Droll’s audition

From time to time, characters from my stories turn up unbidden in my mind, and perform scenes for me that they think I may wish to include in my books; or new characters turn up for the first time, and show me what they can do, and ask me to find them a place. The character you are about to meet is one of the first kind. I have known him for many years; he comes in at the middle of The Grey Death, the long-delayed second book of The Eye of the Maker.

He is a little fellow, not much over four foot high, with a marvellously shabby and scruffy beard, a mass of tufts pointing in all directions; he insists that he is a Dwarf, of the ancient and legendary mountain people, though of course all right-thinking folk know there are no such things as Dwarfs, and he is merely a midget with delusions of ancestry. His name is Droll Yocrin. The first name is tolerably obvious, and seems to suit him somehow; the second name is thoroughly obscure. There is a folk-etymology to the effect that ‘Yocrin’ is derived from ‘yoke-ring’ (for the O is long), but what on earth a yoke-ring may be, not even the folk-etymologists can tell me. Droll himself insists that it is a Dwarfish name out of the ancient mountain-language, but that his father did not teach him enough of that tongue to interpret it properly.

I hope you like him. He invited me just lately to visit him in his workshop – for he is a jeweller by trade – and see how he passes his Yule holiday. Yule in Pyrandain is more like the Scottish Hogmanay than anybody’s Christmas; it is the eve of the New Year, and an occasion for various festivities to break up the long cold darkness of deep winter. But there are glimpses here and there of something more—


‘Come in, come in,’ said Droll, who was bustling about the workroom in a fine good humour. ‘Don’t mind about your boots. You’ll get mud on the floor, to be sure, but that will only displease old Fenniman, so it will please me well enough. If he sets foot in here to mop up, it will be the nearest thing he’s done all year to working in the shop.’

‘Aren‘t you exaggerating just a bit?’ I asked him. ‘He must work at making jewellery sometimes. Isn‘t he the senior partner? Fenniman & Yocrin, it says on the sign.’

The little man waved a stubby arm, directing me to a high stool at the end of his workbench. ‘Ostensible partner is the term, so the law-clerks tell me. There are two of us in the firm, you see: one to make the pieces, and one to flatter the customers. It won’t do without both; not with fine stuff. I could scratch out a living in gewgaws and silver, but folk won’t pay high prices without high service, and that is Fenniman’s job. It’s rather like the human anatomy, which is designed by a beneficent Maker for drinking beer. One end to swallow, and one end to piss it out again. You can’t have one without the other; and as I am a drinking man by nature, I leave the pissing to Fenniman.’

‘I think I see,’ I said cautiously.

The drinking half of the firm was perched on a stool like mine, which brought him up high enough to work on a complicated apparatus bolted to the bench. There was a sort of miniature post anvil, and a little iron scaffold with clamps and vices attached to it here and there, along with other tools and traps that I have not the knowledge to describe. The anvil was rigged on a kind of ball joint which allowed it to spin freely in several directions, with flanged screws to set it in place when the jeweller wished it to keep still. At the moment it was set with one of its curved faces uppermost, and a fine golden armlet resting on the curve. The armlet was intricately wrought, with a complex pattern of bevels along its edges, and a tracery of birds and flowers inlaid in some white metal. Droll’s left hand shoved the armlet back and forth along the anvil so as to work on it at different points, and his right hand caught up a blunt-nosed hammer that seemed far too large for such fine work; and he made the anvil ring with such heavy blows that I felt sure the golden trinket would be smashed to atoms. But when he threw the hammer aside, the armlet was intact; unchanged, apparently. Once he had rubbed it with emery and wiped it with a chamois, not even the finish was scuffed. He slipped it off the anvil and held it up to my examining eye, testing me to see if I could tell what he had done.

‘Smaller at the wrist end?’ I guessed. ‘It seems a bit more tapered than before.’

‘Not bad,’ said Droll. ‘You have an eye for the obvious. The party who ordered this – from Fenniman, of course; he wouldn’t give an order to me – bought it for his wife a few years back. It was supposed to fit her like the cuff of a falconer’s glove, Hell’s own halfwit knows why. But of course she got fat, and of course her husband took it to a fool to have it enlarged. Well, her wrist isn’t fat, just the fleshy bit of the arm. And so, my good fellow, you just watched me bring in fifteen crowns for the firm, and for my own share, after deductions, likely the price of a good strong pint.’ He flicked the armlet halfway down the bench; it landed on a vice-handle like a quoit on a pin, with a neat and musical clang.

‘That,’ said Droll, ‘is how I pay my bills; and this is what I pay them for.̛’

He opened a shallow drawer under the bench, and took out a pair of sandalwood boxes, about three inches square on the base and nine inches long. Sliding off the lid of one, he revealed what appeared to be a small music-box, with a large keyhole in the front, and the copper and silver figurine of a girl in dancer’s tights posed elegantly on the top. The key was held in the base of the box by a metal clip. He wound up the box and set it on the bench. It played an old Pyrandine lullaby in triple time, and the dancer turned slowly in place.

‘Very pretty,’ I said drily; ‘but what do you get out of it? Can you trade them to barmaids for beer, or something?’

Droll laughed. ‘Or something,’ he said. ‘If you’d rather, I can show you a little toy I made that plays the pea-and-thimble game all by itself. Wind it up and watch it go, and it will quicken your eye and sharpen your wit, teach you to endure misfortune, and educate you for better company. Why, when you’ve done with it, my friend, you’ll be so smart your friends won’t know how to stand you. After that, maybe you’ll be ready for this.’

‘A music-box?’

‘That’s only half the kit,’ said Droll. ‘Come over here and watch it up close.’

While I went to stand beside him, he opened the second box. It was another music-box, as I expected; but this one had a tin soldier on top, stiff and severe and altogether ungraceful to look at. He wound it up with the same key and set it next to the other.

‘Now shut up and watch,’ he said.

The soldier’s box played a slow march, not in the same key as the dancer’s melody – they were separated by a fifth. But the notes harmonized well, and three beats of the dance exactly matched time with two beats of the march; I could tell in a moment that they were written to be played together. I was still trying to get my head round the cleverness of the music when—

The solid tin soldier made a bow!

He turned to face the dancing girl, and bent quite double at the waist, so that his tall helmet, if it had been a separate piece, would have fallen off. Straightening up again, he extended a stiff arm to take her delicate hand, and they began to dance together. And not just a dance: it was more like a story, or a pantomime. She tilted her head and flirted her copper hair, and turned away from him, refusing him, but leading him on; and his movements, stiff and soldierly but as urgent as battle-drill, somehow conveyed the impression that he was chasing her across a great distance. They seemed to run for hours, and sometimes he would catch her and take her hand again, and they would dance a turn together; at such times they appeared to make a full circle round each other. But that could not have been, for they would have had to step off their pedestals and move freely, and all their clockwork, I could tell, was in the base of each box.

Then the soldier’s box made a sound like a toy trumpet, and he stood to attention again; and he turned away from her, slowly and reluctantly, as if he had been called away to war; and his music stopped for a time, and he went quite rigid again. Then the girl stopped her dancing, and her hand went up to her silver cheek, and the light there glistened in such a way that for a moment I actually thought there were tears running down her face. She, too, went still for a moment. Then there was a low, menacing tone like a knell, rung three times, and the slow, sombre tune of a death-march; and the tin soldier fell and lay flat on the ground – or rather, projecting a little beyond the ground on each side, for the ground was only the three-inch top of his own box. And the dancer knelt beside him and wept, and her music wept with her; and she lifted her face in supplication, and raised her little silver hands in prayer. Then she went quite still, half-kneeling, resting on one knee and one slippered toe.

I became aware that Droll was looking at me with a satirical twinkle in his eye. I tried to pretend that I had not been close to tears myself. ‘Well, well,’ I said weakly. ‘That was a show.’

‘It’s not done yet. What say you? Shall the maker answer his creature’s prayer?’

‘I say,’ I answered, standing on my dignity and defying him to notice that I was being as soppy as a schoolgirl, ‘that you would be worse than a cad if you did not. She— it— What I mean is, she may not be real, but her performance is real enough. She deserves a better ending.’

‘So be it,’ said Droll quietly. He gave the key another half-turn in each of the keyholes. The music started again, a funeral lament, overflowing with sorrow. The dancer slumped on the floor as one dead, arms and legs all in a tangle.

Then the tin soldier raised his head. His eyes were only painted on, but it seemed to me that he actually opened them somehow. He sat up; he climbed painfully up to his knees, and touched the face of his lost love. Now it was his turn to face his creator. He stood in a pose of righteous wrath, feet wide apart as if for fighting, arms akimbo, and lifted his chin to glare at Droll and me. He raised his fist and shook it in defiance; then he bowed his head. He brought his hands together over his tin heart, then pulled them violently apart, as if he were tearing open his coat and shirt.

Bearing his heart to be pierced: his life for hers.

Droll gave each box another quarter-turn.

The tin soldier turned to the dancing girl, knelt tenderly beside her, took her by the hand. As he lifted it, life and movement came slowly back into the rest of her limbs; she lifted her eyes, and looked in his face, and she knew him. His roughly shaped, club-like fist brushed her finely sculpted cheek; she folded her hands about it, and pressed it to her metal lips. Then they turned together to face us, and he made an obeisance, and she a courtesy; and then they turned back to face one another, and her sculpted lips met his painted ones with a loud click as the music came to an end.

‘I call it Love’s Last Kiss,’ said Droll, rather shamefaced. ‘Yes, yes I know, I’m as wet as a trout with the dropsy. Tell anyone, and I’ll fillet you with a dull knife – understand?’

‘Who, me? I didn’t see anything. But tell me, what is it for? You don’t seem like the type to make such things for fun.’

‘Well,’ said Droll, scratching thoughtfully at the patches of his beard, ‘I do partly – not that you heard me say it. But you’re right, my own tastes would run more to blood and thunder and less to dancing and osculating.’

‘It’s cunning work, no matter whose tastes it runs to.’

‘Why, thank you,’ he said, sketching a bow without leaving his stool. ‘I’m glad you noticed. That’s Dwarf-magic, that is – the real article. My father could have shown you more than this before he died. I had a bit of help from a friend, mind you; a fellow who knows some of the odder bits of the Defenders’ lore. He knows how to make the story tell itself, as you might say; so the figures suggest what they can, and your eye sees them move in ways that they can’t really do.’

‘Faërian drama,’ I said.

‘You know the art?’

‘Only by name, alas. One can’t get training, not in my country. But look, have you got a customer for all this?’

‘I’d be a richer man if I had, I’ll tell you that. But nobody appreciates this kind of work except the children up in the town, and they haven’t the money for such toys.’

‘Then who—?’

Droll looked wistful for an unguarded moment; then he was brisk and businesslike. He clapped the lids on both boxes and shoved them rudely aside, and hopped down from his stool to stamp towards the door. ‘Never you mind, sir. I’ve got my business to attend to, and I expect you’ve got yours.’

He nearly got away, but I caught his elbow just inside the doorway and would not let him go. ‘Tell me who it’s for,’ I said. ‘I don’t blab secrets. Who would I tell, anyway?’

‘The year’s about spent,’ said Droll, looking out at the brown tangle of the willows and the umber patches of the frozen bog. ‘They may not have money for such toys, but they like to get them for Yule, you understand. Not all – I don’t do this for just anybody. But there was a girl once – think of that dancer, but in flesh and blood. I made a fool of myself, in vain of course. A Dwarf has to be very rich indeed to catch the eye of a woman, even an ugly one; and she was one of the other kind. She died, somehow, and I went on living – the Maker knows why or how. But she has a daughter, you see, who is about nine or ten now—’

‘I see.’

‘Do you?’

‘Yes, I really do.’

‘It’s not just that she likes little acted-out stories where true love conquers all. Her father was a soldier, you see; and now she has nothing but a maiden aunt, who is easy enough to mistake for an ogress—’

There was a mirror on the wall beside the door: chest-high for me, full-length for him. He paused and made a face in it. ‘A little girl ought to have some beauty in her life, and in my experience, Yule is when she feels the need most keenly. Even an old Dwarf needs that much; more especially if he’s got no beauty of his own.

‘Hand me down those two boxes, will you? I have a little errand in town.’



  1. Oh, I quite like this fellow. He feels fully-fleshed, complete with his own story that he’s traveling through, which only happens to currently intersect with the narrator’s, and is not dependent on it. So often that’s not true of secondary characters, particularly in this style of fantasy.

    An excellent Christmas gift–thank you for sharing it! I hope very much that this year is the one in which you get the publishing attention you certainly deserve.

  2. Very lovely. All of it.

  3. That moved me very much, and the characterization of Droll is perfectly done. This is indeed a lovely Christmas present.

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