63. Unquenchable Hope
Frodo fled down the slope of the hill. The silver light cast impenetrable black shadows across his path, but he rushed heedlessly through the darkness as fast as his legs would carry him. His sight was blurred and his mind pounded with of images of unspeakable horror.
How was I fooled into calling him 'friend'… Even the bees knew him for what he was… Bad enough he was an Orc, but to have done what he did!... I cannot bear to be near him… All the odd behavior and peculiarities of the strange Elf suddenly made perfect sense. He doesn't know how to behave with ordinary folk because he is a… a monster…
The picture from his nightmares in Mordor came back to him in vivid detail: a rough, clawed fist holding an iron club, pummeling an aged, familiar hand, again and again, until the hand was smashed to a pulp. It was him wielding that club… He fought off the images in his frantic effort to escape, from Iaurel, from the memories, from the overwhelming anger that swept through him.
He had nearly reached the bottom of the slope when he slipped on the damp grass. His feet shot out from beneath him and he tumbled, banging his tender stump on the hard ground before he came to a halt. Frodo could no longer hold back his sobs. He lay face down, gripping a fistful of autumn grass and trembling over his entire body, and wept.
A minute passed—or was it ten? He shivered and moaned as his left wrist throbbed beneath him and his left shoulder began to ache. A riot of feelings boiled up: rage, disgust, shame at his foolishly trusting nature, hatred, deep-seated guilt that it was on his behalf that the wizard had been taken captive in the first place… And a thin tendril of pity, for the ancient Elf that had been transformed into a beast, a fiend that was capable of such vicious cruelty.
His gasping sobs gradually slowed. Beneath his breastbone where he lay upon the cold earth, a hard lump prodded into him. At first, he thought he had landed on a stone. Then the lump felt slightly warm; slowly that warmth began to penetrate into him. A soft flicker, as of a single candle in a dark room, began to glow within him, and the terrible images retreated. He released one last sob, and sighed.
Frodo raised his head and pushed himself up from the grass. As he rose to his feet his hand found the Queen's gem beneath his clothes; he clutched it as a talisman of goodness and purity. He searched the top of the hill behind him, starkly black in the white light. The ridge was empty. Numb and shivering, he turned toward the cottage and stumbled through the night.
A curl of smoke rose from the chimney of Tom's House. Frodo focused on the sight as he forced his cold feet to move. By the time he reached the door his flare of anger and horror had dulled to weary grief. He lifted the latch and pushed on the door.
A fire was burning brightly in the hearth of the parlor, and the cottage was comfortably warm and inviting after the damp chill of the night. But Frodo hesitated on the threshold, his hand on the door.
Why? Why did you do it? Why befriend a monster… one that hurt you, tormented you… and why send him to me?
"You had best come in," a deep voice said from a chair beside the hearth. "You're shivering…"
Frodo's voice was low and rough. "I don't understand any of it…"
"Here is a mug of mulled wine, my boy. Warm up first, then understanding may come more easily…"
The hobbit shuffled across the threshold and closed the door behind him. He didn't remove his cloak, but pulled it more tightly around him as he walked slowly toward the second chair near the hearth. A steaming mug sat invitingly upon the small table, and his pipe and pipeweed pouch lay at the ready. He sighed and slumped into the chair, rubbing his left shoulder beneath a fold of his cloak as he stared into the dancing flames.
"Where is Iaurel?" Gandalf asked quietly.
"I don't know," Frodo muttered. "And I can't say that I care…"
Midnight blue eyes gleamed at him. "Ah. I gather that he's told you how he and I happened to meet…"
Tears stung in Frodo's eyes again as he turned toward the wizard. "How could you call him a friend?" he cried hoarsely. "Why? I can't understand it!"
Gandalf was silent for a long time before he finally spoke.
"In one sense, I do not understand it myself," he said slowly. "If by that you mean the understanding of the mind: logic, and reasoning, the weighing of one thing against another… and even the ordinary understanding of the heart: by the rather uncommon thing called 'common decency'… By those measures, Iaurel and I—and you—should be sworn enemies."
He paused to take a sip of his wine, and with a nod of his head encouraged Frodo to do the same. The hobbit lifted his mug to his lips and swallowed a mouthful of the warm, sweet liquid. A little more of the chill that had settled in him dissipated, though his left arm ached dully, from the wound in his shoulder to his severed wrist.
The wizard went on. "Yet in another sense entirely—one that I cannot explain easily, not using words, which are all too clumsy at times like these—it is entirely fitting that I call him 'friend,' and by meddling in both of your lives, hoped that you might find a way to do the same…"
Frodo slammed the mug down onto the table, sloshing a bit of wine. He glared up at his companion. "You'll have to do better than vague riddles this time, Gandalf," he said hotly. "After he… I just can't fathom how you could even bear to be near him, much less befriend one such as he…"
The wizard's mouth curled. "Goodness, you are angry, aren't you…"
"Of course I am!" Frodo cried. "And why shouldn't I be, after what he did?"
"He played a necessary role," the wizard said calmly. "One that would have been played by someone else, had he not done so…"
"But it wasn't someone else, it was him!"
"Yes, and that turned out to be quite fortunate…"
Frodo gaped at him. "What! 'Fortunate?' How can you say that?"
"He apparently didn't tell you the end of the story…"
"I heard more than enough," Frodo said sullenly.
"Perhaps… and perhaps not... I believe you have heard the name, 'Sharkglub' before, haven't you, my friend?"
Frodo's thoughts went back to the Field of Cormallen, and the circle of tables at the Feast of Remembrance. Radagast stood in the center, and his gruff low voice called out a name. …Sharkglub, Orc of Mordor… Frodo had been as curious as the rest of them, but it was Pippin who had approached the Brown Wizard with the question on everyone's lips that evening. I think I know what he means, but I just want to be sure… His young cousin had returned to the gathered Companions with the brief explanation—no reason for the creature's unexpected behavior was given. Yet, to Frodo's astonishment, both Pippin and Gimli's eyes had sparkled with real tears. If not for him, that grim day would have been all the worse, the Dwarf had said hoarsely. And to think I just climbed up on his corpse, like he was a hunk of wood, Pip had whispered.
"So—he was also the one who saved you from the fire," Frodo said.
Gandalf nodded. "And gave his life in doing so. Think on the consequences of that action, Frodo, and not only for me. Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Pippin: our friends would have been burdened by even more gruesome memories than they already carry… And had I not been brought alive from the battlefield to Radagast, and thence to your side, what else might have been lost? Aragorn was doing his best in his attempt to reach you, but he was ill and injured himself. Had he pushed himself even harder, he might have done himself irreparable harm. And had you not been reached in time, not only your life, but your story—and Sam's—would have been lost as well… That, I believe, would have been the greatest tragedy of all…"
The hobbit stared into the fire and shook his head. "I suppose there's truth in what you are saying, Gandalf, but… just because he did one good thing, at the very end, doesn't erase all the horrible things he did to you, and to who knows how many others…"
"I agree," the wizard said sternly. "Past deeds cannot be erased, nor should they be forgotten. It is one reason he has been granted leave to return to these shores—to face what he was, and to atone in what ways he can. Yet his ill-treatment of me and uncounted others was nothing more than what he had been carefully, methodically trained to do. His training began so long ago that even now he cannot truly recall it. The memories are still there, deep inside, though he does not yet consciously remember his life before he was taken, nor even the first hideous centuries of his enslavement, when nearly every last shred of his true nature was broken… He only knows these things happened because others have told him it was so…" To the hobbit's questioning frown, the wizard replied. "I have told him, based upon what is known to all the wise… as has Námo, who knows the doom of all, and his sister, Nienna, whose province is endurance, grief and pity, and who was my first teacher on those subjects…"
Frodo shifted upon his chair and leaned forward toward the heat of the fire. He still felt chilled, and in pain, and unconvinced. He tugged the cloak of Lorien a bit closer around his shoulders.
"Then you feel pity…for him?"
"I do indeed… I did from the moment I met him, well before I knew that he was not wholly destroyed, before he began to comprehend his own nature and repent of his deeds… as you did, my good-hearted fellow, when he appeared in your parlor at Crickhollow… and as I believe you do still, but something is holding you back from admitting it, even to yourself…"
Frodo's anger flared again. "I don't have any idea what you mean…" He flushed as he turned to glare at the wizard, who had burst out laughing. "What on earth are you laughing about?"
"Ah," his companion said with a chuckle. "I was just thinking that those who have called me stubborn have no idea what real stubbornness is, unless they have also made the acquaintance of a Baggins…" Then he sighed. "You do not become angry easily, my dear Frodo. Your anger is reserved for when it can be used on behalf of someone else, or when you aim it inwardly. And in this case, if I am not mistaken, both circumstances apply…"
"There you go again," Frodo sniffed. "More riddles…"
"Or maybe you are purposefully trying not to understand?" The wizard's wiry brow curved upward, and the hobbit scowled at him. "Oh, very well, I shall lay it out as plainly as I am able. You cannot admit that Iaurel deserves your pity—and thus, perhaps, someday, your friendship—because you still blame yourself for everything that happened to me, and to Sam… If someone as monstrous as Iaurel—as Sharkglub, the Chief Pit Orc of Barad-dûr—deserves pity, and perhaps even forgiveness, why, then you would have to release yourself from blame, wouldn't you? You would be forced to admit that you deserve to be forgiven, and then give that gift to yourself… And that is a very difficult thing to do, especially in the midst of loss and pain, isn't it, my old friend?"
Frodo's face was suddenly wet with tears again. The firelight shimmered before him as he clung to Arwen's jewel beneath the fabric of his shirt. He swallowed the lump in his throat as he listened.
"The path to true healing begins at precisely this crossroads," the wizard said with a heavy sigh. "How well do I know it… And during my own hard journey upon this road, I learned that it becomes easier to forgive oneself if you start by forgiving someone else…"
"What could you possibly need to forgive yourself for, Gandalf?" Frodo whispered.
The wizard let out a sound partway between a grunt and a groan. "Ah, well… So many missteps… too many errors… There is no need to burden your ears with an old man's troubled ruminations… Suffice it to say that in my pride, I took upon my own shoulders things that were not mine to control. First I had to admit the truth of my own limitations… Only then could I begin to release myself from blame… And it is a slow process, Frodo," he said softly. "If you are anything like me… and I think that you are… One begins by understanding it here…" He tapped the top of his silver head, "…until it finally takes root here…" and he placed his palm upon his breast.
"Then you think I should forgive Iaurel for all the horrible, brutal things he did to you…"
The wizard's eyes gleamed in the firelight. "I have, and so you truly have no reason not to…"
He studied the wizard's familiar, aged face for a long moment, searching his deep blue eyes that sparkled so brightly in the flickering light. The warmth behind those eyes flowed into him, like wine poured into a cup. The vice that had been gripping his heart for so long, that had only partly eased up its tension in the last months, seemed to shift, and began, at last, to truly let go. He took in and released a deep sigh.
"Well, then," Frodo said, as he picked up his mug. "We had better go and look for him before it gets any later…and colder…"
As he downed the rest of his mulled wine, from the corner of his eye Frodo saw Gandalf struggle to conceal his obviously satisfied grin.
* * *
The night had already grown colder as Frodo led the way to where he had last seen Iaurel. The effort required to climb up the slope warmed his limbs for a while, but as they stood side by side on the windswept, empty ridge, the hobbit began shivering again. He tucked his stump beneath the crook of his right arm and drew his cloak close.
He looked up. The wizard's breath steamed in the frosty air as he gazed out, north and east, into the heart of the Downs. His bristling brows seemed to glisten in the slanting Moonlight, and his eyes were hidden in deep, black pockets of shadow. Frodo shuddered as he pictured what Gandalf—the old Gandalf—must have looked like when Pippin and Gimli found him, his eyes nothing more than dark holes… Then the new person that was his old, familiar friend turned to him and smiled, his bright eyes sparkling.
"I shall lead from here," he said, as his deep blue cloak fluttered in the night breeze. He planted his staff firmly in the grass, and just as the old, gnarled ash-wood had in Moria, the tip of the silver-grey mallorn wood glowed with a faint bluish shimmer. "Follow close behind… Mark my footsteps, my boy…"
With that, he strode over the crest of the hill and began to descend. Frodo hurried to follow him. He tried to catch up and walk by the wizard's side, but Gandalf went on without pausing to wait. The hobbit couldn't quite keep up with his long-legged pace, however hard he tried. The wizard was soon but a silvery, shadowed shape before him and to his right. The wind hissed through every gap in his clothing, swirling from between the ridges. The old wound in his shoulder began to throb, and ice seemed to crawl out from it and dig into him. His teeth were threatening to chatter when he heard his companion's voice from the darkness.
"Walk in my footsteps… Follow my path…"
Frodo wondered if it was more than just a cautious suggestion to ensure he didn't lose the way. Best pay attention while I still have such a guide to follow… He veered his trajectory and followed directly behind Gandalf. At once, his shivering ceased, and his teeth stopped chattering. Heat seemed to rise up from the ground and through the soles of his feet. Soon he was warmed throughout, and quite comfortable. Even the pain in his shoulder and arm relented. He couldn't help but smile at the thought that there were certain advantages to having a wizard as a walking companion. I've missed him… His voice, and that cranky, irritable scowl, that mischievous grin… just having someone so marvelously strange and magical about…
Gandalf appeared to know exactly where he wished to go. His path never wavered as they walked in single file, up another ridge and down again. The Moon set behind the black, irregular wall of the Forest, and still they went on. It was much darker now, for the dawn was still a ways off. The Stars shimmered brilliantly overhead. Frodo was about to ask how long he planned to tramp about in nearly complete darkness when the faint outline of the wizard and the glowing tip of his staff came to a halt before him.
They had reached the top of another hill. Gandalf stood looking down the slope, and Frodo joined him at his side. The wizard pointed into the valley. At first, the hobbit couldn't see anything but darkness. But gradually, whether his eyes adjusted to the deeper shadow, or whether Gandalf worked some magic to allow him to see, he realized that a tall figure stood below them.
Iaurel turned toward them, and again, Frodo wondered if the wizard was weaving a spell of sorts, for the Elf's face was faintly illuminated, as if by a narrow, silver beam of light. His dark eyes shone, and the depth of longing written on his pale face pulled at the hobbit's heart. For the first time he wondered what it must have been like for the Elf—and even for the Orc—to have awakened to the realization of who he was, of who he had been, long ago, and what he had become. Frodo could hardly imagine it. Like coming out of a long fever to discover that everything you once believed about yourself was wrong… Or perhaps like discovering that one's ancestors were horrible criminals… only worse than that—much worse… He thought on his own feelings of guilt, for failing to let go of the Ring, for being the reason for the pain and death of his friends… And he found that nothing he had done, nothing he had experienced, was even close to the relentless shame Iaurel must be feeling. Suddenly, all his anger was gone, and sorrow and pity welled up within him.
They waited while Iaurel, as though summoned, slowly came toward them. The first grey haze of dawn lightened the distant horizon. Frodo looked up.
"What should I do, Gandalf?" he said quietly.
"Whatever your heart tells you, my friend," came the answer.
The hobbit watched in silence as the tall Elf, his dark head now bowed and his face hidden, climbed up the final slope. Iaurel paused below the top of the hill, so that his head and shoulders were still lower than Frodo's. His arms hung loose from his broad shoulders, and the dark cloak had parted and was flung back. He didn't—or wouldn't—raise his head.
Frodo waited for a moment, trying to think what would be the right thing, the best thing to say. He glanced up at Gandalf again; but the wizard was gazing at the Elf with a look of great sadness—and also, the hobbit noted, holding himself utterly still, every muscle taut. The wizard's jaw was clenched, and his hand on his staff was clasped so tightly that his knuckles were white. Frodo's eyes shifted again to Iaurel; his strong hands were shaking. He is trembling… Time to break this tension… Just say what's in your heart…
"Iaurel," he said softly.
Instantly, the Elf's head snapped up. His dark blue eyes were wide as they focused onto Frodo's. His lips parted and trembled."Iaurel," the hobbit said gently. "I wish you'd come up here, and stand beside me… beside us…"
But instead, Iaurel flinched, and took a step backward down the slope. He stood even lower beneath them. He shook his head from side to side, and Frodo could hear his breathing coming in short pants.
"No one is going to punish you," the hobbit said, as he guessed what might be part of the reason for Iaurel's seeming terror.
"Why not?" the Elf whispered hoarsely, as he raised his clenched fists and held them stiffly before him. "I cannot understand why not… I have done so many things… so many terrible things… I deserve the worse punishment imaginable…"
"Because… because… well, it isn't my place… it isn't anyone's place to judge you, is it…except, perhaps, the Highest of the Powers that dwell beyond the Sea… But apparently even they didn't see fit to punish you…" Frodo saw Gandalf's steely grip upon his staff begin to relax as he went on, simply doing his best to say the words that flowed from the center of his generous heart. "No one's been through what you went through… Only you know what your life was like… And…and besides, what would punishment accomplish, after all? More pain and suffering, more dreadful things done to you… How would that help? It wouldn't cancel out the evil things you have done, would it?"
The Elf looked up again, his face now stricken with confused grief. This time, his eyes were fixed on Gandalf.
"Then… then why am I here?" he whispered.
Frodo looked up at the wizard expectantly. But Gandalf gazed down at him, a slight smile on his lips.
"Go on, my friend… You are doing brilliantly," the wizard whispered.
The hobbit thought for a moment about what to say, about why someone like Iaurel—Sharkglub—had been sent back over the Sea after death. He thought of the few brief things Gandalf had said—that he was here to learn about friendship, to face what he had been, to atone—and he tried to gather all those thoughts into one thought, one idea that would express them all. He considered what Sharkglub had been, and then he tried to imagine a person who was completely opposite… and instantly a familiar, beloved face appeared in his mind's eye.
His eyes stung with hot tears in the freezing air, but he smiled as he thought of Samwise Gamgee. Sam: the kindest, fairest, most loyal, strongest, bravest and most hopeful person he had ever known. And then another image came to him, of the windswept, rocky shelf below the Nameless Pass. Gandalf knelt on the ground, and Sam stood next to him. The wizard held Sam's hand between his, and had just given him the Red Ring—the Ring of Hope—and had bestowed a name upon his dearest friend, one that was utterly appropriate, and beautiful. He held the memory close as he gazed down at the terrified, confused, anguished person standing below him.
They couldn't be more different…and yet they have something in common, after all…"I think…I think at the heart of it," Frodo said slowly, "that you are here to teach us about… well, about hope…"
Beside him, the wizard's grip upon his staff eased up, and he let out a long, slow sigh. But the Elf's look of confusion only deepened.
"What do I know about such a thing?" he cried in a choked voice.
"I think you know a great deal… more than almost anyone… For here you are, after all you've been through… You survived it, Iaurel, and even though everything and everyone around you was doing their best to make you into what they were—and part of you did become like them—a part of you didn't change… a part of you clung to hope, even if on the surface, you didn't know it yourself." He looked up at his companion. "That's the part of you Gandalf saw, wasn't it?"
The wizard nodded almost imperceptibly, and his smiling eyes seemed to almost glow from within, like deep blue jewels. Frodo turned again to Iaurel and went on.
"It took help from someone—from Gandalf—to finally find that hidden part of yourself… Of course it did. None of us can really do much of anything without help, after all… We're only fooling ourselves if we think otherwise… But that part was already there. He couldn't have helped you if it hadn't been. That part was still in you because of the hope that you had kept alive… the hope that couldn't be conquered… And in the end, it was you who decided to change…" Slowly, as Frodo continued, Iaurel began to climb the remaining few steps of the slope. "And so that's why I think you are here to teach us about hope, Iaurel… Because if someone like you can carry a bit of hope within them and keep it alive through all of that, why, then anyone can…"
As Iaurel took the final step and was at last next to them upon the crest of the hill, he fell to his knees at their feet.
"How you must hate me," he whispered, with his head bowed.
Frodo immediately reached out and placed his hand on the Elf's broad shoulder. "No, no, don't say that… I don't hate you… What I said yesterday, and the day before, is still true, Iaurel… I'm your friend…"
"And neither do I hate you, Iaurel," Gandalf said softly. "Indeed, the very opposite. For as I have said before, I, too, consider myself to be your friend. And what is a friend, after all, than someone we love..."
Finally Iaurel looked up, and though the anguish was still written starkly on his face, and tears streamed down his cheeks, a glimmer of hope could also be seen in his eyes. Frodo realized that for Iaurel, too, some things had to be known first in one's head, and only then could they really be known, in the heart. When he's used the word 'friend' before tonight, he really didn't believe it was possible… but now, I think, at last he does… He smiled, and at once the Elf threw himself into the embrace of the hobbit. He clung to him for several moments, and then pulled back and looked up. Gandalf nodded and smiled, and Iaurel stood and embraced his former captive and victim—and his liberator.
As the Sun peeked over the farthest of the Downs and golden light swept over them, Frodo thought it was the loveliest morning he had seen in a very long time.
To be continued….
Author's note: I have always loved the Christmas carol, "Good King Wenceslas" and decided to use the idea of warm footprints in this chapter in honor of the holiday season…