The Halls of Aulë were inundated with a ringing chorus of hammers, like echoes of the song that had bent the world into shape. The Maiar within forged and delved, crafting metal and stone, combining solidity and delicacy, depth and fair sheen, within each diadem, lantern, and ornate inlay for citadel thresholds that they created.
In one of the work stations closest to the forges of mighty Aulë himself, Curumo carefully navigated his tongs round the intricate shaping of an iron armband, measuring the negative spaces he sought to fill with finely cut quartzes. This, like all of his work, was practice, with no true product. Embedding gems, still aglow with the memory of primordial light, in nests of wire; turning metal and coaxing it into shapes and incarnations beyond imagining; he should be crafting such things as these. Not yet, though – he had pledged himself not to use the land's greatest wonders until he could wield them as they deserved. He still could not quite find that mad spark of unfettered creation in him, the thing to make him thrive. Quashing a sorry spark of his own sense of incompetence, he looked to the icon of their guild, his unofficial mentor and judge in all he did, working in a hall of his own adjacent to their lord. The firelight illuminated his reddish gold hair like a halo round his bent head.
Mairon could work anything. He could meld ores and create alloys unheard of and mould them into any form, twisting and hammering wire around jewels precious beyond value. He was talent, skill, ambition, and passion, in every single one of his creations. Curumo had learned early on not to disturb the prickly Maia, lest his patience, coiled up inside him like a spring, decide to burst forth. He worked alone, ever alone, for better or worse, and woe betide any curious or excitable Maia who forgot that.
Today, though, he was not alone.
Curumo had been watching for a while, sneaking glances in between shaping and inlaying gemstones. Now, on pretence of adjusting his kerchief, he squinted at the petite figure perched on one of Mairon's high tool racks, talking quickly and quietly to his unresponsive frame. She had a wide, smiling mouth, and her teeth glinted in the forge-fire. There were open slits in the dark tunic she wore, of the kind he had seen cut gracefully into the garb of Eönwë. A Maia of the air, certainly. He hadn't seen her fly in, but the small scattering of black feathers in her dark hair hinted at the wings that were bound to bloom through her clothes.
Out of nowhere, the fires in his forge bloomed beyond the crucible. He sprang back, his skin flushing from the sudden heat. A laugh, bright and delicate like light-filled dewdrops, rang through his ears, and he turned, blushing ever brighter red, to see Arien's blindingly bright light settling into a fair form behind him.
"Forgive me, sweet Curumo," she beamed, tucking the messy copper strands of his hair behind his flushed-red ears. "What work have you set yourself to today, my friend?”
"Just - practicing gemstone inlay..." he stuttered. She was taller and bigger than him, with a barely-contained inferno roaring inside her fair raiment, one that was difficult to not be intimidated by. She had a knack for throwing just about any Maia off guard, no matter how often she came to the halls of Aulë. And she came often.
It's a comfort to be around other fire-spirits, she'd once told Curumo, her voice sad and her eyes far away, and while I love the gardens of Vána, such flame as I also love is best revelled in far from flowers.
There was another reason, too, but they did not often speak of it. He watched as she picked up his armband, inspecting it with genuine curiosity.
"I hate to devolve into gossip already…” Curumo began.
“What do you think I’m here for?” She sat down on his work bench, eyes glinting as she turned the armband in her hands. “’Tis hardly common to hear more than the loveliest words and gentlest deeds where I usually dwell. Go on. ”
Curumo rolled his eyes, then nodded towards Mairon and the strange Maia. “Do you know who that is, talking to him?”
Arien narrowed her eyes, and whether it was suspicion or disapproval dimming them, Curumo could not tell.
"A lesser Maia of Manwë, I believe," she said softly, "Though I do not know her name. The last time we spoke, Mairon said she sometimes brings him messages from Eönwë. Perhaps she works for him."
Curumo squinted at the two, conversing softly within the forge. "I don't suppose he likes her very much."
"Mairon?" Arien followed his eyes. "I don't suppose he likes anybody who distracts him from his work."
"Well, Eönwë knows better." She cocked her head to the side. "Is that what concerns you, Curumo? You worry about bothering him for help?"
"It's just not like him," he said shortly, looking down in indignation. He wasn’t fumbling, just curious and eager to understand, as he always was. "Since when does he humour people he doesn't like? You know him, Arien."
"I don't claim to know him more than anyone else," she said, raising an eyebrow. "We were brought into this existence very close to each other, certainly. We saw one another's earliest moments. I perhaps know his ways, but I cannot see into his heart any more than you."
“I suppose then, we shall always have to wonder what made him different in the first place.” Immediately, he knew he’d said the wrong thing. This was the thing they did not talk about. Her expression shut him out with a twitch of the lip and a clench of the jaw.
“So that is what concerns you.”
“He didn’t have to keep an eye on my work, but he did,” Curumo frowned. “So now I’m all bound up in what he does and I would work more peacefully knowing I didn’t have to worry for my mentor.”
“Content yourself with discontent, then, for he is not so different from my forsaken kindred,” she said, her voice low like a crackling ember. “When the Dark One made his first war they chose to fall into shadow and flame. He did not, for he is stronger than them, but he is no innocent. I know him well, but you have also known him long enough to know some of what he values, and such things sit ever on the edge of a knife.” She rose then, straightening her skirts and squinting at him. “If you’ve any doubt, speak to Ossë.”
And with that she returned his armband and stalked off into another part of the halls, her light bouncing off the ceilings and pillars brighter than any forge-flame. Curumo stared after her. She had always been strong-willed, but never crude or impulsive. It was unlike her to react as she had. Curumo muttered an uncivil curse, scolding himself or whatever it was that had made Arien so upset, and spared one last glance at Mairon. He was evidently quite annoyed now – his state of irritation consisted of hands on the table, squared shoulders, narrowed eyes, and a hissing growl of words sharp enough to cut flesh. Curumo winced, feeling the most minute twinge of pity for the other Maia. He’d been on the receiving end of Mairon’s barbed tongue more than once before.
He looked back down at his scattered quartzes and abandoned hammer. Arien’s words troubled him, but perhaps not as they should have – inside his worry was a little excitable imp, nervous but infinitely curious, wishing to comprehend more of the strangeness and ambiguity that cloaked this imposing master among Maiar smiths.
He shook his head, once, and twice, scattering his thoughts and waving them away. It was like trying to work those unfathomable metals into incomprehensible shapes. Best not worry about such things yet. Best focus on simpler things in his control, and do them right.
He picked up his hammer, and it rejoined the chorus in the halls of Aulë.
Mairon scrubbed soot from his face as the Halls of Aulë fell away behind him, hidden as he descended a rise in the land. The round tone of the silver bell was sounding for rest-taking, but there would be no rest for him this hour, even as he walked sure-footed upon his course – a different route from last time, and the time before. A precaution. Any respite from creative thought that may have been had while descending the gorge, however, was waylaid by the incessant jittering of the little winged annoyance humming and bouncing around him.
“You really ought to brush your hair out,” she said, grabbing for a lock that he’d missed when tying it back with his kerchief.
He jerked his head away. “And you’d better tuck your hands into your pockets and turn around. I do not need you to entertain, escort, or assist me, and He doesn’t either. Not today. Go home."
“Oh, why should I?" she hissed excitedly. “It’s been such a terribly long time since last He called to us. I've got a new name for myself, and I want to tell Him."
He cast his eyes skyward. “Oh, splendid.”
She came right up to his ear, and he resisted the urge to shove her into the rocky wall where it fell back into a dark cave.
“Thuringwethil,” she grinned. “What do you think about that?”
Mairon spared her only a cursory glance, purely so she could see the distaste on his face. "That's not the brightest thing to call yourself in Almaren."
"You're insufferable," she said, sniffing at the double-ended jab, before grinning wide and wild. "Anyway, I'm not going to be around here much longer. The tides are changing."
“Yet this Valarin vessel is still seaworthy.” He descended into the cave, and she clambered down after him. The air down here cut like shards of ice, stealing into his blood that still burned from forge work and freezing it. "Do try not get ahead of yourself. He’ll hardly be pleased to find you little more than a stain on the ground if you reveal your hand too soon.”
She stopped, and in the sudden silence he turned, curious. Her little hands were balling into fists. “We’re on the same side, you know.”
“Are we?" Though he stood on the boulder below her, he drew himself up, encasing his heart in petty annoyance and dislike until it became something uglier - something that made her quail.
"Don’t profess to tell me what side I am on," he said softly. "Only He knows that – and He has not requested your presence today.”
“When did you get so nasty?”
“I’ve always been nasty,” he sniffed, turning away. “In fact, everyone is nasty when they desire to be, even Eönwë. Go home now, Thuringwethil.”
“You’re loathsome,” she snapped, and stormed back to the entrance.
He tutted, continuing on down the path, until the lamplight of the outside world was cut out, and the only illumination came from the dim glow of Mairon’s own raiment. The two of them were not alone in Almaren as beings sought after by Him; this much they knew. Yet when a chance encounter in this subterranean sanctuary had thrown them together, she’d taken it upon herself to latch onto him, as though fearing to be cloven from someone else who saw and heard the same things he did. It was infuriating. It was dangerous. Already Eönwë had begun to notice the two of them; and while he responded mostly with teasing, it still struck a little lance of fear in Mairon’s heart. Fear of discovery? Or perhaps fear of his only true friend in this land doing the discovering? With unnecessary force, he stamped his feet on the unyielding rock as he jumped a gap. If he did not cast such thoughts from his mind, He would find them, and He would use them, and Mairon would lose his purchase on his own self.
The immense, sprawling cave sloped gently downwards, until the walls and ceiling opened up into a natural hall. This was the beginning of the great system beneath Almaren, one he had traversed a few times before. He clambered with ease over the untamed rock, only ever seeing one step ahead of himself in this darkness. Yet he knew the path with certainty. He’d known it in times past, when he had first had the visions, and had followed them, irrevocably tugged to this cavernous waste below the earth by a voice speaking words and elevating unspoken emotions inside him, a call he could not ignore. The call was quieter now – he had taught himself to not be overwhelmed, to regain his agency over himself. Base feeling would never again commandeer him. He’d liked what he’d heard, even if it made his skin crawl with the thrill of what he was dabbling in. Still, he was Mairon, the one who had worked his existence to earn his name, the greatest among his people, and he demanded to be convinced properly.
Time passed utterly uncounted. At last, when he’d travelled so deep into the earth that he was certain ice and darkness were in fact real, ravaging claws tearing him into shreds of himself - at last he saw it. A wide, flat shard of obsidian, seeping out of the earth like some great sunken monolith. He stood before it, the darkness around him sucking the light out of the pores of his raiment, the silence buzzing like a primordial horde in his head.
Then, in the centre of the shard, he saw it. The first inklings came as the flickering shadows of windblown leaves, a sudden darkness beyond darkness, and an inexplicable glimmer that could not be real. The silence in his mind was replaced by the call, the aching, longing siren’s wail that drew him down into this desolation and filled him with such potent will to make and do and achieve. He dug his fingers into his palms. He could not lose himself – not now, not ever.
And then He was there. He was light, but not light. He was the shining, though not the source. He was brighter than the flames of a crucible, a stunning, staggering brightness - and yet a bastardisation of light, a terrible distortion of the spectrum, as though gleaming through shattered glass or over dark, disturbed waters.
“You are afraid today,” He whispered.
“I am not.”
“Obstinate as ever. I will not claim to know your thought, but I think you are scared to displease them – those who profess to admire you and care for you.”
Mairon stayed silent. He could not conjure words of wit, sharp enough to cut skin; neither could he hope for open honesty to brandish itself like a white-hot iron blade. Fear - it was a thing neither of them would ever confess to openly, and yet something they could never banish from their hearts, lingering like a cloud they would not acknowledge even should it black out the light of the Lamps. And Mairon’s fear – it was loathsome, because in the deepest recesses of his fire-bright soul, he knew that he cared little for it, and was happy to use it as fuel for his fire until it was burned away and the world spread before him. Fear was ugly. Fear came from painful places. He wanted to be rid of it. He desired the power to be rid of it.
“There. That is why I chose you.”
A gust seemed to stir the still, musky underground air, and a shudder ran through Mairon, one he could not quell.
"Who among them ever understood you, Mairon? Your brilliance. Your genius. You know what they say when their lord is away and the flames have quieted. They call your skill unnatural and spit at your heels."
“I will never turn away, for I have seen you for who you are, and you are beyond them. You need not hide behind ‘Mairon’, the name and quality they gave you without knowing the truth of your heart.”
“And what name would you give me?”
“Whatever name you call yourself. But to you, I would give a title. My lieutenant.”
“A lieutenant?” he said, and found his voice weak. He cursed himself. “You are not at war.”
“I soon will be. Something is coming, Mairon. Something that will shake the foundations of the world. I cannot achieve it without you.”
“Of course you can.”
“Maybe so. But I would rather not – and I think you’d rather be part of it. There’s no need to shutter your ambition around me, Mairon. Revel in it.”
The tension within him was twofold - wanting to flee, and craving to stay. He knew the choice he would make, however – he had known it for a while. Why else did he keep returning – why else did he humour Thuringwethil?
He thought of Arien, some time ago, and what she had said to him.
There’d been somebody seated in front of his chambers. Seated, perhaps, was not the most accurate description. She’d been hunched over, knees pulled up to her chest, staring at her toes. He and Arien had always, half in jest, seen one another as twins. Existing in the same radiance of light in the morning of the world, reaping fire from the great crevasses as they carved out a realm from desolate rock. He’d felt her fear as he sat next to her. Sometimes, he wondered if it was not her fear he felt, rather than his own.
“I can never escape it,” she’d murmured. “I hear it in my waking hours, so I sleep, though I need it not. But when I sleep, I dream. And he is always in the dream.” She’d pressed her hands over her temples, letting out a terrible whimper that sent a chill down Mairon’s spine. “He is always seeking me. His eyes are like stars trying to blind me, and his words are like chains trying to ensnare me, and his hands are like shadows trying to snuff out my light. I fight him endlessly until I wake, and am more exhausted than before, and then I keep hearing it like a ringing in the ears. Am I going mad, Mairon? I think I’m going mad."
And he’d wondered why he wasn’t going mad alongside her. He wondered why when He spoke, Mairon felt a tug and a pull that filled him with illicit joy and hope; why His light was so alluring, why His words were so perfectly said and placed, why His shadows reached out gently like an embrace.
He had perhaps been lying to himself, hiding behind the weaknesses and fear of Mairon of Almaren, scared to embrace a part of him that would shake the Halls of Aulë and send its workers scrambling. He could not hide that anymore. In truth, from the moment He had first spoken to him, he’d known this to be someone who would affect him and change him, a force in his life for a long time, whether that time be for better or worse in the end. The ‘better’ or ‘worse’ would be up to him and his choice. And though his heart fluttered with fear, he burned it away with what little fire he could summon from down in this hole of darkness and ice. Without Him, Mairon knew that the strange path now laid before his feet would have no illumination. He would be blind before the darkness, without Melkor's words as both lamp and leader.