27. Fronting the Waves
As to the sea itself, love it you cannot. Why should you? I will never believe again the sea was ever loved by anyone whose life is married to it. It is the creation of Omnipotence, which is not of humankind and understandable, and so the springs of its behavior are hidden.
—Henry Major Tomlinson, The Sea and the Jungle
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In the darkness of the men's chamber, Dírmaen lay on his bed of heather unsleeping, staring towards the wall. He thought he could see it, a fugitive paleness where the glow of the rushlight in the hall without slipped through the part-open door . . . but he cared very little. His heart was like a stone within him. A stone, or a briar; at once or by turns. Or gall.
Whatever it was, it was a burden. He had thought love unreturned the cruelest torment, a festering fire in the flesh. Yet this . . . this was worse. He could no longer bear it in silent stillness.
Rising as quietly as his bed allowed—Gaernath's soft snoring continued undisturbed, and Randir only grunted—Dírmaen put on his shirt, picked up boots and jerkin, and stole out into the hall. There he could sit and pull on his boots. Since the latest of the never-ending rearrangements, Finean and his daughter taking back the chamber Leod and his wife had claimed, only Canand slept in the hall, rolled in his cloak by the warmth of the hearth, but he was always hard to rouse. Shrugging into his jerkin against the cool night as he crossed to the door, Dírmaen briefly wondered what he would tell the watchman. It was Teig's turn, was it not? Little matter, then: the man would be bemused by any but the simplest excuse.
As it turned out, he need not have troubled. The kennelman was hunched on the bench, head on his knees, twitching a little in his sleep as though he were a dreaming hound. Scowling at the dereliction, Dírmaen started forward to shake him into proper wakefulness . . . and then thought better of it. They patrolled regularly now, and in depth; there was no sign of any save their own folk and the Dwarves, unless the bracken on the brae of rowans had been bent by Elves rather than bedding deer. There was no need to call attention to his restlessness.
The cliff's shadow was a stark band of black at its foot; beyond, milk-white moonlight poured down, showing this open country nearly as plain as day. He might wander anywhere. As he paused, irresolute, gazing out over the machair-fields, he heard the distant mutter of the sea.
That low sound, troubled and troubling, echoed the turmoil in his heart, so that was the way he went. Past the silvered shoots of springing bere, up the ragged rampart of the dunes: the measureless expanse of leaden water stretched away before him, curling waves crawling shoreward to lap at the thin flood-tide crescent of sand. Saelon's rock was awash, a glimmering swirl of sea-foam.
But for the height of the tide, he would not have been surprised to see her there. Had the afternoon's storm of grief purged her embrangled passions, or was she as sleepless as he? He could not guess; hardly knew his own feelings. Sinking down to sit on the short turf, he wrapped his arms about his knees and stared out at the roil of the surf. His conduct did not satisfy him. He had been unable to find words to speak, not while holding her in his arms nor during their journey back to the hall, and she had said no more. Had he lost her through reticence?
If so, was that to be regretted?
She had protested he did her too much honor; perpetually demeaned herself in innumerable small ways. Now he knew why, though he did not know what appalled him more: that her virtue was not, after all, unimpeachable, or the inhumanity of her family. If one of his sisters had given herself to an Edain lad under the rose, he would have been angered and ashamed, but he would not have done the man harm, so long as she had not been cozened or abused. Descended from kings, Saelon's kinsmen may have had more pride of blood . . . yet had not her father's sister been Gaernath's great-grandam, wedding an Edain husbandman?
Wed: after decent courtship, or by necessity? How was it that women of such high lineage should give themselves to lesser men, hastening the decline of the Dúnedain? Did the blood of Srathen Brethil harbor some fault, of which Saelon's want of stature was a sign, or had their withdrawal beyond the Lhûn done the mischief, depriving their women of fit suitors?
Too late, Saelon had cried when she spurned him last autumn. Had she meant her age alone, or that her heart had already been given? For there could be no doubt she loved that long-dead lad. It was easier to imagine that she had wished to marry him than that she had been free with her favors. Had she bound herself to him? There was the ancient rite—no, or she would have said, in answer to his last question. Had she lived all those years in hope of him returning to her, or for word of where to seek him? Did she consider herself a widow?
Seen in that light, her independence and carelessness in regard to the strictures of feminine honor were more comprehensible; though such a view was less favorable to his desire. Dúnedain seldom took a second spouse. Yet she had wanted him yesterday: the tender persistence of her touch, her quickened breath had betrayed her. Could he—would he—be content with venery when he sought a spouse? Would she have him, on any terms, after a silence that must have seemed censorious? Should he not be censorious?
Groaning, he pressed his forehead against his knees. Love and honor, unyielding as milling stones, would grind him to dust. Why had he not been sensible and betrothed himself to Mereth, or one of the other belles of the Downs? Simple, uncomplicated girls who wanted little more than a good man's children. Mother would have been pleased, and before long his elder siblings would have lost the power to lord their responsible maturity over him. Why must his heart cleave to a woman whom bitterness had made fiercely independent and mistrustful of her own kin?
Greatness of heart. She was far from faultless, but who could not admire her courage, her endurance, her selfless service to those in her charge? Had he come upon a hawk or a horse of such spirit, spoilt by ill treatment, he would wish to mend its temper. Could he not do the same for her, if she would let him?
If she would let him. Oh, why had he been mute when she wept in his arms? Why had he not assured her of his regard?
Beyond the moil in his mind but nearer than the crashing hiss of the surf, someone was singing. A woman's voice, low, wandering over a lament for Atalantë. Heart leaping as if spurred, Dírmaen raised his head enough to peer down on the strand below.
Who else could it have been? Saelon paused in her song to stoop down and pick some thing up from the shore, shying it into the waves before continuing on again, pacing the sand and singing of loss.
Indecision paralyzed him: if he stood, would she not be startled? Suspect that he spied on her? Yet when might he again have an opportunity to speak to her alone? Never, if her heart had closed against him. For a moment longer he sat, arms clenched, baffled to find a way to reveal his presence without rousing her resentment—and then, heart overfraught, joined in the lament.
For a few notes. Stopping song and step, Saelon looked over her shoulder, the flooding moonlight showing clearly the change in her expression, from brow-arched surprise to a frown. "Dírmaen?"
His voice faltered before he realized that the still-rising orb must show her little but a dark shape. "Yes."
Was it that silver light that made her look so cold? "What brings you here?"
"I could not sleep, and the sound of the waves spoke to me."
Her soft snort was nearly lost in the sough of the sea, and she turned to continue on her way.
"Saelon!" he called, stretching a hand out to her. "Please, do not go. Forgive me: I was taken aback, and feared to speak."
"Why, if you spoke from the heart?"
"There is too much in my heart, and my tongue is too brusque." She had not spared him her candor; she would not wish to be spared his. At least now she was not weeping. "How am I to understand your tale? Do you wish to be faithful to the man you lost, or was this your last defense?"
She was not quick to answer, standing there as the waves washed over her feet, gazing at him. "No."
"No?" he prompted when she said no more.
"No." She sounded decided but tired, weary of the world. "Necton made me happy, and for that I loved him . . . there was no deeper bond. I was just a girl, and he did not make me feel small." She shook her head and pressed on, voice thick. "Until the others came from Srathen Brethil, I rarely thought of him, save when Halladan took me home for Yule. That is not faithfulness."
"You judge yourself harshly."
Giving a gusty sigh, she dabbed at her eyes with a corner of her shawl. "No less harshly than I judge others, I hope. If I had not been wanton, he would not have died."
He could not but frown. "Was the fault yours alone? The man must have known that trifling with his lord's daughter was perilous."
"I suppose. We were young, and fools together."
What could one say to that? As Saelon stood, somberly pensive, Dírmaen grew uneasy with the lengthening silence, fearing she drifted away from him. "Do I make you feel small?" he asked, hesitantly.
"Only when I must look up to you," she answered, wry, canting her head to gaze upwards at him.
Why could he not have managed to be wounded earlier, so she might look down on him sooner? "I cannot help my height. Shall I come and lay myself at your feet?"
Acerbic, a riffle of water running past her shapely ankles, she flung back, "You think I still fancy fools?"
"Then will you not come up and sit by me?"
The lively sharpness left her face and tone. "That would not, I think, be wise."
"Why not?" Hang wisdom! A curse on her kin for making her so guarded!
"I thought you were a man who prized honor highly."
Heart forboding, he affirmed, "I do."
"Then I do not see how good can come of it."
It was her healer's gift to lay a finger unerringly on the ill. The time for hesitation, however, was past; silence would be vacillation, when she required assurance. He must press her, and pray he did not misstep. "Do you believe I will add to your shame, or regret discounting it? Whatever you were in your youth, no one could call you wanton now."
"To her disgrace rather than yours." That pert and petted minx, newly widowed and resentful of Saelon's restraints, a burden rather than help during the famine of their first year here. "Even Hanadan knew it was naught but spite!"
"Yet you are jealous of Veylin."
"I have said my conduct was unpardonable," Dírmaen replied stiffly. That she should cast that in his face again did her no credit . . . yet might it not be desperation? She had not said whether her candor was meant for a defense. "I confess I envy the ease and confidence you share. I have told him that I do not believe there is anything dishonorable between you. What more must I do to make amends?"
"Keep civil with him," was her curt reply.
"I will endeavor to satisfy you when next we meet. But to what end? Can you not give me some hope of winning you, Saelon?" As she faltered, biting her lip, he dared, "Will you be betrothed to me, at least? You may set the term: I am willing to prove my patience as well as my temper."
When she did not sharply set him down, his heart rose; but as her silence stretched on, fear crept in. "I do not doubt that you can bear near anything to win your desire," she finally said with judicious care. "How can I, after causing you so much vexation and pain? It has already been—how long?"
"Since we danced at Maelchon's houseraising," he murmured. That glimpse of carefree joy had bewitched him; he could still feel her strong slim hand in his. All he wished—
"All last summer?" she exclaimed, surprised. "And you said nothing?"
Dírmaen locked his hands together beyond his knees. "Halpan left you, left you all, in my care. If you rejected me—as you did—how could I have remained?"
"You thought I would sacrifice our security?"
"Or your own peace."
Although she looked him in the face again, her mouth was ominously crooked. "You did not scruple to accompany me to Mithlond."
"I could not refuse Halpan without explanation that must embarrass both of us. We were always in company, so you could not fear I would press my attentions on you unwanted."
She stared, and shook her head. "What use, then, in charging you to bide another year, or longer? The more difficulties you face, the more obstinate your regard becomes, or so it seems."
He made to object to such a description of his devotion, but Saelon carried resolutely on. "You have shown that you are amenable, with an end in view. I need no further proof that you can be agreeable. My concern is whether you will remain so once you have achieved your desire."
"Why would you think otherwise?" Did she mean to try him to the breaking point?
"One may take pride, even pleasure, in overcoming vexations," she answered, quiet, sober—too sober, "provided they are not inescapable. Of your temper, I may not be certain, but I know my own too well. You have had a fair taste of it. Do not tell me that will not pall."
Dírmaen looked on her as she stood there, proud head bowed, staring at the sand about her feet; heart full, he rose and went to her. Setting a finger, a single finger, beneath her chin—the skin warm, soft—he tipped it up to gaze into her melancholy eyes. "From what I have heard and seen, you have had ample cause for discontent. Will you not even let me try to make you happy?" She was so fair in the moonlight, pale and slender as a black-headed seabird. His lips yearned for the touch of her brow, her temple—
"We have already disagreed!" she objected, almost wildly.
He silenced her with a kiss.
For a few drumming beats of his heart, she resisted him; then the hand that had risen to push him away clenched in his jerkin, pulling him to her.
Dírmaen took her in his arms and let his mouth speak more eloquently than any words.
When they parted for breath, Saelon's came ragged, near to sobs. "Hshh," he soothed, stroking her hair with his cheek as she trembled against him, shaken by her own hunger.
"No," she panted, giving her head a short shake before ducking it away. "No, not again. I must not be wanton."
"There is no need," he murmured. "Take my hand and be my wife."
"We will quarrel," she protested, almost fretfully.
He snorted softly. Who was obstinate now? "Doubtless. Husbands and wives do, yet that does not prevent folk from wedding." If she did not stop talking such nonsense, he would kiss her again.
"Husbands are commonly their wives' masters. You once said you did not wish to be my lord."
Bowing his head low, he took up her hand—such a shapely hand—and kissed it, a tender obeisance. "You are my Lady."
Her fingers on his cheek; her thumb tracing his lips. "You are besotted," she breathed, "and I am near as bad. Will we not regret this once we are sated? I do not want to come to hate you."
"How can I prove myself, save by loving you? Some things must be taken upon trust."
"Aye," she said, but distractedly, and when he sought another kiss, she held him off. "Wait."
She was thinking; he did not want her to think. "Saelon—"
"Will you be handfast to me?"
"Shall I plight my troth now?" he asked, catching her hand and kissing it again, and again. "Or must you have it before your folk?" Kinsmen; he must speak to her kinsmen. How long would it take to find Halpan in Srathen Brethil?
Why did she look so grave? "I am not speaking of a betrothal. Do you not have the custom in the Downs?"
"What custom?" He could make no sense of this; stared at her, baffled, the glad galloping of his heart dropping a beat.
Saelon took a deep breath. "Handfasting is a trial marriage. It has the same rights and duties—is as licit as the ordinary form," she assured him, with a haste that made him think he must be frowning, "but the term is fixed at a year and a day."
He had heard of it: a custom of the Edain beyond the Lhûn, exciting curiosity and derision among his fellow Rangers. License for lust, most held, allowing man and woman to enjoy the sweetest spell of their connection without binding them to the weariness that came after. How could a man sire a child and leave the mother to care for it as best she could? That was no better than getting bastards. "And if there is a child?"
"It would be legitimate. Though you should not hope for a child," she cautioned, somber within the curve of his arm. "I am not of an age to make it hopeless, but near. If we wed by the regular form, you might set me aside for barrenness; with handfasting, there is less shame if a couple parts. No one must declare their dissatisfactions."
"Children are in the hand of the One," Dírmaen said, fearing his voice was harsh. "I would welcome them, but it is you I want, now and all the days of my life."
"That is all very well, but I do not see the future so clearly! Will you not give me time to be certain? A betrothal will bring no peace, not—" her hand stroked his flank, making his blood sing "—now. Come . . . a few weeks of open courting, during which we may continue to rove in company, and we can be handfast at Midsummer."
Why should he resist her? It was not the most honorable course; yet how else could he keep any rag of honor save by fleeing her and this place? He ached; she was willing: he burned to carry her to a hollow among the dunes and— No; no, he must not imagine it. It would be too easy, easier even than this part-marriage she offered. "You see how much I love you, that I will consider such a thing? If I please you and can lay your doubts, what then, when Midsummer next comes?"
"Whatever you wish," she said, drawing his head down for another kiss.
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"the ancient rite": an echo of the minimal marriage ceremony described in "Laws and Customs Among the Eldar" (HoME X: Morgoth's Ring): "It was the act of bodily union that achieved marriage . . . to marry thus of free consent one to another without ceremony or witness (save blessings exchanged and the naming of the Name [of Eru])." While this was a custom of the Eldar, it must have been the form of marriage that bound Beren and Luthien, and therefore would not have been entirely without respect among the Dúnedain.
Venery: hunting, or sex.
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