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The Time of Probing
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It was the sound of soft voices that woke Sam next. Lady Arwen stood near the door, speaking with the smith Sam had noticed so many times. “A hair of mine? You will need three to make the most potent spell, will you not?”

“I have been granted one by Lord Glorfindel already, and Master Meriadoc has given me one belonging to his mother that he has from a lock he carries to remember those he loves most closely. He says that his mother is the closest to such Master Frodo knows, his own having died when he was yet a child. Master Bilbo having directed me to Master Meriadoc, I believe that it will add to the potency of the spell to counter the will of the Ring most strongly. And if you will add to the blessing and empowering of the spell when all is ready, drawing upon the power of either the Elessar or the Evenstar gem, that will help even more. It has been deemed best not to invoke—other—tokens of power that might be more prone to twisting by the Ring.”

She nodded, obviously appreciating what the smith meant.

He added, “And have you any of the beads that came long ago from the Blessed Lands, my lady? I understand you have received some of such things from your daeradar, ones he purchased in the days when ships still came and went freely between Aman and the hither lands.”

She paused before answering, “Yes, and I have some with me here. What purpose do you have for such things?”

“To use on the new clasp that I am working on now, to keep the clasp from opening save when the bearer requires the Ring free to his hand. Then we wish the clasp to open automatically, that he not waste time on a clasp that might have grown stiff or slick with sweat or when fingers would fumble in times of stress.”

“One moment.”

She returned to the chair where she’d sat sewing through the night, and as she worked a tress free from the net that bound her hair she looked down on the tin from which she’d taken the beads used in decorating the standard. At last she had a strand separated from the rest, and she pulled it deliberately from her head, not cutting it as Sam had expected. She then opened the tin, stirred it with a slender forefinger, and reached down to choose more than one bead. She returned to the doorway and gave the items into the smith’s hands, then closed the door after him as he turned to leave, still uttering soft words of thanks in Elvish.

Sam arose and left to use what the Elves called the room of refreshment, and returned to clear away his pallet as best he could. Another Elf maiden, her hair silver gilt in the light of the one lamp that still lit the room, was setting a shallow bowl of a bright silver metal upon a small, round table set on the far side of the bed. Lady Arwen was examining a crystal vessel sealed with a tapered stopper of ground glass that was mostly filled with what appeared to be pure water of surprising clarity. “It should not take much,” she was saying to her companion. “And there ought to be enough left for my own needs afterwards.”

The other maid was solemn as she turned, having made certain that the bowl was placed just so upon the table. “If it works to Sauron’s despite, that is all I ask, Mistress,” she said quietly. “None here would see such evil take any kinsman of Master Bilbo, nor anyone from any of the Free Peoples of Middle Earth, and especially after what happened to my naneth—and yours.”

“I know. Le hannon, Celebfiniel.”

The maid gave a most graceful curtsey and left the room, carrying away a bundle that Sam suspected held the standard the Lady had been working upon, as well as the tin of beads and the Lady’s sewing bag.

“She doesn’t seem to like the Dark Lord much,” he said.

“Nor does any individual of honor within the Mortal Lands,” she replied. “But his creatures have done especial harm to those she loved.”

She sighed as she looked down into the shallow bowl upon the table. “You may have heard that my naneth does not dwell in the hither lands, and has not for many ennin. She was traveling between the lands where her parents yet dwell and this valley, and against the suggestion of my adar she directed that they should cross over the mountains at what was the closest pass at the time, and travel northward west of the Misty Mountains. Ada had warned against doing so as the mountain fastnesses there were known to be filled with yrch and other creatures of the Enemy. But Naneth did not wish to travel the route east of the mountains, for there had been terrible droughts and forest fires in the valley of the great river for much of the previous seven years, and there was little that was green save along the banks of the river itself. And across Anduin what had been Greenwood the Great was now shadowed and fearful, for the Necromancer had taken the southern reaches of the forest for his own, building his fortress of Dol Guldur on the ruins of Amon Lanc, and his influence could be seen everywhere.”

She raised her eyes to meet those of Sam Gamgee. “The Necromancer had been—active, as had his slaves. He had secretly been sending even more evil creatures into the region of the pass, hoping to capture anyone who might seek to cross over the mountains there, knowing that it was used often by our people as well as those of my daeradar. Men might avoid that pass if they can, but we of the Eldar have been more certain of our ability to deal with such enemies.

“Then as now the Nazgûl crafted Morgul blades and not only carried them themselves, but gave them into the hands of some of their most brutish captains among the fighting yrch and their Mannish allies. Seeing a party emerging from the borders of my daeradar’s lands, a group of his people set up an ambush high above the path where it begins to descend on the western side of the mountains, and they waited with far more patience than such creatures usually show until Naneth’s party was directly below them. Then they began by rolling and dropping boulders down upon the guards that accompanied her and her companions.

“Curufil, father to Celebfiniel, was captain of her guards. He was badly wounded. Others were killed outright. Naneth and the three ellith with her sought to protect themselves, and I am told that my mother herself slew at least four of the yrch and a Man who descended upon them. But one struck her hard upon the temple, and she was stunned and taken prisoner. One of her female companions died in the attack, and another was gravely injured. Celestië, Celebfiniel’s naneth, was my nana’s especial friend and chief of her handmaidens. She, like Naneth, was stunned and taken prisoner. They were borne away to hidden caverns far to the north of the pass, away from the pass and the better known halls under the mountains that had once been a great city of the Dwarves but that had fallen to evil not that long since—or, not that long as we of the Eldar count it.

“When Nana regained awareness they were held in near darkness. Their captors included both Men and yrch, and a surprising mixture of the latter. There were many of the great Uruks, those of their kind bred particularly as warriors, the duller delvers, and the vicious mountain goblins that swarm like foul insects within the dark of the mountain fastnesses. Foul drink was forced upon their captives to hasten their recovery of awareness, after which the torture was begun. Curufil was still alive, but he died in agony under their attentions, and my naneth was forced to watch his suffering to the last. Then they turned their attentions on the few other guards who had survived to that point, and at last they began to torture the ellith. They may not have divined fully my mother’s identity, but they knew enough to recognize her as a great lady among us, and they forced her to watch all they did to those who had sought only to serve and protect her. What they did to the captives while they were yet alive was unspeakable; what they did to their senseless bodies once their fëar quitted them was, if possible, even worse.

“They would stop in the midst of torturing the others to turn on my mother for a time. What all they did to her I do not know. I am not even certain that Adar learned all of the details, but he would not speak of any more than what was most obvious to my brothers or myself. Not, of course, that my brothers did not see what state she was in when she was found and rescued, for they were the ones who finally found her, slew those who held her, and brought her forth from the evil of that place.

“They appear to have—forced—all of the captives, males as well as females. Not even my mother could protect herself from that, although she fought it with all of her power. And they used various blades and instruments to inflict shallow stabs and cuts to all of them all over their bodies, including into their tongues and under their nails. Celestië was forcibly blinded in one eye, and a narrow tool was forced into one ear to partially deafen her.

“The other maiden died even as they sought to defile her, and now only Naneth and Celestië were left. They brought two blades into the room and set them before the two of them, telling them that each would be wounded with one of the blades, and it was up to them as to which would be wounded with which. Celestië could see enough to recognize that one was filled with evil purpose, while the other was merely smeared with poison. Celestië spoke up first, and chose the Morgul blade for herself.

“They had removed all of the weapons that had been borne by the Elves, but they did not recognize my mother’s needle case for what it was. When they had stabbed Celestië and left her with a shard in her right shoulder—they intended for the wound to take some time before it took her, delighting in her torment—and they had given my mother a deep gash to her thigh, they withdrew and left them to contemplation of their own futures. My mother swore to forestall the eventual end to Celestië’s wound, although she knew that our people and those of her parents were searching for them and would eventually find where they were being kept, so she held her hand for as long as she could.

Nana became feverish in time, and their tormenters kept returning, taking advantage of their weakness to force both of them repeatedly and to do them further injury as they could. When she recognized that Celestië could hold out no longer, after they were left alone for a time Nana opened her needle case, took out her longest needle, and with Celestië’s agreement, thrust it into her friend’s heart, ending her agony before she lost herself completely to the shard’s spell.

“After that the horror of what she had been forced to do left my mother so stricken that she lost herself. When Elladan and Elrohir came to rescue her she did not recognize them or know herself. It was some time before she woke to reason again. But she could not throw off all of the horror of what she had known done to herself and her companions, and there seemed no way to heal her of the poison that had been administered to her. So, she sailed to the Undying Lands, and we pray that at last she has come to know relief and healing.”

Sam found himself shaking. He indicated the door through which the maiden Celebfiniel had left. “No wonder she hates the Dark Lord,” he whispered.

The Lady nodded. “Her brother was so overwhelmed with grief and fury that he almost destroyed himself in the wake of their parents’ deaths. He sailed in the end with Nana. And now we look at another who was wounded even as was Celestië,” she said, “and we will not allow the evil magic to take him if at all possible.”

“And you’re certain as it will cause Mr. Frodo to become—to become like them?” he asked.

“Oh, yes. Now and then we have found those who were wounded with such blades or even stabbed to the heart, and we have had to try to deal with them when they have been reduced to wraithdom. Only the removal of the head appears to free their fëar from the spell. It can be a terrible thing to look upon one who has always been a friend and companion, and to find him now one’s greatest enemy, a creature utterly different from what he was. My adar has managed to remove the shard from the body of another, and he is certain that he can do so for your Master as well. But he cannot do it until the shard shows itself, which apparently will not be until it is at the point of fulfilling its purpose.”

She stood by the silver bowl, still looking down at it, the crystal bottle in her hands. At last she took a deep breath and removed the stopper, and poured a measure into the bowl, murmuring soft words in Elvish as she did so. Stoppering the bottle once more, she bent over the bowl and breathed upon the surface of the water. At last she straightened as the door opened again. Celebfiniel and Meliangiloreth had returned, carrying in stacks of clean cloths and toweling and the covered tray of instruments that had been used by Elrond the last time. They were followed by others who carried in the high table. Rapidly the room was being set up for the procedure to follow, and Sam retreated to sit as he’d often done over the past few days on the bed by Mr. Frodo’s pillow, clutching his cold, unresponsive left hand in his own as if in doing so he could keep Frodo’s spirit safe within the now wasted body.


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