The Old Grey Wizard
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Details, Details: 1. Details, Details
Dawn, March 17, Year 3019, 3rd Age
The Pelennor was silent, but for the hissing east wind and the occasional cough or moan from a restless sleeper. The stench of rotting and smoldering flesh was as dense as the fog that flowed off Anduin. Two days ago the intact dead and the random, severed bits of flesh torn from living bodies had lain as thick as scythed wheat on these fields. The remains of friends and allies would be collected on creaking wains for burial for days to come. Other carts gathered the flesh of foes to be piled into huge mounds for burning. For a few acres around the encampments of Rohan and the fiefdoms of Gondor, and near the tents of the Grey Company, the ground was mostly cleared of the debris of war.
Aragorn stood outside his tent and waited. He pulled his hood over his head and wrapped his grey cloak more tightly about him. About to walk into the stinking belly of the carnage, he considered whether pipe smoke might help mask the odor of decay. Well it might, but vain to wish for it: his pouch, last filled at Isengard, was empty.
The wizard had lingered at the end of yesterday's gathering, the long debate at which the West's last flimsy hope was named and their own harsh duty laid forth. The host would leave for Mordor upon the morrow. They had but a few hours amidst the innumerable tasks of preparation for the long road and grim battle ahead.
"It is there. I feel it," Gandalf had said, an urgent tone in his voice. "We must find it before someone else does. Ever it calls, eager to ensnare anyone who passes by. What might happen, should someone retrieve it, is almost too evil to imagine."
And so Aragorn had risen after yet another night of too few hours of sleep, for yet another favor for the wizard. A glimmer of white moved toward him from the direction of the ruined gate. Aragorn watched Gandalf approach, taking in once again the unearthly appearance of his friend and mentor. The wizard looked older than he ever had: his hair and beard entirely white, his face more deeply lined, his eyes impenetrably ancient. But the faint yet unmistakable light that welled up from within him more than balanced these outward signs. His countenance was vital, even youthful. He seemed above everything, untouched by age, or suffering, or life—or death.
Gandalf the White strode up, wearing his tattered grey cloak about his shoulders in an apparent attempt to conceal the glow he projected. It didn't work. The eyes of every man on guard had turned toward them, Aragorn noted. Well, there was little need for secrecy. No one, he was quite certain, would attempt to follow when they saw where the wizard and the Ranger would soon go.
"Shall we?" Gandalf said lightly, as though they were about to take a stroll through Rivendell's gardens.
He turned at once to walk east and a little south, into the damp wind that carried the worst of the reek. Aragorn followed and kept pace. They soon came to the uncleared section of the fields. Jangled piles of the machinery of war lay scattered about: every imaginable style of sword, shield, club, spear and bow; smashed siege towers; hunks of shattered stone tossed by catapult from the city walls. Gandalf picked a weaving path between and--when he had no other choice--over the dead. Men and Orcs lay twisted, torn and broken, flung together in mortal embrace or lying alone, their sightless eyes to the sky. Each face was frozen in a grimace of agony. The earth made a faint squelching noise with every footfall. Silent crows had already arrived to begin another day's work. Black wings flapped as the two men passed, only to settle again on the chosen corpse as soon as they moved onward.
Aragorn felt his empty stomach churn. He was sickened by the cloying smell, by the endless sight of ruined flesh, by the sense of sinking into blood-soaked mud. Two days ago he had fought his way across this field. He had witnessed countless other scenes like it in the six and a half decades since he had learned of his true identity and the burden that came with that name. But he never got used to it. He hoped he would never become so hardened as to be unmoved by this…this utter waste.
The stench suddenly intensified. Aragorn heard a low humming noise, as if some metal thing nearby was vibrating in the breeze. A larger mound loomed out of the mist. A black monstrosity lay crumpled and sprawled before them. One featherless wing was spread flat; the other was folded, its limp hide flapping like a ragged sail. Its head had rolled a dozen feet to the left. Its severed neck oozed and shimmered. The humming increased. As they trod carefully around the carcass, the shimmering swarmed before settling again. Flies. He tasted bile in the back of his throat and forced it down.
On the far side of the beast was a patch of the Pelennor that had been trampled and churned up by horsemen. Deep furrows were carved in the earth, where something heavy had been dragged away on a platform.
"The Rohirrhim brought Snowmane away from here yestereve," Aragorn said. "Eomer set the men of Theoden's guard to bury him and lay turves upon the mound. He plans a stone to mark the grave."
The ground nearest to the rotting carcass remained untouched by hooves. The riders had carefully avoided it. Black garments and a long cloak lay abandoned; tangled with them were a heavy leather belt, and black chain mail. An enormous mace had fallen to the ground. The tips of its sharpened spikes were stained black. Nearby lay an empty helm, a sword, and a curved dagger.
They stepped closer. The air grew colder, and the light seemed to dim.
"Take care," Gandalf said quietly. "Touch nothing. Look only, for now."
The wizard began walking in a circle, spiraling slowly inward. He searched the ground intently, pausing every so often to bend and peer at something, or to prod at an object with the tip of his staff.
Aragorn waited, hesitant to enter the deadly chill. Then he caught sight of a long strand of bright flaxen hair, waving in the breeze. It had caught on a clod of earth, pulled free and fallen to the ground when its owner had removed her helm of secrecy. Shamed, the Ranger stepped forward and began his search.
His long-trained hunter's eyes at once read the signs in the mud: large, deep prints; a second set of boots, but fitted to a smaller, more slender foot; and the light impressions of a pair of bare feet--larger, perhaps, than the average hobbit, but unmistakable. They had danced, it appeared, the larger partner facing the smaller, and the third—creeping carefully behind. The muck was gouged. He had swung the mace, intending to smash, to maim, but not to kill. She had leapt out of the way, again and again, until the last blow pounded against her and her shield-arm was shattered. He saw where she stumbled to one knee, the scrape in the mud where she struggled to stand, and her two footprints planted firmly, shoulder-width apart. A trained warrior's stance.
Even now, when he was gone, the air was icy. Fear lingered in that cold as mist above a lake in winter. How much worse must it have been when he was standing here, menacing, taunting her cruelly, describing with relish the torment she would endure, once he had her. And yet, she stood her ground. Her stance shifted, but did not yield.
The prints converged. They had come so close to him. He marveled at that, though he had known it must be so. The bare feet and the slender boots were within a yard of one another, and between, a riot of black cloth and empty mail. Had her beauty distracted him, her defiance made him pause? The prophesy that had for so long shielded him from fear must now have filled him with sudden doubt. Alone, she would have died, or been taken. Unknowing, she played the role of lure, to draw his undead eyes from the one soldier on all the field of the Pelennor armed with precisely the weapon needed, forged in the North for this sole purpose. By himself, the hobbit would undoubtedly have been slain, the Nazgul only wounded; together, they did what no living man could.
Gandalf paused five feet away. He had found a mailed glove, black and silver. Aragorn watched as even the White Wizard would not touch it. He flipped it with the toe of his boot, and nudged it with his staff. Finally he bent, and using a fold of his cloak to protect his fingertips, he picked it up. The wizard upended it and shook. It was empty. He tossed it aside and continued to search.
Aragorn released the breath he hadn't known he was holding and gazed downward at the sable garments. He tried to imagine the Ringwraith looming above his fair opponent, then lurching forward, his thigh impaled from behind. A cluster of barefoot prints, there, just beyond the edge of his cloak--and there, another knee-imprint in the mud, this one sturdier. A larger leg. He had staggered to one knee. To his left, the dagger lay gleaming where he had dropped it, unused. Close by, the handle of the fallen mace; the helm had tumbled sideways to his right. Her sword-stroke would have carried right to left—her left.
And there, a foot from the mace-handle, something was hidden beneath a fold of cloth.
His eye was drawn to the small black mound, an oval hump on the ground. He stepped toward it, leaning down. He reached, hesitated. He pulled back, and mimicking the wizard he drew the cloth aside with his foot. The second gauntlet was revealed--the right-handed one.
Slowly Aragorn reached again. Cold enveloped him, the strange buzzing filled his ears. Then the cold vanished. He felt warm sun, a southern sun on his back and face, a salt-tinged breeze in his hair. He had been here before, years ago. The crowd was shouting, waving. The plaza with the raised platform was filled with people welcoming him. Everywhere he looked his colors were emblazoned, white and silver on black. The banner of the White Tree shone in the brilliant sun. He took the steps to the platform two at a time and gazed out at thousands of faces smiling up at him. He basked in their cheering. At his side stood a stunningly beautiful woman, her dark hair streaming in the sea-breeze, her face alight with adoration. Her full lips were parted as she smiled invitingly at him. The buzzing coursed through his blood until his entire being flushed with unexpected desire--for her, for this.
The great sparkling city of towers, of lush gardens, of rich and colorful markets and paved streets lay at his feet, waiting for his words. The massive quays with their fleet stood in the near distance, while beyond them the sea glittered. He could go there, now; he would be greeted as their rightful Lord. The lost half of his race would be returned to the light, to reason, to the rule of law. She was waiting for him. They were all waiting for him. He need only reach out, and take what was his--rightfully his.
He picked up the mailed glove in his bare hand. It did not feel cold, as he had expected, but warm, as if its previous owner had just now removed and left it here, for him to discover. He turned it over and began to tip it toward his waiting palm.
Someone clutched his wrist and restrained him. His outrage flared. Who dared to stop him, to defy him? He was King! He was the rightful ruler of all the people of Númenor, wherever they dwelt. It was his right, his duty to claim his own. Hatred surged through him as he turned and saw a blur of white. The ancient, gnarled hand on his wrist throbbed with power. He felt it burn through the cloth of his sleeve to his skin. That touch filled him with loathing.
Gandalf crouched beside him, looking up into his face anxiously. The wizard held his wrist immobilized.
"Come back, Aragorn. Listen to me. Let it go!"
He froze, poised between two opposing voices: the urgent whispering in his head that implored him to take what he had felt rattling within that glove, and the familiar voice of the aged man who knelt in the mud and stared up into his face.
The southern sun faded, and the cheering crowd vanished. He was back in Gondor, on the battlefield. The stench of death surrounded him. Icy cold seeped into his veins. He began to tremble, and bile rose again into the back of his mouth. He gasped and shuddered. The gauntlet fell from his hand. The wizard released him.
Aragorn stumbled back a pace. He watched as Gandalf once again picked up the mailed glove with a fold of his cloak. He tipped it. A heavy gold ring plopped onto the mud. The wizard took it up and placed it onto the center of his cloth-protected left palm. He stood, and turned toward the Ranger. He opened his fingers and displayed it.
The Nazgûl's ring was nothing if not an object of extraordinary craftsmanship. The band was carved with minute, curving lines, as a web woven of spun gold. The intricate lines converged and embraced the stone set in it, a large gem of red-gold amber that shimmered in the growing light. But caught in the warmly glowing amber was a huge, perfect, hideous spider.
Gandalf closed his hand about the ring and placed it into a cloth sack that he had pulled from a pocket. He cinched the sack and stowed it away.
Aragorn felt the trembling return as he stared with sudden, horrified comprehension at his companion.
"You brought me here to...to be..." he whispered.
"Yes. You were the bait," the wizard said softly. "I knew it would seek for you, more strongly than for anyone. It would recognize me, and would do anything it could to hide from me. I do not know if I could have found it without you." Sternly, Gandalf searched his eyes, as if to look for evidence that lingering evil had penetrated to his soul. "Great rings, after all, are very strange and dangerous objects. And this is a very great ring. It is unquestionably the greatest of the Nine--greater than all the Seven, nearly as great as any of the Three—and is exceptionally strongly tied to the One. In you, this ring would have found a bearer even more powerful and desirable to its Maker than he who met his fate upon this very spot."
Aragorn shuddered again. "It offered me Umbar."
Gandalf nodded. "Rumor has long said that the chief of the Nazgûl came from Umbar. Sauron entrapped one of noble blood: a Númenorean of the south. He was, perhaps, a distant kinsman of yours." He paused before he went on. "You would have had Umbar, and much more, had you taken it. But the price would have been high—very high, indeed."
The wizard glanced down at the debris of the Nazgûl's fall. He planted his staff in the midst of the garments and raised a hand above the jumbled mass of cloth and metal.
"And now...a few details," he muttered.
The mace was first. As Aragorn watched, it seemed to shake slightly, then a blood-red stain appeared to crawl upward onto it from the earth below. Rust thickened rapidly, and solid iron softened and collapsed, as though centuries of deterioration had been compressed into a few seconds.
His helm, hauberk and gloves were next. Then the dagger crumbled into fragments, and finally his sword splintered into dust. The black cloth quickly filled with holes and tattered bits of thread blew away in the cold wind. Nothing remained except footprints in the soil.
Gandalf looked down and gave a short, satisfied nod. He gestured with a tilt of his head, and began to walk back toward the City. Aragorn was grateful to leave the place.
"Will you destroy the Nazgûl's Ring in the same fashion?" Aragorn asked as they picked their way across the battlefield.
The wizard sniffed. "Alas, no. His weapons and armor were ordinary objects, and Sauron had no part in the making of them. But his ring is another matter."
"Then what do you intend to do with it?"
"Ah! The point is not what I shall do with it, but what you shall do with it, my friend. You found it. And you must have it destroyed."
"But you've just said that even you cannot destroy it. How can I?"
"You were not listening. I said I could not dispatch it in the same manner as his armor and weapons, by accelerating the normal ravages of time," the wizard said. "But that does not mean that this ring cannot be destroyed. Only the One was created in the fires of Orodruin. This ring was made in some other forge—a powerful one, no doubt, and used for evil purposes, but ordinary, nonetheless."
Gandalf turned as they walked, and as if to belie the hideous devastation about them, he smiled. "And you, Lord Elessar, shall be long remembered for how you rid Gondor of this final shred of the Witch King of Angmar's power."
~ * ~ * ~
Borthand's Forge, First Circle, Minas Tirith
March 17, Year 3019, 3rd Age
"Order manifest: Captain of the Northern Dúnedain, accompanied by the Istar Mithrandir, his Majesty Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth and a dwarf of Erebor came yesternoon requesting the most remarkable, strange and important services. Single gold ring with amber stone to be melted and broken. The Dwarf, Master Gimli, at request of Prince Imrahil, inspected our forge and reported it sufficient. Lord Mithrandir privately explained the origin of said object. He instructed me that no one but he was to touch it, as if anyone would after learning whence the evil thing came!"
March 18, Year 3019, 3rd Age
"Furnace sluggish. Attended all day and into night, thrice the usual fuel required. Master Gimli and the wizard returned in company of the captain very early this morn to collect object. After cooling it in chilled water, Lord Mithrandir took the melted ring and cracked amber stone and sealed it within a small steel container, which he then surrendered to the Northern Dúnedain. Captain Aragorn was most polite, and generous with payment, including recompense for unusual amount of fuel."
April 2, Year 3019, 3rd Age
"Learned this day that Captain Aragorn is to be crowned King! By the stars, and I've met him! I have commissioned a banner announcing Borthand's Forge is where the King does business—nothing but the best for our King Elessar, who destroyed the Witch King's evil ring and defeated the Dark Lord himself!"
~ * ~ * ~
May 10, Year 3019, 3rd Age
Log of Foamrider, merchant sailing vessel based in Pelargir
Captain Anbar of Dol Amroth
"Skies clear, wind 12 knots southwesterly. By request of Prince Imrahil and his Majesty King Elessar, at noon this day a small weighted steel box six by six inches was cast overboard into the depths. Foamrider on a bearing west-south-west, a half day's sail from headlands of the Bay, in deep waters. Land visible solely from crow's nest. Turned east immediately once cargo dispensed. Crew uneasy until object beneath waves, then all hands aboard raised a spontaneous cheer. Double ale portion tonight."
~ * ~ * ~
Children's song, Gondor, 4th Age
"The Lady and the Perian felled the wicked thing.
The rightful King came searching to find its evil ring.
Elessar found what was left on the ground,
The Witch King's Ring he melted down.
And now it's gone for-ever beneath the foamy waves,
For he cast it into the Sea."
~ * ~ * ~
September 12, Year 270, 4th Age
Remarks of Chief Royal Historian Beleg of Minas Tirith, given at the annual conference of learned archivists and historians, at the conclusion of his presentation on the Legend of Elessar and the Witch King of Angmar.
"And so, in this one hundred and fiftieth year since the passing of his Royal Majesty King Elessar Telcontar, we can celebrate not only the renewal of the line of Elendil and the re-establishment of the royal court, but among his uncounted accomplishments this one small but critical success. Had Elessar failed to remember that unholy object, dropped upon the field of battle, who can tell what evil consequences might have ensued? The Enemy was, in those final days, bending all his will toward Gondor. It seems likely that someone would have fallen under that ring's insidious spell, and become an instrument of the Dark Lord. Indeed, as you have heard tonight, my research indicates that the ring would have sought the hand of a nobleman, one placed close to the King. Assassination? It is not inconceivable. The Periannath might have succeeded in their quest at Mount Doom, and Sauron might still have fallen, but Gondor might well not have had her King. But as every child in Gondor knows, Elessar Telcontar did not fail to attend even to this small detail. And the society we enjoy today, peaceful and flourishing, is but a part of the result. May he be long remembered for his many remarkable deeds. Thank you for your attention."
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