10: The Secret of the Warpmumble
Whereupon we say hello and goodbye to an old man, and young Elrohir does something alarming.
A/N: What IS it with me and writing kid characters? I don't know a thing about kids and yet my muse keeps sticking them into my stories. Here's hoping this is marginally believable. In case this chapter gives you a willies-inducing bout of Deja-vu, it's because this is sort of a mash-up of Ch. 3 and Ch. 5, but I didn't realize that until it'd been written.
The sumac had turned red, which Elrond knew was the first color change of autumn. This year the path from the north was blazed with crimson below a canopy that was yet green, and the old man had come stepping along into Imladris as if he'd simply been following the vivid color and had accidentally bumped into the Elven haven, which, upon reflection, was likely not far from the truth, if not the actual fact of the circumstance. Elrond would never know, as he had not questioned the stranger. He had merely welcomed him in. The old man said his name was Théol, and Elrond told Théol that he was welcome to pause on his journey to stay in Imladris for as long as he desired.
"Mine is a long journey, I think," Théol had said. "I'll try not to be a pain while I'm here."
Théol was only a pain once, and really it was after he'd already left. With much delight he would accept the unfamiliar Elven food, listen to their songs and stories, laugh with their children. For several days Elrond watched the man from afar and saw that Théol spent a good deal of time standing alone, foggy eyes wide and upturned to the trees as they changed from green to their myriad autumn shrouds.
Elrond's twin sons were rifted apart this month. Elrohir had made a rather silly mistake earlier while on horseback, and was now planted firmly in bed, waiting for his leg to knit back together. Elladan, though he had tried valiantly, could not make his ten-year-old self sit still long enough to be of any significant company to his twin, for it was autumn and the wind carried with it the promise of far too many adventures, be they real or imagined, and Elladan was helpless not to follow the rest of his friends outside.
It came as a great relief to both Elrohir and Elrond when it was discovered that Théol was, though by no measure mentally whole, a remarkable storyteller– or perhaps it was Théol's oblivious use of creative license when it came to experiencing reality that made his stories so grand and vivid. Théol and Elrohir hit it off right away and Théol spent many hours at Elrohir's bedside, entertaining the child. The old man, in turn, seemed to come away from his times with Elrohir with an extra spark; not in his eyes, which were, Elrond was afraid, hopelessly clouded, but somewhere deeper.
Weeks passed by and Théol made no mention of leaving. Elrond hadn't expected that he would, though he had no doubt that Imladris was nevertheless a necessary stop on the man's journey. Elrond went to stand by Théol one bright day, curious about what the old man would say, if anything. They stood for a moment together as leaves eddied at their feet and the river down below sluiced through, whispering of frost.
"By gum," said Théol, quietly, "by gum. Just look at that."
Elrond had been looking at it already, but he continued to look as the man pointed with one clawed, arthritic hand, sweeping broadly around in an encompassing sort of way.
"Is this the most beautiful place on Middle-earth?" asked Théol.
"Yes," said Elrond. "I believe so."
"By gum," said Théol, again. He was silent for a few moments, and then a flock of small children ran screaming and squawking from the doorway below the balcony upon which the two elders stood, leap-flying down into the duff and whizzing along a little trail into the woods, leaving a small billow-cloud of dust in their wake. "That was your other son there, leader of the pack?" asked Théol. Elrond chuckled.
"Today, perhaps. Tomorrow, who knows."
"You have beautiful sons," said Théol, turning from the view and giving Elrond a solid stare.
"Thank you. I am blessed," Elrond replied, returning the stare and giving the old man a gracious smile, for it seemed as if the old man was quite concerned about whether or not Elrond knew that his two sons were beautiful. Théol seemed to catch Elrond's understanding, and turned away, satisfied.
"It's breezes like that that make me wish I were a boy again," sighed Théol. "Oh, the past and its brightness. A boy, or…"
Théol's voice petered off. Perhaps the sentence finished itself in the old man's head.
"Sometimes I wish," Théol said instead, "I could just be taken by the wind, like those leaves, off into the forest or sky or who knows where. See those willow leaves, those yellow things, they look like shoals of fish when they go out with the wind, see, see there?" The old man pointed excitedly as the wind picked up and the willow branches swayed like seaweed, releasing golden fish that spun and flipped and finally sighed to the ground.
This man is going to die, Elrond thought to himself, which was a thought he'd seen coming quite a ways off. Later that day, when the sun was still high in the sky and the wind was still crisp and fine, after Théol had visited with Elrohir and accepted a honeyed biscuit from the kitchens, the old man went off into the woods along the river trail, into the shade and sheets of sun that came down between the shedding branches. From Elrond's finger and from a certain current on the air, Vilya watched the old man step slowly, watched the old, old man lower himself down finally against the trunk of an ancient oak, watched him lean back and close his eyes and smile, breathe a few more times, and then die.
Elrond was not sad, because Théol was not sad. The Elves, who had grown to love the old man, simply went about preparing for a sort of funeral. They were not accustomed to funerals, as they dealt with their dead in other ways, but Théol had been a Man, after all, and deserved the rites of his people. Elrond knew enough of said rites to be able to put together something simple and appropriate.
The low sun was blinking at them through the western forest now and the body was laid out in the foyer with chrysanthemums and marigolds. They would be carrying the body out to the mound shortly; Elrond was sitting in the nearby study, letting words and prose unearth themselves from his memory, lines that would befit the situation.
A knock on his door brought his attention back from his mental library.
"Yes, come in," he called.
"My Lord," Erestor said, and bowed slightly as he entered. Elrond noted, with amusement, the unusually formal tone that Erestor had taken up. Perhaps the relative gravity of the situation was weighing on his old counselor's shoulders.
"Erestor, my friend, what troubles you?"
"Your son," responded Erestor, and paused, unsure.
"What has he got himself into now?" sighed Elrond. "I did tell him that the river shrimp were for dinner, not for a snack, he hasn't run off with those again, has he?"
"Your other son. Elrohir. He has come downstairs."
Elrond raised his eyebrow. He distinctly remembered having told Elrohir that very morning that stairs were still off-limits for his healing limb.
"He has come down to see Théol?"
"I suppose, my Lord, though perhaps not in the way you mean it," Erestor said, and then lofted his eyebrows mildly. "Elrohir is in the foyer, trying to die."
Elrond passed him in the doorway. Making his way down the halls more rapidly than was strictly necessary, Elrond thought about how Elrohir was not yet old enough to know about the death of men, and about how he had seen very little of it in his short life. Erestor had not come bursting into Elrond's study in a flurry of urgency and fear, so surely this was not a matter to panic over, but still, hearing "your son" and "die" in the same sentence sent a father's heart into his throat.
He came to the foyer doorway and made a meek attempt at wiping the anxiety from his face before passing through.
Elrohir was laying on the ground, eyes closed, in line with the dead man's body. He was breathing and his being was still completely intact and Elrond let his heart drop back down into its usual, familiar stomping grounds behind his ribcage. He stood for a moment and breathed. Elrohir's leg looked no worse for wear; it was still in its brace, no bandages had been ripped. The child was garbed in white healing robes, which made him stand out against the dark, inlayed marble floor almost as if he were floating. Unusually, not a strand of his hair was out of place.
Were it not for the movement of breath, Elrohir and dead Théol would have shared a most uncomfortable aura of finality.
"My son," Elrond said, gently. "I wish you would have asked for assistance before coming downstairs. Your leg is still on the mend."
"Shhh," Elrohir responded. Elrond raised an eyebrow and obliged his son. He was dreadfully curious as to what could be running through Elrohir's young mind but thought he'd best take things slowly. He paced over and took a seat on the ground next to Elrohir's head and watched his son's face. The eyes were shut tight and there was a wrinkle of concentration across his forehead.
"Are we listening for something?" whispered Elrond.
"No, Ada, don't distract me."
"Distract you? What are you doing that requires such concentration, laying on the cold, hard ground?"
"I'm dying, like Théol did."
Elrond took a moment to appreciate the fact that someday, years in the future, he would be able to tell this story to a grown-up Elrohir, and they would both no doubt get a good laugh out of it.
"My son – "
"Shhh, Ada, quiet! I can't concentrate when you're talking!"
" – as much as I admire your determination, this scheme of yours will not work."
Elrohir didn't respond right away – he was turning his father's words over – but then one eye opened a crack, regarding Elrond. The other eye soon followed suit.
"How do you know?"
"I know a great many things, some of which are secrets. Would you like me to tell you some secrets?"
Elrohir very much wanted Elrond to tell him some secrets, but the boy wasn't about to say as much. He took his time sitting up, shuffled his robes about a bit, adjusted a bandage on his leg, tucked some hair behind his ear, and then faced his father.
"Do you know how to die?"
"I cannot answer that with assurance," Elrond responded, suppressing a shudder to hear the question issue from his son's mouth. "Before I tell you any secrets, though, you must answer one question for me. Why are you trying to die?"
"Théol told me half of the story about Rit and Coggs and the Great Warpmumble and he said he would tell me the other half later. I don't think he can come back and tell it now, though, so I was going to go over to him because I know Men die and don't come back but Elves don't just die like that."
"I see," Elrond responded. "An understandable dilemma, and I believe I can help you with this. First you must know that when Théol died today, the other half of his story died as well. It is lost to us, and you must understand that no matter what you do, you will not be able to hear it from Théol, nor will you be able to see the old man again. He has passed through the final door through which all Men will pass, where never a bird nor Elf may follow."
"But where? He can't just disappear."
"One would think so, little one, yet it is true. One of the greater mysteries upon which many people have pondered and none have solved."
Elrond could just about see Elrohir's thoughts trying to burst from his head. The child was trying to understand, which was admirable but unfortunate.
"So if I died and tried to find him, I wouldn't?"
"I think not. But here is a very special secret, Elrohir, listen close. Sit up now and face me."
Elrohir did as he was bid, little sparks in his eyes to be learning a secret.
"Close your eyes."
Elrohir slammed his eyes shut.
"Let out all of your breath."
Elrohir exhaled enthusiastically.
"Do not breathe in yet. Listen now. You may think of your breath as your spirit. Every time we breathe out, our spirits venture outside of our bodies, just a little." Elrohir, who was without breath, squirmed a little. "When they are ready, our spirits will come back to us, and we will breathe in again."
Elrohir could not keep this up, and opened his mouth to let in a great gush of air. Elrond smiled.
"I don't recall telling you that you could breathe in," he said.
"I didn't mean to!" Elrohir gasped, opening his eyes.
"But in you breathed, all the same. When Théol died, he breathed out and his spirit never came back. Spirits are wise, my son. They know when it is time to move on. Théol died because he had had enough of this world. This is the way with Men, when they are lucky enough to reach old age. A spirit is not to be ousted with force. If you are laying there willing death upon yourself…"
"… I will fail?"
"Yes. Do you understand why?"
"Because will-power is a force," Elrohir recited. Elrond had included this mantra in his lessons on more than a few occasions.
"The most powerful force we carry, Elrohir. It is what makes up our spirit, and it will not turn against itself."
Elrohir turned from Elrond and regarded the softly wilting chrysanthemums that wreathed Théol's form. The marigolds, however, still looked as if their stems had not been severed. They would not be bowing their heads any time soon, so hale were their blooms.
"So Théol gave up his will-power?" Elrohir asked, finally.
"No. His spirit simply wanted something more than it wanted to be here in Middle-earth."
"But that's what I was doing. I wanted to be there too. Why didn't it work for me?"
"You are breathing, are you not?"
"… Yes…" said Elrohir, checking, to make sure.
"Then your spirit will not be uprooted." Elrond fixed Elrohir with the most piercing, reassuring, serious stare he could muster, which was quite the stare indeed. Elrohir took it in and Elrond knew he was tucking the matter back into his mind, to be taken out and considered again later.
"I miss Théol," said Elrohir, a mourning note lacing his voice.
"You and Théol were friends," Elrond said. "It is a pain to lose a friend. Pain means you have shared a deep connection, and these connections are one of the greatest things that happen to us. Miss him, yes, but more often you will remember his stories – half-finished as they may be – and smile." Elrohir's mouth half-twitched in an attempt at smiling. The boy was teetering between the sorrow of loss and the joy of memory. "How can you stop yourself from smiling when you think about his Warpmubble?" asked Elrond.
"It's a Warpmumble, Ada," said Elrohir, sort of rolling his eyes, but then came the smile and Elrond's heart brightened.
Elrond lifted his son into his arms, careful of the leg, and they stood over Théol's body for a moment. He said a few words for the sake of closure – for this was a matter he did not wish to be left more open than was necessary – before taking Elrohir outside to sit in one of the hewn benches. Elrond told him they would be out shortly with the body, and then they would all go down to the mound and put the body to its final rest, and then they could go have a dinner of harvest pie and water shrimp.
Erestor met Elrond at the entrance of the foyer on his way back inside. His counselor's face was alight with curiosity.
"Is all well, Elrond?" he asked.
"Yes," Elrond nodded. "Thank you for telling me… Elrohir is no longer trying to die," he added wryly.
"It seems a difficult matter to explain to one so young," Erestor mused. They stood together, watching over Théol as those Elves who wished to be present for the placing of the body began to gather outside.
"I'm afraid I oversimplified things," Elrond confessed, softly. "I'm grateful he did not ask about the deaths of battle and illness. A child's curiosity must sometimes be handled like eggshells."
"Consider that perhaps you did not oversimplify. Consider that the matter is as straight as you have told it, but it is battle and illness that confuses calm water."
Elrond glanced at his counselor, but did not respond. He tucked the matter back into his mind; he would consider it again, and deeply.