Author's Note: These events take place on the eve of the War of Dwarves and Orcs, in Third Age 2792, when all the kindreds of the Dwarves were sending forces to Thráin to avenge his father Thrór, once King Under the Mountain in Erebor. These Dwarves are Firebeards of the Blue Mountains; one of them is an important character in my Dûnhebaid Cycle, which begins fifty-five years later.
The mansion was a different place: a third of the men were already gone to Thráin, and another third were making ready to join them, disrupting the order of life. Masons had set aside their trowels to work at armourers' forges; goldsmiths were riveting grey steel rings into mail; Auð's gemsmith brother would come home covered in burrs from the grinding wheels, where his eye was much in demand for putting a deadly edge on axe and sword and spear.
And they had their work, as well: her mother gathered many of the women of their line in the smaller hall each day, where they quilted gambesons and hemmed cloaks. Hildr and her daughter pieced together the uppers of stout boots, readying them to take hobnailed soles, while Gilsa turned out pair after pair of leathern breeches. Their hearts burned as hotly as those of their men, and they would see that nothing skill could provide was lacking in the grim war of vengeance to come.
There was a knock at the door, and all heads lifted from their work. Though the great host had not taken the field yet, or so Veylin said, sitting on the council in his father's place until he led forth the second body of their sept's warriors next week, there were skirmishes as the strongholds of the Orcs in the Misty Mountains were scouted out. Just two weeks ago, word had come that Gunr had been slain--the only surviving son of Halldis, who her mother had half-carried from the hall as the bereft woman wailed and tore her beard.
It was a time of perilous uncertainty, and the chance of welcome news slight.
Her mother laid aside the sleeve she was stitching, and went to the door. When she opened it, Auð was surprised to see Thekk standing there--even more to see him finely dressed. Her brother's boon companion spent his days making helms now, instead of the rings and brooches he loved. Why was he not sweating over the forms in Svinn's workshop? "Thekk," her mother greeted him, with a sketch of a bow. "What brings you here at this time of day?"
He bowed so low his chestnut beard nearly touched the floor, which was even stranger, for he was often among them, such was his friendship with her brother. "I came, Siða, to see if Auð might spare me a few moments of her time."
Auð stared at him, heart quickening and face growing warm beneath her beard. She had long known her brother's friend fancied her--he and a half-dozen other hopefuls--but Thekk had not got beyond cleverly suggestive banter and closely appraising looks, raising the heat a trifle on each visit. She liked the caution beneath his easy manner, and that he did not take for granted that she would love him because her brother did. Yet this was no time for leisurely courting--did he mean to speak now?
Her mother looked her way, seeming both amused and pleased by her reticence. "Well, Auð?"
All the other woman were watching, with bright, speculative eyes. The longer she hesitated, the more tongues would wag. "Of course." She set the shirt she was sewing down on her box, and tried to appear disinterested as she went to the door. "Has my brother sent some message?" she asked, even as she stepped out, drawing the door mostly shut behind her.
Thekk grinned, but his amusement did not reach his dark eyes. "No," he said, inviting her to step away from the door with a slight motion of his hand and the lift of one brow. "And I am not sure he would approve of my errand, which is why I did not wait for this evening."
"You do not think he would approve?" Auð stopped where she was, only a few paces further into the high hall. Had she mistaken his intent? So far as she could tell, Veylin was pleased by his friend's interest in her, for all that he grumbled about Thekk's distraction when she was by. At least he had not teased her about it, which would have been a sure way to dampen any answering spark.
"Not at this time." His craggy face was grave, and his voice low. "You know I will be leaving for the war next week, with Veylin. I do not know when I will return . . . if ever. Yet I would be wroth to come back and find you had wed another, because I scrupled to speak."
Had he come, so fine, to do no more than speak? Auð sniffed. "You think I would wed any who neglects their duty to the Eldest and his heirs?"
Thekk chose his words carefully. "There are some whom duty bids remain behind, to work that we might fight better."
Ah, so it was Virpir who troubled him, was it? Yes, his axes were so fine he would be spending the war at his anvil. A fine, strapping man, whose eyes smouldered like the coals of his forge. War would bring a fortune into his brawny hands. "That is true."
Was that a glint of jealousy in Thekk's eye? "Therefore," he continued resolutely, "I would put this in your hand, Auð." Thrusting out his tight-clenched left fist, he opened it, revealing an emerald pendant. "An earnest of my desire--and should the worst befall, a remembrance, if such would please you."
He drew breath in satisfaction as she stared at his offering, momentarily speechless. It was a splendid emerald, as big as her thumbjoint, with a bold setting of red gold and chain to match. Truly, he was in earnest, for his first gift to be so rich. "It is beautiful . . . ."
"Will you not take it?" he murmured, almost a whisper.
If she did, she must spurn her other suitors. Once he left, there was no telling how long it might be before she saw him again.
Yet the others would be going as well, save for Virpir. And though his glances were ardent, the weaponsmith had done naught but look so far. There would be little courting for anyone these next years, and in such a market, other women might be less demanding than she. The surety of his safety had its attractions, but Auð did not think Virpir above using that to his advantage in marriage negotiations.
In such uncertain times, a gem in the hand was better than hope. Reaching out, she ran a finger over the perfect surface of the deep green stone, then lifted it from Thekk's palm.
His fingers closed around hers, warm and firm; his thumb caressed her knuckles as he bowed over her hand, brushing it with silken whiskers before setting a tentative kiss between forefinger and thumb. "I am honored by your confidence," he breathed.
Auð found her own breath was doing strange things. Could Thekk's eyes truly be brighter than the gem in her clasp? "And I by your regard," she managed, the common formula when granting a man permission to court. Her triteness shamed her, but at the moment she earnestly desired to retreat to her chamber, so she might examine the jewel and her heart in private. "Will you come for supper this evening?"
"Gladly." Letting go of her hand, he took a step back; though his face was still grave, he smiled. "Every moment in your company will be precious to me." He bowed. "Until this evening, Auð."
"Until then." She watched until he passed out through the arch, then looked down at his gift again. Emerald, his favorite gem, and the color of her eyes; the setting nearly matched the flame of her beard. Better light was needed to appraise it properly.
When she returned to the small hall, few feigned disinterest or attended to their work. She was loathe to speak of what had passed, however, with her mind so roiled, and propriety forbid them to press her. Let them speculate: Auð took up the shirt she had been working on and her sewing box, and withdrew in silence.
She had been sitting some time beside her lamp, staring into the lustrous depths of the emerald, unable to think of anything but the deftness of Thekk's touch, when the latch of the door lifted with its soft click. The step that entered was her mother's; it came up behind her chair, and after a moment, Siða observed, "That is very handsome."
"It is," Auð murmured, and looked up over her shoulder at that shrewd, trusted face. "Have I been foolish, Mother?"
Siða made a thoughtful noise, but there was nothing of displeasure in it. "Thekk is a worthy young man: skilled in a rich craft, of a senior line, good company, and--" her deep golden whiskers twitched "--pleasing to look upon. So long as you desire him, it is an excellent match."
"This is so sudden," Auð muttered crossly, resenting the loss of many merry evenings when she might have further tested his wit and sounded his character, sitting by the parlour hearth. "The war makes all things doubtful."
"And men bold." Her mother set a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Do you want him, Auð?"
"I hardly know. His touch has disordered my thoughts."
Now Siða chuckled. "That is a telling sign. Do not fret overmuch," she said bracingly. "I will see that the two of you have time to speak of your hearts. If the fire does not catch before he departs, there will be ample time to decide the best way forward." She stood silent for a while, gazing at the gem. "What did you think to give him in return?"
Auð shook her head. "What can I give him, that he would take to war? I do not want it to be a mere token, not when he has been so liberal." She rubbed her thumb pensively over the emerald. "And with his own work."
"No." Her mother pursed her lips and knit her brows, eyeing her closely. After measured thought, she said, "Come," her deep voice curtly imperative, and walked away. Hastily Auð rose and followed after, though taken aback by the stern tone, which had not been directed at her for some two decades now. Stern, but not angry; her mother's growl she knew too well to mistake. "Wait here," Siða ordered, when they reached her chamber door, "until I bid you enter."
"Yes, Mother." This was to be a day of strangeness, it seemed. Auð stood by the richly carved oaken panel and occupied herself with placing Thekk's pendant about her neck. Should she wear the stone over her beard, so that all could see his pledge, or under, so it lay against her heart, but secret? Truly, the gold went well with her coloring-
Curious, but with trepidation, Auð lifted the latch and opened the door.
"Lock it behind you," Siða told her. A long, ornate box of gold-chased steel lay on the bed before her.
This looked to call for both bolts. When she had thrown them, Auð joined her mother beside the bed and gazed on the box. In all her years, she had never seen this. Siða murmured a spell of opening as she set a small, curiously shaped key into its lock.
Within lay neat bundles of fine linen, the cord that bound them tied with complex knots of many colors. With reverent care, Siða searched through them, then drew one out. "Your skill is great enough to accomplish this," she said solemnly, as she closed and locked the box. "You also have the wisdom, I deem, to be entrusted with it." Her hazel eyes were sharp as she caught and held Auð's gaze. "If so, I will reveal more of these secrets--" laying her hand on the gilded steel "--to you, in the fullness of time."
Auð bowed her head. "May I not disappoint, Mother."
"Then attend, for I will only tell this once." Siða set her finger beside the knot. "This one you will know by the single line of red, and triple loop of steel-grey." Loosing it so that Auð could see how it was tied, she laid back the cords, then unfolded the impeccably clean linen to reveal a worn and aged shirt, richly embroidered with many hues in patterns familiar and yet subtly unlike.
Watching to see that she did not offend, Auð reached out and delicately touched the old cloth. Silk; a difficult fabric, and one they seldom used, though its strength had utility. The thread appeared to be the same, the faded colors still showing a lovely sheen, where they were not fine strands of metal. "What is it?" she asked. The sevenfold band at wrist and collar were particularly fine: immutable gold and ruby, emerald and aged copper, now-tarnished silver and sapphire, the black of jet, interlaced to form a thick, intricate cable.
"A battle sark, figured with spells of guard and ward, valour and victory. My seven-times great-grandmother made this for her husband to wear in forays against Angmar, a thousand years and more ago."
So ancient! "It is wondrous," she murmured, already studying the patterns. Axe and hammer, gem and star; yes, this would be a fitting return for Thekk's gift . . . but could she complete it before he departed? If silk was part of the charm, she would have to get some; she had none in her store of cloth, and did not think her mother had so much.
"It is," her mother sighed, her mouth softening with admiration of the skill that had created it. "Yet you may only make one."
Auð frowned. "Why?"
Profound gravity gave Siða's face a mournful cast. "The spells require it--and will only protect the one it is wrought for. You must choose," she declared. "If you shield this man who would be your husband, you will not be able to armour a son against peril later."
She stared at her mother. "Have you made one?"
Siða shook her head. "There was no need before . . . and when the call came, I could not choose between my husband and my son. One must bind one's whole heart with the threads," she grieved. "Mine was torn."
"What are these spells?"
Fierce and potent ones, unrelenting as a woman's love; a needle of mithril and the pricking of fingers. Since she did not know Thekk's true name and would not unless they wed, she would have to secure some strands of his beard or hair to weave into the patterns.
When Siða finished and stood silent, staring at the shirt, Auð said, "I will have to think on this."
"That would be wise." Folding the linen back about it, her mother offered her the cords. "If you wish to keep it by you, do not leave it lying about. Do not do work such as this where any can see."
Auð stepped in and tied the knot as she had been shown. "I will keep it secret," she assured her. Lifting the bundle from the bed as carefully as if it had been a babe, she recalled that she had not yet told her mother of the invitation she had given. "I have invited Thekk to supper tonight."
"It would be very odd if you had not," Siða sniffed, and waved her out. "Go, then, and see to the arrangements. I hope you have some idea of what his favorite dishes are."
His special favorites, no; but she knew enough to content him. A sumptuous supper would have been wasted in any case, for they were all too unsettled to genuinely enjoy the meal, save perhaps her mother, who was noncommittally courteous throughout. As Thekk had supposed, Veylin was not best pleased at his friend's timing, and Auð grew snappish with her brother before Thekk arrived; she suspected the two of them had words about her when she stepped out to finish laying the table. For once, it seemed, Veylin had not been able to persuade Thekk to his way of thinking, which left him sulky and silent at table.
It was a relief, therefore, when Siða asked Veylin to accompany her to her workroom, to tell her of the morning's council while she fitted him for a new gambeson. He went, dutifully, casting a reproachful, warning look at his friend over his shoulder.
She and Thekk, left alone, gazed at each other. "Veylin is not very angry with you, I hope," she said, and was abashed by her hesitation. The three of them had argued often enough, across this very table . . . yet not on matters of such import.
"You have not quarreled?" Thekk's full brows, a shade darker than the rich red-brown of his beard, knit.
"Quarreled? No," Auð assured him, "not quarreled. Little good it would do him, even if we had," she asserted gruffly, and began stacking her dishes.
That brought a smile to his face. "So I have heard," Thekk confessed, almost slyly, before sobering. "No, he is not angry; merely concerned for you, as befits a brother."
Auð snorted. As the elder child, it was her duty to look after Veylin. Rising, she added her mother's dishes to her own. "Let me clear the table, and I will meet you in the parlour."
"Nonsense," Thekk declared, rising likewise and gathering up the tankards. "I have come here to be with you. Two will finish quicker than one, and then we can sit together by the fire."
"You are a guest!" She was scandalized, but pleased that he wished to demonstrate he would be a helpmeet.
Those dark eyes held hers. "I do not want to be your guest," he rumbled.
Something in her resonated to his deep, sonorous voice; a quaver lower than her heart. "Oh, very well!" she agreed, turning sharply away and marching towards the kitchen. "Let us make short work of this!"
But no sooner had they cleared it all to the kitchen than he began rolling up his sleeves. "Shall I wash, or dry?"
Impatient to have his hand in hers, to see if the glow he had kindled would spread, Auð shook her head. "No, I will see to it later. Veylin can help me, to make up for his ill temper."
"'Work is senior to pleasure,'" he murmured. "Truly, Auð, I would rather."
Her cheeks grew hot at the reproach of the proverb. "Whichever you please, if you insist! Veylin's apron is there, on the third hook." Did he mean to vex her, as a trial of her temper?
Thekk chose to wash, claiming it would soak the grime of the forge from his hands and make them fit for her to hold, but Auð tossed her head in contempt at this bit of gallantry and turned away, tucking her emerald safely beneath her beard before taking up a drying cloth. His hand had been clean enough when it clasped hers earlier. Did he think her so fastidious?
As he scrubbed at the plates, he spoke of his work, and the ambitions war had set aside. "You need not worry that I will take trade from Veylin," he told her. "He loves seeking out gems as much as shaping and setting them, while I have not the gift of finding. Indeed, I look to him for stones. And he knows what pleases Elves and the Shire-folk, selling much to them. My work is rarely to their taste."
"Then they do not know beauty when they see it," Auð declared scornfully, her hand going to where his pendant rested on her breast.
"I do," Thekk assured her, standing at gaze, a dripping platter in his hand.
Auð snapped the drying cloth at him. "Wash! You are the one who insisted on postponing pleasure!" But she saw wisdom in it now: such practical matters must be spoken of, and she was not sure she could have attended half so well if her hands were not occupied by plates and tankards. Wisdom, and cunning--for desire balked was desire whetted.
Taking her turn as he scoured the pans, she told him of her commissions, and the linens she had embroidered for the king's table . . . and found that she was taking his measure with her eyes, judging the breadth of the neat brawn of his shoulders, the length of his well-sprung back, and the span of that trim waist, calculating how much silk she would need. It would be dear, but the color would matter little, so long as it was light enough for the broidery to plainly show.
Rising on tiptoe, Auð set the last copper-bottomed pan atop the dresser, then stepped back to be sure it was straight. Mother was most particular about--
Hands settled onto her shoulders, shaping themselves to muscle and bone. "All say you are an excellent woman of business," Thekk murmured, his breath caressing her nape beside her ear. He stood so close she could feel his heat through the good woolen on her back . . . so close, but not touching, save for his cunning maker's hands. "Your judgment and sense I have long admired, and your hair--" he laid his cheek against it "--is like gold, flowing from the crucible in the fiery glow of the furnace. You are a treasure, greater than any jewel I have ever beheld. Auð," and there was a husky tremor in his sure voice, "can you love me?"
Turning, she trailed her fingers down from his temple into the luxuriance of his beard, and kissed him.
Auð had left off the furtive clipping of youth as she neared marriageable age, mindful of her dignity and her reputation, so it had been many years since she had given anything other than a hearty buss of affection to near kin. Still, she remembered what she liked, and what she did not. She had once bitten a lad whose lust made him heedless of her desires, rifling her as if she were a long-abandoned hoard: his tongue was halt to this day.
Thekk . . . oh, Thekk was a skillful trader, offering tempting wares and giving full value in return. When their lips finally parted, she found her hand was clenched in his beard.
Her heart would never be as whole as it was now. They might have two sons, or three.
He gave a startled grunt as she tugged her hand free. As she smiled to see several long strands caught in her fist, Thekk drew back and stared at her, baffled and wounded. "Why--?"
Capturing the chestnut hairs, she swiftly twisted them into a loop and thrust them down the neck of her tunic for safekeeping. "Patience," she asked, reaching out to tenderly smooth the handsome locks she had rumpled. What was such a tweak, if it spared him the savagery of the Orcs? "You will pardon me, love, when you see my gift to you." And drew him back to her, giving a kiss warmer still as guilt-payment for the offense.