Summary: En route to Valinor, Mahtan meets one of the Maiar and learns about the mechanics of floating islands.
Notes: Written for International Fanworks Day. This can be read as a stand-alone story, but is also the first part of a projected 4-chapter story. This installment responds to only one of my prompts ("First Meetings").
ETA - This chapter, as well as the second chapter, are now archived on SWG. I do intend to finish the story (and have it founder in the B2MeM avalanche) while March is yet young.
Mahtan had been digging for some time. The blade of his shovel was narrow, scarcely more than a broad stone spade hafted to a long handle, carried long with him from Cuiviénen. Its design was not his, but that of one of the elders, who had invented the tool in order to dig for deeper roots. Mahtan had liked that task since childhood, not for the roots but for the digging, the discovery of textures and shapes which lay unseen beneath the surface.
While the young man dug, a disturbance occurred in the ether some two hundred paces westward, at southwestern brink of the island. One of the Eldar may have been able to sense it; it would have been readily apparent to one of the Ainur; yet none were about to witness it. The air shifted as molecules rent and reconstituted themselves in new proportions and arrangements. In the muted starlight, a lanky figure emerged, straightened to consider the sky for a moment, ducked its head in a slow regard that swept from stars to earth, and proceeded measuredly toward a broad green swath south of the Eldarin encampment.
Mahtan, breathing heavily from exertion, did not hear anybody approaching until a polite cough clearly meant for his benefit came from off to his right. Stilling his work to lean on the handle of his shovel, he looked up from the shallow hole in which he stood. Like most of the elves traveling aboard this island, the person standing several paces away was dark of hair, but nobody he recognized. There was something distinctly different about the newcomer also, aside from a paradoxically awkward and graceful comportment which reminded Mahtan of a stork, an inexplicable sense of the uncanny which he was sure he’d only felt a few times before.
"I am sorry to disturb your–present occupation." The stranger indicated the hole with his chin. His voice was rather pleasant, and somehow lent an aura of profundity to the mundane words.
Balanced between uneasiness and annoyance at being interrupted–for he’d been enjoying the quiet view of the stars upon the sea a stone’s throw away–, Mahtan swiped a loose strand of russet hair from his face. "What brings you h–" Understanding, delayed by the need to wrench his single-minded focus away from his labor, happened abruptly. "Excuse me. I get very involved in my work, and I did not realize… Are you not one of the Ainur?"
The visitor continued to peer down impassively as Mahtan, unsure what sort of formalities were appropriate to greet an Ainu of unknown rank and nature, grappled with his confusion. He dropped his shovel hastily, decided that must be unceremonious, picked it up again, drove its blade into the earth so that it stood with an air of respectful alertness, clambered out of the hole, and inclined his head briefly. "An honor. My name is Mahtan. Is there any way I can be of help, um…?" he prompted sheepishly, not knowing either any form of address.
The Ainu seemed to consider that, then said with a small shrug, "Curumo, I suppose, in your tongue."
As did Oromë and his Maiar, Curumo spoke the tongue of the Quendi with a slight accent. The word he gave sounded like a proper name rather than a title, but Mahtan wasn’t keen on embarrassing himself further by seeking clarification. "May I be of any assistance, Curumo?"
"Only this, Mahtan: I’ve been sent to request that you desist from–" The Ainu was cloaked in some dark hue, but the white of his sleeve flickered out from the shadows as he gestured with one hand at the hole.
Now Mahtan was filled with mortification. Of course! He justified himself hurriedly, "I was not digging for roots, I assure you. Your–your people have been very generous in provisioning us."
Curumo blinked at him. "I fear I do not understand."
They regarded each other in mutual confusion. "Well," Mahtan elaborated, "we were told before we all embarked that we were not to dig in the earth while on this island, and that if we were running short on food, we should instead ask Ossë and then the Valar would provide. Which they have, most kindly." Once, a whale–or rather, one of these Ainur in the form of a whale–had been sent with imposing parcels of food in water-tight skin wrappings harnessed to its back. "I thought maybe digging for roots here would be taken as ungrateful, so I wished to explain that’s not what I was doing."
Curumo smiled a little wryly. "Ah. Not at all. Your folk were asked not to dig because this island is somewhat fragile underneath the soil layer, and we would not want to risk damaging it with all of you upon it in the middle of the ocean."
"Oh!" The elf started to chuckle, then stopped himself uncertainly. "It’s funny, then; I was digging because I wanted to know what lay under the soil. It did not seem to me that an island ought to be able to float, especially assuming there’s rock under there. In any case, I apologize. I certainly didn’t want to cause any damage, and had I known–"
"No harm done." The Ainu was now regarding Mahtan with more open interest. Curumo’s eyes seemed the color of pitch, at least in the starlight, but a curious flicker or spark like the flashing of light on dark water had awoken in them. "Directions given without explanations are likely to be misinterpreted."
A new concern struck Mahtan, and he looked around reflexively. "But how did you know I was digging? Who asked you to come here? I mean, I don’t want to sound rude, but we do not understand much about your people, and…"
"And you rightly do not wish to be spied upon." Curumo nodded, unruffled. "It wasn’t that. Some of Lord Ulmo’s Maiar are accompanying this island underwater at all times, to ensure its safety. One of their number who is also acquainted with the materials of the earth could perceive that somebody was digging; as one of Aulë’s household, I was asked to address the situation."
"Aulë’s–!" Hardly able to restrain his delight, Mahtan eyed the Maia with a new respect. "I have heard of Lord Aulë."
"Given your apparent predilections, that you should take an interest in Lord Aulë is unsurprising. He invented a process you would probably like, by which to make a material more durable than stone and lighter." Both of them glanced at the shovel still standing in the hole. Curumo continued, his voice and features much more expressive now, "You can’t dig for it here just now, but I can tell you what this island is made of. I could give you a sample of the material once you have reached Valinor."
"Yes and yes," Mahtan nodded eagerly, his recent unease quite forgotten.
Curumo began pacing round the hole as he spoke, gesturing to illustrate his points. "Pumice. It is indeed stone, but stone which can float because it is mostly air and therefore lighter than water. It’s to do with conditions attending a volcanic eruption underwater, during which the lava solidifies into stone so quickly that it entraps many pockets of air in itself. Sometimes large chunks of pumice float to the surface, but they usually disintegrate quickly. This island was created deliberately, and conditions were carefully controlled to produce the desired outcome. A girdle of sea plants and corals was placed just below the surface to hold the thing together, but still, it is a highly unnatural structure and we don’t wish to place any undue stress on it."
Mahtan followed this speech attentively, contributing monosyllabic interjections of surprise and interest. The Ainu then suggested that he could sketch a diagram of the island, if Mahtan had any parchment on him. "Not on me, but I’ve some at the camp," the elf proffered. "We could go back there, if you’d like; the fire would provide better light."
Curumo seemed loath to enter the encampment, whence singing and piping had recently arisen. "I was sent upon a task, and that I’ve done. It were best if I returned to my business in Valinor. However, you should reach land before you’ve slept many more times, and I hope we shall continue this conversation soon."
"I see. Thank you then," said Mahtan.
"Likewise." The Maia nodded and turned away rather abruptly, pacing off into the west. It was unclear to Mahtan whether he eventually blended into the shadows, was lost to view behind a small hillock, or simply vanished into thin air. How had he arrived on the island, anyway?
"‘Likewise’?" Mahtan grumbled to himself, thought not displeased, as he retrieved his shovel. "Thank me? What on earth for?"