61. Refiner's Fire
"What is to give light must endure burning." Victor Frankl
Frodo's head spun and his heart thumped in his chest. I must still be dreaming… Furtively, he reached down, caught a fold of skin and flesh between his thumb and forefinger, and squeezed hard. Ouch... Apparently not… Have I gone mad, then?...
"You aren't dreaming, my old friend. No need to pinch yourself," the wizard said. Frodo's hand jerked away from his leg.
"Why don't you sit and join me?" Gandalf gestured toward the empty chair. "You've gone to the trouble to relight the fire. You may as well enjoy your efforts." One corner of his mouth curled. "Don't worry. I still don't bite, and I don't bark nearly as much as I once did…"
The hobbit took a few trembling steps forward, expecting at any moment that the hallucination—for that was what he had concluded this must be—would vanish, or he would awaken from this peculiar dream wrapped around a dream. But the wizard didn't vanish. The logs shifted, and a shower of sparks flew up. Frodo stared at the fire, then back to… to the vision… Cautiously, he moved around the outside of the chair, and perched nervously on the edge of the cushioned seat, doing his best to hide the shaking of his limbs.
"Gandalf?" he whispered, finding a way to produce speech at last.
"Yes… I am here..."
The wizard's eyes twinkled.
"How is hardly important… Why is a much more interesting topic…"
As the initial shock began to subside, Frodo noticed that his old friend didn't look quite the same as he remembered him.
"You aren't really… grey any longer…"
For indeed, though the Grey Wizard's garments, long hair and unruly beard were still a hue somewhere between black and white, grey no longer served to adequately describe the color. Silver seemed more appropriate, Frodo thought, for the fabric of his robe appeared to be woven of brightly polished threads, and his hair and beard—even his bushy brows, that still stuck out over his eyes like bristling brushes—seemed to faintly shimmer. And his eyes are no longer dark stormy grey… They're midnight blue…
"You're all silvery now…"
"Am I?" he said with a laugh, as he held up one arm and examined his sleeve in the firelight. "Hmm… I believe you are correct…" He dropped his arm and retrieved his pipe from where he had placed it on the nearby table. "I suppose it is only fitting, that I not appear precisely the same as before… For I am not precisely the same, after all…" He pulled on the pipe, and in a moment, a cloud of smoke surrounded his face. "Silver, eh? Seems right… For I have been burnished, in a manner of speaking… or perhaps refined, in the way dull grey iron ore is refined into shining steel, in a forge…"
Frodo began to feel overwhelmed again as he stared at the person who so resembled his old friend, who felt like him, but who should not be sitting nearby—who could not be sitting nearby. He blinked rapidly and his breath came in pants. His eyes happened to fall upon the sleeping Iaurel.
"Then… then you sent him? To me?" he whispered hoarsely as he gazed across the room.
"But what sort of Elf is he? Wherever did you meet him?"
Gandalf paused, and Frodo turned to see that the wizard was peering at the strange Elf with a puzzling, almost troubled look, as if, thought the hobbit, he doesn't know the answers to those questions himself… or knows them, but doesn't like the answers… Then his features shifted, and a faint smile appeared on his face.
"I believe it would be best if you were to ask Iaurel such questions yourself," he said softly. "He should explain how we met, when he feels ready to do so." He raised one hand and made a slight gesture in the air toward the Elf. "There—he shall sleep soundly now, and not awaken until the morning. He deserves a good night of rest after this rather busy evening, and you and I can talk together, uninterrupted…"
Frodo frowned a little, then snorted with a laugh. "That is one way you haven't changed a bit, Gandalf… You still speak in riddles…"
The wizard laughed again, and Frodo thought his old friend's laughter sounded different as well. Lighter… more musical… like a bell cast of mithril… Then it is true… He's come back… With his heart in his throat, the hobbit leaned forward, his elbows on his knees.
"I still can't quite believe it… Are you truly real, Gandalf?" he said huskily.
"Yes, my dear boy. You're not dreaming, and you haven't gone mad." He shifted his pipe to his left hand and extended his right. "Here… Take my hand… See for yourself…"
Frodo twisted about in the chair and reached with his right hand. He felt the solid warmth of living flesh, felt the familiar strength of that grip. He is real… Then his eyes fell onto their hands joined together, and all at once his eyes smarted. I saw his hand, in those horrible nightmares… and what I saw was true, for Pippin described it, and even worse… He felt Gandalf's grip ease up and release him. The wizard sat back.
"Alas, yes; that hand was ruined… I was ruined, utterly, before I finally found release…" He sighed. "It was one of my many regrets, that Pippin had to witness that—me, after the servants of the Enemy had done their worst… But waste not a moment of sorrow upon me, Frodo. That was the old me, and nothing remains of that old shell. I died—but I have been remade."
Frodo looked up and met his old friend's new—but ultimately familiar—eyes. "But your task was done. Why? It's not that I'm not glad to see you, but… why were you remade? Why have you come back?"
Gandalf gazed at him solemnly, and, Frodo thought, with great sadness. Yet mixed in with what looks like remorse…
"My task—our task—had been fulfilled, thanks mainly to you, and to Sam… But the cost was so very great… And I had to leave too soon. I left behind so much hurt, so much grief… I was deeply worried, for all my friends, but especially for you… Sam lost his life, but you… To be the one who survived is far more difficult than dying, sometimes… I asked for permission to come, Frodo. I returned, in truth, for you."
For me… Frodo sat very still as he fought to contain the suddenly boiling pot of emotions within him. So much hurt, so much grief… How true that was, for not a day, not an hour passed without grief, without pain and sorrow. And it was horribly difficult to have survived, to live on to endure so much loss. He was not self-pitying enough to think his own wounds and losses were worse than anyone else's. Aragorn had lost so much: his foster-brother, his foster-father, his own wholeness… Boromir… Arwen… even Pippin and Merry… so many, too many to name… And yet, his grief and sorrow seemed to linger on and on, while others had found ways to heal, to move toward joy and life.
But of late, Frodo had felt the first real loosening of those shackles of sorrow. He had felt, at last, that he might be able to find the way back toward healing again—maybe not joy, maybe not in this life, but the gloom had begun to dissipate, at least a little. And so, he could not help but wonder with an unwanted surge of bitterness, if Gandalf was here for him, why now, when light was finally starting to come into his life again?
He turned toward the wizard, his eyes glittering and full of hurt, unable to keep the sharp edge from his voice.
"If you came for me, then why did you wait so long?" he cried harshly. He turned away to hide his tears of sudden anger mixed with his grief.
Gandalf said nothing for several moments. Frodo kept his face turned away, listening to the crackling of the fire, the wizard's slow soft breathing, and the faint snores of Iaurel. He felt ashamed for his outburst, but at the same time he didn't want to apologize. I needed him so much more during that first, awful year, when things were at their darkest… or on those miserable October the 6th's… Why now? Where was he then?
Finally the wizard spoke. His voice was low and hesitant. "I was there, Frodo…as best as I could be, when you were in that black ravine… When you stood in that garden shed, holding the tin of poison… I have tried to be with you, in thought… in spirit… I came, like this… embodied again, as soon as I was able… I am so sorry, that I could not come sooner…"
Frodo wiped his eyes; a shudder passed through him. He turned around and looked toward his friend again. Gandalf's face, directed toward the fire, was so full of sorrow that the hobbit's bitter anger vanished. The wizard went on.
"You see, I had to heal, too," he said hoarsely. "I do not mean from the harm done to my flesh… I expected that, and had accepted it as a necessary evil, knowing that no matter what the outcome, it would end, in time, for no mortal body, even mine, could survive such treatment for long… Once I left these shores, my old form was gone, and quite frankly, good riddance to it…" Frodo watched as the light flickered on his shining eyes. "But I was hurt in other ways during my days and nights as Sauron's…'guest.'" His voice dropped. "Sauron seemed to have forgotten what it truly means to be Maia. He forgot that he and I are creatures made, in our true selves, of simply essence, and the free choice to make what we will of that essence… Nothing he could do to my mortal shell could change that. And over my essence, he had no real power. He could not destroy me—none but the One can do that—and he could not force me to give him anything—even my thoughts—without my consent. I certainly had no reason to give him that… But he tried. Oh, how he tried—and he bid his servants weaken my resolve to withhold my consent by an assault on my flesh... It was futile, but he tried, again and again, to break into my essence, to pluck my secrets from me… and in doing so, he…wounded me…"
"Oh, Gandalf, I'm sorry I shouted at you, and after everything you did, everything you endured, for me…" Frodo said in a choked voice.
"You have absolutely no reason to apologize, my friend…"
"But you are healed now, aren't you?"
Gandalf finally turned to face Frodo. "Even with all the power that resides in the Blessed Realm, it took a long time for me to even begin healing. I am not completely healed… Not yet… Who knows how long that might take…But I did regain enough strength to be here, as I am tonight. Yet Time does not pass in the same manner in the West as it does in Middle Earth. What seems a day there might be a month here… When the Healers of Valinor finally granted me leave to make the attempt to return, more than two years had passed… And there is another reason that I could not come until now." He glanced at the slumbering figure on the floor. "He was the other reason—for I have also come for Iaurel. He also had to heal…and to be released, by Námo…"
Frodo's eyes widened. "Námo…! You mean Mandos… Then Iaurel was in the Halls of Mandos? He died?" Gandalf nodded as he watched the Elf in silence. "But I thought that Elves who were released from Mandos' Halls remained in Elvenhome, or in Valinor… I didn't think they were allowed to come back East over the Sea again…"
Gandalf's lips twitched in a tiny smile. "Bilbo taught you well. You are correct… But Iaurel was allowed to cross back, mostly because of me. I said I would vouch for him, and accompany him for a while, to get him started on his journey of renewal… And after all, such a thing is not entirely without precedent. You have met the other example of where an exception was made—for of course, Glorfindel was also given permission to return." He sniffed. "Two more unlike Elves may not ever have existed, as Glorfindel and Iaurel…" Then he chuckled. "And yet there are similarities, now that I think on it… Both are uncommonly strong, and able to stubbornly resist against insurmountable odds…"
Frodo shook his head with the amusement of an old friend, used to another's mildly annoying but predictable behavior. "You know, of course, that all you have done is make me more curious about him," he said. "Though I expect you'll evade my questions, as usual, and tell me I must ask him myself… But tell me one thing. A while back you mentioned that Iaurel deserved his rest, after a very busy evening. He was with us for nearly the entire day, and then he just disappeared… What was he doing?"
The wizard's eyes flicked toward the sleeping Elf.
"Ah, well, it was my fault that he abandoned you along the road," he said. "And in a way it probably was also my fault that the road seemed so bewildering, and you and Maggot had such a time of it in that storm… Iaurel is rather…hmm, how to put it, exactly… he is quite protective of me, you see. He was afraid for me—unnecessarily, I might add—and came looking for me, in the Barrow-Downs…"
Sudden comprehension dawned on Frodo. "Tom's errand!"
Gandalf smiled and nodded. "Yes, when I arrived a few hours in advance of when you and Maggot were expected, Bombadil asked for my assistance with a bit of housecleaning, you might say. It took us longer than we anticipated, and I am afraid we kicked up a rather fierce thunderstorm…"
"My dream…! The two of you were those lights, chasing away all the wights, and melting the stones…"
"Yes—and although you did not notice him among all the other dark figures running about between the hills, Iaurel was also there, doing his best to help chase them away, and he got himself a thorough drenching and entirely worn out in the process," the wizard said. "Undoubtedly a few of those wights were fleeing across the very path you and Maggot were following, and their presence obscured the landmarks and confused you… But the 'errand' itself was long overdue. A dozen or so wights at a time, Tom has always been able to handle easily, and his presence here, in this House, has kept them contained and away from the Shire, and from Bree… But I promised many years ago, that when everything else was done, I would come and help him clear them out and make certain they did not return." He sighed. "Alas, the best laid plans rarely come out as we imagine," he muttered under his breath. His brow arched as he gazed at Frodo. "It seems that your dreams are still portentous, my old friend…"
Frodo's face colored a bit. "And you, my old friend, still seem able to read my thoughts. Several times tonight, you've said things you couldn't possibly have known—things that no one knows—unless you'd searched my thoughts and memories…"
"I would not say 'search,'" Gandalf said softly. "It is, instead, as if merely by sitting near you, as a friend, with my heart open—with both our hearts open—that your thoughts and memories simply filter into me. I can no more not take them in than I could choose not to smell the fragrance of Goldberry's bread, or not feel the heat of the fire upon my skin… But trust me, Frodo, I shall never be tempted to use what I learn from being near you for any other reason than to help you…in any way I can." His deep blue eyes gleamed. "Which brings me to two things I would say to you, before we retire for what remains of this night, and you go to get some of your own well-deserved sleep… One, a small bit of advice. I think you should start wearing the Lady Arwen's gem. No need to wear it openly, if you do not wish to display such a dazzling object. But it was given to you in pure-hearted generosity, and I believe it will bring you solace, or at the very least, pleasant dreams…"
Frodo's eyes twinkled as he looked at Gandalf. "You see, that's just what I mean, about my thoughts… But I will do as you suggest, for I do trust you…"
"Thank you, for your trust," he said. "I do hope to find ways to continue to deserve it." He paused and searched Frodo's eyes for a long moment before going on. "The second thing I would say is this: that now that I have arrived, and seen you—and absorbed a portion of your memories and thoughts within me—I believe that it was meant to be that I came now, and not earlier, when it seemed that you might have needed me most."
"If that is true, I don't understand why," Frodo whispered.
"Neither do I, not entirely," Gandalf said. "But think on this. Three years ago, it worked out for the best in the long run that I was not with you when you left the Shire, for you and the others quickly learned to rely on your own wits and courage… and of course, learned to trust Aragorn…" He frowned pensively, and busied himself for a few moments tapping the last bits of ash from his pipe. "I think that is all I will say on that subject… for tonight." Then the wizard rose to his feet, and Frodo joined him in standing before the hearth. "You will not see me for a few days. I promise I shall return by dawn on October the 6th at the very latest. You will not face that day alone, not this year…"
"Where are you going?" Frodo said, with a hint of alarm in his voice; for he had just been reminded of the last time that Gandalf said that he would be away for just a few days.
But the wizard chuckled. "I am not going all the way to Isengard. And even if I were, there is no danger for me there, or anywhere in Middle Earth any longer. But I am going on a short journey. I am going to check in, secretly, on the Steward of Arnor, for I have always been rather fond of Hal… then perhaps a brief and surreptitious peek at how a certain portly, forgetful innkeeper is doing… but most importantly, I wish to visit the valley of Rivendell, one last time, for some of my oldest and dearest friends are buried there…"
"That's a long way. Will you really be back by October 6th?"
"There are certain other…differences in my abilities this time," he laughed. "Worry not—I will be here. But I will travel alone, so that I may do so in any manner I please… and therefore, Iaurel will be staying behind." One of the wizard's wiry brows rose. "He'll be fretful while I am gone, for it has only been a month or so since he left Námo's solemn but soothing company… Oh, he'll claim he is anxious because he fears for my safety, but he is really just extraordinarily lonely. He truly has no one at all, in this world—no one, strangely enough, but me—to call him 'friend' now, and before he and I met, he led a rather… solitary existence." Gandalf looked down at Frodo. "You see, that is his journey—his quest, if you will. He must learn how to give and accept true friendship. And so, if I might ask a favor of you…"
"Of course I'll watch out for him, Gandalf," Frodo interrupted with a smile. "I can't think of any reason not to befriend him, even if he is a bit odd, at times…"
The wizard's eye gleamed, and his brow rose even higher. He said nothing, but let out a little grunt. Then he went on. "You are, as you always have been, my dear Frodo, exceedingly good-hearted. Thank you again."
He stepped toward the door, and Frodo noticed for the first time that a tall staff leaned against the wall, and that an unfamiliar cloak hung on one of the pegs, between his own grey one and Bombadil's bright yellow one, which had also appeared since he and Maggot hung theirs up earlier that evening. The staff was slender, and made of soft grey wood with a beautiful pattern in the grain. A red stone had been placed in it, right where the wizard would grasp it. But the cloak was deep blue—as blue as his eyes.
"I like your new cloak," Frodo said. "It suits you, very well. But your new staff looks very like your old one… or at least, the one you carried most recently…"
Gandalf grinned. "As well it should—for the Lady Galadriel had another one made for me, to match the one she gave me when we left Lothlorien, nearly three years ago… For mallorns grow—indeed, they thrive—West of the Sea."
At the sound of the name of the Lady of the Golden Wood, Frodo let out a little gasp—for suddenly, he realized that he had so many questions for Gandalf. This wasn't nearly a long enough time with him…
"I wish you weren't leaving again so soon," he whispered. "There is so much I want to ask you… So much I want to understand… to…to say to you…"
"I know," the wizard said gently. "And there are questions I would ask, and things I would say to you, as well, my friend—for you, I deem, have also been burnished in the fire... You, as much as I, are no longer the same as you once appeared to be… But all that can wait. Fear not—I shall return, in but three days' time."
And with that, he swung the great blue cloak about his shoulders, opened the door to the middle of the night, and left. Frodo watched for a minute, shivering upon the threshold, and it seemed to him that the familiar figure hurrying into the cold darkness glimmered with a light that was more than simply a reflection of the stars above.
More to come soon... these chapters keep increasing in number under my nose...
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.