Chapter 7: Black, Blue & Grey
- Two Years Later
I was lying in a flower bed when the first harbinger of change came to Rivendell.
It was one of the few places in the gardens that Glorfindel or my other tutors never thought to look when given the arduous task of fetching me. Only Bilbo ever knew I was there, and he always kept tactfully silent with an amused little smile on his mouth.
Nobody was looking for me today.
It was one of the few days I had free of lessons, and I'd been reading there behind the irises when the bell of the main tower started chiming across the grounds. It signalled the approach of someone in urgent need of assistance, and had roughly the same effect on me that an ambulance siren has on a paramedic.
I shot up out of the shrubbery so fast a flurry of leaves came with me, startling one of the nearby gardeners tending the rose bushes. The book on medicinal herbs I'd been studying fell to the grass beside me as hurriedly I scrambled to my feet. Impatiently I scooped it up, hitching up the skirt of my dress and started running full belt towards the house.
I was better at running now, or at least less clumsy than I'd been two years ago at the start of my training. No longer did I barrel headfirst into innocent bystanders while racing to get from lesson to lesson on time. I ducked and wove past the staff, only coming close to knocking one person over before making it to the courtyard outside the sanatorium. I was just in time to see the back of Glorfindel making his way up the steps.
There was a small form wrapped in a travelling cloak bundled up in his arms.
"Take him into the infirmary, quickly!" Elrond's calm but commanding voice came from the open doorway as the tall blond elf lord entered past him, "And would someone please find my apprentice!"
"I'm here, master!" I panted, following Glorfindel up the steps and towards where my mentor was moving inside.
Though competent by now, I was still not fantastic at speaking Sindarin. So I'd fallen into the habit of calling my teacher 'master' in the common tongue instead, which seemed to both please and amuse him most days. I had yet to persuade him to call me 'padawan' — a work in progress.
He peered at me as we moved inside, "Are those dried leaves in your hair?"
I felt myself flush, quickly brushing away the remains of the dead foliage and tugging my hair back into a messy knot, "I was reading in the gardens. What's happened?"
"There's no time for explanations yet, apprentice, he needs seeing to immediately. Go and prepare at bed while Glorfindel and I assess the damage."
Though a little peeved at being left out as usual, I went and quickly did as instructed. It didn't involve much more than hastily clearing some space in the surgery and throwing a fresh sheet over the nearest cot. Glorfindel pushed roughly past me a minute later and gently deposited the little body of a dark haired hobbit on the cot.
"Glorfindel, I would take it as a kindness if you were to make sure the others arrive safely." Elrond said quickly in that calm and controlled tone I'd learned only came up when a situation was serious.
"Of course." Glorfindel nodded soberly, and swept from the room in a regal golden blur without another word.
I turned to leave as well, but my mentor's voice stopped me in my tracks, "Apprentice, you will stay here."
Turning hesitantly back to the cot I saw Elrond stooped over the little form, carefully inspecting the bloodstain on the upper left side of his shirt. He was so small, even smaller than Bilbo, with dark curly hair and pale clammy skin that was fast turning the colour of sour milk. Tiny veins of black had raised around his eyes and neck, his face was contorted in pain, and when he opened his eyes I saw they were starting to cloud over with a misty film. I'd seen a lot in the time I'd been training as Lord Elrond's apprentice, but I'd never seen anything like that before.
"Are you sure?" I asked, not daring to step closer until I was absolutely certain, "You really want me here for this? It looks… worse than usual."
Elrond read my hesitation like it was a book left open on a table, and frowned hard at me. Since I'd become he apprentice, he'd adopted a very Yoda-esque 'do or do not' attitude towards my tutoring. Either I studied hard and learned how to do something correctly, or I got it wrong and reaped the consequences.
There was never any middle ground, and he did not approve of hesitation.
"Every challenge in life is a lesson, Élanor. You cannot pick and choose the severity of them." He beckoned me over without waiting to see if I'd listened, "Quickly now, tell me what you see here."
I hastily moved over to his side, peering down at the hobbit and gingerly and going through my ingrained routine of assessing a patient. I wasn't an expert like Lord Elrond or anything, not even close, but by this stage into my training I was starting to border on capable. It wasn't usual for him to hand the reins to me anymore, as a test to see what I'd learned. Also if there were any gaps in my knowledge that needed filling. I started prattling off symptoms out loud as I went down the mental list of symptoms to possible causes.
"He's feverish and in pain, but not convulsing yet so it's probably not septicaemia. Milky film over the eyes likely means some kind of poisoning." I carefully unbuttoned and pulled aside the hobbit's shirt, noting what I saw with a clinical detachment, "Darkened veins around the face, throat and chest… and the wound is… blackening, and… cold."
I jerked my hand away from where I'd pressed my fingertips to the skin around the stab wound just under his left collarbone. I'd read about symptoms like this before in my assigned studies, but even so I couldn't quite believe I was actually seeing it in front of me. Out of everything I could have thought up from my reading, this was by far the last thing I'd been expecting.
"Black Breath?!" I spluttered, looking up at Lord Elrond and half expecting him to announce the punchline of an elaborate joke, "Are you serious? He's been stabbed with a Morgul knife?!"
"He has." Elrond answered me simply, still using that serious but calm voice to prompt me on, "You know the theory behind them; they affect both body and soul. Which do we treat first?"
"The hröa — the body." I said immediately using the Quneya word — the elves equivalent of medical latin — my head buzzing with memorised information, "His fëa feels weak but it's still clinging on. I think it can still be healed, but if the body is not healed first then the spirit will just whither away inside it."
"Well said, apprentice." Elrond said it in a detached tone — a simple acknowledgement of my correct answer, "Though in this case, both must be treated at the same time. The blade's tip remains embedded in the wound, and is burrowing in. It must be removed before anything more can be done."
He beckoned for me to come and stand around the opposite side of the cot while he removed a bound set of medical instruments from a side table. He unrolled the set out on the stand next to the cot and began removing and disinfecting them in a quick and well practiced manner, "Time is of the essence here. You must keep the shard from causing more damage to his fëa while I remove it physically from the wound."
I felt the blood drain from my face at that those words. My jaw started working wordlessly in panic. Elrond didn't even notice before I got a terrified squeak out.
"B-but, that would need me to do a limifëa!" I stammered frantically, suddenly feeling very, very out of my depth. "I've never done one before! Not on an actual person!"
A limifëa, for lack of a better analogy, was a little bit like physic surgery. It involved a lot of big words in Quenya to understand properly, but the basic idea was that you used your own fëa, or spirit, to 'clean and bandage' a psychological wound. It was supposed to help relieve mental trauma and speed up physical recovery, and just like any kind of surgery, it's difficult and really risky. I'd learned the basics — studying under Lord Elrond, you either learned fast or you didn't learn at all — but so far I'd only had practice using it to treat wounded rabbits and battle-spooked horses. I'd never attempted one on a real, living person.
"What if I screw it up?" I breathed almost silently, more to myself than my teacher but he answered me all the same.
"You will not 'screw it up.'" He told me firmly, "He will struggle unconsciously against the pain. You must work to keep him as calm as possible."
I didn't move at first. I didn't trust my hands to keep from shaking. Lord Elrond didn't even pause in his preparation work, but looked up just long enough to give me stoney look that shot adrenaline into my blood. "You will do it now, or not at all, apprentice."
It wasn't the first time he'd indirectly threatened me with expulsion as his student if I chickened out of a test. There was a reason for that; it worked. Chicken or not, in two years I hadn't backed out of a single one yet. I wasn't about to start now.
Swallowing around the terrified lump in my throat, I obeyed. Carefully I reached down to rest my fingertips against the hobbit's clammy temples and closed my eyes. Quietly, I began muttering the focusing chant I'd been practicing for months, willing my fëa to reach down through my hands as if it were a limb all its own. The focusing chant wasn't so much about the words themselves, but the concentration and discipline behind them. Even if discipline wasn't exactly my strong suit yet, Lord Elrond had made damn sure I knew them well enough to recite in my sleep. The dark space behind my closed eyes began to slowly fill with dim colour, my mind painting a picture of what my fëa was sensing.
'So far so good.'
Then the image began to focus, and I almost recoiled at what I saw.
The poor hobbit's fëa had been savaged. Not as bad as it could have been given the weapon used, but enough to make me wish I hadn't looked. In the image my mind created for me, I could see the semi-corporeal form of the hobbit's soul in pale glowing blue — and the black essence of the shard wrapped around him. It sprouted from the left side of his chest, where I knew the physical wound was; and had coiled around his ghostly body like pieces of ethereal electrical wire. They were digging viciously into his translucent skin, leaving dark smoking lines where it touched him, choking the light from him with every second.
Words didn't seem adequate to describe seeing a soul being so brutalised, but spoken words didn't really translate well when you were working as an incorporeal spirit anyway. So instead, I tried to force calm and soothing thoughts down through the link between us, trying to reassure him it was ok. I was here to help.
It had roughly the same effect as tipping gasoline onto a campfire.
The semi-corporeal form of the hobbit began shrieking and thrashing like a rabbit caught in a trap, eyes wild, and teeth bared in primal panic. I had to literally cling on to keep from being thrown out of his head entirely. I gritted my teeth and tried again; this time less forcefully, but the more I attempted to send a feeling of serenity through the link, the more he seemed to struggle. Another sharp thrash and I almost lost the connection again.
'Oh to hell with this!' I thought, abandoning the air of calm entirely and instead going for the coil of dark writhing wire that was still latched around his throat, strangling him. I wrapped the incorporeal hands of my will around the barbs, and started trying to pull them loose.
Sharp, freezing cold pain hit me in a wave through my link with the hobbit. I felt it like shards of ice forming behind my eyes, frozen water seeping into my blood. The feeling was so sudden and so severe that I almost let go and collapsed where I stood.
Raw stubbornness was the only thing that kept me there. There was no way in hell I was going to let myself mess this up, my first real shot at healing another's mind, because of a sodding migraine. I schooled my focus, shoved the icy pain to the back of my awareness, and continued uncoiling the viciously sharp wires from around the hobbit's fëa. I lost all sense of time through the link, so I have no idea how long it took to remove all the pieces. When I finally pulled the last of the wires from around his neck he rasped out a strangled breath, and the pale representations of his eyes met mine for the briefest moment.
Then I felt the shard's icy presents beginning to wane, and realised that my mentor must have finally found it and begun pulling it from the wound. The blood-freezing cold started to subside to a merely arctic chill, and the pain in my head began vanishing. The chilly piece of wire clutched in my ghostly hands suddenly turned to smoke, and my extended consciousness was abruptly flung back into me like the snap of an elastic band.
I shrieked and fell back against the nearby wall, the link severing with a shock of pain. My eyes flew open, and I could see again. I was completely back inside my own body, and Lord Elrond was dropping the blackened shard of the Morgal Blade into a specially prepared fire. It was instantly consumed by the flames, turning them a nauseating shade of green with a sickening hiss of thick black smoke.
I looked down, half expecting to see the tortured ghostly form of the hobbit that I'd seen moments before. Instead, he was mercifully whole again, real, and had finally stopped struggling. He was still pale and clammy, but his chest rose and fell in steady breaths, and the wound on his chest was no longer black.
I let myself heave a heavy sigh of relief. He was ok. I hadn't screwed up.
Stupid as it was I had the sudden urge to laugh out loud. My first limifëa, and I hadn't messed it up. I had managed to help someone.
Then something glimmered out of the corner of my eye.
I looked down to see what it was, and saw a small and gold band had tumbled from hobbit's pocket. I hadn't noticed while preforming the limifëa, but it must have clinked to the floor by my boot when he'd begun struggling.
Without thinking I reached down to pick it up.
Before I could, an old but vice-like hand seized my wrist and jerked it back before my fingers could brush the little trinket. I looked up sharply, and found myself staring straight into the face of a wizard. And not just any wizard.
A Grey Wizard.
"Best not touch that, my dear." Gandalf said with almost paternal reprimand, lifting my hand gently but firmly away and scooping the little gold ring up safely in a handkerchief.
With a rush of shame, I knew that the old man had likely just saved me from my own idiocy. I should have noticed it, realised what it was the moment I'd seen it. That wasn't just any ring that I had just tried to pick up. That was the Ring.
Then that must have meant, this hobbit was…
"fëa" = soul (Quenya)
"hröa" = body (Quenya)
“limifëa” = soul link (Quenya)