Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
(Sarah Williams, The Old Astronomer)
“Yes, you did,” said Gandalf.
Anna had gone completely still, the hammering of her own heartbeat the only indication that she was not dead right now.
“What is the meaning of this?” Thranduil demanded, an undercurrent of menace in his voice. “How can Anna be dead when she is sitting beside me quite alive?” He reached out for her hand as if he needed to reassure himself of his own words. “If this is another one of your obscure machinations, I demand that you explain yourself at once. This is not a time to play games, Mithrandir!”
“This isn’t a game,” Anna said, when she had finally regained her voice. “There was a fire and I—” she broke off.
“A fire?” Thranduil’s voice was hollow and even without looking at his face she could sense that, for the blink of an eye, the glamour hiding his scar was flickering dangerously.
“But where was this fire? How did this happen?”
“I’m trying to remember, but the pieces are just slowly coming together.”
“Of course, your memories might need more time to settle in,” Thranduil said, as if he had to remind himself of being patient when it came to learning about her past. His closeness was the only thing grounding Anna to a present that slipped away from her at a frightening pace. She kept her eyes on the ground before her, as the images finally slid in place.
“There was a small forest close to where I used to live. I loved taking walks there, because it was so peaceful and quiet. I remember that there was a massive and ancient oak in its centre. That was my favourite spot to sit and work. I used to write children’s books and the best ideas would come to me there.” A small smile played around her mouth, but died away again as quickly as it came. “That day I was on my way to visit a friend who used to live just beyond the forest. The weather was perfect, not a single cloud in sight, so I decided to go and see my tree. The roots fanned out so wide they appeared like gnarled snakes on the forest floor, so I made myself comfortable between them. I leaned against the tree trunk and pulled out my notebook to scribble down an idea, when the tree shook with a sudden tremor.” The thought alone sent a shiver through her body.
“The— the leaves above me rustled and I looked up, but there was no wind. It was as if they were talking to each other, whispering something in a language I couldn’t understand.” Anna shook her head, trying to find the right words. “If I wouldn’t have known it any better, I would have said that the tree was afraid, sensing danger creeping up on it. It was a warning, but I didn’t understand it. Something felt suddenly very wrong. It was like a strange power had appeared out of nowhere, siphoning off all life from around me.”
She dug her fingers into the moss covering the bench, searching for a hold in the swirling sea of her memories.
“I was being pushed against the tree and the breath was knocked from my lungs. I tried to free myself and get up, but whatever was holding me down, was too strong for me. I thought I was going mad or imagining things because I couldn’t see anyone around. Panic crept through me and I wanted to scream for help, but no words came out.” Her eyes went to Thranduil, who watched her wordlessly, his flawless composure barely holding in the face of her harrowing revelations.
“The tree shook and trembled and I could feel the knobs of the bark pressing into my back. The skies turned as black as night, obscuring everything around me, and then a lightning cleaved through it like a blade cutting through a veil. It struck the tree with a tremendous force. I could even feel it ripping through every fibre of my body. The rumble that followed was deafening. In an instant the tree burst into flames, the fire eating through the leaves and wood as if they were paper. One moment everything was black and then suddenly there was so much brightness it blinded me and the heat rolled down relentlessly towards me. Everything happened so fast I could barely understand what was going on. I knew I would never make it out alive, not unless a miracle would come. I learned then that miracles do not exist.”
A silent sob escaped Anna, her insides clenching into a tight knot. Tears burned in her eyes. “I wasn’t afraid of death, but I was so scared of dying.” She added in a choked voice, “I didn’t want to die alone, not like that.”
“I’m sorry you had to go through this,” Thranduil said quietly beside her. “Words are not enough to describe such pain and agony.”
When she looked up into his face his scar had broken through the faltering glamour, a reminder of his own horrible fight against the flames. “Fire has no mercy,” he said. “It is greedy and takes what it wants and consumes everything in its wake like a relentless beast.”
Anna bit her lower lip trying to keep the tears from falling.
“I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t fight or run away. It was so unbearably hot, my body was literally melting away, my skin blistering; just waves upon waves of scorching heat bathing everything in orange and crimson. The pain was agonising. It was like being sliced apart by burning blades and having red-hot spears driven through every part of my body. ” She paused, her throat clogging up as she fought a sudden surge of nausea. “I yelled and cried until my throat was hoarse and I had nothing more left in me. The smell of burned flesh stung my nose and my eyes were blinded by the smoke that rapidly filled my lungs. I couldn’t breathe anymore and I began to lose consciousness. I drifted away while the fire consumed the rest of me. Then suddenly everything was completely still and there was only darkness and no more pain. It was all gone from one instant to another.”
Thranduil swallowed audibly beside her.
“No one deserves to die such an awful death,” he said and then his voice turned sombre, “this should never have happened. How was this even possible? This sounds like a work of dark magic, like someone purposefully attacked the tree.”
“A valid assumption,” Gandalf said, joining the conversation for the first time. He paced with his hands crossed behind his back in front of Anna and Thranduil. “Which is why I am quite certain of the origin of said attacker. When you fought the dragon Angoroth at Gundabad it was not the only blow Sauron thought to deal you.”
“What does this have to do with Anna and the tree?” Thranduil retorted impatiently.
“It has everything to do with it.” Gandalf stopped his pacing and hooked his thumbs into his belt. “As you must be well aware of, there was a lightning striking the ancient oak in Mirkwood, the portal tree, just right after the dragon nearly burned you whole.”
“Yes, there is no need to remind me of these horrid moments.” Thranduil tensed noticeably beside Anna.
“Oh, but there is, because only then the connection becomes apparent. The lightning opened a rift in time, so when it struck the tree, it did so not only at that moment, but also at another instant in time, a moment separated by thousands of years, but suddenly connected by a singular act of dark magic.”
“So are you saying that I might have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time?” Anna wiped away a solitary tear with the back of her hand.
Gandalf bobbed his head sideways. “The answer to this is both yes and no. Had you not been there then you surely wouldn’t have died, but had you not been there, then you would have never found your way here either. By doing what he did, Sauron unintentionally created a way for his evil deed to be undone.”
For a moment Thranduil appeared awe-struck as he processed the wizard’s revelations and the confusion was evident on his face. “That still does not explain how Anna got here,” Thranduil said, having quickly regained his poise. “People are not normally dead when they pass through the portal tree.”
“You are right. It was not the usual way, but this is where I come in,” Gandalf tilted his head sideways. “I found her at the Crossroads.”
“The Crossroads?” Thranduil repeated, his eyes darting from the wizard to Anna. She nodded briefly to confirm that Gandalf was speaking the truth.
“A place between the worlds, created by Eru and guarded by the Istari,” Gandalf elaborated. “It is a place that is both nowhere and everywhere at once and only few people ever find how to get there.”
“Why is it that I have never heard of this place?”
“You are a wise Elvenking and have walked this earth for many millennia, but that does not mean that there aren’t places and things that exist outside of your knowledge. The universe is full of surprises and mysteries. Even I find myself marvelling at them time and again.”
Anna threw Thranduil a sideways glance. He pushed his chin forward, the crease on his forehead deepening, but for once he seemed to actually swallow back the smart retort he surely had prepared.
“Very well,” he said, “then let us assume that such a place actually does exist, wherever it might be, that still leaves the question of Anna dying and being now obviously alive unanswered.”
“It is easier to comprehend if you allow me to show you,” Gandalf said and then with a flick of his wrist he conjured a vision out of thin air. A dark and empty space appeared, the outlines of two people walking slowly towards the foreground until it became apparent who they were. An elderly man and a young woman now sat down on the ground, facing each other. It might have looked like a casual encounter between them, had it not been for the complete barren surroundings and the empty ground. Several pathways appeared to be leading into the darkness. Only two of them were slightly more illuminated as if they had been highlighted on purpose.
“I thought I died? Why am I here? Is this heaven?” The questions tumbled from Anna’s mouth. There was a darkness around both of them, not a menacing one, but rather one that was comforting like a warming blanket.
“You did die indeed, but you have yet to make your final journey. And no, this is not heaven, but you are at the Crossroads from where many paths lead in different directions, although not all pathways are open for everyone. As you can see there are two for you to choose.” He waved with his hand in the direction of the pathways.
Anna followed the motion of his hands and nodded slowly, then her eyes went back to him.
“And who are you? Are you God?”
The elderly man facing her leaned closer and smiled.
“No, I am not God. My name is Gandalf, although I go by many names as I have travelled many roads in the long years of my life. I am one of the guardians of this place and today it is my duty to offer you guidance and help as to which path you will want to choose.”
“Am I not supposed to just, I don’t know, stay dead? I thought death was the end of it all.”
“Who told you that? It seems this is a common misconception among humans. Death is not necessarily the end of all things, nor is it always the only choice.”
“So I get to choose between going back to my life and death?”
“I am afraid it is not as simple as that. There is no way back to where you came from, you can only choose to go on different paths from here.”
“But I don’t understand. Why do I get to choose?”
“Sometimes people are chosen for reasons that are not always evident at first, but they are never chosen at random. You have been brought here to be offered a task.”
For a moment Gandalf’s eyes focussed on something far away, and his voice seemed to come from a great distance.
“A long time ago a terrible tragedy occurred, a force of evil so strong it split apart the soul of someone, someone who has been now wandering for ages, broken, but not yet defeated, still hoping for a cure to be whole again. He is not aware that he is missing a part of his soul, but he is slowly growing weaker and if no help comes, he will soon fade.”
“What do you mean by fade? You mean he will die? And who is this person?”
“No, he will not die, as we are not speaking of a human. He is an Elf, a rather ancient being going by human standards, and his world stands at the brink of another war and with it eternal destruction. If he does not regain his strength, I am afraid, then all will fall into darkness.”
“An Elf? But how can I help? I don’t understand. I am only a human, not a wizard and I do not possess any powers.”
“Do not underestimate yourself. You are compassionate and kind and there is love in your heart. That is all it takes.” He reached out for Anna’s hands and gave them a reassuring squeeze. “You carry within you the ability to save another soul, but only you can decide if you are willing to make use of your ability.”
Anna looked at the wizard slightly baffled. “But what exactly am I supposed to do? I still don’t understand. How do I find this person, this Elf?”
“The only thing you have to do, should you agree to this task, is follow your heart. You will know when you have found him. There are no instructions, and there is only one rule. Once you have made your choice, there is no way back. So make sure to choose wisely.”
Anna’s eyes searched her surroundings, but the near darkness made it difficult to discern anything.
“Where does the other path take me?”
“That I cannot tell you. It is different for everyone who travels that road. It is a place that is known by many names, a place where souls go to rest at the end of their lives.”
“So you mean to tell me that I can either keep on going to an unknown resting place or I can choose to agree to this task and go to another unknown place in hope of healing a broken soul?”
“Exactly, you can either follow this road,” he gestured with his hand towards the path, the length of it obscured by dense greyish mist, “or accept this task, which will lead you to a new life.”
Anna stared at the path that lay before her, anxiety creeping up on her at the sight of its pitch black darkness. “What if I don’t know what to do? What if I fail?”
“You will not. I have full trust in your abilities.”
“You seem to have a lot more confidence in me than what I have.”
Gandalf gave her a brilliant smile.
“What happens if I succeed?”
Gandalf’s face turned serious and he folded his hands in front of his lap. “That only Eru knows and it is in his wisdom that we must put our faith. I am afraid that is all I can tell you.”
Anna nodded slowly and took a deep breath. Everything around them lay in a twilight that might be dusk or dawn or none of both. Besides the outline of the two pathways and Gandalf by her side there was nothing and no one. Her heart hammered in her chest, despite the fact that she should not even have a beating heart anymore.
“I know you still have doubts, Anna, but you are the one meant for this task. And he is running out of time and his world with him.”
“No pressure then, right?” she said, a smile creeping on her face as if in defiance of the dangers that lay ahead.
“No, none at all,” Gandalf said, his answering smile shining through his tangled beard.
She rose from her place on the ground and took one step towards the blackness engulfing the pathway that awaited her with a task that sounded completely and utterly surreal, but who was she to judge? By all laws of logic she should be dead and not standing here talking to a wizard, so perhaps it was time to lay her doubts aside and simply accept what had been offered to her. She had nothing to lose except death, and to the best of her knowledge this was not something desirable.
She lifted her hand and extended it towards the darkness ahead. It went through and disappeared from sight, as if devoured by an endless night.
“I will choose this path and do my best to be worthy of the trust that has been placed in me, but I have one more question.” She turned around to face Gandalf, who had risen to stand behind her. “Has everything here been happening inside my head or is this real?”
The wizard opened his hands in an apologetic gesture. “Of course it is happening in your head, Anna, but why should that mean that it is not real?”
“What a very wizard way to answer,” she said. There was only one more question for her to ask. “Will I see you again?”
Gandalf’s eyes crinkled with a smile. “When the time is right, we shall meet again, but for now it is farewell.”
The vision began to blur at the edges and soon the entire image dissolved into a thin mist until nothing at all remained. Gandalf turned towards Anna and said, “I watched you go and have been looking forward to meeting you again ever since.”
Anna looked up at the wizard and then at Thranduil by her side, who had observed the entire vision without uttering a single word. Even now he seemed to struggle for what to say.
“This is quite unbelievable,” he began, “if Anna wouldn’t be sitting here right beside me, I would be led to think that all this was just a cleverly engineered illusion by you, Mithrandir.” He turned to face her, not waiting for an answer from the wizard. His eyes searched hers instead.
“How—I don’t understand?”
“I plunged into a sea of stars,” she said, gazing into the depths of his eyes, “and then I found you, a small star, but the most brilliant of them all, flickering like a glittering jewel, glowing so brightly that it nearly drowned out the light of all others around it. It led my heart through the endless starlit ocean like a beacon until I stood right before it, a tiny but perfect incandescent speck of light.”
“Grief and sorrow poured from it towards me, a tidal wave of despair so profound that it threatened to shatter my own spirit. But I came closer still. The star then blinked frantically, as if it feared that its light might fade at any moment. And suddenly it faltered, growing dimmer and dimmer like dying embers of a fire. I reached out with my hand to pluck it before the darkness would swallow it whole and drown its light forever. The instant my finger touched it, it flared up again and a flash of lightning zoomed through me, reaching into me, and then a warm and golden light settled in every fibre of my being. At that very instant darkness fell around me. I do not remember anything else until the moment I woke up under that tree.”
A heavy silence blanketed the grotto and for a long while no one spoke until finally Anna took one of Thranduil’s hands to place it on her chest, right over her thundering heart. “I believe I have something that belongs to you.”
He in turn brought one of her hands to his own heart.
“I believe you do,” he said softly.