Susan
The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey


Chapter Fifteen: Le Morte d'Gundolf

    It was an entirely different Eldron that sat at the head of the Council table. His eyes were clear, now, and his gaze steady. Somehow, the dignity of his bearing made the wreckage of his surroundings a fitting setting for the noblest Elf of Midgarde. Despite the raging fury of the Ring upon his finger, he had roused himself in one final mighty effort to meet his end as befit a great warrior and wise councilor.
    He beckoned to Sara, "Come closer, child from the heavens. I do deeply regret that I have not come to know you better since your arrival. I have been occupied, as you know."
    "Uh, no problem, sir," she said, almost shyly, approaching him with her hands clasped behind her back.
    He smiled warmly at her, "It is fitting that you should call me Eldron. We are closely bound together now by destiny and burden."
    "Thank you, Eldron. I'm Sara," she curtseyed.
    She looked carefully at him, with obvious concern, and asked, "Are you all right?"
    "For the moment. But a moment shall suffice. I know of your duty and I am ready."
    "Well, I'm not exactly sure that I am. Gundolf has been telling me all kinds of things about the Rings and stuff, but I think he left a lot out."
    "It is the way of Wizards, I fear. Their vision is full of ambiguous portents and vague prophecies. Even now, he fights constantly to keep some parts of his mind hidden from Soraun's far-ranging Eye. Perhaps he fears that making his intent clear to you will reveal too much to our Enemy."
    "Sure, that makes sense, I guess. But what am I supposed to do now? I can't just -- there's no way I can... What...? Just... Just kill you? Vaporize you or whatever? It's something I'm not ready for. I like you people. I feel I know you so well just from the books, and even more so now that I've been here. Especially old Gundolf. I mean, I don't want to let anybody down or anything, but it's just not right. It's not my style. I... I don't think I can do it."
    Eldron looked with sympathy on the sorely troubled girl and reached out to comfort her. "I know this must be hard for you. Sometimes, though, a great sacrifice must be made to prevent a greater evil. We do not always choose to bear such burdens, but as fate calls us, we must do what is necessary whatever the cost."
    His calm and stoic presence encouraged her. She finally stood resolutely before him and announced, very softly, "I am ready. What do I do?"
    "I was called 'the Wise' before our recent calamity proved otherwise. For so the races of this world thought of me. By this it was meant that my intellect was my greatest strength. You shall challenge me on the basis of this vaunted intelligence and thereby claim the spoils of your victory. I warn you, I will not go lightly, for the Ring will compel me to make my utmost effort."
    "OK," said Sara doubtfully, "what do you have in mind?"
    "I am given to understand through Gundolf's otherworldly research that there exists identically on nearly every plane a certain game that constitutes a perfect contest of minds. I am assured that the inhabitants of your planet know as well as those of our Midgarde the game called chess. Do you play?"
    "Chess?" She was astonished. "Oh, sure. The Russians taught me."
    "Excellent," he said. "I can think of no more fitting arena for my final battle. I pray that you will not dishonor me with anything less than the maximum effort of which -- as I understand -- you are quite capable."
    "Are you serious? I have to beat you at chess to get the Ring? And... But, you're playing for your life. Only... You don't want to keep it..." she trailed off uncertainly.
    "Pawn to queen four," began Eldron, determinedly and without hesitation.
    "You are serious," she said wonderingly. What else could she do but accede to what amounted to his dying wish. For she could see all too plainly that he couldn't maintain his dearly-bought lucidity for much longer, and the strain was likely to make his unbearable condition even worse.
    "Fine," she said. "Pawn to queen four."
    And so it began. Eldron proved to be excellent, having had the advantage of hundreds of years to perfect his game. It had been a passion of his shared with other long-lived great minds like Gundolf. He was true to his word about playing the game of his life -- and what a game it was!
    There was power and subtlety in Eldron's play, as he constructed a masterpiece of cunning and brilliance. The pawns and pieces flew in the minds of the contestants like living armies of champions, the ebb and flow of interlocking movement deploying in complex patterns of advance and retreat.
    In some strange way, it was like the roundball game of another time and place -- mere flesh refusing to bow before overwhelming technology. His experience, pride and love of the game were challenged to the utmost, demanding -- and producing -- the highest expression of his capabilities. The mere stake of his life and the fate of Midgarde itself paled in comparison to the joy of ultimate competition against a truly worthy foe.
    But he had no chance of staving off the inevitable. Sara's computer brain was just too powerful and all-encompassing, revealing every possible permutation of move and countermove, guiding her unerringly and irresistibly to final mate. In the end, Eldron was exhausted by the effort, sagging visibly in his chair.
    "You have won," he gasped wearily. "You have my admiration, my gratitude and my love, Sara of the heavens. I shall now be free of this agony. For here is your token."
    He pulled the Ring of gold with its great blue stone from his finger and held it out to her. "This is Valia, the mightiest of the Three. It passes to you until the end of all things."
    "It wasn't fair!" cried Sara. "You couldn't know you didn't have a chance against this damned alien technology. I don't want your Ring. Please..."
    Eldron smiled, "Oh, but I knew. That is why they called me 'the Wise'. It is yours now, and I am so happy that it falls into your hands. Take it with my blessing."
    Slowly, reluctantly, she reached out to take it. As she did so, she could sense the unbearable strain lift from his body like a sigh. In final slumber, his arm fell and he reposed with the same dignity in death as he had had in life.

    As with Eldron, likewise was the Lady Gladariel at least temporarily out from underneath her terrible shadow. Her ageless beauty and grace somehow transformed the tangled patch of weeds, so that now they seemed befitting of this old Elvish place, like a gardenly tribute to some wild pastoral landscape. The Lady's threadbare rags were brightened and uplifted as well, streaming about her like clouds of mist and light.
    The cold afternoon was giving way to an evening of perfect stillness. She smiled warmly as Sara approached, took her hand and embraced her as she would her own long-lost child.
    "You have done great service already this day, Sara from beyond the sky. For dear Eldron, I thank you again, for I loved his gentle kindness and wisdom. Soon I will join him, along with Gundolf and many others who have gone before us, in a place to which Soraun cannot come."
    "I wish there were some other way, my Lady. I don't like the idea of bringing death to anybody, no matter what the excuse or circumstance."
    "Do not think of it as such. You are our rescuer, who brings comfort and rest. And takes up a burden we cannot bear."
    "I guess so," she said with downcast eyes. "What do you want me to do?"
    "Walk with me awhile. Let me enjoy my last clear sight of Midgarde. But not too long, for the darkness will not forbear much longer."
    Hand in hand, they made a leisurely stroll across the garden, stopping from time to time to remark on one bravely struggling flower here or a sturdy vine there. The shadows lengthened inexorably until at last the Lady stopped and turned toward Sara, holding both her hands.
    "It is said I was the fairest dancer in all the lands of our world," she told the girl. "None could challenge me, for I had the Gift, and loved to so express myself above all other things. Do you dance, lovely Sara?"
    "A little. Nothing fancy, but sometimes it makes me happy. Not as well as you, I'm sure."
    "We shall see," Gladariel laughed. "For this will be my final dance if you can better me." And away she twirled to some hidden, soundless rhythms.
    So splendidly did her slender Elven form spin and leap, soaring over the hard ground, lightly touching down to spring anew in ever changing fluid harmonies of motion. Her bending body evoked wordless memories of love and life, her supple arms gave meaning to nameless emotions, and her springing legs bore testament to perfection.
    "Dance with me, Sara," she called out. "Come and join my celebration."
    "But, you're so beautiful," she protested. "How can I do this?"
    "By being true to your ability. Let go of your thoughts and hear your own music. Follow me."
    Sara followed, matching her steps with all the precision her computer brain's unconsciously detailed analysis of every kreened movement provided to automatically direct her own inexhaustible body. They became twins, two dancers moving as one, ever faster, ever more complex, ever more fantastic.
    At last, from memories made in another time and far away, she heard the music and remembered her airborne dance above the concrete canyons of another world. On her own now, she soared above the garden, above the hall, above the watchtowers, and became one with the darkening sky. Swooping and gliding, she made impossible pirouettes, astonishing spins and breathtaking maneuvers that defied description, until she heard the sound of the Lady Gladariel clapping her joy and appreciation at the sight. Abruptly coming to herself, Sara hastened to touch down lightly in front of her audience.
    "Oh, my Lady! I'm so sorry. I just got carried away."
    "It was wonderful, my skydancing Sara," she told her, embracing her again. "You gave me such delight and pleasure that I must thank you. For by so doing, you have bested me."
    "What? No!" Sara protested, "I didn't know! I didn't think... Oh, this is just so horrible. You can't just..."
    "Peace, my darling child. It is a fitting end for me, and long awaited. I must depart in as great a happiness as I could imagine for these times. But not before I gladly surrender Nynia to you."
    The Lady offered her Elfsilver Ring with its single white stone to Sara with a smile. Wretchedly, Sara accepted it, then caught the slumping Lady and laid her gently down in her sheltering garden.
    As she lay in sweet repose, Gladariel bade Sara, "Leave me here, for this is my last beloved place in this world. Then go thou, with my blessing, and fail us not, remembering us at the end of all things."
    Sara wept as the darkness gathered.

    When Sara entered the study, Gundolf seemed unchanged, gloomy as ever and bent down by some unseen weight. He merely said, "At last."
    Sara was bitter. "I've killed your friends. And my friends, too, for as long as I've been alive -- and even before, from my love of the story."
    "You beheld their gratitude..."
    "I beheld their deaths. And that's enough. To hell with your damned Rings. And your idiotic plans. I don't care if Soraun takes over your stupid island full of nasty little Elves, either. There's nothing left anywhere that's worth any more of this."
    "Sara, you know what must be..."
    "I can't -- I won't kill you, too. It's not going to happen. As mean and cheerless as you are, you're all I have left and I won't lose you. I can't even allow you to be harmed. Surely, you must understand that this was built into me from the ground up as part of my design. I can't even consider it. I will protect you with every power I have, forever. I have no choice. You can't change that and I don't want to."
    Gundolf considered this for a long moment. "You seem determined."
    "I am."
    "Know you that I am the chief architect of Midgarde, that it was my designs that brought about all that has transpired in this age in opposition to the Great Enemy. And that it was to me that you were sent in the last hour of our need."
    "So what."
    "If you indeed unmake my plans against all that I can do to dissuade you, then I am utterly defeated. Take, therefore, this Ring..."
    "Wait!" shouted Sara. "You've tricked me! This isn't fair. I don't want your Ring. No!"
    "The Ring is yours, take it or not. My time approaches swiftly."
    "OK, wait a minute." Her mind raced frantically, seeking any way to avoid the crisis. "Look, if you die now, I promise you I'll just fly off to some decent planet somewhere else and leave your whole stinking world to rot. You wouldn't want that to happen, would you?"
    "I cannot prevent you, and it will soon matter not at all to me. Goodbye, Sara."
    "Dammit! Hold on, hold on... All right, you've convinced me. You win, I lose. I'll do everything you say."
    "Truly everything?"
    "Yes, yes. Just the way you planned it."
    "Then you must still defeat me so that I may forfeit this Ring to you and die."
    "Aaaahhh! I can't..."
    "Then, farewell."
    "I can! I can! I can!"
    "Truly, Sara, you must decide. I am an old man, and all this commotion will be the death of me."
    Sara blinked twice. She saw a smile force the corners of the old man's mouth to rise.
    "That's a joke," she said, disbelievingly. "With everything the way it is, you made a joke."
    Now, she saw the Gundolf of old. Vigorous and full of mirth, warm and laughing, great of heart. He bellowed his laughter until it boomed back at them from the walls.
    "Aye. A Wizard's tricksy joke, full of deceit and fraught with meaning. A way to face the truth with courage. I have your promise now, and you must keep it."
    Sara just stood with her jaw open. "But how can I..." She couldn't finish.
    "See, now. I am in the final throes of clarity before my finish, one way or another. If I die not, then will I have no strength to resist the irresistible might of He who binds my Ring to His. This will be great harm that you cannot forestall with all your powers as long as this Ring is mine. If you do not act to wrest it away from me, then you will have defeated me and the Ring is yours. If you challenge me to claim the Ring, you will either succeed and I die, or you will have undone my plans and I die. This night I will perish, thankfully, no matter what you do or do not do. But if you allow the Enemy to take me, you will allow the ultimate harm to befall me. What makes your alien logic of this?"
    Deep within the computer brain of Sara, where not even she could go, this reasoning was evaluated. Something seemed to click, adjusting her fundamental directions to a certain, precise degree. She must accept the inevitable and protect against the greater harm. She was bonded to his request.
    "You're on, Pops," she said, grimly. "What's it gonna be? Bare knuckles or bazookas, it's all the same to me."
    "Then I choose to go down fighting." He flung his robes behind him, drawing his ancient Elven sword, Gladringg, with his right hand. In his left hand, his Wizard's staff grew bright with gathering energy. "For I am Mytrandur, the warrior of old, and you shall not conquer me so easily. I shall administer unto you the test of battle as a preparation for those terrible days to come. For I say truly that ere night falls again, the Dwarves shall cover you with their blood."
    "Fight me? No way! Even in your prime and with your Ring, we both know that you can't really do anything to me."
    "Ha!" he laughed, "You should know by now that I'll not make it so easy for you. I will seek to accomplish my own destruction and make it your challenge to prevent it. You must defeat me by keeping me alive."
    "What...?" she began. She had no time to protest.
    He swept his staff around in a broad arc, fire leaping forth in its wake, consuming table, priceless scrolls and stone walls alike. With a crashing roar, the heavily beamed and tiled roof gave way, hurtling flaming fragments into the room below to carom off of Sara's warding arms like so many raindrops from a girl's parasol.
    He evaded her sheltering attentions and blasted his way into the main hall, walls collapsing behind him in an orgy of destruction. Sara was quick to follow, knocking hurtling blocks aside as she went.
    "Eldron, my friend. I have come to light a fitting pyre," he cried, unleashing a red blast at his lifeless body.
    "What are you doing?" shouted Sara above the din. She swept in front of the ravening bolt of energy as fast as thought, so that it splashed harmlessly against her -- only to ignite still greater fires elsewhere in the room.
    "Stand aside! This is fit and proper. His body shall be consumed by my act of love and respect, or by the wolves which close about us even now. What would you have?"
    He unleashed another shot, bouncing it off a remnant of the ceiling directly onto Eldron's chair, consuming the shriveling body in seconds. With a great cry, an expanding wall of cold blue energy exploded from the Wizard's body, causing splintering destruction to everything it touched save the horrified girl. Almost too late, she again fended cascading wreckage from Gundolf's head as he scurried through the smoking remains of a wall into the garden.
    "My Lady," he cried loudly. "Here is thy funeral."
    Sara screamed as she sought to be everywhere at once, dousing the burning bracken with her cold, cold breath until her internal supply of nitrogen ran dry. Gundolf's billowing cascades of flames overwhelmed her efforts, as she was distracted time and again by the need to shield him from his own wrath.
    Soon, the night was uncovered for miles around as the violent flames cast by Gundolf's waning magic leapt high. In the glow, dire war-wolves could be seen, racing instinctively to the sounds of destruction. He strode resolutely to meet them, arms spread wide as if in welcome.
    Sara was forced to abandon Gladariel's body to the flames to meet this new threat. She landed in front of him with the snarling pack closing quickly to surround them.
    Irrationally, she began yelling, "Nice doggie. Shoo, shoo. Down, boy."
    Gundolf laughed again, "That will hardly deter them. This must be your blooding, else I go to assuage their healthy appetites."
    She turned and grasped him firmly, making ready to fly him to safety.
    "Nay," he said, "this defeats my purpose. I have chosen this peril for your testing. Do you admit defeat so easily?"
    She looked exasperatedly at him for a moment, then let him go and spun away. The beasts leaped from all directions. Gundolf held his ground serenely. Sara managed to jam every limb she had into a gaping set of slathering teeth. She frantically flung them howling back into the others, but there were too many, and she could not surround Gundolf as they could. She began pushing and shoving with blurring speed, throwing them back nearly as fast as they pressed inward.
    "It's no use, Sara," Gundolf remarked calmly. "You must accept the fact that you cannot do this without bloodshed, either theirs or mine. Which shall it be?"
    "Why do I have to kill them? They're just poor animals. I know some have broken bones, but that's not stopping them. Are you controlling them or something?"
    "They are more than the animals of your experience. They serve the Master of the Ring. Who may have decided that I will serve Him just as well as a disembodied shade than as a broken-down old Wizard. They have come for all here who are living or dead. Knowing this decided my course."
    Sara screamed again in frustration, loudly enough to make the wolves pause briefly, blinking their yellow eyes at the insult to their sensitive ears. But they were driven inexorably, and leaped with renewed fury.
    The sudden fire from Sara's eyes cut them down all around as she made a swift circle about the Wizard. Some grievously wounded remains still refused to cease their attack, until she blasted them again and again, the stench of burning flesh filling the air.
    With the menace ended, she turned at last to Gundolf, blazing pyre at his back. He was more frail even than when she first saw him, sagging from his efforts and defeat. His depleted staff crumbled silently to dust. His ancient sword lay broken at his feet. She carried him gently back to the top of the barrow away from both flame and carnage.
    "The fire will burn longer than I will. Please see to it that I join my companions, Sara my dear."
    "Is this what I am in for? Death following death, killing Dwarves and Men and other creatures until there is none left but the Dark Lord to face? I want to build, not destroy. I want to help, not murder. I am not a warrior. What am I going to do?"
    "You will do your best. There is an end to all things, and you will reach it. I know you are a gentle soul by choice, but we are given no choices in this age of this world. I did what I had to do to end this era and prepare you for what is to come. You have earned my thanks, my confidence and my blessing. Now you must take this."
    He was almost too weak to wrest the third Ring from his bony finger. "This is known as Nyria the Great. It is yours. Remember my instructions. Fare well, and farewell."
    As she took it, his essence departed. There, in the flickering firelight, she saw some formless shape join two waiting others. They seemed to bend over her in a kind of benediction before fading away. They were free, she knew, as she gently lowered Gundolf's fragile remains into the heart of the blaze.
    The sky was lightening in the east when the last embers died. Sara finally stirred and looked to the horizon.
    Muriah, she thought. I will be there before the sunrise. A trail of bitter ashes was dragged into the sky by her wake.


Chapter Sixteen: The Mines of Muriah


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Patrick Hill, 2000