The Dûnhebaid Cycle
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Of Like Passion: 13. Fault Lines
We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.
--Robert Frost, "The Secret Sits"
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Nothing catches the ear like a whisper. Auð was taking the bolt of twilled green woollen back to the stockroom when she heard low, discontented voices muttering off the rough-finished walls as she approached the branching of the passage. Halting where she was, she listened, as intently as if the rock had grumbled deep beneath her feet.
Tensions were out of balance in the delf, and though the signs were subtle as yet, that might bode ill. One must know where the faults lay, for safety's sake.
"—well enough. A fool's gold is as good as that of the wise, while it lasts. If he wishes to pour it into this dark scrape, I will take my share."
Siggr. Auð throttled a growl. The jointer had rasped her patience wafer-thin this last month, now that they had come to covering the seats he had made; first, by disdaining the durability of leather for the richness of cloth. Who would they impress with such a display? They were far off the roads that carried trade, and the nearness of the sea would discourage casual visiting. She had won her point, yet he continued to argue with her over the hues, obstinately preferring a dark umber that would have gone well with the native basalt but appeared ugly as mud against the pale limestone Nordri had so beautifully set in place.
Sometimes she wondered whether Siggr took greater exception to her presence for propriety's sake, or because Veylin and Rekk—absorbed in their own crafts—would have given him a free hand. In either case, if it soured his mood so much, he ought to have made his disapproval plain and broke off the contract as soon as he saw her astride a pony beside him. If he had any grit, he would have; but no—Siggr was one who thought wagging his beard in confidence made him Khazâd. Veylin was a fool, was he? Not such a fool as to murmur in corridors what he would not say to one's face.
"You, at least, are getting a set fee." This was Hodr. What was he doing here, among the workshops, at this time of day? He should be two levels beneath the kitchen, delving the ale cellar. "I am on shares. Such tales they told, of what came from this mine: copper in abundance, they assured me! I would not mind sweating through this thrawn stuff if there was a gleam in it somewhere."
"There is not?"
Auð had been quiet, the better to listen; now she grew still as the stone around her. Discontent was as common in a mansion as cracks in its walls, yet while even the smallest flaw bore watching to see that it did not spread, some faults were more alarming than others. Siggr and Hodr were ultimately of little account: the jointer would return to the mansion as soon as his commission was completed, and strong backs to shift rock were plentiful and easily replaced. This more discreet voice, though: this was Skani, her cousin's prentice.
"Not that I have seen," Hodr scoffed. "Well, a little on this level, where Aðal's workshop lies, but nowhere near what I was led to expect. Nothing at all from the cutting of those cavernous storerooms. The stone down there is barren, black and vicious as an orc's heart. A waste of good labor, if you ask me. What is here that will ever fill those vaults?"
"You have seen no cinnabar? No opal?"
Glad for her slippers, silent on the granite paving, Auð backed discreetly away. Her errand could wait.
Why should Skani, who delighted in iron, ask after cinnabar and opal, save that those were the most valuable products that came from this place? Yet a prentice would get no share in such things—not even Thyrð, Veylin's own. Skani's master, though . . . . Vitnir would have an interest in what this delf produced, as Veylin's heir if not as an ironmaster. If he wished to know its prospects, of course, he ought to ask Veylin. Why should he set Skani to gossiping with malcontents?
Well; Vitnir ought to ask Veylin, but there was no denying the bond between her brother and their cousins had always been dutiful rather than close, even when they were all beardlings. She had always thought Nali's sons fine fellows: not very ingenious, true, but hard workers, with a great fund of sound sense. Both had been considered well worth having; a maiden brewmistress had torn her beard for Vitr as ostentatiously as his wife.
Since they returned to the mansion after slaying the fiends, Veylin and Vitnir had been punctiliously correct with each other, even cooler than before. Perhaps Vitnir resented the loss of his elder brother in that vengeance-foray. Though why he should, when it had been their plain duty—and left him heir apparent—was beyond Auð's understanding. Certainly his spouse could hardly keep from gloating, now that her son would one day be chieftain, and had celebrated by ordering her whole family new clothes in keeping with their elevated station.
The chieftaincy was none of her business: Thyrnir and Thyrð followed Thalfi, not Veylin, as their father had. And there were possible benefits to ill-feeling between her brother and his heir, if it led Veylin to leave more of his own wealth to the boys. But what effect would a falling out have on this place, which would never be anything other than a glorified scrape until more of their people—including women—could be convinced to bring their lives here? Was it truly so rich as Veylin and Rekk believed? She had an interest as well, in her own right through her labor, as well as for her sons' sakes.
She had seen the raw opal spread on Veylin's workbench, though she had reason to believe he had mined no more since their arrival. It might well be that Hodr, an uncouth companion at table and clearly indiscreet as well, had been deliberately set to work in the poorer areas of the delf, so he would leave of his own accord. Certainly Bersi and his son had not found reasons to depart, which argued that there was copper enough to content them.
Vitnir might be shy of pressing Veylin on matters close to his heart, but Auð—who was the elder, after all?—was not. There were odd faults here, cross-cutting in unexpected ways, and it left her unsettled in mind. If her menfolk wished her to remain here, they owed her explanations. Still, it was a pity Rekk was away. He had always been overawed by the chieftain's daughter, and getting what she wished to know from him would have been simple. For all his affection, her brother was less biddable . . . and clever, apt to talk himself out of corners and his challengers into agreement. Pursing her lips and stroking her bearded chin, Auð considered how best to draw him out.
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"Sit!" Auð said, half invitation and half a mother's thoughtless command, as she went to her wide oaken cabinet, taking a key from the bunch at her belt. "So, tell me how your newest prentice is doing. Is he giving satisfaction?"
"What," Veylin countered with affected surprise, "hasn't he told you all himself?" Settling back into his favorite of her chairs, part of the baggage that had so burdened the ponies on the journey over the mountains, he caressed the worn green leather of the arm. So shabby it was getting; every time he came to her sitting room, he expected to find that she had recovered it.
His sister gave an indignant snort of mingled annoyance and pride as she opened the left-hand door of the cabinet. "Thyrð? He is closer than our father. He tells me nothing."
Veylin raised his eyebrows. "Nothing?" The lad was more circumspect than Thyrnir, but he doubted Thyrð was yet able to resist his mother if she chose to press him.
"Nothing of significance," Auð amended, busying herself with whatever was within the cabinet, hidden by the door panel. "Tales of scandalous behavior among Men aplenty. Something of the Lady Saelon's single-mindedness. A minute description of the jewels worn by Lindon's herald and his horse. But nothing of why my brother thought it needful to take him off in the middle of the night without a word of farewell, leaving us for three worrisome days behind spell-shut doors and double watches beside them." She handed him a small crystal cup, half full of topaz-colored liquid.
"Then my newest prentice is giving perfect satisfaction," Veylin assured her, delicately scenting the liquor with a smile. Auð did not often broach her jealously guarded store of this rare, triple-distilled spirit. "Do you hope this will loosen my tongue?"
She relocked the iron-bound cabinet and took the seat across from him, cradling a palm-cup of her own. "At least that it will blunt your cares for a while."
Taking a sip, Veylin felt it burn its way down, kindling a warm glow within. "Ahh. What cares are these?"
"Whatever has made you loathe to leave the delf of late."
"Who told you that?" he scoffed.
Auð fixed him with a look of such mother-shrewdness that Veylin knew the quick, unthinking denial had been a blunder. "Who tends to your clothes, brother?"
"I am not loathe," he declared stoutly, making note of this unsuspected avenue for betrayal. Such subtle ways women had of divining what took place outside their guarded bowers! At least it had not been Thyrnir. "I have simply been unable to get away, save for the visit of courtesy to Maelchon at the blessing of his house. Aside from overseeing all the new work—and Rekk is not here to do his share," Veylin half-grumbled, "I miss having experienced prentices who could be trusted with the lesser work, including the supervision of their juniors."
In truth, he distracted himself from his lingering anxieties over Gwinnor's interest, threatening as the fleeting shadow of a far-sighted hawk, principally by close attention to the training of his prentices. Oski had a keen eye for gems and their character, but struggled with the metal of their settings; day after day, his efforts had gone back into the crucible. From watching and aiding his father, Thyrð had a command of the fundamentals, yet the deeper lore had to be carefully opened to him. Two such talented youths were a treasure in their own right, a not-inconsiderable consolation for the opal that lay amid the grinding surf until he dared tryst with it.
The might of the Lord of Waters he could face, but he feared the stealth of Elves at his back. Veylin took another sip of the fiery liquor and regarded his sister closely. "And you—you feel the need to blunt care as well? What troubles you, Auð? Aside," he sighed, with a weary cant to his brow, "from Siggr."
"If his craftsmanship were not so splendid," she rumbled, "he would be insufferable."
Veylin shook his head. "No amount of skill would excuse his conceit. I heartily regret granting him the commission. There has been a sneer in his voice since his boots crossed the threshold. Yesterday," he confided, to assure Auð she had not been singled out for the jointer's disregard, "he did not scruple to disparage Grani to my face."
"What did he say?" she asked over the lip of her poised cup, avid for details as any woman.
"That Grani's work was crude, fit only for a workshop. Such nonsense! Does Aðal look down on Nordri's work?" Despite the delicate nature of his own craft, Veylin was not one of those who thought the decorative arts more valuable than the utilitarian ones. All had their place and their beauties.
Auð drank as if to clear a bitter taste from her mouth. She had been disappointed that Thyrnir had turned to wood rather than gems, he knew. "You should hear what he says of you."
"What?" Veylin exclaimed, outraged, the pleasant heat of the liquor rising red-hot to his head. "He has spoken slightingly of me to you?" This was too much to be borne. Did Siggr seek to drive her from the delf by undermining her confidence in him, or had the wretch mistaken her sisterly carping for genuine ill-will? He did not care if the great table was unfinished—Siggr would pack his goods tonight, and be welcome to the ponies that carried him and his gear away on the morrow, in lieu of his final payment.
"Not to me," she admitted. "Though in the middle of a corridor, where any might have heard. Such is the man," she said dryly, "who thinks you are a fool."
A fool? Yes, if he bore him longer. "Who was he speaking to?" Perhaps he would have a companion on the road.
As he had expected. Veylin set his cup carefully down on the table at hand, and took up his cherrywood stick.
He set his stick back down. "Skani?" What was he doing with such malcontents? An honest, hard-working prentice, who would soon be ready to leave his master.
His master. Vitnir.
"Perhaps," Auð said quietly, "you had best take a little more drink."
Veylin recovered his cup and eyed her, displeased. "How long have you kept this to yourself?"
"I overheard them only this afternoon, "she assured him, with a look of deep reproach. "Have you quarreled with our cousin?"
For a time, Veylin sipped the warm, earthy liquor, watching his sister watch him. Had he quarreled with Vitnir? There had been angry words, yes: months ago, trifling beside the words that had been spoken later that day, sending them to Srathen Brethil . . . and Vitr to his death. How could he explain their disagreement in a way that would ease her mind? The ironmaster's lack of imagination, which so frustrated him, reassured her. "We do not," he said carefully, "agree on the worth of this delf. Naturally, since there is no good iron to hold his interest, and we are further from his markets than Sulûnduban. Vitnir would not be here, save he hopes for a share of its wealth." He had come, forged what fittings and tools they needed, and now he chafed to return to the mansion, where he kept his stores of bar and plate.
That still did not explain Skani conspiring with Siggr and Hodr, and Auð knew it. "So Vitr's death is not a sore point between you?"
"I have not heard him complain of it," Veylin sighed, "though I doubt it has soothed his heart. No, the both of them questioned my judgment before we left for Srathen Brethil."
"They thought the riches to be had were not worth the effort?"
"No. Wherever did you get that notion?" he challenged, with a dismissive chuff.
Auð wound a lock of her beard around a finger, a girlish habit betraying deep uncertainty. "Hodr complained that the basalt is not yielding what he had been led to expect."
Veylin snorted. "No, it is not, not down below . . . but you are the one who has ordered those cavernous storerooms." He shook his head at her with a grave smile. "Do not worry yourself on that count, Auð. Even if there is little more here, there are other lodes nearby, metal and gems. That is why Thekk and I came here, and I why I returned, despite the fiends." Laying a hand on his crooked knee, he asked soberly, "Do you think I would have brought you here if there were doubts?"
"When do you ever doubt your own judgment?" she grumbled, with a sour look. "And Thekk was always game for any scheme of yours. Tell me what Nali's sons found objectionable, so that I may judge for myself."
The eternal complaint of women: they would decide for themselves, but on matters outwith the security of the mansion, they must rely on their menfolk for the knowledge they required. Yet there were those delicate or difficult concerns, beyond their experience and prone to misunderstanding. . . . . Not wanting to refuse her, but fearing she would take their cousins' part, Veylin muttered, "There were words between us regarding the Men."
"The Men?" Now it was Auð's turn to be surprised and dismissive. "How could they be a matter for concern?"
She knew so little of them, and had not been impressed with what she had seen during Saelon's visit. "They are not. Vitr and Vitnir did very well by their bargain with them, trading a plow for a share in the crop. I wish to be on good terms with the Men, as you know, to secure more such trade. There is little enough now, it is true," he anticipated the objection in the set of her mouth, "but as Nordri has said, they are recovering their fortunes swiftly. I am looking to the future."
She sighed and shook her head, but did not take up their old argument about the perils of looking ahead instead of where one put one's feet. "Only time will tell if your hopes are justified, brother. What did they say—or do—that angered you? Clip the Men too closely?"
Veylin snorted. "Hardly. Vitr accused me of favoring them, because I did not tell him that Saelon had bought out half the crop, then Vitnir scorned them as fools because they repaid more generously than required. I grant," he rumbled, swirling the last of the liquor, "that gratitude is not to be expected from Men, but sneering when it is given will not encourage them to give it again." Suspicion, contempt; the Men had repaid them in kind later that day, and it had taken all his wit and wisdom to prevent the alliance from shattering like carelessly beaten steel. He drained his cup and set it aside. More recognized the worth of the alloy now, but there were still those among both peoples who clung to doubt and disdain.
"The gratitude of those so poor is worth ill-feeling among kin?"
Including his sister. "That gratitude was bought with my own, for my life. More is being traded here than mutton and kettles, Auð."
"So I have gathered," she said dryly. "What I do not understand is why. You paid your debt to this Lady—how is it that she can still claim your support?"
"We are allies." It sounded disingenuous, even in his own ears.
"Against what?" Auð persisted. "The fiends are slain and Lindon is content, or so you say. Is there some other danger here, that you would hold the Men in reserve?"
"No," he growled, angered by her dogged doubt of the security of this place. "None that can be foreseen." Gwinnor was not truly a danger, not to the delf. "Yet should I not lay weapons in hoard against unforeseen need? The world without grows darker; fiends and dragons give no warning before they strike."
Fiery brows rucked with exasperation, she sniffed, "Dragons? I have not heard that the Men of Dale were much use against Smaug." Before he could retort, she waved him to silence. "I take your point, brother . . . though," she grumbled, "I am not convinced. Is there nothing else you would tell me?"
Wounded by her dissatisfaction, Veylin shook his head. What could he say, that she would understand? How could he explain the amiable enmity between himself and the Noldo, or his regard for Saelon? It had been a mistake to invite the Lady here so they might meet: Auð had not seen beyond the strangeness of a woman of other race and the shabbiness of her dress. Would things have gone differently if it had been possible to introduce Auð as his sister? "Only that you are worrying needlessly about Vitnir . . . and my relations with the Lady." He had caught her sharp, sidelong glance when he told her who he had made the sea-jewel for: an unspeakable suspicion, though apparently not an unthinkable one, even for his sister.
Auð drank the last of her cup. "What will you do about Siggr and Hodr?"
Trust her to come back to practicalities. "What would you like me to do? With Siggr, at any rate. I will talk to Nordri about Hodr tomorrow."
"I can endure him a while longer," she decided, after grave thought. "At least let him finish the grand table for the hall and its seats."
"You are sure?"
She nodded. "What of Skani?"
Veylin picked up his cup and frowned at its emptiness. "That is a matter for sober thought."
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"as ostentatiously as his wife": although dwarf-women are few, not all of them take husbands—"some desire none; some desire one that they cannot get, and so will have no other" (LoTR, Appendix A.III). Obviously some of the ladies will not cheapen themselves by settling for second best; but I cannot imagine they go down without a fight . . . and being Dwarves, they would surely carry the grudge to their (own) graves. Dwarven cat-fights—just imagine!
"triple-distilled spirit": yes, this is uisge-beatha, "water of life" (anglicized to "whisky"; the Scots make whisky, the Irish and Americans make whiskey). Martin Martin, discussing the Isle of Lewis in his A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland Circa 1695, says:
Their plenty of corn was such, as disposed the natives to brew several sorts of liquors, as common usquebaugh, another called trestarig, id est, aquavitæ, three times distilled, which is strong and hot; a third sort is four times distilled, and this by the natives is called usquebaugh-baul, id est, usquebaugh, which at first taste affects all the members of the body: two spoonfuls of this last liquor is a sufficient dose; and if any man exceed this, it would presently stop his breath, and endanger his life.
I do not claim that the Dwarves invented distilling, but they certainly have the craft to make the necessary equipment, the "refining" mindset that would encourage experiments in concentrating spirits, and the constitution to withstand the final product.
"Grani's work was crude": Grani is a carpenter, whose area of expertise is structural work with large timbers (like housebuilding, or the the shoring for mine shafts); Siggr is a joiner, who specializes in joints and lighter, more decorative woodwork. Hence Veylin's comparison to Aðal, a stonecarver, and Nordri, a mason.
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