The hall in which the Great Council was to be held was enormous, and filled to bursting with lavish tapestries and draperies. A ring of seats stood there, and were crowned with the crests and banners of uncountable realms and families of Middle Earth. Edging around a gaggle of ill-tempered dwarves, Elanor and Faramir found the crest of the Shire, a green banner with a golden tree in the center. Feet well off the ground and swinging slightly, they sat and admired their surroundings.
Peering around the ever-growing circle, the hobbits together noticed a pair that entered through the gilded door. One was a woman, dressed all in blue. Her firey red hair floated around her face like a cloud against the sun, and a sheathed dagger was at her side. Her eyes were a shining gold, lit with an unimagined fire. She carried a staff of swirling, twisting vapors the color of the sky in summer. A great, red-orange bird sat on her shoulder, his long tail feathers swept over the woman’s other side, covering her like a cloak, and he preened himself while surveying all around him with a regal air.
Beside her was another. Elanor could not have believed the sight before her, if it had not been for the figure’s eyes, so familiar in their strange, violet mystery. It was Gwynna, but much changed. She appeared greatly aged, as though a century had suddenly descended on her kind features. Her oaken staff was charred and cracked at the tip, and her clothes hung loosely on her protruding shoulders. She looked as one who has balanced on the very brink of death, only to fall back again at the last. With a gasp, Elanor and Faramir ran to their guide.
She leaned heavily on her companion, and smiled weakly. “I told you they would be safe, Arien. I knew it in my heart.”
“You nearly broke yourself for them,” Arien replied coldly. Her firey gaze saw the hobbits through clear displeasure. “You must rest.”
Gwynna shot the other a glare and turned back to the hobbits. She held out her hand to Elanor, and in it was a molten lump of blue stone, flecked with silver, gold, and bronze.
“I am sorry, my dear,” she said, as Elanor took what had once been her beautiful Númenorian brooch. “I took it when you were injured, and I did not return it, for I knew that I would require it in the days to come. It aided me, for without it I surely would have been sent too soon to the realm beyond the stars, but it did not survive the trial. I am sorry.”
Before Elanor could feign nonchalance, the king entered through the mighty entranceway. The assembled peoples kneeled, and took their seats. Arien shot Elanor a humorless smile, mockery heavy on her features.
“Welcome,” said the king, a silver circlet with a single emerald set in it on his brow. “I wish, indeed, that we were called together in better days. Such an assemblage of all the free peoples has not been seen in any realm of this earth for many years. Our doom is at hand, when we must unite or we must fall. Firstly, I shall call the realms aloud; would the peoples from each call out their names as I do so;”
“Legolas Greenleaf,” came a voice, and then a pause.
“Lothlorien,” called the king in his powerfully gentle voice.
And so it continued through Lake Town and Hollin, Haradwaith and Ereador. The last to be called was “The Shire.”
“Elanor Gamgee, my lord.”
A murmur ran through the crowd. “Gamgee,” many said, “like Samwise Gamgee? And Took, like the perian, Peregrin.”
“Y’know,’ said an ancient woman very loudly, ‘that Peregrin, he defied the lord Saruman all ‘imself. A lord among ‘is kind. Folks say ‘e broke the wizard’s staff. Smashed it on th’ rocks, ‘e did.” Faramir shook his head and chuckled quietly.
The king rose, silencing the chattering crowd. ‘We are only as strong as we are united under a common alliance. Separate, all is lost. You have been summoned to determine the fate of our world. There is much to discuss, and much to reveal. We are fighting a power far beyond that of our most fevered imaginings. First, Elanor and Faramir, if you would recount your tale; perhaps your encountering the storm would begin to explain.” Standing and feeling very small indeed, they repeated the now-familiar story, starting at the storm that had nearly destroyed them, leaving out only a few of the more personal details.
At the end of the hobbits’ tale, many of those present had the look of one deeply alarmed, though some seemed merely confused. A fierce pride shown in Gwynna’s eyes as she sat taller and looked around the circle as a queen surveys her court. Elanor and Faramir smiled. They could see Gwynna’s spirit returning to the gaunt frame before them.
“Perhaps you have begun to understand,” Estel called to the council. “All of you have seen the state of the realm of Gondor. Famine, plague, tempests, the city and the country is failing! I tell you now, this is no small turn of fate. We have roused the wrath of the Valar, the ancient lords of this world, and nothing we may do can stem their anger.”
“Nonsense,” growled a voice from the right of the king. A great man, so wild that his hair was closer to a mane stood as he spoke. Nearly eight feet tall, his long, gnarled beard gave him the first impression of a massive bear. “I cannot believe that the Great Ones would involve themselves in the petty affairs of mortals. You get a little wet and you’re all saying the sky is falling! Have you never seen a storm from the south before?”
“Aye, master beorning,” said the king quietly, his voice filled with sorrow. “But have you ever encountered a storm that lasted six months? I too have heard of the great storms in Haradwaith that the southerners call monsoons, but they last nary two months at the most. I have spent many days exploring the scrolls of Gondor, and there has never, never, do you hear me? -been a storm this severe. The land that was Mordor is an immense lake, its waters fetid and corrupted. If we do not act soon, it will spill over the very mountains. First it will ruin the water in the entire city. Then it will begin to flood the walls. When that happens, for it will happen if this is not stopped, I do not dare to think what will become of us.”
“You know this, my lord?” asked the astounded giant, who had nearly fallen into his seat. “How?”
King Elessar’s eyes hid not the despair that his stature did not portray. A wondrous intensity was in his voice, and death itself could not have found an atmosphere more vibrant. “I have seen it in the Palantir of the Tower. It does not lie. Do you now begin to understand? If the Valar are not stopped, if we cannot change what shall come to pass, we will all perish.
“And how do you expect us to stop the almighty power of the gods, my lord?” asked Arien, her eyes flashing like the lightening above the city. “First, we cannot reach the Undying Lands, unless you mean to attempt the Northern Wasteland, the Great Ice, which would be nothing more than inescapable death for us all. Or are we to copy the fools who have gone into the ever-mist searching for glory and everlasting life, and have sailed until they died rather than return empty-handed? The power of the Holy Ones has blocked us from Valinor for ever, and all but the last elves are meant to remain here until our weary souls are claimed by death.”
“Seek, and ye shall Find
Listen, and ye shall Hear
Knock, and all will be Opened
Ask, and ye shall Receive
Remember, and ye shall Know
Attempt, and ye shall Succeed.“
All turned towards the voice that had spoken. To the shock of many, it was a small hobbit, though the voice that came from the mouth was not its own. She was rigid in her chair, her unseeing eyes staring through the walls that surrounded her. Her delicate hands were clenched so tightly that her fingernails left crimson crescents where they had pressed into her palms. Her knuckles were white, her body was trembling, her face was contorted with silent agony; the council could do nothing to ease such strange pain. Speaking so all could hear, her voice declared, “Varda has spoken,” and she fell limp and deathly pale, her mind blissfully shrouded in darkness.
* * *
When Elanor finally awoke, she knew nothing but pain for a moment. Her head ached agonizingly, as though she had experienced a far-too-lively night at the Green Dragon. All around her, noises clamored to be heard. It took restraint for her not to clamp her hands over her pounding skull in an attempt to drown out the calamity. The sticky scent of illness permeated the air, making her eyes water. Her blurry vision distinguished few things in the darkness, only shadow-like figures moving vaguely around. When she saw a figure in the robes of a healer bustling by, she weakly reached out and grasped the hem of his billowing cloak. When he started and turned, she tried to speak, but her voice was nothing but a muffled croak in her throat. When the healer saw her condition, he pushed a cup into her hands and spoke.
“Drink,” he commanded. “It’ll help.” To a nearby page he said, “Get the other perian. He was to be informed the moment she awoke.”
Immediately after Elanor swallowed some of the fiery liquid that made her cough and sputter, her vision cleared and her spirits rose. Now that she could see, she realized that she was in one of the healing chambers, and that it was full to bursting. Every pallet was occupied and many rested on the ground, a few luckier ones on mounds of straw. How did I get here? Elanor wondered vaguely to herself. The last that she could remember was the Great Council, and feeling a little off peak, dizzy with a slight pain behind her eyes.
Before another thought came into Elanor’s mind, Faramir ran into the chamber, closely pursued by the disheveled page, who was attempting to make him slow down. The second he reached her bedside, he swept her up and kissed her passionately, leaving her limp, and blinking dazedly. “Well, then… It’s nice to see you, too.” she said weakly.
“You don’t know how scared I was,” Faramir said when he had calmed down and sat beside her. “Do you even know what happened?”
Coming out of her stupor, Elanor replied, “I truly haven’t the slightest idea. I was just going to ask you.”
“So we’re in the dark as much as before,” he muttered. The healer had returned and shone a bright lantern into Elanor’s eyes, blinding her. “Well, do you remember Arien speaking? How she said that our quest was hopeless?” Elanor nodded, frowning at the memory of the macabre speech, the healer now making her open her mouth. “Well, after she finished, you went stiff and spoke, but it didn’t sound like you. It was a much deeper voice, forlorn but filled with hope at the same time.”
“What did I say?” Elanor asked, eyes wide in bewilderment.
“It was a prophesy, or a poem, or something. Here, I wrote it down: ‘Seek, and ye shall find, listen, and ye shall hear, knock, and all will be opened, ask, and ye shall receive, remember, and ye shall know, attempt, and ye shall succeed.'”
“But I’ve never heard that in my life!” Elanor exclaimed shrilly, with a look from the healer, who, finally satisfied, left.
“There was more,” came Faramir’s grim voice. “Then you said, ‘Varda has spoken,’ and you fell limp. You’ve been asleep for a week.”
Elanor’s mouth had fallen open. At this she said loudly, “A week? But, what happened at the council? What are we going to do?”
“I’ll tell you as you eat. It’s two hours after the middle of the night, but I’m sure I can find something.”
As he rose, an unexplained panic rose in Elanor’s throat. “No! Don’t leave me here alone, with the illness, and the dark. It’s so horrible.” Looking into her pleading eyes, Faramir nodded.
“Would you feel better back in our rooms?” She looked down and nodded glumly in shame, embarassed to be so afraid of such simple things. Faramir stopped an apprentice who, on closer notice, proved to be a very young boy. “Taron, can you help me? I want to help Mistress Elanor back to our rooms, and I doubt she can walk by herself.”
“O’course, Master Faramir,” said the meek voice. “I would fetch one o’ the cart chairs, with the wheels, but ev’ry one is bein’ used.” Taking one of Elanor’s arms and slinging it around his waist, (being much taller than the little hobbit,) the boy helped Faramir to raise Elanor and support her as her legs revealed they would not hold her up.
Elanor felt ridiculous and very weak indeed to be supported by a little child, even one as obviously strong and healthy as Taron. Slowly, painfully slowly, the three made their way through twisted corridors, seeing no one, which pleased Elanor’s injured pride. While her companions labored, she was free to examine the boy beside her. He had fair skin, pale from a lack of plain sunshine. His straight black hair was cropped short in the way of the younger boys, ending around his shoulders in a perfectly level line. His eyes were as green as summer grass, with streaks of gold that shone with a special radiance. He hid his small form in oversized robes which marked him as an apprentice, one nearing qualification as a journeyman. He could be no more than Anna’s age.
It’s sad, Elanor thought, that even those so young are affected this way. In other times, he would not even be a beginning apprentice until he had at least fifteen years. So absorbed was Elanor in her thoughts that she didn’t notice their progress until Faramir pulled away to open the door to their quarters.
Once Taron made sure Elanor was comfortable in a chair by the fire, he left to look for Elanor’s late supper while Faramir busied himself with making tea. Far away in morose thoughts, Elanor was drawn back by the sound of a strangled cough. His face buried in a slightly ragged handkerchief, dry, hacking spasms shook Faramir’s frame, which she suddenly realized was much more slender then it had been when they had set out from the Shire. Casting about for another cloth to supply him with, Elanor spotted instead a small pile of rumpled kerchiefs in a basket by the hearth.
“You’re sick!” Elanor accused, worried for the health of her companion and friend.
“Of course not,” Faramir replied raspily. “Tooks don’t get sick. It’s just a little cough from all this dust.”
Elanor followed his wide gesture around the spotless room. “Come here,” she ordered. Faramir approached and stood sheepishly while she felt his face and neck. “I’m surprised your clothes haven’t caught fire. Sit, before you make it worse.” About to argue, another coughing fit struck him as he just opened his mouth, and Elanor used the given opportunity to gently shove him into the chair beside her, where he could only cough powerlessly.
About the time Faramir recovered himself, Taron returned bearing two trays of food, and set one before each of the hobbits.
“Thought you might like something also, Master Faramir. Also, beggin’ your pardon, I’ve notice the way you’ve been coughin’ and wheezin’, and I talked to the chief healer, Isa Red-Dragon, and she wants to see you in the morn. I’m sorry, milord,” he said when he pulled a face, “but disease is just so dangerous with everyone cooped up down ‘ere under th’ ground… ‘ope I haven’t done you any ‘arm, milord…”
Smiling, Elanor replied, “No, you’ve done the right thing. I will look after him now, and make sure that he reports promptly in the morning. Oh, and, Taron?” she whispered with a look at Faramir’s tray. “Well done, finding soup for him. You must have gotten the last in the realm.”
The blushing apprentice beamed and looked down. “I’ve just been lookin’ after ‘im, and I’ve been gettin’ a tad worried ’bout ‘im. ‘e ‘asn’t been eatin’ since milady took ill, skippin’ meals an’ all. Not much to wonder at that ‘e’s sick.”
“Thank you. Try to get some sleep, Taron. We don’t want someone useful as you getting ill too.” As the boy left, Elanor turned her attention back to Faramir, narrowing her eyes. “You eat every bite of that, or you’ll have me to answer to. And tell me about the council!”
Between coughing and his soup, Faramir described the remainder of the Great Council. “It took the king a good while to restore order after you collapsed. The healers were sent for, and they started to take you away, and of course I wanted to go with you. But the king would not allow it. Well, I’m ashamed to say it, but I put up a bit of a… disturbance. I was worried about you, I didn’t even know for sure if you were alive! The king finally called Arien’s name, (she and Gwynna have gone home, by the way; Arien won’t fight and Gwynna needs to recover her strength ere we depart,) and she chanted a few words and I was bound to the chair, and I couldn’t move or speak. And the king said something like ‘I am sorry, my dear Took, but you will serve her better if you are here to represent your people. Now sit still or I will be forced to do this again.’ So Arien chanted again and released me, and I sat quietly.” Here he coughed, giving Elanor the chance to regain her composure after barely suppressing overwhelming laughter.
Faramir finally continued, his voice growing soft, the tone of his voice stressing the importance of his words. “The council went on for hours, because some people didn’t understand or didn’t believe. What the final outcome was still amazes me. The way we are to stop the Valar is to defend our soil on theirs. The king is taking an army to Valinor. Yes, Elanor, I know it’s supposed to be impossible,” he said quickly, seing her yes widen as she opened her mouth to speak. “The king says that he has found a way. I think you know that the Valar used their power to surround their lands with a barrier, something that keeps us lesser mortals corralled where we can see to our own affairs. But there was one place they could not seal off. The ancient mountain temple of Numenor, that Sauron himself dared not defile, still rises above the sea, even after the drowning of that noble isle. That is hallowed ground, and even those to whom it was built cannot unmake it. If the king can find the ruins of Meneltarma, he can cross the barrier and make his way into the heart of Valinor.”
Her shock making her voice tremble, Elanor spoke slowly. “Faramir, you must be mistaken. To take an army of men and their king straight into the inescapable arms of defeat is insane. King Elessar would only be chasing madness and death to pursue this ‘plan’.”
“Elanor, I trust him. If he says it will work, it will work. And though we may never return, it is better to die with an effort than to die hiding in a dark hole until death takes us.”
A fear suddenly took Elanor’s heart. “You say ‘we’ like you were going.”
“That is because I am.”
Elanor could not have understood, would not understand. “No… you can’t… you’re no warrior, you’re… you’re…”
“I’m what?” Faramir asked softly, his eyes filled with pity and– Elanor realized with a jolt that it was fear. He began coughing again.
“You’re just a hobbit, just a little person caught up in big affairs. War isn’t for us, Faramir.” Tears began to gather in Elanor’s eyes.
“That’s why. Because I love you. I need you! I wont let you leave me only to be killed!” Elanor tried to get up and fell back to her seat, remembering her weakness. Faramir rose to help her, but she got up again, and flitted past. For just a moment, he caught her, and embraced her, and for that second, they were one, their tears mingling, for Elanor had not seen those that were in his eyes. She felt again the heat on his face, and was filled with concern. Then she was gone, in her chamber, and though neither knew, (though both suspected,) both wept bitter tears long before they fell into the blissful forgetfulness of sleep.