The Old Took transferred his gaze from the warm orange blaze in the hearth to his great-granddaughter. She looked up at him from her stool by the fire, childish eyes bright with curiosity.
"What have you got there?" He sent another ring of white smoke wafting toward the low rafters of the hobbit-hole.
"Look!" She laid a heavy book on his lap and pointed at a colorful picture. "What's that?"
"That, young lady, is a shoe."
"The Big People wear them on their feet."
"They don't have thick hair on their feet, like hobbits. They wear shoes to protect themselves." The Old Took chewed meditatively on his pipe, inspecting the heavy black writing under the picture. "This pair was one of Lorgren Shoemaker's, one of the greatest cobblers ever known."
"Did he always make good shoes?"
"Well ... no."
The little hobbit-maid sensed a story behind his answer. Resuming her position on the three-legged stool, she gazed up appealingly. "Tell me! Please!"
The white-bearded hobbit settled himself more comfortably in his big armchair, stretching his legs out. "Only if you promise not to interrupt." He started the tale.
Once upon a time (began the Old Took), when there was a King in Gondor and the Elves were more numerous than they are now, a company of the Fair Ones traveled to Minas Tirith, the White City. There were many of them, but those who concern us were named Naira, Ingwë, and Felagund. In my opinion, they must have been much younger than their companions, because ... well, you shall see.
Naira, the leader of the four, touched the bow on his back as they wandered through the crowded streets. "We have now been here eighty days. Time hangs heavy upon my shoulders, cousins."
Ingwë nodded in agreement, her long golden hair rippling in the sunlight. "I dream of the silver trees of Lothlaurelindorean. It is long since we walked there."
They continued walking, their steps bearing them closer to the highest circle of the city. As they entered the court of the White Tree, Felagund stopped to survey the plain below. "Yes, sister, the green grass and white flowers are strong in my memory. Arrows fly truer in Lorien." He gazed toward the west.
"Now why should they do that?"
Felagund turned, startled, toward the voice. A guard of the citadel had spoken. Stationed in the court, he could have been mistaken for a statue.
"Do you question the virtues of the Golden Wood?"
"I mean no offence," the man replied courteously. "But the air, and the wind, and the flight of an arrow, are the same no matter where the archer is."
Felagund refused to concede the point. "Perhaps it is the skill of the archer that differs. In Lorien, the archer would be Elvish, whereas in Minas Tirith, he would be of the race of Men."
"Am I to understand that you believe Elves to be better archers than Men?"
"Such was my intent."
They glared at each other, soldier and traveler, the air between them sparking with antagonism. Naira broke the tense silence.
"Soldier of Gondor, are you trained in the use of the bow?"
"I most certainly am!" He glanced at the Elven bow on Naira's back, and at the archer's leather wristguards worn by Felagund and Ingwë. "I propose a contest. Three of the Guard against you and your companions."
"Name the time and place."
The guard checked the position of the morning sun. "I am called Erelach. I and two others will be outside the Guard's barracks at high noon."
The Old Took cast a reproving eye at his great-granddaughter. "Yes?"
"What does this have to do with shoes?"
"Patience, young one. Now, where was I?"
At the appointed time, Erelach and his fellow Guards met the Elves and escorted them to the training yards.
"Let us alternate archers," the Guard said. "Each contestant shall loose three arrows. Each arrow must land within that green circle at the center of the target. The party which has the most arrows outside the mark shall forfeit a service to the other."
Naira looked from his cousins to the Men. "We consent to your conditions. Shall we commence?"
One of the Guardsmen took the first turn, bending his great oak bow with powerful hands. Two arrows landed in the circle, but, due to an errant breeze, the last flew wide and landed in the grass.
Ingwë strung her bow and set an arrow to it in one fluid motion. She drew the gray feathers to her cheek for a breath, then loosed the shaft. It perched, quivering, in the green. Two more shots followed, each as accurate as the first.
The next Guard missed his initial chance, but lodged the next two in the mark. Naira duplicated Ingwë's perfection.
Erelach stepped up to the line, his sinewy arms skillfully manipulating his weapon. Scarcely bothering to aim, he sent three arrows in quick succession toward the target. They clustered tightly at the center.
Felagund was the only archer left. He took aim confidently, sighting down the shaft to the target, fifty yards distant.
The Elves had lost by one arrow.
Erelech leaned on his steel-tipped bow, a grin playing around his mouth. "Perhaps your arrows would have flown more true, had we been in Lorien."
Felagund stood, head bowed. "Name your task, Guard of the Citadel."
The man thought for a moment. "Personally, I do not require a service of you," he said at last. "I am content with my lot. One of my cousins, however, is a beginning tradesman. Your task shall be to assist him without charge for thirty days. His name is Lorgren, a cobbler."
"Thirty days." Ingwë threw a glance at Felagund. "Brother, you held your skill in too high esteem."
"Grandsire! What's a cobbler?"
The Old Took slowly refilled and relit his pipe before answering. "A cobbler makes shoes."
"I thought a shoemaker makes shoes."
"A cobbler is a shoemaker. Now, about this cobbler."
At the time which we come upon Lorgren Shoemaker, he was staring disconsolately a a bowl of lentil soup. He would have liked to be staring at, say, roast pork with a side of applesauce and a parsley garnish, but lentils were all he could afford. Even though his shop sat by the main thoroughfare in the White City's second level, business wasn't very brisk. In fact, it was almost nonexistant. He had only one order to fill - and only one piece of leather with which to make it.
After washing up his wooden soup bowl, he sat down at his bare workbench and began cutting out the lasts and soles for the pair of shoes. If business had been better, he thought wistfully, he could have been married by now. He loved Nedeaya and she loved him, but he could barely feed himself, much less a wife.
When he was finished, he cleaned his teeth and went to bed on the cot in the empty back room.
The next morning, as he was filling his bowl with more lentil soup, he noticed that the pieces of leather were no longer on his workbench. In their place stood a pair of shiny black shoes. The bowl dropped from his numbed fingers, making a puddle of brown soup on the floor. Slowly, as if reaching to calm a frightened bird, he extended his arms and picked up the shoes.
The workmanship was exquisite. Every stitch was tight and evenly spaced, and the overall effect was gorgeous. This pair of shoes, although unadorned, could have been worn by the queen herself.
Someone had come in at night and stitched the leather together!
Trembling, Lorgren mopped up his spilled breakfast, wrapped the shoes in a piece of paper, and took the parcel to the lady who had ordered the footwear.
"But these are so beautiful!" she exclaimed. "They are worth far more than I paid for them." She opened the purse at her belt and insisted that Lorgren take extra money.
On his way back to the shop, Lorgren bought enough fine leather to make two more pairs of shoes. That afternoon, a lady entered his shop.
"Master Shoemaker, I want you to make me two pairs of shoes. I saw the pair you made for Lady Sindelyne, and she simply cannot have better shoes than I."
Lorgren hid a grin and took her foot measurements. In the evening, he cut out the shoe pieces, ate his lentil soup, cleaned his teeth, and went to bed.
The next morning saw two wonderful pairs of shoes sitting on his workbench. Unable to believe his good fortune, Lorgren nearly spilled his soup again. By that night, he had orders from four customers and was eating chicken-and-vegetable soup.
"Can Elves really make shoes?"
The Old Took sighed. "Elves are skilled at many crafts, so I suppose they can make shoes. And I imagine that Felagund and his companions wanted to fulfill their vow without embarassing themselves."
Word spread quickly through Minas Tirith of a skilled young cobbler whose workmanship surpassed any other man's. Ladies and lords, not wanting to have shoes that were inferior to their friends', piled orders on Lorgren. The cobbler, in his turn, copied the stitching techniques used on the mysterious footwear. Within two weeks, his own skills had been greatly augmented. He even treated Nedeaya to a supper of filet mignon.
"Who has been giving me all this incredible help?" he finally asked, when three weeks had passed. "I wish there was some way I could find out and thank him."
That night, aided by plenty of coffee, he hid behind the window curtains and waited. At the stroke of midnight, the door opened and admitted several moving shapes. As the shapes lit candles, the flickering lights revealed long hair and pointed ears. Elves! After they had constructed ten pairs of shoes, the Elves swept up the floor and snuffed out the candles. The door swung silently shut after they had disappeared into the night.
The next morning, the shoemaker chewed his omelets and bacon thoughtfully. How could he possibly thank Elves? He'd noticed the bows on their backs. Perhaps he could work new quivers for them, if he hid the pieces in a cupboard.
The quivers were finished a week later. He laid them on the workbench and hid behind the curtains. The Elves came at midnight and stopped, puzzled at the sight of the items on the workbench. Lorgren began wishing he had written an explanatory note. Finally, the first one lifted a quiver and inspected it.
"This is fine workmanship. The shoemaker has much improved."
Lorgern took a deep breath and stepped out from his hiding place. "They're for you." The three Elves turned to look at him. "I don't know who you are, nor why you came, but I wanted you to know that I am very grateful."
There was an uncomfortable silence before the female Elf spoke, shouldering a new quiver. "You will not be seeing us again, Lorgren Shoemaker. Our thirty-day term of service has expired."
"If you would -" Lorgren began, hesitating. "If you would," he said again, "I should be honored to see you at my wedding. It will take place a fortnight from tomorrow."
The first Elf almost smiled. "Perhaps."
The Old Took fell silent, gazing into the fire again.
"Grandsire! Did all of that really happen? I don't think it's true."
He stirred from his reverie. "There is more truth in old tales than we think, little one." He glanced at the clock on the mantlepiece. "And it's past your bedtime."