The Dwarves who dwelled under the Grey Mountains, north of Oropher's realm, were used to dealing with mortal Men, and had their own system for it. At the entrance to their halls was a secure vestibule with a dais. The Dwarves stood on the dais, elevated enough to look the taller but lesser Men right in their shifty eyes. This way, the inside of the Dwarves' halls stayed sacrosanct. They never strayed from this, even for a visitor important enough to draw forth their King, as was the lord of another realm, come to pay them weregild.
The room was bright, for the Dwarves; it was so close to the outside that it actually featured a window. In the filtered sunlight, the dwarves' leader squinted at the unusually well-dressed fellow, trying to determine if his black plate armour was of Elvish or human make, and peering to see more of his features beneath the deep black hood he wore. His face, though sun-browned, seemed Elvish. But his first words showed that he did not count himself Elvish.
The fellow was still in smooth good temper, even though he was explaining himself for the fifth time. “It is an honour to have audience with you at last, King Bolin Ironfist. My name is Annatar. I rule a realm to the distant South. Recently, a mere six years ago,” Annatar sighed, sounding pained, “The Elves of Eregion betrayed me. I was obliged to battle them. Perhaps the tale of what passed came to your gates?”
“Mnh,” said Bolin. He stayed still as stone; only his eyes shifted. He looked at the other dwarves in the area, a counsellor and several stout guards. They all met his eyes before looking at Annatar again.
“I learned that, in my recent conflict with the Elves of Eregion, some of the Dwarves who perished amongst the troops of Khazad-Dûm were from your realm. I came here to extend my profound regrets. My quarrel was with the Elves alone. It was never my intention to be enemies with the Khazad. To make amends, I proffer a humble weregild.” The fellow gestured at a tower of three chests next to him.
Briefly, the King glanced at the person beside him: the chief of his counsellors, a ginger-bearded dwarf broad in the beam. The counsellor's hands shifted slightly. The King read, in the Dwarves' secret gesture-language. You and I – see goods then talk. Private.
The King flexed his fingers and stroked his own thick pewter beard. These gestures said, Agree. I will arrange. Loudly, he cleared his throat. “We thank you, Lord Annatar, for proffering this weregild. We wish to review your offering and make our decision.” Bolin's glance dared him to disagree.
Annatar began, “My offering to you is threefold, King Bolin –” But Bolin harrumphed and thumped the haft of his kingly hammer on the floor.
He growled, “We said we would review your offering. We did not say that your presence was required. Our noble guard will escort you to take the air for a time. You will find the least copper coin where you left it, when you return. Such is our honour as the children of Durin.”
Unctuously, Annatar said, “But of course, King Bolin. I welcome your examination and approval, in the hope that you find my gift worthy of the valiant lives lost. All in Arda are aware that it is the Dwarves who are the experts in such matters. Please – let me prepare it for you.”
With a lopsided little smile, Annatar un-stacked the chests. He kept the smallest one tucked under his arm. It seemed that all he had to do to unlock the other two was to wave at them. With the smallest chest in his gloved hands, he hesitated. After what seemed a nervous pause, the foreign lord stepped closer to Bolin. Holding forth the chest, he said, “All that I ask is that you, and none other, handle this treasure in particular.” As he held it out, there was a small click, and the lid opened slightly.
Bolin nodded, and took the casket. His stony visage showed none of his flattered pride.
When this was done, two stout dwarves stepped up to Annatar and herded him outside the vestibule. He looked back once, making it clear that he noted King Bolin's counsellor remaining. The rest of the stone-thewed bodyguard followed the irregular trio out of the audience chamber. All of them, too, had understood the silent conversation between King and counsellor.
The main double doors swung shut, so well made and balanced that they were silent. The counsellor strode over and barred them, then went to a hanging on the wall. Lifting the hanging, a second door hidden there was barred, too. Finally, she turned to the King.
“Thoughts, husband?” the dwarf-woman said.
“He's no Elf. No Elf would do any Dwarf's bidding so easily, in a matter of pride. And if he's slipping us false goods, he's confident in them. What were the tales of him in the halls of your youth, wife?”
Nili said, “The rumours in the Blue Mountains were that he is Elf-kin. Not mortal, with the amount of time he's been in Eregion, from the tales. And Elves have squabbled among themselves before, over the Ages.” She shrugged and lifted her open hands. “Elf-kin with a grudge, perhaps? When he came to take Eregion's reckoning, his troops were mortal Men and goblins.”
“Proves me right again. Elves keep more mortal company than we do, but they do not stoop to Orcs. And never have the Elves given us weregild. Annatar treats us with honour, and bows to our word.”
“When he is not stooping to command Orcs,” said Nili. She added, neutrally, “Remember, the Elves and West-Men together only fended him off. Even if we do not want to take oaths with him, we may not want him as an enemy. Perhaps there are new treasures in the Southlands?”
Bolin nodded. “I wouldn't be surprised, between his armour and his offer. We lost few warriors on Khazad-Dûm's doorstep. But enough rumours and hearsay. Let us see what tale his treasure tells.”
Before Bolin could open the casket he held, Nili flicked open the first, largest chest. They both paused in unexpected delight – not at the brilliance of metal, but at the felt and leather bags. “Maybe this treasure has merit after all,” Nili breathed, hopefully. Bolin nodded. Every dwarf knew that orcs and dragons, as signs of their evil, piled their hoards heedlessly, letting treasures and gems scratch one another. Good folk took proper care of fine work.
Bolin put down the casket to take a grey bag out of the greatest chest. It held a chalice of silver and garnets, unfamiliar and graceful. Another bag pleased them more, for it held the mate to that chalice, and the pair together had greater value than one alone. “One for you, and one for me,” said Bolin, handing it to Nili.
Her ruddy cheeks dimpled as she grinned and gave him a mocking toast, weighing the cup in her hand as she did so. “Silver to the core.”
Bolin had turned to the second chest; it was full of even bags of identical design. He slid one open. It held a long, slender ingot of gold. The moment she lay eyes on it, Nili said, “Ah, no!”
“What? The metal is not false – it weighs true in my hand,” said Bolin.
“Just as bad. Blood-treasure!” Nili pointed to the graceful marks that stamped the ingot. “The mark of Eregion. That makes this loot from the allies of our allies.” Nili frowned. “Annatar does not know us well, if he thinks this is acceptable.”
Bolin looked unhappily at the chest. Then, he dug into its depths to pull out another of the bags. Opening it, he said, “This one's the same. Curses.” Bolin chucked the bag down, his back straightening with offended honour. Returning to the silver cup, he inverted it, and handed it to Nili, silently.
Nili grunted. “The maker's mark of Eregion here, too.”
Bolin allowed himself a sigh. “You are worth your bride-hoard, Nili. If this is from Eregion's sack, it explains the first chest's craft all too well. The Elves there made many goods to please a Dwarvish eye.” He turned to the casket. “We'll see if the last one has anything as dubious.”
Most of the weight was in the iron-bound casket itself. It held one thing only: a ring, wrapped, oddly, in a piece of ragged black leather. Bolin plucked it from its dark nest and turned it in his hand.
Nili leaned in. “That does not look to be of Elvish make…Dwarvish down to the shank. Nor have I ever seen a stone cut like that. An alexandrite; no wonder it is a treasure separate.”
Bolin peered at it closely as he held it. “New as the day it was made. Not a nick or scratch to the gold or the stone. A strange piece – wait, it is graven. In our language!” Inside the band, in the Cirth runes used by Dwarves and Elves alike, was a phrase in the Dwarvish tongue: Bolin read it aloud. “SEVEN FOR THE DWARF-LORDS. It speaks of our Seven Kindreds! A phrase from Durin's day, yet the jewel is virgin. How did Annatar come by this?”
Admiring the solid work and strong lines, Bolin slid it on the index finger of his right hand, the only digit not already burdened with a jewel. “Ah. A perfect fit. I agree; dwarf-make, for certain.” And Bolin paused.
The glint of the greenish gem had pierced his heart. He was a king among his folk; his own hoard was mighty, and he had seen thousands of fair works in his time. And so he thought he recognized the gold-lust that the perfect jewel roused in him. He craved to wear the well-balanced band again, and would have stripped off the other jewels he wore to barter for it, if need be. For to possess it, he felt, would be to have a treasure beyond desiring, and with that secure in his heart, he could manage the rest of his kingdom's hoard wisely.
Nili was speaking. Bolin forced himself to attend. She was pacing in her irritation. “This Annatar strives to deal with us as Dwarves do, but he is no Dwarf, to bring us a tainted hoard. Who knows what curse the Elves laid on it?”
Bolin frowned. Well aware that he should reject all of the ill-gotten treasure before him, he compromised by caging the ring in his hand. “I agree. We do not want to be the next ones Annatar betrays. And, cursed or no, if the Elves find out we have the treasures of their kin, that might begin another war.” They both nodded. This made perfect sense, considering how Elves had acted in the past. “At same time…perhaps it is wise to not offend Annatar wholly by sending away all this treasure.”
Nili looked at him sharply.
“The great chests, beyond Durin's doubt, but this?” Bolin held up the ring. “I say we keep this ring, which belongs with our people, being our make. Annatar has a grain of wisdom, to tender it back to us.” Nili opened her mouth to protest, but Bolin said, softly, “I would no sooner send one of our people's children off with a stranger, than to send this returned making of ours away.”
His wife softened, then grew thoughtful. “How to work that, hm? Ah! Say we keep this as a sign of appreciation for the gesture, and to show we are open to negotiations that are in keeping with our customs – which do not include accepting the spoils of war, or crossing our existing allies. We'll see what this Annatar says to that.”
Nili went to summon the guards and the too-agreeable Annatar. When her back was turned, Bolin tugged the rings off one of the fingers on his left hand, and slid on the ring Annatar had brought. It fit there, too, even better than before.
Bolin still had a moment to dip into the middle chest of rejected treasure. One of those bars of gold, he thought, would be perfect to make a box for the magnificent ring. Swiftly, he pocketed the ingot he had rejected before, then shut the lid and resumed the throne.