To Save a Soul
“You came here to save my soul,” he said. It was not so much a question as it was a statement. Suddenly his chest seemed too constricted and breathing became increasingly difficult. Could it all be true? Was there indeed hope for him to heal? And was this woman in front of him the one to make him whole again? His scar had already broken through the glamour and if he wasn’t careful, the meticulously constructed dam around his heart might collapse anytime under the oncoming flood of emotions.
“I was searching for a broken soul, but found a loving heart instead,” Anna said.
The steady beating of her heart against the palm of his hand was the most beautiful gift the Valar had given him. With his thumb he wiped away a solitary tear that clung to her lower lashes, while what he really wanted to do was pull her close and kiss her to make sure all this was not just a cruel trick his mind was playing on him.
“For centuries I have been waiting, listening to the song of the trees that whispered of someone coming from the other side to bring unrest and love, someone unlikely and altogether unexpected. I could not make any sense of these words until I looked into your eyes that day under the tree and it was like gazing into a mirror. I know now that what I saw was that piece of my soul you are carrying. I am eternally grateful for the choice you made, for coming here and giving me hope when I had none left.”
“Gandalf advised me to follow my heart, and so I did. When I awoke under that tree and I first saw you, I was terrified. Y—you were like nothing I had ever seen before, like someone out of a fairytale. I was trying to make sense of everything, but I couldn’t think straight anymore. Apparently death isn’t too kind when it comes to messing with one’s mind. But then you looked at me and the grief and sorrow in your eyes stirred up something inside me. Perhaps it was that piece of your soul responding, or perhaps it suddenly reminded me of what I had left behind when I died.”
Shadows darkened the bright green of her eyes, and her face suddenly paled.
“Can you remember what you left behind?” He needed to know, even though it might be something he didn’t want to hear. It would be foolish of him to assume that there hadn’t been anyone in her life before him. She was a grown woman after all, and a beautiful one too.
“I don’t think you want to know,” she said, avoiding his gaze. “And it doesn’t matter now. I am dead in my old world. It means nothing.” The trembling in her lower lip was proof enough that she did not believe her own words.
“I want to know,” he said. “I told you about my past. I think it is only fair that I should know about yours too, even though you have left it behind. It still means something to you and therefore also to me.”
Anna’s shoulders sagged, as if the weight of her past was crushing her.
“Was there someone you loved?”
“Yes,” she said in a small voice.
“Tell me about him,” he said, even though it pained him to hear her speak about another man.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” she said, biting her lower lip.
“He is part of your life as much as Calithiel is part of my own. And I stand by my word. I am here for you and nothing from your past will change that.” The assurance in his words seemed to sway her and she finally nodded her agreement.
“He was a…gardener and it was because of him that we moved to a house close to the forest. He was…” she paused, as if she had to search her mind for the next piece of the puzzle. “His name was Thomas and he loved plants, especially trees and he had the wildest theories about them.”
“What theories?” Thranduil asked, now curious.
“I cannot remember much of them, but he used to say that the oldest trees were the guardians of the forests and he insisted that they shared secret connections with each other.”
“He seems to have been a wise man.”
“I didn’t think much of his ideas, considered them strange legends at best or simply stories he had made up to entertain me.” Her eyes were lost in a far away place. “But I eventually found myself wandering more often into the forest, the ancient oak quickly becoming my favourite spot. When Matilda was little, the sounds of the forest seemed to always calm her when she was restless.”
The smile that had dawned on her face died away as quickly as it had appeared. Her breathing became shallow and Thranduil could sense her fighting back tears.
“Was Matilda your daughter?” A heaviness settled in his chest at the terrible truth this question implied.
A silent nod was Anna’s only answer. She pressed her lips together, her voice a choked whisper. The painful mixture of love and grief in her eyes tore at his own heart.
“She was…she was my everything. I never thought it would be possible to love someone so fiercely.”
At first Anna hesitated, but then suddenly the words poured out, as if a dam had broken inside her.
“She had the most beautiful green eyes and always used to break into fits of giggling when we tickled her. She would even laugh at her own hiccups. Matilda was the reason I started writing children’s books. She loved my bedtime stories and kept asking for more, even made up her own that I began to write down. She was so proud when she had managed to scribble down some jumbled words on a paper. I kept that paper in my notebook, carrying it with me wherever I went. The fire must have burned it too.” Anna buried her face in her hands. “I—I miss them so much,” she said, breaking into silent sobs.
“Of course you do,” he said, fighting against the rising feeling of helplessness. “They were your family and they still live on in your heart, even if you are not with them anymore.”
“I abandoned them. I died and left them alone. I left my daughter alone.” Panic rose in her voice. “She can’t sleep without her bedtime story and…and I sing for her every night, and then she needs me to tuck her into bed. She won’t understand why I’m not there for her anymore. She had just turned five the day before I—”
Anna frantically scanned the grotto, as if she could spot her daughter hiding somewhere in the emerald gloom. It became increasingly difficult for Thranduil to keep his calm, but he could not let his composure slip, not when she needed him to be her tower of strength as she braved the tumultuous ocean of her memories.
“Fathers can raise children too,” he said, his own age old grief bubbling dangerously close to the surface, “even if it is difficult to fill the void when the mother is gone. You must trust that his love for her will guide him on the right path. It is natural for you to feel grief and even guilt, but you cannot allow yourself to be overcome by it. You have to let go, otherwise it will tear you apart.”
“Let go? I’m just starting to remember everything right now,” she said, a layer of anger beneath her pain. “I cannot just simply forget everything, even though I wish I could. It is not as easy as that.”
Gandalf nodded gravely, joining the conversation for the first time since Anna’s revelations. “You will have to accept that there is no way to change your past. When someone dies the ones that are left behind will undoubtedly suffer, but it is for them to find their own way to healing, not you. You cannot undo your death and you do yourself no good in taking the blame for their grief.”
“But my daughter! She is still too small to understand why I am not coming back. How can I not blame myself for abandoning my child?”
“You did not abandon her, you died, which is not something you consciously chose to do,” Gandalf retorted. “You did not walk into the fire on purpose.”
“It doesn’t matter. It is the same to her. I’m not there for her anymore.”
“Your daughter might not understand it now, but rest assured that children do have an understanding of death and she will not blame you for leaving her. She will miss you, that much is certain, and your absence will leave a hole in her heart, but this is something that time, and love, will heal. She might never be the same and no one will ever be able to replace you as her mother, but that does not mean that she has to spend the rest of her life in sadness. There is a time for grief, but there will come a time for joy and happiness. And the same goes for you.” He looked at her from under his bushy eyebrows.
“But how can I deserve happiness when I know that the ones I left behind are suffering?”
She hung her head low, covering her face with her hands.
Thranduil couldn’t watch any longer as she stubbornly tormented herself with self accusations, so he took her by the shoulders to turn her towards him, his grip gentle but determined.
“Please look at me,” he said, pulling her hands away from her face. They were clammy and trembling. She slowly raised her tear-stained eyes to his. He needed to catch her before she fell into the dark pit of grief and guilt.
“Their happiness is not in your hands anymore, but your own is, as is mine. By coming here you chose to give me another chance at finding love. Don’t push away what can bring you joy too. I understand that it will take time and I am willing to be patient. All I’m asking is that you allow me to walk this path with you.”
Anna’s gaze was empty, as if all emotion had been drained from her.
“I—I think I need to rest. I don’t feel so good.” Her hands were like icicles as he rubbed them between his own.
“Of course,” he said, rising from his seat and pulling her up with him, “I will walk you to your room and then you must rest. All this has been emotionally and physically exhausting for you. Do you wish for me to stay with you?”
He was hoping for her to say yes, but he knew that she might need time to regain her balance on her own, before she was ready to accept him by her side once more.
Anna shook her head. “I would rather be alone.”
“I understand,” he said, silencing the voice inside his heart that whispered to keep her close. “I will make sure that you will not be disturbed.”
Together they left the grotto, Gandalf following behind. It seemed to Thranduil that the wizard was unusually quiet, as if for once he had run out of wise words.
Thranduil had accompanied Anna to her room and had given her the space and time she had claimed she needed, promising her that he would come back to see her after his meeting with Tauriel. But now that she was indeed alone, she found herself pacing her room like a caged animal, her thoughts a whirlwind and the uneasy feeling in her gut not allowing her to find any rest. Aradan trailed along behind her, tugging at the hem of her dress every once in a while in an attempt to catch her attention, but she ignored the elk calf, a dark cloud of despair her stubborn companion.
After a few fruitless attempts to distract herself by reading a book, she finally decided to sit down at her desk to pour all her sorrows into her blue book. Perhaps writing down everything would make it easier for her to accept her fate. She pulled the book towards her and dipped the quill into the ink-pot when there was a soft knock at the door.
For a moment she considered ignoring it, but after two more knocks and Aradan wagging his tail excitedly, she gave in and dropped the quill.
“Fine,” she muttered. “And don’t look at me like that,” she scolded Aradan who had angled his head as if he were expecting a treat from her.
She rose from her seat, trying to put on a face of calm and called, “Come in.”
The heavy door opened and Gandalf stepped into the room, an apologetic smile on his face.
“I am very sorry to disturb you at such an unfitting moment, but there is something of importance that I must discuss with you.”
“Can it not wait? I would rather be alone now.”
“I am afraid that it cannot wait. The sooner you know about it, the better.”
“This doesn’t sound very reassuring,” she said. “Is there anything else about my past that I am still missing?”
“No, it does not have anything to do with your past, but rather with your future.”
“My future?” she said wearily.
“I think it might be better if we would both sit down.” Gandalf threw a suggestive glance at the table.
“Is it that bad?” Now she was really beginning to worry.
“Oh, I see you still have of this delightful tea,” he said, eyeing the steaming teapot on her table and effectively avoiding her question.
“Yes, I do,” she said, playing along for the time being. “Would you like some?”
“If you are so kind as to offer an old wizard a nice cup of tea, I will definitely not say no.” With those words he sat down and Anna poured for both of them a cup of tea.
“Very well, what is it then that you need to speak to me?” she said, taking a seat opposite Gandalf, Aradan curling around her feet.
Gandalf took a long sip from his teacup and placed it carefully back on the table before him. He then folded his hands and leaned forward, his eyes never leaving her face.
“You came here to save a broken soul, but are you willing to do whatever it takes to heal Thranduil’s soul?”
“Yes, of course I am. Have I ever given you any reason to doubt me?”
“No, you haven’t. But I still need to know if you are prepared to put his life before your own, if it came to it?”
“I’m not sure I follow. What exactly is it that you are asking of me?”
Anna bit the inside of her mouth and reached for her own teacup. This did not look like it was going to be a pleasant conversation, so she might as well enjoy a sip of tea herself.
“Forgive me if I seem to go far afield, but there are some things I want you to be aware of. Am I correct to assume that in the course of your stay in Mirkwood you have had time to study the laws and customs of the Eldar? Judging by the amount of books I see in your room you appear to be an avid reader.”
“Yes, I have, but I have to admit that many things still seem strange and foreign to me.”
“That is only natural, considering that you were not born in these lands and have only been here for a few months. And while Elves and Men are quite alike in many ways, there are some things that set them apart, the customs of marriage being one of them.”
“Marriage? I— I don’t think that Thranduil is ready to propose to me. I would never dare to assume that I could ever officially take the place as his wife.”
“I beg to differ. Thranduil has made it very clear that he loves you and for the Elves love is sacred. When they give their heart to someone it involves more than just their minds agreeing to marriage or their bodies feeling desire. It is their very souls that form a bond that ties them together, entwines their very essences.”
Heat rose to Anna’s cheeks. It was slightly awkward hearing the wizard speak about such an intimate topic. “Why are you telling me all this?”
“Because I want you to know what you will be facing should you agree to marry Thranduil.”
Now she was seriously blushing, and it was definitely not caused by the hot tea.
“I know how these things work, even though I might not have thousands of years of experience to look back at.” This was beginning to take a rather uncomfortable turn.
Gandalf cleared his throat. “Of course you do. I never meant to assume anything. I just wanted to point out that the consummation of an elven marriage involves invoking a sacred bond where both souls essentially become one, or rather two sides of a single entity. What I am trying to say is that since there is a part of Thranduil’s soul attached to your own, the process of bonding might carry certain risks for you.”
“Risks?” she repeated after the wizard. Hadn’t she had her fair share of possible risks already? Wasn’t it enough that she had died and come here to fulfil a task she had not asked for? Why had there to be another obstacle on the way?
“When your own soul and his come together it could be that, when the piece latched to your soul breaks loose, it tears apart your own soul.”
Anna stared at him with wide eyes. “What exactly do you mean by this?”
“It means that your own soul might cease to exist and so would you.”
“You are making this up,” she said. A gaping black hole opened in her stomach. He could not possibly mean what he was saying.
“I am afraid I am not. I am not saying that this will happen, as the final outcome lies in Eru’s hands. I just want you to be prepared.”
“Prepared? Isn’t it a bit late for this type of warning? Why didn’t you tell me about this before, when we were at the Crossroads?”
“Would you have come here and accepted this task if you would have known about this eventuality?”
“No, possibly not,” she admitted, feeling utterly lost and defeated. “So you hid this from me to lure me here?”
“I did not hide it from you. I just did not want to scare you.”
She said nothing as she began to see the wizard in a different light. He was a cunning puppeteer, that much was for sure.
“There is still another detail. Thranduil is not aware of this and he cannot know, ever, because he surely will refuse to do anything that would put your life at risk.”
It slowly dawned on her what Gandalf was getting at.
“So, I’m not supposed to let him know that the very thing that will make his soul whole again, might kill me?”
“Exactly, it is vital for Thranduil that he regains his strength and he can only do so if his soul is complete, because if it remains broken, then not only he, but also this world and everyone inhabiting it, could fall victim to the darkness. The balance of good and evil will be off and Middle-earth will be in grave peril. It will be an easy feat for Sauron to rise to power. The lives of many could be lost, elves and men, dwarves and hobbits.”
“So it is my life against many? Is this what this is all about?” There it was, the bitter truth.
“If you want to put it in such simple words, yes.” For a moment Gandalf evaded her gaze, as if he was feeling sorry for her.
“Offering me this choice, bringing me here, was all just for the greater good? I was always just the means to an end?”
Tears burned in the back of her eyes, but she did not allow them to fall. She would not show weakness. She should have known earlier that a great wizard like Gandalf could not possibly be concerned with the happiness of a single person, but had ulterior motives when weaving his grand schemes. What was one life lost in comparison to many saved?
“So I am here to save the world, but not for me?” Once again, her life had been pulled from beneath her feet. She should be getting used to this by now. There was no happy ending for her, not in her old world and not in this one.
“Saving lives is an honourable thing to do.”
“Of course it is. Forgive me if I’m not overjoyed at the prospect of facing an honourable death, but at least dying in the arms of the one I love is a better way to go than being burned alive.”
Her biting sarcasm was the only way she could keep herself from falling apart right in front of the wizard. She briskly rose from her seat and Gandalf followed suit.
“I think it’s time for you to go,” she said, holding on to the table for support. Her knees wobbled dangerously as a wave of cold sweat washed over her back.
“You are right, I should be going” he said, tilting his head sideways, “and please forgive me for not having been honest with you. You are a wonderful person and you deserve only the best. I am truly sorry it had to come to this.”
He turned to leave, taking her chance at happiness with him.