3. Chapter Two
It was the same dream, the one he hadn't had for years. He was at Mount Orodruin again, staring into Isildur's mad eyes. The heat mist from the fiery heart of the mountain made the King's figure tremble before him as he begged him to cast the Ring into the fire. But Isildur's face was set with the bitter determination of revenge. The Ring, which only minutes before had been on Sauron's hand and which no doubt still resonated with the darkness of his will, was Isildur's weregild, and he would not give it up.
Elrond seized his arm, tried to drag him to the edge of the jagged spur of rock that hung over the river of boiling lava, but Isildur flung him aside. Elrond cried out his name desperately but the King strode out of the cave, his face ugly with rage and grief.
The rocks beneath Elrond were hot; he saw the blisters beginning to appear on his hands where they were pressed to the floor of the cave. He struggled to his feet, feeling the fiery breath of the mountain on his body, his limbs trembling in the aftermath of the terrible battle. Every conflict was like this, blind courage followed by the sick reaction of fear suppressed for too long.
Elrond stumbled after Isildur, the sweat of heat and horror running down his face. He was so thirsty, he must find a spring. But where in this forsaken place of fire and dust would he find a thing of such freshness? His lips were beginning to crack and he ran his tongue around them to try to moisten them, but his mouth too was dry and bitter-tasting.
Gil-galad would know what to do…
It was at that moment that the full knowledge of Gil-galad's death became real to him. Blind with agony, Elrond ran down the smoking slopes of the mountain. They had moved him from where he had fallen, and Elrond was half-mad with loss when he found him, laid on a bier in the heart of the Noldor camp, his body charred and disfigured by the heat of Sauron's poisonous touch. It was not true that all were peaceful in death, and Elrond stood turned into stone before him, looking down on the High King's tormented face.
He couldn't weep at all, couldn't even say the words he knew he must, the words of parting that the new King must speak for the old. All he could do was stay with him, holding his scarred hand for as long as they would let him.
He knew voices were speaking to him, asking for his orders, but he couldn't answer them yet. He had so little time left with Gil-galad, he couldn't waste any of it in pointless talking. A little longer and he would let him go, turn away and take up the task of leadership that Gil-galad had willed to him. But not yet, not yet.
At last it was Gwirith and Alcarion who had taken him gently by the arm and led him away. He had actually felt the moment that his heart had broken, immediately after they had separated his cold hand from Gil-galad's even colder one. As they took him to the healers, he wondered how it was that he was still alive.
He had drunk their potions, let them care for his wounds, shown them a calm face, even begun to give orders about their journey home. He had sounded sane and reasonable, but then someone had addressed him as High King, and his body, which had been hot and cold in turns, chose ice as its element, and he was frozen again into silence.
After that he was no more use to them, and he heard them whispering about what to do. He didn't care any more, though he knew he should. He remembered sitting by the brazier, looking down at his burnt and bloodied hands, willing his heart to stop so that the terrible pain would end, but it continued to beat in defiance of him.
He could feel it beating now, fast and hard. Where did it find the strength, when there was no reason left to live? He didn't understand how he could feel so cold and so hot at the same time, but it helped that someone was wiping his face with a cool cloth. A few drops of water trickled on to his lips and he searched for them with his tongue. Whoever it was understood his need, and when they held a glass to his mouth he drank greedily, spilling some of the water in his haste. He felt a little better, and his body felt less hot now that the cloth was on his chest, and the breeze which must be coming from outside the healers' tent was chill on his wet skin.
'Rest, my dear,' said Galadriel's voice. 'Glorfindel is bringing some more feverfew. Soon you will be well.'
Elrond shook his head. Galadriel was in Lindon, not here at Barad-dur. But Glorfindel was indeed here, he who had known the flames of the Balrog and the cold void of death itself, and yet when he stood beside him, Elrond felt a little better. He did everything Glorfindel told him to do, because his own will seemed lost, and somehow Glorfindel seemed to know what he needed.
'Drink, Elrond,' said Glorfindel, and because he had been so gentle with him, Elrond did as he asked, tasting the bitterness of the herb in his throat. And it wasn't long after that he opened his eyes, and saw that he was in his own chamber, and that the summer dawn was beginning to show grey at the windows.
'Galadriel,' he croaked in a weak voice. 'I thought you were in Lindon.'
Galadriel's eyes darkened and she glanced at Glorfindel. 'Elrond, my dear, you must come back to yourself,' she said.
'What do you mean?' he said, bewildered, but then he saw the papers strewn across the hearth and, through the open door, his clothes piled on the floor of the bathroom, and he remembered where he was.
Elrond let out his breath in a great gasp and covered his face with his hands.
'I dreamt,' he said in a shaking voice. 'I saw his face, my heart is broken.'
'It was a long time ago,' said Galadriel. 'You have wed and become a father since then. It is past.'
'It feels like yesterday,' whispered Elrond, and blindly he reached out for Glorfindel's hand and held it for a long time in silence.
'Forgive me, Glorfindel,' he said at last. 'You did not deserve my cruelty.'
'It is no matter,' said Glorfindel, low-voiced, stroking Elrond's hand with his thumb. 'I was less than gentle myself, even if my intentions were good.'
Elrond smiled ruefully. 'Once again you are here when I need you,' he said. 'Do you make a study of me, so that you can anticipate my vulnerable moments?'
Glorfindel looked away. 'You know I'm glad to be at your side,' he said.
Galadriel stood up. 'We will help you to prepare yourself, my dear,' she said softly, but Elrond heard the steel in her words.
'I can't, Galadriel,' he said wearily. 'Let our guests divert themselves today, and we will hold the council tomorrow.'
The Lady of Lorien gazed at him for a long time in silence, then she said, 'It is not for me to rule you, here in your domain, but I would counsel haste. Each day that passes lets the strength of the enemy increase, and our dispositions become known.'
Elrond lost his temper. 'Galadriel, surely you're mistaken! You needn't fear him, by the Valar!'
'If I'm wrong, it is no matter,' said Galadriel. 'But what if I'm right, Elrond? Do you dare take such a risk, for Imladris and for Arda itself?'
Elrond's shoulders sagged and the lines of exhaustion showed themselves on his face.
'Very well,' he said at last. 'Send for my sons to help me, or I won't be ready in time.'
'I will help you,' said Galadriel and Glorfindel at exactly the same moment. Their eyes met and the solemn mood was broken as all three laughed together.
So it was that Galadriel acted as Elrond's valet, choosing and laying out his linen and his clothes while Glorfindel was permitted to help Elrond to his bath. He was rewarded with Elrond's hand on his shoulder as he helped him back to his bedchamber once he had washed the sweat of fever from his body and rinsed his hair in sweet-smelling oil.
At last Elrond stood before them, dressed in blue and silver, pale and composed. From time to time a tremor passed through him, and when Galadriel offered him her arm, her heart was wrung at how heavily he leaned on her.
'Rest on me whenever you need to, my dear,' she said. 'It will seem no more than a sign of our affection.'
Elrond nodded wordlessly, waiting while Glorfindel tied his broad silk sash around his waist.
'At least it is cooler this morning,' said Elrond. 'I could not have borne to sit all day through heat like last night's.'
Galadriel and Glorfindel exchanged a glance, but neither challenged Elrond's words.
'Well, let us go and speak with the Wise of Middle Earth,' said Elrond. He turned and walked towards the door, and no-one remarked on the fact that Galadriel had to shorten her long stride to match his pace.
Anyone watching the Master of Imladris as he walked into the airy terraced room where the other members of the council were waiting would have thought him the picture of robust health. In deference to him, Galadriel and Glorfindel stood nearby while he greeted Curunir, immaculate in his white robes, and Cirdan, whose far-sighted blue gaze pierced him with its usual directness.
The others greeted each other, and when they were all seated at the table, Elrond said, glancing round with a look that included all his guests,
'I am most grateful to those of you who have travelled far to be at this meeting of the White Council. There have been dark happenings these last years. We know of old how to bide our time, to watch and wait; but maybe the time of waiting is over.
'Some who we would have wished to be present are not here today. Thranduil could not leave Mirkwood, nor send any of his household. We have sent news of our meeting to Mithrandir, but have heard nothing from him, although he may yet reach us in time to give us his wisdom on these matters.'
Curunir laughed deep in his throat. 'He is probably wasting his time with the Periannath in the Shire, refreshing his supply of pipeweed.'
There was a polite ripple of laughter, but no-one met Curunir's eye. His not-so-gentle mockery of Mithrandir was well known, but among the elves it was the Grey wizard rather than Curunir the White who was closest to their hearts.
'By your leave, Curunir, I will tell the Council why Lorien and Imladris asked for this meeting,' said Elrond.
Curunir inclined his head graciously.
'The news is bad,' said Elrond, a note of weariness creeping into his voice. Galadriel glanced round at the others, but they seemed unaware of it.
'Even in far Lindon you will have felt the earth shake on the day the power of the Dark One revealed itself in Mordor. Barad-dur rises again and we believe the Ulairi are in Dol Guldur again. The sickness spreads through Mirkwood, faster than before. In the South the trees are dying.'
He paused and looked down at his hands, as if choosing his next words. Just before the pause became too long, Galadriel said,
'Something is changing, giving the Dark One new strength and audacity. We must make it our task to discover what it is.'
'Indeed the news from the East is not good,' said Curunir in measured tones. 'But the re-building of Barad-dur is not as great a change as we might imagine. It seems the foundations were never destroyed, even when Sauron himself fled at the end of the last Age.'
'You are too sanguine, Curunir,' said Cirdan. 'Your skills are great and your wisdom also, but you did not live through that Age as we did, watching the growing power of Mordor, fighting it with your own hands and seeing those you loved die on the battlefield. It is good to be calm in the face of danger, but it seems to me you underestimate the threat that is growing again.'
Curunir's eyes flashed once, but his voice was silky.
'Thank you, Cirdan, for your words,' he said, bowing a little. 'You are right, I am not as long a dweller in these lands as you are. But I have given much time to the study of the Dark Lord and his works, especially the lore of the Rings.'
All those in the room shifted a little, as if a light wind had passed through a glade of trees and gently stirred their branches.
'I know that is what you fear,' he went on, his voice deep and resonant, 'that the Dark Lord will possess himself of the One, and then none of us would be able to stand against him.'
'You are right, Curunir,' said Cirdan. 'We do not have the power we once did, and many of our people have gone over Sea. And who would join with us in alliance now? The White Tree is dead. Ecthelion of Gondor is a noble man, but he is Steward only. Could he persuade us all to follow him to war? Could he persuade Thranduil?'
'Isildur's heir lives,' said Galadriel. 'In time he may unite the peoples of Middle Earth against the threat from the East.'
'I am the first to hope for it,' said Curunir, 'although we all know it will not be an easy task. For all their good hearts, some of those who dwell in these lands would be of little use. The Halflings, of whom Mithrandir is so inordinately fond, for example.'
'I must tell you that the Halfling I met in the year of the Battle of the Five Armies had some most unusual qualities,' said Elrond, smiling a little at the memory. 'I would hesitate to disregard the Periannath when a task of valour is required.'
'I see you have joined Mithrandir in his harmless hobby,' said Curunir mildly. 'I am only sorry he is not here himself to amuse us with anecdotes of his travels. But as for the weighty matters before us, I would heed Galadriel's wisdom: if the threat is as great as we fear, the heir of Isildur is our hope. Let us not act in haste, showing our hand before he is ready to take up the task for which he was born.'
'Surely we must not act rashly,' said Galadriel. 'But to prepare ourselves as best we can is to help Estel carry his burden. It is our task to find out all we can about the One, and the other rings of power. It is my belief that the One is changing, and undoubtedly not to our benefit.'
Curunir let out a little sigh. 'You too carry a burden, my dear,' he said gently. 'The longing of the Noldor for beauty has caught you up in the creation of the Three. I venture you must sometimes rue the day Celebrimbor gave you the ring of Adamant.'
'It is through his craft that Lorien is kept safe and our ways preserved,' said Galadriel quietly, but there was a faint flush of colour on her cheeks. 'Those of us who hold the Three have kept them safe for the good of all.'
'Of course. And for that we are all grateful, to you and to the other bearers of the Three,' said Curunir. For no more than an instant something very like envy rang in his voice. Galadriel heard it, and she stored it away for later consideration.
'But I have discovered some news which I think will comfort you,' went on Curunir. 'Your fears of the One, understandable though they are, are groundless, for it has left Anduin and rolled down to the Sea. It is beyond the finding of any who would wish to use it, even Sauron himself.'
There was a taut silence, but for those who could hear, it was filled with unspoken questions.
'How did you come to know this?' demanded Elrond at last, with less respect than was normally accorded to the White Wizard. Curunir looked at him for a long moment before answering in his mellifluous voice.
'My wisdom comes from many places, Elrond, Master of Imladris. But in this case, it was Radagast the Brown, a wizard of my order who helped me. He is close in understanding with all beasts and birds, and he taught me to speak to those who would know what passes in the depths of Anduin, both the fish who swim and the birds who dive in its waters and fly along its banks. To all of them, it is known that the Ring left Anduin a long time ago. And I have other ways of knowing, of which I will not speak. Without the One, Sauron may rebuild Barad-dur and send whoever he wants to Dol Guldur, but he will never take shape again. And without it, surely the Three have lost their power. Anything you might sense through them must be pure chance, for the One is gone far beyond everyone's reach.'
There was another brief silence, and then everyone began to talk at once. Curunir sat back in his chair, watching the faces of those seated around the table, seemingly pleased at the stir he had created. He was particularly interested to see Glorfindel lean close to Elrond, supporting him by the elbow while he poured something from a small flask into the glass which Elrond was gripping so hard that his knuckles shone white. Elrond drank the liquid down in a single movement before leaning back in his chair, eyes half-closed.
No-one else had noticed Elrond's moment of discomfort, but something had broken through the babble of conversation, and Curunir looked across to the door to see why everyone was staring. Only the person who was standing on the threshold caught the moment of annoyance on Curunir's face before he managed to mask it with his usual implacable calm.
'Mithrandir,' cried Elrond, and the wizard, clad in travel-stained grey robes, was at his side, gently pushing him back down in his chair.
'No ceremony, my dear friends,' he said warmly. 'I offer you my most profound apologies for arriving late to the Council. Please, don't trouble yourselves to get up.'
But everyone save Elrond and Curunir had left their seats and were pressing themselves close to him, taking his hands and waiting for their turn to welcome him. After several minutes all had greeted him, and he took his place beside Elrond in the seat vacated by Glorfindel.
'Curunir, as chief of the Council, I ask your pardon for arriving in the midst of your deliberations.'
Curunir inclined his head slightly.
'We have come to expect your haphazard visits, Mithrandir,' he said with slight condescension. 'It is no matter, the weighty business we have discussed is almost concluded.'
'Oh?' said Mithrandir. 'And what weighty business is that?'
'Surely even you have noticed the rise of the Dark Lord in the east, Mithrandir. But I have brought good news for the Eldar. His power may seem to be growing, but without the One Ring, it will be much curtailed. The beasts and the birds confirm that is has rolled down to the Sea.'
'And how comes it that you're so sure of those who told you the One had gone to the Sea, Curunir?' said Mithrandir softly. 'Even the beasts can speak for the enemy. Is it wise to underestimate so dangerous a thing as the One?'
There was a murmur of agreement around the table.
Curunir returned his look calmly. 'I have many ways of knowing the truth, Mithrandir. I am as sure of this as of the fact that I am sitting before you now: the One has gone to the Sea. It will not be found again in Middle Earth, but will lie until the end, when all the world is broken and the deeps are removed.'
'I must say again to the Council what I said the last time we met: it is not needed that the Ring should be found,' said Mithrandir, 'for while it abides on earth and is not unmade, still the power that it holds will live, and Sauron will grow and have hope. The might of the elves and the elf-friends is less now than of old. Soon he will be too strong for you, even without the Great Ring; for he rules the Nine, and of the Seven he has already recovered three. We cannot disregard the One.'
'Then what are we to do?' said Cirdan. 'How can we begin to prepare ourselves for the danger that awaits us?'
'We must be close one with the other,' said Galadriel. 'We are few, and only in this way can we be at our greatest strength.'
'Co-operation is an admirable thing,' said Curunir smoothly. 'No-one could object to such a strategy, but I assure you that it is needless. How could the ring serve Sauron if he cannot find it? Only on his hand is it powerful, and without it his magic is greatly weakened. Prepare your defences by all means, for the orcs and the wild peoples of the east and south are arming. But there will be no war: this time Sauron aims at a mark which he cannot reach.'
'Your wisdom is great, Curunir,' said Mithrandir. 'You admit that it would be prudent to plan for war, even though you foresee no such event.'
'I foresee trouble,' said Curunir, 'for there can be nothing else where Sauron is concerned. But the One Ring cannot play a part in its unfolding, for it is lost forever.'
Mithrandir leaned back in his chair and took out his long pipe, then began to slow ritual of cleaning and then lighting it. No-one spoke, and the atmosphere in the room became perceptibly calmer. When at last a curl of white smoke snaked its way upwards from the clay bowl, he said mildly,
'What think you, Elrond, of this matter?'
Elrond reached up and wiped his damp forehead.
'My heart is heavy,' he said. 'Last night I dreamt of the Siege of Barad-dur, and today I am full of foreboding. Darkness gathers again, and I fear that the One will yet be found, and that there will be war again. And I cannot see how the Eldar will defeat the evil this time, since we are now so few.'
There was an instant of shocked silence, and then Galadriel said,
'We will defeat it, Elrond. We are weaker than before, but we are not alone. We have Mithrandir, and Isildur's Heir, and the Valar will take pity on our plight.'
'And perhaps I myself might be of service,' said Curunir, his mouth curving in a half-smile.
'Of course,' said Galadriel, bowing slightly, but she did not quite look him in the face.
'But it seems my reassurance is not as welcome as I thought it might be. And I am surprised that the Eldar seem to have lost their courage in the face of danger,' said Curunir, glancing slyly at Elrond.
Slowly the elf-lord raised his head.
'It is not through lack of courage that I say what I say, Curunir,' said Elrond, his voice stronger than before. 'I would take up arms today and gladly give my life in battle if need be, as would all my household at a single word from me. But when I see Barad-dur rising again, and Dol Guldur re-inhabited, I cannot be as sanguine as you appear to be. The times are darkening, and however small our chance of defeating evil, we will have no chance at all unless we see if for what it is.'
'You misunderstand my meaning, Lord of Imladris,' said Curunir. 'I do not deny there is trouble ahead. I simply aver that the One Ring will play no part in it. Surely that is intelligence the council will be pleased to hear, and will use in planning whatever strategy it chooses in the months and years ahead. Forgive me, but…would I be mistaken in saying you are indisposed in some way? Perhaps you would like us to adjourn our meeting until a later time.'
'I am perfectly well,' said Elrond, a little sharply. 'This matter is urgent, and we cannot wait to make our plans.'
'May I ask, then,' said Curunir, 'has anyone been to Dol Guldur to verify whether it has in fact been occupied again, so very soon after Mithrandir banished Sauron from its environs? The shadow which hangs over Amon Lanc may be no more than a ruse to divert attention from true dangers elsewhere.'
Both Elrond and Galadriel seemed annoyed at the implied slight to Mithrandir, but the grey wizard continued to puff calmly at his pipe as if he had not heard it.
'We in Lorien watch Dol Guldur ceaselessly,' said Galadriel. 'So far we have not sent anyone to the tower itself. As you will know, being close to the shadow harms even the Eldar, and of course we could not approach the tower without Thranduil's permission.'
'Then it might be wise to obtain it,' said Curunir, 'although it seems that all the danger is in Mordor now.'
'It was already in my mind to do so,' said Galadriel.
'If the Galadhrim are willing to do this, either alone or in company with the wood elves of Mirkwood, I would be most interested to know what is happening at Dol Guldur,' said Mithrandir. 'I'm only sorry that my banishing Sauron little more than a ten-year ago has been so quickly reversed. I venture he must be stronger than we have thought up until now.'
'Lorien will do all it can in this matter,' said Galadriel.
'Well, we are making excellent progress!' said Curunir. 'Cirdan, do you wish to speak?'
'Lindon is the furthest of the elven realms from Mordor,' said Cirdan, 'but we will do all we can to fight this evil. I will send out the muster, and we will begin to train our forces for any battle that may come. Call on us at any time you may need us.'
Galadriel reached out and took his hand in silence.
'So!' said Curunir. 'It seems we are able to come to an agreement. You have chosen to prepare yourselves for conflict, and to gather what intelligence you can, while waiting to see how events will unfold. Does that satisfy you, Mithrandir?'
'If it is the will of the Council, then indeed it does,' said Mithrandir, puffing peacefully at his pipe. 'But we should keep an open mind about the One. If Lorien and Imladris are concerned, then I am concerned also.'
'And so should we all be,' said Curunir, 'if there were any reason to be so. But I see I will not persuade you all that you may put aside your fears. So be it. I believe we are close enough in agreement to bring this Council to a close, unless any other voice needs to be heard.'
At the other end of the table, Glorfindel stirred suddenly.
'If I may be permitted to speak,' he said. They turned to him, and his face was that of the Captain of Gondolin who had fought and defeated the Balrog.
'The greatest danger comes unexpectedly,' he said quietly, and it seemed he was remembering something from a long time ago. 'We must not underestimate the cunning of evil, and the secret plans it lays. My heart says that we must be vigilant, and that until Sauron is defeated once and for all, we cannot rest.'
For no longer than an instant his light but piercing gaze rested on Curunir, and the white wizard closed his eyes momentarily. Galadriel felt a strange jolt of recognition, but she did not understand what it meant.
And then they were all rising from the table, exclaiming at the fact that it was already long past noon, and walking in a long file to the room where food and drink had been prepared for them. Elrond took Galadriel's arm, but now he scarcely leaned on her at all, and with his other arm he reached out and gathered Glorfindel to him, and the three of them went into the room together.
1. The conversation about the One Ring is taken in part from The Silmarillion, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age George Allen and Unwin (1979) p 363-364.
2. Curunir and Mithrandir are the names the elves used for Saruman and Gandalf.
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