3. Better Acquaintance
As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country
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No, that would not do either. Auð frowned, tucking the cloth-end back into the bolt before setting it aside. The hue was nearer, but a trifle too grey. Thyrð's coloring called for russet undershades and, in any case, the weave was unsuitable, not stout enough for wear beyond the doors.
She wondered where her younger son and that brother of hers were now . . . what they were doing; whether they were well. With a huff, she tugged another bolt of woolen from those piled on her cutting table. Her mind would not stray this way if she had more work, or better company. Or at least a passable choice of materials! If she were in Sulûnduban, she would walk down to Tofa's, and if she did not have what she wanted, there was always Litr or Var; and if they failed her, Jorð over in the Second Deep of the South-end would dye any cloth she brought to her satisfaction.
Auð chucked the bolt, no more satisfactory than the last, across the table in disgust. What a crabbed and miserable place this was! No society, no variety—
A brisk knock on her door—ordinarily an annoyance—was welcome as a distraction. Striding across the spacious workroom delved to please her, she called out, "Who is it?"
"Ingi," came the prompt reply. "News!"
"News?" She flung the door open to Rekk's prentice. "What news?"
He was smiling broadly, teeth gleaming in the sable of his beard. "None bad. The Lady of White Cliffs has returned from the Grey Havens, and brought Rekk a message from your brother. Would you care to join us in the First Hall, to hear what she has to tell for yourself?"
Though her heart leapt eagerly at the prospect, Auð hesitated. "Has she come alone?"
"No, Halpan attends her."
The dark-haired youngster, her kinsman, in whom Rekk took an interest. "Very well. I will be there presently."
"Should I send Thyrnir to accompany you?"
Auð fingered her red-gold beard. It was considerate of him to ask. "No. These are friends."
Friends. Strange—almost as strange as the Men themselves, drawn as wire and naked of face—yet she must harden herself to it. Veylin and Rekk would not have invited her to remove to this distant delf if they thought she would be in any danger, nor would the Men have ever passed the hidden doors if they had been deemed untrustworthy. Still, was an acquaintance of hardly two years enough for surety?
In that scant time, the Lady of White Cliffs had given Veylin his life, the use of his fiend-hammered leg, and knowledge that uncovered a wealth of the gems he loved best. Her kinsman had paid for the privilege of fighting beside Dwarves with the silver token of his people's highest honor. The nature of their commerce must be considered, as well as its duration. And Saelon did not scruple to come among them, even alone, unarmed—
Saelon was odd, very odd: peculiar even by the reckoning of her outlandish kind, perhaps mad. But it seemed an advantageous kind of madness. Auð hastily rearranged her beard and shifted her rings, removing the most feminine of them. Should she swap out her belt as well? She would have to go to the suite for one of the boys' . . . .
Bah. How would they know a man's belt from a woman's? She was missing news of Veylin and Thyrð.
When she reached the First Hall, Auð paused in the archway to survey those gathered there and heard Saelon's unmistakable voice, more shrill than those of her menfolk or any Dwarf. "—has left us." She was seated in a place of honor before the Grand Hearth, in one of the new, generously proportioned armchairs, her leggy kinsman in another at her right hand. Everyone—everyone of consequence—had come to meet their guests . . . yet the seat to her left was empty and Rekk stood a little apart, beneath the best lamp, lips pursed as he read a letter.
"When?" Nordri asked, as Auð's elder son offered the woman of Men a crystal goblet displaying the tawny mead she loved.
"Thank you, Thyrnir," Saelon acknowledged before answering the stonemason. "Yesterday." Tasting the cup, she looked complacently content. "He wished to cross the mountains before the weather worsens."
"Wine," Thyrnir murmured to the Man, "or ale?"
"Wine," Halpan replied with a fleeting smile. "Good ale I can get at home, now that Saelon has returned." When he had accepted the cup of chased and inlaid silver, however, he frowned over the topic at hand. "I do not understand why he slipped off as he did. Farewells need not have delayed him long."
Ketli shrugged and moved to sit on the settle beside the hearth. "Such is the way of Rangers."
So it was Dírmaen who had gone, the Man who had challenged the Lady's will and disapproved of her preference for Veylin's counsel. As she moved unobtrusively to the further edge of the throng Auð wondered why the coalmaster should put himself forward with such a comment. He was not one of the principals in this venture, but a follower of Vitnir, her cousin and Veylin's heir, who had gone with her brother to the Havens and Barazdush.
"Only when need requires," the young Dúnedain very properly defended his elders.
Nordri, next in authority after Rekk and well-disposed towards these Men, charitably wondered, "Did he learn of any ill east of the Lune while in the Havens?"
Saelon shook her head. "He often spoke of our Chieftain's want of men, and lately of how little he was needed here. I expect the assurance of Lindon's good will towards us settled his mind."
Proved his suspicions that the woman intrigued with Dwarves against the Elves wrong, more like, discrediting his already dubious judgment. Auð snorted softly and took a wine-cup as her son offered it in passing. She gave the Man credit for having sense enough to retreat when outmatched.
As she sipped her wine, she considered this woman who—if Veylin was to be believed—triumphed over the tyranny of her menfolk. Lady: the title seemed less absurd now, and not only because she wore Veylin's sumptuous sea-jewel at her breast. Auð had seen her twice before, both times clad in the same sorry gown: a wine-lees shade that did not suit her, cut down, taken in, and turned . . . . It had been hard to understand her brother's regard for one so poor that she did not know the value of a penny.
Until she learned what coin Saelon paid in.
Was it to honor the sea-beryl that she wore this new gown? It was plain, without any broidery, but well-cut and a soft blue-green that could have come from the stone itself, making her long, slender form an echo of the gem. She had some taste after all, it seemed. Yet she looked chill as a cavern pool against the warm cherrywood and oxblood leather.
"We will miss him this winter," Halpan lamented. "None of us was so canny a hunter as he, not even Aniel!"
"I do not remember a want of meat the first winter you were all with me," Saelon observed, unmoved. "We have lost Aniel, it is true, but two large families went east with the Sons of Elrond. I am sure you and Partalan and Gaernath can provide."
The dissatisfaction was plain on that lean, beardless face. "I would be easier in my mind when we go to Srathen Brethil in the spring if you had someone more than Gaernath to keep you."
That was Saelon's younger kinsman, hardly a stripling, who at least had a downy fringe of fine red hair upon his chin. "When the raug—and," she added, with an arch smile, "testy Dwarves came, who aided me but Gaernath?"
Behind Auð's shoulder, Rekk snorted with genial derision. "I do not remember the lad doing much." As he went to join their guests, he set the letter in her hand. "Veylin has had his usual fortune at the Havens, it seems," he informed the company, taking a tankard from Thyrnir's tray. "The Elves want copper. When did Veylin entrust the message to you, Saelon?"
"Ten days ago, as they were strapping the last bags on their ponies."
Ten days. Auð ran a finger over her brother's seal, feeling the tell-tale hairline where the carved stone of his ring was cracked, then unfolded the square of parchment to scan the reassuringly familiar hand. It was twenty-four days since she had last seen them, nearly a moon.
"They will be in Barazdush by now," Nordri judged, "even if the weather was foul. Will you tell us of your journey and stay in Lindon, Lady?"
Saelon smiled on the mason. "Why else did I come?"
While the men, travelers themselves, followed her tale of the road's vexations and pleasures with keen interest, Auð gave her attention to Veylin's letter. It opened with a bold, businesslike scrawl of tengwar, which any might have read.
Veylin to Rekk and Auð of Gunduzahar
May this find you as it left me. A profitable stay in Mithlond after an uneventful journey. The Elves are short of copper. Círdan looks favorably on Saelon and has set a marchwarden of her liking over the north, one Coruwi.
We will continue our journey as soon as I have set this in the Lady's hand. Be well until we meet again.
Sanguine; commonplace. Beneath the elaborated flourish of his ampa, however, were a few lines of small, finely drawn runes in the mode of Sulûnduban and Khuzdul.
Another marchwarden, Calennae of Doriath, bears malice towards Dwarves and Men; he has been forbidden the lands north of the Little Lune, on either side of the mountains. The Shipwright has heard my claim and will bring it to his council. He is not unfavorable.
Auð frowned. The way to prosperity here was not so smoothly paved as her brother would have her believe. Men: always they sought to conceal what they prayed were petty difficulties, to preserve their women's confidence and avoid quarrels. Yet an Elf of Doriath . . . this did not sound petty. She held the parchment up to the lamp, seeking hidden runes, further clues to the gravity of the threat.
"And what did you think of the Havens, Lady?" Nordri's son Nyr asked. "I have heard the stonework there is very fine."
"I would not know," the woman of Men readily confessed her ignorance. "I am no judge of your craft. The tower, the encircling wall and all the buildings within, not to mention the quays, were a wonder to me—as marvelous," she said, gazing up at the vaulting decorated with stars, and Aðal's intricate friezes, "as what you have here, but in so different a style, and there was so much more of it. But then," she sighed mournfully, "I would think that once we Men of the West built such towers, and larger havens, and grander ships, and felt downfallen indeed."
"So it is with the Longbeards," Nordri sympathized. "Khazad-dûm was the greatest of all the mansions of the Dwarves, yet now Elves call it Moria, the black pit. We Firebeards suffered no less after the wreck of Gabilgathol, what you call Belegost, the Great Fortress, an age and more ago. Much that was magnificent has fallen into ruin, and many beautiful things destroyed. But one must stop not making."
Rekk paffed at such woesome talk. "You used to be proud of your poverty, Saelon."
"Who could be proud of poverty?" she came back with tart promptness. "I was not poor when we first met: I had all I desired. The Lady of what remains of Srathen Brethil, however, wants many things Saelon does not."
"Saelon was ready enough to wear a bit of gold in her hair, when she came by some," Rekk reminded her, smiling in that maddeningly self-assured way of his.
"To rebuke you for your ill treatment."
Auð had heard that Saelon was audacious, but to match with Rekk in brusquerie, and on such a topic . . . . Halpan shifted uneasily in his too-low seat, and Ketli wore a look of bright-eyed anticipation, as if hoping the umber-bearded waterwright would lay hands on the woman of Men again.
Rekk grinned as he did when he spotted an opening while sparring. "How, then, did Veylin offend you, that such a handsome stone was required for pardon?"
If mischief came of this, she would make him rue it. The tactlessness of Thekk's brother had been one of the few vexations of her marriage; now that she had lost her treasure, she need not suffer it. Auð knew the jewel was recompense, but if one had not seen Veylin surrounded by sodden sacks of opal, stinking shreds of storm-wrack in his russet beard, did it not look rather like a courting gift? There was no denying her brother's attachment to the woman of Men was peculiar, yet Auð could not believe it was so peculiar as that. How, though, had he explained the jewel to the other men, if he had deigned to do so? The fire opal lode was his heart's secret, his true passion.
"Why is it," Saelon wondered, with an edge to her voice Auð wished on her shears, "that no one imagines I could come by such a thing creditably?" She lifted the wave-capped sea-beryl from her breast, clasping it possessively. "Dírmaen and Gwinnor thought it the price of our alliance, as if one must be bribed to stand by Dwarves. Now you suggest that I would swallow insult, even from a friend, for the sake of a bauble?"
"That is hardly a bauble," Rekk rumbled, which only hammered home how extraordinary the bestowal was.
The cant of Saelon's head bespoke a conviction that he was the lackwit, and Auð was inclined to agree. "I chanced upon some news that Veylin was able to turn to account—in what way, I do not know. You Dwarves are close folk."
"What news?" Ketli asked.
Auð bristled. Slighting Men was one thing, but trying to pry her brother's secrets—
"I do not think I should say," the Lady replied. "Ask Veylin when he returns." She grew chill with displeasure, it seemed, unlike a Dwarf; yet cold could also bite and burn. "You have not yet been our guest at Habad-e-Mindon, Master Ketli," she observed obliquely.
"No, my work has forbid."
Every Dwarf knew that for a shuffling lie. Coal tied no man down, particularly when there was none in the earth for scores of leagues about. Saelon might be ignorant of such matters, but she was no fool . . . as she had shown when Bersa tried to short her in trade. Nor did she offend all ears by continuing to beat on a bell that rang false; after expressing civil regret, she turned to more congenial companions and was soon chatting with Thyrnir and Grani about Elvish carpentry, with every sign of lively interest. Rekk began questioning Halpan about his summer journey beyond the Lune.
Once he had finished his ale, Ketli slipped quietly away.
It was natural that he and Vitnir were discontent in this place, Auð allowed, staring into the remainder of her wine, for it provided neither materials for their crafts nor custom enough to keep them. She sympathized, deeply. But she could not see what kept them here, save Vitnir's suspicion that Veylin would somehow cheat him of his rightful inheritance by passing most of the profits of this place into the hands of her sons. Why else were she and Rekk here, if not to enrich the boys? If Vitnir and his followers were unwilling to make the sacrifices entailed in founding a new delf and do their share of the work, they should not expect to share in the gain. Let them decide where their fortunes were best served and be satisfied there!
As though thought had summoned, Thyrnir cleared his throat for her attention a few paces off, and when she glanced up, she found he was not alone. "Auð," her son hazarded, "the Lady wishes to discuss trade with someone other than Bersa. Would you be willing?"
"What sort of goods?" Auð considered Saelon. "If it is foodstuffs, all that is left in Bersa's hands."
"I did not bring anything with me," the woman of Men replied, "nor am I seeking to bargain, at present. Yet I would like to learn what we might supply you with, aside from corn and berries and the occasional beeve."
"And honey," Auð added, with a knowing glance towards the kitchen, from which Bersa had not emerged.
"And honey," Saelon agreed, with a wryly humorous smile. "I regret that I cannot provide Master Bersa with enough to sate him, but he must be patient. Bees take time to multiply, and without their hoard of sweetness, winter kills them. I must harvest sparingly now if there is to be more in the future."
Auð nodded. That was sensible. "Anything that does not travel or keep well would be welcome." Bersa's skill notwithstanding, their diet here was tedious, although Rekk had brought some welcome delicacies with him from the Shire. "Fruit and greenstuff; eggs and cream." The last two were dear even in Sulûnduban, save for the short seasons when lads birdnested and Men pastured their cattle in the high hills.
"I wish I had known, for much of that is passing out of season now. But we should be able to supply you with some after Gwirith."
That men must learn different tongues to deal with their customers, Auð had always known; sometimes Veylin and Thekk had amused her with the strange lilt of Elvish, or the accents of Men far to the south and east. Would her ignorance of such things expose her? "That would do. Most of us will be returning to Sulûnduban shortly, to keep Yule with our kin." Having gotten a closer look at Saelon's gown, she asked, "That is fine woolen. Is it of your own weaving?" The linen of her underdress was also nice, not what she had bought before her journey.
"No. Halpan brought the cloth back from his travels among our folk scattered in the east; but my niece, who made the gown, weaves every bit as well."
Auð pursed her lips, considering. "Would she have something suited to harder wear, in a rust-touched strong green?"
The woman of Men smiled, perhaps thinking of the opportunity to trade woolen for linen. "Most of what she weaves of late is stout stuff that will keep the weather out. She has none of that color, but I have been teaching her dyestuffs, and she enjoys the craft. You are welcome to visit us, to see what she has and give us a better idea of what you mean by a strong green."
Saelon had just pointed up Ketli's unfriendliness by reminding all that he had not accepted her ready hospitality—did she think Auð was of similar mind? So far as Auð knew—or could be told from Saelon's speech, though her discretion she had shown—the Lady did not know she was a woman. That was entirely proper . . . but liable to give a false impression. "It is not right that we enjoy your hospitality so much more than we entertain you in return. Could not you and your niece come here? It would be easier for me to show you the kinds of cloth I would like."
Behind her smile, which she hoped was not offensively fulsome, Auð was dismayed by her own recklessness. How had it come to this, that she should invite a stranger to their halls? Would the danger—to the delf—be less if she ventured to White Cliffs? What would the men think?
"Rian would like to see your fabrics, I am sure," Saelon replied, her courtesy as careful as Auð's, "but you must not judge our manners by my conduct. It is long since I cared about my reputation, and my menfolk have resigned themselves to my singular behavior, but I must not lay my niece open to aspersions. I know you are folk of honor," she assured her, "but not all Men do."
Auð bowed. If a Man had suggested she bring a dwarf-maiden into their stronghold, her reply would not have been so candid . . . or polite. "I am sorry we cannot come to an agreement," she said with as much frankness as she dared. "I have heard much of your worth from my kin and would like more trade with you, but I cannot come to White Cliffs."
You could see the questions in the Man's keen eyes, grey flecked with a hue that matched the sea-beryl about her neck; yet she did not ask them. "Then I will bring some samples when next I come. When do you leave for Sulûnduban?"
And so Auð began to understand how her brother had fallen into intimacy with this odd, pragmatic woman of alien race.
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Ampa: the name for the tengwar character representing "v".
"mode of Sulûnduban": Dwarves have a tendency to tinker with the Cirth, or runes, changing the sounds represented by the characters and even adding new characters. Tolkien mentions two different modes used among the Longbeards, one associated with Khazad-dûm and another with Erebor (LotR, App. E.ii). I have assumed that the other kindreds have their own modes.
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