5. Blue Devils
Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven't got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die.
--Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
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It was not that he did not love Sulûnduban, Veylin reflected as he gazed across the wind-washed moor to the aloof peak, more majestic than any tower built by hands, its snow-hoary head resolutely proud above rock beaten to toughness in the primeval quarrels of the Powers. Refuge in the grievous days after the breaking of Gabilgathol, bulwark against the Enemy's icy malice, cradle and tomb of his fathers for three-score generations . . . as well accuse him of disregarding his mother, or neglecting the bone within his flesh.
He was glad to see the end of their journey; but his heart did not yearn towards the mansion beneath as it once had.
"Gah—sluggard beast!" Regin berated his pony as it hesitated to scramble over yet another of the stony outcrops that paved the uneven floor of the dale. "Get on!" An open-handed clout on its shaggy shoulder started it forward again, and the king of the Firebeards glanced back at Veylin, the bright copper tassel on his hood jinking in the torrential blast like a hooked trout. "I would make better time afoot than on this nag. Wherever did you get so game an animal, Veylin?"
"Soti sold it to me. He said it was Shire-bred." Veylin stroked his mount's sorrel neck as it plodded doggedly onward, as dutiful as himself. Tuppence more than the usual tanner it had cost him; but he would not make better time afoot, knee-sprung as he was, even on this rough ground.
"I will give you nine pence for it."
That would be one way to keep him at home. "A shilling."
Regin's ruddy brows lifted behind the flapping edge of his amber hood. "That hide is too rusty for gold."
"I might trade for another as trusty," Veylin allowed with a shrug. There was a witticism there, rust against trust, but he was not in the mood for levity.
"I have always found Shire-beasts as gluttonous as the Beardfoots who breed them," Holl declared. "Hill ponies are thriftier. My cousin Steði," he told the king, "will have many on offer in the spring, fresh off the fells and unwearied by work. He would give you a good price and, if you speak to him before the roads are passable, your pick of the beasts."
"How good a price?" Regin wondered.
Veylin left them to their horse-copers' talk. In his opinion, a new-broke hill pony, stiff-necked as any Dwarf, made an excellent pack beast . . . for coal or iron, corn or cloth. He would not risk his neck or his gems on one. A runaway might cost more than all the beasts Steði had ever sold. Give him even-tempered Shire ponies, and he would not grudge them a few bolls of oats to tide them over the winter. Besides, feeding made them easier to catch.
How much of his sense of value, sometimes so different from that of his fellows, was due to the greater worth of his goods? Small economies rarely paid, with gems and jewels: haste or overlong hours at the workbench led to slips that irreparably damaged stones; scrimping on packing risked wear that took the gloss from a piece. Unless he chose to descend to gimcrack rock crystal and colored glass in gilded lead settings, he could not afford to put off his clients with cheapness—those who bought the fine stones he loved to work desired to flaunt their wealth before peers as knowledgeable as themselves. Must one be pinch-penny to be Khazâd? His hoard had not shrunk since he inherited from his father.
He must not let the subtly freighted allusions of his brother chieftains prick his conscience: he had done nothing wrong. Some of them—he did not glance towards Holl—were jealous of his success; among the Broadbeams others muttered that he was rash, fearful that he had turned Lindon's unworldly westward gaze back to the mountains. Three great lustrous pearls, perfectly matched and with a wonderful copper cast, had reminded Regin that more came from Elves than strife and secured his king's support for the Gunduzahar venture.
Freygr had wept as he handled the tablet of sea-dyke fire opal cut for him, two thumbs broad and long, comparing it to the one that must now lie beneath Smaug's belly in Erebor. He had often described the piece to Veylin in wistful, heart-sick detail, knowing the younger gemsmith, whose tastes were so near his own, would share his grief as well. In return for the counterfeit of restoration, the venerable master had given a goodly chunk of marvelous fire agate, a handful of fine peridots, and a star sapphire that Gwinnor would lust for.
If he gave the Noldo mírdan a sight of it. Their rivalry had been more a game than in earnest, each glad of the opportunity to acquire stones beyond their usual markets . . . until Veylin made it plain that he would not cede the mountains to Elves merely because the sea did not respect its shore. Gwinnor, no fool, correctly surmised that there was something near Gunduzahar worth disputing; perhaps he was vexed with himself for not finding it long before. He ought to be: an Age of the world, he had had, to pick the coastlands clean. That he could not be bothered to do so was one more reason why he did not deserve its treasures.
Nevertheless, the Elf had been a reliable buyer, and seller, too. Should his resentment go beyond provoking words, Veylin would miss his custom and the keen play of their competition. It had been a refreshing change from the tedious wrangling of his own folk.
Blowing a gusty sigh through his whiskers to join the wind, Veylin allowed that he must be tired, to be so out of humor. It was over two years since he had been on the road for more than a few days at a stretch, and now he had been traveling for almost a dozen weeks. A fortnight on the way to and in Mithlond; the bustling business of the West Council; three weeks up the Blue Mountains, pushing to reach home in time for the New Year feast . . . . He kneaded the unrelenting ache in his game leg and measured the remaining distance with his eyes. Half a league. Half a league, and the long stairways down to the Third Deep. Hopefully the party from Gunduzahar had already safely arrived, and Auð or Thyrnir made up his bed and laid a fire in the grate.
The glad greetings of the outguards lifted his spirits a little as they neared the mansion, and one would truly have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the welcoming throng along the glinting, granite-paved way up to the Front Gate. Veylin shook his head at Trur's two lads, perched on a slip of a ledge above and grinning with cocksure cheek: they had a fine view, to be sure, but with the wind what it was, they ought to spare their waving to hold tight!
A brassy fanfare of horns and the thunderous rumble of drums sounded as Regin swung gratefully off his pony and mounted the curve of steps to the final landing. As his brother chieftains followed suit, Veylin frowned and scanned the crowd. Had none of his people—? Ah, here came Logi, Lof's youngest, thrusting his way through the press with a box under his arm. "Welcome!" the bronze-bearded graver greeted him, smiling with uncomplicated warmth.
"And well met," Veylin finished, heartfelt. He drew his blackthorn stick as Logi set down the box and took the sorrel's bridle. "At your service! How have you prospered since I saw you last?" Getting out of the saddle was harder than getting into it, with dignity at least, and he was grateful to have his step shortened.
"Wonderfully," Logi replied, his smile growing even wider; as he stooped to retrieve the box, he confided, very low, "I have a daughter."
Already? They had only just celebrated his wedding before the company set out for Gunduzahar. Veylin clapped him on the shoulder. "That's auspicious!"
A final flourish of horns cut off further felicitations, and as Regin said a few words to acknowledge the splendid welcome and invite everyone to his chamber for a cup and news from the West Council, Veylin stumped up the stair to join Thjalfi and Holl alongside the king.
Through the massive arch of the gate and past the doors of mithril and steel, scribed with runes of power and prohibition—the vestibule was cacophonous, already packed before a way had to be made for them—and up a brief flight of steps through shafts of sunlight from the windows high above to the great hall of the king. Lof found him there, as he crossed to the dais.
"Your family has been blessed, I hear," Veylin said heartily, to forestall the chief of his ealdormen. "Beina is pleased by the new grandchild?"
As he had intended, the greybeard's somber look lightened. "Very much." Yet the tenacious old fellow would not be led astray. "And you? The new delf is profitable?"
"Extremely." It was good to say, a heartwarming rebuttal against criticism. "Please tell me that you have all fared well here."
The elder graver's gaze was long-suffering, skirting reproach. "Gladly . . . if it were true. Most have," he allowed. "We have missed your counsel."
Veylin sighed and leaned on his stick. "Is there anything that will not keep until morning?"
Lof pursed his lips, most unpromisingly thoughtful. "No."
"Then let me refresh my wits with Regin's good ale. Bespeak breakfast in my chamber for tomorrow and bring your fellows with you, and we will see if we can clear the old troubles away before the New Year begins."
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Veylin allowed that his hopes had been over-sanguine, barring the one that his suite would be readied for his arrival. Thyrnir had remained in Gunduzahar, one of the few left to guard and keep it until the rest returned in the spring, but Auð—the only other he trusted with a key—had kindly seen to hearth and sideboard and bed.
He must find a few hours before the New Year's festivities began this evening to shut himself in his workshop and swap out the clasp-stone on the emerald and fire opal belt he would give her. The emerald he purchased in Barazdush was a better hue and shape than the one he had used, and he owed her much for her labor and her sacrifices this passing year.
Unlike others of his kin. Veylin gazed impassively down his table at Vitnir, who was forking the last piece of ham onto his plate. When he had asked Lof to invite his fellows to a breakfast council, he had meant his fellow ealdormen, and them only. It was easier to find agreement when a council was small. Someone had invited his heir to attend as well . . . which was not an ealdorman's prerogative. Ordinarily the chieftain's heir—his son—did not participate in councils until the chieftain's beard grew grey, unless it were a time of war. A hundred years, a chieftain had, to establish himself in his people's hearts and craft his legacy to them, yet it had been barely ten since his father had departed for the Maker's halls. Must he contend with Vitnir, only a quarter-century his junior and narrow of vision, for the rest of his days? Looking around at the soberly replete faces of the elders of his line, Veylin wondered who had a preference for Vitnir's views, or a want of confidence in himself.
Not Nordri, he was certain. Gunduzahar was the principal lode of disagreement between Vitnir and himself, and the mason was entirely of his mind regarding the venture. Even the grievous death of his younger son had not weakened Nordri's commitment, and he spoke eagerly of the works to be carried out there when they returned. Nor did Veylin doubt Lof. He knew his innovations often grieved his father's favorite councilor, but the deepest of those griefs was that he had not wed and got a brace of sons. Lof saw the failure of elder lines as proof of the decay of their race, and deplored that the chieftaincy must pass to Nali's scions. Even if Veylin outlived Vitnir—and Vitnir's elder brother Vitr had been slain by the fiends, like Nordri's son, before getting his own heir—that dignity would pass to Vitnir's young son, or a more distant agnate dwelling in Barazdush.
Bál and Harðr seemed unlikely candidates for intrigue: both were as unimaginative as they were industrious, workaday and worthy as rock salt. If he set a chest of copper and another of cinnabar before them and swore there was more to be had by the coast, they would be satisfied. Aldinn was fretfully old, loathing any change and often doubting the wisdom of a chieftain he considered an inexperienced youth . . . yet he was hardly likely to favor Vitnir, who was younger still.
Which left the last and youngest of his ealdormen, little more than a dozen years Veylin's senior. Skaði, who was topping up Harðr's tankard with small beer as they commiserated on the recent rise in the price of barley, seemed the likeliest culprit. His son Skani was Vitnir's prentice. Veylin had found the son—and believed the father—more nimble-minded than Vitnir, and could not see why they should prefer to follow the ironmonger. Yet his father had warned him that clever Dwarves sometimes found a shrewd chief an impediment to their own interests.
Taking a last mouthful of bitter yet bracing black coffee, Veylin set his mug aside. "So which are the most pressing disputes?" They had regaled him with a whole litany during the meal, though most were unexceptional matters best dealt with at the next kin-court. A few involving folk of other lines must go to the quarter sessions, while others might be put right by a few words in private, such as Megir's complaint that Gledi's daughter was leading his son on for naught but gain.
"Roðin and Tof have still not honored Rof's contracts," Bál told him, taking out his pipe and filling it.
"Why not?" Veylin exclaimed. This had not been in their long list. "They agreed to the division of his estate in Nénimë." Rof had traded in pigments, and a variety of craftsmen had contracted with him for rare and exotic colors: painters and dyers, glaziers and enamellers. Having long ago fallen out with his nearest kin, Rof had declined to leave clear instructions on how to apportion their heritance. Rancor, it seemed, was his true legacy to his cousins. Veylin now appreciated that they deserved it, but he resented being repeatedly drawn into their bickering in hopes of relieving the just wrath of those still waiting for their colors.
Bál shrugged and rose to take a light from the hearth. "Roðin retracted. I blame that Broadbeam woman he's courting."
The better part of three days he had spent last winter, hammering on the spiteful pair until they agreed to be sensible. Even if they despised each other, did they crave the ill-will of all Rof's clients as well? "I will send for them as soon as the New Year's festivities are over," Veylin promised. The morning after, when they were both likely to be the worse for drink. He felt that pounding on the table and shouting loudly would do his humours good. "If Roðin will not honor his agreement, or come swiftly to another, I will impound all Rof's stock, satisfy those who can produce their contracts, and auction the remainder at Midsummer. If they must wrangle, let them wrangle over the gold!"
A chieftain was as a father to his line. If they had been children in truth, he would allow that they might require so much of a father's attention. And he could have disciplined them out of hand, instead of laboriously persuading them to be pragmatic, as Dwarves ought to be. "Is that the worst?"
"At present," Lof answered, reassuring as ever. "There is one other that is . . . complicated."
"It is customary to save trifles for dessert," Veylin pointed out dryly.
Lof's sidelong glance towards Nordri only deepened Veylin's apprehension. "A roof-fall has displaced three families, who are claiming damages from Narvi on the grounds that he expanded his quarters without due consultation."
Veylin frowned. Yes; that might ramify in many directions, as the damage could have done. "Has Regin sent a mason to survey the collapse?" When it came to structural matters, his own authority was limited: any work that was done had such far-reaching effects on what was above and below that only the king could ensure collaboration.
"Yes," Harðr said. "He found Narvi's work at fault."
As Veylin tried to recall whether any of Harðr's folk housed near Narvi's suite in the upper and lower deeps, Nordri rumbled, "I find that hard to believe. No one knows the stone of that reach better. Who did Regin send?"
Nordri snorted. Veylin hoped it was no more than skepticism; Narvi was one of Nordri's many cousins and had prenticed under his father. "I will speak to him, and hear his reasoning. If I am convinced, I will do what I can with Narvi."
At least one of his ealdormen was willing to tackle his own kin, rather than passing the chore off to him.
"A shame you were not here at the time," Skaði observed, setting down his tankard. "He would have accepted your word, I am sure."
"That is not the root of the problem," Bál dismissed. "Anyone might misjudge the strength of a stretch of stone. Narvi's fault lay in not speaking to his neighbors and the king beforehand. Altering the delf is too weighty an undertaking for any Dwarf alone, no matter how skilled."
"True," Veylin agreed. "But—"
Aldinn sniffed. "But? I do not know what you—" his look of narrow disapproval included Nordri as well as Veylin "—get up to in that scrape of yours, westward; perhaps you can delve haphazard, if the stone is good. Maiden stone is often forgiving. So venerable a place as this, however, will not tolerate disrespect. If due rites and customs were not observed, what could be expected but ruin?"
Out of respect to so venerable a Dwarf, Veylin did not say the first thing that came to mind. Or the second; or the third. He could not imagine a successful mason like Narvi neglecting the necessary rituals. Surreptitious enlargement of one's living space, however, was far from uncommon. So strong was the attachment to the ancestral hearth and neighboring kin that people were reluctant to change quarters even if a favorable lease were available; almost no one delved fresh in one of the lower reaches, inconveniently far from tradesmen and the social commerce of great hall and gallery. Therefore, when blessed by more children than usual or craving the appearance of greater prosperity, they thinned their walls and raised their vaults. The timid ground away little by little; the clever had deep reliefs cut, and then found them unattractive; all prayed that their alterations would not upset the delicate balance of tension and pressure that supported the stone and their lives.
"Narvi spoke to the king," Nordri asserted, incensed. "I was there, and Regin was favorable. Do you think Narvi would risk the fine for unauthorized work, or the loss of Regin's commissions?"
Veylin drew thoughtfully on his beard. Regin would confirm that, or not, if asked. "And his neighbors? If he spoke with them, can he produce witnesses or written understandings?" Here was a place where stories might differ. If consent had been given, the families must bear the cost of repair or removal themselves. A friendly private understanding might well go to the wall in the face of such expense.
Nordri shook his head, offended by the necessity of proof. "I will ask."
Pushing back his chair and taking up his stick, Veylin rose. "I thank you all for your service to our line while I was abroad, and look forward to seeing you and yours in merrier mood this evening, when the moon brings in the New Year. Now, which families have been put out of their homes by this misfortune, and where can I find them? I want to assure myself that they do not suffer unduly in this festive season." And hear their stories for himself.
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Sulûnduban: the outward parts of this dwarf-mansion are based on Suilven, which is has been described as one of the most spectacular mountains in Scotland. Check it out here.
Tuppence: two pence, or pennies. For details on money, see Coinage in the Dûnhebaid Dictionary.
Tanner: six pence; half a shilling. Barliman Butterbur paid Ferny 12 pennies for Bill and gave Merry 18 pennies more in compensation for his other ponies; we are told that when the ponies were returned to Barliman, he "got five good beasts at a very fair price" (LotR, "A Knife in the Dark"). This is the only detailed monetary transaction I know of in Tolkien's work, and I have used it to anchor the prices given in my stories.
Shilling: a coin, originally gold, worth twelve pence.
Beardfoots: a Dwarvish name for Hobbits; this is a term of my own invention.
Boll: a unit of measure equal to six bushels.
"New Year feast": in The Hobbit ("A Short Rest"), Thorin says the Dwarvish year began on "the first day of the last moon of Autumn on the threshold of Winter." In T.A. 2849 (consults appropriate moon phase table: since Tolkien used A.D. 1941–2 for T.A. 3018–19 [The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion, pp. xlvi–xlvii], I have used A.D. 1772), that would be on the seventh day of Girithron (November 27th in the Gregorian calendar).
"runes of power and prohibition": something similar to what was found on Khazad-dûm's East Gates, which opened onto Dimrill Dale. Unlike the "friendly" West Gate to Eregion, these bore "Runic inscriptions in several tongues: spells of prohibition and exclusion in Khuzdul, and commands that all should depart who had not the leave of the Lord of Moria written in Quenya, Sindarin, the Common Speech, the languages of Rohan and Dale and Dunland" (HoME XII: The Peoples of Middle-Earth, "Of Dwarves and Men," n. 8). No trespassing! Authorized personnel only!
"the Maker's halls": according to the great Elvish loremaster Pengolod, who dwelt for a time in Khazad-dûm, Dwarves believe Aulë "gathers them in Mandos in halls set apart for them, and there they wait, not in idleness but in the practice of crafts and the learning of yet deeper lore" (HoME XI: The War of the Jewels II.13, "Of the Naugrim and the Edain" §2). This is so they can help Aulë remake Arda after the Last Battle.
Agnate: a patrilineal kinsman; one whose relationship can be traced exclusively through the male line.
Kin-court: an assembly for the purpose of adjudicating disputes among members of the same lineage or sept, presided over by the lineage's ealdorman or sept's chieftain. Quarter sessions are royal courts that meet four times a year. These would have jurisdiction over disputes between members of different septs and serve as appellate courts. I expect Dwarves have a sophisticated legal system—there was no reason for Thorin to give Bilbo a written contract unless there were institutions to ensure that the terms were honored—but Tolkien provided no details, and these specifics are my own, extrapolated from real-world "clannish" societies.
Removal: in the British sense; moving to a new home.
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