Legolas was unaccustomed to being particularly bad at anything, but after two years and no improvement, he was forced to admit that he would never be a smith. The new sword in his hand, for all his effort, possessed the grace and artistry of a loaf of bread. The finish was dull, the edges managed to be both too thin and too blunt at the same time, and the tip curved like a drooping fern.
"It's a start," his teacher told him with a sharp clap to the back. Then, after a pause, "Ehm, how long have you been here, now?"
Legolas did not answer.
"What if we start on something new. Something a bit less... ambitious. Swords can be tricky. Why don't you try a shield?"
Yes, Legolas thought dully, a shield. Shields did not have to be sharp, straight-edged, or even symmetrical. They only needed to be flat. He could manage flat, more or less. "Fine," he said.
"That's a boy," said the teacher. "Go on back to the draft table and plan your design. I'll take this off your hands." He took the failed sword delicately, as if it were liable to break at any moment, and set it aside to be reworked later. Legolas, thinking no more on it, sat down at the drafting table and began to draw the simplest design he could imagine.
His shield would be egg-shaped, for the practical reason that, when it inevitably came out lopsided, he would be able to insist that it was intentional. It would have crimped edges, to hide any sloppy finishing. And it would be etched all over in designs of knotwork and vines, to draw attention away from the shame of never being able to produce a smooth surface. Etched designs were one thing he could do relatively well. Not perfectly, but at least on par with an average Noldorin twenty-year-old. He would make the shield out of copper. He had grown fond of copper, as far as he could grow fond of a substance that tormented him in an environment he hated; it complimented his hair nicely.
He finished the design, sought his teacher for approval, and began work the next morning.
Nearly twenty days later, he was no closer to creating a useable shield than he was to learning all the secrets of the universe. As predicted, the shield was lopsided, but in a way that more resembled a fried egg than one in its shell. While the middle was too thick, he had pounded the edges so thin that contact with a falling acorn would likely cause a sizeable dent. The overall craftsmanship was of such a quality that Legolas was beginning to wonder if he was, in fact, getting worse. His efforts were nothing if not pathetic. Worse still, the master smith was quickly losing patience.
"Look here, Legolas," he said sadly at the end of the day. On the table before him, he had placed the terrible sword, the useless shield, and a number of other failed projects, including a bowl with a hole in the bottom, a spoon with an impractically short handle, and a shovel too heavy to use. "Look at your work and tell me what you see."
Legolas looked at his work, but did not dare say what he thought for fear of being thrown out of the forge for good.
His teacher eyed him carefully. "Are you certain that smithwork is what you desire?"
"Yes," said Legolas.
The master smith's face fell. "Then I am afraid I can no longer help you," he said. And before Legolas had a chance to respond, he continued, "You are beyond my skill to teach. I have never before, in countless years, had a student make so little progress over so long a period of time. I can only guess that this is a reflection of my poor teaching ability. I am sorry, Legolas, but you must leave."
For an uncomfortable moment, Legolas only stared at his soon-to-be-former teacher. "But..." he eventually managed, "where will I go?"
He never told anyone exactly why it was so important for him to learn the elusive skill of metalcrafting. Conveniently, no-one had ever asked. His friends and family tolerated the obsession with amused sighs and an attitude of 'this silly phase will pass', attributing his stubborn interest to being surrounded by so many Noldor. He had lived almost his entire life among the Elves of Mirkwood, who were such notoriously poor smiths that they were willing to put aside cultural differences every now and then to trade with Dwarves rather than learn how to set an anvil the right way up. And that was saying something. But being now in Tavrobel, it was only natural for Legolas to be curious about the smoke, ringing noise, and occasional explosions coming from the Noldorin quarter of the city.
The man who had agreed to take Legolas as a student was named Matyelcar. For a smith, he was remarkably tall and thin, and between his dark hair, soot-blackened skin, and gangly walk, he reminded Legolas rather unpleasantly of a spider. This was one of the reasons Legolas gave for his failure. His vigilant Mirkwood upbringing refused to allow him to relax and concentrate while a giant spider (or something eerily similar thereto) lurked in the shadows. And while he was confident that Matyelcar did not have eight legs, he had not yet ruled out the possibility of web spinning. The master smith was very gifted when it came to decorative filament.
So he was not wholly disappointed when Matyelcar told him to leave the forge and seek instruction elsewhere. But he was wary when Matyelcar offered to accompany him to the one teacher who could surely teach, in the one place where Legolas could surely learn. Working the bellows with a giant spider was one thing. Following one on a journey was completely different.
"Over this way!" Matyelcar called to Legolas, who kept lagging behind. "We take the northern fork, then the next west, and we'll camp at the bottom of the ridge tonight!"
They had crossed the strait from Tol Eressëa to the mainland that morning, and were now headed in no particular direction that Legolas could discern. Supposedly, they were going to the mountains.
"Where exactly is this place?" asked Legolas.
"At the roots of the Pelóri, on the other side. Past Tirion and almost to Valmar. We'll be there in five days."
At this point, he knew he should not have asked. Matyelcar was far too optimistic. If he said five days, he meant eight. And so it was nine days later that they finally reached their destination.
On a first glance, it appeared to be nothing more than a large doorway stuck into the side of a mountain. This was nothing new to Legolas. He had seen similar doors made by Dwarves, though he did have to admit that this door was rather larger than that of the average Dwarf construction. In fact, it was easily of sufficient size for an acrobatic square of Dwarves seven tall and six wide to comfortably pass. It was enough for Legolas to momentarily worry that Dwarves here were much larger than they were in the east. Until he remembered that there were no Dwarves in Aman.
"Come on, come on, this is the place." Matyelcar pushed the doors open, as comfortably as if this were his home and he were merely inviting Legolas in for supper.
Legolas could see, then, that the doors opened into a vast stone tunnel that was surprisingly well lit for its absence of windows. No-one was about to greet them. "Oughtn't we have knocked?" he asked.
"No, my lord is expecting us. Just follow me. I know the way. Oh, but mind you don't touch the walls." Matyelcar added the last in a casually offhand manner, though something about his words (possibly the fact that he felt it necessary to say them at all) put Legolas on edge. The walls looked completely innocent. Nonetheless, he stepped closer behind Matyelcar, and did his best to remain in the exact middle of the corridor.
The tunnel was longer than it looked, and the further they walked, the more Legolas was convinced that they were making no progress at all. The stairs ahead were no nearer. The door behind seemed as close as ever. The only thing that changed was the ceiling. It had started off at door height, seven Dwarves tall, but was growing progressively lower. It dropped to four-Dwarf-height, then three, and then two, at which point Legolas started to slouch. If he was not allowed to touch the walls, he had no desire to risk bumping his head on the ceiling.
"Mind your head," said Matyelcar, which only annoyed Legolas. He had been clever enough to think of minding his head on his own.
By the time the ceiling had fallen to the height of one Dwarf, Legolas and his former teacher were crawling on their hands and knees. Not only had the tunnel become very shallow, it had also become far narrower. The walls had angled inward to less than an arm's length away on either side. What was more, they appeared to be covered in some sort of glittering powder.
"What's this on the walls?" Legolas called ahead.
"I've never asked," said Matyelcar, though his tone of voice indicated exactly the opposite. "Just don't touch it."
"Why not? What will happen?"
Matyelcar stopped, and turned his head as much as he could to glance back at Legolas. "You'll see."
His words made Legolas' skin crawl unpleasantly. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, you're bound to accidentally brush against it sooner or later. I would just prefer later."
"What do you mean, 'sooner or later'?" Legolas asked irritably. "I'm not that uncoordinated."
"Everyone does on the first time through here," Matyelcar said. "And then never again."
"Once is enough. You'll not want to repeat the experience."
Growling, Legolas crouched down even lower to the floor, determined to stay on course and prove to Matyelcar that he could at least crawl through a tunnel properly. If life in Mirkwood had given him anything, it was an intimate familiarity with tunnels and caves. Though to be fair, there had been nothing this ridiculously small in his father's fortress. No sooner had he set his mind against grazing so much as a hair against the surrounding stone than the walls and ceiling had seemed to close in around him. He was surrounded on all sides with mere inches of clearance. "How much more of this nonsense?" he snapped at Matyelcar.
"Nearly there. I can see the light ahead."
Legolas realised what he was about to do in the split second before it happened. He had raised his eyes to look to the light, and had just enough time to swear loudly before the top of his head bumped against the ceiling. The floor lurched under him, his left side became very heavy, and his head suddenly felt as if it had been pulled off, tossed into a cyclone, and set back on the wrong way. He tipped one way, crashed into the wall, fell back the other way, lost his balance completely, and toppled forward onto his face. "Matyelcar!" he shouted in panic. "Matyelcar, I can't... I can't..."
"Just grab my ankles," Matyelcar said calmly.
Legolas pulled his arms out from under him to fumble around wildly on the floor, looking for Matyelcar's ankles. Unfortunately, the floor seemed to have other ideas, and tipped him backward with such force that he cracked his head once again on the ceiling.
"Keep you hands in front of you, Legolas, and feel for my ankles. Maintain contact with the floor."
"I can't! It keeps shifting!" Even as he spoke, the tunnel gave a great leap to one side, and Legolas found himself rather suddenly on his back. His head was still spinning.
"It only feels that way. Hands on the floor. I'm right in front of you. Trust me."
Had Legolas been able to keep his balance long enough, he would have given Matyelcar a sound kick in the ribs. He knew better than to trust oversized spiders. However, he had no other option. He needed to get out of the wretched tunnel before his head burst. Focusing all his willpower in his hands, he slid them along the floor, inch by inch. His right hand seemed to have a life of its own, veering off sideways, but the left hit something solid.
"Good, that's one of my feet. Now your other hand."
With a considerable effort, Legolas wrenched his right hand in to meet the left and find Matyelcar's other ankle. He squeezed as hard as he could, though it did little to vent his frustration.
"Good. Very good. Keep holding on like that, and try your best to crawl behind me."
Matyelcar began to move: one leg forward, the other leg forward, dragging Legolas behind. Legolas tried to crawl along, or at least shuffle, but as soon as he pulled his legs into position they would tip him the wrong way, causing him to collapse against the walls.
"Follow me, Legolas. Concentrate on following me."
This he did, and promptly pitched forward to head-butt Matyelcar in the rump.
The last thing Legolas remembered was Matyelcar shouting something crude as he stumbled sideways and hit the wall.
How much time passed before Legolas woke, he could not say. He was lying somewhere soft, covered in warm blankets, and he was still dizzy. Less dizzy than he had been in the tunnel, but his stomach had started to churn in a nauseating way, so he had not drastically improved on the whole. He only opened his eyes when he realised someone was trying to get him to drink something hot.
"You'd better drink this. All of it. All that flailing in the tunnel will have done your body grief."
"Yes, it's I. Drink this."
"Where are we? What happened in... What was that?!"
"If you stop talking long enough to take your medicine, I can tell you."
Legolas sat up and took the cup from Matyelcar. The medicine tasted of spiced honey, but with unpleasant undertones of lake water. The more he drank, the lakier it tasted.
"To your first question, we are in the home of the great Lord Aulë, the Master Smith of all Arda, and you are in your new bedroom."
Legolas nearly dropped his cup. Matyelcar had brought him to the forge of the greatest smith in the world and the training ground for the brightest and most talented. He was sure to be thrown out immediately. He stared at his former teacher in horror, looking for any sign of a joke, but Matyelcar appeared to be entirely serious. His stomach began to churn in a way that had nothing to do with dizziness.
"Secondly and thirdly, as to what happened in the tunnel and what 'that' was... When you bumped your head, you acquainted yourself with the enchantment that guards this place from unwanted intruders. Anyone who touches the walls or ceiling will immediately find himself too dizzy and disoriented to continue, and will thrash about helplessly until collected by the sentries."
"Like the river..." Legolas muttered.
"Nothing," said Legolas. "But you said... everyone touches the walls his first time through."
"Yes, that's true," said Matyelcar. "I'm surprised you managed to get as far as you did. Eventually, had you not brushed the walls on your own, they would have continued to close in until they touched you, while remaining just wide enough for me to pass carefully. But, they only do this to those they don't recognise. Your second time will be much more comfortable."
Legolas silently finished the rest of his medicine. It left a gritty orange residue in the cup. "How come you don't look ill? You hit the wall, too."
"I was given the medicine immediately by those who fetched us from the tunnel. But we thought it might be a good idea for you to have a bit of a sleep first. Do you feel better now?"
"I suppose." The medicine helped with the dizziness, at least, though it did nothing to calm his stomach. "So if this is the home of Owly, or how's-he-called-"
"Yes, him. If this is the home of Aulë," Legolas asked, "where is he?"
"Right here," said Matyelcar. He stepped aside and gestured to the back of the room.
In all his life, Legolas had never before met a Vala. Maiar, yes, in the forms of Wizards, but never a Vala. Now to see Aulë step out of the corner and grin at him, he was, to be honest, underwhelmed.
Aulë looked like a common Noldorin smith. He was neither particularly tall nor particularly impressive to look at, both of which were features Legolas would have expected in a Vala. His black hair was tied back haphazardly, looking as if he had been sleeping on it for several nights. He had a wide smudge of dirt across his chin, and his clothes were charred in several places. As he stepped forward, he extended a callused hand to Legolas, which Legolas shook absently. Everything was too disturbingly surreal.
"Legolas, this is Aulë. Aulë, naryo Laiqualassë. I'll have to act as translator, Legolas; I'm afraid Aulë doesn't speak your language."
"Yes, I do," said Aulë. He had a deep, booming, Vala-like voice that was entirely at odds with his humble appearance.
Matyelcar, clearly taken aback, could only gape.
"I am a Vala," Aulë explained. "I can do most anything." As if to prove his point, he snapped his fingers and set his hair on fire.
"Oh," said Matyelcar. "I never thought of that... Right. As I was saying before, my lord, young Legolas has come here to learn the fine art of metalcrafting. I have taught him all I can, and I believe that the only way for him to progress is by way of your unmatchable expertise."
Aulë nodded. "I know."
Again, Matyelcar gaped. "I suppose... Yes. Vala. Right. " He cleared his throat. "Well then... if there's nothing more for me to do..." He squirmed with the distinct look of a man who desired nothing so much as to leave the room immediately.
Legolas knew exactly how Matyelcar felt. He desired the exact same thing. He knew beyond the slightest sliver of a doubt that he had been an idiot to come here, a feeling only made worse when he remembered that it had not been his idea at all. Even after spiders, orcs, wargs, and everything else, Aulë was easily the most frightening thing he had ever encountered. Something about the Vala's unassuming appearance coupled with his careless use of power made Legolas wish like never before that he were back in Mirkwood, where everything behaved in a completely normal and predictable manner and nobody even knew what an Aulë was or how to pronounce it.
He was profoundly sorry he had thought to become a smith, and sorrier still when Matyelcar left in a fluster of excuses and farewells. The last thing he wanted was to be alone with Aulë. But alone they were. Aulë turned to him with a smile.
"Fire," whispered Legolas. He had not meant to say this, or anything at all for that matter, but he found it impossible to tear his eyes away from the Vala's burning hair.
'Oh, I'm sorry," said Aulë. With a shake of his head, the flames disappeared and his hair returned to normal. He laughed a booming laugh that threatened to shake the foundations of the room. "I forget about that sometimes."
Legolas could only manage a weak smile, and only for a moment. Aulë watched him expectantly, and when he did not move, the Vala picked him up by his shoulders, pulled him out of the bed, and set him back down on the floor like a piece of furniture.
"Better. Can't get work done in bed, can you?" Aulë stared at him, waiting for an answer, and Legolas forced his mouth to form the words, "No, sir."
"Wonderful," said Aulë. "We start immediately."
The last thing Legolas wanted to do with a spinning head and twisting stomach was head to the loud, smelly forges, but Aulë seemed to think there was no time like the present. He steered Legolas through his maze of a home, pointing every so often to side corridors or closed doors with a quick, "Never go that way," or, "Toilets are over there." They seemed to be walking in large circles, but to Aulë's credit, the unmistakable sound of hammers on metal was growing louder. By the time they finally stepped into the smithy, Legolas was so disoriented that he was certain he would never again be able to find any of the places Aulë mentioned. Nor would he ever find the way out. The Vala had not shown him that, he quickly realised.
"And where is the exit?" he quietly asked, in a voice he hoped sounded casual enough.
"Later," said Aulë. "Now, we work, and learn. Learn, and work. Always learn. Always work." He pulled from the furnace a sword that looked uncannily like a glowing hot version of the shoddy blade Legolas had produced for Matyelcar, and set it down on the anvil.
Legolas blinked stupidly at it. "Ehmmm... what... what do I..."
"Fix it," Aulë said simply.
Scowling, Legolas picked up a nearby hammer.
"No!" Aulë shouted at once. "Not like that!" He grabbed Legolas' wrist, twisted his hand slightly, and adjusted the grip on the hammer. "How can you expect to work when you can't hold your tools? Hand goes like this. Always like this. Now try."
Legolas lifted his arm and brought the hammer down in a half-hearted swing. But it connected solidly with the blade, producing a clear, silvery, ringing sound, and the crooked metal moved to correct itself immediately. Not daring to believe what he had just done and seen, Legolas swung again. His hammer hit the middle of the sword, and it was suddenly almost straight. He looked up at Aulë in wonder. "But... how is that even possible?!"
"Vala," was all that Aulë said.
Legolas kept hammering. Before his eyes, the sword started to look distinctly like a sword. It was straighter, sharper, shinier, and better-looking on the whole. "Excellent, excellent," said Aulë. He took the improved sword from Legolas, and laid another poor effort on the anvil. "Now this one. And after this, you can start on those." He gestured to a nearby table, on which stood a pile of improperly made swords. Fleetingly, Legolas wondered if this might be where all the failed metalworking projects in the world ended up. He could see a pile of misshapen helmets on another nearby table, and a shelf of what looked like lumpy pots.
"Is this," he started to ask, but stopped as soon as the words left his mouth. Aulë had disappeared. Sighing, and telling himself that Valar could not be expected to behave like reasonable Elves due to the fact that they were not at all like Elves, he took up the hammer again and went back to work.
Fixing the swords was not as easy as it had first seemed to Legolas once he was left alone. Whether it was luck or, more likely, a powerful aura radiating from Aulë that had helped him on the first, he could not say. And while he was still fixing the sword rather than making it worse, which was a vast improvement over the skills he had displayed to Matyelcar, it still required immense effort and concentration. The second sword took hours rather than minutes to finish. He had to sit down for a rest before taking up a third.
Aulë's workshop was, as far as he could see from his allotted space, a vast cave full of fires, anvils, kilns, tables, projects, and apprentice smiths of all kinds. It was much longer than it was wide, and had been divided lengthwise into halves by twin rows of pillars straight down the centre. Some sort of screen, like fine cheesecloth, had been hung between the pillars as a barrier. Legolas could only make out the blurred shapes of other workers on beyond. He could see no opening to pass between the pillars to the other side of the room.
On both sides, everyone seemed busy at work, too absorbed in smelting, casting, hammering, and fuelling the fires to pay Legolas any attention. He picked up a third sword, grumbling to himself about wastes of time, and sincerely hoped that Aulë didn't mean for him to finish the whole pile on his own.
But after nearly sixty days, he was still mending useless blades. Worse, Aulë was nearly impossible to find, and even more difficult to question. His Unremarkable Noldorin aspect was unnerving enough. But when Legolas realised that Aulë could change his form at will, which would account for what Legolas took to be long absences when the Unremarkable Noldo was nowhere to be found, it made things even more disturbing. The very large, hairy man at the corner table, it turned out, was Aulë. The distractingly attractive white-robed prince was Aulë. The yellow dog was Aulë (though he only appeared in this form after quarrels with Yavanna). The hot, glittery cloud was Aulë. The terrifying red monster with six axe-wielding arms was also probably Aulë, though Legolas had never quite found the courage to ask.
"And that makes one-hundred-ninety-two," Legolas said dully to himself as he tossed another fixed sword into the 'finished' pile. The 'needs work' pile looked no smaller than it did on the day he arrived. He glanced around for any sign of Aulë, desperate for a chance to ask when he would be done with the sword pile, but saw only the red monster lumbering away at the far end of the room. "Fiery blasted rock-headed filth and orc bugger!" he hissed to nobody in particular.
"Yes, I know how you feel," said a voice behind him. A voice with an accent that sounded slightly Rivendellish, but still a Sindarin-speaking voice. And those were rare enough west of Tol Eressëa.
Legolas spun around. A cheerful-looking Noldo stood behind him, holding an armful of dented helmets. "Excuse me?"
"I said I know how you feel," the Noldo repeated. "I often find myself swearing in this place. In fact, just yesterday I said a horrible word that I didn't even know existed. I think it's something in the air."
"Oh," said Legolas. "Uh..." He was at a loss for anything better to say.
"My name is Gilfanon," said the Noldo. He did not hold out his hand, given that his arms were full of helmets, but he did nod in a friendly way. "What's yours? I don't believe I've seen you before. You new?"
"Yes. I'm Legolas. And I don't mean to pry, but are you from Imladris?"
Gilfanon shook his head. "No. I was born in Tirion, but lived awhile in Nevrast and Gondolin, and most recently I reside in Tavrobel. When I am not here."
"I just came from Tavrobel."
"Oh! Well how nice is that! You know, I-" Gilfanon stopped abruptly mid-sentence, shutting his mouth and staring with widened eyes at the pillars behind Legolas. "Look!" he whispered. "A new one!"
Legolas turned back around in time to see two men step through a door at the near end of the room, between the two rows of pillars. Through one layer of screen, Legolas could see that the first was dark and Noldorin-looking, while the second was a tall, silver-haired Sinda. "A new what?" he asked Gilfanon.
"New student. All newcomers to Aulë's forge come in through the pillars."
"I didn't," said Legolas. "I came through a-"
"Just watch," Gilfanon told him. "You'll understand."
The pair beyond the screen walked half the length of the room until they came to a spot just past where Legolas and Gilfanon were standing. Then, something very odd happened. They continued to walk, but did not move. Legolas could see the steps they took, but for whatever reason, they stayed in the very same place. They walked on the spot for several minutes, and then the taller one, the Sinda, started to duck. Both were soon bent over nearly double. They continued to shuffle along for another minute before touching the floor and crawling on hands and knees. Something clicked into place in Legolas' mind.
"The tunnel!" he said. "It's..."
"Part of the enchantment," Gilfanon confirmed. "To anyone inside the pillar rows, it will seem as if they are in a tunnel. But we on the other side can watch whomever enters. Keep your eyes on the Sinda now; the best part is still to come."
Legolas held his breath as he waited for what was about to happen. And sure enough, a moment later the Sinda reached up to brush his hair back. His elbow must have touched the wall, because in the next second he was wobbling and falling over like an orc with its head cut off. Only after several minutes and much laughter from those watching did the Sinda manage to grasp his companion's ankles to continue dizzily forward. From that point, they started to move again in a slow crawl toward the far end of the room.
"What is that? What makes you so dizzy?"
"It's the dust," said Gilfanon.
"Noldorin Confusion Dust. It's brushed liberally over the walls and ceiling. Originally, Aulë just enchanted the tunnel to grow narrow so that intruders got stuck. But he found that the ill-meaning ones were difficult for his sentries to subdue. So the Noldor invented Confusion Dust, which makes intruders quite manageable. And more hilarious besides." He paused before adding, "Valar have an odd sense of humour. They seem to find nothing funnier than Elves floundering about within the limitations of their physicality."
"Did I look that stupid?"
"I don't remember seeing you," said Gilfanon. "But the odds are good."
Two days later, Legolas saw the Sindarin man again. This time, he was following Aulë through the workshop. Aulë was wearing his Unremarkable Noldorin aspect again. The two seemed to be heading toward Legolas' anvil. "Seeing as you two are both new," Aulë said as he approached, "you can work together."
The Sinda glanced around with the least amount of interest possible and said nothing. He was wearing what looked like Valarin pajamas, and had put a jaunty hawthorn sprig behind his ear.
"Legolas," said Aulë, "this is Elwë. He has recently been released from Mandos, and was sent here for a brief probation before he is fit to rejoin the living world. Elwë, Legolas arrived not long ago and has been making excellent progress on fixing faulty swords. He can show you what to do."
Legolas stared at the man in front of him. "Elwë?!" he asked. "As in Elu, as in Thingol?!"
"You may call me 'sir' or 'your highness'," Elwë said dismissively.
"Splendid!" said Aulë. "I'll leave you two here!"
Legolas would have protested, but he was too busy staring at the former king of Doriath with a mixture of awe and annoyance to notice that Aulë had disappeared again. By the time he looked away, the Vala was gone. "Well I guess it's just you and I, Elu."
Elu sniffed. "What are we supposed to do here, exactly?"
"We're fixing swords, Elu."
"With hammers, Elu."
"I thought I only gave you permission to call me-"
"Aulë said I'm in charge, Elu."
Growling, Elu stood up as straight as he could to his full, impressive height. "I prefer to be addressed formally. Or at least as 'Thingol'."
Legolas shrugged and suppressed a grin. "Whatever you say, Elu."
The king stood beside the anvil and moped for the rest of the day.
The next morning, however, he was in far better spirits. So much better, in fact, that Legolas secretly wondered if Aulë had drugged him.
"I say, this is actually quite fun!" Elu told Legolas as he hammered away at a crooked longsword. "Really lets you free your frustrations, doesn't it?"
Legolas refrained from pointing out that most of his frustrations of late were caused by hammering swords, not freed by it.
"I think I'm getting the hang of it. I don't know why I didn't think to try this sooner. Would have really helped toward the end, you know. Why, if I'd have tried my hand at smithery back in the day, that business with the Nauglamir might have gone differently! I might not have died! But then I wouldn't be here now. And I wouldn't know how enjoyable this can be, and I never would have wished I'd done it long ago. Hmm, perplexing."
"You probably would have been killed by the Sons of Feanor," said Legolas.
"Oh right," said Elu. "That would have been messy. Though do you suppose I might have made myself a fine sword like this one here;" he swung the blade up dangerously close to Legolas' ear before slamming it back down; "and defeated them all single-handedly?"
"Unlikely. You'd need to have been a better swordsman than Maedhros, who knocked off half your royal guard from what I hear. Single-handedly."
"True," Elu admitted. "I'd have to go back further in time and learn to be an amazing swordsman. Do you suppose that if I'd had a reputation as an amazing swordsman, that would have prevented Doriath from being invaded?"
Legolas did not answer. This had no impact on Elu's talkativeness whatsoever.
"Where are you from, anyhow, Legolas?"
"I am a prince of Eryn Lasgalen."
"Never heard of it. Who was your father?"
"His name is Thranduil."
"Never heard of him. Grandfather?"
Elu frowned. "No, doesn't ring a bell. Are you sure you're a prince? You don't seem to be related to anybody important."
"Elu, you're hammering the sword too much. Now it's gone concave."
Between the two of them, Legolas and Elu managed to finish only two swords that day.
The next day was hardly better. For an excess of talking and dearth of working, Elu actually managed to make one blade worse. Legolas had to take it away before he broke it clear in half. The day after, Legolas wisely made Elu supervise. He could talk and supervise at the same time. Most of the talking happened to be on his favourite topic: himself.
"Now," he told Legolas in a way that indicated he was about to divulge a great secret, "the reason I am here is because the fellow from Mandos, Námo or however he's called, thinks I have a bad attitude toward Dwarves and Goldin... or Noldor, as I suppose they're called here. Can you imagine? He suggested that spending some time in the traditional role of those types might improve my understanding. Of course, hammering and making noise is all fine and good. But would you really want to put yourself in the place of a Dwarf? I just can't fathom. A Dwarf! Really."
"One of my closest friends was a Dwarf," Legolas said irritably.
"Really? A friendly Dwarf?"
"Yes. His name was Gimli. You wouldn't have liked him. He was too short and bearded for your taste."
"That does sound Dwarvish," said Elu. "When you say he was your friend, what do you mean happened to him? Did you have a falling out?"
Again, Legolas did not answer. Again, this had no impact on Elu's talkativeness.
"I don't think I could ever be a friend to a Dwarf. After all, they did kill me, and that was a nasty experience, let me tell you. You'd think they'd keep those little knives of theirs sharper. Of course I didn't think they were actually going to do it! You know, when someone whose head is as high as your navel threatens to kill you, it's very difficult to take him seriously. I kept wanting to pinch his nose. Dwarves have rather bulbous noses, have you noticed? I did that once, and you wouldn't believe the outrage it caused. Just for tweaking a Dwarf's nose! You'd think I'd stripped him naked and painted him blue for the fuss he made. Those Dwarves have no sense of fun. They bang and hammer in their little workshops all day, but don't know how to enjoy themselves. Frankly, I find it baffling. No wonder they're not allowed out here. Their dour Dwarvishness would bring down the whole atmosphere."
Legolas had finally had enough. He slammed the hammer down, knocking his sword to the floor, and glared at Elu. As long as he had lived, he could not recall any person who had better annoyed him, insulted him, or driven him to such loathing. "Elu," he hissed, "if one more ignorant word comes out of your thoughtless head, I swear by the stars I'll-"
He never managed to finish the sentence. A searing breeze had suddenly come up behind, and that could only mean one thing. Aulë had donned his Hot Cloud aspect.
Elu, who was unaccustomed to being spoken to in such a manner, narrowed his eyes contemptuously at Legolas. "You'll what?"
"I'll tell Aulë what you think about Dwarves."
"Ha!" Elu laughed. "What I think about Dwarves? Why should he care?"
"Aulë," Legolas said clearly to the hot cloud hovering overhead, "would you mind telling Elu what you know about Dwarves?"
The cloud cooled, solidified, and compacted itself into the shape of an Unremarkable Noldo. "I know everything about Dwarves," he said. "After all, I did invent them."
For the rest of the day and the two following, Elu was uncharacteristically quiet, courteous, and helpful. And for the first time since his arrival, Legolas began to notice that the pile of poorly-made swords was getting smaller.
"Lucky," muttered Gilfanon as he staggered by under the weight of another armful of helmets. He was partnered with somebody called Findor, and both were convinced that their workload was only increasing.
"Have you noticed," Elu said to Legolas at the start of one day, "that the pile of swords is always larger in the morning than when we leave it at night?"
"I had noticed, yes," said Legolas.
Elu glanced around to make sure nobody was listening, and even felt the air above his head for tell-tale warmth before continuing. "I think somebody is sneaking in here at night and adding to our workloads," he whispered.
Legolas rolled his eyes. "That would be logical."
"Do you want to know my plan?"
"Are you going to tell me whether I want to know or not?"
Elu nodded. "Yes. Here's what I think. I think we should work in shifts. I will work the day, and you the night. That way we can find out where all the new swords are coming from. I don't think anybody would dare add to our pile while one of us stood guard. That way, we could be finished!"
"But if we finish, Aulë will only give us a new job. And I don't mind swords. They're far better than helmets. Ask Gilfanon."
'But don't you know?" Elu asked excitedly.
"The end of the swords means the end of our imprisonment! As soon as we get through that pile, we're free to go! Aulë can only keep us here as long as we have a job to do. Once that one job is finished, we're free! And I do want to be free. Don't you?"
Legolas was baffled by Elu's words. As far as he knew, he was not imprisoned, unless both Aulë and Matyelcar had neglected to tell him something important.
If Elu saw Legolas' confusion, he showed no sign. "This is what Aulë told me on my first day here. As long as there are swords to mend, I am bound to his service. But when the swords are finished, I am free to go. There is no way out of here except to finish the job; it's part of the enchantment of this place. And if we don't take some action against the pile-up of new swords every night, we can never leave! When the swords are gone, the wall will open for us, and we can leave freely. Don't you want that?"
Yes, Legolas thought. He suddenly wanted it very much. When he had been working out of what he had thought was his own free will, it had been no hardship. But at the realisation that he was a prisoner, he wanted nothing more than to leave immediately. "Right," he said. "I do want that. I'll stand guard tonight and find out who's adding to our sword pile. This has gone on long enough."
When everyone else finished for the day, Legolas hid under his table and waited. He did not dare try working; the sound of a single hammer ringing on a single anvil in the vast room would be certain to draw unwanted attention. So he sat with legs pulled up to his chest and his chin on his knees, his bottom growing steadily sorer through its contact with the hard ground, and he waited. He hummed to himself, sang quietly, counted bricks, and picked at the roughening skin on his fingers to pass the time. He made a game of sitting absolutely still for as long as he could. He tossed metal shavings, trying to get them to land in a bucket under the next table. And he waited more.
It was not until shortly before the next workday began that someone finally came into the room. Aulë, in his aspect of White-Robed Prince, was wandering up and down between the tables. Every once in a while, he would pause for a few moments, his back always inconveniently turned to Legolas, before moving on. He paused at Gilfanon and Findor's table. He paused at the table next to where Legolas was hiding. As Legolas crawled out and hid behind the anvil to get a better look, he paused at Legolas and Elu's table.
This time, Legolas could see exactly what was happening. He and Elu had left their table as instructed: finished swords in one pile, unfinished swords in another. They had always assumed that somebody came during the night to take away the finished swords and add new ones to the pile for the morning. But Aulë did not gather the swords to clear away. Instead, he picked up only one. His hand glowed momentarily with a bright golden light, and the sword seemed to wilt from his power. It bent in the middle, the edges grew dull and uneven, and the tip became blunted. The glow faded, and Aulë tossed the ruined sword into the unfinished pile.
It took three repetitions of this for Legolas to realise what was happening. There were no new swords in the morning. During the night, Aulë deliberately ruined the ones they had fixed, and set them back to be done again. He was the one who sabotaged their progress. With a loud shout and no thought at all, Legolas leapt up from his hiding place. "Hey! What do you think you're doing?"
Aulë did not even look at him. "I'm resetting your daily work, Legolas."
"But we finished those! Those ones were done! Why do we have to do them again?!"
"You've likely done all the swords in this pile at least ten times over," said Aulë. "But that's not the point of your work. You are here to learn."
"But... why make us... how are we ever supposed to... I don't understand!"
Slowly, Aulë turned around to gaze at Legolas with a sad smile. "Did you never wonder where all the swords came from?"
Legolas could not honestly say that he had.
"Did you never wonder why so many people here spend so many days fixing weapons and armour in a land that has no war?"
"It serves no purpose but to busy the body and heal the mind. Everyone here is here for a reason. To pay his penance to the world. Did you never notice that? Your partner, Elu, new from Mandos, still harbours feelings of resentment toward the Noldor and the Dwarves. Before he can rejoin the world of the living, he must rid himself of prejudices through their manner of work. Your friend Gilfanon followed Fëanor out of Tirion and slew the innocent Teleri at Alqualondë, and he has come here to work away his guilt. The more helmets he mends, the more he will learn that battle is not a path of excitement and glory. I will know when they have worked enough, and I decide when they are ready to leave."
"But what about me?" Legolas asked. "I did none of those things. How long must I stay?"
"Matyelcar never told me your exact situation. But I should be able to tell when you are ready."
"But I only came here to learn how to be a smith. I'm not here for any penance."
Aulë stared at him. It was an uncomfortable kind of stare. The kind of stare that made him think Aulë had just realised a great mistake.
"Ohhhhh..." said Aulë. "Ah. Well then." He shifted uncomfortably. "I'm afraid you're in the wrong place. You should be on the other side."
"The other side?"
"The other side of the pillars." Aulë gestured to the rows of pillars containing the tunnel enchantment. "This side is for those working off debts, guilts, curses, sins, and other misfortunes. That side is for the regular smiths. You should be over there."
"You mean to say," Legolas said hotly, "that I've been mending faulty swords, by myself and with Elu, for no reason all this time? Because you made a mistake?"
Aulë nodded. "That's exactly it. But don't worry. You can move tomorrow. Tomorrow, I will show you the way to the other side. Then you can properly begin your training."
Legolas slumped back down behind the anvil. "Thanks," he muttered to Aulë, in a tone that indicated anything but gratitude. He waited only until Aulë had moved on to ruin the next table's work before leaving the workshop as quickly as possible.
Elu was waiting for him outside his bedroom. "Well? What did you see?"
"Aulë," said Legolas. "Aulë's the one hindering our progress. Every night he comes in and undoes all our work. One touch of his hand, and the swords are back to the way they were before we fixed them."
Elu looked furious. "And to think I told him he had nice eyes!" he spat. "How horrible! Did you at least stop him?"
"I couldn't. He said... well... I don't think I'm supposed to repeat what he said. It sounded too much like a secret. But I couldn't stop him. The pile of mangled swords has been refreshed for you."
"The nerve of him! I'll be reporting this abuse to my wife. I can tell you now that she'll have a thing or two to say about... wait a moment." He paused to look at Legolas shrewdly. "You said the pile was waiting for me. What about you?"
Legolas took a breath, and looked at the floor. "I'm leaving."
"Leaving? What do you mean, leaving? Aulë's letting you go?"
"It turns out I'm not supposed to be here," said Legolas. "It was a misunderstanding. I came here on my own to learn how to be a smith, and Aulë thought I was here for penance like you. When we talked, it became clear that he had made a mistake. He wants to transfer me to the regular workshop today."
"Oh. Well that's alright, then. You'll still be here."
"No..." Legolas said carefully. "I am leaving this place altogether."
Elu looked confused. "But you just said you came here to learn the trade. Why leave now when you're finally getting your chance?"
"I came here out of respect for my friend," said Legolas. "Gimli, the Dwarf. I wanted to learn the skill of metalcraft as a reminder of him." Once he spoke these words and started the story, a story he had told no-one until this point, Legolas found he could not stop. He looked Elu squarely in the eye and continued. "Gimli was one of eight companions to the bearer of a Ring of Power at the end of the Third Age. Because of this, he was granted the right to sail into the West with me. And he did. That was nearly six hundred years ago. He was the only Dwarf ever to live in the Undying Lands, and this was both a blessing and a curse for him. With no others of his kind, he became unhappy and withdrawn. He came here to Aulë's workshop to study under his master, the one who made all Dwarves, but even that wasn't enough. Three hundred and ninety years after he arrived, he left. We built him a boat, and he sailed back into the east to search for anyone remaining of his kin. I don't know if he ever made it, or in the event that he did make it back, if he ever found his people. But he was a close friend. And to preserve his memory, I tried to learn the craft he loved."
For a long while, Elu was silent, respectfully holding Legolas' gaze. "I'm sorry to learn of your loss," he finally said. "It's hard losing someone dear. But you've done a fine thing to honour him this way."
Legolas could only nod.
"Good luck on your journey home," Elu added, placing a hand on Legolas' shoulder. "When I am free, I will come find you."
"Then I will wait for your visit."