Pass on, let us pass, all is passing,
And I will look back many times:
The sound of hunting horns, when it dies
On the wind, is like our memories.
--Guillaume Apollinaire, "Hunting Horns"
* † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † *
"No," Saelon decided. "The meeting in Srathen Brethil was fixed. You must keep it, if you would have our folk's faith. Especially if there is risk of reivers."
Halpan shook his head, mouth tight, unhappy. "How can we leave, after what has happened? Who will guard you?"
Sighing, she kneaded the ache in her bruised hand. "Randir is staying--" the Ranger was in her chamber, watching over Dírmaen while they held this council "--Craec is on his way to Lindon, and the Dwarves are near to hand. The reivers were not formidable foes; it was that they took us unawares. We will be more vigilant now." The afternoon sun, though still too feeble to warm, was like a blessing on her face, and she rested her shoulders against the stone of the cliff, a bulwark at her back. It was good to be out of the closeness of the sick-room, breathing the free, salt-scented air. A pity it was not warmer, or she would have them bring Dírmaen out as well.
Unswayed, Halpan turned to Faelnoth. "Will you not help me convince her?"
The grizzled Ranger drew on his long chin, eyeing them doubtfully. "I do not think I will," he confessed. "The Lady is correct. If a good watch is kept--I vouch for Randir, and that lad Gaernath has a sharp eye--your people should be safe enough. Safer than many in Eriador, with so snug a stronghold as this and Elves to beat the bounds! If you appointed to meet your men in Srathen Brethil, I urge you to hold to your plan. The outlaws lodged there because it is deserted--we must populate it with decent folk again. We might spare you one of our number there, as well as here," he allowed, "to guard you until you have men enough to spare, but we Rangers are stretched thin. If you will not come back to our side of the Lune, you must look to your own safety."
Saelon nodded. "I understand. Halpan, go."
"In a few days, perhaps. I would see how Dírmaen does, and whether this Coruwi comes."
An excuse for delay; and if Dírmaen did poorly or Coruwi did not come, he would use that as an excuse to remain. "You ought to go with Faelnoth. If any reivers remain, they will be in the hills. Three men will be safer than two." Partalan would not go if Halpan stayed . . . and she would rather the mistrustful swordsman was not here to strike sparks from Lindon's borderers. Not all of Círdan's folk were friendly to Men.
"And, to tell the truth," Faelnoth admitted, gamely shamefaced, "I would be glad of a guide. Dírmaen drove us at such a pace that I am not sure I could find my way back again through that maze of peaks."
If that was offered as a lure to his pride, Halpan did not rise. "You will not wait to see whether your comrade lives or dies?" he charged, sullenness giving his mouth an ugly set.
Faelnoth was genial, for a Ranger, but his easy manner hardened in offense, showing the iron beneath. "That is a luxury not often afforded Rangers. Halgorn and Hanend are keeping watch and watch in Srathen Brethil, waiting for news . . . and perhaps have your men to deal with as well. One we can spare. Randir is Dírmaen's friend, therefore he will stay and I must go. It is not as if more hands will speed Dírmaen's recovery."
True; there was little enough for anyone to do now. For the most part, Dírmaen slept, or lay as if sleeping, too weak to sit for long, perpetually chilled. Nordri had brought a half-dozen large cobbles from the riverbed, stones that would bear heating in the fire again and again without breaking, and these they snugged, wrapped in blankets, beside the Ranger's shins and forearms, two always in the fire to refresh their warmth. Canand, who would be halt for some weeks, had showed Finean how to bleed a stirk, and Saelon fed the hot dark blood to her patient in a clabber of ewe's milk, to replace what he had shed in their defense.
In her defense.
Though her head no longer ached, she did not want to think on that, for she did not like the look or smell of the swordcut on his arm. The slash across his back, which had nearly been his death, was no longer much threat; would likely never have been, if he had not galloped across country to reach them, the violence of motion continually breaking it open afresh. Still, the effusion of blood had cleansed the wound, which seeped little and clear.
The arm, though: that wound was deep, and she had not dared to clean it as thoroughly as she would have liked, unwilling to bleed him whiter still. Nor had she had the most virtuous simples for such wounds to hand at Maelchon's.
Fretting over it would do no good now. What was done was done, and she must pray he was not too enfeebled to bear the fever that had begun to touch him.
"Lady, are you well?"
"Hm?" Saelon blinked, and found Faelnoth gazing at her with concern. "Oh, pardon me-- I was thinking on my patient."
"Is there anything I can do that will aid Dírmaen?" he asked, soberly earnest. "If so, I--we--are at your command. We cannot spare men of his mettle . . . but then you know his quality better than I, since he was so long among you."
Saelon could not in honesty say aye; did not recall any great feat Dírmaen had accomplished, unless daring her displeasure could be accounted heroism. Yes, he had battled the raugs--as had Halpan; and Partalan, Aniel, and even Veylin, lameness notwithstanding. Dírmaen had struck her as a cautious man, rather: a watcher, quiet, calculating.
She found him quiet enough now.
"What was decided, Lady?" Randir asked when she returned to relieve him, rising from beside the low bed of heather where his friend lay. "Will your men stay, or go?"
"They will go, as promised," she answered, coming to lay a hand on Dírmaen's brow, testing for fever.
Was it disapproval that made him turn his face, pale and set, from her, or shame? He had ridden gallantly to their rescue, only to require saving himself. To be so weak, under her hands, must be mortifying to his pride . . . or it might be that her touch tormented him. Yet there was no one else to nurse him. Even if Rian had the skill, it was not fit that a maid should tend a man grown, no kin to her. Muirne had two infant sons, the elder at that trying age when "No!" was a favorite word; it was enough that she had taken in Tearlag, mute and still as a wounded bird. Murdag's time drew near and she fretted, this being her first, too taken with her big belly to attend properly to another . . . and her poor sister was striving, with Rian, to do all that would otherwise be left undone.
Dírmaen would have to suffer her care, as well as his wounds. Maybe it would cure him of his fancy for her.
If he lived. Fever grew on him that evening, and did not ebb with the new day.
* † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † *
Hands--a man's hands--reaching--
Saelon started awake, breath catching. The walls of her chamber were dusky cream in the lamp's low glim, the chalky scent of close stone an old friend, soothing hammering heart as well as mind. No danger; it was over . . . days past. Those who had hurt her were dead, one from her own blow--the hand-smoothed hilt of the knife Veylin had given her was here, half-hidden in the heather of Rian's pallet--and if any remained, their days would be short if they did not flee far, far from here.
Groping her shawl from the floor, Saelon sat up and looked over at Dírmaen, stretched out on his own bed of heather a few paces away. The lamplight combined with his pallor to give him a very ill color, and though his breathing was easy and quiet, sweat was beginning to sheen his face once more.
She had hoped that the fever had finally broken. After scrubbing at her sleep-gritted eyes, Saelon reached for the stoup. What little was left hardly slaked her own thirst. She would have to refill it. Tucking the dwarf-knife into the band of her skirt, she rose and slipped out, shutting the door silently behind her.
The hall was dimmer still, but the dark shapes of sleeping men caught her eye nonetheless. Always this shuffling for space . . . . Why had she not asked Veylin and Nordri for five chambers, or six? Shifting Rian from her room had thrown Finean and Tieg into the common room, though Unagh remained where she had been mistress. Saelon would have offered the men her cave, but that was not secure. At least Randir had accepted Halpan's invitation to take his place in the chamber the men of her household occupied.
Yet it might have been worse. If Fransag had abandoned her house, there would have been eight more to find room for.
Shaking her head to break the thought--she did not need to work out where she would have put them--Saelon lifted the heavy oaken beam that secured the door, set her hand on her knife, and stepped out into the night.
She jumped at the voice, which sounded no less startled, but it was one she knew well, and the waxing moon, low in the west, cast a glimmer on fair hair. "Artan! Whatever are you doing out here?"
The young cottar gave a low laugh of uneasy relief. "Keeping watch, Lady. And you?"
Saelon held up the empty stoup. "Fetching water." Had anyone told her they were setting a night-watch? "With a barred door at your back?"
"How else? We cannot let the villains walk in, if they take the watchman."
"True." Pounding on the door would be as good an alarm as any; Finean, outside his daughter's door, slept lightly. "But why must you sit guard? We are not so short of men as that." Such a duty should fall on the unmarried men, or Finean, whose daughters were grown, not a young father who would leave his wife and infant sons bereft, if ill befell him.
"I would rather," Artan said stoutly. "It is not right that Gaernath and the Ranger should patrol all day, and watch all night, too. The more of us who take a turn, the less burdensome it is."
Saelon managed a smile. "Thank you, Artan. I will rest easier, knowing you are here." When had the gawky lad become such a fine young man? Muirne had chosen well, when she followed him rather than her parents from the wreck of Srathen Brethil.
It was not far to the spring, the soft music of its fall as sweet a balm as the distant murmur of the surf; as the stoup filled, she trailed her hand through the chill water in the basin. Though the bruises, an ugly, muddy violet tinged with yellow, had begun to fade, the ache remained. Something was not right within, though she could not tell what. She had thought to while away the long hours she sat beside Dírmaen by spinning, but the hand did not serve, not long, without pain.
Too early to worry, yet; time healed much, and it had not been a week since the man of Angmar had kicked her. She must rest it as best she could and trust it would knit.
"How is Dírmaen?" Artan asked as she came back.
His face was a pale mask in the moonlight, but Saelon could hear the grief in his voice. "But no better, either?"
She shook her head, sighing. "The fever is obstinate . . . and he was much weakened by his wounds."
For the space of a few breaths, Artan simply gazed at her. "I cannot believe, Lady," he observed, "that anything is more stubborn than the two of you together."
That jerked a laugh from her; oh, how wry. "We will hope not." She had thought none knew of the Ranger's avowal save Veylin, whose discretion was like a rock . . . though Artan might merely mean to hearten her. She made no secret of her pride in her Dúnedain tenacity, nor could she deny that Dírmaen matched her in persistence. "May what is left of your night be peaceful, Artan."
"And for you, Lady."
Setting the bar back in its place, shutting that good young man out of the little safety they had, gave her a pang in more than her hand. She had been so certain of the peace of the sea. For years she had dwelt here, alone, unguarded, with never a qualm . . . . Yet one person brought another, it seemed, and another and another, troubles multiplying along with them. Taking in Veylin had drawn his kin, whose conduct fetched her brother and his men, which led folk's feet this way when driven, rumor whereof tempted hounded men--
No wonder the Elves were unwelcoming.
Had she done some wrong that broke the sweet spell of serenity? As she closed her chamber door she snorted softly at the thought that the sea could be jealous of her company. That was vanity, overweening vanity, if not impiety; naught but a fancy in her own mind, an answer for those who would have every woman under some man's care. She loved the sea, but did not truly believe the sea returned her regard. It was; it had been here ages before she was born and would roll on ages after she was gone.
Saelon went to fetch Dírmaen's bowl, then set about mixing a stronger dose of meadowsweet and watercress. There might be other grounds for offense, however. There was some antipathy between Dwarves and the sea, and she had given intelligence of its motions to Veylin. Though surely the stone-shell he had given her meant something. Veylin thought so. But what? She tried to remember what Círdan had said of the token. Little; some jest of pearl and greed. Nothing foreboding. If any could speak for the sea, it must be the Shipwright. Why did Dwarves fear the waves? She wondered if Círdan knew.
Shaking her head to rid it of such queer night-thoughts, she carried the draught to her patient, then brought the lamp nearer, lifting the wick to get better light. If he had not been bled so white, his flush would have told her something of his fever, but that was now a poor sign and she must judge it by how many of his coverings he had cast off and the heat of his flesh. By the first measure, this looked to be another bad one, for the blankets that warmed him through the chills were rutched off to one side, only the last light linen sheet remaining and his legs kicked out from under that, resting on the floor.
During the worst bout so far, she had come back from ordering pails of snow-born river water to bathe him and found he had rolled from the heather of his bed to lay spread-eagled on the hard rock, embracing its coolness, nearly as pale as the stone save for the livid sweep of the wound across his back.
Other wounds he had borne in his time, the scars paler still on his pallid flesh, mapping a life she did not know. Though he lay stripped beneath her hands, he was in many ways still a stranger to her, a silent man, near as close as a Dwarf.
Saelon laid the back of her hand on his sweat-dewed brow and the lids of his eyes lifted a little, showing a brief gleam before subsiding again. So weak, and the fever burning what strength remained out of him. If tears were not useless, she would weep.
Instead, she carefully unwrapped the crusted bandage from about his arm, softening the stained linen with water where she must, until his arm was bare, the swordcut plain to see. An ugly wound, still, but no longer putrid. Poultice on poultice and painful probing had drawn the worst of the poison; she murmured apologies as she pressed out more foulness, laving the angry rent clean with the cool purity of water from the spring.
Dírmaen suffered it all without complaint, only the stiffness of his limbs and tautness of his face showing he was awake and aware, lashes--so dark against his pallor--locked down in the hollows beneath his eyes.
While his wound dried, Saelon drew a sodden cloth across his brow, down the slopes of his cheeks, over the jut of his chin, wiping away the sweat, the crusts about his mouth and eyes. A good face: strong, shapely bone and more flesh than when she had last seen him, a boon in this battle. Wherever he had gone, when he left, he had not pined. His corded throat; the muscled dip and swell of his shoulders; the warm plain of his breast . . . .
Saelon shook her head again and set the cloth aside. How weary she must be, for her thoughts to be straying so, and in such directions! Most improper, in a healer; particularly perilous with this man. Yet it had been years, many years, since she last nursed a man in this way. A Man: Veylin's neat, compact brawn had roused curiosity more than desire, wonder at the way his odd proportions came together as a harmonious whole. Was he considered a handsome man among his people? She did not know. Dwarves did not speak of such things.
If one favored the dark austerity of the Dúnedain, Dírmaen was handsome enough; she did not find fault with his face, nor even with his sternness, only that it should grate so contrarily against her own. Sighing, she reached for the pot of ointment, all-heal and goldenrod in fresh butter, and salved his wound before binding it up again in clean linen. However had he come to fancy her, if indeed he did and his avowal had not been a blind to win her complaisance more than her heart?
The deadly fury on his face, as he stared across her at the reiver chief, she would never forget; nor the expression of harrowed dread as he clutched her in his arms, before he fell.
That did not look like artful policy. Yet she would almost rather it was, for then she would be assured that her refusal gave no real pain, or at least scathed his wits rather than his heart. Though she had scant cause for pride there, either, for his professions of possible peril had all come true. What if she had gone to the oakwood for primroses, alone or with Rian--who wanted some to make wine--and been seized by the reivers near their camp? Eight of them . . . .
Her breath shuddered.. She had no illusions about what would have befallen her; Fransag's struggle with that goatish beast was seared into her memory. Dírmaen's cautions had not been groundless: his desire to keep watch over her need not have been mere mistrust of her dealings with Veylin, or disapproval of her independence. He had been right. She had been too self-assured, and was fortunate not to have fared worse. However was she to make amends?
Wetting the cloth again, she laid its chill against his neck, where the hot blood beat high, just beneath the skin. "Dírmaen," she pressed, voice low, "will you sit up a little, to take your draught?"
Again, the gleam of part-lifted lids; breath catching with effort and pain, he managed to push himself up with the elbow of his sound arm. Slipping hers beneath his shoulders to balance and steady him, Saelon set the bowl to his cracked lips and he drank with parched greed. She murmured encouragement, feeling the heat of him, cradled in her arm; the more meadowsweet he took, the better pleased she would be.
When he had drained the bowl, she smiled. "There," she softly assured him, "that will do you good."
His eyes opened a bit wider, enough to see their grey, midway between the glitter of fever and the flatness of fatigue, and he licked his lips, as if he thought of speaking. Saelon waited. He had spoken hardly at all, to her at least, save a few words for necessities; even in the throes of fever, he did not babble, as some did. He leaned a little closer, and she angled her head to show interest as she shifted her arm to take his weight.
He fell more than lunged across the span that remained between them, lips mashing against hers in a desperate kiss; working and tasting around a throaty sob. Shocked, she did not think to drop the bowl at once, so she could use that hand to push him away. "Dírmaen!"
Such desolate eyes, full of need and shame. "I did not want to die without . . . ." he husked.
"Sshh," she hushed, pressing, easing him back down onto his bed. "Do not speak so. You are not going to die."
Yet his gaze was full of doubt and despair, and despair killed more men than fever ever did. "Come," she urged, taking his calloused, long-fingered hand in hers and clasping it tight, "do not give way now, when the battle is nearly won. How am I to repay you, if you do not persevere?"
"I did not come to put you in my debt," he whispered, lids drooping, exhausted by his effort.
"I never thought so," she soothed. Was that truth, or was that lie? She did not know. It did not matter. She would not lose him if she could help it. If she did not value him, others did.
* † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † * † *
Clabber: curdled milk.
Watercress (Nasturtium officinalis): while most people think of this as something that goes on a sandwich or in a salad, it was commonly used to reduce fever and strengthen the blood. It is rich in vitamins and minerals, including iron.
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.