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Answering the Call: 2. Gandalf
"I must admit some surprise that you would come to me with your concerns, Aragorn, son of Arathorn. On your last visit, you were asking us to take on a burden, one we still carry. I am aware, as well, that Elrond raised you as a son, and Mithrandir has taken you into his confidence many a time. Why do you not turn to them now?"
Aragorn tried not to shift in response as he sat in the sumptuous chair in the receiving room of King Thranduil's palace, where he was met by Thranduil and his son, Legolas. The King of Mirkwood had every right to question his sudden appearance. He had already imposed on them the watch of the dreadful creature Gollum, and he was not here to relieve them of that duty. That Aragorn found himself in this room seeking advice surprised him as much as it did Thranduil. He had set out for Rivendell, but when obstacle after obstacle had blocked his path, he had been forced to admit he was being led east rather than west and had eventually turned his feet toward Mirkwood.
Vague yet pressing feelings of concern had set his feet on their path south, but by the time he had arrived in Mirkwood, his unease had developed into a sense of doom so deep and so urgent he could deny it no longer. Despite this, he was suddenly reluctant to utter a word. One did not come to the King of Mirkwood to speak of long-lost Rings. In fact, one did not speak of this Ring at all, if one respected Its power. More importantly, to convey his worries to King Thranduil meant relinquishing his denial as to what evil approached them all. Yet he knew in his blood, the same blood that once ran through Isildur's veins, what doom loomed over them: the Ring was no longer safely hidden in the Shire.
The Ring had been claimed.
Legolas interrupted when the man provided no answer to the King's questions. "Aragorn, has my father told you what gift Mithrandir has brought to the Greenwood?"
"No, he has not," Aragorn answered slowly. He waited out a cold twist in his stomach before continuing. "A gift, you say? Do I guess rightly that this gift is tied to the burgeoning peace I sensed upon my entrance into the forest? Never have I been so at ease in Mirkwood in all my years. But I have not spoken to the wizard since he asked me to find the creature Gollum. I have searched for Gandalf lately without success."
Legolas looked to his father, who began the tale hesitantly. "Mithrandir has purged the Shadow that long hung over this land and restored the Greenwood. The Orcs have been ousted; the spiders are gone. The Great Wood has been cleansed." Thranduil looked pleased but wary.
Aragorn struggled to hide his shock. Many thoughts crowded his mind; questions vied to be asked. He could only manage the simplest. "How? How could Gandalf do this?"
Thranduil glanced at Legolas, misgivings revealed for a brief moment. "We are unsure," Thranduil said cautiously.
A shiver ran up Aragorn's spine as realization settled upon him, as clear suddenly as the click of puzzle pieces snapping into place. His stomach fluttered while he prepared to ask a dreaded question. "You have spoken to Gandalf recently then?" They both nodded. "Did he seem... different in any way?"
Again, the shared glance before Thranduil answered, a decision between them apparently made. "Yes, Legolas and I both sensed a difference about Mithrandir, on more than occasion," he said slowly. "I have not been able to identify the source." He seemed to want to say more, but remained silent.
Legolas nodded. "Like my father, I too am at a loss to describe it."
Aragorn closed his eyes for a moment. He could not believe it. No, he would not. Gandalf would never. He tried to maintain his denial, but it collapsed under the weight of his instincts. A deep grief washed over him.
Everything had changed.
A mentor and friend for all his life, in that moment, Aragorn relinquished all hope of counsel from the wizard. He could ask naught of him now. Indeed, he might have already become the enemy.
He forced himself to ask more questions, hesitant as he was to learn the answers. "You say on more than one occasion. How often has he been here of late?"
Thranduil looked upon Aragorn intently, judgment and decision in his eyes. "He was a visitor not more than three months past, at which time he announced his intentions to clear the Greenwood. He was here again more recently, on my request to be a guest at a feast in his honor. All the elves of the Greenwood are grateful for what he has done - however it came to be," he finished in a whisper.
"Of course," Aragorn muttered distractedly. Suddenly there was much to do. He needed to return to the North immediately, warn the Rangers, and try to organize a defense of sorts. They would have no notion of what to expect, but they had to be prepared for the worst. Some words of Thranduil then caught his attention. "You say, 'however this came to be.' Do you have thoughts on how? Or as to the source of this 'difference' you have felt?"
Thranduil sighed after a moment. "I apologize. I have not the proper words to describe it. Perhaps some of the wizard's own words would better explain. They were ...not Mithrandir's words as I am accustomed to hearing them." He paused, hesitant then resolute. "We focus our warriors' efforts now on the small bands of Orcs that remain near Dol Guldur, aiming to rid the Greenwood entirely of Orcs and Spiders. Mithrandir seemed surprised, even ...patronizing, of my expectation that in time the Shadow could be banished entirely from the Wood."
Aragorn frowned in confusion. "Mithrandir seemed to think this an impossible task? Perhaps it is, if even he could not do it."
"Not so much impossible as too much to expect. His own words were, 'Evil has always been with us. And it shall continue to be so. We need only find a way to live with it with the least repercussions.'"
Aragorn sat back with wide eyes. "Indeed, those are not Gandalf's words."
"There was also," Aragorn heard a strain in his voice as the King continued, "the issue of the direction taken by the banished Orcs." As Legolas looked down guiltily, Aragorn was surprised to find the expression reflected in the King's face. "They go east," Thranduil said quietly.
"East? East of Mirkwood? That would take them into the lands of ...Erebor and Dale..."
"I brought this matter to Mithrandir and he merely questioned my concern for the Dwarves, which I will readily admit has often been lacking. But as I told Mithrandir," he continued, his voice growing in strength with his defensiveness, "no matter my opinion of Dwarves, I do not wish death upon them. The Dwarves should not pay for our peace." He became subdued then. "Mithrandir pointed out that he could send them west, if I felt too strongly about the toll on the Dwarves."
"There were other words," Legolas added tentatively as Aragorn silently absorbed the implications of Gandalf's words. "They do not seem to mean much on their own, but I feel in my heart they are important." He looked to his father now and saw no reprimand, so he continued. "I asked Mithrandir on his last visit how he came to be able to do this in our land. He said that he was able... his words were, 'By that precious power with which I have been gifted.'"
Immediately, the phrase touched a memory in Aragorn. His thoughts turned of their own accord to Gollum, and then he heard the sibilant rasp: my precioussss. Aragorn's blood turned to ice. He was silent for long moments, then suddenly sprung forward in his seat. "Lord, I am sorry to have taken your time, but I must beg your leave to depart at once. I must make haste for the North."
Thranduil and Legolas looked at Aragorn with confusion. "Did you not come here with great concerns?" Thranduil asked with annoyance. "Urgent concerns?"
"I did, lord. And I see that they are all the more urgent now. You have told me much already. More than I hoped to learn or desired to know, I daresay. I feel I must not say more - yet," he hastened to add. "I apologize for my abruptness," he continued as he donned his cloak, "but circumstances are more dire than I had feared."
Thranduil looked at Aragorn shrewdly. "These concerns of yours pertain to Mithrandir, do they not?" Reluctantly, Aragorn nodded.
"He is not the same being we once knew, is he?" Legolas asked. Aragorn shook his head. Legolas paused, then asked, "You will tell us more when you are able?" His son's quick acceptance of Aragorn's answer raised Thranduil's eyebrows.
"Yes, I swear to you," Aragorn said to the younger elf. When Legolas simply nodded, Aragorn appreciated the trust he showed in not pressing him for answers and hoped the King would extend his trust in him as far. "With good fortune, my suspicions will come to naught, or at the very least, the danger will soon pass." He knew there was likely no good fortune to be had regardless of the result, but he would not spread such words of doom just yet. "I will then be able to tell you all I know."
Thranduil looked calculatingly at him for a moment and rose from his chair with a deep sigh. "I will tell you openly, Aragorn, that in my heart I feel that what has come to pass is not for good, this change in Mithrandir, though his deeds belie that. He has freed us, yes. But his eyes tell me there will be a price for that freedom."
"Indeed," Aragorn said quietly. "A price we may all pay."
"Then I give you leave to do what you must. May the blessings of the Valar go with you," Thranduil said in farewell, briefly resting his hand on the man's shoulder.
Legolas looked upon Aragorn, heir of Isildur, his friend of many years, and suddenly felt a keen longing and foreboding. "May the stars always shine upon you, son of Arathorn."
Aragorn bowed to them both and left the land of the Greenwood.
Frodo turned to Gandalf hesitantly as they finished their tea. The wizard's appearances at Bag End had become less frequent of late, so the four hobbits were glad to share the afternoon with their long-time friend. "Gandalf, we were wondering..." Frodo glanced across the table at his cousins and Sam, who were looking encouragingly at him. The three younger hobbits had refused to go to Gandalf with this question. As much as they had discussed their thoughts among each other, they would only agree to Frodo speaking with Gandalf. They would not admit it, but Frodo knew they were afraid. There was a shimmer of fear in him as well, though he could not say exactly why. He knew only what his friends did. The wizard they had grown up knowing had changed. The friend they had trusted implicitly, they had begun to doubt.
He turned back to Gandalf. He hadn't felt so young in many years. "You told us about how you wiped out all the Orcs in the land of the Elves in the East, Mirkwood. And you told us about the Rangers who had been protecting the Shire for years, and how brave and strong and loyal they were. You also told us how we had to share them now, so they might protect all of the Northern lands from the armies of Orcs that were coming west." Frodo drew a deep breath. "Now... now you tell us that many Rangers died trying to keep the Orcs out of our lands..."
"Your question, Frodo?" Gandalf asked a bit impatiently.
"We were wondering why you did not simply rid the Northern lands of the Orcs as you did in the forest of Mirkwood. Why did all those Rangers have to die if you could do that? We - we don't understand."
Gandalf sighed. "I know it is hard for you to understand. Hobbits are simple folk who have no interest in war and such things. What you must learn is there is always a price for peace. The peace you have enjoyed here in the Shire has always had a price. I have only now revealed that cost to you. This recent battle was the latest payment for the tranquility of the Shire. Yes, Rangers died, many of them, some I have known for quite some time. They fought valiantly. But there were simply too many of the Enemy's forces. And that, my dear hobbits, is the answer to your question. There were simply too many for me to handle on my own. I needed the Rangers to help. I had the best of them, led by their Chief, guarding your borders from this army. But there were far more than even I expected. There were few survivors, unfortunately. Even the Chief was lost, and he was a dear friend, one destined for great things. Middle-earth's fate has changed with the loss of such a man." He sighed again. Frodo thought he looked sad for a moment, but it was gone before he could be sure, replaced by a harder look Frodo was becoming accustomed to as he saw it more often on his old friend's face.
"But all things happen with a purpose, and I believe we shall someday come to know the purpose in these terrible events." He stood up as much as he was able in the hobbit hole and put more cheer into his voice. "Perhaps there are others meant for great things now, who would not have had the chance to rise to their full potential. In the meantime, we shall have to do with what we have. And you still have me. By that precious power with which I have been gifted, I shall do my best to keep you safe, for you are among the few things dear to me. But you must trust me. You do trust me, don't you?"
The hobbit's slight hesitation did not escape the wizard's notice, but Frodo answered enthusiastically, "Of course, Gandalf. Why would we not trust you? We've known you all our lives. What could you possibly do to make us not trust you?"
Gandalf looked intently at Frodo for a moment, doubts whispering in his mind, but he brushed them off. The hobbits could not suspect anything. They trusted him utterly. If there were one people he knew well, it was Hobbits. He would not worry about the hobbits. They would trust and support him as he rose to his full potential.
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