The voice startled me awake. I had not meant to go to sleep, but there was no wind and the ship was just drifting with the tide, and we’d been still at least two leagues from the shore, and there was the drug and my restless night all acting upon me. The Lady was still holding me. Evidently she had tucked my glass into the pocket of my nightshirt so I shouldn’t drop it, and had pulled my hood back over my head. The sun was still low but the sky was much lighter overhead and it had stopped raining. So I could not have been asleep for very long, probably a quarter of an hour or so. I smiled to see that Bilbo had finally suffered himself to be lifted by Gandalf so he could see above the fog that still hung low on the water.
Quite reluctantly, I must confess, I told the Lady she could set me down if she wanted to go over and meet her old friend, but she said she did not want to interrupt the reunion of Lord Elrond and his mother, and she could wait.
I can’t say I was sorry.
I could hear the whinnying and pawing of horses behind me, and saw that Shadowfax and Lady Galadriel’s lovely white palfrey, Maegfán, had been brought up. They had spent several days in close quarters and had obviously grown quite fond of each other. I smiled to see the great silver stallion reach over and nuzzle Maegfán’s snowy mane, while she demurely pretended not to notice, her long eyelashes cast down. Gandalf mounted Shadowfax and took Bilbo up with him, and Lady Galadriel did likewise with me on the palfrey.
I could hear the bells in the harbour now………
And clearly see the white Tower rising in the mist….
And the gulls screaming out as they wheeled in ecstatic circles, flocks upon flocks of them…….
I was glad of my cloak, surreptitiously tugging the hood down over my eyes, feeling shy of the cheering throng that stood at the harbour. I thought perhaps they’d take me for an Elf-child if they couldn’t see my feet, so I tucked them up out of sight under my cloak.
Bilbo had no such qualms, however. He sat right there in front of Gandalf, beaming and looking all around, blowing a kiss or two to the crowd. Maegfán glanced over at Shadowfax when his attention was distracted from her by the noise.
But it seems I could do nothing right, even enter my new home in grand style. Due to the combination of the excitement and the wearing off of the drug, I began to grow dizzy again, everything whirling before me in a funnel of light, the pain creeping back into my shoulder….
The next thing I knew, I was lying on a bed in a small chamber lit by candles and frosty-looking windows, Bilbo hovering close by, and Gandalf, and another Lady whose identity I did not know, but had a shining presence such as I had never seen even in an Elf. My head was still spinning and my shoulder once again was being pierced by an icicle, and I groaned, and then I was lifted and carried into another room, where my garment was removed and I was washed in a warm bath by Gandalf and Bilbo, barely aware of what was happening. Then they dried me off and put me into a white robe someone had brought in–it was made for a child, obviously, but was still a little too long for me–murmuring soothing and reassuring things to me the while. Then Gandalf gently bore me into yet another, much larger room and laid on what appeared to my blurry eyes to be a high pallet in the middle. This room was also lit with candles, lots and lots of them, and there were people standing all around–at least, they appeared to be people, but they emanated a soft light as though they were candles in human form. And there were windows all around, very high pointed ones, set with bevelled crystal in intricate patterns on which the morning sunlight played with scintillating effects, setting sparks of a dozen colors, and there was a round window in the ceiling, like a giant crystal rose. I could see and smell flowers also.
Torches were lit at my head and feet. The pallet was comfortable, if a little hard, and there was a silk pillow at my head and the room was warm, but I felt strange, as though I were being prepared for burial. My anxiety must have showed, for the shining Lady stepped forward and touched my cheek and forehead with a soft, cool hand. She wore a white robe like mine, with silver embroidery, but more thin and silky looking, and underneath she wore a gown of silver-grey. I hoped my robe was less transparent than hers, and I glanced down and felt relieved to see that it was.
She took my right hand and stroked it, telling me she would let no harm befall me. I had never heard such a melodious and soothing voice, and I could see her hair, long and silvery-white in color like a flying cloud, bound with a simple coronet that held it back from her unbearably beautiful face. Then I felt someone take my icy left hand and I looked up and gasped to see it was the Lady Elwing, wearing the same sort of robe over her white gown. Her dark hair was also held back with the same sort of coronet, and the candle-flames and torch-light cast dancing gold-copper glints on its abundant waves. Her eyes were dark stars in the pale heaven of her face.
I would find later that she was a priestess in this, the Temple of Illùvatar.
I could not hear their words above the roaring that started in my head once more. But before I knew it, they began to sing, or chant, softly at first, but then as their voices grew louder, the others in the room echoed their music, in exquisite voices, echoing through the large, lofty chamber, and gradually the roaring subsided and the room grew ever brighter, and a bell tolled deeply in the distance. I felt cool fingers massage my brow and caress my wet hair. My body seemed to grow lighter as I lay upon the…bier? and before long I felt as though I were floating….
I was lying on my back in a little boat, and it seems that it drifted through a dazzle of light into a dim tunnel. I was about to protest that I didn’t like tunnels, when I looked up and realized I was not alone. Lady Elwing sat in the prow of the little boat, and my head was in her lap. Soon I grew a little calmer, my breathing less labored. I saw my tunnel was more like a culvert, the walls a strange light reddish brown, glowing faintly, and the water we floated in was dark-red like blood. Lady Elwing took both my hands in hers, and told me she would let no harm befall me.
“Why are we floating in blood,” I think I asked her, and she said, Shh, just lie still, barely above a whisper. I thought of asking if we were inside a snake, then I heard strange noises echoing in the distance, and wanted to sit up, but when I tried I was overcome with dizziness once more and she told me I must trust her. But it is hard to trust when you are floating in blood. The air felt close and dank and foul. Then we came to what appeared to be a fork in the tunnel and she spoke something in Elvish, then asked me where should we go, left or right, and I had no idea but I said, Left, without knowing why. I heard a rushing of the water, or blood, or whatever it was, and we descended over some rapids and I heard a fearful thumping, rather like a giant slow heartbeat. Now we were inside some sort of dark chamber with very high walls, which seemed to be throbbing and dripping blood and glowing redly. I was sure I was dreaming, but she kept hold of my hands and told me everything would be all right, and we drifted into another tunnel, and I heard hideous voices therein, the way I sometimes heard in my nightmares. And I saw what clearly were eyes, looking right at me balefully in the darkness, and I was terrified and tried to sit up. I heard jeering voices, taunting me, cursing me, calling me by name, saying obscene and unthinkable things, and the Lady’s arm went around me.
“What are they?” I whispered.
“They are your illness,” she replied. I wasn’t sure I heard her right so I twisted my head around and looked up at her. “You must defy them, Frodo. Do not let them clog your path. Otherwise they will annihilate and absorb you, and you must not allow it.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to them in defiance and was about to ask her, but that seemed truly silly. Then I remembered, long ago, as I sat upon a white horse by a rushing ford, defying the Ringwraiths, and thought perhaps I should say what I said to them, but it hardly seemed appropriate. At least, not in full.
So I said, “You shall never have me!” wishing I had my sword with me, but I had left that with Sam. It sounded ridiculous even as I said it, but no one laughed, and I put my hand down in the water and splashed it at them, as hard as I could in my weakened state, shouting, “Go back! In the name of all the Valar, I defy you! I hate you!” Then I was overcome by giddiness, and when my vision cleared, I saw I was lying in Lady Elwing’s lap once more, and she was stroking my hair.
“Are they gone?” I asked, and she said, “They are. You did well,” with a smile. And I smiled also.
We floated on in the darkness, and the wailing voices grew fainter. Then she said, “We are about to pass through fire. You will feel a burning for a moment, but it will not harm you. There is another way we can go to avoid it, but it will take much longer and your healing will not be as complete. Do you wish to take the long way or pass through the flame?”
I thought for a minute. The pain in my shoulder was intense; in fact, it was much worse than before. The sooner it was over and done with, the better. So I said, “The flame…please.” She smiled at my politeness, laid her hand on my good shoulder and spoke or sang more words I did not understand, and the boat drifted through another fork in the tunnel. I clutched tightly at her hand and saw ahead of me a burning redness, and I almost said, “I’ve changed my mind, let’s take the long way,” as I felt heat of unbearable intensity already, in the water below me. I wondered how long a “moment” was by Elf reckoning, and decided any moment of burning was far too long, but she wrapped both arms around me tightly and said once more that she would let no harm befall me. She said it would be as the birth-pains of a mother, but for far less duration and even more quickly forgotten. I asked her if she would feel it with me, and she said she would, and the boat drifted into the flame.
I wondered if anyone heard my shriek besides her, but the burning lasted for the space of a second, I’m sure. Then I felt it no more. I looked at her and saw her smile. Then she made me lie down again and put my head in her lap. I needed no persuading. I asked her if the worst was over and she said there was one more trial, but she believed I could endure it. We floated into a chamber of utter blackness, and I barely refrained from grabbing her in a choking clutch. No sound at all issued here, no light, no smell, nothing except an oppressive humidity. Just that complete and utter nothingness. Why had I not chosen the easier way? Even the burning had been preferable to this. I could not see even the soft light the Lady emitted. Frantically I fumbled for my glass, but found that I did not have it, nor had I my pendant; they had taken both from me, how could they do it? I would go mad if this went on much longer….
I had been through this before, actually. But when?
But just as I thought I could take no more, I beheld a faint white light ahead of us, and I sat up again. I could hear a soft voice of singing in the distance, very like the singing I had heard in the chamber. Indeed, it was the same singing. I could see glowing figures ahead standing in the light. Soon we had reached the mouth of the tunnel and there was light all around, crystal clear and warm and fresh. The water glittered all around us, cascading in a dozen falls that caught the sunlight in bucketfuls of diamonds, splashing on me and the Lady in sweet coolness. I saw people standing upon the water, singing, and the boat moved ever faster, and I saw trees of silver and gold above me, an endless forest of them, stars clinging to their branches, lotus blossoms floating on the stream around us. My head was spinning once more, but my pain had abated dramatically. Then I felt a tremendous explosion in my head, as though I were inside a firework, and I was soaring, soaring through the white air at blinding speed until I knew no more….
And when I came to this time, I was lying in another bed, and there was Bilbo once more by my side.
“Boat, my aunt Fannie!” Bilbo said. He sat cross-legged on the bed beside me, looking quite at home, a cup of tea in one hand. “You were in no blasted boat, my dear boy. You must have been dreaming. The whole time you were lying on that–whatever you want to call it with all those Elves or whatever singing all around in the candle-light. At one point you fetched out this ungodly shriek and only Gandalf kept me from storming in there and demanding what in the name of Eru they were doing to you! When they finally did let me in, I thought you were dead for a moment there, and it gave me such a turn that I thought I was going to fall right over in my tracks. Then we fetched you here, Lord Elrond explaining to me some kind of fol-de-rol about a, a `purification,’ whatever that means. Never heard of such piffle. But at least, now you look, well, you still look like death warmed over, to put it politely, but it’s a vast improvement over how you were looking before, so I suppose I can’t fault their methods too harshly.”
I laughed, glancing all about. The room had one wall completely lined with bookshelves, and the opposite “wall” consisted only of alabaster columns set with moonstones and gold filigree. Outside was a wide terrace overlooking the most magnificent garden I had ever seen–truly, it made Rivendell look like Mordor. I lay in a bed large enough for four hobbits, with thick mattresses sheeted in colored silk, several fat pillows, and a beautifully embroidered thick comforter lying over me. A few potted plants stood about the floor, along with some gorgeously worked rugs. I could hear birds singing, their notes echoing throughout the trees, and some tubular chimes hung in the pointed arches between the columns, tinkling softly in the breeze. A delicious fragrance wafted into the room. I was informed that I had been there less than a day.
“I didn’t know you had an aunt Fannie,” I said, sitting up shakily. I felt wonderfully lightheaded and my shoulder…why, there was no pain at all. My left hand was as warm as the right.
“What?” Bilbo looked at me as though I’d said something in Dwarvish.
“Never mind,” I laughed again, and Gandalf came in with Elrond just then. I smiled radiantly at them.
“How is our patient now?” Lord Elrond asked me smiling back, but I didn’t answer for staring at Gandalf. He had shaved his beard, obviously, and his hair had acquired several black streaks. And I can swear some of the lines had disappeared from his face. Yet he was still recognizable.
“Gandalf,” I gasped, “what have you done to yourself?”
“That’s just what I was about to say,” Bilbo said. “You didn’t come back from the dead AGAIN, did you? Isn’t once enough? If you are trying to paint your hair to look like an Elf, I can tell you here and now that it’s a big mistake. You look like one of those…striped ponies, whatever they’re called, that I saw in one of Lord Elrond’s books.”
Before Gandalf could reply, there was a tap at the door, and another Lady entered smiling, very like to the Lady Galadriel but not nearly so tall, more slender and delicate looking, clad in a dainty pale blue gown that matched her eyes. And I could see three more Ladies hanging back in the hallway, two of whom I knew already, and one other I didn’t. The two I knew were smiling also. The one I had yet to meet was not smiling, and she was all in black.
I forgot all about Gandalf’s hair.
I had cancer, Lord Elrond informed me, after Gandalf ushered Bilbo out of the room on the pretext of going out to the gardens for a smoke. It started in a little gland at the base of my brain, but was now spread over all my body, into organs I didn’t even know I had. I should have been dead by now, I was told, and had I not left, I would have been dead in a matter of months, if not sooner, and my death would have been painful and horrible indeed, in all probability. Obviously, I was much tougher than I looked. And I could see much more clearly what Lord Elrond meant when he said I had done well to spare Sam the ordeal of watching me die.
I shuddered at the diagnosis, although it came as no great surprise. My disease was very rare in the Shire and was therefore regarded as something of a disgrace, as if it were a punishment visited upon one for some heinous deed that had gone undetected. Yet, after the initial shock, I felt a vast relief. I felt as though my burden had finally been lifted and cast away. That I had been bathed internally, purged, reborn, renewed.
I felt visible.
Still, although my mind had been liberated, for my body, the healing ritual in the Temple was only the beginning. I would have to stay in bed for weeks, maybe months. I could not get up except to visit the privy. If I wished to bathe, I would have to ring for someone to take me to the bath-house. I was allowed to take my bath in private, at least, but I had to summon someone to come get me when I was done, which seemed rather silly, since I had the use of my legs and the bath-house was not far from my room. I could take my meals on the terrace, and sit out there as long as I wished, but if I wanted to stroll around the gardens, someone had to carry me about like a babe.
(By the way, in case you have ever wondered if Elves have to use the toilet–psst, they do! Just not as much as we do. I have known this from childhood actually, when I asked Bilbo, and when he said yes I was shocked and horrified, and didn’t believe him for the longest, certain that he was having me on, until I came to Rivendell and found he was right. Of course, by then I was at an age to be accepting, even rather glad of it, for it was a connection between them and us lower folk. Not so poor Pippin, and the rest of us teased him unmercifully about it. The facilities they have here for disposing of the, er, residue, are wonderfully advanced and ingenious.)
I am sure there are many who would have envied me my period of confinement. I was brought delicious food, bread and butter and honey and cheese and fruits of such variety of which I hadn’t known existed. I was given a drug to keep back pain and another to treat my illness, and both often made me groggy but did not dull my appetite. The meals were brought it by three of the loveliest ladies I had ever seen, and Gandalf told me, with twinkling eyes (he grew younger every day, it seemed, his hair all black now and his face completely unlined except when he laughed and then his eyes would crinkle up) that they had argued one day among themselves who got to bring in my trays, until they worked out a system of taking turns. Lady Celebrían brought me my breakfasts, which seemed very fitting, for she was like to the morning herself, gay and smiling, twinkling and flowing with a gentle humor as she arranged the dishes onto the terrace table, quick and graceful as a small white bird. Lady Galadriel brought my noon meals, majestic and goldenly beautiful as the high sunlight, and Lady Elwing served me dinner and supper, hauntingly luminous and ethereal in the dusk…
I was, of course, quite smitten with her.
So I was with all of them, but with her most of all, I am sure. It was not only her resemblance to her granddaughter. (I still have a hard time imagining her as anybody’s grandmother, although I knew she could have been my own several thousand times over.) There was just such a melody to her being, a jeweled depth and timelessness, that worked its way into my very bones and chained me sweetly to it, wrapped itself all around me with velvet wings. It will be hard, I suppose, for the reader to understand that it did not matter that she would be always out of my reach, that I had scarcely any physical contact with her and did not need it. I would not have understood that, myself, before coming here. But the fact was, such was the virtue of this place that just to be in her presence was bliss. She, and the others, very rarely touched me, except to kiss my forehead for goodnight, which was nothing more than my mother would have done, but was no less wonderful for that.
And…you might remember that I mentioned a fourth Lady. Not the one in the Temple…that was Estë, the Healer, who had come all the way from Aman to see me, knowing I would need her even before I arrived. I would see her again, just once more. No, the one I had seen the first day I woke in the new House of Elrond–the Lady in black, who stood off behind Lady Galadriel and Lady Elwing at a distance and did not smile, whom I had seen from a distance, in the garden, but had yet to meet.
Her name was Ríannor.