Stirring Rings: 24. The Deep Breath Before the Plunge

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24. The Deep Breath Before the Plunge

The Deep Breath Before the Plunge

Araphant sat upon the high seat within Fornost and listened to what Gandalf had to say--Pelendur, Steward of Gondor, had agreed with the rest of the Council of the southern realm to accept the claim of Eärnil for the Winged Crown, and now that former general sat upon the throne of Gondor where he ruled wisely enough, if not brilliantly. He remained a more than canny commander of armies, but he'd quickly become jaded by the political maneuvering of the lords of Gondor. "However," Gandalf noted, "he has shown himself to be the lord of his own Council, and has sent this with the reluctant agreement of them all."

He surrendered the document he carried to Arvedui, who sat today in the Steward's seat on the lower step of the dais. Araphant's son accepted it readily enough, examining the seal and lifting it handily, swiftly scanning the text it contained before passing it on to his father. At last the King of Arnor lifted his eyes to the face of Gandalf. "He intends to continue to honor the treaty. I pray that this will be enough to protect both lands from the losses we have foreseen."

"And what have you foreseen, my lord?" Gandalf asked.

Araphant looked first at his son and then back to the Wizard. "Both my son and I have seen visions of major assaults on both lands, north and south, and a vast army filling much of Eriador, with our troops fleeing westward. I have seen orcs overrunning the city of Annúminas, and he has seen the Witch-king himself entering the gates of Fornost here, flames and smoke filling the sky."

Arvedui rose and stepped down off the low dais, pacing past the Wizard toward a window embrasure where he stopped, his hands upon the sill as he looked out across the great keep. At last he spoke. "I do not see myself serving as King for very long once I come to that office, Gandalf. Our spies tell us that within Angmar the Witch-king is building up now a number of smaller armies and sending them south from east of the Mountains of Mist into the lands holding the headwaters of the Anduin, testing them against the foresters and wandering Elven tribes of those lands, with some going so far south as to enter the ranges of the Éothéod. We have sent two battalions across the passes above Imladris to their aid, but they have not yet returned to us.

"Lately he has begun to do the same on this side of the mountains. When he believes he has strong enough forces he will mass them all against us, and probably have them enter Arthedain across the breadth of our northern borders. The brown lands cannot bring much to bear against us for another twenty-five years or so, but only because the last plague destroyed so many of their people, for with both those of Rhudaur and us turning back all at the borders that is where the disease burned itself out this time. Those of lower Rhudaur are now roiling, but will send only small warbands across the borders there to harass our closer settlements and villages for the present. Perhaps twenty more years will we know relative peace, for not yet has Angmar's army reached its full strength. At least there, too, Dol Guldur's last plague rebounded to its own detriment. But once the Dunlendings and the folk of Angmar are able to once more field armies to match those of Rhudaur they will come, and in force."

Fíriel, who'd remained in her chair beside that of her husband on the lowest step of the dais, watched after Arvedui with a thoughtful expression and sighed. "We have had the last two years to build up our own forces, beloved." She looked over her shoulder at her husband's father. "I have given over my anger at Pelendur's refusal to accept Arvedui and my own claim, but am glad he has agreed to honor that of Eärnil at least. My cousin Eärnil is an honorable Man. He will do well by Gondor, I am certain, and will do his best to meet the terms of the treaty."

Araphant looked from his son to his son's wife, nodded his agreement. "All we can do is to prepare as best we can for the coming storm. The Witch-king is waxing again in power, and his people would do anything demanded by him in terror for what would befall if they fail to obey. How it is that the Nazgûl continue after the loss of Sauron's great Ring I do not know; but it is plain that they do so. Have any of those who have studied the making of the great Rings been able to explain how this has happened?"

Gandalf shrugged--this had become a sore subject between himself and Saruman, for Saruman was jealous of what information he'd garnered on the making of the Rings of Power. "All that I can imagine is that since the Ring is lost but not unmade, the other rings continue in full potency."

"And what if the Ring is found again?"

Gandalf took a deep breath and held it for a moment. "Then," he finally said, "I must suppose that all of us will be lost, if it is found and returns to the Enemy's hand."

"I know that Saruman refuses to consider the lord of Dol Guldur to be Sauron," Arvedui said, examining the Wizard's visage closely. "What think you?"

Gandalf shrugged, plainly frustrated. "I have long felt that this Enemy might well be Sauron in but another guise. As to how we test such a thing--I cannot say. Certainly none who has ever gone into Dol Guldur from among those who have ever fought the Shadow has ever come out again."

"Khamûl is said to be the Necromancer's lieutenant, and Angmar freely entertains those who served ever as Sauron's allies and worshippers," Araphant pointed out. "Certainly Angmar's actions and those of the brown lands and Rhudaur ever appear to suit the whims of Dol Guldur, and usually appear to work to complement one another. If the Necromancer is not Sauron, then who else might he be? Why does the White Wizard ever fight against the idea that he is our ancient Enemy, biding his time?"

"Saruman has ever been subtle and secret in his thinking, and takes any questioning of his thought ill."

After another short time of silence, Fíriel asked, "How can we be certain that the Ring does not fall into the hands of the Enemy, whether he is indeed Sauron or another come to take his place? Where was it the Ring was lost?"

"In the great river," her husband's father answered. "So it is written in our annals. Isildur had a locket wrought in which to carry It, and wore that locket on a chain about his neck. As he traveled northwards back to Arnor to reunite with his wife and youngest son, his company was beset by orcs. When it became obvious that this band of orcs was subject to a madness of killing and were too numerous to be defeated easily, Isildur's oldest son Elendur commanded his father to put on the Ring and allow himself to become invisible, and to flee the assault to find safety, that the High King not be lost. Elendur and his two next brothers sacrificed themselves for their father, knowing that their youngest brother Valandil remained in safety in Imladris and that he would not be heirless.

"No one knows why this band of orcs was so vicious and persistent, particularly as Sauron himself had been so defeated. Perhaps it was merely the will of the Ring Itself, desiring to be found by those who could be moved to carry It where It might be restored to Its Master's hand. Apparently they had trackers among them who followed Isildur's scent all of the way to the river. There he dove into the water, hoping to lose the trackers. However, the Ring betrayed him, changing Its size and slipping from his finger, leaving him a target for orc archers. It was his esquire who managed to return the Shards of Narsil and what other items there were to return; but the original Elendilmir was lost with him, as well as the locket in which he'd carried the Ring. His body and the Ring were lost to the river."

"Then It could lie there still," she pointed out, "merely waiting to be found by one of the Enemy's creatures and so restored to him."

"Saruman thinks not," Gandalf said. "He believes It was taken by the river's current and rolled out to the Sea."

"A golden ring filled with so much malice?" Fíriel scoffed. "And one made for Sauron's hand? Weighted with hatred It would be. Would It not sink to the bottom and lie on the sand or bury Itself in mud, if the water moved slowly enough to allow for such? Perhaps It could not move on Its own; but if It could change Its size at will, would It not do all It could do to remain where It might one day be recovered? Nay, I cannot think such a thing would allow Itself to be taken by the current. Even plain gold rings, if they are solid, tend to sink to the bottom and remain there. So it was with the ring my mother lost in the river--eight years later my brother swam in the same area and found it again, probably not three yards downstream of where she dropped it."

Gandalf considered her, for what she said made a good deal of sense.

"Where is it that Isildur died along the river?" she continued.

"Near the Gladden Fields," her husband told her. "I've not been to that area."

"I was once, very long ago," Araphant said. "There is a marshy area where once there was a large lake along the course of the river, a lake that has gradually grown shallower as it has filled with silt. Even if the Ring were there still, It could be buried now under many feet of boggy earth. Finding It would be difficult, while retrieving It could be nigh impossible."

"Better so lost, perhaps," Arvedui responded, "than that it go back to him."

"But in such marshy areas river beds change frequently, and even sunken lands may rise once more," Gandalf noted, his voice very troubled. "There is the ancient story of the wedding token flung into the river that was found in the stomach of a fish brought in to be served for dinner. Although I grieve for any creature sufficiently foolish as to swallow that."

They exchanged looks with one another. What if It were to be found once again? Fíriel shuddered visibly, and those with her could not blame her.

*******

A few days later Gandalf was met at the crossing of the Bruinen by Elrond's sons. "Eärnil is now King of Gondor, then?" asked Elladan.

"Yes."

Elrohir glanced northward. "Angmar makes ready his next offensive. He is not yet ready, but he prepares thoroughly for when he is so."

"And how do Araphant and Arvedui take the news?" Elladan asked.

"Well enough," the Wizard admitted. "At least Pelendur has allowed this; but how much evil his envy will have wrought in the long run who can yet say?" He moved his horse into the water of the ford, and immediately the two younger Peredhilturned to follow him. As they splashed out the other side, Gandalf's mount shook a hind hoof decidedly as if shaking off the cold of the water.

As they rode along the last of the track into the vale of Imladris itself Elladan added, "And there is one further note. Malbeth made still another prophecy, this time regarding the Paths of the Dead and the Heir to Isildur. He has become ill, and lies in the home of a kinsman here in the Angle. Adar does not believe he will live a great time longer at this point."

"The creeping sickness?" Gandalf asked.

Both the young Peredhilnodded. Elrohir said, "A growth even now attacks his lungs. He is in a great deal of pain."

"Tell me the words of the prophecy," asked the Istar. Elrohir spoke it, and Gandalf nodded thoughtfully. "Need will drive him, he says? Indeed, only one who is driven by need will follow such a path, for it is dark and fell indeed. Although some of those of Calenhardon will climb to the shelf of the shadowed hallow, none will go so far as the clefts that lead to the door last passed by the Oathbreakers. I am told the curse uttered by Isildur was very potent, and those who cannot now pass from the Bounds of Arda remain filled with fury that they are so bound. Their rage against the living who come near what they see as their place is enough to cause the death of those who seek to trespass."

They rode on and soon entered Elrond's great house, and they were greeted by Arwen. "Adais in council, and will be glad to have you join them. There has come another report of dragons abroad."

A number of northern Dwarves sat with Elrond, Glorfindel, Erestor, and others of Elrond's household. "It was the red dragon again," one was saying as Gandalf and Elrond's sons entered and took empty seats about the porch where they were met. "He is larger than he was the last time when he assaulted our delvings of northern Kheled-marûz. We have come to call him Smaug. He sought this time to enter one of our settlements in the northern Blue Mountains, only we have kept watchers there. The ravens of the Blue Mountains are in league with us, and brought us word of his coming, and we had archers on hand who were able to drive him off. One arrow apparently pierced his wing, and a second his tail; neither was enough to cripple him, however. He flew northward once more."

Another more venerable Dwarf rasped, "A few of our remaining kinsmen from north of the border of Angmar were able to find their way across the borders southward. This red Smaug two centuries ago took an ancient dwelling of our people there, and has amassed a great deal of treasure. But it appears that the Witch-king has been persuading him that there are riches in vast quantities suitable for a dragon hoard for those of his kind who will seek to enter our lands south of Angmar.

"Between the archers of the Elves east of Khazad-dûm and the valiant nature of those of Kheled-marûz he was driven off the first time, and he has found the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains well prepared for his coming this time. But if he becomes sufficiently determined there will come the day when he will find one of our settlements with too few guards to keep him out and all will be lost. And the longer he lives the more vicious he will be, and the bigger and the more devastating his fire will become. We Dwarves have dealt with firedrakes before, after all."

But the question of how the Dwarves might protect themselves better against such dangerous beasts was not answered--only in vigilance and forewarning and keeping a force of archers ever ready might they be able to fend off further incursions.

It was after the Dwarves had been shown to rooms where they might be housed during their stay that Elrond invited Gandalf to the library for a more private discussion.

"There is more that you have not had the chance to hear and that was very pointedly not mentioned in today's council," Elrond said quietly. "One of the lesser lords of Khazad-dûm made a point of meeting Celebrían's party when she came out of Laurelindórenan the last time and having a quiet word with her. In the last assault on the eastern slopes of the mountains a new settlement was attacked. There had been no time for those who had begun the new settlement to garner riches or craft great works. He who led those who entered the mountains there to found this new realm was the heir to one of those Dwarf lords of old who had been given one of the Seven. All were slain save three who were able to escape, but the blue dragon, apparently a female, was fatally wounded in the defense."

"No one had told us that one of the settlements had been emptied," Gandalf said, his concern growing even greater. "And he was heir to one of the remaining Rings of Power, you say? Did he die?"

"Swallowed up by the dragon just within the gates," Elrond confirmed.

The two considered one another. At last Gandalf straightened, very troubled. "There is but one reason why this news was not shared then--there remains but one Dwarven Ring."

"Yes--apparently the Ring of Dúrin himself."

The Wizard nodded thoughtfully. "The Enemy will begin focusing his attacks there on Khazad-dûm itself, and will ring it about with orcs and trolls and--whatever other creatures might be at his command."

"And it is to be noted that the archers of Lórien involved themselves in the defense in that assault. My wife's nanethis often quiet about what she sees or has seen due to her foresight. If she foresaw a reach for one of the Rings, she would have seen to it such defenses were readied, and yet might well have failed to speak of it to the rest of the Council, particularly as when we met last Saruman was one of those present. Nor would she be likely to speak before such as Pelendur."

"What of this blue dragon?"

"From what was said before, it is definite that she died as a result of the wounds she suffered. Those they told of who came over the border from Angmar have not seen her since came south before the last assault before we came to Gondor, although the red one, this Smaug, has been seen several times."

"From what I have been able to learn there have been few enough dragons left within Middle Earth in this past age. If there are but one or two remaining, that means that much less of a threat to the rest of the Free Peoples."

Elrond nodded thoughtfully. "So it would be indeed. We should be grateful that the wounds suffered by the blue dragon were fatal, particularly if it was indeed a female. We certainly don't need them breeding and adding that much more to our worries. Now, tell me what news my fosterlings have sent."

*******

Accompanied by Elrohir, Gandalf left Imladris with many concerns on his mind. The village of Bree and the lands about it, he noted, were apparently prosperous, and he spent two days in the new inn there. The old one had been of rough timber; this was beam and post construction with combinations of chalk and plaster set between the great beams of wood that were used to define the shape of the building. A dike had been dug, and combinations of palisades of wood and hedges served as rudimentary defenses to the village itself. Staddle, on the eastern side of the great Bree Hill, was also surrounded by a dike and a wooden wall; the smaller villages of Archet and Combe had no dikes, but rudimentary walls about them. Hobbits continued to live within Bree, most digging into the sides of Bree Hill where it rose up more steeply behind the houses and shops of the Big Folk of the village.

"And how might I be of further service to ye, Masters?" asked the innkeeper, a rather slender one for this land where there was little enough difference between Hobbit and Men beyond height and feet. "Ye found yer room comfortable enough, I hope?"

"Indeed we did, Master Butterbur," the Wizard hastened to assure him. "A most pleasant thing, to sleep so well in so soft a bed."

Butterbur's face lit with satisfaction. "We do aim to please," he assured his guests. "And we hope as ye'll send more our way--we are pleased to host as many as wish to visit with us. But if there's aught else as would please ye ere ye go?"

Gandalf wracked his brains, as he didn't really need anything further. At last he suggested, "Perhaps if you have a bottle of wine we might take with us--that would be pleasant."

So it was that he and Elrohir found themselves headed west carrying with them a stoneware flask of wine, the cork sealed with beeswax. "What do you plan to do with that?" the Peredhel asked.

"Perhaps share it with whatever Hobbits we might fall in with," Gandalf suggested. "They continue to be wonderful hosts, once you manage to find one who isn't fearful of us as Big Folk."

Together they rode steadily westward, pausing once to eat and stretch in a glade opposite the Barrow-downs. "Gildor's folk keep this glade open," Elrohir noted, "that as they pass east and west they might keep an eye upon the activities of the wights opposite. Little enough terrors do they hold for us; but if they were to break free of the boundaries set upon them by you and our adar, much terror and destruction could they loose upon the Breelands and the Shire. The tale is that they have become deeply bitter since they were so bound, and that when folk come among them they are vicious indeed. Perhaps two Men have escaped them in the past hundred sun-rounds, one of those remaining witless for the remainder of his life."

The Wizard cast a thoughtful glance at the nearest tumulus as he ate one of the apples Elrond's son had brought from Imladris. He opened himself as he could for whatever knowledge might be shared with him regarding the tombs of Cardolan, but no wisdom was vouschafed him--or was it?

He saw a vision of one bearing the Light of Stars within him crossing with purpose into the Barrow-downs, the wights rising to threaten him. Then he saw that one again, older, wiser, bearing a familiar brooch set with a green stone upon his breast, approaching the same place anew, the Star of Elendil flaming upon his brow, a familiar form at his side, another with the glow of the Sun about him also advancing with equal purpose....

The one he'd seen had brought to mind others he'd known long ago----

A wounded form, one arm ending at a heavily scarred stump, the memories of pain, terror, and great grief finally easing away as he and she who'd accepted his love knew at last a time of peace within Arda before they accepted the Gift....

One covered with the dust of opals and pearls, glistening as he paused in the act of leaving an abamdoned city, the brooch the one of his vision had worn shining upon his breast; the last Silmaril carried in his hand adding to the unearthly luster with which he'd glowed....

One standing on the prow of his ship, then leaping into the Sea, offering himself to Ulmo's cleansing ere he step foot upon the Land of Gift....

A proven warrior counseling his father to flee to safety, knowing he and the two brothers with him as well as their Men were perhaps sacrificing themselves in vain....

But the Ring had robbed that sacrifice of its hoped-for fruit. It had called for the assault by the orcs; It had goaded them to keep following Isildur's scent as he followed the orders given to him by his son Elendur and raced toward the River, hoping to elude them; Ithad changed Its size in Its fear the King might escape Its wrath, abandoning and betraying him to his death, also.

And in doing so, the Ring had inadvertently betrayed Itself. It could not move Itself from place to place; and having been born in Fire It required some degree of warmth in order to remain sufficiently aware to call to It the creatures Its fell master and his predecessor had loosed upon Middle Earth. Lost in the river and kept cool by its water, perhaps as Saruman insisted carried unto the Sea itself, It was helpless, for in quantity Water held quenching power over Fire.

Gandalf glanced aside at the son of Elrond and Celebrían. The one who now wore that brooch was Elrohir's own mother, and the one who'd been at the side of the King who wore it in his vision had been.... He took a deep breath and held it momentarily. Would Arwen Undómiel truly find her heart stirred at long last by a descendant of her adar's brother--the heir to Isildur, Valandil, Araphant and Arvedui? AndFíriel, he thought once again--heir to Anárion as well as to Isildur. And the children they might produce would carry the full legacy of the Children of Eärendil and Elwing. Gandalf took another deep breath.

He thought again to the prophecy of Malbeth the Seer he had recounted to Saruman as well as that Círdan had shared with Pelendur's council. Was that the meaning--that the progeny of both sons of Eärendil must one day wed to reunite his lineage? How would Elrond, much less his wife and this one and his twin brother, react to the idea of losing Arwen to a marriage with a mortal, even if he were indeed one of Elros's issue?

He shivered, realizing this was one vision he had no intention of sharing with Elrond Eärendilion at any time within the foreseeable future.

*******

They approached the King's Bridge at sunset and crossed over it. There was now a notable village here, one to which traders from among Hobbits, Dwarves, Men, and even on odd occasions Elves would come, as they did also within Bree, at regular times throughout the year, forming a markedly diverse and unique marketplace. Elf and Wizard were greeted by the quiet stares of the residents of this land. No longer, Gandalf realize, would he be able easily to pass unnoticed through the land of the Shire, not with such villages as this along its ways.

"They do well here in the lands Argeleb gave them," Elrohir noted quietly, looking on the rich fields and lush woodlands they passed. Gandalf had to agree.

It was decided they would turn somewhat southwards to explore the lands west of the Baranduin. This was a rich bottomland region, and even under the darkening light they could they see it was filled with growing fields, interspersed here and there with farmhouses and barns and byres. As they continued on their way on small farm lanes and down bridle paths the twilight deepened into a sparkling night. At one point Elrohir halted his horse and sat, listening to the rhythms of the land, wind, and the creatures round about. A vole scurried across the lane before them, followed by a fox that appeared more intent on enjoying a run through the night rather than actually capturing a meal. A small owl looked down on them from the poplar that grew to their right, giving a small hoot of question. They could smell the tang of woodsmoke flavored with rich cooking smells from a nearby mound----

"That's no hillock," Gandalf murmured quietly to his companion. "A Hobbit house, and how well disguised to blend right into the countryside!"

Elrohir's smile of approval could be seen in the light given by stars and a waning moon. "A proper people for the land," he said approvingly. "Argeleb did well in granting this to the Periannath."

"'Twasn't Periannathwhat the King give the Shire to," corrected a voice from nearby. "'Twere Marcho and Blanco of the Tooks, it was. Me granfer tol' me that, comin' as he did from the Tooklands in the Green Hills country."

Neither Elf nor Wizard had noticed the Hobbit who leaned upon the nearby gatepost. Even now he was hard to discern from his surroundings until his eyes caught the light of the Moon. Elrohir straightened, examining what could be seen of the fellow. "I meant no disrespect to your folk or to the King. 'Periannath' is merely our name for your people, you must understand."

"Oh, well, if'n that's what that means then. Don't think as I've heard that word afore." The Hobbit straightened. "And what're Big Ones such as you doin' here in the Marish?" he asked, although without much in the way of suspicion to his voice. "We don't see many o' yours strayin' far from the Road, y'see."

"I doubt you'd see many of my people at any time," Elrohir replied. "We also tend to go unnoted at most times. Nay, we thought only to examine the lands roundabout and see what your people have done with them. You've made of the Shire a rich and pleasant country, one that you have reason to treasure. It has been many sun-rounds since I last passed through what had been Cardolan, and to see it again filled with burgeoning fields and husbanded greenwoods is a delight."

"Then you wasn't sent by the King?" the Hobbit asked them.

"No," Gandalf answered him, "although I was with him and his son and his son's wife but a month or more back. He spoke well of your folk's stewardship of the bridge and roads, and of your courtesy toward the messengers he must at times send westward."

The voice of the Hobbit was warmer yet when he answered, "That's right good to hear, it is. Have you had your supper as yet? We'd be well pleased to invite the two o' ye to join us, m' wife'n' me, if'n ye hadn't."

So it was that Gandalf found himself leading Elrohir into the hole. "Ouch! Oh, and my friend, mind the beams--they're rather low, I find."

The Peredhelsmiled as he was led into the main room of the place. It was a large room with higher ceilings than the entrance passage. At one side were comfortable seats about a great hearth; at the other was a second fireplace with cooking hearth, table, benches, and workspaces. From the ceiling hung hams and root vegetables in netting and bags of herbs.

"M'dear one--here's two as is friends o' the King hisself. Hope as ye don't mind, sweetling, but I've invited them to join us for supper."

And so it was that Gandalf and Elrohir became guests of Terko and Beryl of the Marish. Beryl was a bright-eyed Hobbitess obviously well-advanced in pregnancy. "Don't know for certain as to when the bairn is due," she admitted. "Very soon, I'd think, though it's not dropped in the womb as yet."

The food was excellent and the company even better. "I've been a'lookin' 'cross the river, I have," Terko sighed. "But then that's been true o' me whole family, I think. Certainly me granfer says 'twas true of our great-father Modoc as he wished as he could dig his smial there in the ridge east o' the Barandiwine."

"That was Modoc's wish, was it?" Gandalf asked, smiling in memory of meeting Modoc in the wilderness south of Tharbad.

"Indeed yes. Me granfer come back here to the Marish and took farmland and begun raisin' his family; but we all still end up when there's time fer it, there by the river's bank, lookin' at the fair land there we'd like to make our own. Can ye tell me of it?"

"I can tell you some," admitted Elrohir, "for I saw Cardolan rise and fall again."

They bedded down before the fireplace, and woke early and together split wood in payment for their night's lodging before taking their leave of their genial hosts and continuing onwards.

Near the center of the Shire they overtook a fair-faced Hobbit who was plainly of Fallohide descent leading a donkey toward the Green Hills country. "Greetings to you, friend," Gandalf called. "And how does the day treat you?" With unspoken agreement he and the Peredheldropped to the ground, prepared to lead their horses for a time.

The Hobbit eyed Wizard and Elf with delighted interest, sweeping into a deep bow. "Greetings to you as well," he said, smiling broadly as he fixed his interest on Elrohir. "Another Elf! You are the second I've seen, sir, although I admit saw the other but briefly, for he did not travel openly as do you. But his hair was fair where yours is dark. I am Drogo Bagger, at your service."

"Gandalf the Wizard at that of you and your family, and this is Elrohir of the Peredhilwho accompanies me westward."

"Do you go to the great delvings they do in the White Downs?" asked Drogo. "They say it is good land for sheep, and I'd thought to go there for a time, mayhaps."

"And for what reason do they delve there?" asked Elrohir as they resumed the walk westward.

"There was thought of perhaps starting a great smial there, but the hills of the Downs for the most part are too low for good windows, and the soil not right for boring of proper ventilation shafts. But they have found it a good source of material for the maintenance of the roads, and there's talk of using the burrows for storage of foods for lean years. Few vermin appear to like to dig their holes there to any depth."

"Is that where you go today?" Gandalf asked.

"Nay--today I must go to my kin amongst the Tooks--my father is selling the Took this one, and I must deliver her. Belle here is a good donkey, and I shall miss her, I will; but they've more need for her amongst the Tooks than we do where we dwell over the Hill."

"Will you stay in the Tooks' lands then the night?"

"Two days, mayhaps; but I must be home again after that. We're to meet with the Sackinses from Sackville in four days' time to discuss what we'll do from here. We're all kin, you see--the Sackinses and the Baggerses. Some of the Sackinses wish to join again with the Baggerses, but some don't, so I suspect at there'll be a right row in the end, for those of the Sackinses as don't wish to rejoin the family tend to be right stubborn, they do."

It was a cheerful walk, for it appeared that Drogo Baggers had been made for singing, and he was soon singing a variety of songs for them, some traditional songs of the Shire, he told them, and some of them songs he admitted were of his own composition. At last he turned from them, headed toward the homes of his Took kin in the Green Hills country, and they continued onward. All appeared peaceful, and there were signs of plenty--rich fields, orchards where the fruit swelled on the trees, good flocks of sheep on the hillsides. They were watched with curiosity and nowhere the suspicion such as they might have sparked in the past, although no others hailed them.

*******

Their return journey was not as pleasant for them, however, for Círdan was serious in his mien and spoke of strange ships challenging the ships of both Men and Elves. These came mostly from the south, although a few apparently came from Angmar as well. What it was they carried none could say, but it was obvious that Arvedui and his father would do well to tighten the watch again upon the borders for signs of more plagues to be loosed.

As they crossed the Water going eastward they saw a fair number of Hobbits upon the road, among them Drogo Bagger and what appeared to be his father facing a rather beefy Hobbit somewhat shorter than they who was dragging on the wrist of a very pretty young Hobbitess. "And I'm saying, Bagger, as I'm not allowin' my Platina to marry your son. He's give to odd dreamin's, he is, what with his song-makin' and talk o' Elves and Wizards and all."

"I'll remind you, Orthino, that we've changed our name from Bagger to Baggins as most of the Sackinses have chosen to rejoin the family. And if my Drogo says he's seen Elves and Wizards, I'd say he has. He's not given to lying, I'll have you know."

"And when have Elves ever let themselves be seen here in the Shire?" sneered Orthino.

Elrohir exchanged glances with Gandalf, gave an amused smile, and stepped forward almost into the midst of the gathered Hobbits before he was noted. "Would you say, Master," he asked, "that I hide myself away--I or my companion, Gandalf the Grey?" He indicated where the Istar stood at the back of the crowd, and all turned, faces surprised to look at two so tall figures. "We met young Drogo here some days past when we traveled westward. And ever have we of the Firstborn honored those who sing and compose songs."

The one called Orthino merely stood, his eyes goggling. At least in his shock his grip on the Hobbitess loosened, and she was able to pull away from him. Gandalf could see that the place where he'd gripped her arm was red and likely to bruise in time. "I told ye, A'da," she said, shaking herself and straightening, "that I'd not be part of those as choose to call themselves Sackvilles, and I'll not stop in Sackville no more. It's long and long enough as I've loved Drogo, and I'll not be held from him no longer, neither. I'm no wee lass for ye to be a'tellin' me as to how I'm t'come and t'go throughout the day; I'm healer-trained--and again against yer will, that; I can certainly make my own way in the world even if Drogo failed to care for me proper.

"But he's not that way, and ye know it well enough. He's a fine Hobbit, and one t'be proud of, and as industrious a one as I've ever seen. Those as have had him aid in the buildin' of homes and diggin' of smials have never regretted it, and he's certainly one as can provide fer us and any family as we might produce. Now, it seems t'me as ye have but two choices--come t'our weddin' and wish us well, or don't and don't bother us no more, but in the doin' of such lose all chance to know the love of whatever grandchildren as we might of give ye."

Orthino went white, then red with rage; but several others of those about stepped forward to come between him and Platina, their arms crossed. One was shaking his head. "As family head for those of us as decided t'call ourselves Sackvilles, I've agreed t'much as ye've demanded of young Drogo here, Orthino; and so far he's managed to meet every obstacle as ye've set in his way. It's time fer it t'stop, here and now. He may be a dreamer, this Drogo Baggins as he's t'be known from here on, but he's no idle one--never has been. His dad'n' him run a good farm, and he's as good a one with his hands as I've ever seen. He's loved yer lass for some years, has been constant in that love, and has no reputation as one as is loose with any other lasses. That you don't care fer him counts not two pins with yer Platina here--as she says, if'n ye had no wish to see the two of them and their children when they come, that's yer loss'n' not so much theirs.

"Now, Drogo Baggers--Baggins, I mean t'say--Drogo'n' me'll most like not be particular close, but that's 'cause we've not much in common, not fer any lack in him nor me. But for all as we'll never be friends o' any kind, I have to respect him as one as has integrity, steadiness, and the ability to see what I simply can't see 'cause I haven't the imagination. Now, are ye a'goin' to dance at yer daughter's weddin' or not?"

A muscle in Orthino's cheek twitched ominously. At last he said, his voice stiff with anger, "Then mebbe it's not a Sackville as I'd wish t'be known, neither, if'n ye'll stand atween a Hobbit'n' his daughter, Bardo. Dance at their weddin' when she's defyin' her a'da'n' her family to tie herself to this'un? I think not! Na, I'm back off t'Hardbottle t'tell her mother as she's no longer t'worry about the wilfulness of this'un as is no longer a daughter of us."

As he started to turn away, Bardo demanded, "Ye'll not even admit t'bein' a Sackville, then, will ye? Than what family name d'ye take t'yerself and the rest of yer children?"

Orthino turned and looked at Bardo for some time, the muscle in his cheek continuing to show its tic. Finally he said, "From me own a'da I've learned t'girdle the trees as need t'be cut down. Ye can know me for a Bracegirdle, then." So saying, he turned away once more, calling over his shoulder, "Meristo, ye a'comin' with me, or are ye a'throwin' in yer lot with yer sister there?"

A rather thin young Hobbit paused and looked about him for a moment, then shrugged and turned to follow after the older one, casting a last look filled with grief and confusion back at Platina where she'd put herself at Drogo's side as he went.

Once the two of them were well out of sight, Platina's tears finally began to fall, and Drogo pulled her into his arms. "Shush, sweetling, my heart," he murmured as he rubbed at her shoulder. "Na, na--softly now. Ah, dearest of dearlings, I'll not see any other as I'll love as I do you. We've both known as it was likely as this would happen before the end. But I'm still so sorry, so sorry for you and your mother and brothers." He lifted her face to his and kissed her gently, and then fished inside his sleeve for a plain kerchief to offer her to use in drying her eyes and blowing her nose, then looked up to meet the eyes of Peredheland Wizard. "And as you've proven I've not lied, we'd be honored if you would attend our wedding. If Bardo and my father agree, then, we'll be married in three days' time."

So it was that Gandalf and Elrohir found themselves again guests of Hobbits, staying on the Baggins farm beyond the Hill, as they named the highest prominence in the region. They found that this wedding had actually been long planned for, and that Drogo's mother Diamente already had much prepared against this day. "So," she sighed as she saw Platina coming on Drogo's arm but without her family behind her, "he refused to accept what couldn't be stopped, did he? And not even Meristo will attend? I'm so grieved for you, Platina, my soon-to-be-daughter. Then we'll have you stay the night with our Boffin kin so your father can't claim any impropriety before the wedding itself."

She turned to greet her other guests as her husband presented them. "You're a wizard? And an Elf? How wonderful! There's stories in the family of a Wizard being the friends of a few of our ancestors. Was your dad known to Bilbiolo of the Baggers or Modoc the Hunter? It's said as he was the first of our family to enter the Shire--so my grandfather what removed to the Marish to farm told me."

"Then are you related to Terko of the Marish?"

"My cousin, he is. Have you seen him? Is he well? It's long enough since I saw him last--he was but a child, and I wasn't that much better."

"Yes, he does very well, and he and his wife expect their first child now."

"He's married? Little Terko? Ah, but I suppose that's but to be expected as I'm soon to become mother to a daughter in love. Ah, well. Does his farm do well?"

Elrohir found Gandalf out in a shed, mixing materials and filling tubes made of stiffened paper. "And what is it you do?"

"Mixing some fireworks--Hobbits love fireworks, I found during the days I'd visit them within the valley of the Anduin. And as it's a wedding, after all...."

Shaking his head, Elrond's son left him to it, hearing Gandalf singing softly under his breath as he worked.

*******

A few days later they reached the Marish, and paused their journey once more to visit on Terko's farm. Beryl stood in the yard, draping the hedge with yards and yards of white fabric. She looked up at them, her eyes shining with recognition. "Lairds Gandalf and Elrohir? Ah, but it's grand to see ye again! Terko'll be that glad to see ye, he will. Oh, but come'n' see--the bairn, it's come, and a right easy time of it I had with the wee thing. Me mum--she made it sound as if'n 'twas naught but agony, you see--had me all riled for nothin'. Not but there wasn't a good deal o' pain; but this was little enough." She opened the gate to admit them and led them into the low house, where the front door lay open.

In a low basket out of the way of any draft lay a tiny Hobbit child, sound asleep. She lifted him up in her arms, her eyes shining with pride. "See," she breathed softly, "here's m'bairn, me wee little Bucca." Then she held him out to the Wizard.

This baby was so small he fit easily in the palm of one of Gandalf's clever hands. When the child opened his eyes they were unafraid, and he looked up with that rather pleasant confusion with which infants of all sorts tend to view the world. Gandalf was certain that there was the trace of a Light of Being to him. Gently he passed the tiny being to Elrohir, whose own eyes had gone soft.

"Sa, sa," the Peredhelsaid in a soft, sing-song voice. "Gently now, small Bucca. Ah, but how very little!" And then his eyes went distant and he went very still, and Gandalf realized that Elrohir was seeing a vision of this one's future. When he spoke, his voice held a different softness. "A brave one he will be, known to the King and those who come after. But never shall he see himself as others see him--for him it will be enough to be and remain Bucca of the Marish." So saying, he returned the child to the arms of his mother.

*******

There was a new lord amongst the Dunlendings, one almost given to logic and honest persuasion. "There is little enough to be gained by allying yourself with the lordless ones there in Rhudaur," Gandalf explained. "They hold themselves apart from all, and have lived for centuries in hatred of the Dúnedain of the north, part of whose lands they now occupy. And they have allied themselves with the Witch-king of Angmar, who sends them fell magics that fail all too soon and pumps up their conceits about how they somehow deserve what they envy, although they do not do well by the lands they rule now. You saw the company of those I returned to you of your own folk, taken unlawfully by the people of Rhudaur and enslaved. Can you not see that this is what they desire for all of you--that you all fall subject to their rule and power?"

"But they have ever been our allies...."

"But what kind of true ally allows his own to steal men, women, and children and enslave them from those with whom he is supposedly allied?" But when he left the lord's presence, Gandalf wasn't certain that the Man might not be as easily (or more so) convinced by the next group of envoys from Rhudaur.

*******

After remaining within Arnor for some years, one more trip he made south into Gondor to speak with Eärnil. "Again the Witch-king threatens the realm of Arnor," he advised him.

"While those of Umbar have been constantly assaulting our ships," Eärnil answered. "We've lost eighteen ships in but the past two years alone, and three more are unaccounted for. My son is now with his mother's folk in Dor-en-Ernil where he might learn more of the needs of those who must live alongside the might of Ossë. I fear, however, that his first love is in the couched spear and the blade of the sword. He does not appear to send anywhere as much news to me of the building of ships or the protection of harbors as I'd hoped to see; instead he speaks constantly of tourneys and protections against slavers, who've ever rowed small boats ashore near unprotected farmsteads and villages to take the unwary. To come to the need of Arnor we will need ships--many ships. And meanwhile dark creatures and evil Men gather in the Montains of Shadow, and there are tales of distress from Erech and the banks of the Morthond. Those held by Isildur's curse are troubled, and their horns are heard in the dark of nights by those who must live nearby--horns and the clash of weapons and the cries of the dying who cannot leave the boundaries of Arda."

That report brought back to mind the report of the final prophecy spoken by Malbeth the Seer, which Gandalf now shared with the King of Gondor. Eärnil sat forward in his seat, obviously intrigued. "Who shall call them? The heir to him to whom the oath they swore."He straightened. "The King of Arnor shall call the army of the dead forth?"

"Apparently."

"And when will this be?"

"We do not know. Nor do we know under what circumstances it will happen."

The King of Gondor rose and walked to the side table standing against the wall where a wine ewer of colored glass sat waiting. He picked it up and flicked the silver lid up, then allowed it to drop back down to close it once more before setting it back down on the table and placing both hands on the table's edge, leaning forward to support his torso on his arms. "We are endangered now, Mithrandir," he said at last to the mirror hanging over the table. "Several of the Nazgûl have gathered to Mordor, sending out their evil creatures to fall upon our soldiers and the people who dwell in Ithilien. More and more appear to gather in the mountain passes to Minas Ithil, blocking off passage into what remains of our garrison there."

"How do you get supplies to them?" Gandalf asked him.

He could see Eärnil shrugging. "Only with the greatest difficulty. As I said, orcs are growing in number in the Ephel Dúath, and our lands in Ithilien are under attack now on a near-constant basis. Several of our villages that lay closer to the Crossroads have been abandoned by those who have survived the attentions of our enemies. We can no longer keep efficient watch upon the roads into Rhûn, and once again Easterlings come freely to the Black Gate, which opens to receive them. The lands before the Gate are dying once more, and the marshes north of the Dagorlad grow increasingly treacherous and encroach further southwards."

He sighed, straightened, and turned to look at the Wizard. "How long will we be able to hold out should attacks be sent out by both Mordor and Dol Guldur if those of Khand and Harad attack at the same time?"

Gandalf sat thoughtfully for some moments before he said, "Arnor has ever faced this, my lord. Those of Rhudaur and the Brown Lands to the south have constantly timed their assaults to coincide with aggression from Angmar; and at such times there are almost always battalions of orcs from the depths below the Misty Mountains and trolls from the Ettenmoors who add to the chaos with attacks on the fastnesses of Elves and Dwarves as well as Arnor. Add in the reports of the sightings of the red dragon from Angmar and one has even more reason for worry. He sought again to attack the gates to the Dwarven settlement of Kheled-marûz in the Blue Mountains five years past, but was driven off by Elven archers from among the wandering tribes of Eriador. More and more of the Dwarf kingdoms have been abandoned.

"Face it, Lord Eärnil--all of the Free Peoples are equally under attack, and as has been true for the past how many centuries, these assaults are directed from Dol Guldur."

The Man took a deep breath, then nodded his head in understanding, sighing. "Aye, so it is." He turned at last. He looked much older than he had when he'd arrived in Minas Tirith the day after Arvedui's departure. There was a definite crease between his brows, his hair was streaked with silver, and the frown lines about his mouth were much deeper. "Ever the Enemy seeks to rise again; ever he desires to bring down the descendants of Númenor as well as the representatives of the other Free Peoples of Middle Earth," he said. "We shall do our best to honor the treaty should Angmar's final assault be loosed before those forces gathering about Mordor be ready to be fall upon us. I will give orders that the shipyards begin the building of a fleet, and will recall my son. I will send one of my own folk to the havens in Pelargir and along the shores of Anfalas and Belfalas. If you will speak to those who hold the Elven haven? They do not welcome Men at this time, we find."

"Yes, at your request I will," Gandalf responded.


This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: Larner

Status: General

Completion: Work in Progress

Era: Multi-Age

Genre: Drama

Rating: Adult

Last Updated: 01/31/14

Original Post: 08/28/06

Go to Stirring Rings overview

Comments

WARNING! Comments may contain spoilers for a chapter or story. Read with caution.

Stirring Rings

Freyalyn - 12 Dec 07 - 12:42 AM

Ch. 24: The Deep Breath Before the Plunge

Lovely detail and characterisation, as ever.

 'Troops' not 'troupes'.  Sorry....

 Very dark feeling to it, even with the hobbit episodes.  The lights are going out.

Stirring Rings

Larner - 13 Dec 07 - 3:16 AM

Ch. 24: The Deep Breath Before the Plunge

Unfortunately, within a relatively short time there will be a kingdom with no king in the south, and a king with no kingdom in the north; Arvedui will be dead alongside his second son; and his older son and widow will be taking refuge in Mithlond.  Yes, the lights are going out.

As for "troupes"--it is a variant spelling and the one I've used predominantly in my writing.  Hope you don't mind too much.


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