Dvalin the Dirty, Berling the Bent, Grer the Grim, Alfrik the Ugly. Four ancient Dwarves stood before me, coated in the soot of their forges and smelling of smoke. They were brothers, old, misshapen and ugly, not quite half my height, the oldest and ugliest of them holding between his callused hands yet the most exquisite thing I have ever in my long life seen. Like fire, the color of it, a peerless necklace wrought from immortal gold and radiant amber many-shaded, from the deep red of banked embers to a diamantine gold the color of heat lightning to a clear yellow like a comb brimming with honey. Its delicate tracery was fashioned from interlaced animals of gold, in the shape of swans, cats, swallows—even the clasp, serviceable thing that it was, had been made like a tiny amber-eyed cat who caught in its mouth a golden fish. Such loveliness, such beauty, and I knew immediately it would match my coloring, my yellow hair and pale skin, and play up the blue of my eyes, as if it had been made with me in mind. Perhaps it had, for I saw then in their eyes that they deemed me seduced.
I offered them silver for it, then gold, then gems rare and priceless, all of which they refused. I should have guessed that that was not what they had in mind—what jewels can one possibly offer the Dwarf-miners that they do not already possess? Then I saw what they would ask of me, and I felt myself go white.
I looked again at the gorgeous necklace, its gems burning like falling stars in the lamplight, and gave a single nod.
The next evening I opened my door and quickly suppressed a laugh, for there before me stood Dvalin, dressed in what he must have considered his best—a threadbare tunic that had once been woven with gold, a shabby fur-lined coat, and an equally shabby matching hat. He had combed his hair and beard, and had bathed as well—and though it could do nothing for his looks, still I was grateful he was clean. I welcomed him inside politely, with the practiced grace of a courtesan.
I bore his love-making with determination, concentrating on the splendid necklace that would be mine, and luckily, it was over quickly. He left soon after, and I immediately drew myself a bath.
The second night Grer was there, standing in my doorway offering me a daisy, for all the world like a shy schoolboy. I laughed, for I was genuinely surprised, and hearing me, he smiled a little, hopefully. I accepted the flower with grave thanks, and tucked it artlessly behind my ear as I let him in.
The third night was Berling's turn, and after we made love, he fell asleep beside me. I watched him as he slept, his hand at rest near his forehead, its fingers gently curling. In sleep he looked so innocently ugly, like a baby bird, and remembering his eagerness, I wondered, had he never been loved? How could anyone bear that?
The final night Alfrik was at my door, bearing with him a small ivory box, which must contain the glorious necklace. In due time I began to disrobe—strange, I was no longer in a hurry—and slowly I unfastened the clasps of my robe, letting it fall gracefully to the floor, while shaking my hair out about me. I stood naked before him, my hands out in front of me, offering myself.
He stared a moment, then began to weep.
I had not expected this! I knelt before him, asking Why? Alfrik, why are you crying?
Because, he said, I am so ugly, and you are so beautiful, I have no right to ask this. He then held out the necklace for me to take.
Instead I took his hands, ugly as toads, between my own slender ones, and told him, Through you art of a rare beauty is born: so you likewise are exquisite and holy, for beauty hallows the hand of its creator.
I placed his hands, then, on my breasts, and he looked up at me in surprise—I saw his eyes were a clear brown—then he smiled.
We made love joyfully, then.
I no longer cared about the necklace.