Magol crested the valley entrance then stopped in surprise. When he’d been told of Canas Odhellim, he’d expected a small town, like Bree or Esgaroth. What he saw instead was a thriving city, no Minas Tirith, but at least the size of Dale or Edoras. No ghost hamlet this, instead it was clearly the center of commerce and government for the region. He didn’t know if this would make his quest easier or harder.
As he walked down to the river he began to notice some distinctions. The southern bank of the river and the western mouth that emptied into the Belegaer were alive with activity. As he got closer he saw the bustle of commerce and the industry of construction. New buildings went up, ships came in and out of the docks, people scurried about in their daily business. In contrast, the northeastern part of the city was still and silent. Piles of stone rubble revealed where tall towers had been knocked down and the remaining walls had black scorch marks. Decaying boats and fields of feathered arrow shafts portrayed a silent tale of destruction and devastation.
Rather than sneak through the ruins, he entered through the south gate into the living part of the city. “Name?” asked the smiling clerk. A part of Magol wondered at the sight of a high elf, demonstrated by his height, his leaf-shaped ears, and glowing eyes. The other half cringed to think such a distinguished individual serving as a lowly clerk.
“Magol of the House of Caranthan.”
“From what nation?” The grizzled man wondered how backward these people were that they didn’t recognize the House of Caranthan.
“Ithilien in Gondor.”
“And the purpose for entering our busy city?”
“I’m here to seek a sword.”
“You’ll be wanting a weapon smith then. That’ll be Steel Street in the Mirdain district. Be warned, the inns in that district are a bit pricey-”
“Not that kind of sword.” At this the Elf stopped scribbling away at his ledger and looked up. The smile fell from his face to be replaced by a serious frown.
“When you say that, do you mean one made by a specific race? The Steel Street has smiths of all the free races, Man, Elf or Dwarf. Or do you mean one with the power of magic? Because that would be the same location. The wrights work together with the smiths.”
“I meant a sword made by the Blacksmith.” Magol put as much emphasis as he could in the last word.
“I see.” Not only the clerk but all the guards were paying attention as well. “You’re one of those types. You know, he only takes very few commissions. And the price is high, probably more than you can afford.”
“The House of Caranthan is the second wealthiest House of Gondor-”
“I’m not talking about money!” snapped the Elf, bright eyes flashing.
“We’re very influential as well.” The dark haired elf closed his eyes and massaged the bridge of his nose. He looked the same way Magol’s elder brother did when having a headache, then dismissed the thought. As if Elves were prone to such human ills!
“That’s not-” the Elf sighed and started again. “There are only two ways to earn a gift from the Blacksmith. The first is to serve in Canas Odhellim for ten years-”
“Ten years!” shouted the Gondorian. He had expected one or two, maybe even five. But ten?
“Ten years,” spoke the Elf, patiently keeping his voice low. “It can be any role. You may join the Guard. You may serve as a civil servant, in law or medicine or education. You can take up a trade. Indeed, many who have come here seeking the same as you have become smiths in their own right, and discovered greater fulfillment in creating their own weapon rather than having another fashion one for them.”
This explained how so many traveled to this city on the edge of nowhere, yet came back empty-handed. Or never returned at all. Anything could happen in ten years. The supplicant could decide it wasn’t worth it, and get a lesser sword from one of the smiths of the Mirdain. He could make a life here and decide to never leave. He could die.
“Ten years is not so long. A Dwarf must work for twenty years, and Eldar for a century.”
“Only an Elf would say that ten years is a short time.” snorted Magol. “Do you have a sword forged by the Blacksmith?”
The Elf shook his head. Magol sneered at him. Coward.
“What’s the second way?”
Now the Elf looked as grim as Death. Maybe he really was a high Elf, alive from the dawn of the sun and all the horrors of the First Age. “Trial by Fire.”
They’d let him keep his sword and armor. The sword would be necessary for the forging said the clerk. The armor, on the other hand, would not help, but he kept it anyway. He climbed past broken pillars, shattered stone, and burnt-out houses. When he reached the pit forge, he stop to rest, taking off his helmet to enjoy the cool air while each exhale created a glowing cloud in the failing sunlight.
His elder brother would say he was a fool to come so far for something so meaningless. The rest of his family would be less cruel about it, but would still not understand his path. If he felt he had to get a gift from the Blacksmith, he should work the ten years to get it, not gamble on surviving whatever test the monster gave. Easy for them to say! They had wealth, power, honored positions and loving families! What did he have? After a lackluster career in the military and a trail of failed businesses that his brother had rescued him from, he had nothing! Not even the honor of a degree to his name, or the love of a slattern, or even a promotion to sergeant. He was just another grunt in the army. This was his last shot.
He couldn’t wait ten years. Maybe if Magol had been a younger man, or if the Gondorians still had the lifespan of their Numenorean ancestors … but in ten years he would be a feeble old man, incapable of wielding a weapon in battle. At least if he won his prize now, he could return and gain glory fighting against the Corsairs of Umbar. He was sure with a powerful weapon he would finally succeed at something in life.
Loud steps caught his attention. A shadowed figure made his way over from the far side of the pit forge, and Magol realized that this must be the Blacksmith. He was tall, taller than even the high Elf who had greeted him at the gate of Canas Odhellim. He had strange, dark red hair, the color of old blood. Most of his skin was as pale as a corpse, except for his right arm which was as black as soot. Bright rings covered his right shoulder, made of gold and steel. Creepiest of all were his eyes, which were completely black. There was no distinction between pupil, iris and scelera, instead all he saw was a lightless void. The Blacksmith came up to him, then spread his arms, as if to give a welcoming embrace.
Magol stood up and then put on his helmet. Then he took his sword and drove it into the gut of the monster. The monster (Man? Elf? Something else?) grabbed with it’s left hand and pushed him back a little, drawing the blade slightly farther out. Then it’s black right hand came up and shattered Magol’s sword to pieces.
The shrapnel floated in the air for a minute or two. Then the Blacksmith reached behind him, grabbed one of those spinning splinters, and drove it into Magol’s neck. It was painful, but he’d been in enough battles to know it wasn’t fatal. The other pulled out the shard, and while Magol clutched at the wound, the Blacksmith removed the Gondorian helmet. For a moment, pale blue eyes met pitiless black. Then the floating pieces of his blade moved, adhering to his face until he was wearing a mask of steel. The Blacksmith stepped even closer. He held Magol’s face still with his left hand while the right one came up and pressed something (a ring?) into Magol’s forehead.
Pain! Pain! It felt like his face was on fire, then the fire spread throughout all of his body. Magol tried to scream but couldn’t make a sound. He couldn’t pull away. All he could do was endure the pain as the world went black.
Macalaure skipped up the path until he reached the pit forge, just in time to see his brother drop another mask into it’s lightless depths. “Nelyo?”
The Blacksmith looked up then smiled. Had the Gondorian still been alive he would have been amazed at the difference the smile made. From remote, lifeless statue to a real, breathing person. “Kano!” He opened his arms for an embrace. When the younger didn’t move closer, the elder brother simply walked around and scooped him up. “Kano, it’s so nice that you came to visit me.”
“Nelyo, where’s the body?”
“Don’t I get a ‘Nice to see you too, Nelyo’. ‘How have you been hanno?’ ‘Sorry I sent another bother up here Maedhros.’“
“I just saw you last week and was going to see you tonight anyway Nelyo. I know you’re fine because I can check with osanwe, hanno.” The shorter Elf squirmed until the red-head let him down. “Although, I really am sorry for sending that Man here. I hoped … “
“No Man has survived my test for centuries, Kano.” The elder stepped aside and let the younger brother see where the Gondorian had fallen. “The only ones who receive anything I have forged have been those who have served you faithfully.” He watched the other dart away, then say a short prayer over the dead. “What did he want anyway?”
“He would have been better served getting one from you.”
“Maybe.” There was a minute of silence. “He asked if my sword had been forged by you.”
“Curvo would be highly insulted to compare my amateur dabbling to his work. I don’t know why people bother to come up here. If they want artifacts of power; you’re better at magic than I am.”
“They want more than magic.” The Singer stood up and walked over to his elder brother. They both looked down into the forge and the uncountable number of masks at the bottom. While they watched, something heaved from below the masks.
“Not much longer now,” whispered the erstwhile Lord of Himring. He placed his black, metal arm around raven-haired Elf’s shoulders. Russandol tilted his head back and brought the other’s head up too so that they could see the Evening Star fade into sight. “Soon this work will be complete. Then we will have all three of them hanno.”
Maglor said nothing, but brought his hands up to catch at the metal cradled his chin. What dimmed his grey eyes and put such a forlorn expression on the serene face? Was it longing for the last Silmaril? Or the desire to run away?