They stood in the valley of Imladris in the blue of night, on an open cliff in the foothills of the Misty Mountains.
“The last homely house east of the sea,” Puke muttered, a shit-eating fanboy grin on his face.
Not only could he see and hear Imladris, but he could smell it — leaves and undergrowth and wet soil and cocoa and cedar and a faint hint of woodsmoke — and he could feel it — a cool, gentle touch from a breeze, like a sheet of silk drawn across your face.
The trees rustled, and he could hear music coming from across the valley from where Rivendell lay in the moonlight.
It was smaller than Puke was expecting — not the golden terraced, shining mountain estate that Peter Jackson had imagined. This was a rather basic- looking cottage nestled in between fur trees on the banks of a rushing river. A bridge arced over the river not far from the front walk to the house, and a waterfall splashed not far from the bridge.
“It’s just all so beautiful, isn’t it?” Heather December said, sounding equally moved by the sight.
“Yeah,” Padd concurred. “Yeah… you know, it really fucking is. Have you ever been here before?”
“No,” said Heather. “Not here.”
Her voice sounded hoarse. Puke looked and saw she was crying.
“Why is life so beautiful?” Heather asked, her lip trembling.
She looked at him, tears streaming down her face. Puke was shocked. She’d been fine mere seconds ago.
“Even if it’s not on Earth? Why does life….”
She trailed off, staring at the beautiful valley spread out in front of them before dissolving into sobs.
Puke stared, too, waiting for her to finish her thought, unsure if he should provide comfort. The tears had come on so suddenly.
“Why does life…?” Puke repeated. “Why does life what?”
Heather glanced at him again, her eyes wet jewels. Confusion crossed her face.
“Okay, wait,” she said. “What is this emotion?”
“I don’t know,” said Puke, growing more irritated by the second. “I’m not you. If I had to guess, I’d say you’re feeling a deep and profound sense of connection. I don’t know how much of a Lord of the Rings fan you are, but you seem to be having a significant emotional reaction to being here. I’m having it too, but I’m not crying.”
“I just don’t understand life,” Heather said, tearfully. She put her face in her hands.
Puke decided he should comfort her.
“Oh, honey,” he said, moving to take her into a consoling embrace.
Then, just as fast as she’d broken down, she switched again, her sorrow turning to aggression. More dime-turn mood swings. Puke remembered his ex-wife Dasha having these the last few years of their marriage. Vulnerable and mushy at one moment, then spiny and cold the next.
“Honey?” Heather snapped, pulling her hands from her face and staring daggers at him. “I am not your honey.”
Taken aback, Puke put his hands in his pockets, tried to play off his advance. He shouldn’t have made a move to touch her without explicit permission.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I was only trying — “
“I don’t like that,” said Heather. “Don’t presume to call me that. I’m not your honey.”
“I’m sorry, my princess.”
Heather reached out, grabbed Puke’s shoulder and forced him down to his knees. Puke looked at the ground, submitting. He often forgot how strong Anodynes were. His shoulder hurt.
“I’m in charge here,” Heather said sternly. “Not you. Me.”
“Yes, my princess.”
“Do you understand?”
“I understand, my princess. You are in charge.”
“Then let’s be going,” Heather said cheerfully. She wiped her wet cheeks with her palms and sauntered away, glancing back over her shoulder flirtatiously.
“Don’t you just love people’s mysteries?” she intoned in a sexy little voice.
This girl is crackers, thought Puke.
If he hadn’t already invested most of his day in her, he might’ve moved on.
He looked at the dirt under his knees. He bent and dug out a handful of the valley of Imladris and fisted it into his safe deposit box. What an incredible souvenir to have.
Puke and Heather walked down the valley path, no doubt the same one that Frodo and his companions had taken, not to mention Thorin Oakenshield and his company.
Puke began to wonder if Heather had always been like this, if she had some sort of developmental disability or emotional disability that immersion had either neglected to cure or somehow exacerbated. At first her daffiness had been tolerable, but with every passing moment it was getting more and more trying.
Up ahead, the path widened to form a road.
Heather stopped him.
“I’m sorry if I hurt your shoulder,” she said.
“I’m fine,” said Puke.
“That was just one my little rants that I go on,” said Heather.
“I just had a thought — we should be clothed when we’re meeting the elves,” Heather said, holding a finger to her throat. Her corset appeared.
Puke held his own finger to his throat, and his white suit appeared.
They walked in silence for a bit, listening to the sounds of the night and their feet on the dirt.
Up ahead, around a bend in the road, they heard a voice singing. A gruff, old voice.
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can
“It’s Gandalf!” said Heather, running ahead.
Puke’s heart kicked into a gallop.
He followed Heather toward the singing. His throat was frozen. He’d been so excited to just see Imladris that he hadn’t even considered running into anyone from the actual stories, let alone Gandalf.
And yet, here was the old wizard himself just up ahead — grey-haired and grey-clad, leaning on his gnarled old staff.
“Oh,” exclaimed Gandalf as Heather came upon him, nearly running right into his back. “Do be careful!”
“Gandalf,” Heather said. “It’s me!”
Gandalf’s eyes narrowed and then widened with recognition. Heather stood in front of him with a huge smile on her face, arms open for a hug.
Puke stayed back, staring, seized with awe and admiration. Gandalf bent down to hug Heather with one arm, the other never leaving his staff.
“Heather December, my darling!” Gandalf exclaimed. “I haven’t seen you in ages!”
Puke swallowed, looking at him. He knew the Maya created fictional characters by combining every known manifestation from pop culture into one. Gandalf resembled Ian McKellan, but not exactly. He was shorter than Padd had imagined, more stooped over. Older, wiser eyes, his jaw less square, his nose longer and skinnier, his face softer. He wasn’t handsome, but there was an unmistakable majesty to his presence and posture. If there was one person the old wizard resembled the most, it was JRR Tolkien himself.
An Ainur, Puke thought. Basically an angel, trapped on earth.
“This is my friend Penguin Puke,” said Heather, gesturing to Puke. Gandalf raised his head and looked at him.
Puke couldn’t move. He stood there with his mouth open, hands at his sides, starstruck.
“Penguin Puke,” said Gandalf, giving Padd that same look, his eyes crinkling like paper. “How does a man come to be known by that name?”
“I, uh, I-I-I…” Puke couldn’t get out what he wanted to say. He didn’t know what he wanted to say. “It, it’s uh, I-, uh, I-I-I-I…”
“He’s shy,” Heather said to Gandalf, as if Puke was a dog she was introducing to a stranger.
“You needn’t be afraid, young Suitor,” said Gandalf, approaching Puke.
Puke could smell him, a mix of ashes and dead leaves and a musk that reminded him of his grandparent’s basement.
His voice clicked in his throat like a car with a dead battery.
“Come now and introduce yourself,” said Gandalf. He extended a hand.
Puke slowly reached out and took it, feeling like a child. It was rough, strong, calloused, as if made of tree bark. He clumsily shook Gandalf’s hand.
Gandalf stood in front of him, smiling warmly.
“The Anodynes of the Auburn Palace are well known in this land,” said Gandalf. “I’ve met many of their Suitors of late. I must say, though, you’re one of the first with skin like that of a Westerling man.”
“He’s a Repentant,” said Heather, sidling up next to Gandalf. “They weren’t allowed to be Suitors until recently.”
“Why would that be?”
“Because in our world they caused thousands of years of misery, and the Commons thought they should be punished for it. Or at least have their privileges taken away.”
“Thousands of years of suffering,” said Gandalf, still looking at Padd with his ancient eyes. “Like the forces of Melkor…”
“Yeah, pretty much,” said Heather before Puke could counter. “But don’t worry, they’re harmless now. They’ve learned their place.”
“Perhaps if they learned to speak they would be able to explain themselves.”
Puke finally found his voicebox again.
“I’m sorry,” he blurted. “I’m sorry, I’m just — it’s such — it’s such an honor, a complete honor, to meet you, sir, I — I wasn’t — I didn’t think that — “
Gandalf reached out and took Puke’s hand again and smiled at him.
“Well met, young Suitor,” said Gandalf. “I assume you and the Anodyne are on your way to Rivendell. What brings you to Imladris?”
“He wanted to see Middle Earth,” said Heather. “He’s never been here before. What are you doing here? It’s been forever since I saw you… does Elrond know you’re coming?”
“I’m paying a visit to Elrond,” said Gandalf. “It’s been nearly as long since I last saw him. You never want to go too long without seeing old friends.”
He turned to Heather.
“Well, I suppose we might as well travel the last mile together, then,” he said, and without another word began walking in the direction of Rivendell.
Puke stood there, still barely able to process what was going on.
Heather took Puke’s hand and smiled at him.
“I just made a complete ass of myself,” said Puke.
“Don’t worry,” Heather said quietly as they watched Gandalf walk away and resume his traveling song. “He’s kind to the young and simple.”
The moon gushed through the trees.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
“Mithrandir,” said Elrond.
They stood at the front door of Rivendell.
Elrond spoke something in elvish, and Gandalf replied with a bow.
“Lord Elrond,” said Gandalf, rising. “I met two weary travelers on the road.”
Elrond looked at Heather and smiled. He had Hugo Weaving’s fierce eyes but he looked older and his face was thinner, and he had a chin strap beard. His hair was long and straight and brown. He wore robes of brown and gray.
There was also a strange alien vibe about him and the other elves. You could tell this guy and his people were not human. Their eyes were too bright and too sharp at the corners, their skin too tight and their posture too light.
“Hríw lindë,” he said to Heather.
Heather replied in Elvish and did her own bow.
“Who is your Suitor?” Elrond said in English, gesturing at Puke.
“This is Penguin Puke,” said Heather.
“Penguin Puke,” said Elrond, nodding curtly. “Welcome to Rivendell.”
“Thank you,” said Puke. “I’ve, uh, I’ve always wanted to come here.”
“He has skin and eyes like a Westerling,” said Elrond to Heather. “Unlike all your other Suitors.”
“He’s a Repentant,” said Heather. “A heterosexual white male. In the Maya they’re considered the lowest race and gender and sexual orientation, because they caused everyone so much pain for — “
Puke cut her off.
“I have admitted my ancestors sins and am working in my own existence to be as decent a person as I can,” he said.
“Well, that’s all well and good,” said Elrond. “I myself have no reason to judge you, having never met you before.”
“It’s very refreshing to hear that,” said Puke.
Elrond showed Heather and Padd all of Rivendell. He showed them the broken blade of Isildur, explicitly forbidding them to touch it. He showed them the library, the Spire of Meeting, the stables, the Hall of Fire.
Puke kept quiet the whole time, unsure if Elrond wanted to be doing this or if he was just being polite.
After the tour, they all gathered on an outdoor terrace under the moonlight. There were numerous other elves there, and a group of them gathered in a corner with stringed and percussion instruments.
“We are about to have a moonlight meal, and play some music,” said Elrond, taking a seat at the head of the table. “Perhaps the Winter Anodyne would like to sing for us?”
“Oh, sure!” said Heather. “I love singing for the elves. There’s one condition, though.”
“I want my Suitor to harmonize with me.”
“You do?” said Puke.
“Yes,” said Heather.
“Is this Trial by Song?”
“I guess it could be,” said Heather.
“Ok…” said Puke.
One of the elves handed him a guitar-like instrument, and Puke took it and strummed. Its neck was skinnier than a guitar’s, its body was fatter and seemed to be made of some kind of hollowed-out gourd, but it still had six strings. It was also incredibly light.
“What are we singing?”
“I want to do, ‘If You Could Only See’ by the artist Tonic, may their voice live on.”
“Lemme download that one,” said Puke, getting out his Tag.
“I do not believe I’ve heard that one yet,” said Elrond.
“It’s a beautiful song,” said Heather. “It’s from the 1990’s, a great time period for music in our world.”
She leaped up onto the table and started singing before Puke could get ready.
If you could only see the way she loves me
then maybe you would understand
“Harmonize with me, dammit,” Heather snapped at Puke.
He obeyed, stepping up onto the tabletop after her and strumming the elf guitar.
Why I feel this way about our love
and what I must do
The elves watched them, perfectly still in their seats. Gandalf and Elrond sat at the table’s head.
If you could only see how blue her eyes can be when she says
Puke dropped off his harmonies and let Heather finish the chorus.
When she says she loves me…
After the song, Puke dined on some Elven salad that consisted of various garden plants — giant leaves, small, tart radish-like orbs and small cherry tomato-like fruits. The whole thing was peppered with a lemony spice and dressing. He ate only one bowl, because he finally got to talk with Gandalf.
“That song has a wonderful chorus,” said Gandalf. “If you could only see the way she loves me, then maybe you would understand… Never underestimate the power of a great love.”
Down the table, Heather chatted up the elves, all of whom treated her as though she was one of them.
“Yeah,” said Puke, still nervous around the wizard but finally able to talk normally. “It’s… it’s got great, you know, energy.”
“I’ve always wondered,” said Gandalf. “What gods do you worship in your heavyspace?”
“There used to be all these different religions,” said Puke. “The three main ones worshiped a monotheistic God. But they died off in The Passing of the Veil, this huge war that devastated our original reality. Basically our Dagor Dagorath.”
“What do you worship now?”
“Just the sacred bond of consciousness,” said Puke. He toyed with the stray leaves left in his wooden bowl, poking them with his silver fork. “That and song and and sex. It’s like, the new universal religion.”
“Music is sacred,” said Gandalf, toking on his pipe. “Even the lowliest of spaces can be made sacred by a musical performance. I participated in the Music of the Ainur at the creation of the world. Music is existence, and existence is music.”
Puke watched Heather get up and dance while the elves began playing a version of White Wedding by Billy Idol, may his voice live on.
Elrond sat at the head of the table, not speaking, majestic as fuck.