"So, young Narvi."
Gorin paused ponderously, and Narvi choked down the desire to scream profanities at him. Gorin had already said everything he might conceivably want to say on the subject, and said it all at least thrice, not to mention a great many other things that were at best parenthetical and at worst utterly irrelevant.
Gorin did not wish him to come - that much was plain. In fact, had he not feared losing potential custom from the Elven community, he would probably have forbidden him outright. But one did not deny Elven-Lords with gold to spend, however strange their whims; and Lord Celebrimbor himself had requested that Narvi be included in the party of Dwarves due to visit Eregion at the next new moon. Gorin had spent the last hour laying down a long, long list of strictures on him: do not accept any favour from them, do not speak to them of Dwarvish matters, do not speak Khuzdul within their earshot, make no promises to them etc. etc. etc. Narvi had stopped listening long before. He was to be a guest of Elves... it was a matter half of wonder, half of fear, and he could not decide between them.
A full month had now passed since Celebrimbor had come to Khazad-dum, a month which seemed to have been designed to drive Narvi up the exquisitely carved walls with frustration. A large and urgent order had come into the workshop, and all available hands had been set to work on it, working long into the nights to see the job done. He had been the youngest of the crew, stuck doing the kind of basic stone-hewing that any amateur with a pick-axe could have attempted - alternating with the even more menial work of carting away the rubble and dust from his colleagues' work.
There had been no time for other pursuits - no time for more than snatching a few hours of sleep before beginning the work anew. Narvi had found it frustrating beyond words.
His home life had scarcely been better, with his youngest brother teething, and wailing and crying all the night long, and making such a racket that Narvi defied any being to sleep through it. Last night, finally, he had been driven to distraction by it, and abandoned the family home to take refuge in 'his' deserted mine-tunnel, with a stolen jug of his father's best beer to keep him company. He had swathed himself in the dust-sheets to sleep, his back to the carved rock walls, and waited for sleep to overtake him in the silence.
But even there, he had been unable to rest.
He had taken the Elf-Lord there - there, to his deserted tunnel no other Dwarf had yet seen - and it seemed as though somehow the Elf-Lord's presence still lingered there, ancient and knowing in the darkness.
He had seen the spirals, and he had understood. Narvi had never in a million years expected that.
He had looked at the Elf-Lord's hands on their first meeting, as was his wont, and found them smooth and uncallussed, seemingly unstained by any toil. No artisan could possess such hands, surely - and to any not versed in the works of hands, the carvings would surely have meant nothing. The tunnel should have been nothing more than a convenient secluded spot, while he mastered the quite babyishly simple art of haggling for goods.
But he had seen the spirals, and he had understood.
Narvi had been unable to do more than watch in bewildered silence as the Elf-Lord had traced the curved lines with his fingers - even the shoddy top-right whorls that had given him such trouble - his bright face solemn and still.
And then he had turned and gazed at Narvi, and it had been his eyes ... his eyes as he had turned away from the carving, the grey irises dark and thoughtful, and almost remote, dwelling on Narvi's face as though trying to discern its meaning...
Who are you, Narvi Norinsson, those eyes had seemed to say. What are you, that you create such beauty and hide it in the darkness? And what will you someday be?
He spoke like an artisan - but who ever met an artisan with such hands?
When Narvi had finally slept that night, after long hours of restlessness, his dreams had been disturbing, haunted by the pale, unfamiliar face and the touch of that hand in his, as the Elf-Lord had pulled him to his feet. Smooth and cool as a river-washed stone, neither soft nor hard, but firm and strong. For some reason he remembered the feel of that hand in his extremely clearly-
"... won't you, Narvi?"
Narvi returned to the present with an unpleasant jolt. "Wha-?"
"My dear boy!" There was a bite of impatience in Gorin's voice. "You haven't been listening to a word I have been saying - and he will be here shortly to meet you."
Narvi lowered his eyes, trying to look properly penitent, and not in the least irritable.
"What I was saying, was that I am permitting you to accompany our party to Eregion on one basis, and one basis only."
That again, thought Narvi darkly - but he was wrong.
"You are going in order to find out as much as you can about Lord Celebrimbor and his fellow-artisans, and you will tell me what you discover. And particularly their artisans, and what techniques they use. Do I make myself plain?"
Had he been less furious, Narvi might have noted that it was the plainest he had ever heard his uncle speak. "You want me to be a spy," he said contemptuously. "In defilement of my status as a guest of their lord."
No, this was not the first time - far from it. It was generally acknowledged that Gorin played politics far better than he hewed stone; but now? With the Elves? And Gorin had the nerve to involve him in his schemes!
Narvi narrowed his eyes, trying to stare his uncle down. To his mind there was no crime more filthy than the stealing of another worker's techniques. But Gorin was a mediocre jobsworth where actual labour was concerned - he would hardly respect the niceties of craftsmanship.
"No," Gorin said, with maddening patience, as to a simpleton. "I merely want you to behave yourself and keep your eyes open - and your mouth shut. Now come, for your noble acquaintance will doubtless be awaiting us."
He gave Narvi no time to answer. He rose, and gestured to Narvi to follow him out of the door, seemingly oblivious to his nephew's desperate attempts to reason with him.
And what am I supposed to be spying for, Narvi asked himself bitterly, lengthening his steps to keep up with Gorin's longer stride. For my King? For the Guild of Artisans? Or to help Gorin Borinsson to line his pockets with gold?
"Mind how you go, lad."
Narvi did not answer the guard, for he was too busy blinking furiously, trying to adapt his eyes to the daylight. The world above ground was far, far brighter than it had any right to be, and Narvi could only squint around him, looking vainly for the other four members of the Dwarven party. In fact he was temporarily as blind as a bat.
He had had to turn back, and that had been his undoing. His night of broken sleep in the tunnel had woken him too late to return home for his pack and cloak, and he had had to take a long detour to fetch them, losing sight of Gorin in the process. His haste, alas, had left him with no time to accustom himself to the harsh light of the world's surface, and he had raced blindly through the doors and only then realised his folly. He had only walked the surface at night before. Walking above ground in summer at noon was a very different matter.
He reached for the rocky wall to guide him, trying to find his way along the West Wall, but he had gone but five paces along, when he missed his footing and stumbled, sliding sideways down the bank of the Sirannon and into the water, landing heavily on his backside.
He climbed to his feet, muttering some words which broke both his uncle's prohibition on speaking Khuzdul and his father's admonitions about politeness, and started to wade towards the bank. If anyone dared to laugh at him-
The bank of the stream was slippery with mud - he presumed from his graceless descent into the water - and he climbed carefully onto it, squinting down at his feet. Around him, the sunlight refracted from the surface of the water in bright sparks and spots, dazing and dazzling him, and bewildering his sense of balance.
Once again he lost his footing, and cursed loudly.
"Steady there." He felt a hand grasp his shoulder, and felt himsef being steered swiftly to firmer ground. He glanced up instinctively at a pale blur that was certainly none of his Dwarvish companions, and then blinked and looked away. The sky around the Elf's head was perilously bright.
"Oh, it's you," he said crossly, annoyed at being caught thus. He shut his eyes but even eyelids seemed but scant protection against the light.
"And hail and well met to you too, Narvi, son of Norin. Celebrimbor of Eregion at your service."
Narvi muttered something semipolite in reply, mortified that even the Elf-Lord had seen his idiot descent into the water. Why did he have to be so insufferably light-hearted at a time like this?
"Come now! Could you not use that thick hood of yours to shade your eyes, until you grow accustomed to the light?" Narvi opened his mouth to inform the Elf-Lord that the hood was for ceremonial purposes only, and that its use was strictly proscribed by ancient custom, when he remembered that one of the ordained circumstances for its use was for when travelling among untrusted strangers. He thought for a moment of Gorin and his sordid schemes, and then of the other Dwarves (probably gathered nearby), who were doubtless watching him closely. Let them say what they wanted! There was only one untrustworthy person here. He cast the hood over his head, his thoughts angry.
Much as it would have pained him to admit, the hood helped instantly. It was of thick, dark grey wool, through which the light penetrated but meanly, and he could draw it far over his eyes, shading them from the bright sky above.
"That is better, is it not? Now let us rejoin your fellows, for we must soon be off."
Narvi nodded curtly, and slunk quickly over to where Gorin and the other Dwarves were standing. There were sniggers as he arrived, but he glared at the sniggerers until they ceased. At Gorin and Celebrimbor he did not look.
"Ah ... hmmm. Celebrimbor Curufinsson. Let me apologies for my nephew's undignified antics. Most irresponsible child. I hope he will not cause us further trouble."
Narvi gritted his teeth, just refraining from uttering some words that would certainly have seen him sent home in disgrace. He could feel himself going red, and shuffled a little further into the background, earning himself a suspicious glare from Hrín Hrársdottir, the sole Dwarf-lady of the party.
"It makes no matter," Celebrimbor said lightly. "All are ready now, are they not?"
"Aye, they are." As the party began to make its way towards the mouth of the valley, Gorin paid his nephew a backward glance that was almost certainly meant as a glare, had he been able to meet Narvi's covered eyes. "The rest of your party await us?"
"Perhaps two miles hence, where there is grazing for our horses."
Narvi managed a vindictive smile at the expression that appeared on Gorin's face. Shock, consternation and fear.... It would serve Gorin right, every bit of it, if he had to jolt the whole way there on horseback.
"Horses? Are we to ride on horseback to Eregion?"
Celebrimbor gave a light laugh at that. "Fear not! We shall not ask it of you. No, the horses bore us coming, but we shall go on feet as we return."
The way was easy at first, for they followed the course of the Sirannon, and it wove a simple path down the moutainside, too gentle for waterfalls or rapids. The faint breezes on his face were gentle and cool, and though Narvi had been but little acquainted with the world above-ground he recognised in the air the scent of living things. Now that his eyes were growing used to the light of a summer's day, he could make out the beauty of the mountains around him, and the long valley stretching out below them, green with grass, darkened by the outcrops of rock and the many clusters of the holly bushes.
But for his roiling temper and his wet clothes, the sight would have been blessed indeed. He was still in yesterday's clothes as it was -the coarse brown shirt and dungarees of a stonemason, with the incongruously fine travelling cloak flung over the top - and the combined bulk of river-water and stonedust made the garments stiff and unwieldy, chafing his legs and slowing his steps as he fought to keep up with the remainder of the party.
It had been little more than half an hour of walking when the other Elves - and their horses - came into view. They were a party of six, two still mounted, four standing. The four were like Celebrimbor in appearance: dark of hair and pale of face, dressed in fine fabrics and silver jewellery. The two were different: their clothes were plain and faded, of the browns and greens that would blend in best with the hills about them. Their hair was pale and braided, their faces tanned, and they carried bows and knives. Brought as guards, Narvi presumed, and surmised that they were of lower birth than the rest.
Celebrimbor halted, and spoke to them for a moment, before leading each forward to make introductions. Narvi listened closely, but the outlandish Elven names meant nothing to his ear and were almost instantly forgotten. He did note, though, that all four were introduced as smiths, and like Celebrimbor their hands were unmarked and smooth. The archers' hands were not so, though they were marked only lightly with the callusses typical of the trade. Narvi frowned, forgetting his anger for a moment as he endeavoured to read the riddle of those hands.
"The day is fine," he heared Celebrimbor say to the party at large, "and there will be eight hours yet until sunset. Let us stop and eat before we begin the bulk of our journey."
Narvi took himself a way off from the rest of the party, and sat down. He pushed the hood of his cloak back before he allowed himself to think about the action's implications, and was relieved to find that the Sun's light was no longer an assault upon his senses. pulling off his pack and searching for food. Cram and dried beef, he noted without enthusiasm - and it would probably not have been worth the eating before it had been submerged in the Sirannon. He started to chew without enthusiasm, watching Gorin corner Celebrimbor as the latter sat down. The Elf-Lord greeted him politely, but without enthusiasm, and Narvi saw Gorin launch into what appeared to be a long explanatory speech, leaning forward slightly and gesticulating expansively. Celebrimbor seemed to be listening politely and inscrutably, displaying no hint of restlessness or ennui.
He had no inkling that Gorin would take advantage thus of his hospitality.
And why, Narvi asked himself angrily, should it matter to me? He is not my kin - he is not even a Dwarf! I am under no obligation to him, save that of a guest to his host-
The thought broke off angrily, and Narvi bit savagely into his piece of dried beef, using his teeth to tug the strands of desiccated flesh apart. It was he - Narvi - who was being asked to betray the Elf-Lord's hospitality, not Gorin. No! Gorin would keep his hands scrupulously clean.
Mahal keep him from doing his own foul work, Narvi thought moodily. He was kind to me! He does not deserve to be treated like that.
Kind! And what was kindness beside the ties of race and kin? Nothing. It made no bargain. It begat no contract or obligation. Then why -why by all the rocks of the earth - was the prospect of betrayal so hateful?
Because he treated me as though I was real. Nobody else does that.
And what of that? How do you know that is not just the Elven way? How do you know he does not treat all creatures like that?
Narvi sighed angrily, and thrust the remains of his food back into his pack, lacing it up firmly. Maybe he should turn back pleading an urgent errand.
A sudden shadow fell across him, and he glanced up to see the Elf-Lord approach him. He looked beyond to see Gorin deep in talk with one of the other Elves (the one, Narvi noted instinctively, who wore the richest robes). The other three Dwarves were sitting stubbornly together, not mixing with the remaining Elves.
Celebrimbor seated himself silently beside beside Narvi, his slender, unmarked hands resting on his knees. Once more, Narvi found himself staring at them in spite of himself.
The Elf-Lord would not want him to turn back.
He would if he knew.
"Escape at last," Celebrimbor said lightly, breathing what was unmistakeably a sigh of relief. "I thought your good uncle would never cease his talk. Not even the Eldar can talk so much, and to so little purpose. But Elendir nobly stepped in to take my place, for he is as fond of talk of business as Gorin seems to be."
Narvi mumbled something indistinct, which Celebrimbor clearly took for agreement. He stretched his long legs out before him and stared into the West, out over the valley before them and beyond.
Narvi watched him curiously for a moment, trying to make sense of what he saw.
The Elf-Lord was clad in a tunic of deep blue linen, worn over silver-grey hosen and light boots. Unlike his companions, he wore no jewellery or adornment of any kind, and his straight hair - not quite black - shone bright where the light of the sun caught it. It was not Dwarvish habit to apply the concept of beauty to living things, but for an instant Narvi saw him through a stone-mason's eyes, and registered the symmetry of the long body, the fineness and delicacy of the lines of the face, the flawless texture of the pale, even-coloured skin.
It was a most disconcerting feeling - to see a living being as a work of art. It made him want to reach out and touch -
And that was an even more disturbing thought.
Troubled, he turned his attention to the more prosaic matter of his wet boots. He had ignored them thus far, though they were unpleasant and uncomfortable on his feet, so he began to unlace them - before remembering that removing boots in front of a stranger was yet another thing that should not be done in polite society.
Feeling, if possible, further displeased with himself, he began to lace them up again.
"You have grown used to daylight now?" Celebrimbor asked him, seemingly coming out of his reverie. Narvi nodded shortly, and the Elf-Lord smiled down at him, his eyes far-away and thoughtful. "I should have remembered. It took me a whole half-hour, when I visited Khazad-dum, to grow accustomed to its caves. I should probably thank your uncle for delaying me so long."
Narvi said nothing to the mention of his uncle, but it was an effort. He looked down over the valley, with its yellow-green grass and dark holly bushes, and wondered what on earth he could possibly do. He could say nothing, and sacrifice his honour as a guest - or he could turn back and pay the penalty for disobedience to an elder. If he said aught to the Elf-Lord he would be betraying the confidence of one of his kin, and if he refused to bring tales to Gorin he would be bringing trouble upon his father, whom everybody knew owed Gorin money. Every course of action offered him only shame and dishonour. A curse on your beard, Gorin! he thought vehemently. And may the fire-damp singe your bones!
By coming to the Elves' city he had accepted the bargain his uncle had offered him. He could not renege now without sacrificing both his honour and his pride. Nor could he be the guest of the Elf-Lord without breaking the code of hospitality - yet that was what he was being required to do.
He contemplated, briefly, taking a pick-axe to his uncle's head, but the thought gave him no satisfaction.
"Would it be an imposition to ask what troubles you?" Celebrimbor asked him softly, rousing him momentarily from his thoughts.
Of all the things life had thrown at him that day, kindness, it seemed, was the one he could least endure. He had to swallow heavily twice before he could speak, while Celebrimbor gazed out across the valley, his eyes fixed on the horizon with exemplary attentiveness to the horizon.
"I just wish he'd leave me alone," he muttered darkly.
"Who?" But how could he say who?
"Everyone." Celebrimbor's eyes were on him now, dark and thoughtful, questing and questioning on his face; and how could he withstand that gaze? "My uncle," he said sullenly. "But do not ask me to tell you more."
"I would not do so."
Narvi sighed, and then forced a laugh. "I swear, but for my father, I'd happily take his own axe to him."
Celebrimbor looked at him abruptly. "Do not speak such things!" he said sharply. "Not even in jest."
Narvi flinched away from him involuntarily, but it seemed the next second the anger was gone, and had left no trace. "Among my people, Narvi," he said mildly, "the slaying of kin is the most terrible of all crimes. Is it not so among the Naugrim?"
It had the sound of a truth half-told to Narvi's ear, but he did not question it. He had no right to pry after others' confidences, not after what Gorin was asking him to do. He would certainly not go out of his way to seek ammunition for Gorin's schemes, whatever they were this time.
"The slaying of a Dwarf-lady," he said. "Or of a master-artisan. Those are the crimes we hate the most."
He reached for his pack, and then changed his mind. If he was to wear wet boots, it mattered not whether his socks were wet or dry. "But do not fret over Gorin," he said scornfully. "I have no plan to harm him now or ever." Though I might reconsider that later, he added to himself firmly. And then, from an inexplicable urge to explain away his sullenness, "I ... beg pardon for my ill mood. I have had but little sleep of late."
"Oh? how so?"
"My youngest brother is teething - and it is all but impossible to sleep through his wailing." Any reason but the truth. He should probably not be saying even so much as that, he thought moodily. But he wanted to talk. He wanted more than anything not to think.
"Youngest? You are one of many?"
"The second of seven brothers."
Celebrimbor laughed, the sound high and delighted. "Seven brothers! Your mother must be industrious indeed! And you have no sisters?"
Narvi looked sharply across at him, not troubling to hide the scowl on his face. "It's not considered seemly to ask about the daughters of a house," he said shortly.
"Then accept my apologies. Clearly I have much still to learn about the customs of the Naugrim."
Narvi considered his words, feeling a little ashamed of his brusqueness. "It makes no matter. Our customs are strange to you, after all. I dare say you will have your revenge when I come among your people." He clambered to his feet, hoisting his pack across his shoulders. "I shall probably offend at every turn."
"Who can tell? I tried to introduce the noble art of haggling to the elders of my people - and they found it exceedingly strange and not at all to their liking. But you come to us as a stone-wright among stone-wrights - and one who shares their love of the craft will be welcomed anywhere.
No. Not if they knew what Gorin would have him do.
"Do you have many such among your people?" he asked suddenly, regretting his words the moment he had spoken.
I do not want information, he told himself angrily. I do not wish to know anything.
The Elf-Lord seemed to notice nothing amiss. "Not many. Most of us are workers of metal, as I am-" You? Narvi looked quickly across once more and inspected the pale Elven hands, but no signs of the smith's trade could he see. "-but we have some thirty stone-wrights, and perhaps fifty masons. We separate the hewing from the building, as I believe you do not."
Narvi shook his head. "No. No Dwarf would lightly trust his new-hewn stone to another for the building." A smith? A smith with such hands?
"We do not feel so, but we build much. But you will see in time ... Ost-in-Edhil we name our city, and we will reach it this day before the sun has set." Celebrimbor rose gracefully, and looking around Narvi noticed that others were doing the same, packing and making ready. "Are you ready now? For we have far to go this day."
Narvi nodded, and Celebrimbor smiled down at him and then returned to his kindred to begin mustering the party, seemingly unaware of the turmoil he was leaving behind him.
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