8. Strings to Your Bow
"Now at last," the Master broke in, "the bowstring has cut right through you."
—Eugen Heurtgel, Zen in the Art of Archery
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Hands full of Saelon's hair, marten-dark, smelling of myrtle and the musk of their love, Dírmaen asked, "Where are you going today?"
"To the burn of two rowans," she answered, and turned her head enough to cock a sly eye at him. "Might I see you there, around midday?"
There were benefits, he had discovered, to wedding a woman long neglected. "Later would suit me better. I must wait for Grimr before I set out, and what Halpan says of conditions across the mountains makes me uneasy about our eastern march." He would push up into the hills, then circle to the south to meet her. There was a pool by the rowans . . . after they returned from the Havens, the sun would no longer have the strength to warm its clear waters.
Saelon straightened again, so his plaiting would not be crooked. "What is your business with Grimr?"
"I have bespoke a dozen new arrowheads." Despite his care, a few had been lost, and this rocky land was unkind to the stray shot. It would be good to have heads that were straight and true for hunting this autumn and winter; and if he must draw on lawless men, better still.
"You have the wherewithal to trade?" Saelon sounded surprised, as if she had never considered his resources before.
Smiling, he turned her thick braid into a knot and pinned it in place before kissing the top of her head. "I would not have bespoke them if I did not."
It was as well he had finished, for she twisted around to face him. "Coin?"
There was that sharpness in her face that was hard to interpret: was she avid, or displeased that he had not told her? "A little. Enough for such necessities. Rangers cannot carry goods to barter with."
The short huff of her clipped laugh reassured him. "I suppose not," she allowed, then, more soberly, "You will let me know if you need more? Especially if it is for arms for our defense. I would like to share the burden."
"And do you have coin?" he asked, sitting down beside her on the kist and putting his arm about her slim waist.
"A little." She drew his head down.
Dírmaen gave himself to her kiss, which had lost none of its bewitching sweetness to familiarity. How easy it would be, to scoop her up and carry her back to their bed . . . .
Too soon, she pushed him gently away. "I must be on my way," she sighed, trailing her fingers down his breast, "if I am to get any work done before we meet under the rowans."
Capturing her hand, he pressed it to his heart. "Take care, love, until then."
Dírmaen sat there a little while after she picked up her packbasket and left, savouring his contentment. The whole of the summer seemed blessed, as if it strove to make amends for the year's ill start. Was he mazed in enchantment, or was this truth? He had always taken pride in his grim resolution: happiness felt wondrous strange, like some dream of childhood grown rich and deep. His fears—of fickleness, of tyranny, of Veylin's interference—had proved unfounded; their disagreements trifles, like this matter of whether she would appear more dignified with reins in her hands or leaving such work to others.
When she charged that he wished to have her arms about him for days on end, he could not deny it. Nor did he see that it weakened his argument. But enough; the sun must be well up by now, and it would be shameful if Grimr arrived and was told he had not yet left his bedchamber. Pulling on his shirt, he hunted out his boots and took up his swordbelt.
"No!" Muirne protested as he stepped out into the hall. "You have had your share!"
Startled by any show of temper from Artan's bashful wife, Dírmaen stared in the direction she swung her spoon and saw Hanadan skip nimbly away, a hunk of bannock clutched in his grubby hand. With a grin, the boy bit into his prize.
"Hanadan." Dírmaen girded on his sword.
Gulping, the rascal turned to him, thrusting the bread down his shirt. "Sir?"
"Do not speak with your mouth full." Here was another colt that needed taking into hand. "You want a knife, do you not?"
"Do you know the wayfaring tree?"
Puzzled, the boy shook his head.
"Ask Gaernath—he will show you. But go first to Finean and ask to borrow the bill. When I come home this evening, I will want two-score stems suitable for arrowshafts. If I am pleased, I will entrust other tasks to you. So you may earn a knife."
"Where is Finean?"
"You wish to be a Ranger. Hunt him out!" Taking the cup of ale Muirne offered, Dírmaen said, as the pelting footfalls faded, "That should keep him from mischief today. You must learn to manage such scamps, mistress. Did you have no brothers?"
"No," she replied, once again shy as a roe. "Did you know, sir, that Finean has already left for the peat bank?"
"I thought he had. The run will do the boy good. Does he filch much?"
Such a sweet lass, but he could not have borne a wife whose peace came from pretending ill did not happen. Rian would tell him true, or Unagh, if pressed. A growing boy would eat, but if he would be a Ranger, Hanadan must learn to ask rather than take.
Laying cheese and cold mutton deep on his bannock, Dírmaen took it outside, walking across the ledge to look out on the day. Though he stood in cool shadow, the sun's strength already beat on the lea below, parching the full-headed barley pale as the sere sand amid the dunes. If rain would hold off but a day or two longer, they should have a fine harvest. A corncrake cried rustily across the little river; Unagh sang at her work in the dairy, and Rian, embroidering Saelon's gown for their visit to the Havens, lifted her voice in lilting reply from the bench by the door.
Poor Randir. She did not miss him. Dírmaen wondered where his friend was now. The Emyn Uial? Fornost?
The bird's harsh creaking stopped. Glancing that way, he saw the small figure of a pony and rider trotting briskly down the river track. Grimr would be able to tell him when Randir had left Srathen Brethil and how the colts had behaved on the road. Draining his cup, Dírmaen returned to the hall for another cup and more ale.
"Welcome, Master Grimr!" he hailed the Dwarf, when the smith halted his mount in the yard, and went to take the beast's head. "You have had a pleasant morning for your ride."
"Well met, Dírmaen," Grimr acknowledged, dismounting. "Aye—a fine morning, but I would not mind if a few clouds blew in before I turned for home. I do not wish for rain," he hastened to add, as he rummaged in his saddlebag and brought out a roll of soft leather. "Not so near harvest."
"Thank you. There is ale on the bench. Fill your cup, while I stable this fellow."
Grimr bowed. "Greetings, lady," Dírmaen heard him address Rian.
"Good morning to you, Master! What news can you give us of Srathen Brethil?"
"Drustan's family has joined him. His wife was wrathful at the state of her house, but Halpan assured me it was much worse before. When I left, she was in better temper."
Rian laughed as Dírmaen led the sturdy little grey to the byre-cave. "Brianag likes things just so. Their children are well?"
He did not hear the Dwarf's reply, but when he rejoined them, the smith was saying, "Your corn is full a month further along."
"Oh, dear. I hope they have a dry autumn. How disheartening, to work so hard and all for naught!"
"Did you often lose crops to wet?" Dírmaen asked.
"Once," Rian sighed. "When I was little. We fell back on our cattle, but Gaernath says they have few beasts yet." She looked up at him. "We will help them, will we not?"
"Your aunt will not let any of your folk starve, so long as there is anything to share," Dírmaen assured her, taking a seat beside their guest and refilling his own cup. "And if there is not, she will take them seaweed and winkles, and stand over them until they eat it."
Rian laughed again, a merry peal. It was good to hear when but two years had passed since they were in such straits.
"Seaweed?" Grimr looked dubious.
"Aye. The Lady's laverbread is very wholesome," Dírmaen told him, "but I know no one who savors it save for Hanadan and herself."
"What does it taste like?"
"I will see if we have any," Rian offered, setting her stitching aside, "and bring something nicer to take the taste away after."
"Srathen Brethil does not prosper?" Dírmaen asked, as Grimr passed him the roll of leather.
"From what they say," the smith answered, "they have had a hard start. Yet they are determined. I think they will do well enough."
As he tugged loose the knot that bound the wrapper, Dírmaen wondered how much the Dwarf had profited from Srathen Brethil's misfortune. When he had sheltered there last autumn and again in Nínui, the houses had been stripped of what little metal they had ever had: pot-chains and spits, kettles and griddles, sickles and scythes. If the owners had not carried such goods away with them when they fled, they had lost them.
Yet, when he unrolled the leather and saw the shapely leaf-points of new-forged iron, gleaming with a light coat of grease, he had to allow Grimr's work was worth his price. Taking one up, Dírmaen weighed it in his hand and sighted along its straightness. "I would not mind them a little heavier," he said. "The stags hereabout are large, and the outlaws sometimes wear boiled leather."
"Shall I remake them?"
"No. These will serve." One by one he inspected each. "These will serve very well. Six pence was the price we agreed, was it not?"
Dírmaen drew the slim silver pennies from his pouch and passed them over. "If we are both here next year, I may take a dozen broadheads."
Grimr raised his cup. "I will remind you of it. Is there anything else you require at present? Shoes for your horse? A gift for your lady? I do not believe I have made her a knife."
"No—she already has an excellent knife of dwarven steel. But what would you ask for a boy's knife? Iron would do."
"How large is the boy?"
"It would be for Hanadan."
The Dwarf considered, wiping stray ale from his whiskers. "Tuppence complete. A pence and a half for the unhafted blade. When would you like it?"
"Oh, he must earn it first, and now I know how much he must do. It will be some months."
"Very good." For a moment, Dírmaen thought the smith would smile, but just then Rian returned, offering a piece of rough, green-black laverbread. "Here you are, Master Grimr!" she said gaily. "It is tough to chew, but I know you Dwarves do not mind that."
Grimr was game; Dírmaen allowed him that. He paused after he had chewed enough to get the flavor, but finished the slice, face set in stony dwarven reserve. "May your harvests always be bountiful, lady," he said gravely, once he had drained his cup.
Looking as though she now regretted suggesting the trial to him, Rian hastened to offer him their choicest dainty in recompense, thin, sweet cakes made from one of the grains Saelon had been trying, with lashings of butter and honey. "Oatcakes!" the Dwarf exclaimed, reaching gladly for the nearest. "I did not know you made them."
"They are new to us," Rian admitted, watching a little anxiously as he chomped on the cake. "This is the first year we have had enough of the grain to eat. You like them?"
"Very much," he assured her, reaching for a second, and then a third, before brushing the crumbs from his beard and setting down his cup. "Thank you for the refreshment, lady, but if you—" he looked to Dírmaen as well "—have no further business with me, I will take my leave before the day grows hotter."
"I must be off as well," Dírmaen said. "Let me get my bow, and I will see you as far as Maelchon's."
He asked after Randir as they went along the river path, receiving a good report of his friend and the colts before he parted from the Dwarf at the kennels, which they had moved nearer Maelchon's for the security the dogs might provide. Teig seemed happier here: a simple soul, he was dreadfully abashed in Saelon's presence and tongue-tied even in the company of his fellows. Though he was welcome in the men's chamber in the cliff-hall and Maelchon had repeatedly offered him a place by his hearth, most nights he slept here, snugly blanketed by hounds. Now he sat in the sun before the sod hut and its high-paled yard, shirtless and weaving a light hurdle of withies, while a sprawl of half-grown pups avidly gnawed sheep's knuckles all about him. "Good day, Teig," Dírmaen greeted him, stooping to fondle the ears of a pup that abandoned its bone to prance hopefully about his boots. "I have come for Bronwe and Naeth."
The kennelman smiled and bobbed his head.
"Do you or the dogs want for anything?" Dírmaen asked, as he walked to the gate of the yard. Naeth was already on the other side, snuffing at the gap and whining eagerly.
"Na." Teig picked up another willow wand.
From the three hounds Aniel had brought out of Srathen Brethil, they now had a very fair pack—or would once the young dogs were properly trained. Last year's litter was still good for naught but hares, and Garo, one of Aniel's dogs, was growing elderly, but three couple was ample for their needs. It was not easy to separate out the pair Teig had gifted him at Midsummer as they all pressed close, begging for a run.
When he had shut the gate firmly in Laeg's long, imploring face, Dírmaen called Bronwe and Naeth from the pups' bones and set off up-river at an easy lope, keen to make up for his late start.
None of the children were on watch by the track to Maelchon's; they would be gathered about Grimr for his news of their old neighbors. Maon waved as he passed the upper ford. Up, then, across the moor, sumptuous in its cloak of blooming heather, the hounds flushing grouse as they scouted the path ahead. When they had gone two leagues, they stopped to quench their thirst where the river ran swiftly, even in this dry season, through a jumble of boulders.
Now he slowed his pace, striding briskly beside the water. The sun, its heat sullen as its reign shortened, was climbing high, and the nearest shade was the tall rowan half a league ahead. The wispy clouds above gave no relief, but neither did they threaten rain: a good harvest was worth some sweat. As the sentinel tree came into sight, Dírmaen recalled the night he had spent there this time last year with a smile of wry amusement. How much had changed since then! Sick with desire for Saelon, he had envied the stallion that broke his uneasy sleep, covering Gwinnor's witchy grey mare. Had she foaled yet? If he met with the Elf when they visited the Havens, he must ask, and see the foal if he could, to get some idea of its quality. Not only was he curious to see a cross between Môrfast and an elven steed, but Gwinnor had promised to pay Saelon some part of its value if he chose to sell.
Dírmaen turned over the preparations for their journey south as he scanned the ground before him, seeking tracks in places where a mark might have been left: bare patches on the ridges through the white-flecked bogs, the glistening shallows and narrows where the river and the burns that fed it could be crossed. Gaernath—those were Coll's hoofprints there, from the lad's patrol three days ago—continued to mature. He had served commendably as errand-rider between Saelon and Halpan, and should be capable of dealing with any ordinary trouble. Disappointed though he was not to be going to the Havens, whose Elves he found so enchanting, the lad was proud to be trusted with guarding Habad and Rian . . . and if ill did befall, there were the Dwarves nearby, and Halpan and Partalan but a day away.
At the fork where the river turned north, Dírmaen found the slot of a grand stag and several hinds, plus the prints of a wildcat, no more. Pleased, he turned south, setting his course along the front of the high hills. This way was seldom trodden: there were no passes between these peaks, or certain ways across the boggy moor below. If Saelon desired venison for the harvest feast, he would ride here with Gaernath and the pack, and take one of the full-fleshed harts fencing for lordship. He could hear them bellowing now, up in the corries. The hounds cocked their ears and snuffed the warm breeze, continually looking to him for permission to seek, but he called them to heel and pushed on. He was after his own hind today, and knew where she was lodged.
Naeth started a hare on the high levels shortly after midday, and Dírmaen gave him and Bronwe leave to chase with a cry. Standing there, eyes shaded, Dírmaen's heart was with the handsome beasts, coursing with fierce, single-minded joy over the tussocky grass. Bronwe ran wide, but Naeth held close to his quarry, stretching every bound to the utmost, seeking to justify his name.
Ears down, the hare broke left and doubled back—almost into Bronwe's jaws. A leap; the flash of fangs; the dreadful cry of the stricken hare, soon cut short.
"A canny bitch," said an admiring voice at his shoulder.
Dírmaen jumped, turning as tight a curve as the hapless hare, hand flying to his hilt.
"Peace!" Coruwi cried, grinning, open hands raised. "Were you too engrossed in the chase to hear me approach?"
"As well you knew," Dírmaen huffed, feeling foolish. Where had the Elf sprung from, in this open land? "How do you do, Coruwi?"
"Very well. It has been a fat summer. And yourself?"
"I cannot complain." He had not seen the Elf since before Midsummer. Did Coruwi know he was wedded, though irregularly, to Saelon? She had met with the marchwarden in Cerveth; surely she had told him they were handfast, even if she kept a decent silence about her irregular interpretation of that bond. Yet the penetration of the Elf's smiling gaze brought something like the warmth of guilt to Dírmaen's face. He and Saelon had been shameless as beasts, sometimes, when they met far from Habad, enjoying the freedom to be had in these empty lands. It did not do, however, to forget the light foot and long sight of the Elves, whose country this was. The land might not be as empty as it appeared. "Have you or your men seen anything amiss in the mountains?" Dírmaen asked, direct to their duty, resolving to be more discreet in future. "We hear the sodden spring delayed planting in Eriador, and Halpan and the Dwarves fear the harvest will be poor."
"Let us hope not," Coruwi replied. "No, all is peaceable, save the stags. You may go to Mithlond easy in your mind. Who do you leave behind on guard, now that Randir has left? Gaernath?"
"That was our plan." Bronwe padded up and laid the hare at his feet, licking blood from her muzzle and gazing up at him with a kind of wistful hopefulness, echoed by the trailing Naeth. Bending to take up their quarry, Dírmaen weighed it in his hand: a leveret, hardly more than a few morsels. As he squatted to make the cuts that would allow him to peel its pelt, he looked up at Coruwi. "Will you also travel to Mithlond for Yáviérë?"
"Yes, but I will leave enough foresters to keep watch."
Dírmaen looked up. "Will you keep us company?" He was uncertain himself whether it was an invitation or a mere question. Courtesy demanded the former; yet how could they refuse the marchwarden if he chose to escort them? If Coruwi did, the intimacy he and Saelon had been anticipating would be impossible.
Coruwi laughed. "Thank you, but no! We will travel more swiftly than you, with your plodding packbeasts. I do not think you will see us until you near the Lhûn."
Now he wondered if the Elf was being magnanimous. Standing, he broke the bare carcass and threw each piece to a hound. "We will look for you," he promised, putting the pelt in his scrip. Misliking the feeling that he had been found out amidst some mischief, he asked, "May we also look for you and your foresters at our harvest feast a few days hence?"
"That is kind! The Lady's ale is well worth drinking," Coruwi declared. "Yet the Dwarves will be there, will they not?"
"I will come," Coruwi assured him, a shade less merry. "But I doubt I will have many companions. If you are seeking venison," he offered, changing the topic, "there is a noble hart between Amon Eithel and Tuntelu who is badly lame. He will not give much sport, as he is, but he would make a capital dish for your feast."
Dírmaen inclined his head in thanks. "If your men would rather, we would be glad if they would join us, though the sport be poor. We can provide refreshment as well as hounds. Shall we meet here two hours after sunrise, the day after tomorrow?"
"Certainly! We will look for you!"
"Until then," Dírmaen said in farewell, and set off again, whistling the hounds to heel. Then, and not before. May carrying word to his men take him far from the burn of two rowans!
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Wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana): this shrub and the closely related Guelder rose were the prefered source of arrowshafts through much of Europe from the Neolithic.
Bill: a tool with a hooked edge, mounted on a pole and used for pruning.
Laverbread: long-boiled and pounded slake (Porphyra spp.), a purple-red to olive-green seaweed, which is also used to make nori for sushi wrappers.
Boiled leather: or cuirbouilli in French. Boiling leather hardens it, and this was used as the cheapest form of armor.
Broadheads: what most people think of as "arrowhead-shaped"—a point with a relatively wide, barbed base. Since barbs make it difficult to remove the point and increase damage and blood loss if it moves in the target's flesh (say, as the man or beast tries to flee), this shape was favored in the later medieval period. Leaf-shaped (lenticular) points were more common earlier, but we can see preferences shift back and forth between these two options even when projectile points were knapped from stone.
Leveret: a young hare, usually in its first year.