It was a long several days’ travel, with Felaranthir teaching Balfrith different parts of the ceremony each day, and Balfrith being required to memorize each part along the way. If he made even the smallest mistake, Felaranthir said, he would be sent back home. Balfrith didn’t understand the importance of memorizing all the words and movements, but he accepted Felaranthir’s instruction silently, putting his mind to the task of learning each word, each phrase, and the meanings behind them.
On the sixth day of the World-Serpent, Freyasday, the forest canopy began opening up in spaces, and Balfrith saw that they approached a tall mountain that stood in the midst of the great forest. There was no range of hills leading out to it, only a solitary peak, snow-capped at its heights. Lower down, the mount was green with tree cover, although Balfrith also thought he saw gray lines criss-crossing it like a net.
Pointing at the mountain in the distance, he asked Felaranthir and Eärolan about it.
Eärolan answered, “That is the mountain we call Fanyamar, but in the Common tongue it would be translated something like ‘Sky-reach’. It is the center of Elefdar dominion in Illithëon, and our ultimate destination. We have just entered the region called Lattelimba, or ‘Open-canopy’, denoting the areas from whence can be seen Fanyamar through the forest cover. Here, we are only a day or two from the outer gates of the lower city.”
“City?” asked Balfrith, unaware that the Elves had any cities at all. He’d always assumed they lived in the forest itself, among nature.
Eärolan laughed. “Of course. Where did you think we lived?”
Balfrith stumbled over his reply, not wanting to sound stupid. “Well, I have heard that the Elves dwell in the forests of the world - Illithëon, Ildallïe, Illumïel - and I thought you actually lived in the forest, at one with nature.”
Felaranthir broke from his private thoughts then, and responded, “That is an interesting notion, Balfrith. Do many Men share this misconception about us?”
Balfrith shrugged. “I suppose so. We don’t talk about the Elves very often, but the stories we have are always about your skills as great hunters and trackers, and also as woodsmen who tend the trees and the forest animals.”
Felaranthir nodded and said, “We do, and are, all of those things. But we live in a great city at the base of the Mount that you saw before us. And while we strive to steward this middle-earth that has been given to us, we do not live ‘as one’ with nature. We are above it, and we exercise mastery over it, much as you exercise mastery over those elements which have been given to Men. I think you would be wise to prepare yourself to be surprised by a great many things.”
Balfrith was confused by those words, for he’d never thought that he, or any Man, exercised mastery over any element. What did he mean by that? Was he talking about magic? Balfrith had no experience with magic, nor did he know any Man that did, and yet he was fascinated by the idea. The sword he’d taken was reputed to be magic, but it didn’t glow or burst aflame when drawn, or do any of the things that legends ascribed to the magical blades of the ancients. And Leofred had implied that Men only said the sword was magic - not that it actually was magic. Then again, it was also reputed to be cursed, and that was a kind of magic - at least he assumed it was.
Thinking along these lines, Balfrith suddenly blurted aloud, “What is magic, anyway?”
No one said anything for a moment, and Balfrith flushed with embarrassment at his outburst, accidental though it had been. Finally Eärolan cleared his throat, and said, “That’s a much deeper topic than you might imagine, Balfrith. What exactly are you wanting to know?”
Balfrith said, “I keep hearing strange phrases that I don’t understand, but no one will explain them to me. My - that is, I know of a sword that’s magic, or maybe not, and it’s cursed, and everyone seems to agree on that point, but no one seems to know, or at least they’re not explaining it to me, where the magic ends and the curse begins. And now I hear there are “elements” under the lordship, or stewardship, or something, of Men, and I’ve never heard of that before. What’s an element? Is it like earth, air, fire, and water? I think I heard that once. But what does it mean? Sometimes I think I might go mad with all the knowledge that I lack, but which everyone seems to assume I should grasp.”
“Spoken like a true student!” laughed Eärolan, and even Felaranthir smiled. “I think you will do well among us, master Balfrith, if you can maintain that hunger for knowledge. Although, you might want to restrain your impulses somewhat. Not all Elefdar, especially our lore masters, will be as understanding about having their lectures randomly interrupted.”
Growing impatient, and perhaps feeling a bit foolish now, Balfrith said, “Yes, but what is magic? Can one of you please explain it to me?”
Felaranthir held forth his hand in a calming motion and spoke, “Master Balfrith, there is no need to become impatient - that is not the mark of a good student. You will find that we Elefdar take our time in many things, and for you I understand it will be a trying time, learning to wait upon your teachers. But we will not change our ways, even our very nature, to suit the tastes of a young Man come to our doorstep. No, you will have to change your ways to suit ours - beginning with being polite to your elders.”
Eärolan spoke then, still laughing, “And among us Elefdar, I daresay that an ‘elder’ will be anyone you meet.” As Balfrith began to grow angry, it must have shown on his face, for Eärolan continued, “Nay, Balfrith, hold your tongue - I meant no offense. Be at peace! I will try to answer your question.
“You ask, what is magic? Allow me to ask you a question in return: what is life? For the two are inexplicably intertwined. There cannot be magic without life, and there cannot be life without magic. There are places in this world where magic runs strongly, and places where it is weak, much as there are places on your body where you can feel the pulse of your life’s blood, and others where you feel nothing. But the lack of a pulse in one place doesn’t mean that you have no pulse at all, or that you have no life. It is simply undetectable at that point. It is the same way with magic. In some places you can feel it in the air, but in others - certainly in most places - you feel nothing. Nevertheless, it is there, and it is real.”
Balfrith nodded his head, trying to imagine magic flowing like blood throughout the world, but couldn’t quite wrap his mind around the idea. Finally he said, doubtfully, “I think I begin to understand, Eärolan, in a small part anyway. Perhaps that will be enough.”
“I think it will need to be,” said Felaranthir, quietly. “There will be time for philosophical discussions later. For now, let us concentrate on the task at hand: preparing Balfrith for the ceremony. We are only hours away now from the gate to the city. Master Balfrith, recite from the beginning, please.”