Lómion knew he’d seen another kid on the way inside, a flash of ginger hair and a high-pitched screech of laughter that was gone as soon as he glanced that direction. He thought they might even be the same age. But when he asked, the grown-ups all gave each other that look—the “we’ll tell you about it when you’re older” look, the “terrible things happened a long time ago, but you don’t need to worry about that now” look—and immediately tried to distract him. Not that he minded the distractions; he’d begged and begged Ammë to bring him here after hearing Uncle Curufin’s stories about Lord Aulë and the vastest forges in all of Valinor, where the greatest smiths had trained. He was going to train here too, just as soon as he’d learned everything Uncle Curufin had to teach him.
He reached up and adjusted his safety goggles. They were a bit too big and kept slipping, although the little leather apron Lord Aulë had handed him at the same time was just his size. He’d figure out the mysterious red-head later. Right now there was too much to see: workshops for gem cutting and glassblowing and carving wax models to cast; rooms full of stakes for coppersmithing and silversmithing—he’d had to tug on Ammë’s hand to get her to stop so he could watch an apprentice hammering a cup from a flat disc of metal—and then the main forge, where anvils lined the huge room, each with its own brick hearth for the forge fire and a rack of tools beside it. He had to keep standing on tiptoes to get a good look at the things people were working on, and he turned to ask Uncle Curufin to hold him up, but he’d already wandered off again, talking to someone on the other side of the forge. Lómion huffed. Ammë was holding the stack of books Lord Aulë was letting him borrow, so that was no good either.
Lord Aulë paused in his narration. “Lómion, how would you like to be a little taller?”
Lómion looked up—and up—and nodded emphatically. He shrieked when Lord Aulë lifted him in one huge hand and swung him onto his shoulders; heights were scary, and he was very high. He clung to Lord Aulë’s bushy hair, but when he realized just how broad the Vala’s shoulders really were and that Aulë still had a firm grip on him, he relaxed a bit. He could see everything from here. He watched hammers falling, iron being twisted and welded and shaped and bent, and he tried to listen hard to what Lord Aulë was saying, repeating under his breath the name of every tool the Vala showed him. He knew some of them already, but there were some he’d never seen before, and he resolved to find them in his picture books later and get Uncle Curufin to tell him how they worked.
A little movement outside one of the windows caught Lómion’s eye, and there was the kid again, face pressed to the glass, peeking in. When he saw Lómion watching, he held his fingers up to his head like ears and stuck out his tongue. Lómion stuck his tongue out right back. He didn’t want to interrupt, but he had to know. He patted Lord Aulë’s shoulder and pointed to the window. “There, who is that?”
“Oh, people are always curious about what the smiths are working on. Could’ve been anyone.”
Sure enough, the face was gone.
“Now, my Maia Angtári is teaching a little class on knives in the next room over; shall we check that out?”
By the time the tour was over, Lómion’s head was buzzing with all he’d tried to absorb. Lord Aulë had invited them to take tea in one of the many gardens, and Lómion sat beside Ammë, eating a scone with butter and lots of blackberry jam, kicking his feet against the rung of his chair. He wondered if the other kid had gone home already. Or maybe he lived here? Why wouldn’t Aulë tell him anything? He played with the spinny ring on the outside of his bracelet, sliding it back and forth with his thumb. They were talking about boring things now, pedagogy and curriculum and the reembodied, self-led learning and rate of memory recall. They were talking about him, then, and using big words they thought he wouldn’t understand. They were wrong. He knew lots of those words. He spun the ring hard, feeling how satisfyingly it whirled around the wider band. It was too bright here, even in the shade. Maybe he could find a darker corner to hide in until they were done… He tugged on Ammë’s sleeve and leaned close so he didn’t have to speak very loud. “Can I go play?”
She glanced uncertainly at Aulë. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea…”
“This garden’s quite safe for children; he should be fine.”
Lómion thought something else had passed between them, but when he tried to peek into Ammë’s mind, all he caught was that she hadn’t put enough honey in her tea. “Mind your manners, love,” she told him, scrubbing jam off his face with a napkin. “You can play, but don’t go too far.”
There was a swing hanging from a big oak bough on the other side of the garden, but Lómion veered away. Swinging felt too much like falling in his worst nightmares; he’d ended up crying in Ammë’s arms the few times he’d tried. A clump of bushes looked inviting; there was space to crawl under them like a little den. He looked around to see that Ammë and Uncle Curufin were still busy talking, and when he turned back, a pair of golden eyes were peering out at him!
“You!” he exclaimed quietly. The red haired boy moved over a bit and motioned for him to come closer. “Who are you?” Lómion crept under the bushes into the hollow beside him.
“I'm a wolf!”
“Oh. Is that your favorite animal? Mine’s a mole, so that's what I'll be!”
“Why would you be a mole? They can't do anything cool.”
“Yes they can! They live under the ground where all the best rocks are and dig all day. If I was a mole I’d have a giant pile of gems in my burrow. And besides, they have the softest fur in the whole world; I got to pet one that lives in our garden.”
“Hmmph. If you're a mole, you can't get away, and I'm going to eat you up! Rawrr!” He jumped on Lómion.
“Fine! I’m a wolf too, then!” Lómion wrestled until he pushed the boy off and got up on all fours, then stretched his arms forward and play-bowed like Huan did when he was trying to start a game. The boy laughed in delight and repeated the gesture back. They bounced into each other, pushing and rolling and tangling together, neither able to stay on top for long. A sudden pain in his arm made Lómion cry out. The boy was actually biting him!
“Shh, they'll hear you!”
“Yeah, because you bit me! That's against the rules!”
He felt his mother's gentle touch. “Lómion, are you all right?”
“I tripped, but I'm fine,” he answered quickly. “Ammë did hear,” he announced out loud to the boy. “Do that again, and I'll tell, and you'll be in trouble.”
“Fine, fine! I won’t!”
“You aren't supposed to be over here, are you?”
“I won’t! I just want to play.”
“They said I had to stay away while you were here. It's not fair. I never get to play with other kids.”
Probably because you bite them, Lómion thought uncharitably. “So what's your name, wolf boy?”
“That's a good name.”
He shrugged. “It’s okay. I had another name in my life before. In Middle-earth. I was a Lieutenant there. A Dread Lieutenant.”
Lómion wasn’t sure what a Dread Lieutenant was. It sounded a little scary, but he wasn't going to admit that. “I had a Before life, too. I don't remember much. It's supposed to come back when you get older, Ammë says. But I do know I was a smith! And I'm going to be one again.”
Mairon perked up and was looking at him with real interest. “I’m learning to be a smith now! I have my own hammer and everything, and Aulë gives me lessons sometimes!”
“Is he like your Atya? Or an uncle?” Lómion had lots of uncles but no father, and Ammë said that was just fine; uncles were better anyway.
“I guess so. He and Yavanna take care of me. Hey, you didn't tell me your name!”
“Huh. That sounds…” He tilted his head and then shook it. Lómion knew the feeling, the nagging ache of a memory hanging just out of his grasp. A little thrill ran down his spine at the thought that they might have known each other once. “I dunno. Is that your only name?”
“No. But I'm not allowed to tell people the other one. Ammë says it's dangerous.” He'd noticed the frightening looks some people gave him anyway. “I think…maybe something really bad happened to me Before. Maybe people didn't like me very much. Sometimes…I think maybe I did something really bad.”
“Maybe we were Dread Lieutenants together,” Mairon said cheerfully. “Think how fun that would be! We’d have huge armies and tons of wolves and monsters and rule the whole world!”
“I don't think I’d want to rule the world.”
“Why not? You could make everyone do things the right way.”
“It would be an awful lot of work, though. And you’d have to talk to people, all the time, to tell them what to do and stuff.” He shuddered.
“You don't like to talk?”
“I dunno. Most people make me feel weird when I try, like I never say the right thing.”
“But you're talking to me right now.”
“That's different. That's fine, because you're my friend. Right?” Uncles were very nice, but Lómion had always wished he had a friend.
“Oh. Okay.” He thought about this for a minute. “If you're my friend, I can show you the best places to play! There's a slide you can go down really fast, and good trees to climb, and a huge sandbox—”
“Ooh, let's build castles!”
“Okay! You'll have to come under the fence with me though.”
From their hiding spot, Lómion couldn't hear the grown-ups talking, but he could feel the soothing presence that was her. “Ammë, are you almost done?”
“Just a little longer, love.”
Lómion grinned. “We've got plenty of time. Let's go!”
Mairon crawled through a gap in the boards at the bottom of the fence, and Lómion followed him under, down a little path and over a wrought-iron railing. The garden that appeared was much like the one they'd left, with plenty of big shade trees and patches of flowers, but there was more short grass for running in, and all the things Mairon had told him about. Across the lawn, a Maia with her back turned to them was tending the flowers. Mairon held a finger to his lips and grabbed Lómion’s hand to sneak past. The wide expanse of sand they came to was white and fine, and a little fountain bubbled from the mouth of a lion's head set in the wall nearby. Mairon filled a little pail, and when he came back, he splashed some water on Lómion, smirking. Lómion glared, but it was hot enough outside that he didn't really mind.
“Don't waste it, or you'll have to get more!”
Mairon stuck his tongue out, but he set the pail down beside Lómion and plopped onto the sand. “There’s plenty where it came from.”
“Hmmph.” The dampened sand was perfect for molding, and soon Lómion was deeply absorbed. He sculpted intently, forming walls and towers like the white city he saw in his dreams. With a pointy stick he started drawing in doors and windows, and he turned to ask what Mairon was making. There was no warning. One moment all was peaceful, and in the next, a shouting, gleeful Mairon was stamping through his city, knocking down the towers and smashing it all to bits.
“No! No, you can’t, you can’t!” Lómion wailed. He’d worked so hard, and a strange horror was creeping over him, chilling his blood and freezing him in place, like something had gone terribly wrong and could never be fixed, like one of his nightmares where he could neither move nor speak to save the people he loved but had to watch as some nameless monstrous force carried them away. Like he’d been here before.
“Stop crying, stop it!” Mairon had his hands on Lómion's shoulders. He looked scared. Serves you right, Lómion thought. “Please stop?”
Lómion couldn’t. His sobs racked his body, and when he managed to take a breath, he coughed until he started sobbing again.
“I'll get you some orange slices if you stop! They always make me feel better…” He sat and held Lómion's hands, watching him pleadingly.
“How could you?!” Lómion finally choked out. “It was my city, and it was so pretty, and you just—” That horrible feeling, that something much more momentous than a sand castle was lost, gripped him again, and he broke down in tears.
“But that's how you play!” Mairon insisted earnestly. “You build castles and then you knock them down! That's the whole point!”
“It's not how I play! I wasn’t even finished! You could've asked!”
“I…I didn't mean to make you cry.”
Lómion drew a long, sniffly breath and rubbed his eyes.
“I'll help you build another one? Please don't be sad. I'll share my best rocks with you.” He emptied his pockets, and out tumbled a piece of amber, an agate with loopy designs that looked like lace, a tiger-eye, a shiny black hematite.
“You like rocks?!” He quickly wiped his face on his sleeve.
“I love rocks! Especially the ones metal comes from—”
“That's the hematite! It's made of iron!”
Mairon jumped up and down. “Yes, yes, yes!”
“You can't let these get lost in the sand, okay? They're really important.” Lómion pulled out his own favorite treasures, a pink quartz, a little piece of jade, and a nugget of copper he’d found in a creek when Uncle Tyelko took him fishing.
“Ooh, pretty! Can we put them on top of the castle?”
“Not if you're going to stomp on it again.”
“We'll take them off first. I'll even let you knock this one down if you want. We’re supposed to take turns, right?” He’d already started packing sand into a tower, and Lómion started a second turret close by.
“What if I don't want it knocked down?”
“Well…we can build another one there, and it can be the neighboring kingdom, and it'll be mine, so when we knock it down, it's because our enemies came and destroyed it, and I'll have to flee with all my wolves to your kingdom.”
“Yes! And they'll have to live in the great hall, because there won't be any other room, but the enemy will be chasing you, and so we’ll have to put up big walls around the castle…”
“With spikes on top!”
“And tunnels so the wolves can come out at night and attack from behind!”
Mairon's eyes widened like he'd just gotten the best idea. “You could have giant moles to dig the tunnels!”
They were still happily constructing an ever-widening story for the new castle when Lómion heard his name being called.
“Lómion! Lómion, are you—are you all right?!” He was being snatched up before he’d quite registered what was happening.
“Wait! No! Ammë, put me down!”
She didn’t. Lord Aulë had grabbed Mairon at the same time, and Mairon looked like he might cry, or bite, or start kicking.
“Did he hurt you?!” Ammë demanded. “Whatever possessed you to run off so far? What if he’d—” She cut herself off.
“We were just having fun! I’m fine, I promise!”
Aulë was saying something quietly to Mairon, and his mouth was quivering.
“He's my friend! Please?” Lómion wasn't sure what he asking for, but he knew he didn't want the afternoon to end like this.
“Look, you may have had fun with him today, but a long time ago—” She sighed. “It isn't safe.”
“But he didn't do anything bad!” Mairon hadn't really meant to hurt him so much by destroying his creation, Lómion told himself. And laughing together afterward had made everything better.
“It's time to go home now.”
“Wait, my treasures!”
She reluctantly let him down, and Lómion ran to fetch the little pile they'd made. He scooped them all up, and held out to Mairon the handful that was his. Lord Aulë quirked an eyebrow, but he lowered Mairon enough to take them.
“This one's yours,” Mairon said, in a voice much more subdued than anything Lómion had heard from him yet, offering back the jade.
“You keep it. To remember today.”
“Well then, you have to take this one.” He handed Lómion the golden amber. It was the same color as his eyes.
Ammë watched the exchange with a mix of concern and interest. Clutching the amber, Lómion let her pick him up. “Please, Ammë, couldn’t I come back and play with Mairon again? Please?”
“Perhaps it could be a good thing for both of them,” Lord Aulë said thoughtfully.
“You think so? After everything?”
“At any rate, they did seem to be getting along.”
She sighed. “I suppose we could give it a try. But you'll have to promise to both stay where I can watch you next time.”
“I promise too!” said Mairon, and he gave Lómion a wide wolf grin.