17. Fabric of Society
If everyone were clothed with integrity, if every heart were just, frank, kindly, the other virtues would be well-nigh useless, since their chief purpose is to make us bear with patience the injustice of our fellows.
--Moliére, Le Misanthrope V, i
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While his brother was gone, Bersa, strangely subdued, was almost civil, asking after their crops and flocks and gardens, attending with close attention to what Saelon chose to tell him. She was glad to gain some idea of what he would like—though often it was no more than a hint dropped by the roused gleam in his brown eyes. He was shaking his head emphatically, refusing to even hear the virtues of carrageen for thickening sauces, when Bersi returned, accompanied by a pair of firebearded Dwarves.
Saelon rose to drop a proper curtsey. "Greetings, Thyrnir . . . and Auð. At your service."
"At yours and your family's." Their voices were as akin as their hair. "Welcome to our halls, Lady," Thyrnir went on, smiling over the dainties spread on the table. "I see you have come to tempt Bersa."
"And your kinsman, I hope." Saelon smiled in her turn on the taciturn Auð. "For I understand Bersa lacks what I would have in trade."
"Linen, was it?"
Determinedly, Saelon kept the smile on her face. It was her day to suffer slights, it seemed. She understood the faintly contemptuous distaste in the brusque Dwarf's eyes: her clothes were fit for little but rags, as least in comparison with the richly colored, whole garments they wore. "Yes, good stout linen for shirting and summer wear. My menfolk are hard on their cloth, and two of them are growing like young willows."
Auð stroked his beard. "Plain or dyed?"
"Plain, if you please. I am teaching my niece the plants used for dyes." Plain would be cheaper as well, and she needed as much as she could get. She and Rian, Halpan and Gaernath and Hanadan; Partalan should have some linen as well. And where would Dírmaen get any, if she did not supply it? Could she get as much as fifty ells? It would depend on how highly they valued the honey.
"I will fetch what I have." Auð motioned Thyrnir to stay, and left them.
Saelon gazed ruefully at Veylin's nephew. "I do not think your kinsman likes me."
His look reminded her that they had not agreed well either, to start. "Auð knows little of Men and finds you strange," he explained. "Do not be dismayed, for it will not help. We are mistrustful of the unfamiliar."
Flicking her gaze towards Dírmaen, Saelon allowed, "That is true for some Men, as well." She had known the Dwarves for two years, now, and since they had stayed with them almost a fortnight while delving their hall, her folk knew them near as well.
Yet Dírmaen, though he had met them little more than a year ago, had also spent many days in the Dwarves' company, on the foray against the raugs. Was it that mistrust bred mistrust? If he had been within this hall—and he seemed unmoved by its grandeur—but did not know the door, had they brought him in blind? That might well have galled the Ranger's honor. It was to be hoped, then, that his temper would now mend, with this gesture of trust.
"How are things with you and your folk?" Thyrnir inquired politely, steering their talk from such uncomfortable ground. "Is Maelchon content with his house?"
Surely Veylin had passed on the news from their chance meeting . . . though perhaps not. Or was it that Thyrnir asked to maintain the pretense that they had not met since Lothron, for Dírmaen's sake?
Dírmaen was right; she had become two-faced, falling into this trying double life where she was an intimate of Veylin, and she was not—and must be cunning to maintain both. How else was she to preserve her friendship with one who prized secrecy, along with her own reputation? The lack of candor gnawed at her like a canker. "Oh, very well. Yes, Maelchon is happy, not least because Fransag is more content. They have a new daughter, and Muirne bore Artan a second son."
"Has Halpan returned yet?"
"No, but we expect him soon. He was to be back before harvest, though that may be earlier than usual, the summer having been so hot."
They talked idly of what success her kinsman might have had encouraging folk to return to Srathen Brethil until Auð rejoined them, bearing three bolts of cloth, carefully jacketed in some tight, coarse weave against dirt and wear. "Thyrnir," Auð ordered, "bring that table over here," and pointed to the one he desired with his bearded chin.
Thyrnir promptly complied, then relieved him of his burden, laying the bolts on the table as Auð fetched a lamp to set beside them. When Auð had stripped the bolts of their covers, he stepped back, inviting Saelon to examine his wares with a gesture.
All were plainweaves, though of varying quality: one coarse, with flecks of boon in the threads; one middling, the threads thick but tightly woven, that would take hard wear; and one finer, a pale grey that would bleach readily in the sun. Fingering the coarsest to judge how harsh it would be on the skin, Saelon considered how best to open the bargaining, since Auð had not. Indeed, the grey-clad Dwarf seemed to have little interest in the proceedings: he had watched her handle the cloth with more attention than he had given what she had brought to trade, though sparing many a glance for the cook, who appeared less uneasy.
"I would like some of each," Saelon began, as much as she would have liked to spurn the coarsest. Yet it ought to be cheap, and would do for Hanadan and Partalan. "Two parts fine, two parts middling, and one part of the coarse. How many ells will you give me for what I have brought?"
Pursing his lips and stroking his flame-bright beard, Auð calculated. "Four and a half ells a part, twenty-two and a half in all."
"That is very dear!" Saelon exclaimed, so great was her surprise. That was less than half of what she would require!
"It has passed through many hands before it reached me," Auð answered coolly. "Each adds to its price."
Schooling her demeanor, Saelon allowed, "I had not considered that. I am used to trading with the women who weave it." She kept herself from biting her lip, for she had given too much away already. "Well then, and if it were one part fine, two parts middling, and four parts coarse?"
"Five ells a part."
One less than three dozen: even if Rian patched out the fine with the middling, there would not be underdresses for both of them; barely enough coarse to clothe her own kinsmen. Was Auð taking advantage of her obvious need? Impossible to tell, from that faintly condescending, bearded face. Thyrnir had gone over to talk quietly with Dírmaen and Bersi; Bersa looked immensely content, but perhaps that was because he had found another dollop of stray honey.
Whether the cloth was truly that costly among Dwarves or Auð drove a hard bargain mattered little—either way, it was foolish to part with so much for so little. They could make do with less: winter, the season of woolens, was coming; and who was there to be vain for, who had not already seen them ragged?
"Then," Saelon said decisively, "I will take eight ells of the middling, and twenty of the coarse." Stepping to the table before Bersa, she picked up one of the casks of honey. "That will do for now—" she set the cask back in her basket "—and we can get our summer linen when we trade one of the colts in the spring."
Auð's "Very well" was nearly drowned out by a cry of heartrent protest from Bersa, who had gaped like a fish as she took back half the honey. "What is this, Lady? You cannot mean to take it back!" Yet he glared at Auð, rather than her. "You have already cheated me of honey once!"
"Master Bersa!" Saelon usually did not mind his chaffing discourtesy, having divined that he had more cry than wool, but such an accusation was beyond rudeness . . . and she was bitterly disappointed. "That is untrue."
"Make an offer yourself, then," Auð told the cook with a scornful shrug.
"She will not take coin!"
"Will not take coin?" The red-bearded Dwarf stared as if she had sprouted a third arm.
"I never said so," Saelon protested, reproachful. "I said I would rather have linen. If, however, " she looked at Auð, wondering if it would make a difference, "you will tell me the price of the cloth, I will consider it."
"You do not know the price of cloth?"
She must not lose her temper, no matter how trying these two were, for she had not yet left word of Gwinnor for Veylin. "I know the value my folk place on it, but we did not use coin for such trifles in Srathen Brethil."
"Trifles?" Auð pondered this for a time, as Bersa fidgeted in anxious agitation. "May I ask how much you thought to get?"
Saelon did not rush to answer, trying to fathom why he wished to know. Not to ease his terms, of that she was sure. Seeing no harm, she admitted, "Fifty ells."
"For this?" It was Auð's turn to sound surprised. "Where do you usually get your linen, Lady?"
Ah; he was seeking a cheaper supply himself. "From my kinswomen in Srathen Brethil."
Auð made a noise between a grunt and a sigh, casting a stern look at Bersa. "What will you give for the other cask of honey? A silver penny will buy four ells of the rough linen, and two of the thick."
The cook eyed her with disgruntled speculation. "Six pennies."
Six pennies! The only time she had seen so many was in her grandmother's ancient iron casket, the one with the cunning key . . . which she had left her brother in return for the pony and gear she had taken from Srathen Brethil. A great fortune it had seemed, and it took an effort now to force her mind from the glamour of such wealth and figure how much cloth it could bring. Saelon figured it twice, to be sure, before gathering the resolution to gravely shake her head. "That is no better than before, Master."
Bersa huffed, shifting in his broad seat. "You have a high opinion of your wares, Lady. Well, for the friendship between our folk, I will stretch to seven."
That was four more ells at most, not even a shirt for short Partalan, linen being so narrow. Stealing a glance at Auð, who did not seem to think well of his fat fellow, Saelon found no sign of whether the offer was fair; save for the brightness of their eyes, Dwarves were impassive when they looked on the bargaining of others. If she used the silver to purchase the coarsest linen, there would be enough to clothe them all . . . but she could not bring herself to spend so much on such poor cloth. "You seem to think well of the honey, at least. I am sorry, Master, but it is simply a matter of the quality of the cloth it would afford. I would rather clothe us in the woolen we can weave ourselves and keep the honey against greater need, if it will not provide enough decent linen for myself as well as Rian and Halpan."
"Why will it not?" Bersa growled, frowning much as her father's sister used to when she cut a piece ill and wasted cloth.
"You may have observed, Master," Saelon said dryly, "that my kin are very tall."
Even Auð could not resist snorting at that, and Saelon heard, back where the others sat, a low chuckle that must be Veylin's.
"Why I should suffer because you Dúnedain are freakishly high—"
"And," she continued, "I must take thought for Gaernath and Hanadan, as well as Partalan."
"Eight, and I will go no higher!" The cook's fat face was red with anger, or perhaps mortification. "If that is not enough, you will have to do without."
Eight ells of middling and twenty of coarse from the barter; if she used most of the coin for the middling—and Rian cut carefully—she and Rian could have passable dresses, and Halpan a decent shirt, with enough of the coarse for the others. Dírmaen would have to take coarse, but that would be better than nothing. "Done. We will make do with that."
Rumbling and muttering like a pot on the boil, Bersa reached for the pouch at his belt and brought out a handful of coin. Very deliberately, he counted out eight pennies, one at a time, then shoved them across the table towards her and held out his thick hand. "The honey."
Saelon stooped to retrieve it from the burden basket and set it in his grasp. "I am sure you will enjoy it, Master."
He hurrumphed, eyeing her almost evilly, then called sharply, "Thyrnir—take all this into the kitchen." Rising with ponderous dignity, he took a keg of honey under each arm and stumped back to his lair.
"Lady," Thyrnir asked when he came forward, an amused smile quirking his whiskers, "may I borrow your basket briefly?"
As he repacked the goods, Auð asked, "How much of which shall you take?"
Picking up the pennies—the silver was weighty in the hand, beguilingly bright—Saelon considered one last time. "Fifteen ells of the middling and two of the coarse. That should come to twenty-three and twenty-two, in all."
"My reckoning is the same." Auð rewrapped the bolt of fine linen and brought out a pair of shears. "Why do you not weave linen, as well as wool?" he asked, as he began to measure out the better of what remained.
Saelon was surprised to feel something like a pang of regret as she laid the coin down. "We need such land as we have ploughed to feed ourselves, while there is no lack of pasture. Nor can we yet spare the labor to ret and scutch flax."
Veylin came over to join them. "Wait until Maelchon's lads can plough a good furrow, and his lasses spin," he told Auð with a knowing smile. "Then you, too, may desire more trade with Saelon and her folk."
Shaking his head, Veylin gazed genially on Saelon. "Welcome to Gunduzahar, Lady. I am glad we can return a little of the hospitality you have given us. You must excuse me for not attending on you earlier, but my work forbid."
Indeed, he looked no more like a dwarf-lord than he had slopping about in the gravel of the burn, though his sleeves were marked by fire and hot metal rather than mud. "Thank you for sparing the time to greet me, Master, but as you see, my business was with Bersa."
"The more such business you and your folk have with mine, the better I am pleased," Veylin assured her, with a sketch of a bow. "How do you all fare, at Habad-e-Mindon? Has Halpan returned yet?"
"Very well. No, Halpan has not returned, though we expect him soon. Gaernath," Saelon told him with double satisfaction, "has slain three wolves single-handedly, so we have all we need for Lindon's rent."
"Excellent! Single-handedly? Though I should not be surprised," Veylin demurred, "knowing his valour as I do. I look forward to hearing the tale in full when next I visit."
Saelon laughed. "Doubtless you will hear enough to content you. We will see you and your folk at harvest, will we not? All are welcome." She looked at Auð, but the red-bearded Dwarf did not acknowledge the invitation, concentrating on the straightness of his cut.
"I will be there," Veylin assured her heartily, "and many others, I am sure."
"You may count on me," Bersi added. "Though—" and he smiled "—I will not speak for my brother."
"He would miss an opportunity to redress his loss at my table?"
The coppersmith shook his head, looking near as amused as Veylin. "I will put it to him so, Lady, if he is reluctant."
"Please do. Oh," she finally said, striving to sound natural, "I forgot to mention: we have a guest at present."
"Who?" Veylin asked, bushy brows knit in a faint frown of curiosity.
Saelon met his russet eyes. "Gwinnor has returned."
How little they changed; and how much. "Has he? Whatever for?" Veylin cocked his head. "There is no difficulty about your agreement with Círdan, I trust."
If not for their conversation near the burn, she would never have imagined he was concerned on his own behalf. "He did not say so. Yet he was with us only a few hours before Gaernath came in with his wolves. Part of the pack had escaped him, and they have gone after them."
Veylin chuffed. "He is a keen hunter, Lady." She was trying to decide whether this had a single meaning or a double one when he asked, "Will he stay with you until the harvest feast?"
"I have no idea."
"Well, give him my regards, and tell him that if he would like first choice of this season's garnets, I would be pleased to deal with him at your feast. Or," he shrugged, "he can wait until I stop in Lindon on my way south, a month from now. But I cannot guarantee him the first view in that case."
Saelon was in deep enough to feel the undercurrents, but not to read them with certainty. "I will tell him so, Master. Thank you," she said, as Thyrnir came up and handed her her basket, having stopped to collect her linen and place it within. "Until harvest, then."
"Until then. A safe journey home, Lady, Dírmaen."
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Ell: a traditional measure of the length of cloth. An English ell is 45 inches (1.14 m); a Scottish ell is just over 37 inches (0.94 m).
Plainweave: the most basic weaving pattern, where the weft (crosswise) threads go alternately over and under the warp (lengthwise) threads.
Boon: fragments of flax stem, left in with the fibers due to careless or hasty hackling.
Penny: a silver coin worth one-two hundred and fortieth of a pound of silver. Twelve pennies make a shilling. For more details, see Coinage in the Dûnhebaid Dictionary. For those of you who, like Saelon, are taken aback by the relative cost of linen, it should be pointed out that this is why most households spun and wove their own cloth until the early modern period—and why the textile industry was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution.
"linen being so narrow": in medieval Europe, linen was usually woven in narrower widths (less than 2.5 feet or 0.76 m) than woolen.
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