18. Venturing Forth
Men trust their ears less than their eyes.
--Herodotus, The Histories
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"Are you mad?" Rekk goggled, beard bristling.
Sút shifted her hold on the helm in the crook of her arm, taking a surer grip. "To come here? Perhaps. I desire to find out."
Leaning on his stout blackthorn stick, Veylin glanced towards Auð with reproach, but she appeared as astonished as the men preparing to leave for White Cliffs. "You have some complaint, Sút?"
Of course she had some complaint. Why else would a woman propose leaving the delf?
"Yes." She was a stern figure in her hauberk of silvered steel, jet-black beard and hair severely braided, as if for war; a daughter of Regin's line, not to be trifled with. "I was assured that the lands about these halls were peaceable and secure. Now I hear of neighbors beset by brigands and searching Elves."
Veylin sighed before answering with equal formality. "I explained, did I not, that the brigands were driven here from beyond the Lune, and have been slain? And that the Elves come at the desire of the Lady of White Cliffs, in fulfillment of the bargain made between her and the Lord of Lindon?"
Her eyes were as black as her beard, scornful. "Why then do you ride out armed for war?"
"To ensure the Elves' respect."
Sút scowled. "Not because some brigands have escaped?"
"If so," Rekk scoffed, "they ran far from here. I tell you I searched, and Nordri and others with me, and found no sign of the thieves."
"The mountains were deep in snow," Nordri pointed out, reasonably, "and Men are not hardy. If any fled that way from Saelon's folk and the Men of the Star, they are dead."
"Yes, yes," Sút dismissed. "I do not doubt the truth of what you say. What troubles me is what is not said."
"Your kinsman cannot content you?" Rekk flung a hand towards Aðal, who looked alarmed and dismayed.
She snorted. "We are more nearly akin than Aðal and I."
"Enough!" Veylin declared, glaring at them all. If Sút's doubts were serious enough to proclaim publicly, argument would not answer them. He had been dubious when Auð proposed that her friend join them, fearing Sút would be dissatisfied without near kinsmen to assure her . . . but she was a woman of full age who had chosen not to wed, obliged to none. Her parents had gone to Mahal, her brother was taken up with his demanding wife, and her skill with silver kept her very well. Aðal was of her sept, true, but nowhere near such close kin to Regin, and decades her junior--to expect her to heed his advice was absurd. "If all that will satisfy you is to judge for yourself, then come! There will be Men larger than Hanadan and at least one Elf, but they are honorable folk and courteous. I do not foresee strife. Auð, will you join us as well?"
He was relieved when his sister drew back with a curt shake of her head, staring at Sút with narrow-eyed perplexity. "No. I have already met the Lady and her kinsmen, and would not delay you further."
Yet she did not say she was content, and she had not been able to satisfy her friend. They would have to talk, when he returned. He had not meant for his candor to be traded on. "Thyrð, run and tell your brother to ready Sút's pony as well."
Outside, the morning was--for the moment, in this changeable season--fair, the few clouds scudding swiftly across the sky; even the ponies were brisk, trotting across turf where clinging raindrops glinted like adamant or citrine. At the rear, Nordri and the two stonecarvers talked quietly of White Cliffs limestone and bringing more to Gunduzahar.
Veylin had intended to go to Habad-e-Mindon with only a few companions, a visit of courtesy, no more: to make Círdan's marchwarden known to Rekk and Nordri, and get news of Saelon and her folk. When he spoke of his plan at supper, however, Aðal had asked if he and his friend could accompany them--there had been no time for Vígir to inspect the quarry during their earlier visit, and as they were contemplating using the stone in the baths and the gallery they would open on the second level . . . .
Was it mistrust that had driven Sút to join them, or self-indulgent curiosity, cloaked in the decency of doubt? She was a venturesome woman; had always been, since she and Auð scamped together as girls. Boldness was admirable, provided it settled into proper channels as a woman prepared to take up the duties of a wife and a mother, a weighty yet precious charge.
Duties Sút had declined to take up. Why? He did not know, having spent most of her marriageable years outside the mansion warring with Orcs or traveling to improve his skill. Had she found a love and lost him in the war? Set her heart on one who chose another? Or refused all offers? Surely she had had many. Though independence was a fault, minor flaws did not ruin an otherwise excellent stone: Sút was handsome, the granddaughter of a king, and a talented silversmith.
Maybe, like himself, she had found her craft more attractive than her suitors. Auð would know.
The little river ran swift and high with snowmelt, almost reaching the ponies' bellies, but the footing was good at the upper ford and they crossed without mishap, though Sút looked particularly grim. Veylin took care to hide his smile. If she desired a little adventure, she should find discomfort enough to content her today.
Wondering that they had seen neither guard nor watch, Veylin was reassured when Maelchon's second son popped out of the catkin-laded alders with a cheerful shout. "Good day to you, Masters! Have you come to see the Elves?"
"Greetings, Maon! The Elves, and your folk. Your parents are well, I trust?"
The boy sobered. "Well enough. Gran has died."
That would be Gràinne, Fransag's mother, the frail old woman who had been chary of Dwarves. "I am sorry to hear of your loss," Veylin replied, bowing his head as he remembered the dreadful keening that came from the inner chamber of their blood-stained house. A mother and a child; no wonder Fransag had been mad with grief. "Has Fokel been found?"
Maon shook his head.
After so many days, the herdsman was almost certainly dead as well. "So, how many Elves have come?" Craec had spoken only of Coruwi, but if the marchwarden was alone, Saelon ought to stint Lindon's rent.
"Two," the boy said, before adding with a discriminating air, "These are wood-elves, not like Gwinnor, or the sea-elves that brought Saelon home from the Havens. The chief of them is visiting our house with the Lady and Randir."
"The Rangers are still here?" Rekk asked.
"Randir is. Faelnoth went to Srathen Brethil with Halpan and Partalan."
They had gone, despite the attack? Veylin frowned. "And Dírmaen?"
Maon shrugged. "Ill, still."
"Many thanks for the news. Would your parents welcome more guests?"
"You will always be welcome, Masters," the boy declared stoutly. "If Guaire is there, remind him he is to take my place at midday!"
Veylin snorted and smiled. "I will," he assured him, as he put his heels to his pony. "Good day!"
A little further along the muddy river track, and up the high bank to Maelchon's yard. "Da! Da!" one of the children piped, running for the house, the rest scattering like startled grouse. "Dwarves! Dwarves have come!"
The door of the house was already opening, however, and the burly, black-bearded husbandman stepped out, scooping up the child--one of his daughters--and calling, "Welcome, Masters! Will you come in for a bite and a sup? The Lady is here, and we have another guest, who I am told you know, Master Veylin."
"Well met, Maelchon! We are at your service," Veylin assured him. "Would your guest be Coruwi, Lindon's marchwarden?"
Maelchon laughed, as his daughter laid her head on his shoulder. "You Dwarves are great ones for news. How did you know? Did you speak with one of my sons, or Hanadan?"
Dismounting at the block, Veylin allowed, "Maon greeted us at the ford, yes . . . but word of Coruwi's coming had already reached us."
The husbandman shook his head wonderingly, but did not press. "Come in! Put you ponies in the fank, if you like." Greeting each as they handed off their ponies to Thyrnir and came forward, the Man regarded Sút with interest.
"Here is one of our company you have not met yet," Veylin told him. "Sút, a silversmith and kin of our king."
"At your service," Sút said stiffly, doffing her grey hood and bowing.
"At yours and your family's," Maelchon replied, bowing deeper still. "We are honored by your visit."
Sút gazed up at him with narrowed eyes, as if seeking insincerity, but either the Man's plainness or the fetching blend of curiosity and shyness in his daughter's candid stare reassured her. "Many in our company honor you for keeping your bargains, in evil times as well as prosperity. It is good to know we have such neighbors."
"Oh, any man would do as much," Maelchon dismissed, going pink about the ears, and held open the door. "Go in! The Lady will be waiting."
Setting back his hood, Veylin stepped into the common room and bowed to his hostess, who murmured, "It is good to see you again, Master," as she pressed a brimming cup of ale into his hand. After quaffing what threatened to spill, he moved aside to make way for the others.
If he had not seen the clotted gore himself, it would be difficult to envision the violence that had been committed here less than a fortnight ago. All was clean, all was orderly; Saelon sat across the hearth in the place of honor, the impractical paleness of her gown denying any stain, while Coruwi rose to greet them and Randir brought another bench nearer the fire. "I hope I see you well, Lady."
"Better, thank you." She looked worn but at ease, her smile warm despite his gruffness. "And you, Master? I am sorry we had no time to talk when you were last here."
"I cannot complain." Not after what she had suffered; not before so many. "Greetings, Coruwi!"
The Elf had watched his meeting with Saelon with keen attention, and now bowed, hand at his breast. "Mae govannen, Veylin! I am glad you have come, so we can hold council on how to deal with this disturbance. Were your folk troubled by the outlaws?"
He shook his head. "No. We have just come from Sulûnduban."
"You saw no sign of the villains on your journey?"
"No." They had crossed the mountains northwards, far from the ways between Srathen Brethil and Habad-e-Mindon . . . but he would not reveal his roads to the marchwarden without necessity. "Have you come alone?"
Coruwi smiled. "Again, no! Eregai has gone to fetch herbs for the Lady; the rest of my foresters are on the hunt. Will you introduce me to your companions?"
Rekk was brusque, Nordri reserved; Sút barely spoke, and Aðal and Vígir were hardly more forthcoming. "Were you not in Mithlond with Veylin this autumn?" Coruwi asked, when Thyrnir was presented.
"You have mistaken me for my brother," Thyrnir told him with a fine note of coolness, and drank his ale.
"Your pardon!" the Elf asked, still smiling. "The striking color of your beard deluded me. But perhaps it is not uncommon among Firebeards."
"Not uncommon, no."
They were spared an awkward silence by Fransag coming around with buttered bannock--not the equal of Saelon's, but welcome after their ride. Then Randir asked Rekk if he had put out patrols, and Nordri wondered whether Maelchon's troubles would set back spring planting, and conversation became more natural.
Saelon looked from the empty place on her left, presumably vacated by Randir or their host, to him. "Will you join us, Master? And you, Master Sút? I am afraid that I do not remember you, if you came to our relief."
Veylin paused and glanced at Sút, uncertain if she would like being so near the Elf, but she inclined her head and went around the end of the long hearth that took up the center of the floor. "Thank you, Lady; no, I remained in Gunduzahar, where I met your young kinsman Hanadan."
"Ah," Saelon murmured, with a hesitant smile. "He gave no grounds for complaint, I hope."
"Not that I saw," Sút assured the woman of Men, sitting down beside her and taking a draught of ale.
Brows knit in puzzlement, Veylin followed after. Was this why Sút had come, to meet Saelon? Certainly the Dúnadaneth was an oddity; the tales told of her might enflame anyone's curiosity. Though Auð ought have been able to satisfy her, having met the woman of Men thrice.
"Hanadan has been to your halls?" Coruwi marveled.
Sút wiped froth from her whiskers. "He is the one who brought us news of the attack. You did not know?"
"He told me that he fetched Dwarves," the Elf confessed. "I thought some of your folk were at the workings in the other cliff. Was I told true, that you dwell three leagues hence?"
"About that," Veylin allowed, settling alongside Sút. He was pleased to hear the boy had guarded his tongue, for all his fascination with Elves.
"Have you ever heard the like?" Sút wondered.
"No, I have not . . . but I know little of the children of Men." Coruwi turned to Saelon. "Is he not young for such a feat, Lady?"
"Too young!" she agreed, yet Veylin thought pride was mingled with her resigned despair. "Who could have imagined he would attempt such a thing? He yearns to be a Ranger. If," she sighed, shaking her head, "he does not break his neck or drown in a bog, he may make a good one."
Veylin drank, thinking of the seven-rayed star of silver in his strongbox, which the boy's uncle had traded for a chance to reclaim his home. "Halpan has gone to Srathen Brethil and left Randir to guard you?"
The Ranger glanced their way, ear still cocked to Rekk's low rumble. "Randir stays for Dírmaen, who is his friend," Saelon explained. "He has kindly taken a share of the watch, but I do not expect him to stay once Dírmaen's fate is decided. This country is not the Rangers' charge; we are not in Arnor."
"It is only a part of my charge, Lady," Coruwi warned. "I cannot stay, and even if I set a man here, I do not think--" the Elf looked past her, at Veylin, the smoothness of his face as inscrutable as any beard "--he would always be welcome. Surely the Dwarves-- "
Before Veylin could speak, Saelon said, most decidedly, "I am sure Veylin and his folk will keep close watch as they go about their business and send word of anything untoward, but it is not their duty to defend us. Thank you both, for your concern! Gaernath will patrol, as Dírmaen used to, and the lads and herdsmen keep a sharp eye out, so we will be as well-guarded as ever we were at Srathen Brethil."
How was he to find fault with that, when she saved him from seeming cold to their plight? Dwarves were not sell-swords; make the swords, yes, and sell them into the hands that would use them, but they did not fight to profit others. Though he was fond of Saelon, perhaps more than was right, even he would grudge time taken from his gems . . . and none of the others were in her debt.
He honored her resolve not to put her folk under obligation to strangers, and men of alien race, but his heart misgave him. She did not have the menfolk she deserved.
The party broke up soon after: Saelon pled her duty to the invalid Dírmaen, while Nordri and the stonecarvers excused themselves to visit the quarry; Coruwi asked Randir to show him where they had found the brigands in the oakwood, and the Ranger civilly asked Rekk to accompany them, so they might have the benefit of his views. They were all to meet again at the cliff-hall for a late dinner, but Veylin gladly accepted Randir's charge to see Saelon safely home, no matter how earnestly the Elf assured them there were no ruffians within two leagues, to his certain knowledge. He had long been wishing to speak to her, and this seemed his best chance to do so.
Still, it was hard to know how to begin and even after reaching the river track they went along in companionable silence for half a dozen chains, Saelon walking by his pony's side while Thyrnir and Sút rode a little way behind. The questions that had gnawed at him since that bloody day almost a fortnight ago could not be decently asked . . . yet her manner seemed unchanged, which was itself a kind of answer. "Truly," he hazarded, as she paused to finger the buds of some twigs along the path, "you will be easy in your mind, with only Gaernath to protect you?"
That earned him a soft snort and one of her wry smiles. "I do not think I have been easy in my mind since Gaernath found you on the bog-moor."
Veylin frowned at this levity, hoping it was mere levity. "Saelon--"
"Do not look so grim!" she beseeched. "I am sick of fear. Tell me some good news! You have many new faces in your following, I hear," she carried on, resolutely pleasant.
"Not very many." He regarded her dubiously, not liking this half-false note. She had endured so much, and was not Khazâd. How much more could she bear? "Sút and Vígir you have met; Bersi has taken on three miners, Nordri two prentices, and a plumber will be joining us--"
"What is a plumber?"
That flash of curiosity rang true. "A worker of lead. Yet Vitnir has left us, with Skani and Ketli, Siggr and Narfi."
Pursing her lips, she allowed, "Skani I will miss. Will you come to help us celebrate Tuilérë?"
Now it was his turn to snort. "Do you have so much food left in store that you need more guests to eat it?"
"There are lambs and calves to cull," she maintained. "Should we brine such fine flesh? Besides, with Partalan gone, we will have little music without you."
Veylin sighed; how could one counter such arguments? "Your generosity begins to oppress, Saelon. Will you not allow me to give in return?"
"You are ahead by two turns."
"I did not come here today on your behalf, but because it would be impolitic to shun Coruwi when I desire to strike a bargain with his lord. What have I given, that you have not already repaid?"
She held up a thumb to start her count. "You brought your folk to our aid."
This was absurd, like selling turned on its head. "You and the Rangers left us nothing to do, and the meals alone were worth the journey. There was no need to give beeves as well."
"We did not know how many more reivers might remain, when you arrived, and all my own men were still astray. A stirk is nothing beside the relief I felt when I saw you at the door. You must allow me to show my gratitude in some way, Veylin."
They were much the same height, when he was mounted; the depth of feeling beneath the surface aggravation in her eyes brought a discomfited warmth to his cheeks. "What else have I given?" he challenged. "I have not seen you this half a year."
"Do not tell me," she drawled, voice dry, "that that great jewel did not even our accounts."
This came perilously close to confession, for he did not think she knew--precisely--what he had gained by her timely news of the storm-tide. Nor would he speak too freely before Sút. "I must."
She was a shrewd woman: though she regarded him narrowly, she said nothing for many paces, and then only, "You will tell me when I draw near the end of my credit, or ask too much?"
"On my oath," Veylin assured her solemnly.
"Very well. Yet I do not withdraw the invitation. We may not have required your aid against the reivers, but some help making merry would not go amiss."
"Then I will come, and encourage the others." If he could not be of use in one way, he would try another. Twisting in the saddle to look back at his nephew, he called, "Thyrnir! Will you bring your fiddle? These folk crave music."
Thyrnir bowed his head to Saelon with a smile. "If my master will give me leave, I will gladly trade tunes for a plate of lamb and cup of mead."
"Tell Bersa," Saelon charged, with a glint in her eye, "that I have a little honey to spare this year, if he can be troubled to come and haggle for it. I will even take coin, if he has nothing better to offer."
"What could be better than coin?" Thyrnir wondered.
"Whatever was in the goose pie he served last spring, when I dined with you. Trubs, I think he called them."
Veylin chuffed and shook his head. "Have you not had enough of strife, Saelon?"
Her lips quirked into a smile. "He is diverting. Master Sút, I hope you will come as well."
With some trepidation, Veylin watched Sút closely, but she merely half-bowed in the saddle. "I thank you, Lady. Let me try your much-praised hospitality, and I will consider."
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Citrine: a rare, pale yellow to brownish variety of quartz.
Chain: a surveyor's unit of measure, originally a literal chain, 22 yards (20.1m) long; there are ten chains in a furlong. A dwarven chain may be different from the Mannish one, since the length of a furrow is not a meaningful distance for them.
Brine: to soak in a salt solution; one way to preserve meat.
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