Chapter 23.

Alice! a childish story take/And with a gentle hand/Lay it where Childhood's dreams are twined/
In Memory's mystic band
/Like pilgrim's withered wreath of flowers/Plucked in a far-off land. ~Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

The days began to fly by for Gwen, there was so much to do. Cerederthan had requested that Calamaethor begin to teach Gwen melcinitan, the form of combat refined by the monks of Lorien, and the master, after examining Gwen carefully, had agreed to do so. The majority of Gwen's time, therefore, was split between a grueling regimen and spending whatever free time she had with her mother.

"Everything has a weakness," Calamaethor told her on the first day. "All creatures have their shatterpoints. However," the monk glanced at Cerederthan, "we do not have time to teach you our ways, how to see the shatterpoints of the universe. That requires much training over hundreds of years, which you hardly have." Calamaethor's face was stern, with dark eyes under an oft-furrowed brow. "What we can teach you are rules, guidelines, and principles of the way we fight. And we shall begin with this." He gestured towards a large stack of books.

"Books?" Gwen asked incredulously.

"Books." There was no change in his expression. "You must learn the anatomy of the four races, along with some abominations and beasts. Without such knowledge, I cannot teach you." He picked up the stack and handed it to her. "While you're doing that," he scrutinized her limbs, "do some exercises. I expect you to have improved tone within the week."

"What kinds of exercises?"

"That is up to you. I cannot teach you about what will make your body stronger." Calamaethor gently pushed her towards the door. "If you rely too highly upon me, you will never be able to become a great warrior."

Gwen turned abruptly, nearly losing hold of the books. "I don't want to be a warrior. I…I never asked for that."

Calamaethor closed his eyes. "Gwendolyn, you have killed a Vala. There are many who would see you killed for such a thing. How will you defend yourself?"

"I would learn defense, perhaps, but a warrior….a warrior, I am not."

Calamaethor opened his eyes and nodded. Hefting the heavy weight of books, Gwen walked off into the cold monastery.

When she reached her mother's bunk, she shoved the books underneath, taking the top one and opening it. Upon a first glance, she sighed. It was written in Elvish.

Cursing under her breath, she got up to find Eleyond.

She found Eleyond in the monks' library, sitting on top of heavy, carved wooden table. He was holding his book at arm's length, but as close to the light as possible, squinting intently as he read.

"I'm fairly certain that you're not supposed to be sitting there," Gwen said.

Eleyond gave a start, slamming the book shut and trying to keep the book away from the flames of the candles, while simultaneously vaulting off the table and slamming into the bookshelves. He sat down on the floor with a rather loud thud, and books showered from the bookshelf on top of him. Dazed, he finally recognized her. "Oh, it's you."

Gwen was laughing too hard to even respond. She put the anatomy book on the table, then went over and started picking books off him. Eleyond flushed bright red and got up, scattering books across the floor.

"What possessed you to do that?" Gwen finally asked as she recovered.

"My eyesight isn't what it used to be," he said. "I'm having more trouble reading up close."

"You need glasses," Gwendolyn said as she put the last book back on the shelf."

The elf shook his head.

"Why not?" Gwen asked.

He blushed. "No one wears them."

Gwen frowned. "But they help you to see."

"Aye." Eleyond stood up, balancing himself against the shelves. "Blooded Elves – Elves as they were Before, used to be able to see vast distances clearly. Recently, however, our eyesight has gone the direction of our bodies – it has weakened. But no Elf would admit it and wear eyeglasses. It would be a sign of weakness."

"I remember that Elwing was blind when I found her." Gwen said, putting her anatomy book on the table.

"That's why," Eleyond replied sadly. "Elves are getting sick now. I'm told we were once made of stronger stuff – not even able to get drunk."


Eleyond glanced down at the anatomy book. "What brought you here?"

"I'm in dire need of help – it'll be hard to memorize muscles of the body when they're in Elvish."

"Ah." Eleyond nodded knowingly. "I'll help you, as long as you hold the book at a distance."

Anatomy, it turned out, did indeed come in handy. As Gwen became more and more familiar with the body, Calamaethor began to show her their weakest points. A kick to the leg could break it at a certain point; a twist of the finger could bring a person to their knees. A punch in the right place could break ribs, and a single thrust at the face could kill a person. Each race was different – each had their weaknesses and strengths. Dwarves and hobbits were harder to fight due to their stature, but Gwen had surprising accuracy.

"You should try ranged weapons," Eleyond would say, surprised, when she hit the marked dummy at precisely the right spot.

Even though she was working harder than she ever had before, Gwen still had some problems – namely predicting her opponents' moves. She had this annoying tendency to think that her opponent was shifting to one side, then be surprised by a move.

"Watch their eyes!" Calamaethor would yell. "They always show what your opponent is going to do!"

"I'm trying!" she would yell back, and would then be blindsided by a kick.

"Reading your opponent is one of the most important things in a fight," Calamaethor would tell her, disappointed.

As tired as she would get from training, as weary as she was as she ran the halls, tapestries and carvings flying by, she never forgot why she was doing what she was doing. The last memories of her family – taken from her – made her strain even harder.

No matter what, she was going to get them back.

One morning, as she jogged past the quarters where Eleyond had been sleeping, she heard a yell. She bolted into the main hallway, heart beating fast. Another yell rang out, and Eleyond burst out of his room. Without even looking at her, he threw open another door and went inside. Gwen followed him in.

She first saw Eleyond leaning over a bed, shaking the person in it. As she neared him, she saw that the person in the bed was Touchstone. Before she could do anything, Touchstone's eyes opened and he took a swing at Eleyond, solidly punching him in the face. Eleyond reeled backwards, and, without thinking, Gwen lept onto the bed, straddling Touchstone and holding down his flailing body. Touchstone was still yelling, his eyes open but not focused.

Eleyond recovered, and went over to Touchstone, giving him a resounding slap on the cheek. Touchstone went silent and still, gasping and trembling. Every muscle of his body was tense.

Gwen slowly got off of him as Touchstone sat up.

"What happened?" Gwen asked, bewildered.

Touchstone slumped over and put his head in his hands. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.

Eleyond was rubbing his jaw. "Sorry Gwen, hope he didn't scare you too much," he said tiredly. "He's been doing that for weeks now."

"Weeks?" Gwen said. "Why? What's going on?"

"Bad dreams," said Touchstone. "They've been getting worse."

Eleyond stretched his jaw, touching his cheek to see where he was hurt. "Why haven't you asked the monks about it? Since dreaming is their thing?" Gwen asked him.

"We have," Eleyond said wrily.

Touchstone got out of the bed, blushing at Gwen as he reached for his shirt. "Their head monk is going to see me tomorrow," he said.

"Just in time, too," Eleyond said. "Next time if you clock me, I'm going to do more than slap you."

The next day, Gwen asked to be excused from training to accompany Touchstone, hurrying through the halls to meet them outside the inner sanctum.

This room was different than the other halls. It surrounded the cave that held the sleeping Vala, and was the most venerated room in the monastery. For many monks, this was the closest they would ever get to the Vala. Cerederthan, Eleyond, Touchstone, and Frodo were all there to meet her.

"Hello, Frodo," Gwen said, lightly touching the hobbit on the shoulder. She hadn't seen him in several weeks, as she had been either working with her mother or training. "What've you been up to?"

"Reading," the hobbit said, but the doors opened, and he stopped short.

The head monk was standing in the doorway, the simple amulets of Lorien and Este strung around his neck, and warm umber woolen robes were wrapped around him. He looked at them all with piercing eyes. "Which is the one with troubling dreams?"

"I am, sir," said Touchstone, stepping forward.

"Come with me, then," said the monk, taking Touchstone's shoulder and guiding him inside.

The inner sanctum was much smaller than the other halls Gwen had seen. The sleeping statues of Lorien and Este were made out of aged wood here, rather than stone or bronze, slightly cracked from age. The altar before them was strewn with trinkets: flowers, jewelry, odd pieces of bric-a-brac. Around the room candles were lit, but the main source of light was the sun, streaming in through small windowed slits around the hall.

In the center of the room, a worn circular carpet lay on the stone floor. Around it were incense sticks that were lightly burning. Next to one of the pillars, a small compact wood burner was causing a teakettle to boil.

The monk guided Touchstone to the center of the carpet and indicated for him to sit down. Touchstone did so, and the monk walked slowly to the other end of the carpet.

"Sit down," said Cerederthan, and the three of them sat just outside of the carpet, on the bare stone floor. Gwen wrinkled her nose at the incense. It smelled a bit like cloves, cloying and sweet.

"Now…Touchstone," said the head monk, stumbling over the name, "tell me about your dreams."

"There isn't much to tell," Touchstone said evenly. "I never remember them. They must be frightening, though, for I wake up sweaty and trembling."

The head monk looked at Cerederthan. "This is the one whose mind is gone," said Cerederthan.

"Of course," said the head monk, nodding. "Perhaps these dreams that you are having are echoes of your past, young one." He got up and went to the teakettle, pouring out hot water and opening a small jar. He took what looked like a twig, and dipped it into the jar, bringing out a small amount of powder. He carefully tapped it into the hot water, then took a whisk and whipped the drink into a froth. Slowly, he stood up and went back to Touchstone, holding out the steaming cup.

"Drink of this," he said. "It will send you into deep dreaming – although not the deepest dreaming we know of. In our deepest dreams, we can see the future and speak with Lorien. But in the layer of dreaming we will send you, I hope that you will find what you have lost. Drink, my child."

Touchstone picked up the cup, looking at it with suspicion. He closed his eyes and drank it quickly, then lay down on the carpet. His breathing began to slow, and eventually his eyes closed.

The head priest assumed a meditation position and became very still. Gwen closed her eyes and tried to recount the weak points of the body in her mind.

Gwen didn't like to let herself be alone with her thoughts. When she looked in the mirror nowadays, she barely recognized who she had become. She had scars on her face and body from her time in prison, one of which split her eyebrow from when she'd had a crack in the head. She'd lost a lot of weight on the road, and the sunshine had given her a bit tan despite it being winter. She had developed muscles from travelling, lifting, and training. Her past seemed like the mere shred of a dream sometimes.

It was no wonder that, when she let herself be silent for a moment, everything came rushing back to her.

She recounted weak body points furiously as images struggled to come forth in her mind. Elf, Shin.In her mind's eye, Braden the slave fell underneath the onslaught of paws, his body lying still in the darkness. Dwarf, Chin.Feanor screamed as he was shot. Human, Knees.Tulkas crumpling underneath her knife. She gritted her teeth, trying to focus on the cloying scent in front of her. Halfling, Ribs. She saw the terrified face of her brother as guards took him away, and bile rose in her throat. Before another image could surface, she opened her eyes and looked at Eleyond, whose eyes were closed in contemplation.

Eleyond was wearing a simple shirt and pants, with several amulets hanging around his neck. Silhouetted against the window, the sun set off his red hair, which was tied with a cord into a ponytail. His sword was on the floor beside him where he had lain it. He had cleaned it recently, so it was much better looking than ever before – a simple one-handed blade with a black leather-wrapped hilt and plain cross-guard. It was very plain in comparison to the blades she had seen Feanor craft, and certainly was nowhere near the craftsmanship – even she knew that.

But that was part of Eleyond's nature, she reflected. He made do with what he had, and he'd didn't complain very much, despite the things he had been through. Gwen felt safe around him, and in the cruel world that she had entered, he was the first person that she had allowed herself to trust completely.

Her mind began to wander as she kept looking at Eleyond, but this time, it did not go to the dark corners of her mind.

A sudden movement out of the corner of her Gwen's brought her out of her reverie. Touchstone was standing up! She sucked in her breath, but Touchstone, looking around wildly, focused on the sword by Eleyond's side. Then he looked at Gwen, and their eyes locked.

Gwen dove for the sword, but it was too late – Touchstone was too quick, and, scattering incense along the floor, he picked up the sword before anyone knew what was happening. Eleyond opened his eyes, startled by the noise, and Gwen leapt to her feet, lunging for Touchstone.

He shunted aside, and ran towards the meditating head monk, who opened his eyes with a start. Touchstone pulled him upwards and put him in a body-lock, with the sword across his throat, panting heavily. Frodo cried out in alarm, and Cerederthan looked at Touchstone seriously. "What are you doing?" he asked.

"These aren't my memories!" Touchstone's voice had changed, while panicked, it seemed like he had lost his innocence. "This isn't who I'm supposed to be!" He gripped the monk more tightly.

Gwen's throat tightened. "Please Touchstone, please just let him go!"

"My name's not Touchstone!" he yelled.

"You don't have to do this – just let him go and we can talk about it!" Eleyond's voice was firm, but wavered in fear. Glancing at Touchstone, Gwen saw why. Touchstone held the sword as one who was experienced with one. He knew what he was doing; he wasn't afraid to kill.

The head monk, however, didn't seem frightened at all – rather, he looked completely calm. "Change me back!" Touchstone's voice raised in pitch. "Change me back!"

Before Gwen could blink, the head monk had put both hands on Touchstone's arm, bringing it away from his neck. Darting behind Touchstone, he wrung his arm behind him, causing him to both drop the sword and fall to his knees in a classic melcinitan move.

"I am sorry about this, my child," he said, then with his other hand, grasped at the base of Touchstone's neck. The very air around Touchstone seemed to ripple briefly, and his body limply fell to the ground. With a cry, Gwen ran towards Touchstone, picking him up in her arms.

He wasn't dead; he was breathing. "What is this? What did you do?" She looked up at the monk.

"I sent him into dreaming," said the monk. "It was what he wanted, and best for us, I deem."

"When will he wake up?" asked Eleyond, frowning at Touchstone.

"When we want him to," said Cerederthan evenly. "Gwen, let him go. There is nothing you can do for him now. Perhaps time will heal his hurts."

Gwen looked down at Touchstone, limp in her arms. Tears welled up in her eyes as Eleyond touched her shoulder. "Gwen."

The tears began to spill out, and she lay Touchstone gently onto the floor. He looked so peaceful. She let out a sob, then ran out the door, down the hallway.

Gwen kept running until she reached the northeastern end of the monastery, bursting out into the clear day, panting heavily. The wind ran over her sweat-covered body, howling over the edges of the large platform. She walked over to the rails that were piled with snow, looking over the edge to see a steep drop that stopped at a pathway before plunging into the valley below. Above her the sun shone in the clear blue sky.

"Gwen!" Eleyond's voice pealed out from the doorway.

Turning around, she saw him run over to her. "Gwen," he said again, but she couldn't look at him. "Please tell me you're alright."

"Of course I'm not alright," she said, her voice breaking.

"I'm sorry Gwen, but it wasn't anyone's fault but his own."

"I know."

"Whoever he was, he made that decision."

"I know…I just…I can't believe he'd do that." Gwen sniffled, wiping the tears from her eyes on her sleeve.

"Me either. He was so…"

"So gentle," she finished for him.

"Aye." Eleyond waited for her to gain her composure some more.

"It's just…it's just…" Gwen searched for the words. "Every person I've come across here, I've endangered. My family is enslaved, Elwing was nearly sent back to her tower, Brandon died, Feanor's died, and now Touchstone…I'm worried about who I'm becoming. I've killed someone, Eleyond." Gwen buried her head in her hands. "Who am I becoming? A murderer?"

"Listen to yourself, Gwen," Eleyond said, taking her shoulders. "You aren't bringing some curse upon other people. Touchstone made his own decisions, and he didn't make them because of you. You can grieve for his fate, but do not think that you had a hand in it. That was his quest, to find out more about himself. He made his choices."

Gwen nodded, tears freshly coming to her eyes. Eleyond folded her into a hug, holding her as she wept. "Time heals all wounds," he said softly. "I have seen many people come and go in my lifetime. Everyone has their time; you learn to accept it." She pulled away, glaring into his eyes.

"That's just it though! I don't want to forget them – I don't want to forget anyone. Not the sweet Touchstone that I knew, or those who gave their lives for me!"

"I didn't say 'forget,'" said Eleyond sharply. "I said accept. I've never forgotten anyone. Not the girls I fell in love with, not those whose lives I saw pass by, nor those who gave their life for me. I see their faces every night I go to sleep. You don't forget them, Gwen. You honor their memory, but you can't be a slave to the past. That's not what they would have wanted." He let her go, and they both leaned against the railing, silently watching the clouds blow past the mountaintops.

About a week later, Gwen got up with her mother as she had been normally. After brushing and braiding one anothers' hair, they both went to the kitchens, where Gwen would eat some porridge before her morning run.

She decided to go down her favorite route, which went down into the deepest levels of the monastery, where the water cisterns were. While it was dark, it included more stairs, had fewer people (she'd collided into more than a few novices rounding a corner), and was cooler than other areas.

Underneath the center of the monastery, there were three massive cisterns, which had walkways around the edges. Each was higher than the next, so that the water could be kept running to freshen it. The sound of the running water was very soothing to Gwen – it echoed in the large rooms, helping her mind to stay cool even though her body was getting a rough workout. The stairs down to each walkway circled against the walls of each of the three massive rooms, meeting the walkway about halfway before plunging downward into another staircase.

As Gwen ran down the first staircase, keeping her eyes trained on the stairs. One slip would lead to a massive amount of bruises. As she rounded off the first walkway to move down the second staircase, she was suddenly hit from behind. Two arms wrapped around her waist, heaving her off-balance.

Down became up, and gravity took hold. Gwen saw, for one terrifying moment, the staircase stretch before her, then she slammed into it, arms outward to protect her face. She felt something crack in her left wrist. The she careened away. Whoever was holding on to her still did so, and it was them that hit the stairs as they tumbled downwards. Gwen tried to protect her face, trying to roll as her instructor had taught her on the mats, but this hurt so much more.

Finally they landed at the bottom, and Gwen, thankfully, landed on top of her attacker. She ripped her attacker's arms off her, struggling to her feet.

The person on whom she had landed was dressed in a novice's robes. He got up and steadied his footing. Relief flooded through her. She didn't think that Calamaethor would have ordered a surprise attack as a lesson, but then, that would ruin the definition of a surprise.

"You didn't have to attack me at the top of the stairs," she said to the novice, panting. "You could've gotten me killed." Her left wrist was on fire with pain. "I think I fractured my wrist, that was really stupid of you."

The novice moved into a roundhouse kick, hitting Gwen on the left side of her torso, slamming into the wall. With a yell, she recovered, putting her arms up and defending herself against a flurry of blows. Elf, she thought, and focused.

Gwen was slowly able to break through the novice's defenses. Every once in a while, however, the novice would get through her desperate blocks, as she could not tell what move he was making. He would fake right, then strike with his left, nearly knocking her into the cistern. The novice got through her defenses and hit the weakest part of her ribs. Pain spidered through her brain as she felt them crack, and reeled backwards. The novice hit her face, and as she looked into his eyes, she saw it, that same look that had been in so many faces. The look that was on Tulkas' face, the look in Amarie's. It was the intent look of someone who meant to kill.

As he swung again, she ducked past him, moving to run out of the cistern. The novice, however, lunged, reaching out and pulling out her feet from under her. She slammed into the stone floor, flipping over to face him.

He was down and vulnerable. Then she remembered what Calamaethor had told her. "The face is the most vulnerable part of any body. An upward thrust against the nose will break it. A stronger thrust will send the pieces of bone into the brain, killing them."

Gwen kicked forward, slamming against the novice's forehead. His head swung back, and her foot connected with his nose. Chills went down her spine as she felt it crack, and the novice went still.

Gasping in pain, she lay back down on the cold floor. Every sense was on fire. Even breathing hurt. For one mad moment, she almost thought about going into the cistern to help ease the pain, but she came to her senses. As she tried to focus on breathing, blackness started creeping in on her vision.

Oh no, she thought, before she slipped into darkness.

When she awoke, before she even opened her eyes, she heard the soft sound of a lake, and the sound of birds chirping in the distance. The soft sheets around her smelled of home. When she opened her eyes, she had to squint at the light coming in between the slats of the blinds. She was at her cabin, on the lake in Maine.

Perhaps it had all been a dream, all of it. The Faeries, the destruction, the ships, the city, all of it, just a passing dream. In the sunlight, all the past seemed to fade away.

Slipping her feet into her sandals, she reached for her robe and wrapped it around her. Slowly pushing open the screen door, she saw a perfect day: there was a faint breeze stirring the forest leaves, the sun was shining on the lake, the water was lapping against the shore, and there was barely a cloud in the sky.

Something seemed wrong, though. Looking at the driveway, the car was not there. Gwen ran indoors, running through the living room, then the kitchen, and the other bedrooms.

No one was there. There was no trace of her family – no suitcases, nothing out of place.

She was alone.

Distraught, she ran back outside. There had to be someone. She ran down the dirt road towards the main route, through the forest. The trees whipped past her, and the road became a blur. Suddenly, she stopped. She had no idea where she was.

She'd run down this road dozens of times, but for some reason, she had run into the middle of the forest. She was surrounded by trees, their leaves shifting in the wind.

Suddenly dizzy, she sat down on the mossy ground and closed her eyes, trying to clear her head. The sounds of the forest echoed through her ears – birds in the distance, the far off wind over the trees, the rustling of leaves. The snap of a twig nearby made her jump, and she opened her eyes. A stark white shape moved between the trees.

She stood up quickly, steadying herself for combat. What was it? A person? A spectre?

Instead, stepping slowly towards her came a great stag, covered in white fur, a great rack of antlers above its head. Gwen watched it, not knowing whether to run or stay still. The stag bowed its head, the straightened and looked at her. Not taking her eyes off it, she bowed in return.

Then it turned around and bolted. Startled, she started to run after it, but turned around to see what had scared it. It was a black panther, creeping between the trees, in the shadows. Her throat constricted in fear, and she ran as fast as she could in the direction of the darting white shape between the trees.

Gwen's heart pounded in her ears. The stag before her swung left, then right, and she had to dig her feet into the dirt to swerve and follow. She burst, panting, into a wide glade, and looked around wildly. The stag was nowhere to be found.

Instead, there stood a man in grey robes with silver hair standing in the waving grass. Gwen looked behind her in fear, but did not see a trace of the panther.

"You are safe here," said the man in a strong, unwavering voice, "but not for long."

Gwen looked at him more carefully, turning her head sideways before she recognized him. "Irmo," she said.

"I prefer the name Lorien," he replied.

"Why have you brought me here?" she asked, glancing back over her shoulder at the forest.

"Because the time was right." Lorien gestured to the forest behind him, and there seemed to be, where there had was none before, a path through the dense trees. "Won't you come for a walk?"

Lorien turned, and hesitantly, followed him into the shadows, needing to run quickly for a little bit to catch up with him until she was alongside him. For a long while they were silent.

Finally Lorien spoke. "So you are the one that was foretold. The one who changes everything."

"I don't know," said Gwen.

"Yes, you are," said Lorien with finality. "You have already changed everything, and will continue to do so."

"The monks would agree," said Gwen quietly.

"Would you like to know the secret of my monks?" asked Lorien, turning to her with a glint in his eye.

"I suppose."

"The future," Lorien said as he continued along the path, "is neither good nor bad. It relies on what you decide to make of it. So many people state that the 'future bodes ill,' or 'today will be a good day.' But it what you make of it that determines it."

Gwen smiled at this. "Then many have learned that lesson well – especially Cerederthan."

"Cerederthan!" exclaimed Lorien. "He has crossed your path many times. An interesting and loyal Elf." A smile flickered across his face. "Yes, it is good that he has come to you."

"Something tells me that you know more than you are letting on," said Gwen jealously.

"Of course. But if I were to tell you…" he turned towards her and looked her in the eye with a smile, "that'd be cheating."

They made it out of the forest to the edge of a small pond, in the center of which was a small island with a tree, the branches of which were filled with grey and white birds. She recognized it from stories – it was the island in the middle of the forest of Lorien. From behind the tree stepped a woman clad in silver-grey, with long dark-brown hair, and grey eyes. She looked at them calmly, but did not say a word.

Lorien gestured in the air, and stones rose up out of the water. Crossing onto the island, Lorien took her hand tenderly.

"Your coming hearkens the end of the world," he said to Gwen quietly. "The Valar are relics of the old world. Our time is long past, and those that remain try to stave off change. I myself fear that I have delayed leaving for far too long. I had hoped that perhaps, one day, things would return to the way they were in the beginning, but that has proved to be a passing dream.

"Instead, you must inherit the world we have shaped, and I am in part sorry, for it is filled with much darkness and many evils. But there are still some who follow the paths of light, and I dearly hope that you stay among them. It is easy, when good and evil are confused and muddled, to walk a precarious line and slip into the night.

"Change the world we have left behind so that, perhaps, the next generation might face fewer evils."

Lorien looked towards the other shore of the pond, gesturing once more. The forest began to dissolve into a wall of white light, reflecting off the pond and illuminating the tree.

"The Valar have put off the inevitable. We were never supposed to stay this long. In the end, we have merely prolonged our fate, rather than extending our days of glory. All things pass. And as the time of Lorien and Este ends," he put his hand on Este's shoulder, "we hope a new age will begin."

Este bowed towards Gwen. "Namarie," she said.

They walked away into the light, and Gwen watched until their forms were lost. Eventually, the light faded, and she was left in the forest as night began to fall. The shadows grew ever nearer, and among the trees she saw dark shapes slinking. She sat on the ground, curling into the fetal position as her gut wrenched in terror, and it was not long before the beasts took her.

When Gwen awoke, she didn't know where she was. The sun was streaming in, and she was in a bed with clean white sheets. It wasn't until she turned her said and saw Touchstone's deeply breathing figure in the next bed that she knew where she was – the infirmary in the monastery. Her ribs and wrist were covered in an aromatic poultice, then wrapped in clean linen wrappings. It still hurt to breathe.

"Good – you're awake." Cerederthan's even tone cut through her bleary-eyed observations. He was sitting in a simple chair, holding his staff across his knees.

She squinted at him. "How long was I out?" she asked.

"Two days," he replied. "You have two broken ribs and a sprained wrist – we tried to make you comfortable. As for the novice that attacked you – the monks found a note among his things. It was a letter from a family member with a posting of a notice for your death. Everyone at the monastery is truly sorry that your life was put in danger. Not all the monks have taken the news about the Valar well, but I am sad that one of us was too short-sighted to see what is going on. Eleyond and I believe you are no longer safe here."

"No kidding," said Gwen, testing her wrist gingerly. It still hurt, and was swollen slightly.

"You did a good job defending yourself, though," said Cerederthan encouragingly.

"I got lucky," Gwen said softly. "But I think the monks have a bigger problem on their hands than misplaced loyalties."

Cerederthan raised his eyebrows. "What?"

Tegalad was meditating in the outer sanctum when he heard the loud sound of sandals flying down the corridor towards the doorway. He turned around, startled, as the head monk burst into the room, panting. Tegalad leapt to his feet. "What's wrong?" he asked. "Another attempt on her life?"

The monk didn't answer, pushing past him towards the inner sanctum. He pushed open the doors to show the worn wooden statues, the carpet on the floor that was slightly burned from incense that had overturned when Touchstone had gone mad.

The head monk moved towards the doors that led towards the Valar as though he was in a dream. He didn't stop Tegalad, who was following him out of sheer curiosity. He had not had the chance to see the slumbering Valar.

With a grunt, the head monk heaved the doors open, and gasped. Within the dripping cave chamber, on a mound amongst the stalactites and stalagmites, there was…nothing.

They were gone.

Tegalad rubbed his eyes in disbelief as the head monk sunk to his knees in shock. "What happened?" asked Tegalad.

Stunned, the head monk replied, "I don't know."

"Wouldn't they have said something? Given some sign that they were returning to the world?"

"They haven't returned to the world," said the monk heavily. "They have left it."

Tegalad followed the monk as he walked to the infirmary to confront the girl. He had never seen the head monk angry before, but his quick stride and clenched fists gave away his disconcertment.

As the monk strode up to the bed where Gwen was, he cried out "What did you do? Did you kill them too?"

"Kill what? Who?" the girl said, confused, looking at Cerederthan.

"The Valar are gone," said the monk, irately. "They were doing no harm – why did you kill them?"

"I didn't," said the girl. "I didn't touch them."

"What happened then? How did you know they were gone?"

Gwen glanced at Cerederthan again, then described her dream to them. As she did so, the head monk's anger disappeared, leaving behind a very tired-looking aging man. He put his hand on the bedpost, seemingly to balance himself.

"So be it," he said. "Even if we are not blessed enough to walk in our dreams with him, we can still hold our beliefs intact. If he chose such a path, then it must have been for good reason."

"I'm sure that he knew what he was doing," said Gwen, trying to reassure him.

The head monk straightened up and looked at Tegalad. "Assemble the monks," he said. "I don't want to get this out as a rumor, I want it said to everyone factually." He turned to Cerederthan. "Get her out of here immediately," he said with an urgent tone. "I'm sure that I'm not the only one who will be upset by this turn of events."

Cererthan nodded and rose. "Gwen, I know you're still in pain, but we don't have time to let you heal."

She nodded with a heavy heart. "I'll get my things." Cerederthan helped her get up out of bed. "Take only what you truly need," he said in her ear. "We must travel fast." She nodded and made her way to the slave's quarters.

Her mother was doing laundry, but rushed to give Gwen a hug when she entered. "Gwen! You're alright – thank God – I was so worried when I heard…"

"I know Mom, I'm sorry…" Gwen squeezed her hard. She didn't know if she had the strength to go.

"No, honey, I'm just glad you're okay." Her mother took Gwen's wrist gingerly. "You're not hurt too bad, are you?"

"No, it's not too bad, but.."

Her mother knew her too well, and saw it in her face. "You have to go, don't you."

Gwen's eyes filled with tears, and she hugged her mother more closely once more, sobbing. Her mother held her close, and her breath grew ragged as she held her tears back. "Oh honey, I wish I could say that everything was going to be alright.."

"I don't know if anything ever will be."

Her mother stroked her hair. "Gwen, I know things are so uncertain, but always know…" her voice broke a little, "always know that I will love you. You have been chosen for something, something special, and no matter what road that path leads you I know that it is the right one."

It took Gwen a very long time to finally go back to the room and gather what few belongings she had acquired. Finally, Eleyond appeared in the doorway, clad in a new coat and scarf, carrying warm clothes in his arms. "These are for you," he told her, and she put them on, slinging the satchel over her shoulder. Her mother stood close beside her, gave her a final, long hug, then looked Eleyond in the eye. "You take better care of her, you understand?" she said fiercely.

Eleyond touched the rim of this wool hat, nodding. "Yes ma'am, I will."

Gwen made it to the doorway before looking back at her mother. "I love you," she said. "And we will be free someday. I will make sure of it."

"I love you too," said her mother softly, then Gwen was gone.

She walked down the hallway, barely noticing where she was going. Before she knew it, she was standing next to Cerederthan and Frodo.

"Are you coming with us?" she asked the Halfling.

"Yes," he said vehemently. "I heard there are dragons on your path, and I can't pass up the chance to see a real live dragon."

She gave a little smile. "I don't suppose I would either."

She put on her wool hat and wrapped her scarf around her neck as Cerederthan opened the doors to the snow-covered pathways outside. The snow blew in with the howling wind, and Cerederthan looked back at them all with a gigantic grin on his face. "Are you ready for an adventure?"