Celebrimbor was beginning to regret coming to Moria.
He had now spent two whole hours arguing for admittance at the West gate of Moria, and a further half in the hall just inside. The Dwarf Gorin, who had come to speak to him when he had said he desired to trade, had said he would return shortly; but half an hour had passed, and Celebrimbor was beginning to be distinctly impatient.
So much trouble, to do business with the Dwarves of Moria! One would think that they did not truly want to trade.
It wasn't that Gorin had been hostile - what Dwarf was, when confronted by a potential customer? - it was just that there seemed to be so much ceremonial to go through before he could so much as speak to any of Gorin's precious craftsmen. Especially being forced to wait in the near-dark while Gorin did whatever he was doing, being watched with unashamed curiosity by the three Dwarf-guards on the main door.
He wondered what they saw: a tall, angular, elongated being, perhaps, with pale skin and grey eyes, hairless save for the sleek near-black hair of his head. But what was he to them? A typical arrogant Elf? A potential customer? Or just a minor break from the dull routine of standing guard. Nobody ever entered from the West, after all, to judge by the unkempt appearance of the hall and guard-house.
Gorin chose that moment to reappear, bringing another Dwarf with him.
"This is Narvi, of my brother Norin's house," he said, in the most pompous way he could manage. "He shall be your guide."
Perhaps that meant that he would finally be free of Gorin son of Borin's unbearable long-windedness. Gorin, who was head of the Guild of Craftsmen, or some similar dignitary, had made it quite clear that handling potential customers - even if they be Elven-Lords - was far, far beneath him. Celebrimbor could not quite bring himself to be sorry for the fact.
The young Dwarf was pushed towards him, and Celebrimbor examined him with curiosity. He was little acquainted with Dwarves and their ways, but to his eyes, Narvi seemed very young indeed. He was short even in comparison with Gorin, and his thick dark hair was not plaited but merely tied back from his face in a stubby knot on the back of his head. The half-grown beard was but an inch long, soft and fluffy rather than the long wiry thicket the elder Dwarf sported. But more than that, he had that awkward, callow uncertainty that seemed to be common to adolescents of all races.
They'd sent him a child to be his guide round these halls. It was a clear, calculated insult: Gorin clearly did not wish him to get ideas above his station.
"Narvi son of Norin at your service," the Dwarf-child said truculently. It did not sound much like a greeting.
"Celebrimbor of Eregion - at yours and your family's," Celebrimbor replied, and even attempted the bow. He had learnt that much at least, by now.
"Ah good. Then I will leave you to your purchases, Celebrimbor son of Curufin. Good day to you." Gorin strode away purposefully, with Narvi staring balefully in his wake, muttering something in Khuzdul under his breath. It did not sound like a blessing.
"Follow me," he said without any attempt at airs and graces. "The market halls are this way."
Celebrimbor followed him, down a passage that seemed to lead North-East, his eyes flickering curiously round the arched ceilings and elaborately carved walls. There was skill here, that was for sure -skill such as few even of his own stone-wrights possessed. He felt a moment of awe that such a plain people could bring forth such fine workmanship, and then felt guilty for judging them so.
He followed Narvi through what seemed like many halls in silence. The Dwarf did not seem in the least inclined to talk, and his silence was starting to make Celebrimbor uneasy.
"I hope I have not taken you from your lessons," he said to Narvi, whose face was set in a sullen frown.
"No." The syllable was scornful. "I get all these chores. They won't let me do lessons now."
"Will they not? Whyever would that be?"
Narvi glanced at him sharply, as if he half suspected mockery, and then gave a bark of humourless laughter. "Father took me on as an apprentice. He's a mason, and he's not bad." It might have been intended as praise - Celebrimbor couldn't tell. "Apprentice's work is easy. I've passed all the tests already, three months since. But I've got to stay an apprentice until I'm of age. They won't let me start on journeyman's work."
"Oh? How old are you?" It was only once the question was asked that Celebrimbor stopped to ponder whether it was a polite question to ask a Dwarf, but Narvi seemed to have no scruples about answering.
"Forty-seven." His voice rose indignantly. "I've got to wait three years before they let me do any proper carving. And I'm better than Nar, and he's been journeyman for four years now. Nar's my older brother," he added by way of explanation.
"It may be there is more to it than you know. There often is, when first you learn a subject."
"There is," the boy said gloomily. "I just wish they'd let me learn-" He stopped, suddenly, probably recollecting that telling a stranger his people's faults might not endear him to Gorin. "This way," he muttered, turning down a side passage, his cheeks shining red under the light of the torches. "It's not far."
Celebrimbor came out of the first of the booths, uncomfortably conscious that he was sweating profusely, in a manner most unbecoming to an Elven Lord.
Why had nobody warned him? To resolve to do trade with the Dwarves was all well and good - but to have to bargain over every single little thing, even down to packets of nails? It seemed too peculiar to be credited.
He sighed. He was feeling altogether too hot and bothered now to think clearly, and very conscious that he was no longer sure of the value of anything. This was not a good state of mind in which to be negotiating with Dwarves.
He leaned against the wall for a moment, uncomfortably conscious of the many eyes on him. The hall was crowded, with buyers and sellers both - short, squat figures in clothes of coarse wool or leather, many of them wearing sleeveless coats of mail as if they were among enemies rather than their own people. A disproportionate number of them were staring at him.
To Celebrimbor's untutored eye, they seemed all alike, with their bearded faces and dark, deep eyes. It was just in their hair they varied. There were as many shades of brown in their hair as there were stars in the sky. It could be pale as straw or dark as loam, any of the colours of earth or rock or wood. They were starting to make him feel distinctly nervous.
Rather belatedly, he endeavoured to pull himself together. If he was going to have to do this again over every little thing he enquired about, it wasn't a good idea to show weakness in front of them. Narvi's reaction had been humiliation enough.
The young Dwarf had spent the whole bargaining session leaning nonchalantly against the rocky side of the booth with his arms folded across his chest. He had kept his eyes fixed firmly on the ceiling, which was hung thickly with tools of all kinds, and his body language had stated very clearly, 'This person has nothing to do with me.'
"Well ... that was embarrassing, wasn't it?" Narvi was back again, his face as sullen as ever. He seemed to get some kind of twisted pleasure from Celebrimbor's discomfort. "You people don't make a habit of haggling, do you?"
"Well ... no."
"We just don't. Among our people, the artisan charges what the goods are worth, and the buyer pays it."
"Without question?" Narvi's face was incredulous.
"Yes. No Elf would dream of bargaining for goods - and we would not dream of charging too much deliberately. We trust each other. It is the Elven way."
Narvi looked horrified. "You can't do that here. They would bankrupt you."
"So I see," Celebrimbor said weakly. This was ridiculous. He couldn't do this. Maybe he'd buy the rest of his tools somewhere else. There had to be other places nearby. If only he could buy mithril elsewhere...
He became aware of Narvi's face staring up at him intently. "You haven't changed your mind, have you? Only I'll have to tell Gorin and..."
It seemed cowardly to admit that he had been contemplating it, and even more cowardly not to admit it. Judging by the nervous look on Narvi's face, Gorin would not be pleased at the idea of a potential customer being scared off.
If he backed out now, he would be alienating his people from their nearest neighbours. He would be making it harder for them to find good tools and raw materials. He would be unable to learn more about the Dwarves, and the remarkable skills they possessed.
Not to mention the fact that he could wave goodbye to the chance of ever getting his hands on any mithril.
He became aware that Narvi was still staring up at him. "I could teach you how, if you want." The Dwarf-boy sounded suddenly very young and uncertain. "It isn't hard."
"You know how? To haggle?" But he's only a child, Celebrimbor thought. Surely nobody would expect children to haggle for goods.
Narvi scowled at him, interpreting his incredulity as a slight on his skills. "My mother taught me. She's good."
Celebrimbor hesitated only for an instant. "I would be glad of your help, master Narvi."
It won him a smile - a genuine one - from the child, transforming the youthful face from its habitual sullenness into something bright and warm, like an eager flame. "Then follow me. We can't do this here."
He led Celebrimbor down a side passage, and then down another, and Celebrimbor guessed that they were heading north. "Where are you taking me?" he asked curiously. It seemed improper, that he, a visitor, should be left alone with a child of another race, without any to oversee them.
"Somewhere quieter. Nobody ever comes this way." Narvi stopped for an instant, and untied a lantern that was attached to his belt, and lit it. "There's just the old workings down here. They don't light these paths, so we must go carefully."
There were no elaborate carved walls here. It was all crude rock tunnels, sturdily built but basic, the floor thick with chips of rock.
"This one's mine." Narvi turned suddenly down a passageway to the left, which proved to be a dead end roughly fifty yards in length. He held the lantern up, sliding it onto a hook in the wall, and Celebrimbor looked around him in amazement. It was not a simple bare passageway like the ones round it, for the uneven walls had been smoothed out painstakingly, and in many places the walls had been intricately carved. A practice area, he realised, and a well-used one. No wonder he had finished his apprenticeship with three years to spare.
Narvi watched him look around at the walls and scowled, the adolescent awkwardness making a sudden resurgence. "I had to practice somewhere," he said defensively. "And noone ever comes down here."
Celebrimbor wandered over to the end of the tunnel, which was framed with a complex symmetrical design of spirals. "I did not think Dwarves used spirals in their carvings."
Narvi sniffed. "It's too fancy," he said disparagingly. "But good practice for curves. Most of our lot can't do curves. They say plain lines are more suited to stone, but they're just lazy. Plain lines are just easier." The words were spoken with all the intolerance of gifted youth.
"But you did that - and it is fine work." Celebrimbor ran his fingers along the lines of the large central spiral, marvelling at the intricacy and smoothness of the carving. It must have taken many hours ... and in spite of Narvi's sullen words it must have taken great love and much care, to produce something so fine.
Narvi shrugged. "You just have to know the rock, that's all. It only takes patience."
Celebrimbor did not notice the Dwarf had gone rather pink, for he was still running his fingers along the spirals on the walls. There were mistakes, it was true ... small chips missing, particularly in the upper right-hand corner, which Celebrimbor guessed had been the first section attempted - but there was the beginnings of real skill there. Give him fine tuition and a hundred years...
It was a shame, really, that the child had been born a mortal. Two hundred years, maybe three hundred, and then he would be dead and gone, able to create no more beauty. Only his works would remain to speak of him, and they too, gradually, would be withered by the ravages of time.
He turned back and examined Narvi anew... the soft young face, the thick, dark brown hair, which glinted copper where the torch-light caught it, the uncertain eyes, wide and dark, and the worn, hardened hands. There was something about the almost-adult face that-
Really, his thoughts were beginning to verge on the inappropriate. About a Dwarf too ... and an underage Dwarf at that.
He managed to turn his eyes away just as Narvi's impatient tutting broke through his musings. "Is there some problem? Do you wish to learn haggling or do you not?"
"My apologies, Narvi," Celebrimbor said softly. He turned back to his companion and perched himself delicately on a pile of folded dust sheets beside the boulder that Narvi was using as a seat. "I would not see you in trouble with your uncle. Let us begin."
"Very well." Narvi paused a moment to marshal his thoughts. "It's very simple. If you must buy from us, the first thing you must forget is the notion that all things have a 'right' price. Goods are only worth what the buyer is willing to pay for them. No more, no less."
Celebrimbor felt a little shocked. "That seems rather amoral," he said softly.
"It is our way. We charge high prices because we expect the customer to beat us down. It is a sport to us. We all know the rules, and abide by them."
"But pity the poor stranger who comes among you."
That earned him a grim smile from the youth. "Poor stranger must learn fast, if they would not be poor in earnest."
"Very well, then. So what should this poor stranger do, if he is not to be destitute by even?"
"Decide a price before you start, and then name a figure lower. And always be ready to walk away, should the price become higher than you will pay. Do not let them read your thoughts on your face - and never let them know how much money you have brought." Narvi counted the points out on his fingers, and Celebrimbor, watching his hands, noticed that they were already callussed and work-hardened, in spite of his youth. "And whatever you do, do not seem too keen to buy, or the price will mysteriously rise."
"So if you would kill for something ... you must be careful not to let them know it."
Narvi gave a twisted smile, as if he found the suggestion amusing, and Celebrimbor could have sworn there was something mischievous in his expression. "Not at all. If you are willing to kill for something ... then bargaining is simple. Just be sure you have your axe to hand - and they do not."
Celebrimbor laughed out loud. "A most valuable lesson. I shall remember it well. Though I cannot help but think it would be simpler to employ you to bargain for me."
Narvi laughed at that, and the sound was warm and rich. "Employ me? You could not afford my services."
"Name your price, Narvi Norinsson." Celebrimbor flung out the challenge recklessly, before he could think better of it. There was nothing like practice, after all.
Narvi rose to the challenge immediately. "Five silver pieces per transaction."
"Five! For an untried youth! I would give you two, if you proved proficient."
"An untried youth? Were I of age, I could charge you ten! And I could not possibly accept less than five silver pieces."
"Then I would be better to buy for myself, and pay the asking price, unreasonable as it is."
"You do me wrong! I would save you twice that sum at least, on each sale. But I will accept four silver pieces per transaction - as a token of my good faith."
"Make it three, and I will gladly retain your services."
"Alas! I cannot possibly accept less than three and a half."
"Three and a half? Then we have our deal."
"Done!" Narvi shouted, laughing. "Though you should have quibbled more before you agreed to the final price." He sighed, and wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes. "Did you decide upon that sum before you began?"
"I did, my friend," Celebrimbor said with more than a touch of pride. "Do you think I am fit to bargain for myself now?"
Narvi paused, but it was clearly for calculated effect rather than genuine doubt. "Maybe. You will not disgrace yourself - if you keep your head." He paused, and glanced up at Celebrimbor, his face alight with mischief. "Now tell me," he said. "Did you not enjoy that?"
"You know that I did, insolent whelp." Celebrimbor stood up, pulling Narvi to his feet as he did so. "Now take me back to the market before I lose the knack of it and embarrass you once more."
"At once, my Lord! But do not forget you are in my debt now."
"I have not forgotten it - though I do not know if I dare ask your price."
"I don't want-" Narvi broke off suddenly, as if unable to name what he did want, and Celebrimbor could see emotions unreadable warring in his face.
Whatever they were, they clearly reached a deadlock, for Narvi said no more but set his face and pressed on.
"Then may I suggest a payment?" A doubtful look was all the answer he received. He took it as permission to speak further. "If I were to give you an open invitation to visit the Elves of Eregion, and speak with the masons among my people-"
"Done!" The offer was snatched from him before he had finished uttering it. "Master Elf-Lord... we have a deal."
TO BE CONTINUED
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Story notes: A/N: Thanks to Arachne (AlsoA on ff.net) for some inspired beta-ing!
The geography here predates the Watcher in the Water, and the Sirannon is still the vigorous stream that Gandalf reminisces about in FotR.
A slight slip-up - the patronymic for Dwarvish names was the suffix -ul, whereas I've used the more Scandinavian -sson. My excuse is, the -ul is Khuzdul, so they use the Nordic form before strangers for reasons of secrecy.
I have also slipped up foodwise, as I was under the firm impression that Cram was a Dwarvish food, and now find that we're told in The Hobbit that it was made by the Men of Dale, with no suggestion from the Dwarves' reaction that the recipe was originally theirs. Call it amnesia auctoris (creative licence).
I have tried dried beef, incidentally, and it is a little like eating very thick, stringy leather.