4. Most Knowing of Persons
Decent fall the cloths
over a high income
—John Berryman, His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, Poem 196
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As the leaden clouds opened, hurling rain down with the force of tiny hammers, Auð dashed in the Back Door. Veylin, stumping through the torrent more phlegmatically, was not far behind her, while without, Oski bellowed for someone to come and help him get the baggage under cover.
"Here, Mother," Thyrnir said, appearing from the relative darkness of the receiving hall. "Let me take your cloak. How was the Fair?"
Balnar brushed by, yanking up his hood as he headed out to answer Oski's call. "Very good! A shame that you missed it." So great was her relief at being under stone again, Auð gave her son a buss on the cheek. "How have you fared here? Has Thyrð arrived?" Veylin had sent him ahead almost as soon as they set out, misliking the look of the weather. How good of him, to spare her cloth a washing!
Grimr, coming in with one of his boxes of iron, was already soaked through; and her boy, seeing a stranger, drew out of her embrace. "Yes. He and Neðan are carrying your bolts to the workroom. Where would you like the chests to go?"
"Those with brass studs to my chambers; the rest can go in my storeroom for now."
"Thyrnir," Veylin called him over, "this is Grimr, son of Linr, ironmaster once of Erebor. Put his goods in the large smithy and find him a place in the dormitory. I do not suppose the baths are finished?"
Thyrnir smiled at his uncle's wistful hope. "Not quite. At your service," he offered Grimr, turning to bow to him.
"At yours and your family's. Let me get the rest of my gear in—"
Setting Auð's folded cloak over Veylin's shoulder, Thyrnir said, " I am with you. Is there much iron?"
Veylin snorted, lifting the wet woolen as the two headed back out into the rain, then stepped aside as Oski staggered in with two gem-chests at once, barely able to see past them. "Come, Auð, let us get out of the way. Balnar," he asked, as Nordri's prentice plunked down one of the chests of provisions, "where is Rekk?"
"With Haust in the baths, adjusting the setting of the outfall sluice."
Auð sighed. Ah, well; if a proper soak was still beyond them, there would be ale, and a good supper she did not have to cook herself.
Her freight was piled near the foot of the stair that wound its way up to the halls by easy stages. Little had been carried up as yet, which seemed strange, for Thyrð must have been more than an hour before them. The waxed outer wrappers of the topmost parcels were faintly damp to the touch . . . had he dallied on the way, and been caught in the first showers?
Shifting the ungainly shapes, Auð looked for the doubled wax cover with a triple thread of black, and found it right at the very bottom, perfectly dry.
Relieved, she pried the bolt from the heap. Thyrð had gotten here before the rain, then, and brought this one in first. That would make some amends for the disgraceful exhibition he had made of himself before Grimr last night, but more would be required, particularly if he was taking liberties with his time.
When she caught up to Veylin at the first turning, he asked, "Would you show Grimr around the delf after supper?"
"If you like. You do not want to do it yourself?" There was little, beside gems, that gave him as much pleasure as showing off his new foundation. Why would he forgo it? She had seen nothing to suggest a distaste for the Longbeard's company; and as for Veylin's lameness . . . . From the vantage of some steps lower down, she watched critically as her brother took the next riser. Well, it seemed no worse than usual, though how could one be certain without catching him unawares?
"I would, but I may have an errand elsewhere tonight."
An errand? Elsewhere? They had only just arrived, and where else was there to go? Not White Cliffs, surely; not in this weather. And why should he say "may"? Auð was still seeking for a question that would not be presumptuous when the muted clatter of hastily descending boots came down the shaft, soon followed by Thyrð and Neðan.
"There you are!" Veylin exclaimed heartily. "A word with you, Thyrð." As Thyrð gestured his fellow on, Veylin drew aside so she could pass as well. "I will let you know at supper," he said.
Lips pursed, Auð looked from brother to son. Apparently it was not concern for her cloth that had sent Thyrð ahead. "Very well." Tucking the double-covered bolt more securely under her arm, she left them to their scheming.
They had made good time under the threatening sky, so it was some hours yet to supper. The corridors were empty: if she had not looked into the kitchens to find Bersa, she would not have met anyone. Five more plates on what he considered short notice put the cook out, but Auð understood his temper now. She only had to mention the coffee she had purchased at the Fair to command his attention, and a sharp hint that the price or even its availability would vary with her pleasure persuaded him to damp his surliness. She did not linger—did not want to hear Bersa's crank gossip when her mood was delicately balanced between satisfaction and discontent—and restrained herself from peeking in at the unfinished baths afterwards, hastening instead to the hip-bath that would rid her of the abominable reek of beast-sweat.
She was sitting before her bedchamber hearth, wringing the last of the wet from her hair and beard, when someone knocked boldly on the outer door. "Coming!" she bellowed, annoyed and flustered to be caught in her smock. Snatching up her hall-coat, she headed for the foyer. "Who is it?"
"Sút, and no one else! Are you fit to be seen, or should I come back after supper?"
Auð rolled her eyes at her friend's vulgarity and flung open the door. "Get in! What are you doing, shouting such things in the passageway?"
Sút paffed, grinning, and came in as briskly as Auð could wish. "The men are at their work. How was your journey?"
"Tolerable. Do not trust all the men to be predictable," Auð warned, shutting the door firmly. "Veylin has hired the ironsmith he looked for, a Longbeard named Grimr."
"Yes. Men in the Hills of Twilight took his pack-pony shortly before Midsummer, and he seeks to re-equip himself." Stepping into the sitting room, she picked up the double-wrapped bolt of cloth and brought it out to Sút. "Here—give me your opinion on this."
Black brows lifting with happy curiosity, Sút hefted the parcel and followed Auð back to her bedchamber. "Veylin has told him of the Men at White Cliffs?" she asked, taking a seat on the long chest before tugging loose the first knot.
Auð retrieved comb and towel. "Let us hope so, since he has rejected several able smiths merely because they spoke slightingly of Men."
Sút stared. "Truly?"
"Near enough. Grimr, however, was raised in Erebor, so he is familiar with the breed."
That seemed to give her friend matter for thought, for Sút was silent as she freed the bolt from its bindings and stripped off the outermost wrapper. "What is he like?"
What was he like? Auð considered as she carefully combed out a tangle. The look he had given her at their first meeting had quickened her blood, yet when her alarm had subsided she found she was not displeased. "A goodly kind of man. Not cheerful, but uncomplaining, and his manners are pleasant." Many men withdrew, or grew cold when they desired a woman they could not have, and rudeness was excused as evidence of passion. A woman might be flattered by that if she chose, but what use were such men to her, save in the way of business? She was not dead, though her love was; and Thekk could not want for society in Mahal's halls, not as she wanted it here. A conversable man whose regard was modest would be an agreeable addition to the community.
"Not like Prut, then," Sút said with some relief, and laid open the second jacket of waxed canvas. "What is it that warrants so much defense?" she exclaimed, gazing on the innermost wrapping of linen with intrigued frustration. "Cloth of gold? I have seen men armed for war with less protection."
Auð smiled. "I know your opinion of cloth of gold. Do not stop!" Sitting back, she watched her friend's suspense with pleased anticipation.
When Sút turned back the last cover from the figured brocade, Auð was not disappointed. Eyes wide, the silversmith delicately touched one of the small silver gem-designs strewn across the pitch-black field, creating an effect not unlike the black granite she loved. "This is lovely," she breathed, and peeled away the rest of the linen so she could gaze on the full breadth of the cloth.
"Isn't it?" When the Blacklock had shown it to her in his stall, she knew Sút must have it. She could even see the coat she would cut from it, to make best use of the maze-key borders. "Do you want it?"
"Give me what I paid, and it is yours. If," Auð proposed, "you give me an equal measure of your own time in return, I promise you a suit for the Welcoming Feast of the West Council that will have Safna chewing her beard."
Sút's smile was as wicked as the long rivalry between her and her cousin. "She knew Hylli's eye was drawn to silver when she resolved to have him. Why she is not content with her prize, I do not know. What can I make you?"
Since her eye was not drawn to silver, she would have to think. "I have not yet decided." New ware for the table, perhaps: what she had brought out from Sulûnduban was her third best, worn thin by the heavy-handed polishing of boys. Or a set of ale pitchers like Regin's, though his were of gold. Clasps she might put on Rekk's jackets . . . ?
"While you are thinking, then," Sút urged, "tell me about the Midsummer Feast. Was Regin's new regalia much admired? Did Thorin come?"
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Gunduzahar's company was as affable as its leader, though somewhat diffident with a newcomer, and once they had finished supper, they drew apart only to form smaller groups. Veylin went with Rekk and the plumber to see how the baths had progressed since his departure, while the mason and the coppersmith set off to deliberate the direction of the next day's work at the mine face. Their sons continued to debate the qualities of the stone over their pipes and the last of the ale, Nyr supported by his many cousins and the older and more authoritative Barði by his father's miners. After long years alone on the road, Grimr found such society a heartening prospect . . . but it would take time to find his place among them, and for now he sat somewhat apart, with naught to do but gauge the character of his new companions.
As one of the prentices—was the one with the light brown hair Haust's or Bersi's?—cleared away her empty plate, Auð rose and joined the other two women between the long table and stairway arch. Unlike the men, they seemed mismatched, as different as gold and steel and brass, but whatever had brought them together, they soon agreed and divided again. Bersi's spouse headed for the stair; Sút, turning her head at some mention of silver among the stone-men, drifted their way.
Auð came towards him, stopping on the opposite side of the table. "The meal was to your liking?" she asked.
"Veylin's praise of the cook was just. Bersa, is it?" He would not mistake the man's cumbersome girth, but it was difficult to keep straight so many new names at once.
Her smile grew wry. "Yes, Bersa. His cooking is all that can be praised, but when you have eaten his feast dishes, you will understand why we suffer him. May I make you better acquainted with the delf as well? Veylin is usually jealous of the privilege, but as you saw, he has been called away by some complication in the plumbing."
"I should like that—but not if your brother would be displeased with you."
That made her laugh. "Veylin has often been displeased with me since Mother first put him in my charge; but never fear: he asked if I would take his place. What would you like to see? If the lads have already shown you all you require, I will not bore you."
"No—I would enjoy seeing what you have accomplished here." And her company as well. Draining his stein, he pushed the bench back and stood. "I confess," he admitted, coming around the end of the table to join her, "I did not expect anything as fine as this."
This, their Great Hall, was not large—even that at Furnace Fells was more spacious, yet Thráin and Thorin had of necessity delved for use, while everything here might be a masterwork. From the copper-chased doors of blackened steel opposite the archway that led towards the Main Stair to the stout seats covered in ruddy leather, ranged about the carven hearths in the aisles, there was a harmony of color and quality and style. They had dined at one end, beneath the branching vault-ribs of dark bole-pillars, on a broad board of aged cherry, and the light cast by the many lamps was thrown back by the facing, fair as ivory, on the high walls. Even the floor beneath their feet echoed the red and black and white above.
When Veylin had said he wanted a man's best, he had not been speaking in platitudes. As to paying for it . . . they could not have taken enough copper out of this hill in three years to pay for a fraction of this, not if it ran through the rock in veins of metal. But gems—their value could be incalculable. Was not the Heart of Erebor the Arkenstone?
Auð gazed on it all with complacent pride. Chieftain's daughter and gemsmith's spouse, doubtless she had never wanted for anything gold could purchase. Yet she herself was splendid as any gem. Had all this been made to provide a fit setting for her rich beauty? "The hall has turned out very well," she agreed. "As you see, it also serves as our commons, so if the lads are bothersome in your quarters, you can come here for peace. Or there are the common-rooms on the First Deep. One is hard by your dormitory."
Two hearths, half a dozen chairs and a couple of settles, plus a work-scarred table: a home-like chamber, where you would not scruple to put your feet up on the furniture or polish your brass. "Now that you are adding a gallery and baths," Grimr said, "I do not see what could be wanting."
"More Dwarves," Auð countered, with a rueful sigh. "Though we can hope for them, in time."
He had grown inured to a solitary life, among Men or on the road, while she had known only the busy society of the mansion. "When more know of what you are building, doubtless they will come." To turn her mind from discontent, he moved towards the great arching panels of steel in the north wall. "I have rarely seen such excellence in doors of this size. Whose work is it?"
"Merki, Virkr's son. The outer doors are the hill's own stone, secret and concealed. Feldir of Stonehaven set the locks and wards; the prentices take turns as doorward and on watch without." Drawing the massive main bolt—the others were unset—she turned the ring on the left-hand panel and opened it enough to show the long foyer. "I am just showing Grimr your post," she told Neðan, who glanced up from the broad slate on his lap with some surprise. "When it is convenient, be sure he sees the Front Door, and the paths thereabouts."
"Certainly!" the lad said, and Auð shut the door on him again.
"This is very grand for a secret entrance," Grimr observed, running his fingers along one of the welds in the panel.
"Veylin altered his intentions somewhat during the first year," Auð explained, leading him across the hall, "as the Men at White Cliffs proved trustworthy and they began to trade. Now that both Men and Elves know we are here, there is some talk of clearing an open way to the Front Door. Apparently," she sniffed, "the current approach is awkward for the Men."
"There are Elves hereabout as well?" He wondered what kind they were. The remnant of the folk of Eregion in Rivendell were friendly to his kin, but the Grey Elves and the Green, and the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains, had forged undying enmity between them. That had poisoned the hearts of many who had no part in their ancient quarrel. Had Veylin's longfathers come from Tumunzahar or Gabilgathol?
"A few, I am told. There is some question, it seems, as to whether we are still in the mountains here. Veylin has discussed the matter with the Shipwright."
Auð's aggrieved suspicion notwithstanding—it was only natural, in a woman—that argued for Gabilgathol, since the Shipwright had been near kin to Thingol. But he would ask one of the men for the rest of the tale, when opportunity arose. "The Men visit you often enough to accommodate them?"
She regarded him sidelong, eyes sharp as a faceted emerald. "What is often? Men seldom approach Sulûnduban. How were such things managed in the Lonely Mountain?"
"Dale lay between two arms of the Mountain, and there was so much commerce between us we built a road along the River Running to our Front Gate." In memory, he could stand on that road still and hear the bells of the town below; but it was coupled with the recollection of blasted towers, shattered and fire-warped bells amid tumbled, calcined stones. That was where Dugir had tackled him, preventing him from running across the bridge and up the road to his death. "Men came to the Great Chamber of Thror, just within, for council or bargaining or feast more days than not, though it was uncommon for any to gain deeper admittance. Some of us went down to Dale nearly every day, and most of our trade was conducted there."
From the grudging tone of her "Hmm" he guessed her men's practice was in the same vein. "Here," she directed, when they reached the stair, "the gallery is above. I suppose they come several times a year. At least the Lady and her escort came thrice last year, once to feast in the hall at Veylin's invitation and twice to trade. Her kinsmen were here at the end of winter, but we will be hosting as many as will come on the roof of the mansion next month."
"Will you? How many Men are there?"
"Twenty-seven, they say . . . but only a third of those are men, and many are children. Veylin says to expect them all, but surely some will remain at home!"
Grimr smiled at her perplexity. She wanted better, or at least different, intelligence than her men gave her, but he was not about to gainsay the one who held his contract. "I do not know these Men, so I cannot guess. But if your brother says to plan for them all, I would advise you to do so. Why was the invitation so general?"
"They have feasted our men royally half-a-dozen times, and always make room at their table or find a cup of ale. Their gratitude is to their credit, but it grows too one-sided," Auð complained, turning off onto the rough-finished landing where the stair ended. "We cannot have them thinking we are obliged to them."
"No," Grimr agreed almost at random, as he stared down the gaping throat of a tunnel driven with admirable straightness through the night-black basalt, lit only by a few widely spaced lanterns. About halfway, some forty paces from where they stood, the walls changed, with shocking abruptness, to creamy white. "This is the gallery?"
Auð smiled, pleased by his wondering admiration as much as the work. "It will be, once Nordri has quarried enough limestone. Come," she urged, with happy anticipation, "let us go down to the First Deep and see how little work the plumber has still to do."
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"Most Knowing of Persons": "That most knowing of persons—gossip." —Seneca, Epistles
Outfall sluice: the channel that carries water from the baths off into the sewer.
Riser: the vertical element between two steps on a stair.
Smock: a shift; or a loose yoked shirt.
Blacklock: one of the seven kindreds of the Dwarves, whose Father awoke far to the east. Though the four homelands of the seven kindreds were far apart—as far or further than the distance between the Blue and the Misty Mountains—none of the kindreds were isolated (HoME XII: The Peoples of Middle-Earth, "Of Dwarves and Men"). Early in their history they often held joint councils at Gundobad, and more recently, all contributed significant forces to the war to avenge Thrór (LotR, App. A.III, "Durin's Folk").
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