For disclaimer and further details see Part 1.
Rating: General, for this part.
Rating: General, for this part.
Day Twenty-One – The Dice-Maker
It was the usual, busy evening in the Old Sailor when Breach, the dice-maker, entered the common room, with a brand new board for hlatafl under one arm and a pouch full of dices in his hand. Gennys was standing behind the counter, pouring beer, mead and ale into the tankards brought back regularly by Belu, the pock-marked pot boy.
At one of the game tables, the tax collector's sons were engaged in a game of kvatrutafl with Hrotgar, Lord Orchald’s horse-master. Hrotgar’s daughter, Hilla, who sometimes worked with Mistress Crodergh in the herb gardens, assisted her father, drinking just as heartily.
Hrotgar’s sons, Folcmar and Einar, were sitting at the other game table, playing hnefatafl on a beautifully carved board with 11x11 squares, using twenty four light pieces, twelve dark pieces, and a king that was called hnefi or cyningstan. A game with that many pieces was a difficult one and usually took a long time to be finished, more so if the players were of equal skill and knew each other’s tricks like these two did.
At the regular tables, the workers of the Warehouse were eating their supper, the two scribes, Jutus and Dufgal, were nursing their usual tankard of ale (after which they would dutifully return home to their families), and even a few apprentices or journeyman from the neighbouring workshops spent their time in merry company. In other words, this was an evening just like every other.
Breach slowed down on his way to the counter to watch the hnefatafl game for a moment. Einar had already trapped Folcmar’s hnefi with three of his dark pieces (the player with the king had half the number of the pieces of his opponent). He only needed to move one more piece into the right position to win the game. But his own pieces, too, were in danger, as Folcmar had built up his strategy well enough. As the rules did not allow to pass over a piece, Einar had to navigate around his brother’s cleverly placed pieces in order to approach the hnefi from the fourth side. Apparently, he was in no hurry to make his move.
“They have been at this game for two days,” commented Gennys, shaking his head in tolerant amusement. “And from the sight of it, it can take two more days – or longer – ‘til they finish it. I fear I shall never understand the attraction.”
Breach shrugged. “Does it matter? It keeps your business running – and mine, too.”
“True enough,” Gennys nodded. “Speaking of which: have you brought the new dices? I was most embarrassed when that chance patron was caught by falsifying the old ones last week. Though I should be grateful that he was. Had the provost thought I had been the one doing it, it could cost me my living.”
Which was very true. The beer-seller had been most fortunate that the culprit had been revealed in time. There were harsh punishments for falsifying the dices.
“Here you are,” Breach handed him the pouch; then he presented the new board, too. “And here is the hlatafl board to replace the one that has been broken two weeks ago.”
“That is most kind of you,” said Gennys, examining the nicely made board. “Let us hope this one will last longer than its predecessor. Oh, and you have carved a board for merels on the other side, I see! Now I shall have to watch this one double sharply.”
“You should not allow the Rohirrim to drink and gamble at he same time,” Breach suggested. “They are too strong for their own good.”
“I am running an ale-house, Master Breach,” said Gennys patiently. “Do you truly think I would tell my patrons not to drink, whatever else they might be doing?”
“There is some truth in that,” admitted the dice-maker.
“Besides, when they break something, they pay for it generously,” added Gennys with a grin. “Now, what do I owe you for the board and the dices?”
Breach named his price, which was reasonable as always, and Gennys paid him without haggling. That alone told the dice-maker that the other man had kept some profit: the difference between the price that had been named and the price that the Rohirrim had paid. At any other time, Breach would pursue the issue. But only four days before Yule, it would have been immodest to do so. Gennys could use a few extra pieces of coin on a dozen places – beginning with a new roof for the house. And Breach could afford to be generous, just once in year.
“How is business going?” he asked instead. Gennys shrugged.
“I cannot complain. ‘Tis a lot of work, but honest work, at least. To tell the truth, on some days I am looking forward to the curfew, though. What about yourself?”
“Me, I cannot complain, either,” replied the dice-maker. “Yule is a good time for toy-makers. Little girls get a new doll, little boys get wooden horses or little carts or toy soldiers… we have more than enough to do.”
“I can imagine,” said Gennys. “Your toys always look like they could awake any time.”
But Breach shook his head. “Nay, ‘tis not me who has the talent for dolls and other toys. ‘Twas the gift of my father and grandfather. A gift my younger son shares but I never had.”
“Is that why you have taken up the task of making dices and gaming boards?” asked Gennys. Breach nodded.
“Aye, it is. At least I am good at making those.”
“It must be hard,” said Gennys, “not to be able to continue a craft that has been done in your family for generations.”
“’Tis not about the skill,” said Brach thoughtfully. “I know how to make toys. Only the ones I make never seem to come alive when they are finished. My father used to make dolls that were like little ladies. You would verily expect them to open their mouths and speak. Bened, my second-born, has just begun to try his hands on dolls, but it seems he will make beautiful ones, too. I am glad he has the gift I lack. At least so there will be someone to take over my father’s abandoned business one day.”
“What about your firstborn?” the beer-seller inquired.
“He lacks the gift just as I do,” sighed Breach. “That is why he chose to become a bow-maker. Mayhap ‘tis better so. That is wood-work, too, and in these times, there is a greater need for strong bows than for pretty toys.”
“Besides, it got him a wife,” said Gennys, who knew that Breach’s son had married the bow-maker’s daughter, less than a year ago.
“Now, with that he could have waited a few years and no mistake,” commented Breach dryly. “They are both barely out of the nursery. But Osbern was so besotted with that girl that he could barely wait ‘til finishing his apprenticeship. In any case, they are husband and wife now, and they area bout to make me a grandfather, soon,” he shook his head. “I do like the girl, but I still think they should have waited.”
“Mayhap they should,” Gennys allowed. “But sometimes marrying one’s childhood love can turn out well.”
“Yea, just like in my grandparent’s case, who had to flee all the way from Dale to Gondor, in order to escape my great-grandfather’s wrath,” replied Breach dryly. Gennys gave him an inquisitive eyebrow, for that was a tale he had wanted to hear for a long time.
“Is it true that your grandparents had seen the coming of the Dragon?” he asked.
“His second coming,” corrected Breach. “Aye, they had. They both lived in Laketown and survived the destruction of their home by a hair’s breadth as young children. Grandfather’s family hailed from Dale, though, and when King Bard had his town rebuilt, they moved back there. For a while, there was some tension between Dale and Esgaroth, for the people of the latter had a hard time to forget the destruction of Laketown, and grandfather was forbidden to see his childhood love again. He was even sent to the Dwarves in Erebor, to learn the proper craft of toy-making – that is where our skills come from – and, most likely, to forget her. But grandfather fled as soon as he finished apprenticeship, took grandmother with him, and they ran all the way ‘til Halabor.” He laughed quietly. “A rather… unspectacular end of what was once considered the greatest love drama of the two towns, think you not?”
Gennys shrugged. “Does it matter, if they were happy? But do tell me: have you never wanted to return to the North? To visit the home of your ancestors?”
“Not truly,” said Breach. “I am content here. And the town of my ancestors went down in dragonfire, and there is naught of it left but a few charred logs, rotting in the water of the Long Lake. Nay, father was the one always homesick for the North – and what good did it to him? A raiding band of Easterlings who killed him, mother, and half a dozen travelling companions on their way back. Had he stayed here, he would be still alive.”
Gennys nodded, slowly, thoughtfully. “That might be so. Yet I fear we shall face perils as great as the Dragon used to be, here, in the South, and soon.”
“I hope not,” Breach slipped his newly acquired coin into his belt pouch. “I intend to see my second-born grow into adulthood and make the most fabulous toys ever seen in Gondor. Well, I must be off now. Annest will have finished the dress of the doll ordered by Master Selevan by now, and I have promised to deliver it tonight.”
“Your wife has skilled hands,” said Gennys. “I remember the baby clothes she used to make years ago. I doubt not that the doll would be beautiful.”
“She likes her stitching and is very good at it, Annest is,” Breach agreed. “Our dolls would not be half as good as they are, without her work. But I truly have to go now. Have a blessed Yule, you and your family.”
“And the same to you and yours, Master Breach,” Gennys nodded, and the dice-maker, wrapping himself into his fur-lined mantle, elbowed a path through the patrons of the Old Sailor to leave.
Gennys then came forth from behind the counter for a moment to drink a tankard of ale with the Warehouse clerks and pick up the newest gossip. Those two were the best source of news, ever. Whatever happened in town, news about it reached the Warehouse within hours, and the scribes were all too eager to share with the man who provided them with the best ale served between Rohan and Pelargir.
Listening to their gossip always comforted Gennys in a strange way. In a world full of peril and shadows, such simple things as gossiping about mundane things gave life an air of normalcy. In those moments, he could actually believe that he would live to see his debts fully paid. That the dice-maker’s second-born would grow into manhood and make the most beautiful dolls known in Gondor. And that the shadows would depart from their world, eventually, by some miracle.
Gennys smiled, emptied his tankard and returned with it behind the counter. There were still almost two hours left ‘til the curfew. He still had work to do.
On the darkening streets, the dice-maker was hurrying towards his home, in the hope that his wife had, indeed, finished the stitching on the doll’s dress. The rich mercer had promised to pay by delivery, and that one sell would be enough to put a generous Yule supper onto their table.
~The End – for now~
Note: The dice maker and his entire family – his widowed sister, his wife, his three children, his daughter-in-law and his baby grandson – died during the destruction of Halabor.