Chapter 1 — An Unexpected Death
The pelt master was dead. His hare hunt had been too long. In the northern winter, hunting everything with a white coat, he had only eaten hare and rabbit for weeks. Hanah had heard of the long-eared killer before. Some said it was superstition, that surely poisonous plants or berries had killed them; others had looked in the backpack of the various hunters laying stiff in the snow, noticed the fresh skins, and drawn the conclusion that too much rabbit could kill you. Nothing flourished on the moors except rabbits and their predators. Not to mention that no self-respecting pelt hunter would eat fermented, frozen berries rather than rabbit. This was how Hanah and her little sister Hemery found themselves orphaned at the ages of eighteen and twelve.
Their mother had died when Hemery was still an infant. Hanah and Hemery had spent more time in the workshop with their father than by the warm hearth of their mother. Their trousers were made of leather beneath their tunics, their supper of cold, smoked meat. Their backs were not strong enough for more than tightening a trap noose, but their hands were calloused and tough from pushing needles through animal hides.
Father told them stories about the mason and the houses he built with the hard gloves Hemery made; the smith and the weapons he forged with the fire resistant apron Hanah prepared; the dyed coat embroided with silver thread their father made for the landlord in town; and many more stories of all kinds of strange people Father had heard in his travels about elves and dwarves and kings and dragons and battles.
They did not grow tall or round faced, but when their father showed them the world through his words, Hanah and Hemery felt strong through the confidence and knowledge he shared, and tall enough to see it all like the bird sees the world from its branch in the pine.
Hanah did not feel strong or tall now. Father's strength had been just enough to get him home, collapse in his chair in front of the fire in the big room, and tell his daughters to unpack the frozen block of stacked skins and prepare them, before shutting his eyes in exhaustion. When they tried to raise him for supper, he did not stir. Hanah shovelled and hacked a shallow grave in the frozen slope behind the cottage and covered it with stones.
The sisters continued the habits they kept when their father had been away. Finished the orders, the gloves, the aprons, the boots, the bracelets. Went to market, collect on their work, took new orders. Bought salt, blades, and needles. Traded with the butcher for cattle skins. Went home again.
It was not unusual that the pelt master was not at the market at Blackwater Ridge with his daughters. The town was placed halfway between the Iron Hills and Erebor, surrounded by moors and woods where rabbit, fox, and wolf were common. He had always been busy, hunting, working. No one asked where he had gone. Hanah did not know what she would have answered if they had. They needed the coin that the work of the pelt master brought in. Would they still receive commissions if people knew that there was no pelt master? Hanah was young, but she was not stupid. No one would pay a girl and a child for anything more than bootlaces, that was sure and certain. But none asked, so she did not say.
Neither did Hemery. She turned very quiet after their father passed. Hanah did not blame her. She had reminded Hemery of what Father had said to her when Mother died, about the halls of their ancestors where their spirits travelled when they left their bodies. But Hanah did not remember the vivid details Father had provided. Where was this hall, and how did one get there? Hemery was not convinced. Hanah could imagine every piece of gold in a treasure guarded by a dragon she had never seen, picture every snowflake on top of the Iron Hills, but she could not explain death to her little sister.
Thus, a month passed.
Stark white bed linen covered the down mattress, but Hanah could feel one or two sharp feather pens through the fabric. She lay on her back, her tunic pulled up to her waist. Graham's breath was on her neck, his weight on her chest. A moment ago he had been a flurry of movement and passion. She had even been a bit curious herself. There had been a tingle in her belly when he kissed her neck, but by the time he had reached his destination—it was gone. The discomfort of his entry had made sure it stayed gone. Hanah thought the pain was only part of the first time. Perhaps it was normal. Or perhaps she was doing something wrong. Fortunately, he had not kept going for long.
Now he lay heavily upon her, as if asleep. The house was quiet, but Hanah could hear the busy street outside the window. Horse hooves, people shouting. Tiny grains of dust floated in the sunbeam shooting across the room. She had to return to the market stall soon. Hemery was waiting. She had been going to buy something for their midday meal when she had come upon Graham in the street. He had said he missed her and wanted to talk.
"When we're married," he began as he turned over on his back, "we can do this whenever we want. Don't have to hide."
"Mm." Hanah sat and put her trousers on. Then she pulled out the fastening in her hair to redo the braid.
"When will your father be back?" he asked.
"I don't know."
"I need to speak to him about ... arrangements. A lot has to be done before the wedding."
"How soon can we marry, do you think?"
"Not sure. Midsummer maybe?"
Hanah's heart sank. That was months from now.
"What if my father won't agree?" she asked.
She finished her hair and turned to look at him. "But what if he won't?"
He smiled. "We'll find a way. Don't worry." He sat up and kissed her, one hand finding her breast. She kissed him once and then pulled away.
"I have to go."
Hanah left the house of Graham's father on quick feet, but with a sick feeling in her stomach. She did not like lying to Graham about her father. While both fathers had agreed to the engagement, much of the traditions remained unperformed. She had hoped he would not need to be involved, but Graham kept asking to see him. She was afraid there would be problems or, even worse, the wedding cancelled if he was absent.
Graham was the son of the most prominent tradesman at Blackwater Ridge. When Hanah married him, she and her sister would be taken care of. Not that she wanted to leave her childhood home, but they were not safe. If people knew two girls lived alone at the edge of town—
She did not want to think about it. But when Hanah married, there would be no more worries about making ends meet, about living alone, no more sleepless nights. They would have protection.
As long as Hanah could keep Graham happy. She knew she had to keep him distracted until she could find a solution.
Hemery gave her a scrutinizing look when Hanah returned to their table in the marketplace.
"What?" Hanah asked innocently.
Her sister did not speak. As if able to see all of Hanah's dark deeds by the state of her dress and look on her face, Hemery's eyes seemed to discern and judge, silently. But of course, that was all in Hanah's mind. There was no way anyone could know how she submitted to Graham like a well-trained dog whenever he wanted her. No bark and no bite.
"I got fresh cheese," Hanah coaxed, producing a loaf of newly baked bread and soft cheese with herbs wrapped in paper.
"The landlady's maid was here," Hemery suddenly said, ignoring the offering.
Ice wrapped around her chest, but Hanah forced herself to show no reaction. "What did she want?"
"She said Father should remember to fulfill his contract by the end of the week if he likes to do business in this town."
Father's contract. She must have meant the coat he had been working on before . . . before he left. It was different to other coats he had made. Prepared carefully. Water resistant. He had even begun to decorate it with beads before . . . before. That was why he needed the rabbit furs, of course. The white against the tar black leather. It would be beautiful. But what was Hanah supposed to do?
Hanah's heart sank, but she smiled at Hemery.
"Rich people sure can afford to be cheeky, can't they?"
Hemery just looked at her.
"It's alright," Hanah said. "I'll finish it myself."
Hemery said nothing.
The coat. That was what Father had called it. But it was much more than that. Dyed black with the first stitches outlining a flowing pattern of silver thread and white beads that Hanah could see in her head would become the waves on a dark water, or stars in a deep black sky. The white rabbit fur for the inner lining, keeping the wearer warm in any season. That was why he was out for so long, she thought, to collect enough rabbit skins to cover the entire inside. She knew the potential of that coat. How it could be transformed into the finest piece she had ever seen. Made for something other than working. Made for standing tall with squared proud shoulders.
Hanah looked at it a long time every morning before starting to work on something else. Always something else. Father would be rolling over in his frozen grave if he knew how the coat sat untouched at his workbench. Unfinished, neglected. But she had not had the nerve to pick it up. She had so many alternatives, so many ideas on how to complete it. In the evening, in the firelight, she drew possible patterns, possible cuts. Drew on every paper in the house, paper that had been wrapped around meat and cheese they had bought at the market. She added paper to the shopping. But Hanah had never done anything like this before, and not bearing the thought that she might make a mistake and ruin Father's last commission, she had left it. Now, the day had come when she could put it off no longer. Despite the question ringing in her head—How in all of Arda could she do this in a week?—she had no choice.
When they got home from market that night, Hemery prepared supper and Hanah searched the workshop top to bottom for specifics on the coat. Measurements, designs, a receipt, anything. She found nothing, of course. Father rarely wrote anything down. Hanah herself could read very little. Signs above certain shops. Names of food—mutton, fish, bread. Materials—steel, iron, silver. Some numbers to keep account of sales. She did not know what came after a hundred hundreds, but she knew a pair of new leather boots were worth twenty-five silver coins. No more, no less.
She also knew people rarely asked for specifics when placing orders with Father. The creative choices already made to the coat were probably the only ones that were expected: the beading, the thread, and the fur. It would have to remain sleeveless, since she did not know the arm length. A slit at the back to allow for walking and riding would have to be cut from the bottom to at least half leg height. The beading would need to be sparer than she originally thought, no time to cover the entire upper body.
Over the next six days, no more trips were made to the market. Though the walk was short, Hanah refused to let Hemery go alone. Hanah herself would not leave the workshop for anything but food and sleep. She still spent a long time just looking at it every morning, going over the steps in her mind like a puzzle. Deciding and then rethinking the best course of action, like weaving the plan and tearing it up all over again.
When she came to the slit in the back, she measured it carefully to make sure it was centered and straight before taking the knife to the task with an apology to Father under her breath.
Hanah walked to the Big House with the coat carefully rolled up in layers of cotton and carried in a shoulder bag. Of course, it was supposed to be used without fear of tearing or ruining the decorations, but she was not taking any chances. The product was always supposed to be delivered in perfect condition. Hemery was close behind her.
Hanah stopped in the busy street outside the gate and turned to her sister.
"I want you to stay here."
"Cause I'll only deliver the order. I'll look like a beggar girl with no kin to mind her sister."
Hemery's eyes darkened, but she did not argue.
"I'm deliverin' the pelt master's order and gettin' paid,"Hanah explained. "He will want me back at the workshop as soon as possible, and I can't dawdle with a bairn on my heels."
"I'm not a bairn," Hemery protested this time.
"I know. But they don't." Hanah put a hand on her shoulder. "Stay here."
Hemery nodded. Hanah stepped through the gate. Horses and carriages were being prepared in the yard. Unusually many people around the Big House. Perhaps the landlord was planning a journey.
Straight forward was a large double door heading into the heart of the building, but Hanah chose the smaller door off to the side. She had come with Father on a few deliveries to big houses around Blackwater. She knew she was expected to use the servants' entrance.
Hanah knocked and was let in by a maid in a grey shapeless dress and a head cloth. She looked very proper and put together, Hanah thought, despite clearly being a maid, and Hanah became self-conscious of her own hair which was only long enough to braid into a plait from the top of her head to her shoulder. They did not own a looking glass, so she really had no way of knowing how it actually looked. But it was a windy, cold, early spring day, and she could feel stray hairs that had come loose tickling her face and neck, and not in charming locks either.
Her leather trousers were covered to the knees by a linen tunic which in turn was covered and bound by a leather vest and belt. It only accentuated her feel of being a wildling in this pristine household.
"I come with the order from the pelt master," Hanah declared.
The maid nodded in affirmation and left Hanah in the hallway connecting the kitchen to a big corridor leading to the main part of the house. Voices echoed toward her. She was able to make out "Lady Brage" and "trapper." Hanah did not want to eavesdrop, but how could she help but hear what was obviously the usual talk about her low craft without putting fingers in her ears and humming?
The maid appeared in the doorway. Hanah took this as a sign to follow. She was shown into what looked like a dining hall with red tapestries hanging from the ceiling, except that the long table was filled with papers, candles, quills and inkbottles as if it was a desk. Lady Brage sat at the table. Her hair was raven, but grey streaks shot from her temples into an intricately braided bun pulled so tight that Hanah was sure she had more wrinkles on her face in the evening when she loosened her hair.
Servants went in and out, silently handing over or receiving pieces of paper and occasionally given brief instructions.
"Well," Lady Brage finally said without looking up. "Don't just stand there. Show me."
Hanah tore her eyes away from the exquisite decorations. Since the last servant just left the room, Hanah assumed she was the one addressed. She hurried to unfasten the package. Carefully, she unfolded the coat as quickly as possible and held it up by the arm openings.
After a moment, Lady Brage laid down her quill and raised her eyes. Her face made no change; it was as indifferent as her voice when she looked the coat up and down. She stood from the table and came to stand in front of Hanah. She was much taller than Hanah, especially since she held herself like an iron rod, neck straight, shoulders back, posture impeccable in a dark green dress with sleeves skimming the floor.
But as she came closer, Hanah noticed the sickly pale complexion, the red rimmed but dry eyes which darted like a birds. Forcefully focused as if she was trying to see in a world of darkness.
Unceremoniously, she plucked the garment from Hanah's grasp, turned it over and around, inside out, examining the stitching, then practically threw it back at Hanah.
"It's too wide. The design is foreign. The inside is covered with fur instead of the edges. And there's a cut in the back. It is supposed to be a ceremonial robe, not an elven travelling cloak."
Hanah was taken aback, gaping while desperately trying to fold the coat in her arms without it touching the floor.
"You . . . You don't want it?" Hanah managed. "My lady?" she remembered to add.
"This is not what I ordered. You may leave." Lady Brage turned back to the table.
"But, my lady," Hanah burst out. "The master has worked on this for . . ." She paused. He had not actually worked on it the entire time since the order, and neither had she, but he had died for this coat.
"This is the finest work the master has ever made," she settled on, finally. And it was true. "How can you not want it?"
It was incomprehensible to Hanah. She could not grasp the idea that the item, which was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen, could be rejected so completely.
The woman turned back, her eyes wider. From surprise or anger, Hanah could not tell.
Lady Brage spoke shortly and concisely. "The garment does not fit the purpose. It is useless."
Hanah was aware that people around them had stopped in their tracks and observed the interaction, too wary to interrupt.
"My lady," Hanah tried. "Changes can be made. It doesn't have to—"
"I will not pay for it," Lady Brage raised her voice.
"But it was made especially—"
"Nor will I ever pay the pelt master for anything in the future. You. May. Leave."
Hanah felt her cheeks burn, but lowered her head, gathered her package and turned to go. She brushed past the maid and the other servants on her way from the room, only looking up when she realized her path was blocked. In the entrance, Lord Brage had paused with several men whom Hanah assumed were servants and personal guards, but it did not make the situation any less humiliating. Among them were a handful shorter men, stocky and long haired, but––strangely enough––with gold in their beards to contrast their dour expressions.
Dwarves, Hanah realised with an invisible, giant fist gripping her chest. They must be dignitaries from one of the neighbouring dwarf kingdoms, she thought. She had not only embarrassed her father and his work, she had openly defied and been reprimanded by Lady Brage in front of Lord Brage and his guests. It was beyond mortifying.
"I beg your pardon," she muttered before going the long way around the group and escaped through the hallway, past the kitchen, and out into the yard. Outside the door she paused to fold the coat properly, rolled it up in the bag and tossed it over her shoulder.
"What happened?" Hemery asked when she appeared in the street.
"Nothin'," Hanah replied, without breaking stride. Hemery followed, trying to keep up with Hanah's quick steps. "She did not think it would fit, that's all."
Hanah blinked back tears of shame, keeping her face averted from her sister. Hanah bit the skin of her dry lips as they walked home.
"Who will buy it now?" Hemery asked.
"No one. If it's not fit for the landlord, then it's not fit for givin' away."
"What will we do with it?"
"We'll take it apart. Use the beads and the fur for somethin' else. Take the water proof leather for boots."
Hemery's eyes went wide. "But it's Father's—"
"Father's not here!" Hanah interrupted. "We can't let it go to waste. We need to sell what we can."She continued in a softer voice, putting her arm around Hemery's shoulders. "We can't keep it just because we like it. It'd be ridiculous."
The next morning, Hanah sent her sister to the workshop to pack their usual bags of boots, laces, belts, and other wear and tear items for the market. Hanah prepared breakfast and packed food for later. Suddenly, she heard the sound of heavy hooves on the gravel outside the cottage. They rarely had visitors. Especially not visitors that could afford horses.
Hanah darted to the door and tore it open.
Four ponies stood in the yard. Strong animals with thick fur and short legs, carrying four longhaired, bearded, gold and fur wearing dwarves.