1. Tree and Stone
He stopped in the doorway of the room, legs planted firmly apart and arms akimbo. Someone was already in the room - and they were bent over his tools.
“Hmmph!” he grunted again, loudly and meaningfully.
Fifteen years now he had been coming down to spend winters working on this carving, and they knew well how he liked things. No one came in while he was working except, and only rarely then, the king himself at the end of the day. His requirements - water and the light nuncheon he would take at noon - were placed in the room before he arrived. Neither servant nor king had ever had the temerity to touch his tools. He was Borin, master stone carver of Lonely Mountain, and money alone was not enough to buy his work. Loathe he would be to leave this cave of sunrise-coloured rock with its truth only half-found, but his rules were to be followed.
The elf turned around. It was a small elf - small and delicate to his eyes. It stood there with its finger in its mouth, and gazed wordlessly at him. How young it was he couldn’t be sure - what use to count years in a being that would outlive his carving - but in face and manner it reminded him of those children at home who still needed help with buttons and ties. Whether boy or girl he couldn’t tell either: With their slender bodies and long hair, even adult Elves seemed much the same to him.
His anger had faded at the realisation that it was a child. Children were rare at Lonely Mountain and Aulë had gifted him with neither wife nor child. It was a helpless looking little thing, as unlike the sturdy sons and daughters he had dreamed of as may be. Its hair was fair – the cloudy fair of a rabbit’s first fur - and its eyes the soft brown of woodland brooks. In fact, it had that same frail half-grown look of a week-old, barely-furred rabbit he decided with a faint grim smile. At the smile, the child relaxed a little and took the finger from its mouth. As it did, Borin saw the blood on it.
“Fool,” he rumbled, bustling forward.
He took the pale slender hand, holding it as cautiously as he did the ridiculously fragile Elven glassware, and turned it to lie in his horny palm. A ribbon of blood ran down from the tip and he mopped at it gently with his sleeve. He was relieved to see that it was but a shallow cut – a neatly sliced flap of skin, no more. Grumbling softly he steered the child over to the basin of water where he sluiced the rock dust off at the end of work each day. There were clean cloths there, too, and Borin sliced a neat strip off one with the blade of his axe and bound it firmly around the finger. The child watched with interest but didn’t speak and he was grateful. This small it probably did not yet have the Common tongue, and he would as lief not make a fool of himself trying to speak the Elves’ gibble-gabble tongue.
When he released the hand, the child inspected the bandage carefully, then looked up at him and smiled. Borin smiled back before drawing his brows down into a frown. He pointed to his tools, and shook his head.
The small Elf’s face fell and it begged a silent appeal with wide brown eyes. Borin shook his head again, this time with more emphasis.
Slowly, the child nodded and, satisfied, Borin turned to select a chisel. He approached the pillar he was working on and gently laid his hand on it in greeting. Beneath his palm, the stone was smooth and cool, and he felt its softness and how it welcomed his uncovering of its treasures. He crooned to it in low tones, telling the stone of its beauty and asking its permission for his work. Stepping back, he almost trod on the Elf. It squeaked slightly as it skipped back away from his heavy feet. Borin frowned again and pointed to the door. The child looked up to him but didn’t move. He swept both hands forward now, palms out, and emphasised the gesture with a firm nod towards the door.
The Elf planted its feet on the ground with almost a stamp and crossed its arms. Then it shook its head back and forth with great determination, all but shouting 'no', though it didn’t speak.
“If you were mine,” Borin growled, “you’d be learning to do what you were told or else.”
He was sure that it understood nothing of what he had said – but the tone was obviously sufficient. It bit its lip apprehensively, though it did not move. Borin’s fists went back to his hips. So he was to be defied by a half-grown Elf that he could snap in two with one hand, was he? For a moment he contemplated picking it up bodily and depositing it outside the room – let it run to its parent if it liked – before the humour of the situation struck him and he gave a bark of laughter. He shook his head again, but this time in an exaggerated gesture of giving up, and the child giggled. Borin caught at a smile, and with one hand drew a wide circle around himself - Leave me alone - before picking up a tray of tools and sitting down at a spray of leaves that he had carved the day before. Fluidly, the child sank down cross-legged beside where he worked. It leant its chin in its hands and its elbows on its knees and watched intently.
“Hmmph!” Borin muttered before he picked up a fine-edged chisel and began to chip away at a faint tracery of veins on a leaf. Once started in his search for the truth in the rock he barely noticed the child. Slowly and painstakingly, he would tap once or twice, shift the angle of his chisel and tap again, then brush at the surface with his rough hand before blowing away the finer dust and polishing the carving with a smooth cloth. Then he would pick up his hammer and chisel again, and begin work on the next tiny section.
Frequently, he would stop and, moving back a little, twist his head this way and that, to examine his work from all angles. Then, perhaps, he would scrape at a faint roughness he had found on a leaf or deepen a carved vein by a fraction. Once, as he paused while polishing a newly-finished leaf, a movement caught his eye and he turned to see a small bandaged hand creeping towards his chisel.
“Uh!” he growled deep in his throat and the hand retreated.
Three or four leaves later, as he shifted to his knees to reach a higher section, and took a moment to stretch his cramped back, Borin realised the child had gone. Better it would be to not have it under his feet, he told himself – even as a drip of water down his back startled him. With an oath, he jerked away and turned. Behind him the Elven child stood frozen, both hands clutching his own pewter tankard. Water dripped from the carved sides and the trail of water that crossed the floor from the wooden water bucket showed what the child had done. Its eyes were wide with dismay and it bit its lip as it watched Borin – and a great oaf he castigated himself as.
“Here,” he said, slowly putting out a hand. “For me?”
The child nodded and carefully put the tankard into his hand. He took it, drank deeply – could he do less after his boorishness – and passed it back with a smile of thanks. The child smiled too, then, with that eerily silent manner of moving they all seemed to have, walked back to the bucket with the great tankard.
Borin wiped his face with the back of his hand and shifted on his heels to survey his next task. Here the trunk had been carved - he ran his hand gently over the rough golden bark – but the leaves only roughed in with a clawed tool. He had finished them in the late hours of the night and now he searched anxiously for a flaw: a false shape or awkward line, a desecration of the stone’s own grain. No, there was nothing – all was true and all belonged. He thanked Aulë and picked up a pointed chisel and his wooden mallet.
With blow after blow, he shaped the spray of leaves. Just as in the grove of trees outside the arched window, each leaf would be different and each have its own size and shape. There was little room in Borin’s mind for anything other than the stone’s urgings now, but the occasional glance he gave as he changed tools showed the child back in its position beside him. The work went well – the leaves growing from the stone easily and taking on their own life. As the fire in his veins began to burn, Borin started to sing. He sang of gold under mountains and of work with hammer and pick, of hammer’s blow and chisel’s strike and of carven halls and fine etched stone. When he stopped as a chisel edge chipped he realised the child was singing too – a wordless song in perfect tune with him.
Borin sat quiet and still as the child sang, even the chisel in his hand forgotten. As the thin high voice went on, sweet and pure, he let his gaze wander around the chamber. On the other side of the window ran a matching tree, finished last winter after he had first shaped the window. Ten matching pillars that stretched from the door to where he sat told of another two winters; the triple fold fluting around the door, and the king’s mark above it had been another winter’s work. Slowly he looked and counted his fifteen winters of work, then let his gaze drift to all that was planned for the future. The plans lay in the king’s chambers – but he did not need them. This was to be his masterpiece and all summer as he worked at Lonely Mountain, or tramped the lands around it selling his skills, he thought of it, planned for it, and cherished it in his mind. Still he would not finish it, he knew. It would be another twenty years at least before this room reached perfection and he would not see it. He looked once more at the child, who, tiring finally of the song, had fallen silent and lay sprawled on its back. Its eyes were fixed on the small carved birds that perched on top of the pillars, and when it saw that Borin was watching the child pointed up at them.
“Fileg,” it said and broke into a whistled birdsong.
Borin smiled at it and thought again of the sons and daughters he would never have. He would have trained them well – taught them how you must find the truth in the stone before you cut it, taught them to respect and care for their tools – and passed on to them this room where a forest must bloom in stone. Now, he must leave it unfinished and leave it to those unknown to him. The child, though – it would see it finished. In twenty years time it would be no more than a tall youth and this room would be a part of all its long days.
Borin reached out, touched the small Elf’s shoulder and gestured ‘Come’. The child sat up eagerly and wriggled over to where Borin sat. Eyes bright and keen it watched him. Borin picked up a sturdy pointed chisel and handed it to the child. It touched the sharp point carefully, stroking a finger gently down its side, then looked up at him. Borin moved the child over to the wall, sitting himself behind it. With a thick forefinger, he traced a roughed-in leaf on a low-reaching branch then, taking the Elf’s hands, showed it how to hold and place the chisel. Carefully, he tapped at the chisel end and the child laughed as a few grains fell. Again and again, he tapped gently at the chisel as the child held it. The child showed itself an able mimic as it shifted the angle of the chisel and stopped between blows to brush away dust or feel the developing shape of the leaf. They had done more than half the leaf when the child reached for the hammer and grunted in a very good imitation of him when he refused. Laughing a little, Borin let it take it. Those puny arms swing even this wooden mallet? A barely toddling Dwarf baby would be more solidly muscled.
The child grunted again in frustration as it struggled to line up both hammer and chisel – but within a minute or two it had found a way and had begun to tap determinedly. It was slow, of course, and sometimes the chisel slipped and the leaf began to develop a more ragged edge than its fellows – but, foolishly, Borin didn’t mind the leaf’s imperfections. They worked through the nooning, both absorbed in the delight of watching the leaf take shape. When the child finally put down the chisel and hammer, it leaned back against Borin and stretched tiredly. Then it wriggled around to face Borin and smiled in delight.
“Legolas,” it said, pointing to the leaf and laughing. “Legolas.”
Borin, setting the child on its feet and climbing stiffly to his own, smiled down at it. Outlandish way to say leaf, but then there you were – never one word with Elves if seven would do and all of them crack-jaw words like that. He leant down to touch the leaf. A little rough it was, but very good for a first attempt.
“Legolas,” he rumbled.
*This was written as a birthday present for Starlight – she asked for a drabble about cultures meeting, and it grew a little ;-)
*I have had Borin speak of Aulë rather than Mahal because I believed it would be more immediately comprehensible to my readers. Following Tolkien’s game, this is all a translation, anyway, and we don’t have the real words that Borin would have used.
*Thanks to Elena_Tiriel for her help with my stone question, to Iris for providing a very useful link about stone carving and to the many readers and reviewers at Stories of Arda who provided me with such enthusiastic support on this story. It helped a lot at a time when I was feeling very unconfident about writing.
*An especial thank you to Faramir-Boromir who helped root out some remaining typos – it was much appreciated.
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.