8. Old Man of the Sea
Nêrea d' apseudea kai alêthea geinato Pontos
presbutaton paidôn: autar kaleousi geronta
houneka nêmertês te kai êpios, oude themisteôn
lêthetai, alla dikaia kai êpia dênea oiden
And Sea begat Nereus, the eldest of his children, who is true and lies not: and men call him the Old Man because he is trusty and gentle and does not forget the laws of righteousness, but thinks just and kindly thoughts.
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Saelon stared, astonished to come upon the Lord of Lindon in so haphazard a fashion, but Círdan seemed in no way surprised. "I hoped to have speech of you ere Yáviérë." He bent back to his task, testing to see if the angle of wood he had shaped fit into place. "Though if we are to launch and mast this bark before winter is upon us, I must also fit these knees. Your pardon, Saelon, for the division of my attention," he glanced up at her, contrite—yet the crow's-feet around those remarkable eyes crinkled, as if inviting her to share a dry jest. "You also find balancing lordship and your calling a trial, I have heard."
"Oh, yes," she agreed promptly, gusty as a sigh. Of course he had her pardon. It was heartening to discover that so august a lord also set his hand to common tasks . . . and a relief to know that profound gaze would not be always on her as they spoke.
"Then will you not come aboard?"
Saelon looked down. There was one more notch above her feet, but then she would have to hop down into the ship, or swing over the edge and slip down the side's stepped curve. "How am I to do that without overbalancing your ship?" She did not flatter herself that she stepped as lightly or surely as an Elf.
Círdan laughed and laid aside the knee. "I thank you for your concern, but do not fear: she is steadier than she appears, and your slight weight will not shift her." In proof, he rose and came to the side. "Step onto the sheer strake—" he rested his hand briefly on the wide edge of the topmost plank, then offered it to her "—and place your feet on the stringers to come down."
"Which are the stringers?" The cross-beams were quite low, save at the ends of the ship and one near the center, each secured with several smaller pieces of wood. Rather than a simple frame of massy timbers, the interior bracing seemed an intricate puzzle, fine as fish-bone.
"These ledges, that the upper knees and cross-beams rest on."
As she mounted the sheer strake, she took his hand for balance: it was more calloused than her own, graceful and strong as the timbers beneath her. "Thank you." Once down and on surer footing, she glanced along the length of the ship and surrendered to her ignorance. "Where should I sit, so I will be out of your way?"
"Whichever cross-beam you find comfortable, save these beside me." Círdan went back to where he had been working and picked up his drawknife.
As he took a little more from one face of the wooden knee, Saelon considered the Lord of Lindon. Vague though her expectations had been, he was nothing like. No jewels, and his clothes were not showy: the short trews the Sea Elves favored, and no more than a shirt on this warm day, its sleeves rolled over his lean, sun-bronzed forearms. She had never heard of, nor in this populous town seen, an aged Elf. Save for his great height and the potency of his eyes, he might have been an ancient hillman, spare and hardy, face lined by ready laughter and a lifetime spent far-gazing in all weathers. Gwinnor was not so worn, and he had come to Middle-earth at the dawn of the Elder Days—
—but had not Círdan remained on these shores when Gwinnor's forefathers departed for Aman? Who could count the years ere the rising of the Sun?
She had expected the last great elf-lord of the Elder Days East of the Sea to be an awesome figure, yet she found nothing daunting in this workaday man, who turned the wood he was shaping over in his hands with a mild frown of dissatisfaction. Stepping carefully over the evenly-spaced beams on the sloping bottom of the ship, Saelon took a seat near enough for conversation . . . yet Círdan did not speak. For a time, she merely sat and watched, unwilling to disturb his concentration, but when he finally seemed content with the knee and took up the other of the pair, she quietly said, "I must thank you for granting us leave to remain at Habad-e-Mindon."
He inclined his grey head in a sketch of magnanimity before ducking it under the cross-beam to peer at something. "You are welcome, Lady—but let us save such courtesies for the morrow, when they will please others besides myself. If it is not too grievous to tell," he suggested, "I would like to hear how your folk came there."
Again Saelon stared, for she had wearied both his emissaries with the tale. "Did neither Falathar nor Gwinnor tell you?"
Beneath the pale oak, his eyes turned her way, grave, iron-grey. "Have you not yet learnt that report is seldom sooth? It behooves a lord to hear all accounts he can come by, for truth has as many faces as the great gems of the Dwarves."
Was it chance or contrivance that he should mention Dwarves? For if she had doubts about what had reached his ear, it was on that point. "It is grievous," she allowed, "but I have grown used to the telling."
So she recounted the story: the meeting with her sea-fearing brother on the shore, who warned of fell creatures in the mountains; Gaernath's discovery of the raug-rent Dwarves and her nursing of Veylin; and the unexpected appearance of Urwen, feyly distraught, and her fatherless family. Foreboding deepened when Halladan sent his heir and eldest daughter to her for safekeeping . . . and, too short a time later, her brother's last swordsman gave his lordly helm into her hands, freighted with his dying charge to keep those of their people who remained.
It was then, when she was grief-stricken and at wit's end, striving to shelter more than two-score souls in three small caves on winter's doorstep, that Veylin returned and offered a hall in payment of his debt: a most timely offer, and one that, for her people's sake, she accepted. They suffered a season of dearth nonetheless, for those who had fled brought little in the way of corn or stock; and, in the spring, Falathar's displeasure with the ploughed land filled them with fear, for all the corn remaining had just gone in the ground. For the sake of that vital crop, they had refused to go back across the Lhûn with the Rangers sent by their Chieftain at Midsummer, not wishing to be beggars; and less than half had heeded the urging of the Sons of Elrond to depart just before harvest, when they brought word that the Chieftain had been slain by the monsters in Srathen Brethil.
They had been repaid with a blessedly rich harvest; and after the feast of thanksgiving, Dwarves and Men set out to revenge themselves on the raugs, destroying all those laired in Srathen Brethil, though not without further loss. "Our intention," she assured Círdan, "is to resettle the glen, and this summer my cousin Halpan found families willing to return in the spring. Yet they will need more corn than they can bring with them until their first harvest, and the machair is bountiful."
"Do you tell me that all your folk will be back across the Ered Luin ere long?" Círdan took the drawknife's edge from the wood and closely considered the knee.
"No." His question sank Saelon's heart, already heavy from recalling their trials. "That I am loath to leave the shore, I am sure you have heard. Maelchon, our husbandman, is enamoured of the coastland's sweet soils; as soon as our tenure was allowed, he contracted with the Dwarves for a stout house of stone. If we repeople Srathen Brethil, some of those with me will return to the glen, I do not doubt. But not all." Seeing his solemn, thoughtful face, she asked, "Did you hope that we would?" Was he dissatisfied with his work or their obstinance?
"I did not expect it." After taking a few more shavings from the knee, he asked, "Why did you not call on us in your extremity? For three Ages of the world, I have aided your kin as best I could."
Could he feel slighted? "Between fear of the raugs and the need for meat, none of the men fit to make the journey could be spared that first winter," she explained. "Then Falathar came." Círdan's coastwarden had not spoken of aid, but of grievance, even before he saw the dwarf-delved hall. "How should we expect aid, Lord? We have long been poor and of little account; most are Edain. There are now but four Dúnedain of our line, besides myself: two of whom are youths, and one a child—and my brother's son is in fosterage, far from his folk." She seemed to be tumbling into a pit of unsuspected despair . . . yet it was unjust that she should be rebuked for not presuming to trouble him with their petty tragedy, when the world was so full of woe. "We are no longer kings," she said, regretting the harshness pain lent her voice, but unable to gentle it, "nor even lordly Men."
Eyes filling with tears—more dignity lost—she turned her head away, though the effort to hide them would be vain. She was raising her hands to cover the bitter twist of her mouth when they were caught and lightly held. "Do not be ashamed, Saelon," Círdan urged, his voice low and as warm as his clasp, as he settled onto the beam beside her. "Of either your tears or your fate. Is it true," he pressed, "that you have lost none of your people, since they came into your keeping?"
"I lost Urwen and Mais, and their families; Aniel was slain by the raugs."
"You are no warrior, to protect your men in battle. The others—those who went with Elladan and Elrohir?" There was kindly amusement in his eyes. "Their father's eloquence they cannot match, yet there is no shame in forfeiting a few to their suasion . . . or so I must hope, having suffered likewise in council. None have died from want or sickness?"
What triumph was that? Merely a lack of further loss. "No." Dírmaen had complimented her on it once, but partiality now made all his praise suspect.
"You ought not to think meanly of yourself, when you have kept your people well. They cannot now be in dire want, if Dwarves build them houses."
"Or unworthy, if they trust you to repay. Did you not know how rare that is with them?" Círdan raised his grey brows. "Take the word of one who saw what remained of the havens at Sirion-mouth, and the wreck of Elendil's ships upon the shore, Dúnadaneth: oft your forbears have been felled, and never yet has your line failed to spring up anew, vigorous as any ash. I know your tenacity of old," he declared, his smile blending satisfaction and long-sufferance, "and have sometimes been glad of it. Yet that is why some of my folk do not like to see you setting your deep roots into our land."
Saelon freed a hand to wipe her wet cheeks. It was gracious of him to be patient with her sullenness. Too gracious, after too long an estrangement from her kin; and she had done nothing to warrant it. "I do not understand," she sighed, bleakly candid, "why Gwinnor did not simply command us to go." Some return, surely, would be expected for this kindness. How could it be more than an attempt to win her from friendship with Veylin?
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She was asea, out of her reckoning—and how, from what he had heard of her history, could she be otherwise? Círdan was minded of a bird tempest-blown to strange shores, ragged-feathered and timorous. Yet such shyness seemed unwonted, in one who had been likened to a merlin. Was there a purpose to this plaintive rain-bird piping, the draggling wing? Reading the currents of a mind moiled as a tide race among many reefs was uncertain. "Is that why we find you fractious?" he asked mildly, a chip upon the water. "You have no assurance where you do not trust?"
Swift in denial, she began "I—" and then shut her mouth, considering the question.
Pleased, Círdan waited while she judged herself. The surface chop of her thoughts revealed little . . . but though her mind was open, he did not presume to peer beneath. Already she felt oppressed; he would not chance frighting her more. That she troubled to weigh the matter, however, spoke to her honesty.
Yet even an honest soul might lie, in service of what it considered good, though the lying gave distress, and the proudest had been known to humble themselves to gain their desire through cunning. She was not a simple woman. Whence came this fear? Was she in league with the Dwarves who dared the Sea? Or was it, alas, merely the deepening shadow of estrangement between their kin?
Her gaze turned outward again, and now he saw the falcon, the keen glance of the descendants of Lúthien—though dimmed, dimmed; muted by each passing mortal life—as she sought to judge his trustworthiness. How much she might read of his thought, Círdan did not know . . . but she had naught to fear so long as she was forthright, even in disagreement, and dealt in good faith. He could see that she was doubtful of Gwinnor, mistrusting the sportiveness of the Noldo's mind: she had more penetration than many Men. On the other side of the balance, the Dwarf, Veylin, her friend . . . .
Her friend, regardless of his secrecy. There was more to their tale than she had told, as there was more to a ship than could be captured in a sketch. "Little is simple between your folk and mine, Saelon," he replied to her spoken uncertainty, not without rue. So she ought to have known: yet Gwinnor may have made overmuch of her knowledge of the Elder Days, or she had not considered them as other than the stuff of tales. "We are your allies, not your lords. What authority do we have to command you?"
"The land is yours."
Insofar as any could claim to possess the earth, the work of the Powers. "Our rights are prior—some of my people have dwelt here since before the rising of the Sun—yet the bounds were not established until Elendil desired to settle on our marches." He, too, had yearned for a view of the Sea . . . and so Gil-galad had raised the towers on Emyn Beraid. Veylin's skill in echoing Elvish styles brought him much profit in Mithlond; perhaps he copied them in other ways as well. "So long as you requite us, few will grudge you the use of the lands about Habad-e-Mindon for a time."
"Why should you disaffect any of your folk, for the pittance we can give?"
She had not yet mastered the nicities of lordship. "Because there are also friends to your kin among us, long though it has been since we stood together against the Enemy." He had last done so before the Dark Tower itself, alongside those spared from the wreck of Númenor: the Elendili had been dear to him since Tuor and his son learnt shipcraft at his hands. Others had gone to the aid of Arvedui, though he had foreseen that naught could save the North Kingdom. "If we seem to have turned our backs on Middle-earth, it is only that our strength ebbs, and we must pick our battles with care. This is a trifle, Lady. We must not fall out over such things, for the dark tide rises again."
Saelon sighed, Dúnedain fatalism. "So we gathered, when the raugs prowled." Strangely, she had a glimmer of hope, like light struck from leaden seas by a fugitive ray of sun. "And so Veylin reasons. Have you settled matters between you?"
"Not yet." Círdan had found a missive from the Firebeard chieftain awaiting him on his return from the opening festivities of the middle-days: courteous, for a Dwarf, and not intolerably pompous, seeking an audience. His own tardiness in replying was less courteous, yet Veylin had delayed bringing this matter before him for nearly two loar. He could hardly be discontent if the Lord of Lindon responded with deliberation.
Having met the Dúnadaneth, Círdan now desired to pick the tangled affairs of Habad-e-Mindon apart, that each strand might be seen plain. The Men were, of themselves, a commonplace. Sometimes Firiath strayed hither: provided they were few, respected the land and did not trouble his people, the marchwardens left them in peace. A few rounds of the Sun took them away again. Descendant of kings though she was, even Gaerveldis could hardly remain so long as a yén.
Yet Dornhoth were more tenacious. Once dug in, only calamity would shift them, and little that came into their hands could be got out again. It was as well that Dwarves were wedded to the mountains; contrary inclinations had done much to keep their peoples from conflict. Gil-galad had parleyed with their kings when he established Lindon, yet in the Age since the realm had come into his keeping, Círdan had had little occasion to deal with Dwarves, save for disagreements over their felling of trees on the lower slopes and bargains ill-made or ill-kept. Why had these Dwarves left their hills—and settled by the Sea, which they feared? Had they unearthed something more fearsome still, as befell at Moria? Or had they chanced across a lode so rich that greed overthrew dread?
Yet how could they have found such a thing, save by being beside the Sea? The riddle swallowed its own tail. No less singular, why should they trouble with a few dozen Men so impoverished they could scarce feed themselves? Where was the profit in that? "What," he asked Saelon, who was growing uneasy over his silence, "ought I to know of your friend?"
She frowned, bemused rather than baleful. "You do not know him? I understood that he has traded here for many years."
"He has, but not with me. I have met him but once, when he was brought before me for judgment in a dispute." A commission for a set of jeweled buckles, several dozen loar back; Aerthaith claimed the nogoth had pilfered some of the seed pearls. "I found his greed moderate and his word good, which we account virtue in a Dwarf." Clever in proving his innocence as well, though that might cut both ways. He had not then been chieftain: his avarice may have risen with his rank.
"I have dealt often with Dwarves of late," Saelon declared, hackling at what she took as an imputation, "and some are greedy, it is true. Yet I have known nothing but generosity from Veylin."
Lifting his brows in surprise, Círdan considered the slight, shabby woman beside him. "I have never heard any say that of a Dwarf." Not even Finrod, who delighted in their strangeness and bore the name they gave him with pride. Nevertheless, this did not have the savor of blind favoritism, nor deliberate misstatement. "How do you account for it?"
"Never?" She frowned as at something peculiar. "I have found several Dwarves generous . . . in matters touching their honor, rather than their livelihoods. The greediest I know once served a magnificent meal in hopes of putting me to shame."
Dwarves were as fond of pomp and ostentation as any Noldo, though so austere a woman might be captivated by no great outlay. "You would call that generosity?"
Another of those hesitations, catching herself. "I suppose not. But I did say," she rallied, with what might become a smile, "he is the greediest Dwarf I know."
"You have been fortunate."
Her eyes were grave. "I know."
The history of the Silmaril now in Eärendil's keeping ought to be familiar to her. "Though Elu Thingol was my kinsman and my king, Lady, I do not bear ill will against the whole race. None of those who slew him, or sacked Menegroth after, escaped vengeance. That others have been trusty allies against the Enemy cannot be denied." Elrond and Galadriel had both found them so, and he had seen them on the field at Dagorlad himself. Yet those had been Longbeards, none of whose kin had dwelt in Nogrod. "I confess, however, that I know less of Dwarves than I would like, for I have always dwelt by the Sea, and they shun it. Or did. How would you judge Veylin's trespass, were you in my place? The price we have put on your use of the land you know."
"It is trespass? Veylin does not consider it so, and Gwinnor said they have some rights in the lands about the mountains."
"They do—to wood and stone; while journeying, water and game. Leave to dwell they do not have."
Saelon brooded over this, worrying at the already tattered edge of her shawl. "I do not know how grave you consider the offense," she finally said, "nor how Veylin would justify himself . . . and it is not my place to speak for him. You will have to settle the matter between you. If, however, you place any value on the slaying of the raugs, the credit must go to him: he proposed our alliance against them, he roused my men to face them, and he provided the spears that pinned them. My folk alone will be no shield against such evil."
No; or they would not have taken refuge with her at Habad-e-Mindon. Yet neither could Veylin's following be large, if he had assidiously sought their few Men. "You think we require such aid?"
If naught else, he had succeeded in giving her back her assurance. "You were the one who spoke of rising darkness, Lord—and know what watch is kept on your borders. But I say a raug slew two Dwarves and maimed a third little more than a league from Habad-e-Mindon in Ivanneth, and no Elf spoke to us until Gwirith."
Leaving him the choice of indifference or neglect, in such a way that he could hardly deny one without admitting the other . . . though in truth it was something of both. When Men, whose Age approached, dwindled, how were the Eldar remaining—fewer every yén—to stand in their place?
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Bark: a small, open (undecked) ship; this is not one of the great ships that sail West. The word and its cognates in several European language groups appear to derive from a Celtic root, *barca.
Knee: in shipbuilding, a roughly right-angle bracket used to strengthen joins (frames to the keelson, or crossbeams to the hull). They were usually shaped from natural crooks, where a branch came off a tree, for greater strength.
Sheer (or top) strake: the uppermost timber on the hull, equivalent to the gunwale—the more familiar term would not be appropriate in Middle-earth, since it derives from the use of this part of a ship to secure cannon.
Stringer: a narrow board running the length of the interior of a boat, used to support structural timbers such as beams and knees. In lapstrake construction, these are usually placed at the top of the upper strakes—and so would provide toeholds for stepping down into the hull.
"the years ere the rising of the Sun": never underestimate Elvish loremasters! Based on dates in "The Grey Annals" (HoME XI: The War of the Jewels) and the equation of one Valian year to ten years of the Sun ("The Earliest Annals of Valinor," HoME IV: The Shaping of Middle-Earth), it appears that Círdan was at least 4000 sun-years old when the Noldor returned to Middle-earth. Therefore, at the time of this story, he has more than eleven millennia under his belt. (To put that in some perspective, there are only 5000 years of recorded human history.) It might also be pointed out that if Círdan was kin to Thingol, he is also an extremely remote relative of Men descended from Elros.
"last great elf-lord of the Elder Days East of the Sea": no, I am not forgetting Elrond and Galadriel, the other named Elves on the White Council, both of whom are great lords in the Third Age. Elrond was hardly out of childhood at the end of the First Age; and little that Galadriel did in the First Age is noted in the tales of the Elder Days, save that she came to Middle-earth, fell in love with Celeborn in Doriath, and learned much from Melian there. (There are very late writings, published in The Unfinished Tales, which give her a different history: but even there, she does nothing in the war against Morgoth and soon departs east with Celeborn to found their own realm.)
Ash (Fraxinus excelsior): a stately tree that grows well on both rich and stony soils, noted for its height, hardiness, speed of growth, and deep (often bedrock-penetrating) root system. The strong yet pliant wood was particularly valued for spear shafts, oars, tool handles, and wheels. It responds well to coppicing: a stump can produce a fine crop of spear shafts in as little as a decade.
Merlin (Falco columbarius): the smallest and boldest of the falcons. They frequent heather moors and, in winter, the coast. The females are dark brown above, drabber than the males.
Rain-bird: plover. Círdan may be thinking of the ringed plover (Charadrius hiaticula), which is frequently found on machair shores; a small, bustling bird that feigns a broken wing to lure predators from its nest.
Tide race: a very swift and strong tidal current. They are usually hazardous to navigate, especially where rocks create eddies or whirlpools. A traditional way to find a safe course through such waters was to throw in something that would float, and watch to see where it passed safely.
"though her mind was open": the ability of at least some Elves to read minds is well-established in Tolkien's writings. Finrod found that "he could read in the minds of Men such thoughts as they wished to reveal in speech" (Silmarillion, "Of the Coming of Men into the West") when he met Bëor and his folk, and his sister's testing of the Fellowship in Lórien is widely known. More details of this ability are given in a fascinating essay, Ósanwe-kenta, "Enquiry into the Communication of Thought," written by Tolkien while he was working on "Quendi and Eldar," and attributed to Pengolodh.
In brief, all of the Children of Eru have the ability to perceive other minds. Pengolodh specifically says "Men have the same capacity as the Quendi, but it is in itself weaker, and weaker in operation owing to the strength of the hröa [body]." The greater ability of the Valar and Maiar is due to the fact that they were not created as Incarnates, and this is their natural medium of communication; when embodied, even their ability to "speak" mind-to-mind is diminished in force and precision. Among Incarnates, strengthening is necessary for such "mind-speech" to be effective, by affinity (kinship, love, and/or friendship), urgency (need and the force of emotion in the sender), or authority (duty, or the right to seek the truth for the good of others; Galadriel's reading of the Fellowship would be an example).
Nevertheless, no mind can perceive more than the existence of another unless that mind is open, láta; if a mind is open, the intent of the "reader" is sufficient to allow them to gain information. "Openness" is the natural state for minds—but any mind can be closed (pahta) by an act of conscious will. A closed mind cannot be read, not even by a Vala (hence Melkor's and Sauron's need for deceit in their dealings with others), and attempts to "force" a mind create a sense of pressure and fear that only shuts it tighter. Closing can be selective, blocking some minds but not others.
I have not been able to find that Tolkien wrote anything regarding Círdan's use of ósanwe, but since his peers on the White Council were proficients (the silent "conversations" of Galadriel, Celeborn, Elrond, and Gandalf on their way home from Minas Tirith in Lord of the Rings, "Many Partings") and one of the great advantages to ósanwe is that the distance between those communicating is irrelevant (White Council teleconferencing?), I have assumed that his skill was very great.
Elendili: the Elf-Friends. As their power grew, the Númenóreans began to envy the immortality of the Eldar, resenting the Ban that prevented them from sailing West to Aman, where they thought they would find deathlessness. Most, led by the Kings, turned from the Valar and Elves, going east to seek empire in the lands that became Umbar, and further south in Middle-earth. The remainder, who called themselves the Faithful, continued to aid Lindon against Sauron; their base was in what became Gondor. When the Kings began to persecute the Elendili, many removed to Middle-earth. These were the forces Elendil brought to the Last Alliance.
"though he had forseen": this does not come from Tolkien's writings, but some explanation seems necessary for the slight aid that came to the last King of Arnor from Lindon. Almost two centuries earlier, Círdan helped Araphor repel the forces of Angmar (LotR, App. A.iii), yet when the Witch-King drove most of the surviving Dúnedain of the North across the Lune in T.A. 1974, Círdan merely sent a ship to Forochel to rescue Arvedui. (In vain, for the ship was crushed by ice and all aboard perished.) While perhaps the men at his command were required for Lindon's own defense, one must also consider that Círdan had greater foresight than any other Elf in Middle-earth (HoME XII: The Peoples of Middle-Earth, "Last Writings: Círdan"). Friendship notwithstanding, he could hardly be accounted one of the Wise if he had wasted the waning forces at his command on a no-win situation.
Loar: plural of Quenya loa, "growth"; a solar year, accounted by the cycle of plant growth.
Firiath: Sindarin, "Mortals, Men."
Yén: Quenya, "year." This is the unit of time Elves use as we use "year," though—reflecting their longer perspective—it is 144 solar years long.
Dornhoth: Sindarin, "the Thrawn Folk." Tolkien said that the Elves gave this name to the Dwarves because of their physical toughness and stubborn nature, but thrawn also has connotations of cross-grained, perversely contrary, and twisted or misshapen.
Nogoth: Sindarin, "stunted one, Dwarf." The italics and lack of capitalization indicate that it was used as a common noun, rather than a proper noun—as if you had called someone a redskin rather than a Native American.
Dagorlad: the Battle Plain before the gates of Mordor, where the Last Alliance defeated Sauron at the end of the Second Age.
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