'You have to do something, my Lord,' Gwindor gasped as he stumbled up to the dais where the two Valar were seated and bent over a card table. Eönwë, Manwë's attendant, rushed forward to seize Gwindor before the Elf collapsed over the table and sent the cards spinning across the floor.
Námo shot Gwindor a sidelong, sour look. 'Vairë?' he inquired. He looked back at the cards in his hand.
'No, no,' Gwindor wheezed.
'Again?' Manwë added succinctly, neither looking at the Elf nor at his competition, but at the cards in his hand. 'I thought Ilúvatar had invited him to help out with a new planet.' The words 'lucky bastard' blew across the room on a sudden breeze and both Námo and Eönwë shot Manwë a dour look.
'No, no, no, my lords.'
'Has Ungoliant escaped?'
'No, no, no, no!'
'Finwë got into the women's quarters again?' Again, the words 'lucky bastard' blew past them. Námo glanced irritably at the King of Arda.
'No, no, no, no, no!' Gwindor wailed, clutching desperately on Eönwë's tunic as he tried and failed to support his own weight. The Elf, like most Elves (and mortals for that matter), had never been very good at acclimatising to the altitude at the top of Taniquetil. 'Fëanor has threatened to rally another strike!'
Manwë and Námo both turned to look at the Elf, their expressions bemused. Then Manwë laughed and Námo scowled, stood up, and kicked back his chair.
'I win, then,' Manwë said, and he placed his hand of cards face up on the table. Each of the five cards displayed an image of him with very white teeth. Underneath each image was written (in nice bright blue letters): ' Manwë, the handsome and seductive High King of Arda and Lord of the Breath of Arda. Married to attractive and popular Queen of the Stars. Kindly do not investigate family tree.'
Námo's nose wrinkled and the Doomsman waved his left hand in the direction of Manwë's hand of cards. The brightly painted words shuffled, jumped on top of one another, and fled off the card until the new message read: 'Manwë, brother of Melkor who is a crook. Married to Varda who is indisputably the most celebrated and the shallowest female on Arda.'
Manwë laughed again and waved his hand. The cards on the table melted into the polished tabletop. Then he looked at Gwindor, who lay slumped in Eönwë's arms. 'What does Fëanor want now?' he asked.
Gwindor's lips moved.
'What was that?' Manwë asked. 'I did not catch it!'
'Someone seized Fëanor's rooms and he wants them back!' Eönwë said, adjusting the almost motionless form of Gwindor in his arms so that he could read the Elf's lip movements.
'Who seized the rooms?' the two Valar pressed.
But Gwindor had fainted. Eönwë slung the Elf over his shoulder.
Námo sighed. 'I better get on back there,' he muttered. 'I can never seem to get away. If it is not an escapee, then it is a strike. If it is not a bodiless spirit, then it is a body without a spirit.'
'I was unaware that you collected the latter,' Eönwë said as he escorted Námo out of the card hall and to the portal that would take the Doomsman of the Valar back to his gloomy halls.
'Oh, I do,' Námo said sourly. 'Court deadlines, you know. Sometimes, I can not make a new body in time for the release of a spirit, so I give them a spare. It slows the compensation claims.'
'Mm.' Eönwë wasn't interested. He was thinking about lunch and that Elf maiden that he had picked up at the last festival in Valimar. At the portal, he waited until Námo had passed through the door before shoving Gwindor in after the Doomsman and slamming the door on the pair of them.
'Phew!' he sighed. Then he looked down and scowled when he saw four cards lying on the floor. All of them displayed the face of Ilúvatar and the grey letters: 'Ilúvatar, the One. If you have one of me, you win. If you have more than one of me, you can afford to laugh at everyone else. If you have five of me, then you either have excellent luck or you cheated.'
Eönwë sighed and bent down to pick up the cards and pocket them. It was just a game, after all.
'It is an OUTRAGE!' Fëanor screamed as Námo's semi-shadow and complete shadow and complete semi-shadow servants dragged him out of arms reach of the owner of the establishment. 'How dare you side with the creature! How dare you allow him to throw me from my rooms! I have been a paying resident here for seven thousand years!'
'I never said anything of the sort,' Námo said sourly. 'You have been misinformed. I merely want you to calm down and wait patiently until I have sorted out the details of this issue. And you are not an unbiased source of information.'
Námo waved at his servants and they obligingly dragged the spitting spirit of Fëanor out of his throne hall. Once the doors had shut on the protesting Elf, Námo turned his attention to Gwindor, who had somewhat recovered from his swoon at the top of Taniquetil and was kneeling on the tiled floor and smiling at him in the fashion of one who had begun to enter the early stages of oxygen starvation in the brain. Námo wasn't disturbed. An oxygen-starved Elf was the least of his concerns at the moment.
He had a dragon with which to deal.
He slumped into his stone chair and winced when the seat hit his coccyx bone. 'Alright,' he said and scowled when Gwindor hiccupped. 'When did this dragon arrive in these halls and seize Fëanor's rooms?'
Gwindor covered his mouth. 'A few hours ago, my Lord,' he said. He hiccupped again. 'He came in through the doors of the night.'
Námo's brow knitted. Recently, the number of Houseless spirits who came into his halls via the doors of the night had been on a steady increase. It was most annoying: nobody seemed to like to obey the rules nowadays. If there was a nice direct-labelled road, they all liked to take an uncharted route through the East for a few extra months and come through the back door.
'Very well,' he acceded. 'And who is this dragon?'
'He calls himself Smaug...' Gwindor pulled a face, '... the magnificent.'
Námo waved a dismissive hand. He had heard worse names. 'And who is he?' he invited.
'Ehm...' Gwindor shot him a nervous look. His hands fidgeted with the hem of his tunic. 'I do not know,' he admitted.
'I see.' Unconcerned, Námo turned his head towards a side door of the throne hall. 'VAIRË!' he barked. 'WHO IS SMAUG THE MAGNIFICENT? HAVE YOU DONE A TAPESTRY OF HIM YET?'
There was a short silence as both Vala and Elf waited for a response.
Then, a distant female voice shrieked, 'NO IDEA!' The crystal lamp above the side door shivered and then fell off the wall to shatter on the tiles. The blue flame in it burst out of the transparent splinters, blushed when it realised that it was naked, and then scooted bashfully beneath the base of the door to hide.
Námo turned his head and looked back at Gwindor. He felt rather deflated.
'She does not know,' he said.
'I suppose I had better visit this Smaug,' Námo said. He stood and walked to the main doors of the throne hall. On the threshold, he noticed that Gwindor had not followed him. He looked back at Gwindor, who had turned around on the floor to watch him. 'Are you...?' Then he stopped when he saw Gwindor's apologetic and nervous smile.
'I do not like dragons,' Gwindor offered. 'May I wait here?'
Námo stared at him for a few moments. He knew that there was a reason why Gwindor disliked dragons... a very important reason, but at the moment he could not locate it. Perhaps it was on a tapestry somewhere in the building.
'Very well,' he acceded. 'I will see him on my own.'
Gwindor inclined his head. 'Thank you.'
'You are Smaug, are you not?'
The plump dragon that lay sprawled across Fëanor's red-carpeted bedroom floor stretched lazily and opened a single golden eye, which gazed balefully at him for a few moments before the dragon stretched once again and closed the eye.
Námo's gaze slid to Fëanor's treasure chest, which was tucked neatly between the dragon's bare belly and a scaly thigh. As he did so, he sensed Smaug stiffen warily. Námo smiled. 'You collect gems.'
There was no response. Námo briefly considered striding across Fëanor's magnificent bedroom and seizing Smaug and dragging the creature down to the dungeons where the rehabilitation centre for the rest of Melkor's former minions was located, but decided that risking the ruination of Fëanor's rooms and another strike of his Elvish servantry was not worth it. He would have to be more tactful.
He walked over to Fëanor's dressing table, which sat a few feet from Smaug's front right foreleg, pulled out the chair, and dropped gracefully into it.
'So, Smaug,' he purred. 'Tell me about yourself.'
The dragon's eyes flicked open. 'I have heard that one before,' he muttered. Námo chuckled.
'I am sure,' he said. 'But I need to hear your story so that I can convey your experiences to my wife, who weaves the history of Arda.' He crossed his legs and leaned back uncomfortably against the sharp edge of Fëanor's dressing table. 'You do not wish to be forgotten, do you?'
The tip of Smaug's tail flicked resentfully.
'These woven stories are to be handed to Ilúvatar himself at the conclusion of Arda,' Námo continued. 'At that time, everyone's memories will be erased so the only memory of you that will remain will be what is woven in that history.' He was lying through his teeth as in truth, he had no idea of what would happen at the end of Arda, but he was prepared to risk that Smaug held him in high enough regard to believe him.
Smaug's tail flicked again.
When there was no response, Námo shrugged and rose, feigning that he was about to leave the rooms. 'Do not be ashamed that you have not done much with your short life,' he said. 'There are other dragons in these halls who like you, have not done anything that warrants remembrance.' He turned to leave the rooms.
'Wait,' Smaug snapped. 'I never said that I had not done anything with my life.'
Námo looked slyly back at the dragon, who had lifted his face off his forelegs and was glaring at him in resentment. 'Oh? Defeated a Maia?'
Smaug's face fell. 'No,' he said reluctantly and he plopped his head back onto his forelegs. The floor shook under the motion. 'Not one of yours, anyway,' he muttered.
'A balrog, I presume?'
'Mm.' Smaug made a non-committal noise and shifted his head.
'You were bred in Angband, I presume?'
Smaug snorted and a puff of smoke drifted out of his nostrils. It smelt of alcohol and Námo's eyes slid to the three empty bottles of wine that lay on their sides on the floor between Smaug's forelegs.
'Are you a full-blooded dragon?'
'Mm.' Smaug yawned widely and blew a great gust of wine-saturated smoke into Námo's face. Námo's eyes narrowed at the stench. Smaug grinned at him. 'My teeth are swords,' the dragon said. He had apparently mistaken the reason for Námo's expression.
'I was more occupied with the smell of the wine,' Námo said. He sniffed thoughtfully. 'That must be Valimar, 2563 Second Age of the Sun.' Silently, he added that had any child of Ilúvatar inhaled that gust, they'd probably be flat on their backs.
Smaug scowled and plopped his head back onto his forelegs. He flexed his claws. 'My claws are spears.'
Námo looked at the long sharp talons. 'Gothmog, the balrog, has similar shaped ones,' he said. 'He uses them to barbecue the festival steaks. Quite useful. He uses them as skewers as well.'
Smaug tapped the longest talon on the floor and looked pointedly at it. 'I can skewer six Elves on that one,' he said.
'Front-ways or sideways?'
Smaug's lip curled. Námo smiled.
'What interests me the most, indeed, astonishes me,' Námo emphasised, 'is that such an impressive dragon as you were defeated. It must have been a magnificent foe.'
A look of extreme dislike entered Smaug's face. Námo tilted his head. 'Or it was one that you overlooked,' he said, more kindly.
Smaug snorted and this time, the smoke blew across the room to bounce against the opposite wall. Námo returned to his seat.
'Tell me about it,' he said. 'What was it like to die?'
'Painful,' Smaug muttered. 'I was shot.' He turned his head and jerked his long chin towards the considerable and scaly bulk of his lower body. 'In the chest. I wore an impenetrable mail of Dwarven gems, but there must have been a hole in it.'
Námo looked at the pale smooth underbelly of the dragon. 'Who shot you?'
'An archer of Esgaroth,' Smaug relented. He gave a great sigh. 'It is as you said: I overlooked a very small and insignificant creature. The little beast stole into Erebor and stole a cup out of my hoard.' His eyes narrowed. 'I was careless. If that creature had been visible, then I would never have dismissed him. He would have died like all the rest of the treasure-hunters who came before him.'
'Treasure hunters?' Námo whistled. 'That must have been some hoard.'
'Oh, it was indeed.' Smaug's eyes lit up and he raised his head. 'I was right to investigate the stories that there was Dwarven treasure in that mountain. Of course...' and here he paused, '...it is nothing in comparison to the treasure vaults of Gondolin, Nargothrond, or Menegroth.'
'You saw those vaults?'
'I saw the one in Gondolin,' Smaug said defensively. 'I tore the floor off the Elf-King's House and was one of the first to enter inside those chambers.'
'And Nargothrond and Menegroth?'
'Anyway,' Smaug said, changing the subject, 'those times were less fun than in Erebor. It is less fun when one has to be a follower.'
'Sometimes.' Námo said, thinking of Manwë. 'Anyway, when did you make your conquest of Erebor?'
'In...' Smaug paused and looked down at his talons. 'One, two... twenty-seven sixty... no, seventy. Twenty-seven and seventy of the Third Age of the Sun,' he announced and looked at Námo. He grinned toothily at Námo's impressed expression. 'I used to practice counting with the Dwarven coins in my hoard,' he said.
'Ah. I am impressed.'
Smaug's eyes glittered with pride and he began to recite, 'sixty thousand, five hundred and eighty four gold coins with one head, eight thousand, two hundred and two with another head, four hundred and...'
'Yes, your skill in arithmetic is very impressive,' Námo interrupted. He made a mental note to tell the caretaker of the rehabilitation centre that should Smaug be rid of his tendency to hoard, he would make an adequate banker. 'But tell me more about this Dwarven Kingdom.'
An odd expression crossed Smaug's face. 'Have you not heard the tales from the Dwarves' own mouths?' he asked.
'Of course,' Námo said, 'but I would like to hear your point of view as well.'
Smaug considered this for a few moments. 'Well... I invaded it and drove out the Dwarves,' he said. 'I killed them.'
'Did some of them escape?'
'Of course not!' Smaug looked offended. 'I killed all of them.'
'Did you eat them?'
Smaug shrugged. 'Of course.'
'Do not those...' Námo searched for the correct word. 'Hairs,' he decided, 'stick in your throat?'
'I have eaten worse,' Smaug said. 'Elves are the worse. All bones and little flesh, especially the Wood-Elf kind.' He blew another cloud of smoke across the room. 'Orcs are reasonable, I suppose. I have not eaten them in many years.' He blinked slowly, thoughtfully. 'Man flesh is the best of the humanoids, especially the tender females.'
'What sort of meat do you like best?' Námo asked.
'Cattle.' A tendril of drool descended from Smaug's lower lip and the dragon flicked out his long tongue and lapped it up. 'A fat cow is the best, but I also like a mouthful of calves. The meat of calves is tenderer.'
'Ah. You are also a meat-eater?' Smaug, for once, looked genuinely interested and even hopeful. Námo shook his head.
'Unfortunately, I do not eat at all,' he said. 'The Valar reserve themselves to ambrosia.'
'And what is ambrosia?' Smaug asked.
'A waxy drinkable substance, which is made from flowers,' Námo said.
Smaug's lip curled. 'It sounds awful.'
'If you attend the annual harvest feast at Valimar, then you will have an opportunity to try it,' Námo said. 'Oh, but you do not like to be social.'
'True,' Smaug said. 'I can not think of anything much worse than socialising with a bunch of drunken Elves and even drunker Valar and Maiar.'
'How about a bunch of cattle?' Námo offered.
'Maybe,' the dragon relented. 'But nobody appreciates those who eat cattle. It is like when I lived at Erebor. One of the farmers set some traps for me, like those that are set for foxes.' He snorted angrily and sparks flew out of his nostrils. 'That farmer was hired by some treasure hunters who wanted to steal from me while I was occupied with the traps and outside of Erebor!'
'Were you tricked by the traps?'
Smaug looked at him intently for a few moments and then majestically turned his head and looked pointedly at his back legs. Then he frowned when he realised that through the process of death he had lost his scars just as he had lost his glittering armour of treasure. Smaug looked back at Námo. 'When I got out of that trap,' he said, 'I burnt down that farm and killed that farmer. Then I returned to Erebor and killed those treasure hunters.'
'You must have met a number of crafty hunters at that time,' Námo said. 'Which were the most tricksy?'
'Those were the most tricksy,' Smaug said. 'Most of the other treasure hunters walked straight through the front gate.' He paused and added, 'that was the only door. Or so I thought until that last thief showed up.' He stretched and thumped his tail on the thick carpet, which dented under the impact. 'There was also that time when the humans moved their cattle beneath the eaves of Mirkwood. That was irritating, not because of the trees - those burn quite easily, but because Elves used to congregate beneath the trees to shoot arrows at me.' Smaug smiled. 'That was when I found out the benefits of this armour.' He turned his head, realised once again that his armour was absent, scowled, and plopped his head back onto his forelegs. The floor shook again and across from them, a wall mirror fell off the wall and smashed into pieces on the carpet. Smaug closed his eyes.
'You do not seem to have had much luck with treasure,' Námo said.
Smaug exhaled sleepily and another cloud of smoke trailed out of his nostrils.
'So tell me,' Námo said, 'what do you intend to do during your stay in these halls?'
The hind leg that lay against Fëanor's treasure chest drew closer to the dragon's belly, pulling the chest a little closer with it. 'Sleep,' Smaug muttered. 'And collect treasure.'
'The best treasuries in Aman are those in the Halls of Aulë,' Námo said. 'Not in these halls.' He tactfully failed to mention that Aulë had door wardens who were specifically trained to handle even the worse dragons.
Smaug's eyes flicked open. He suddenly looked very much awake. 'Is that so? Well, maybe I will investigate that place when I am released from these halls.' He lifted his head and looked intently at Námo. 'And you are the one with the power to release me from these halls, are you not?'
'Well, it is impossible for me to even think about releasing you at the moment, Smaug,' Námo said. He outspread his hands, noticed the corner of a card sticking out from beneath his sleeve, and quickly tucked it beneath the hem. 'You see,' he continued, 'it is the rule of Manwë, the King of Arda, who lords over me, that the residents of these halls may only exit these halls once they have acknowledged and repented for their sins.'
'And what are my sins?'
'Greed, selfishness, sadism, and a short temper,' Námo said. 'In your case, greed is your greatest fault. And until that fault, at the very least, is acknowledged and overcome, at least in these halls, then I can not release you.' Silently, he added that he longed for the day when Manwë would enter his halls.
There was a long silence.
Presently, Smaug's wings twitched and the dragon straightened until his head almost touched the roof of the high chamber. 'Very well,' Smaug said with a shrewd smile. 'I acknowledge that I am greedy, selfish, sadistic, and that I have a short temper. I repent for all of my sins. And now may I leave, Your Lordship?'
Smaug scowled. 'Why?'
Námo nodded at the treasure chest, which still sat tucked between one of the dragon's hind legs and the pale belly. 'That represents greed,' he said. 'If you give it to me, then I will let you leave these halls.'
The dragon hesitated.
'I promise.' Námo said.
Smaug, with a doubtful look, slowly moved his hind leg back. Then, with a snarl, he kicked the chest towards Námo. The chest burst open as it travelled across the floor. Bright gems scattered onto the carpet.
'Happy?' Smaug snapped, clearly unhappy and unsettled with his show of cooperation. His wings twitched again and the left one hit a crystal chandelier, which tinkled nervously. 'Is that enough of a story?'
Námo stood. 'It is not enough, but I am sure that we can follow up the rest of it later,' he said. He raised his hands and waved them at the ceiling above them, which melted away to reveal the night sky above the Western lands of Aman.
'Thanks.' Smaug shot him a last doubtful look and then, flapping his wings, rose up into the air.
'HEAD NORTH-NORTH-EAST,' Námo shouted up at him. 'AULË'S HALLS ARE AT THE TOP OF A SNOW-CAPPED MOUNTAIN NAMED TANIQUETIL!'
The dragon above him shot an appreciative stream of fire back down at him, which licked at the roof of the halls and burnt the hair of six servants who happened to be sitting up there on an unregistered break.
Námo waited until Smaug's golden red bulk had disappeared out of sight. Then he waved his hands again and the roof returned to normal. With another wave, the broken contents of the room were healed. Then, whistling, Námo left the room. Outside the door, he discovered a profusely sweating Gwindor awaiting him.
'My Lord,' Gwindor began, shuffling nervously from one foot to the other foot. 'Fëanor says that he wants Smaug to be rid of by dawn.'
Námo put a friendly arm around the diligent Elf. 'Tell me, Gwindor. Is Fëanor in the throne hall?'
'Then we had better venture there to inform him that Smaug has just vacated his rooms, which are back to normal and quite intact,' Námo said. He smiled at Gwindor's astonished expression.
'But, my Lord, he was such an enormous dragon! And so dreadful! How did you manage to get rid of him?'
Námo pulled the Elf closer to him. 'You know, Gwindor,' he whispered into the other's ear. 'Delegation is a wonderful word. And you know, I think Taniquetil could do with a few hundred feet of ice taken off the top of it. Dragon fire is a marvellous invention, do not you think?' And he flicked the last Ilúvatar card out of his sleeve and handed it to the bewildered Elf.