The Apprentice: 6. Illuminati

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6. Illuminati

[Glossary at end of chapter.]


The journey back to the city is uneventful. As always, we uncork a couple of bottles of wine for our overnight camp, but the Istyar doesn't disturb us with bizarre comments about the stars. Instead we sing. The journeymen and I have passable voices, but the Istyar's baritone is spectacular. Should mortals happen to overhear us, they might be entranced by our lofty melodies. As transcendent as the music might be, they would need to comprehend the language to appreciate that the Istyar leads us in vulgar ditties replete with clever double entendres. He has learned these songs in a time and place beyond our comprehension. It is all we can do to keep from snorting at the humor and destroying the harmony. The Istyar finally breaks into laughter, which sets us to guffawing.

The next day, he hammers me with questions as we ride, not only testing me on what I learned in Tharbad, but also on other subjects which I have been studying. Like all apprentices, I take a series of cumulative examinations. The Istyar has decided to make use of our time to grill me. The journeymen smirk, since they have been subjected to the same unpredictable testing from our master. He prefers to hit us with these exams unexpectedly when we do not have the benefit of studying. "I find out what you really know," he says.

By the time we reach the city, my brain has congealed from my master's intense questioning. After we stable the horses, we soak in the baths, where I recover my senses somewhat, including awareness of how hungry I am. My stomach leads me home where my mother greets me with a tight embrace, relieved that I have returned without becoming the victim of some heinous crime in Tharbad.

~*~

A few days later, as I pass by his office on my way to the laboratory, the Istyar calls to me from his desk.

"Sámaril, a word please."

His voice reverberates in the hall, compelling me to turn into his office where I take a seat. He glances at me but returns to his work. His graceful script flows across the page of his notebook while he writes and speaks simultaneously.

"It's time to select a project for completion of your apprenticeship. Alastion's research is proceeding nicely. I anticipate that he will be ready to defend soon and barring any idiocy on your part..." he says, raising his keen eyes again, framed with the sardonic arch of a brow, "...I anticipate that you'll move into that slot. So this is what I'm thinking.

"The blue lamps that light our streets and homes are in need of improvement. The light is dim, and I'm not keen on its spectrum. I'd like to see creation of second-generation lighting. This would be a challenging but not unreachable project for you and would make good use of your combined knowledge of materials and biology."

Sitting forward on the edge of the chair, I eagerly agree with his proposal. If I manage to construct these lamps, I can make a significant contribution to our city. Even better, my name might be associated with them.

"New lamps? Yes, sir, that's an intriguing idea. I'll begin researching materials today in the library."

"There's no need to go to the library immediately," the Istyar says, setting his pen aside. "You require raw materials so we will ride to the Nin-i-Eliph tomorrow. Bring your bed roll and plenty of insect repellent." He returns to his writing, and I am dismissed with the prospect of more fieldwork with my master.

We leave just before dawn the next day. He rides "Mori" as usual, and I am on my borrowed bay gelding. The Istyar pushes the pace of the horses. His stallion is swift, and I wonder if my horse can keep up, especially with me, a mediocre rider at best, guiding him, but the bay manages. We stop in the late afternoon to set up camp in a grove of holly trees within a couple of kilometers of the marshes.

The aromatic insect repellent, an olfactory duet of rosemary and peppermint oils, slides easily onto my skin. The fierce midges that dwell in the marshes and make their way into the bordering land relish human blood of any variety. The Istyar waves me off when I offer him the bottle of oil.

"I don't need it."

As if volunteering for a demonstration, a midge settles on his forearm, then sparks into a burnt crisp, producing a charred odor followed by the scent of rarified air.

"Just a little trick I learned from my master."

We settle in at the campsite since we will not begin our work until dusk. The Istyar is relaxed, enough so that he shares an amusing domestic anecdote, which offers a rare and intimate glimpse into a part of his life largely unknown to his students. He also spins some stories from Aman, which are always fascinating and sometimes funny, particularly those about his fellow students and himself from the days of his own apprenticeship with Aulë.

"Now take Curumo for example. That little weasel was full of himself. He was so stiff and humorless that he made himself an easy target for us. The braggart yammered on and on about his precision at drawing out a particular alloy. So one day, we oiled the handle of his hammer. When he raised it for one of his wonderfully precise strikes, the hammer went flying out of his hand, and struck our master as he walked into the forge. Curumo had to sweep soot for weeks afterwards..."

While he speaks, he scans the woods and meadows around us. He ceases his tale in mid-sentence.

"Here they are, Sámaril! Get the specimen jars and let's go!"

He stands abruptly and grabbing my hand, he yanks me to my feet, nearly dislocating my shoulder in his enthusiasm. We jog to a nearby meadow where fireflies rise from the grass, winking with cold fire.

"Have a seat." He settles himself on a flat boulder, and I sit beside him. "Are you ready?" I nod, and off we go into the flashing insects.

The shimmering, grating language instructs me as we drill down for a closer look. Discrete motes of light, flashing like molecular meteors, fall around me. Photon, triplet state, and slow decay: my master translates these into concepts that I more or less comprehend. Satisfied that I have absorbed the intricacies of the cold light, he carries me back to my own mind.

After taking a few deep breaths, my heart rate slows as I look out over the meadow at the winking stars that drift up from the tall grass. More often than not, these molecular adventures drain me, but this time, rather than being exhausted, I am exhilarated.

"Of course you're worked up!" the Istyar says, his eyes dancing with silver fire. "Bioluminescence is fascinating stuff, boy. There's nothing like the thrill of discovery. Nothing. Even after all this time, I live for that 'Ah, ha!' moment when I make a new discovery. Now take your jars and go collect a few of those bugs."

We linger at the campsite the next morning. Our fieldwork will take place tonight in the marshes, so we have some time for leisure. We pack provisions for a midday meal and ride north toward the villages and farmlands in the western territories of Eregion, where green wheat ripples in the breeze and fields of Númenórean sunflowers nod, their inflorescences following the sun's path. Dirt roads bordered by holly hedges cross the rolling landscape, connecting villages and the villas of farmers. In the East, the rock-strewn slopes climb toward the foothills of the mountains. This is where the herds of sheep and goats graze, tended by shepherds and guarded by huge white dogs, the fánahuor.

"Beautiful country, isn't it?" the Istyar says with a wistful tone, a sad note in his usually confident voice, while he takes in the landscape.

Late in the afternoon, we ride back to the campsite where we tether and groom the horses; they will not accompany us into the treacherous fens. We take inventory of our gear, including water and chunks of dried fruit, since we will eat on foot as we hike to the evening's destination.

We follow an uncertain path that leads us into the depths of the marshes. As the sun nears the horizon, a pair of swans flies overhead, silhouetted against the fiery sky.

"They're magnificent birds, aren't they? Our people have taken them to heart as a symbol of grace and love," says my master as his gaze follows the swans across the arc of the sky. "But for all their beauty and fidelity, they are vicious creatures, especially the black swan."

In spite of the slick layer of insect repellent covering my exposed skin, the midges take their chances and bite me. The scent of charged air intensifies as the insects attempt to dine on my master. The sun has set, and it is slow going as we make our way through the marsh in the dark. A riot of shrill chirps, grating creaks, and percussive clicking surrounds us as the nocturnal insects shriek their discordant song. I misstep and sink up to my knees in muck, raising the sulfurous stink of rotted vegetation. My master sighs and pulls me out of the swamp, the viscous mud making a sucking sound as he extracts me.

The pools of water among the reeds glint with silver light as the waxing moon rises high in the sky. The Istyar stops ahead and peers toward one of those pools.

"There, Sámaril! Do you see it?" He points toward a patch of water. Beneath the silvered surface, the water phosphoresces with smoky tendrils of pale blue light.

"Is it swamp gas?" I ask.

"No, not that. Microorganisms make this light. Most of these are found in the ocean, but what you see is a rare freshwater variety. Come, I'll show you."

We edge over to the pool of water where the blue light shimmers. We find ground with stable footing, but the Istyar puts his hand on my shoulder so that I don't sway or fall when he pulls me with his mind into the water. Again, I cling to him and observe the motes of light trail and blink within the microorganisms. The light is different than that of the fireflies in that it is longer lasting but not as bright.

Back in my own skull, I breathe deeply as I re-orient myself. He tells me to collect samples from the pool with a few small jars we have brought along with us. As we wend our way out of the swamps in the dark, I rely on his remarkably keen sight to keep me from falling into the muck again.

"Sámaril, I'd like you to give some thought as to how you might combine the sources of light from the fireflies with that of the microorganisms. Think of the differences in how their light decays and their respective spectra. I will help you, of course, with the detailed manipulations of the biological samples. You will work on the crystal matrix on your own.

"Now, did I tell you about the time we convinced Curumo that Nessa desired golden dance slippers, and that he ought to include lead in the alloy?" He returns to his tales of the pranks he and his fellow students pulled on the hapless Curumo, whomever he is, chuckling at the memories of his own cleverness.

~*~

Thus begins my project for my advancement from apprentice to journeyman. With the Istyar's assistance, I splice out pieces of the fireflies' essence and combine them with that of the microorganism from the swamp's pool, making a few key adjustments, then I grow the recombined mix in brewer's vats of broth. To capture the microorganisms, I filter the stinking fluid, dry the residue, and grind it to a powder. The powder is dull in the daylight, but glows with a steady yellow light in the dark.

I spend many months in the workshop constructing crystals with varying lattices and make multiple - and unsuccessful - attempts to infuse them with the powder. Frustrated by my failures, I become discouraged, but as the Istyar says, that is the nature of research: it is exacting and tedious work, but it is made worthwhile by that "Ah, ha!" moment. My mother frets, because I spend most of my nights in the laboratory, a necessity so that I can see how my phosphorescent powder spreads. I resort more and more to the waking dreams state in lieu of genuine sleep, which is at best a stop-gap measure for rest and not conducive to good health, but typical for the senior apprentices as we diligently pursue our work.

While I labor at my bench in the lab over the months, I catch bits of conversation among some of the Istyari's journeymen, and even between the two Istyari themselves, both of whom are excited about a pending new initiative. My mentor believes Tyelperinquar's talents, already considerable, have flourished to the point where he should take the fore in this major project that will call upon only the best in the House of the Mírëtanor. The nature of the project is so complex that apprentices and even many of the journeymen will not be allowed to participate.

This motivates me further to pursue my experiments in spite of repeated failures. I am eager to contribute to this new high-profile project, whatever it is. So far, its nature has been shrouded in secrecy.

The Istyari are like boys in their excitement over this endeavor. Tyelperinquar spends more and more of his time working with Istyar Aulendil in the forges as they smelt the fine ores that Tyelperinquar has imported from the Dwarves of Casarrondo. They sit in one another's offices engaged in long animated discussions. We see them striding down the street together, deep in conversation, on their way to the Istyar's row house, where Tyelperinquar has always spent a great deal of his free time. There I expect they wrangle over their ideas, accompanied by crystal glasses filled with serce valaron, late into the night. They truly cut a picture as brothers of the mind and heart.

Finally, my experiments pay off, and I make the necessary connections which lead me to the "Ah, ha!" moment. I construct the crystal lattice that holds the glowing powder in perfect and even suspension.

If it is an "Ah, ha!" moment when I arrive at the solution to the problem, it is a victory cry when I take my crystal, the size of my fist, into a dark closet in the House of the Mírëtanor. The small space is bathed in a warm yellow light, more akin to daylight than our blue lamps. Detail becomes vivid, and I can even distinguish colors of the salts and minerals in the jars lining the shelves. I ensure that my procedures, results, and conclusions are well notated. Then I repeat the experiment, construct another crystal, and I achieve the same result. I next go to the forges and craft gold frames with hoops so that my new lamps may be carried or hung from hooks, and I fit the crystals within these.

All the while, I do this without saying a word to the Istyar. My immersion in the creative process has been obvious to all, but my master has not questioned me regarding my progress. However, the morning after my success, he notices the change in my demeanor: an excitement has bubbled to the surface of my mien. When we encounter one another in the hallway as he strides to the forges and I am on my way to the workshop, he simply asks, "Ah, ha?" I nod vigorously and answer, "Yes." He claps me on the back, causing me to stumble, and walks on.

Shortly after the hallway encounter, I make my way to the forges where he hammers away at a soft ore to remove impurities. I wait until he pauses, then I approach and tell him that I wish to show him my project tonight.

He flashes his radiant smile. "Excellent! I have an engagement this evening, but I can make some time for you. I'll meet you in the courtyard in front of the House of the Mírëtanor at, oh, say an hour after sundown?"

That evening, I sit on one of the granite benches in the courtyard, my lamps covered with dense black cloth. I shiver a little as the winter wind and cold stone conspire to leach out my body's warmth. Shortly, I see the figure of the Istyar under the dim light of the blue streetlamps, his dark robes and fur-lined cloak billowing around him like storm clouds as he strides toward me. He sits on the cold stone bench and eyes the dark lumps of cloth with the glow of my lamps peeping out through the tightly woven fabric.

"So. Show me what wonders you have wrought."

I pull back the black cloth from my lamps, and a ring of yellow light illuminates the courtyard. His face lights up as much as my lamps, and even before he says anything, I feel my heart leap because it is so obvious that I have impressed my master. Still, his words are more than gratifying.

"These are superb, Sámaril! Really, you surpassed my expectations." He lifts each lamp and studies it carefully. "Excellent. The homogeneity of the matrix is beautiful, simply beautiful, lad. Do you have any idea what the half-life is yet?"

"Not yet. I finished the crystals a month ago, and they have not dimmed at all."

"Well, that will take some time for us to measure. You have recorded your work thoroughly?"

"Of course, I have, sir. I have most of it written up for submission to the committee."

"Splendid! You should contact the other members of your committee tomorrow, and we will arrange the date for your examination." He looks up at the stars then back at me. "My apologies, Sámaril. I'd like to hear more about the lamps, but I must leave now. Dinner will be on the table soon, and Tyelperinquar and a few of the other masters and their wives are our guests tonight. I will be in hot water if I am not back in time. Please be sure to stop by my office tomorrow and bring those wonders."

Before he stands to leave, he puts his arm around my shoulders, and the fresh scent of rarified air washes over me. His sentimental gesture surprises me, but at the same time, I relish this demonstrative, almost paternal recognition from my respected teacher.

"I'm proud of you, lad. This is quite an accomplishment." Then he is away like the wings of the night, leaving me to bask in the glow of his praise.


Glossary:
Nin-i-Eliph (S.): Swanfleet marshes at the confluence of the Glanduin and Mitheithel rivers.
Curumo (Q): Saruman
Sámarilo calmar (der. Q): lamps of Sámaril
Casarrondo (Q.): Khazad-dûm; Moria.
Fánahuor (der. Q.): "white dogs," probably much like the Maremma dogs of Italy or Great Pyrenees of the Basque that guard the herds.


This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: pandemonium_213

Status: General

Completion: Complete

Era: 2nd Age - Rings

Genre: Drama

Rating: Adult

Last Updated: 12/18/11

Original Post: 12/18/11

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