12. Wayward Sister
And they lie like wedges,
Thick end to thin end and thin end to thick end,
And are a figure of the way the strong
Of mind and strong of arm should fit together
—Robert Frost, "New Hampshire"
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Auð found more people abroad than was usual at this early hour as she came down the stair from the First Hall to the First Deep, but due to the accident at the bridge, they were not among the earliest to come in for the Council. There was much to do to prepare for their guests from Barazdush and Furnace Fells—which is why she was hurrying along with the coal-carriers, bakers' lads, and prentices who did not board at their masters'. It would have been pleasant to lie abed a little longer, after the deprivations on the road, or virtuous to begin unpacking the jumbled heaps of chests in her hall, but if she were to speak privately with Veylin, such things must wait. His days would be even fuller than her own.
Taking the street to the right at the fountain, she went by the grand blue-figured doors where the way divided—two lads stood there with buckets and cloths, while a third carefully set a padded ladder against the soot-shadowed enamels—and passed Slettr and Forða's shops, closed at this hour. Three more doors on the left, by the lamp with the copper wren clinging to its chain, was the plain wooden door of the lampkeeper's closet. Here she paused long enough to find its simple key on her ring, then opened the door and went in.
She had not been here since some months before her marriage, yet nothing had changed: the jars of oil neatly lined up along the left-hand wall; the dipper and long-spouted can, coils of wick and clippers and other oddments on the shelves ahead. After assuring herself that all was in its place, Auð shut and relocked the door behind her, then, in the blind dark, reached up beside the shelf for the lever that opened the panel over the concealed door. When the panel slipped almost silently aside, her hand went to the door's lock plate with the key that could be mistaken for no other and, murmuring the spell her father had taught her long ago, she opened the passage that led directly to the family suite within Thrir's Hall.
When she walked into the kitchen, she startled the still bleary-looking Oski considerably with her cheerful "Good morning!"
"A good morning to you as well, Auð," the Longbeard replied, taking refuge in formality. "I am not sure whether Veylin has risen. Have you come for breakfast?" the lad asked, with something like alarm. "If so, I was not told to expect you."
"Yes, I have come for breakfast, but do not trouble yourself. Have you seen your parents yet?"
Auð set her bag on the table and took the kettle he had been filling from him. "Then go and breakfast with them. They will be glad to see you."
"But—" Oski began, then, as his wits woke, he let the kettle go. "As you wish," he murmured, bowing. "He wished to be out of the hall by the seventh hour."
"I will not detain him," she assured the lad. "Go and reassure your mother!"
Once he had left, she finished filling the kettle and put it on the fire, which was just beginning to throw heat. There was another pot on the hob; lifting the lid, she found oats soaking for porridge. Snorting, she put the lid back and headed for the pantry. She found a bachelor's larder, lacking much, but she had expected no better, especially after their long absence, and had made her own provisions.
Working in this kitchen was a deep comfort: girl and maid, she had labored here nearly twice as long as she had in the kitchen she now called her own, and her hands found what they sought almost without thought. A few things had been moved, enough to throw the familiarity into relief yet not so many that it spoilt remembrance. Here was the green-glazed bowl she had always loved; and when the grinder jammed, she knew just where to smack it to free the gears.
She had opened the door, to have warning of Veylin's approach, and when she heard the door at the end of the hall open, Auð emptied the hot water from the mugs it had warmed and poured the coffee.
Memory whetted to keenness, the sound of her brother's step grated, for her heart heard one thing and her ears another. Indeed, his tread was even slower and more halting than usual and, as he approached, she could hear the firm tap as he grounded his stick before leaning on it.
So he had walked for months, when he first regained his feet . . . and after slaying the fiend that maimed him. With the latter, the dignity of satisfied vengeance had given him pride enough to discount his infirmity. Yet it was now plain that his leg was what it was, and would mend no more, not in this life. Its weakness might be less aggravated if he settled here, as so many wished, and roamed no further than Regin's council chamber, but she herself had given up wishing any such thing, or even wishing that Veylin might come to desire a quieter life. For that would be, in him, a sign of graver weakness, the laming of his wide-ranging soul.
Still, a debt was owing for this increase in pain. Auð wanted it paid, so her heart was not divided.
As he stepped into the doorway, in a tone that might tip towards either complaisance or wrath, Veylin rumbled, "I said I wanted porridge."
"You need more that that, if you mean to make up for the days you have lost," Auð declared, setting his mug on the table before the settle, already set for two. "Sit and drink your coffee while I flip the griddlecakes."
He stared at her, surprise flattened—no good sign. "Where is Oski?"
"I sent him to breakfast with his parents. If you would rather have him back, I will go fetch him."
"No," Veylin said promptly, face easing, but not into pleasure. "No. Your griddlecakes will be an indulgence. Is that ham or bacon I smell?"
Even for her, he made the effort to walk more naturally, and he was dressed for meeting the other chieftains or his ealdormen. "Ham. Would you like an egg as well?"
"This begins to sound dire," he said, not altogether lightly, hesitating beside the chair.
"Someone should be grateful for your efforts!"
That seemed to reassure him, for he sat and took up the coffee. "You're welcome."
Auð turned to the fire, to flip the griddlecakes. "Has Sút not thanked you?" she asked, uncertainly. Perhaps it would be better to speak of this after he had eaten. Though now that the subject had been touched on, it would hang over the table, waiting.
Veylin considered carefully before answering. "No."
Stirring the batter, Auð frowned. "Do you think she hit her head in the fall? She has not been herself since."
Was that a huff, or was he blowing on his coffee? "I found her wits as sound as ever they were the next day."
"She spoke to you?" Sút had not spoken to her, save for muttering about a sore head.
"She has told you nothing?"
"About what?" Was there more than her outrageous behavior upon the bridge?
Veylin took a draught of coffee. "Finish cooking the griddlecakes. I do not want them burned because you were distracted."
Auð shut her mouth and tended to the griddle. Once she had set his plate down before him, she straightened his collar where it was rumpled in the back. "You look very fine." In truth, he looked worn, and this silence was more like the husbanding of strength than she cared for.
"Thjalfi has asked me to step round early, and the ealdormen will be here soon after."
"Have any grave matters arisen since Midsummer?" She went back to the hearth and poured batter for more griddlecakes.
"Not that I have heard. Though that may be why Thjalfi wishes to see me so soon."
And she was troubling him with Sút earlier still. A host of offers came to mind: her unpacking could wait while she saw to preparations for the sept council, or at least stocked his pantry for him . . . yet further solicitude was sure to make him surly, suggesting he was incapable of managing such things himself. What a pity that he had never found a suitable spouse, who would have kept such chores from him. A widowed daughter's place in her father's house was always dubious, a reproach to her husband's kin and a deeply rooted rival to the woman who had come in—or who would. Duna, Vitnir's wife, openly mourned that Thrir's Hall was so often shut up, Auð knew. The woman could not be blamed for that, nor for wishing her son to grow up in the hall that would one day be his, no matter how much Veylin disliked her.
There was one responsibility, however, that no one could fault Auð for taking to herself. Before she sat down to her own breakfast, she poured Veylin more coffee and forked a second slice of ham onto his plate. "Tell me all you will of Sút, so I may tend to her."
"As you wish," Veylin said, ominously collected. "Do it for your own sake, however. Since I have done with her, it spares me nothing."
"Her behavior was shocking," Auð admitted. "Indefensible. I cannot understand what she was about, on the bridge. Has she refused to pay for its repair?" That Veylin was angry about the damage and the inconvenience it would cause, Auð understood. But that he had declared himself irreconcilable seemed out of proportion to the offense, serious though it was.
Yet Sút was not so wealthy as she took pains to appear, and her time in Gunduzahar had brought her no profit. She might not be able to pay for her foolishness.
"It would be fitting if she offered to do so, but I do not count on it. We will take her share in Gunduzahar as recompense. Besides, Nordri and Nyr have undertaken to put a masonry bridge in its place, in hopes of convincing Eigsa and Rond to come to Gunduzahar. I doubt," Veylin muttered, regarding her, uncertain and apprehensive, over the rim of his mug, "we will get any woman across there otherwise. You would not like to cross it again, if there were only a slab, would you?"
She could still see the stone tipping, clearly in her mind's eye. "Liking has nothing to do with it, if that is the best way. I will go as you guide me, when we are on the road. What was your quarrel then, if not over the ruin of the bridge?" she insisted, refusing diversion.
Though he must have contemplated how to tell her for the better part of three days, while they rode—and perhaps, given his weariness, for the worst part of three nights as well—his answer was not ready. Finally, face somber and eyes searching, he said, "Did you know that Sút desired to be my spouse?"
Auð stared, fork poised. Surely she had misheard, or he had misspoke. "What?"
Veylin's face eased somewhat. "Sút desired to be my spouse."
"No." It could not be. They had always chafed one another, to her vexation and grief. How happy she would have been, if they had been more congenial!
Yet as her thoughts scattered like startled birds, she found she could not imagine Sút as mistress of Thrir's Hall, in her mother's place.
"I do assure you," Veylin replied solemnly, and there was no glimmer of warmth or wit in those russet eyes. "There was no mistaking her."
She did not doubt him. Sút did nothing by half measures, and few knew better than Auð how audacious the woman could be in pursuit of her desires. Indeed, Auð's mind flinched from speculation on what may have passed between her brother and her ardent friend. Mutual weakness and the raw chill of the night must have forced intimacy upon them, and they alone together . . . .
If the offense had been moderate, Veylin would be vociferous in complaint. So sparing an account, so summary a decision, declared the details unspeakable. Auð found she could not meet his eyes.
"I do not ask you to break with her," her brother went on. "You have been friends since before I was born. All I ask is that you do not bring us together, so far as it is in your power to prevent."
Auð nodded. His clemency shamed her. Who was to blame but herself? She was the one who had invited Sút to Gunduzahar; who always made light of everyone's reservations about her friend's eccentricities . . . whose duty it was to guard her younger sibling. Mother had disapproved of Sút: for her lack of restraint, certainly; but had she also seen that she had designs on Veylin?
Auð was mortified that she could be so blind.
Rising from the table, she gathered up the plates, though she had not finished eating; could not., her stomach clenched as it was. "Will you finish the coffee?" she asked, grasping at commonplaces for comfort and safety. Anything else was too likely to cause pain or misunderstanding. She must think about this, privily and deeply.
"Of course. Oski's brew is nothing to yours."
Washing up was but another refuge, as Veylin sat, silent as their father had often been, finishing his coffee. No doubt he was considering the councils before him, as Father had.
So she was startled when, as she furiously scrubbed at a stubborn crust on the griddle, Veylin loomed up beside her, reaching out to pluck the green bowl from the rack. "What are you doing?" she snapped, only then taking in the towel in his hand.
"You wash, I dry," he answered, as he had when they were children, wiping the bowl and setting it on the board.
She glowered at him, to keep back tears. "You will spot your coat. And Thjalfi is waiting."
"We did not appoint a particular time." Veylin reached over and snagged an apron from its hook. "If my time is short, it may encourage him to be brief. But I will let you put all away when I have done."
She had nearly finished, but it was good to stand shoulder to shoulder with him for a while, working together as they had of old. When he gave the kettle a last swipe and handed it to her, to hang on the hook by the hearth, he leaned in and kissed her cheek. "Thank you, Auð. I will face the day in better heart."
She wished she could say the same. "That I am glad for. Off with you now! I must get back to my own work."
"Then come—I will see you as far as the fountain."
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Shifting the bundle under her arm, Auð hammered more emphatically on the door, ignoring the stares of passersby. "Sút," she threatened, in a tone calculated to carry through the stout oak, "if you do not open the door, I will give this suit to Safna. As you said, Hylli's eye is drawn to silver." Twice before she had come to Sút's apartments, with the sumptuous sable and silver brocade garments. If she got no answer this time, she would leave off trying.
The first time was the day after she spoke with Veylin. She had not seen him since: they both had much to do and many people to see, and she was grateful for the separation. The knot in her heart was horribly snarled, difficult to disentangle without snapping one of the threads.
Auð knew which was stronger. Perhaps Sút did, too, and that was why she did not answer the knock on her door.
Guna and Meiri, passing, stared, and Guna leaned her head over to murmur in her cousin's ear.
Word of Sút's fall had traveled fast. Auð turned her head to give them a lingering look of forbidding dignity.
"Do not make it worse," Sút said quietly behind her, as Auð finally saw the two around the corner. "For your own sake. Give me the suit and go."
Clamping her elbow down on the parcel before Sút could pull it away, Auð jammed her foot between the door and the jamb. "I will speak to you, Sút. Here, or within."
Sút was disheveled, as though she had wholly given way to carelessness, stray strands of hair fuzzing her braids; there were even crumbs in her beard. Eyes sunken in dark hollows, she gazed at Auð without expression. Was this shame, or enmity? "You can say what you will here."
"Why did you not tell me?"
This was her most pressing question, the thing she could not understand. She might have aided Sút in so many ways, for she had always had her brother's ear . . . and who knew his tastes better? Even Mother she might have worked upon, if there had been hope, for how was a woman to get a sister, if not by marriage? Veylin would have had a helpmate and heirs of his body; she would have had nephews, and perhaps a niece who delighted in stitchery; Thyrnir and Thyrð close cousins—and children would have steadied Sút, giving her quicksilver mind ample occupation and true purpose. Who could be rash with a precious babe in their arms?
So Auð's heart insisted. Yet her mind had its doubts, and the longer she stood there under Sút's flat black gaze, the stronger they became.
"I did not know," Sút finally said. "Not until he had gone to the Iron Hills. When he returned, it was too late."
Too late. Not for Veylin, perhaps, but certainly for Sút, nearly a decade his senior. Not too late to get children, but too late to begin a chancy courtship with many obstacles to overcome that might lead so far. All those years, wasted years. Auð held out the beautiful garments she had made for her friend. "That is why you hate Safna."
Sút nodded. "Keep them," she said, pushing the bundle back. "I will not be wearing them."
More waste. "Ill luck might strike anyone, and ponies are fractious. If you withdraw, you admit blame. Do you wish to be shunned?"
"I do not care."
Auð scowled, wishing she could punch her, as she did when they were girls. "You will care when no one comes to buy your silver. Do not be more of a fool than you have already!"
"You are good, Auð; too good. You always were. Go home. You have wasted enough of your time on me."
"I must judge that for myself. Tell me," Auð challenged, "how am I to know this is not wits cracked by a rock when you fell?"
"Ask your brother. I am sure he will content you." Sút began to draw her door shut, setting her foot against Auð's to push it out of the way.
"No, he will not. All he will say is that you desired him, and all he has asked is that I do not bring the two of you together."
"All. Do not be cruel, Auð. Farewell."
"You paid me for this—you must take it!" Auð cried, thrusting the suit through the relentlessly narrowing gap. One hand braced on jamb and the other hauling on door handle, Sút could not prevent . . . but with a furious surge, the door slammed shut, almost crushing Auð's toes.
Standing there, staring at the shut door, Auð's heart raged: at the senselessness of fate, since those who had destroyed her comfort were those dearest to her, after her sons. How was she to decide where blame lay, if blame there was, when neither would give her grounds to choose between them? "You may shut your door on me," she called, "but I will not shut my door on you!"
She might not—but the door to Gunduzahar would be closed in Sút's face. If she returned there, she would not see Sút again.
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Hob: a ledge at the side or back of a fireplace, used to keep dishes warm.
"how was a woman to get a sister, if not by marriage?": Dwarves rarely had more than two or three children (HoME XII: The Peoples of Middle-earth, "The Making of Appendix A," (IV) Durin's Folk), and there were about two dwarf-men for each dwarf-woman (LotR, Appendix A.III, "Durin's Folk"). It follows, therefore, that is was rare for a dwarf-woman to have a birth-sister.