18. Seeking Cooperation
"He may not have inherited the full legacy of the line of Kings," the White Wizard muttered as he left the doors to the King's House of Minas Anor behind him, "but it appears Tarondor has managed to inherit the longer lifespan. How many years is it since he first accepted the Winged Crown?"
"A hundred, three score, and two," the Grey responded, "although I doubt he will live more than a few more days at this point. Telumehtar is well prepared as a leader of Men, but does not appear to have any more of the healing gift than did his father, although it is certain Narmacil has received more of that gift than either his father or grandfather. That Telumehtar married the great granddaughter of Hyarmendacil may well have aided in that, at least. I do wish, however, he had accepted the suggestion of Arvegil to consider his daughter Dúngileth--to have seen the two lines, north and south, reconciled and reunited would have been a blessing I fear Gondor needs desperately. I strongly suspect Tarondor has lived this long in relative peace only because the Enemy's own people were as strongly depleted by the plagues loosed over Middle Earth from Dol Guldur as were those of Gondor and Arnor."
"We do not have proof, Gandalf, that Dol Guldur was the source of the plagues, and there is the fact that Rhûn and other lands to the east were so strongly hit. Would the Necromancer endanger his own folk in this way?"
"I have told you before, my friend, that animals infected with plague and the water rage were found being carried by orcs, Dunlendings, Easterlings, and ships from both Umbar and Harad toward the passes of the mountains and the settlements of Rhovanion and other lands to the north in the Anduin's valley as well as the shores of Eriador. Such things were deliberate acts against the Free Peoples of Middle Earth, and you know it. Never has Sauron--or the Necromancer--shown much care for the well-being of either his own creatures or his allies, as you know full well. Why do you continue to fight the realization that it is most likely Sauron himself who hides in the fortress there?"
"Even if it is Sauron, he can do nothing without his Ring."
Gandalf sighed. "Yet the Necromancer grows stronger each year, and once again his creatures are increasing in their activities. After the last council the forces of Laurelindórenan combined with Thranduil's folk to sweep the valley of the Anduin, and the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm and the remaining settlements in the Misty Mountains did the same in the passes and the foothills of the range alongside Elrond's forces and the armies of Arnor, destroying many orc-holds and again driving the trolls north from the Ettenmoors. However, there is word that a dragon has assaulted the Dwarf keep of Kheled-zigal, just south of the border of Angmar, causing much consternation to the folk of Khazad-dûm. Arveleg has sent troops to aid the survivors, and it is said the dragon failed to linger, as this was no rich mine or settlement but merely an outpost of Dúrin's forces. The children of Mahal will not admit it, but I suspect at least one of the Rings gifted by Sauron had been taken there, and that the dragon has managed to consume it."
"That leaves but two, if you are correct?" asked Saruman.
"So I strongly believe, my friend." The Grey Wizard's brow wrinkled with concern. "But the need at the moment is more immediate. Umbar, since it reasserted its independence, is again financing the establishment of a fleet of Corsairs. There have been six major assaults on coastal fortresses in Gondor, including the unsuccessful one recently perpetrated against Númenor vi Ennorath; and at least five Gondorian traders have failed to return from voyages in the past year alone. Then there is the matter of the two ships of the King's own fleet that were sunk off the Mouths of the Sea three months ago.
"The King's agents in Umbar have established that the lords of that land have sent several small embassies north, at least three to the borders of Rhûn and two toward Dol Guldur, in the past five years; and the last to return brought much in the way of gold, just before four more keels were laid in Umbar's shipyards. If nothing is done and soon, Umbar will be in a position to destroy most of Gondor's shipping and the Elven haven kept at Edhellond by the lords of Laurelindórenan and to barricade the port there within five years. And if they send a fleet up the Anduin toward Minas Anor, the capital could easily fall. Telumehtar must consider the protection of Gondor's waterways."
"Why have Gondor's troops in Ithilien and Osgiliath not stopped these deputations from Umbar passing through its lands?"
Again Gandalf sighed, shaking his head. "There are not enough troops in Ithilien to keep an efficient watch along the Road. Minas Ithil is all but abandoned--it was badly hit by the plague of the chills and fevers, and it appears its water supplies may also have been poisoned, but with a less virulent agent than was used in tainting the waters of Osgiliath. It was enough, however, to kill many already weak from the chills and fevers of that plague of mosquitoes. Most of its remaining population has abandoned it, and the garrison there is vestigial at best.
"As for Osgiliath, only a few stubborn souls remain to dwell there, those and the two garrisons kept there by Tarondor since he removed the capital officially to Minas Anor and replanted the White Tree here."
"Then what do you suggest at this time?"
"That you and I work together to convince Telumehtar to arm himself against Umbar. Right now he and the Prince of Númenor vi Ennorath between them almost have sufficient ships and forces to destroy Umbar's incipient fleet and subjugate it once more; if we both speak to the dangers Umbar poses we can see to it he averts the danger to the realm. And, if in so doing we also convince him to seek alliance with Arnor, it will be so much the better."
"And why should Gondor seek an alliance with Arnor? Gondor is once again rich and thriving, while Arnor is little better than a ghost of a kingdom at this point."
"That may be, but it, also, recovers from the evils of the plagues. Both Argeleb and Arvegil proved worthy stewards, and I have no doubt Arveleg follows in the footsteps of his sire and grandsire. And if the two kingdoms will but join forces again and perhaps seek reconciliation and reunion then it may be possible to stop further regrowth of the Shadow. Between the two lands there are sufficient forces to reestablish a proper guard on the borders of Mordor----"
"Pah! And what is there left of Mordor, Mithrandir? Rubble only."
Gandalf couldn't keep himself from bristling as he replied, his voice cold, "The foundations of Barad-dûr remain, Curunír, until the Enemy's Ring is found again and destroyed. With the power the Necromancer gathers to himself, even if he is not Sauron he may yet re-enter those lands, see the tower rebuilt, reopen the Sammath Naur, and renew the assaults on all the living lands. There is almost as much power there in Barad-dûr and Orodruin combined as he placed in the Ring; and it may be accessed by one sufficiently ruthless and determined to gather it to himself."
"There is no sign he seeks to do such a thing."
"Then why is the cold of the Black Breath felt by the few who seek to keep what sketchy watch there is on the borders of Mordor? Four have been stricken with it that we are aware of, and six others have not returned from their scouting trips. That they have died in horrors somewhere in the wilderlands or might indeed have been taken by the Nazgûl who haunt the gates is probable. So many of those who farmed the lands of Ithilien or husbanded its woodlands have already died or removed this side of Anduin, and those who linger feel abandoned by their King and his forces. With a proper alliance between the north and south kingdoms there could be sufficient new troops made available to assure Ithilien does not fail and that no new Dark Lord enter Mordor to renew its terror toward the West.
"Then there is the question of the border fort at the crossings of the Poros--if the garrisons there fail, the Harad Road will open again to its troops, and you can be certain that if the Necromancer is Sauron he will have troops led from there to assault all who remain east of the River as well as to eventually attack Minas Anor. Tarondor has, in the last fifty years, sent his troops by ship to man the fortress, although until the last hundred years those who served in Ithilien were positioned to support the fortressas well. But with almost none stationed there, should Umbar manage to keep the King's ships from reaching the mouth of the Poros there will be no way to bring Men or supplies there in a timely manner."
Saruman nodded thoughtfully. "Another reason to do what we can to convince Telumehtar he must set a defense against Umbar. And it may well prove that a focus on the south will finally wipe away the resentments felt toward the line of Kings for the time of the Kinslaying. There still remain many in Pelargir and Anfalas and Belfalas and nearby regions who feel the Kings have paid far too much attention to the north and east and little to them. Shall we seek out the King's son, then, Gandalf?"
Relieved to find himself and his fellow apparently committed to working in cooperation on this, Gandalf nodded, and together they went down to the Sixth Circle where Telumehtar was reviewing the troops before returning to resume his watch by his father's side before the old King failed altogether.
Telumehtar sat on the bench at the side of the parade ground for the barracks compound and listened to the arguments of the two Wizards. At last, when all had been said, he commented, "So, it appears the one who dwells in Dol Guldur is supplying Umbar with gold to help finance its predations against our lands and the haven the Elves keep in Númenor vi Ennorath?"
"So it appears. Have not your father and his Council discussed this with you?"
Gandalf asked. "It is one subject he sought to share with me on my arrival."
The Prince of Gondor slowly shook his head. "I knew that Umbari agents had gone north and east, but assumed what gold was brought back came from Rhûn."
Saruman shook his own head. "Nay, Lord Prince, for I have spent much of the last year in the tents of the Rhûnim, and there was no talk of any gathering of treasure for any purpose other than for the enrichment of its own leaders, who are now being threatened by invasions of those fighting from great wains to the north and east of their lands. Now, there were movements of trains of wagons through the lands of the Rhûnim from the south and east----"
"And whose were they?" asked Gandalf, his voice sharp.
"Those of traders, or so I must suppose," Saruman answered his tone indicating the trading of Men held no interest for him. "What does it matter whose they were?"
Gandalf looked to the face of the son of Tarondor, and saw the anxiety he felt himself mirrored in the eyes of he who so shortly would be King of Gondor.
Several days later, following the acceptance of the Winged Crown by Telumehtar, Gandalf agreed to go north to carry word to Elrond and Radagast on the threat offered Gondor and to see if either those in southern Rhudaur or those in Angmar had begun making more than the merest threats against the north kingdom, having been assured repeatedly by his companion that he would remain in Gondor to make certain Telumehtar followed through on arming against the increased aggression from Umbar. It was Gandalf's desire also to visit Khazad-dûm along the way to learn, if the folk of Dúrin would allow, how the reports of the dragon's assault on Kheled-zigal were being dealt with, and what policies were going forward to offer protection to other outposts and the lesser kingdoms and mining settlements.
"You will encourage Telumehtar also to send envoys to Arnor to treat with Arveleg and Araval, will you not?" he asked as he hoisted his personal satchel (a gift from Blanco of the Tooks) to his shoulder.
Saruman gave an elegant shrug. "I shall discuss it with him," he said.
It was not as definite a commitment as Gandalf would have liked to receive, but it was, he realized, all he would get now. With a nod, he turned and began his journey down through the circles of the city, headed for the road north.
Mounted on a dun-colored horse given him by Telumehtar, Gandalf went north and then west toward the Gap of Isengard, again examining conditions as he went. Hamlets along the road were once again growing throughout Anórien, and fields and woodlands both appeared to be thriving. However, where before most were open villages, now most were of stone rather than of mixed stone and wood, and now most were surrounded by stone walls. Even individual farms were now walled where before most were marked by pole fences or hedges. There were sleek cats sitting atop the walls now, and the barks of dogs apt for ratting as well as the deeper barks of dogs for guarding, hunting, and herding could be heard as he passed gates to villages, farms, and keeps.
Calenardhon, on the other hand, remained mostly empty. The hamlets he saw to the south along the foothills of the White Mountains were fewer in number than he remembered even after the worst of the plagues, and their folk greeted his few approaches with a degree of suspicion. He saw no Ents near the borders of Fangorn as he'd seen none of the Woses along the edges of the Drúadan Forest. He felt some concern, for this suggested that even greater division stood between the peoples of this region than had been known before. Once the sages of Gondor who inhabited Orthanc had greeted the Onódrim with courtesy, and the farmers who worked the lands near the Drúadan had on occasion left gifts of cattle or poultry or excess vegetables near the openings of the hunting paths of the Woses in recognition of the fact the Wild Men kept their fields and woodlots free of marauding bear and boar; now Isengard was empty, there was no sign of respect toward the Woses, and there were signs that axes had been used on the southernmost trees of Fangorn. Gandalf was alarmed--such would not only cause great anger and grief to the Onódrim, but would be likely to drive the Ents back further into their ancient forest realm, perhaps causing them to refuse to do their part when the time came. He sought out the nearest village, and found it populated by Men from Dunland. Did they never retain the constant warnings he'd ever given them? Grim, he entered the obviously struggling place intent on convincing its folk of the errors of their ways.
"And why are we not to cut wood there?" demanded the headman for the village, irate at having this stranger enter their village to tell them their business.
The Wizard looked at the Men of the village, one of whom had lost a leg when his axe rebounded unexpectedly from a blow on a tree, one of whom had his head heavily bandaged from a limb falling on him, one with his leg twisted from having been caught under a fallen tree for some hours, a fourth blind in one eye from running into a twig that had gone unseen, and sighed. Apparently these were too unattuned to the life around them to realize they'd run afoul of the very woods they'd looked to have shelter them.
Nor was the village in much better shape--wooden walls were warped and twisted, pales of the palisade erected to offer some guard were fallen, mud refused to stick to the underlying wattle....
At last Gandalf was able to convince them that the poor crops they'd been able to eke from the surrounding land indicated this was poor land for farming, and they allowed him to coax them to move their village some miles to the west, now well clear of the eaves of the forest. Here there was a small patch of wooded land clearly not part of the larger forest, a clear stream running down to feed the Isen, and excellent arable land. Gandalf would have begrudged the delay to his own journey had he not felt that leaving the villagers where they'd settled was tantamount to inviting murder at the roots of the Huorns.
He continued on more rapidly once he was certain the villagers were now safe. In Dunland he was greeted with suspicion; in southern Rhudaur he saw much the same until he turned eastward toward the Redhorn Mountain. Hollin had remained mostly empty, with what few farmsteads and small villages had been established clustering near to the North Road, away from the depths of the lands that had once comprised Eregion. And it was here that he met the Ranger and his companions.
He'd paused along the way toward the gates of Khazad-dûm and was cooking a few fish he'd coaxed from the stream beside which he'd hobbled his horse when he heard the muffled sound of horses' hooves on the leaf-mould that littered the ground and noted the dun swiveling his ears toward the quiet noise. The horses stopped well short of his camping place, and had he not been what he was, it was probable he would not have noted them at all. He did not sense ill intent, although he certainly noted caution, which of course was appropriate to the setting; so he set himself to waiting patiently, laying his hand on his staff to increase what he had in his small skillet--a luxury he'd permitted himself solely because this time he'd come mounted.
They were skilled woodsmen, he thought with respect, for he barely heard a rustle; then he was aware of at least two pairs of eyes examining him from the scrub--perhaps three, but if so.... Suddenly certain of the origin of one of the watchers, he found himself smiling in his beard and wondering how long it would be before the others officially made themselves known. As, however, they appeared willing to remain still and watching for quite some time, he at last said in Adûnaic, "Well, this will burn if you don't soon come forward to share it with me. Did you bring anything in the way of bread with you?"
He heard Elven laughter from high in the tree nearest him, and looked up to see clear grey eyes looking down on him, then turned to see two Men rising behind the nearby scrub. "Elrohir," he called up, "will you remain up there for the duration, or join us for the meal?"
The two Men looked up into the tree also, their eyes full of inquiry, but the son of Elrond was already rapidly descending. "Well met, Mithrandir," the Peredhel greeted him in Sindarin. "And what do you here?"
"I could ask the same of the three of you," the Wizard answered him in the same language. "You are far from Imladris or Annúminas." He examined the two Men's grey cloaks and the silver stars that held them closed, then paused as he recognized the one pinned to the shoulder of the taller of the two. This was one of those of the Dúnedain who was by nature beardless--the Elvish strain was particularly strong in him, Gandalf realized. "And what," he continued again in respectful Adûnaic, "does your father's son do this far south, my Lord Prince? And you might think to bring your mounts here, for there is sufficient grazing and water to allow them to also fill their bellies at their leisure." At a nod from the Elf and a sign from his lord the second Man went quietly back to fetch the horses.
"It is many years since I last saw you, Gandalf," Araval of Annúminas greeted him. "Indeed, the last time I was yet a boy."
"Indeed, it is many years since I was in Eriador, for I have spent much time east of the Misty Mountains amongst the Elves of the upper valley of the Anduin and in Thranduil's realm, watching the movements of the creatures of evil there." Gandalf realized his tone had gone quite formal.
"Yet your tracks indicate you have come from the south and are heading toward the mountains once more," Araval countered as he sat across the small cooking fire from the Wizard. "My father would welcome your counsel, I believe, for there has been more evil introduced into what had been Cardolan."
The Istar straightened, now alert. "What kind of evil?"
"It appears spirits of ill intent are gathering about the mounds of Tyrn Gorthad. A year past, at the height of the winter, there was a riding from the lands of Angmar, and it appears one of that riding was Angmar himself. They skirted the Breelands but headed west along the West Road until they reached the region of the Barrow-downs.
"We don't know precisely what was done there, but we know they brought women and children with them, and that those women and children they brought did not return north with them when they left. It appears they made use of the stone circle just west of the royal cemetery for whatever was done, and our scouts who searched the area afterwards found daubs of blood on many of the standing stones."
Gandalf let an oath of dismay escape him. "More death magic," he said, his spirit disturbed.
"So it appears," Elrohir replied as the second Man returned leading three horses, one a sorrel and the other two dark bays, one of the latter plainly an Elf's steed.
Araval continued solemnly, "Two of those sent to examine the area did not return, and I myself followed their trail in search of them. I found myself surrounded by malevolent spirits, several of which seemed intent on capturing me. If the blood of the Eldar didn't run as truly in me as it appears to do, I suspect I would not have escaped. As it was I could command them to stay clear of me, but I was much drained before I made the Road again. Iarwain came out to me afterwards, saying he'd been summoned from his home by the trees of the Old Forest with word that much grief had occurred. We were joined by Glorfindel, and together we did what we could to bind the evil spirits to the area of the burial mounds themselves, that they not wander freely through the Old Forest or trouble those who Ride the road. But none of us held enough power to cleanse the place or break the spell that gathered them."
Elrohir, his fair face stern, added, "I came there afterwards again with Glorfindel. All cots and villages within two leagues of the mounds of Tyrn Gorthad had been devastated, most of their inhabitants appearing to have died of terror, and some plainly having been possessed. We found only a very few still living, and their spirits were deeply disturbed and their minds broken by the terrors they'd endured. We brought them away, but I doubt any but one single child will ever regain his sanity. As for the child--even he may never fully recover.
"Glorfindel unveiled himself, and the evil ones fled before him, back to the mounds; together he and I did what was necessary to complete the binding attempted earlier. Again, however, we had not sufficient power between us to cleanse them away, only to contain them."
"Evil spirits, you say? Of what origin? Could you tell?"
"Not fully. Some seem to be of unhoused Elves, and a few of those Glorfindel appears to have been able to free. There may have been some of Men, apparently oath-breakers unable to leave Middle Earth due to curses uttered upon them for their infidelity. But most are of unknown origin."
The Wizard gave a deep sigh as he shared out the fish amongst them. "I will need to come there, obviously; and perhaps your father would agree to join me, Elrohir, although what we might do beyond what has been done already I cannot say. Probably little more than to bind them solely within the borders of the necropolis."
"Some of the mounds there are most ancient, dating back to the days before our ancestors went north and east following Eärendil to fight against Angband, while others date from the Dark Years, added by those who dwelt in those lands at the time the stone circle was built," noted Araval.
"Is that why Arnor used it for so long as the royal cemetery?" asked Gandalf. At the Man's nod of assent, he said thoughtfully, "It is likely that most of the wights called there by Angmar centered on those internments from the Dark Years, but they will infest all of the mounds before long, I fear."
"We'll not use it again," Araval said, his tone carefully controlled. "It is perhaps as well that we tend to bury our dead in the earth itself now, as do the folk of the Breelands and the Periannath. It makes it harder for wights to corrupt the burial grounds. Always there has been a feeling of dread hanging about the tumuli from the Dark Years, for many who died then were grievously slain indeed from what any can tell. But to have the tombs of our own folk sullied is a grief beyond telling."
The other Dúnadan asked, "You come now from Gondor, do you not?"
Gandalf nodded. "I have spent much of the last year there. Telumehtar accepted the Winged Crown from his father just ere I left Minas Anor. It appears the land may soon be assaulted by raiders from Umbar, funded by treasure given by Dol Guldur and fed through Rhûn from other lands further east. But in the reports brought from Rhûn by Saruman it appears that another threat builds even further to the east. I was coming north to speak with you and your father, Lord Araval, and with Elrond. However, first I wished to stop by the Dwarf kingdom to confer with Durin. Radagast sent south reports of attacks on their northernmost settlements."
"Then you have heard of the destruction of Kheled-zigal by the dragon already?" asked Araval, obviously relieved.
"Yes. Radagast had no good to say about the affair."
"Two young dragons attempted to settle between there and the passes above Imladris," Elrohir reported, "although one was slain by the defenders and the second flew away northward again when some of our folk came to the aid of the small Dwarf mining community it had attacked. This was a mine for iron and copper. None can say what drew these smaller worms to such places. Certainly Kheled-zigal had no store of treasure, for it was but a fortress meant to keep an eye on the movements of Angmar."
"So Radagast advised me. The smaller settlements on the eastern slopes of the Misty Mountains are all deeply disturbed; and tales are told as well of attacks again being perpetrated on them by orcs. No matter how often the goblin caverns are cleansed more are bred until they return again to full strength." He examined the three of them. "You have as yet to tell me why you are so far south of the lands where your peoples are most secure."
Araval sighed, took another bite of fish, and finally answered, "We came south in part in search of you and your counsel, as I said before. As you move freely east and west, north and south, we thought perhaps you could see more clearly the pattern of the newest of assaults on the free lands. But we two also were accompanying Lord Elrohir toward Laurelindórenan to bring the Lady Arwen back to her father's house. Lords Celeborn and Amroth were to have sent a troop to accompany her over the Dimrill stair, and we are to meet not far to the east of here. We will serve as scouts as we go north again."
Gandalf nodded. "Wise indeed are those ruling Lórien. Then you will not mind if I accompany you toward the gates of Khazad-dûm?"
"Indeed, we would be glad of it."
They camped during the night, and after breaking their fast with smoked meat and waybread, they resumed their journey eastward. Not far north of the western gates to the great Dwarf kingdom they parted for a time, and Gandalf went to seek entrance. The gates, however, were shut, and the door wardens surly. "No one save our own folk are admitted at this time through the western gates," he was told. "If you wish to speak to Durin then go about to the main doors to the eastern vales. It is three days journey from here to the dwelling places of our peoples, past our most productive mines. We will not have outdwellers spying out our secrets."
Seeing this as a somewhat natural response to the assaults on the Dwarves by dragons but nevertheless frustrated, Gandalf turned away north again toward the passes.
"They would not admit you?" asked Elrohir once he'd rejoined the company of Peredhel and the two Dúnedain. "That is most discourteous."
"Considering their own lands and peoples have been attacked, I can understand," Araval commented as he offered Gandalf a share of the ptarmigan he and his fellow had snared for their evening meal. "Although they cannot fault you as you have been absent from Eriador for some years. They cannot expect intelligence on the movements of dragons to the west of the mountains when you have been far to the east."
"I thank you," Gandalf sighed as he offered some of the fruit he'd gathered from the remaining orchards of Eregion he'd passed as he'd returned to them. "But this adds several more days to my journey, for I must now take the Stair over Caradhras if I am to speak with Durin; and I would prefer to do so before I meet with your fathers." He looked up eastward toward the pass, frowning. "Nor am I particularly eager to have to take this horse over that way. There are places here on the western slopes I remember as being particularly narrow and treacherous from my last crossing over of them."
"Those sent by my daeradarwill be mounted, as will be my sister," Elrohir pointed out. "This indicates they and the Dwarves who oversee the upkeep of the pass will have made certain the road is safe. Durin may have little if any love for Elves, but not even he wishes to earn the ire of Amroth and my grandparents."
"I've had little enough to do with Amroth, for he has been usually away to the south at the Havens or east consulting with Thranduil during my own visits to Laurelindórenan," Gandalf commented. "I believe I've spoken with him but twice in all the years I've been in Middle Earth."
"He has been fighting the Sea Longing for several years now," Elrohir admitted. "He has lingered here in the Mortal Lands only for the sake of Nimrodel, who has been unwilling to leave the land of her birth. When I last visited she told me she did not foresee herself ever coming to the shores of Aman, but could not say what might keep her from there.'
The Wizard considered. "Perhaps I should speak with her when I come over the mountains, then, if she will receive me. Never has she been eager to leave her own place above her river when I have met with your daeradar and daernaneth." He sighed. "When are those from the Golden Wood to meet with you?"
"Probably late tomorrow," Elrohir answered him.
"Then perhaps I should begin my own crossing today while the light remains that I not meet them in the narrowest places."
"Would you have us await your return?" asked Araval.
Looking upwards again at the pass, Gandalf slowly shook his head. "Nay, Lord Prince. I may be delayed several days; and if dragons are indeed now becoming restless I would not have the Lady Arwen remain in one place too long lest they see her as prey. However, it was undoubtedly wise you take the western route northward, for orcs are more active at this time east of the mountains, from what I myself have seen and the reports of Radagast and those Dwarves who have sent word to me have told."
He finished the ptarmigan and the fruit, then went to wash his hands at the nearby stream and turned to his horse. With aid from Araval's companion he saw it saddled and bridled, then clapping his great hat on his head he took up his satchel and swung himself into his saddle. He gave the three others a last look. "Go north, but warily. I will follow as I can, and probably will arrive in Imladris shortly after you."
He was on his way down the eastern slopes when he finally met with those who accompanied Arwen westward. Examining the grim expressions on the fair faces of the Elves of Lórien he paused once he'd offered his greetings. "I left Lord Elrohir and his companions a half hour ride from the mouth of the pass," he told them. "They expected you yesterday in the late afternoon."
"There were yrch to be dealt with," explained the leader of the group. "They'd set an ambush not far above the beginning of the Stair. The naugrimwho see to the keeping of the Stair aided us to see all found out and killed, and are even now sealing up the entrance to the cavern the foul creatures had sheltered within. They are also deeply troubled."
"I must speak with Durin, and will bear word of this attack to him, although I don't doubt the Stair keepers will have sent their own report," Gandalf said. He examined Elrond's daughter. "You are well, Lady?" he asked her.
"Yes," she said. Her face was pale, but she was composed enough, and Gandalf sensed an underlying anger to match that of the leader of her guard. "But I am going to insist Glorfindel and my brothers see me trained in the use of a knife at the very least. I need to be able to assist in my own defense should such a situation occur again."
"A wise decision, if a regrettable one, Arwen," he replied. "Well, I saw no other signs of enemies in my own climb up the western slopes. Go with care, and advise your brother and Araval to see to it your journey home is swift and most carefully scouted."
"Araval is come with Elrohir? Then I am to be well guarded indeed, for he is a most canny one, and very gifted with the Sight." With that she smiled. "Go on with you, Gandalf, for my daernanethindicated she was awaiting you." She leaned forward to kiss his cheek, smiling to see the pleasure he showed at the gesture. She signed to the troop leader, and the Elves rode onward, leaving Gandalf with the rest of the way clear before him.
The site of the battle was plain enough, and already a pyre smoldered to rid the pass of the bodies of the slain orcs. Two Elves and four Dwarves were to be seen, the Elves overseeing the burning of the pyre and the Dwarves examining the results of a controlled rock slide they'd caused to seal the entrance to the cavern beyond. "There were about twenty orcs of the mountains," he was told, "but ten more that were far greater, Uruks from Dol Guldur from their gear. How they slipped by the guard on the edges of the Golden Wood we are uncertain."
With that much more intelligence, Gandalf turned into the Dimril Dale to seek the eastern doors to the ancient realm of Dúrin.
"What can I tell you?" asked Durin VI over their beakers of mead. "Khazad-dûm itself has not been attacked again in over a hundred years; but once again the smaller settlements, fortresses, mines, and workshops are under threat. The orcs of the mountains are now often joined by larger breeds from east of the River, it seems."
"Have there been any more breaches in the galleries where your miners work?" Gandalf asked. "The stories from your father's day were not good."
"We opened into a tunnel and some caverns obviously once used by orcs, there some sixty years back; but exploration proved they were empty of all but bones. There was evidence some pestilence struck its inhabitants, and all but a few appear to have died. Those who survived appear to have left hastily. Our people went through and found and blocked all entrances from the south and east, and caved in all but one of the tunnels leading toward the mountainside, and we keep a strict watch on that.
"We've also found two dens for cave trolls, one of them inhabited at the time. The two inhabitants of that den will not trouble us again."
"And you continue to remember not to follow veins of precious metals down toward the roots of the Mountains? To dig greedily or deeply could lead you to worse finds than orc holds and troll dens."
Durin's face grew stony. "Do you think to guide our actions, Tharkûn? We will not allow any to do so--we never gave in to the rule the Dark One sought to impose through the rings gifted us, and we will not allow those who dwell on the skin of the world to dictate limits to our delving now."
Gandalf felt deeply troubled. "No, Sauron never ruled you--but he yet infected the holders of his gifts with greed and suspicion toward those alongside whom they must dwell. I tell you yet again that there are horrors imprisoned under the pillars of Middle Earth, and they must not be freed."
"I will keep your warning in mind," Durin grumbled.
Gandalf left shortly before sunset, desiring to spend the night out under the open sky and stars. Why he found the Dwarrowdelf oppressive, for all its beauty and majesty, and particularly at night, he could not say, but he found himself unwilling to sleep there if he could help it.
It was long after twilight that he finally crossed the stream of Nimrodel, much eased to hear its clear singing. Then he heard yet another voice singing, above him this time in one of the few great mellyrnthat grew close to the edge of the realm of the Golden Wood. His heart lifted the more, and at last he lifted his own voice to join that of the singer.
Rarely did Gandalf let his true Voice free here in Middle Earth, but Laurelindórenan was not precisely a part of the Mortal Lands; feeling free of the constraints set on him by his form of service, he offered a deeper counterpoint to the song sung by the Lady Nimrodel and her stream. The true Lady of the Wood paused in her own song in astonishment, then rejoined the song, the two voices blending with that of the joyful water, singing of growth and peace and starlight under a shifting golden roof as she descended from her home to sit upon one of the lowest boughs of the mallorn where she could rejoice in the Light of her visitor. When at last the song went still they remained, Gandalf sitting on the back of his mount, Nimrodel on her limb, listening to the water echo back the final strains.
At last she spoke. "Welcome, Olórin. And what brings you here to our realm?"
He smiled up at her. "A need for peace after too many rumors of war and selfish policy, my Lady Nimrodel. And to join your song is a joy of its own."
She shrugged. "Never had I thought to sing alongside one such as you, Lord Mithrandir."
"No lord I, lady--merely the grey pilgrim your people have named me."
"Pish!" she responded, shaking her head. "It is true I never trod the shores of Aman as did our beloved Galadriel, but I have heard enough of the Song to appreciate your true nature, even if the honor accorded you by Artanis did not make your identity plain. She is even now making her way here, alongside Celeborn and my Lord Amroth. How long will you stay with us?"
"No more than two nights might I spare at this time, for I have reports to carry further northward, to Arveleg and Araval, Elrond, Glorfindel, Erestor and Lindir, Galdor and Círdan."
"There have been no further outbreaks of the plague of the black boils?"
"No, none in well over a hundred years, for which we offer thanks to Ilúvatar and the Powers."
She nodded thoughtfully. "Yet reports reach us of a pox that has begun to be seen amongst the folk of Rhovanion. It appears to have first been seen near the borders of Dol Guldur, starting perhaps three months past."
"Stars and Moon!" exclaimed the Wizard. "So, he sends out yet another plague to trouble the Men of Middle Earth?"
"So it would seem."
"Then I would best leave tomorrow," he sighed. "Elrond may have a strategy to fight it." He slipped from his horse and stretched, then loosened the cinch for the saddle the dun wore.
Nimrodel went back up into her home high in the tree and brought back wine and a light repast, and once his horse was groomed and resting under the trees Gandalf joined her, both seated upon a great root for her home tree, speaking quietly of the further news he brought as they ate. At last she sighed. "I agree with those who see the hand of Sauron in this," she said. "Why it is that Curunír refuses to accept the Necromancer is our old Enemy I cannot say. He continues to grow in strength, while the number of our folk left in Middle Earth continues to diminish. Pelastor sent word two cycles of the Moon ago that his son will lead a number of his folk west to Mithlond in the fall of the year to take ship for Eressëa. And the Valar know that Amroth is eager to follow them. Even now a ship is under construction at the southern Haven on his command. He would not willingly linger until the Cursèd One again has reached his full power."
"I have heard tell," Gandalf said with as much delicacy as he could muster, "that you would rather remain here, in Middle Earth."
She gave him a straight look. "I have not seen either myself or my beloved Amroth arriving there, not on any grey ship. Nay, I fear our fate lies on this side of the Straight Path."
"You have told him this?"
"Would you tell anyone you love that you know the form of death that awaits him? Or yourself?"
"You see death for yourself and him?"
She did not answer, merely continued her steady gaze until he at last looked away, reaching for her hand and holding it gently.
"You will find, lady, that it is not as horrible as you might think," he said very quietly. "I will not say it is comfortable--too many mortals have I now seen die of too many causes to say such a thing, and too many more will I stand beside before I return to Aman--if I ever do, which itself is still uncertain. The losing of the integrity of the body can be terrible--that I will admit; but once free of it--you will be surprised at the freedom you find, and the comfort you will know in Námo's Halls. And there is the promise that the two of you, when you are ready, may be rehoused and know the peace of the Blessed Realm as is proper for your kind."
"Thank you, Olórin," she said softly. "You comfort me. But I will not allow them to take me easily."
"Do not, lady. And do not let the Enemy have you alive."
There were no veils between them as each saw into the heart of the other. She was very pale in the starlight. At last she answered him, her voice steady and determined, "I will not."