31. Wait to Watch the Water Clear
A lively understandable spirit
Once entertained you.
It will come again.
—Theodore Roethke, The Lost Son
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"Masters?" Saelon called tentatively at the low entrance to their cuttings, stooping to take the weight of the pails off the yoke and peer within, which seemed black after the brightness of the day. She knew they were here: their sturdy ponies were tethered on the slope below, tearing at the knee-high grass with greedy teeth, and the door they had put in to keep the children from mischief stood unlocked and open. But the Dwarves themselves were not to be seen, nor could she hear the ringing of hammer on rod or chisel. That Veylin did not like her handfasting she knew, but had she angered them all with her choice?
Nordri popped out so suddenly she almost startled, which would have upset the pails, to everyone's grief. "Lady! Welcome!" Though in his shirtsleeves and dusted with white stone as if with flour, the mason bowed low. "Your pardon, but we are at our dinner. Will you join us? You like Brockenborings cheese, I understand."
"A village in the Shire, where they tunnel in hills of good limestone. That is where they age their cheese," Nordri explained, cocking an eye at the sky and looking pleased at the fair-weather clouds.
Who would know she favored Shire cheese, save Veylin? Or one of his prentices. "If you wish. I have brought ale—" she unhooked pails from yoke, which she leaned against the cliff-foot. "You did not stop in when you arrived, and it has been long since we had a visit from you. Things are well at Gunduzahar, I hope."
"Very well!" Nordri beamed. "No, Lady; let me take those. It was good enough that you carried them across! We did not visit earlier, for we came at dawn: it is better to work in the mornings on such warm days. Watch your head, these first few paces. But we intended to come over once we were finished for the day."
When the ale would have been even more welcome, perhaps. Saelon ducked to follow him. "If you would have more leisure then—"
"Lads," the mason called into the dimness, raising his burden, "who wants White Cliffs ale?"
There was such a clamor of greetings and a rush for the drink that her hesitant words were lost. They might well have appreciated the ale more at the end of their work, but clearly it was far from unwelcome now. As her eyes grew used to the faint light—it was not very dark, in fact, though there were only two lanterns, the stone being so pale—Saelon found herself in a much wider chamber than she recalled from her last visit. Rougher-cut than the hall they had delved for her in the opposite cliff, the stone fresh, unstained by smoke and the smut of daily use, it was a pleasant place on a summer day. Tables and benches of flawed stone stood near the entrance, spread with the makings of a hearty meal: bread and meat and cheese, little pots with knives sticking out of them, a stained cloth heaped with strawberries, and a small tapped firkin.
"Here, Lady," Aðal said, shoving his own plate and the one beside him over. "We will make room for you. Neðan! A plate for Lady Saelon."
There was no help for it. Almost without effort on her part, and over her faint objections, a plate was brought, and filled with crusty wheaten bread, slices of ham and firm ripe cheese, and little onions they said were pickled. Gamal helped her to mustard from one of the pots, and Aðal to strawberries.
Nordri sighed contentedly, setting down his jack. "A fellow would have to travel far to find a better heather ale than yours. How can we repay you for this kindness, Lady?"
"If this is not enough," Saelon nibbled curiously at one of the onions, "then pray give me news of you all. We have not seen you since Spring Day, save for a few chance meetings, and summer is nearly on us."
The mason piled meat high on his bread, as artfully as he laid stone on stone. "Work has been tolerably brisk. We are improving our halls, which is why we have come for more limestone; but the gallery and baths had to be opened before we could beautify them." He gazed at the stone above their heads as an Elf might gaze on a sky full of stars. "I hope you will have a chance to see the gallery, when we are finished."
"I would like that." Baths? Dwarves, too, had baths? Saelon wondered if they would be anything like those of Mithlond. Looking on these small, rough-clad men, their hands horny with callous and with grit in their hair, who would guess that they came from such a sumptuous home? "And Master Veylin—things are well with him? He was out of temper when our paths crossed . . . was it a fortnight ago?" Three weeks, in truth; or would be tomorrow. Near a month and never a visit, though the weather had been fair
Nordri chuckled. "His journey from Sulûnduban was trying, Lady, and longer than planned—his companions were not used to our narrow northern tracks. Better feeding soon mended his mood. Yet," the mason confessed, less lightly, "we had intended to invite you and all your folk to feast with us at Midsummer, as a return for the noble hospitality you have so often shown us." Saluting her with his jack, he passed it off to one his prentices. "Fill this again, Balnar."
"Oh! That is very kind—"
"Kindness has nothing to do with it," Nordri assured her, most amiably. "But our king desires Veylin to attend the Midsummer Fair in our mansion, and he would be grieved if we hosted you without him. I have been charged, therefore, with asking whether another day would be acceptable. The last week in Cermië, perhaps? Or if you would prefer a night-feast in the heat of summer, the full of the moon in Úrimë?"
"We would be delighted to feast with you at any time, save during harvest—but that will not be until Yavannië. You will still come to us then, will you not?"
"I will come, and Grani too, to take the next payment on Maelchon's house . . . and if it is offered," Nordri allowed, "how could I refuse to take a cup or a bite to give thanks for the bounty of your crop? How does it fare?" he asked, with a touch of concern. "The field does not look so full this year."
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It was not so full, Saelon reflected, running her fingers over the tips of the young bere as she paced past the field, but there was nothing ill in that. They had reaped the virgin strength of the ground in two harvests of extraordinary bounty, and only greed could be disappointed by this more moderate growth, which would commonly be considered excellent. Maelchon's new field would have reassured the Dwarves, however, if they had passed that way.
She was no less grasping. Of course there were many demands on Veylin's time: chieftain of his people, lord of Gunduzahar, craftsman . . . and she knew, better than most, how his raug-rent leg hindered him. Selfish, to expect him to clamber back on a pony after so long in the saddle, when he must soon take to the road again, especially since she had disobliged him by turning to Dírmaen. They had already met five times this year. How could she want more?
Once, the only company she had wanted was that of the waves. Had it been but a few years ago? Climbing up the shifting sands, she paused at the crest of the dunes to look out over the sea. It soothed her, still, and its potent beauty had not dimmed; yet it did not speak to her as it had before all these people came, or she could not hear it over the clamor of their voices. Should she not mourn such a loss?
No answer came to her—not to that, nor to other uncertainties that troubled her—and after a time, she slithered down the sands to the strand. The tide was at the springs and on the ebb. Since her pails were empty, let her fill them with slake and dulse.
She was far down the ripple-wrinkled shore, teasing linarich from the bloody rags of dulse in a small pool when something large and dark pitched into the pail beside her, making her jump. Catching a glimpse of flailing, red-tipped claws, Saelon looked up—to find Dírmaen only a little way off, grinning, another lobster near his bare feet. "You relished these creatures too, did you not?" he asked.
"I did. Be wary," she warned, the fright making her sharp, "or it will have your toes!"
"It has already had a finger," he confessed as if abashed, coming to show her the wound. "Will you salve it for me?"
"Salt water is cleansing," she sniffed. A cruel pinch, no more; the skin was hardly broken. He was quick, to seize the creatures with so little harm; and deft. So deft that his other hand was already on her waist, and when he leaned down for a kiss, she could not resist nipping him.
"I do not think you should eat these," he protested, pulling away. "You are snappish enough already!"
"Hmph. You knew what you were about," Saelon dismissed, drawing his head back down so she could soothe his lip with a kiss of gratitude. "Thank you. They will make a very fine chowder."
His smile was a joy to see; like a boy's, pleased to please. "I thought you would like them. What news from the Dwarves?"
There seemed to be nothing but curiosity in his face. "They are expanding their halls," she said, bending back to the dulse so he would not see her unease. "Nordri fears there may be a dearth of corn this winter: from Evendim westward, he says, planting was late."
"If many were as late as in Srathen Brethil," Dírmaen judged, recapturing the lobster that was crawling from her pail, "that is a danger. Let us pray for a long summer!"
"They did their best," Saelon defended Halpan and the husbandmen who had dared to return to their homes, ravaged by raug and reiver. "The ground was too wet to plough!"
"That will have been the problem in most places." Trussing the lobster with his remaining bracer, he laid it on the sand beside the other. "Did Nordri bring word of anything else across the Lune?"
She was too ready to take offense, still. "The Shire cheese I like is aged in limestone tunnels," she told him, turning her conversation with the Dwarves over in her mind. "Our cliffs are limestone, are they not?" Cheese did keep well in the hall, even in summer; better than it ever had in Srathen Brethil . . . . The weed was anchored fast, and she drew her knife to cut it.
"That is what the Dwarves call it. Was that all their news?"
She must harden herself; his animosity had to be faced sooner or later. ""No. They have invited us to a feast, either late in Cerveth or early in Urui."
"You and I?"
"All my folk, Nordri said. They wished to entertain us at Midsummer, but Veylin must be elsewhere."
"I remember," Dírmaen said; and after a pause, "Just as well, perhaps. Elsewise a choice would have had to be made between their feast and our handfasting."
"I have already chosen between you," Saelon muttered, tightening her grip on the tough, slippery fronds.
Silence; then his fingers brushed her hip, a testing caress that ranged further when she did not kick. "I would be sorry to cut off your friendship," he murmured, taking her in his arms as she straightened with the dripping hank of dulse. "This does not sound like a breach, however. As soon as his duties are done, Veylin will make amends for his absence."
The press of Dírmaen's lips on her hair did not aid thought. "The feast is to repay all for the hospitality we have shown them, not to celebrate our handfasting." Indeed, Veylin had been so discomposed by the nature of her coming union that she wondered if he had spoken of it to his fellows. Nordri had said nothing, congratulatory or otherwise, and she had feared to mention it. Too different, Veylin had declared; and he was nearer forgiving than any Dwarf she had met.
"Well, and that is good, too." Dírmaen seemed determined to take all she said well. "I am glad they value Maelchon and the others. Dwarves do not often meet with such kindness as they find here."
"Why, when they are as decent as other folk?"
Dírmaen was silent for a while; thoughtful. Seeking an answer, or an answer he thought would content her? "Dwarves are commonly colder and more close than some of your neighbors, and folk find them outlandish and queer. They are unfriendly, on the roads, and drive hard bargains."
There was no cozening in that. "Is that why you mistrust them?"
"Yes. And they pay me in the same coin."
"I wish," Saelon said, low, "that you might turn that tide."
"For your sake, love, I will try—but I know of no one who had done it save you, and I do not know how you accomplished it." Sighing, Dírmaen released her, so she could put the dulse in her pail. "Others have saved Dwarves' lives: the Dwarves repay them, but they do not become their friends into the bargain. If you have any suggestions . . . ."
She shook her head. "I cannot tell how it happened. Who can, with friendship? The giving of great things made it easier to give little ones: shells from strand or stone, cups of ale or wine, words of counsel. I was much in need of counsel that first year, when Lindon seemed unfriendly and Râdbaran would set me aside."
"I regret that Arathorn sent him," Dírmaen muttered, kicking at a broken whelk. "Yet you must admit that most women would have welcomed such relief."
"True." Urwen had, without shame. "Is Argonui very angry with me?"
Dírmaen snorted, mouth crooked. "If he were, Lady, you would know it." When she scowled, displeased with so dismissive a reply to her long-held anxiety, he relented. "You are a complication: one of many, though more chancy than most, since you are embrangled with Elves and Dwarves. He was relieved to hear you have come to an agreement with Lindon, but would like to hear that the Dwarves have settled as well, if your friendship might involve you in their quarrels."
"If so, he can disavow us. I have long been infamous: my intransigence established beyond doubt, and we have not given him his due."
"Termagant," her love murmured, reaching out to capture and smooth a wind-whipped lock of her hair. "You will drive me to despair. Great hearts are not so common that we can afford to cast them away. Argonui would know how to value you, if you would but meet him."
Saelon smacked his hand away: gently, for such words were sweet to hear, nonsense though they were. "You are besotted. I know my worth among my kindred too well." Her father had brought many Dúnedain to their hall, to hunt the stout stags of the Ered Luin and appraise his daughters. Few had favored her with a second glance, taking her lack of height for evidence of Edain blood. For all she knew, Argonui had been one of them, cloaked by another name. That might be awkward, particularly if he were the one who had styled himself Greymantle. "And false courtesy, such as Râdbaran's, fetches out all my devils."
"Râdbaran was more Arathorn's man than he is Argonui's." Dírmaen eyed the pail of weed, then fetched his lobsters and tucked them on top. "He spent some years in the service of Gondor in his youth, and returned with . . . ." he hesitated, as if seeking fit words, before finishing plainly, "affectations of nobility that have offended others than yourself. Argonui prefers the manners of the sons of Elrond to those of the South Kingdom."
And she had fostered Halmir with such a man? "Râdbaran is out of favor with the Chieftain?"
"That is more than I said," Dírmaen chastened her. "I only wished to assure you that few Dúnedain are like Râdbaran."
Saelon shut her mouth before That I knew escaped. "You remember that my nephew is in the man's charge?"
"Yes." Going up the strand to where the yoke rested on the other pail, already stuffed with slake, he bent to lift it. "Shall I carry these for you?"
At least he asked. "If you wish."
Silence lay between them as made their way towards the dunes, almost a tangible thing. His silence suited her, she had told Veylin; but it did not please her now. Policy and partisanship were the province of men, and even those who loved her were not forthcoming. How could she govern well, if she did not know those she must deal with?
If she had gone to Argonui, as she ought, she would not be so dependent on the deficiencies of the men about her. The Chieftain favored the manners of Imladris, did he? Well, she had gotten more consideration from Círdan than—
"Râdbaran is a most worthy man," Dírmaen declared suddenly, when they had reached her rock. "Time spent in his household would benefit any Dúnadan, especially one such as your brother's son, who will be a lord. You should not fret that you have done wrong by accepting his offer to foster the boy. Still, excellent as Crabiant is, that may not be the best place. I cannot advise you in this!" he exclaimed, as she stared at him. "I am a simple Ranger, and know little of how matters stand among the lords of our folk."
"What do you know?"
He had a distaste for dishonor, so it took him some paces to reconcile himself to her demand. "It is said that Arathorn placed such trust in Râdbaran because he is his son; and that Argonui is cool to him because Râdbaran is the elder."
Saelon halted, staring. "How could that be?"
"Arathorn was sword-brother to Hirlach, the heir of Hirforn, who was then the Warden of Fornost. Hirlach was slain when Orcs came out of the Misty Mountains in the years before the Long Winter. Arathorn gave much comfort to his friend's widow, they say," Dírmaen muttered, "and the son she bore tardy, if he were her husband's. Yet Hirforn acknowledged the babe as his grandson, so Râdbaran is Warden."
The sameness of Dúnedain was the One's gift to Dúnadenith, her grandmother had once observed, most sardonically. "Oh." How awkward, for both lord and liege, when their places would be reversed if the vassal were not misbegot. And Râdbaran emulated the Stewards? "I see."
"Do not see too much," Dírmaen warned. "I know you think ill of the man."
"I think ill of his dismissal of me, not of the man himself." The shrewdness of his courtesy would be no ill weapon for a man reputed to be the Chieftain's by-blow. If he were a bastard, the fault was not his. "I did not know he was the Warden of Fornost, when he was here."
"It is perilous to reveal such things, when we wander beyond our strongholds."
"Hm." Too true; the Edain knew her kin as the get of the kings that were gone, but not where their men roamed in their youth, or to what purpose. "And you," she murmured, setting a finger on the bronzed skin of his breast, where his shirt opened. "Who are you, when you are at home?"
He captured her hands before she could take more liberties, and lifted them to his lips. "My lady's liege, if she will have me."
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Brockenborings: a village in the East Farthing of the Shire, in the hills near Scary. The geographical setting would seem suitable for a cheese like that originally aged in caves in the Cheddar Gorge in Somerset.
Firkin: a unit of volume equal to a quarter of a barrel, or 9 gallons (41 liters), for ale or beer.
Greymantle: a particularly pretentious by-name, especially in the Sindarin Dúnedain favor for names.
Crabiant: Sindarin, "raven bridge." The seat of the Wardens of Fornost, now that Norbury of the Kings lies in ruins. Since the ruins at Fornost are referred to as Deadman's Dike, I have borrowed this name from a place near Hadrian's Wall.
Warden of Fornost: a title of my devising for the keeper of the royal fortress at Fornost. Such an office would be held by a high noble, and it is not unknown for the descendants of such stewards (the Stewarts/Stuarts) or majordomos (the Carolingians) to end up on the throne.
Dúnadenith: Sindarin, "women of the West."
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.