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Unto the ending of the world: 40. Questions
September 30 – October 2, 3019
And so I am become the Grey Wanderer again. Gandalf rubbed at an ashy smear on his robes.
He wondered about the Elves from Rivendell going to the Havens to bring aid that he had already encountered on the Road. Clearly, the news had outrun him, but how? Perhaps, Elrond was still using Vilya, and he had sensed the attack, or the death of Círdan; or someone had used the Orthanc palantír that Halbarad must have brought north – but who would risk that, surrounded with warning as the palantíri now were? Either way, with his news no longer urgent, was there any point left in his going to Rivendell? Not that I have anywhere else to go this side of the mountains, but what if Elrond is still using Vilya? Rivendell should be the last place I should go. He sighed and signalled Shadowfax to walk faster. Even if it were the last place I should go, it is also the only place I can go.
Even more surprising than being told his own news had been the group of Gondorians and Rohirrim he had encountered along the road the day before, and finding out that both Rohan and Gondor had sent envoys to the Rangers and the Elves. Éowyn he did not know well and thus it was hard to judge what she might do, but for Denethor to unbend so far… Of course, the Steward would do whatever was necessary for Gondor's defence, and Gandalf wondered whether this was what he and Aragorn had spoken of. But even that thought, and its implications, did not drive the Havens from his mind. Wish that I could be free of the stench of charred flesh, and the oily smoke of the Corsair's fire casks.
Perhaps, if I put it better, Bilbo will see sense…
A knock on the door, and Elrond immediately called, "Enter."
Glorfindel came in.
"My news can wait if…" he started, but both Bilbo and Elrond waved away his apology.
"No need," Bilbo said immediately, looking as relieved as Elrond felt. "I was just going. I hope you do not bring more bad news, though."
"That remains to be seen," Glorfindel replied, adding at the hobbit's look, "Whether or not it is bad, I mean."
"Well, do not tell me," Bilbo said as he stood up and headed for the door, giving Elrond a barely polite nod in farewell. "I am sure Master Elrond prefers that I do not worry about things I cannot do anything about."
Glorfindel blinked in surprise as the door clicked shut behind Bilbo. "What was that about?"
Elrond shook his head. "He has not been feeling well. I suggested that he try to not overexert himself, or wear himself out from worrying; I fear my advice offended him."
"How old is he now?" Glorfindel asked.
"One hundred and twenty-nine," Elrond replied, looking troubled, "A venerable age for one of his kind, but I do not know whether it is only age that ails him, or some effect of having borne the One Ring for many years. But what is your news?"
"Mithrandir is on his way; he should be here by tomorrow."
"Mithrandir?" was all Elrond said. Will he have more news of the attack? Or of Elrohir? I know my son lives, but where is he? And why is Mithrandir coming here now?
Gandalf would not have been surprised if he had been stopped and turned away as he approached the Ford of Bruinen, but the only sign that he had even been seen was a whistled signal in the distance. Nor did the waters rise up against him as he crossed the river, and as at last he came to the stables and an Elf appeared to lead Shadowfax to a stall, he finally felt more at ease.
He had half-expected Elrond to be waiting when he came to the house; instead he was met by one of Elrond's assistants who told him his quarters had been made ready, and that Master Elrond would see him as soon as possible, but that it would likely be at least the next day.
"Does he truly have no time?" Gandalf attempted to argue, but with his news no longer urgent, his heart was not in it, and he grumblingly followed the Elf who had picked up his bags. The day was still young, and he had to admit that after the hard ride from the Havens a chance to make himself comfortable, or at least presentable, was welcome.
Shortly after, as he prepared his pipe, Gandalf considered whether he should go to see Bilbo. The only leaf to be had in Bree had been Southlinch, and there had not been much of that, either; perhaps his old friend had something better. But no; he felt a sudden reluctance to face Bilbo, and he put the pipe down again. Instead, perhaps he could try to find Erestor or Glorfindel; they might tell him where Elrond was.
Arwen opened the door of the storeroom that held Rivendell's healing supplies. Luckily, no one had died in the mudslide in the north of the valley. There were several wounded, though, and so her father had sent word that he would stay in the makeshift camp that had been set up until the wounded could be moved. He had also sent her a list of things he needed.
As she gathered items from her father's list, Arwen wondered whether the mudslide had been caused by the valley no longer being protected from the weather in the mountains. Not that that protection had ever wholly shielded them from the weather, but it had been enough that the difference was noticeable. Rain, wind and cold would also affect plants, and she had already had some trouble with pests and diseases striking the valley's crops. These could be dealt with, but they were a reminder that Imladris was vulnerable to other things than the weather as well now, as it had not been since before she had even been born. I really need to find a way to protect the valley without Vilya, she thought, even if this was not a deliberate attack. She had gone over all that her grandmother had been willing to teach her of Lothlórien's defences in the past, and Elrohir had told her more still. I understand much of Grandmother's workings, she thought, but whether I know enough to set similar wards without the strength that the Three give, even if Father and I work together… She dared not hope that Elrohir would be able to participate in any working she might weave. Alas; alas, for her brothers. If only she knew more about how Melian's Girdle was set, or even the defences used by Thranduil's folk in Mirkwood. But the library had yielded only hints, and anyone who might tell her aught about them was as out of her reach as Galadriel.
First though, if her father was not back by tomorrow, as Lady of Imladris it would fall to her to greet Mithrandir as a guest to the house. She had always held him in high regard, and she acknowledged that part of her still hoped that he had a reason for abandoning Estel in Minas Tirith, yet the only explanation had to be that he had, somehow, let himself to be subverted through his Ring. And if that was so, should he be barred from Imladris, rather than welcomed?
Arwen glanced towards the north of the valley where her father was and shuddered – from what he had said it had not been strength or sight, but sheer luck that he had not been caught in the Enemy's nets. Galadriel had had enough warning not to be caught, and even more than she, the Istar must have known the One was again in the Enemy's hands. What had driven Mithrandir to ignore that knowledge, or had the Enemy's touch been so subtle that he was lost before he could know? Or was she only making excuses for him?
Enough of what is done, though. Mithrandir always has reasons within reasons. Why has he come here now, other than to bring news of the attack on the Havens? And, even if he is still true, is it safe to have two of the Three so close together?
"Why did you come here, Mithrandir?"
"To bring word of the attack on…"
"No! That only determined when you came, but it is not why you came. Or is it?"
Arwen's gaze was stern, searching for Gandalf knew not what. He was hard put to it not to look away, even as he was relieved that she did not press him about Minas Tirith, and the well-prepared defence of his actions withered from his tongue without a word as he met her glance. It was clear she did not want excuses, but answers, and he had those only – barely – for the questions she had spoken out loud.
Why did I come? In truth, he was not sure. Even so, Arwen was right. He had decided to come to Rivendell well before the attack, but he had prevaricated for weeks upon weeks, as uncertain of his purpose as he was of his welcome. Or rather, afraid of his purpose; he thought back to the task the Lord of Waters had set him, to find himself again, with no assurance of safety or success. As for his welcome, he had still not had a chance to speak to Elrond after being in Rivendell for well over a day, and those he had asked did not know where he was or when he might return – if indeed he was even away... It was most frustrating.
"No," he answered at last.
"Why did you come here?" Arwen asked again.
"For many reasons," Gandalf replied quickly. "Respite, your father's counsel…" Even here, he found himself unwilling to speak of the Three openly, but what their Bearers might yet do against the Enemy if they united was still on his mind.
Arwen's expression darkened. "Did you consider that you might draw the Eye of the Enemy with you?"
Gandalf blinked in surprise. Did you bring this upon us, Mithrandir? Did your Ring draw the Eye of the Enemy to the Havens? Círdan had said as much to him also, the last words they had exchanged. Truly, ill news is an ill guest, and maybe worse than ill. What if the Enemy is following my path? Have I brought the doom of the Havens to Rivendell? But, no…
"You are wise, my lady," he finally replied. "But if he can follow me thus closely from so far away, then he already knows what your father keeps hidden, and where."
"I know," Arwen replied, and shook her head. "Well, any harm that might come of your being here has no doubt been done already. So I would bid you to not be overly concerned over what may or may not come of your visit, and be as welcome as you ever were."
Gandalf nodded at Arwen's words, deciding to take them at face value. If there were any reservations in her welcome, he could not discern them.
Perhaps I should heed Master Elrond's advice after all, Bilbo thought as he went up one of the slender, steep bridges that crossed the small streams that ran towards Bruinen. He could not deny that he was shorter of breath than he should be after so small an exertion – he waited until his racing heart and his breath had calmed again before he went on. I cannot deny that I am old, much as I would like to; and I am just plain weary.
Even if he was almost out of good pipeweed, he had taken his pipe along when he went outside; it gave his fingers something to occupy themselves with while he thought. Unfortunately, Southlinch is all that can be had these days. Maybe Gandalf has been able to find something better.
Bilbo still did not feel fully recovered from the dark mood that had struck him around his – and Frodo's – birthday. Now that Gandalf was at last here, Bilbo meant to ask him what could be done for Frodo. Likely nothing, but if there was anything, Gandalf would know. Perhaps, if he was held captive, even in Mordor, it might still be possible for a small band of warriors to sneak in to free him. And, selfish as he knew it was, Bilbo also missed his chats with Master Elrond and with Arwen – Master Elrond was too distracted by his cares, and while Arwen was always pleased to see him, Bilbo did not want to add to her troubles – and talking to Gandalf would at least ease his loneliness.
Yes, even if we only talk and naught comes of it, I may still feel better for it. But Frodo, my lad, I…
Still disturbed by Arwen's words, Gandalf wandered outside to the gardens to sit and think unhindered. Arwen's reproach that he might have endangered Elrond as a Ringbearer by simply coming here rang too close to the thoughts that had been running through his own head after the Havens. Had that attack been aimed at him? And if so, was he now putting Rivendell in danger? Unlikely as it was, he could not entirely ignore the possibility. Still, in one thing Arwen had been right: what was done was done. Still, what had drawn Sauron's Eye to the Havens? Even with the One Ring, Sauron was not all-powerful or all-knowing.
No, it might satisfy his vanity to think that he had been followed across all the many weeks of wandering through the western reaches of Eriador, but it was unlikely – perhaps Sauron's interest had been piqued only when both he and Saruman turned up in the Havens, or – and how bitter that would be – it had been the manifestation of the Lord of Waters that had drawn the Eye to the Havens. And even then, from what little he knew of ships and sailing speeds, there would almost certainly have had to be a fleet heading north already. Perhaps there would have been an attack on the Havens anyway.
Even so, even under the judgement of Ulmo, in coming here he had given little thought to either how he might redeem his mistakes or to how his presence might endanger others. Gandalf shook his head as he went around a corner, and stopped.
The grey-haired hobbit looked up. "Gandalf? Gandalf!"
"You look well, Bilbo," Gandalf greeted him with a smile.
Bilbo snorted. "You are a terrible liar. I am old, and I look it."
Yes, you have aged, Gandalf thought. And I wonder how much of that comes from losing the Ring you carried for so long…
"If you say so," Gandalf admitted. "Do you mind if I join you?"
"Not at all. Please, sit down." Bilbo gestured at a bench.
Gandalf sat down and took out his pipe, noticing that while Bilbo had his pipe out, it was not lit. He reached for his pipeweed pouch, then reconsidered.
"If I am not imposing, can I borrow some pipeweed? All I have is Southlinch."
"Of course." Bilbo handed him his pouch. "It is Old Toby."
Gandalf drew back his hand when he saw how little there was in the pouch. "I could not possibly…"
"Nonsense," Bilbo said. "It is not that much even if I save it, although perhaps… I should keep it after all."
Gandalf looked at him.
"Despite your flattery – looking well, indeed – I have not been feeling well. Master Elrond told me to save myself undue stress, and there's naught as restful as a pipe-full of good weed." Bilbo looked away, and Gandalf thought he had some idea now of what ailed the old Hobbit.
Gandalf too looked away, his certainty that the decision to send out the Fellowship had been the right one suddenly weighing on him as it had not since the first days after he had left Minas Tirith. Then he had been concerned mostly with his parting from Aragorn, and had told himself that Aragorn had at least understood their danger before they set off. He had not dared to think about Frodo then, but now he could no longer avoid it. Unlike Aragorn, Frodo had not understood what he had let himself into, not really, not even after Weathertop.
Had Bilbo known what might lie ahead? Certainly more so than Frodo… Still, all had chosen their path freely, and… Bilbo said something, which Gandalf failed to catch.
"I am sorry, Bilbo, I was lost in thought."
"You have been inside Dol Guldur, you must have some idea. The Dark Tower. What is it like?"
As Gandalf remained silent, Bilbo looked at him intently. "Damn it, Gandalf, tell me; in Mordor… what are they doing to Frodo?"
What are they doing to Frodo…? Taken aback by Bilbo's uncharacteristically strong language, Gandalf found himself searching for an answer.
…The deepest dungeon pits are dark, the air stale and clammy. Patches of luminous moulds in corners and along the walls. They do little to relieve the darkness, the unseen threats of the dark only made worse by the sickly green or blue glow from the moulds.
What do those moulds live on? It is certain to be vile, that much I do know. More importantly, how do I get out of here? These pits will only hide me for a little while, and news of my findings is urgent.
On a hunch, he turns right at the next crossing he comes to. He is so deep that he is below the dungeon levels. Here there are only roughly-hacked out corridors with black openings and deep cracks in the walls leading who knows where. In such a place, one corridor is much like the next. Eventually he will need to go back up, for he doubts there is a convenient back door leading to the bottom of Amon Lanc hidden down here.
The corridor seems empty, but he still has a nagging feeling that he is not alone in this place. Foolishness, he chides himself, any prisoners will be chained up in their cells, and there is no reason for guards to come down this low.
Looking back, he still wondered about the chance that had made him stumble upon Thráin in that horrid dank hole, but he had, and that was all that mattered in the end.
The Dwarf had been raving, starting at nothing, then crawling into a corner and attempting to hide. At first he had flinched away from Gandalf, but after some short time he almost seemed to forget the wizard was there, even though he spoke to him at the same time.
I had it once, you know, he says eventually, his tone conversational, oddly normal in this place. He took it.
Had what? Gandalf asks.
One of the Great Rings, and the Dwarf reaches to stroke his ring finger. The last of the Seven. Gandalf says nothing and the Dwarf continues to speak, interrupted by deep, tearing coughs that hurt even to listen to. Take this, give it to my son! He rummages inside his ragged, torn clothes. Finally, triumphantly, he thrusts a scroll of paper and a metal object into Gandalf's hands. For my son.
Gandalf starts to nod, but realises the other cannot see that in the dark, and he draws breath to speak, as the Dwarf draws in a long, shuddering breath, and dies.
"Gandalf!" Bilbo called him.
"I am sorry, I was remembering how I found Thráin," Gandalf answered.
"Thráin? Gandalf, for my peace of mind, what was done to him?"
Gandalf sighed. "I doubt there would be peace of mind in your knowing," he replied and gave Bilbo a long look "However it was done, whatever tortures he endured while the Enemy got from him what he wanted, in the end it was his mind that was broken, as much as or more than his body."
Bilbo shuddered. "I understand. Or, I think I do," he answered.
Gandalf knelt down beside Bilbo, and put his hand on the hobbit's shoulder. Before he found the words he wanted, Bilbo turned to him.
"Curse the Ring of the Enemy, and curse the day I found it in the dark." He looked and sounded angry, but with a deep sigh all the fight seemed to go out of him. "I think I will go inside again. I have not the peace of mind to sit here and talk. Perhaps another time."
Become again who you were meant to be, the Lord of Waters had told him; and when he had decided to stay in Middle-earth, it had been with the intent of finding redemption, even if only in his own eyes.
Gandalf looked back towards the house. Is this the right choice? He still wished to talk to Elrond, and to leave without even seeing him felt oddly unfinished. Still, if anyone understood, it would be Elrond.
He hesitated as he passed the path to the stables. Could he afford the time lost in walking? No; he needed to leave, and leave quickly, before his resolve failed him. He would not take Shadowfax into Mordor, but for now he would ride.
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