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Maiden, Mother, Stone

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She was the Maker's handmaiden, not his wife. So she was in his workshop under the mountain, working with carbon (sheets of thin-layer graphite sliding between her hands, diamonds slipping out when she tightened her fists) when he built his people. The dwarves were the first speaking people made in Middle-Earth, and she watched it happen. Their eyes opened, and their mouths, and their eager hands reached out; their Maker laughed and answered and asked them questions back. The language they spoke was a gift he had crafted for their use; he filled their hands with jewels and hammers, carving knives and soft raw stones. His handmaiden smiled, learning her own master through the new magic he created, and her voice rose to harmonize with the Dwarves and Mahal, to exalt their theme in the World's Song.

In the same hour she heard Ilúvatar's response, and in his words, his callousness. The Creator-of-All spoke of the new people as objects, no more than the graphite shattered on the floor at her feet or the diamonds that fell and rolled away. She heard her master apologize, disclaiming his own work, and saw him raise his hammer to break their bodies. They screamed and begged for mercy, and she heard herself screaming as well. But Aulë's humility seemed enough to soothe Ilúvatar's vanity, and the new people were left intact. The handmaiden sobbed in relief. But when the Creator-of-All lay down his judgment, that this new wonder would be silenced and stilled while his own designs unfolded as he liked, her tears turned to rage. These people had been First already; she had seen it, and Creator or not he had no right to deny the fact of their existence. But Aulë obeyed, sundering and scattering his people, leaving each one voiceless, unmoving, and alone. His handmaiden, she followed him and watched. When her master turned aside to other matters, she followed him no more, but ranged alone among the mountain roots, peering at the unmoving faces, touching the paralyzed hands. "I see you," she said to them, though they could not answer. "I saw you. I heard you. I won't abandon you now."

The Earth spun on and the Music played. Ents guarded those beloved of the Maker's wife; Yavanna wished them defended from the speaking people. Elves woke to trees and starlight and Men soon thereafter. Aulë walked among them, teaching and building, while the people of his hands lay beneath the mountains like stones themselves. His handmaiden also remained underground. She wandered among that forgotten folk, one cold crypt to the next, circling back and back again. When the earth grew and shifted, she shielded them with her own body, gentled the rock to shelter with her power, steadied it with her craft. A little bit of power was indeed her own, mere handmaiden that she was, for so she was made to be.

When Durin woke in darkness he was alone, as Ilúvatar had decreed. The first thing he saw was three huge stones dry-fitted together, holding the sepulchre ceiling solid overhead, though cracks crazed through it like broken ice. He spoke his gratitude aloud, voice gravelly with disuse; then came clumsily to his feet and looked about. There was nothing much there, but he did find a pebble and placed it near the joist. This did not satisfy his heart; he felt the weight of the broken ceiling like his Maker's hammer falling. So he found another pebble, and then another, and arranged them vertically like the joist in miniature. There were no words to it, but he hoped it might seem like a reply.

He left that place in darkness, moving through the great maze of rivers and caves that spread beneath the crust of Middle-Earth. At length he found Aur's tomb, where that dwarf lay still, beneath a great sheet of granite that passed within a breath's-width of his face. One edge was propped up by a stack of three rocks, and Durin lifted it away. Aur sat up after Durin spoke to him; he had not known the difference between being silenced and being trapped. The dwarves embraced, and spoke long about the brief lives they remembered, and the unknowable time that had passed since. "Did Mahal leave me like that, you think?" Aur asked, gesturing at the granite. It lay on the floor now, split in two.

"No," Durin replied without thinking. Later, in more measured tones, he reasoned aloud: "That's not his style; look at us! There's no mark upon it. That stone was never worked, only put into place."

Aur laughed. "Someone else, then," he said, and there was blind relief in it. He buried his face against Durin's shoulder and whispered, "Perhaps we have a mother as well as a maker? Someone who loves us, anyway, and wants us safe."

"Our mother, then, all right," said Durin, patting Aur's back. "Three stones in a stack. Come, we should leave this place -- there were five more of us, right? -- and we should find them." Mother or love or not, Durin wanted to be among all his people.

They walked side-by-side where the passages allowed. They saw many wondrous things -- crystals more massive then both their bodies together, shining with a pale inner light that made them squint and stare; strata marking cavern walls with ripples and tides; a silent lake of cold black water at which they slaked their thirst. After the epiphany of that first drink (for dwarves are hardy, and they had taken no sustenance before, though their bodies had wanted for it) they rested for awhile, trickling droplets through their fingers, anointing one another's hands and foreheads and beards. They knew that the world was moving now, awaiting them, and they needed to move on. But Durin picked up a flat stone and placed it atop another by the water's edge, and Aur took a round one and put it on the top. They smiled at each other, shy with love and strangeness as they rose. "Our stone mother," said Aur, and Durin nodded. They held hands as they went on their way.

The handmaiden's voice was lost by then; she could not have spoken if she had tried. She was part of the stone herself now, able to balance for luck and care, to move that resistant element with her magic and persistence. But she looked at the stack three high, and it did look like an answer. As much as stone can feel she felt, and as much as stone can listen she listens. As much as she can without mortar or tools, without hands or eyes, she still offers children what protections she can. She is not a handmaiden anymore.