dwarves or his own people—
—and started to his feet, hastily setting down his cup.
"There you are!" Gaernath cried cheerily, shutting the door behind them. "Where have you been? You have missed the sight of many fair things!"
None so fair as Saelon, who smiled to see her cousin forgetful of the heartache that had threatened to turn him dour before his time. She wore the same wine-colored gown that had graced her slim figure the day they had danced in Lothron, and her dark hair was arranged with a simple elegance that became her very well. Had she captured some of the beauty of this Elvish place, or was her own merely heightened now that she was no longer living rough on the road? "Have you been shown the town?" he asked, somewhat at random, trying to recover himself. "Then you must be weary with walking. Lady, may I call for something to refresh you?"
Her grey eyes turned to him, cool and changeable as the sea. "Yes," she allowed, "drink would be welcome, for us both." A shadow of dissatisfaction crossed her face, and Dírmaen braced for ill temper; but it seemed a passing cloud. "We did not walk far, but whether because the paving is unyielding underfoot or I have spent too many days on horseback, my feet are disgracefully tender."
"Here," he offered, gesturing to his very comfortable seat, "set you down, while I find a server."
"I'll go," Gaernath volunteered. Youth and a joyous heart made him seem as tireless as their hosts . . . or perhaps it was the undying appetite of a youth coming into his final growth that made him so willing to run an errand to the kitchens.
"There are plenty of good seats here," Saelon pointed out, looking somewhat amused by his gallantry as the lad strode off. "I need not take yours."
"As you wish," Dírmaen murmured and, once she had found one to her taste on the other side of the hearth and settled into the supple leather, sat down again.
Before, broken only by the crackle of a good wood fire, the silence of the hall had been restful after conversing long with strangers; now it felt strained, unnatural, and he had to resist the temptation to reach for his cup. Drinking would excuse him from speech, but politeness forbid, until Saelon had the same provision.
"You did not answer Gaernath," she finally said. "How did you spend your day? I missed you this morning."
Had she, truly, or was this only a courteous commonplace, something to soften the starkness of her question? "I went out early to walk about the town, and fell in with one of Círdan's marchwardens returning from last night's merry-making." Like Gaernath, he had been in great need of fresh faces and new wonders, to shake off the sourness of his mood, cloyed by his traveling companions. "He was willing to forgo his bed to hear all I could tell of the raugs." A day under green leaves, keenly discussing the state of the West—Halpan had brought some news back with him, but little more than common knowledge, which was closer to ignorance—had been reassuring as well as refreshing. Dírmaen sometimes feared that if evil befell, back in the heart of Arnor, he would not hear of it until too late. They were so isolated at Habad-e-Mindon.
"Would that he had an interest in them this time last year," Saelon said dryly, stretching her deerskin-clad feet before the fire.
Yes; the lively debate about the foul creatures among the captains and wardens lounging under the oaks—whether they had indeed been a kind of troll, as the Dwarves believed, or some new spawn of evil, bred in Angmar to bedevil the West—would not bring back Aniel . . . nor Arathorn. Still, it had been reassuring to hear Coruwi, particularly aggrieved that the things laired in water, declare his intention to visit the north before long, to assure himself that they were utterly destroyed.
Yet surely Gwinnor could speak to that point, since he had lately roamed the lands near Habad. Why else had he troubled to return, so soon after his embassy in the spring? Not to spy upon the Dwarves, it seemed: it was impossible to tell of the raugs without speaking of Veylin and his company, and while none of the Elves were pleased to hear Dwarves had strayed from their mountains, few were inclined to make more of it than an excuse for wit.
"You know Mithlond?" Saelon broke into his musings. "You have been here before?"
"You went without a guide?" she asked, with what looked like a mixture of envy and surprise. "Through this warren?"
Dírmaen could not help but chuckle, remembering his own bewilderment the first time he set foot in a place larger than Bree. "I have been in towns before, and though this one is more beautiful and less noisome than those of Men, one is much like another. This is your first?"
Saelon nodded. "I had never been more than a few leagues beyond Srathen Brethil," she confessed, "until I went to the shore."
Why should she have? Women's work tied them to hearth and home, and the furthest most went was to their husband's roof, unless driven by ill-chance. The wonder was that she had gone to the shore. "And what do you think of the Havens?" If the whole of her experience were the rustic dwellings of Srathen Brethil and dwarven halls, she might well be overawed, especially at this time of fesitval.
Perhaps she was. "It is full of marvels," she murmured. "I knew such things as towers and ships only from tales." She turned her gaze, melancholy rather than delighted, to the fire. "To think that our people once had them."
They had: he had seen the ruins of the tower of Amon Sûl on Weathertop, and of the great bridge at Tharbad—the broken bones of the North Kingdom. "Gondor still does." Small comfort, maybe; but all was not yet lost. The Shadow had receded from the West, and some of the Firstborn, powerful to resist it, were loathe to sail, even here. Hope was not dead.
"You have been to Gondor?"
"Only its western reaches," he protested, heart beating quicker as her eyes came back to him, keen with interest. She loved tales . . . and he told them very ill. "I have heard that Minas Tirith is far greater than the Havens, though I cannot believe it is so fair."
She smiled, taking pity on his reticence. "You have traveled far."
Gaernath was coming back across the hall, accompanied by an Elf bearing a heavily laden tray. "That," he declared with grave dignity, "is why they call us Rangers, Lady."
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By and large: while this phrase has taken on the meaning of "in general," it was originally a nautical expression. A ship that sails well by performs well when pointed as close to the wind as possible (usually the hardest direction to sail); while one that sails well large performs well when the wind is on the beam (perpendicular to its course, usually the ideal situation). Hence a ship that sails well by and large performs well in both difficult and easy circumstances.
Tick: the fabric case or cover of a mattress.
Middle-day: in the Elvish calendar, there are three enderi, or middle-days, between the end of Yávië or Autumn and the beginning of Quellë or Fading. Yáviérë in the Dúnedain calendar falls on the third of these middle-days. As is usual for days falling outside the regular calendar, these are festival days (or, since they are celebrated by star-loving Elves, nights).
Bathe: noun, British English; a swim for the purpose of bathing. It should be remembered that until the twentieth century people bathed—in the comprehensive bathtub sense—infrequently. Given the labor involved in heating large quantities of water, only the richest could afford to bathe privately; those who lived in urban centers used public bathhouses (which were common in Europe whenever towns were, during the Roman Empire and again after the twelfth century. Sharing your bathwater with so many other people probably helped spawn the belief that too-frequent bathing was unhealthy). In rural areas, people simply had a bathe in the nearest pond, river, or stream; although, if modesty or the weather forbid, there was always the "sponge bath" option. As is so often the case, some exception must be made for the ever-anachronistic Hobbits.
Kipper: herring (Clupea harengus) are jam-packed with beneficial fatty acids, but so oily that they cannot be preserved by air-drying. Therefore they are commonly kippered, brined in a salt and spice solution and then dried quickly through smoking.
Small beer: weak (or inferior) beer or ale; a common breakfast beverage well into the nineteenth century.
Eryn Vorn: the great forested cape south of the mouth of the Baranduin or Brandywine.
Minhiriath: the land between the Baranduin and the Gwathló or Greyflood (the southern border of Eriador and the North Kingdom). With Enedwaith (between the Gwathló and the Angren or Isen), it was under virtually unbroken forest until the Númenóreans began felling the timber for their ships there in the late first millennium of the Second Age. By the end of their first war with Sauron (who incited the natives to burn Númenórean timber depots and the forests) in S.A. 1701, both areas were largely deforested and remained so thereafter. Since the Great Plague in T.A. 1636, Minhiriath has been very sparsely populated (Unfinished Tales, "History of Galadriel and Celeborn," Appendix D: The Port of Lond Daer).
Flyting: the trading of abuse, usually scathingly personal in nature and sometimes in verse, as part of a dispute. It is always meant for public consumption; the parties contend for support through the display of verbal virtuosity and razor wit.
Naugrim: Sindarin, "the Stunted Folk"; what Elves generally call Dwarves among themselves.
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