56. The Brown Wizard And The Grey
The Brown Wizard and the Grey
Radagast absently washed his hands again, hardly noticing the apprentice healer holding the basin and proffering the white linen cloth. He had just completed his eleventh limb amputation. Since joining Elrohir at the Healing Tents he had also lanced two dozen abscesses, sutured thirty-four lacerations, and had lost count of the number of fractures he'd splinted and other various wounds he'd bound. Between stitching, slicing and tying, he'd brewed batches of the four most important of his herbal remedies, the ingredients without which he never left his home.
The Healers seemed grateful for his help, for the Troll had knocked Lathron out cold, and when the Chief Healer awoke he discovered that not only was his right wrist snapped, making it impossible for him to perform his duties, but that his first assistant, Candir, and his second assistant, Maedgam, were both dead. When the Peredhel arrived, as someone known to the Houses of Minas Tirith, Lathron had pressed him into service as the Chief Healer. The Brown Wizard had bowed his head, offered to be surgeon-at-large and went to work. The men of Gondor and her allies need never know that he was primarily a healer of furred, feathered and scaly patients, and rarely of those creatures that walked on two legs and spoke. But as the fundamental principles were identical, he proceeded without hesitation. More accustomed to patients who squirmed and would flee instantly if released, he worked very quickly. In four hours he accomplished more than three other healers combined.
He was weary, but not so weary that he felt the need to stop and rest. Still, a brief respite was in order, to clear his mind for a few minutes before the next and likely most daunting task of this long day. What he really wanted was clean air, but was unavailable here on this sere windswept plain of dust and acrid smells that caught in the windpipe and made one's eyes water. Yet moving air, unconfined by heavy cloth tents, might feel refreshing, even if only for a moment, even if one had to clear one's throat after breathing deeply of it.
He nodded to the awestruck young man and returned the cloth to him, then the wizard found the nearest tent flap and went outdoors. Evening was finally approaching. By long habit, his eyes went first to the reddening sky as he searched for the winged kelvari who were his closest allies and friends. Most of the Eagles were soaring over the Ered Lithui, no doubt amusing themselves terrorizing Orcs by chasing them into blind ravines or running them off precipices. An enormous number of vultures, storks, crows, magpies, ravens, jackdaws, rooks and assorted starlings, jays, flycatchers, and even a flock of lilac-breasted rollers from the shores of Rhûn were diligently at work cleaning up the carrion, and in the case of the flycatchers, rollers and starlings, feasting on the insects that were already swarming over the dead.
He gazed at the nearest raven, digging furiously and ineffectively at the corner of one of the huge dead Troll's eyes. The bird was accustomed to cooperating with wolves, jackals and foxes, he knew from long experience. The long-toothed hunters would tear open the tougher outer hides of corpses, and the birds would snatch whatever delicacies their larger companions left behind. But the wolves and jackals hadn't yet arrived, and this Troll's hide would prove too tough, he reckoned, for any kelvar but a lion of Harad or a tiger of Far Khand. And a visitation by such an auspicious beast was not only unlikely, but would undoubtedly cause an extremely unpleasant reaction amongst all these excitable, armed men, who would likely vie amongst themselves for the honor of slaying the visitor. No lion, please, not today...I do not believe I could bear to witness more butchery...
But his thoughts strayed. The raven, yes, he had been watching the raven. Was it the same one? No, he thought it wasn't. That had been a female, slightly larger than her mate, and this one grappling with the Troll's eye looked like a male. At any rate, he had been addressed twice now, by the same raven-lady, calling herself Morigian of the Clan of Isen*. She had found him, how he couldn't be certain, calling to him from outside, right through the cloth of the tent, her voice as clear as day, and of course entirely ignored by the Men and the Peredhel who had been with him. The first time she reported Gwaihir's return, and the news that only one of the Hobbits had been found. It was obvious to Radagast that Lady Morigian had a fairly low opinion of Eagles in general and of Gwaihir in particular. Thus, he knew before anyone of the imminent arrival of the Wood Elf and the Ring-bearer, of the nature--though not the cause--of his terrible wound, and of the mysterious absence of and likely death of the Bearer's companion and servant. The new King, having seen the Eagles flying North, had burst into the tent just a few minutes after Morigian's croaking announcement with almost exactly the same news.
Lord Aragorn was with Frodo Baggins right now. Radagast hadn't thought that such a sound idea, having been shocked by the man's condition when he'd first landed beside him, and even more appalled by his feverish, strained appearance now, several long and difficult hours later. But the Man had insisted that he be the one to tend the Hobbit, and would not be gainsaid. Radagast had pulled Elrohir aside and advised him to accompany his foster-brother to the Halfling's sickbed, keep an eye on him, and prevent him from endangering himself in too deep of a healing trance. The Brown Wizard had caught a whiff of a very peculiar and familiar scent when Aragorn stood nearby, and it disturbed him greatly. Whatever subsequently happened on this field, he planned to insist that he be allowed to examine whatever obviously infected wound the Man was trying so hard to deny.
But that would have to wait. For Morigian returned, her mate Coräc with her, and once again, through the screen of the tent-cloth, the ravens quite excitedly announced that the last of his fellow travelers from across the Sea had been found and would soon be arriving. Morigian and Coräc seemed to know Gandalf, and Radagast was moved to hear the note of true distress in their voices. Ravens did not often express such sentiments as pity, sadness, or even friendship, certainly not toward two-legged, land-bound creatures. There's an interesting tale here... Which, given the circumstances, I am unlikely to ever have a chance to hear...
He positioned himself to face South, toward the battlefield, and waited. Soon he saw the approach of a party bearing a stretcher. Upon it lay someone wrapped in black; but even from a distance he could see the grey head. Of course, he had heard the other's strand of the Great Music drawing near, pulsing with a low but steady theme--alive yet in mortal form, but barely so.
In the West, the sky bloomed with streaks of flame-red, violet tinged with orange, and that particular shade of brilliant pink--heliotrope--one saw only at sunsets and dawns such as this one, when the atmosphere hung with a film of smoke and ash. The Brown Wizard glanced East, bowing his head in greeting of the arrival of the Evening Star, shining upon the deepening velvet twilight.
Arien takes her leave of us, and Eärendil comes to bear witness...
When they brought Gandalf to the tents, Radagast was there to direct them. He guided them through the maze of white cloth to a small tent at the rear.
"Bring him within. I have set aside a place for him," he murmured as he held the flap of fabric aside. The four men carrying the stretcher brought him inside and placed him on a prepared, cushioned cot. A lantern was already lit, and a low table had been set up with basins of water, some cool and some warmed, and a variety of ointments, bandages and cloths lay at the ready. Four crystal phials of Radagast's herbal tinctures were lined up: red, gold, blue and green. As Faramir, Pippin and Gimli moved to enter, the Brown Wizard smiled gently and held up his hand.
"Be at peace, friends. You shall be able to visit with your old companion in due time. But for now, allow me to tend to him privately, and for we two travelers to speak to one another alone for a short while."
The flap closed and Radagast stepped to the side of the cot. He gazed down with a look of great sorrow mixed with overflowing joy--for such had been the course of this day. He placed the tips of his fingers on Gandalf's brow; the Grey Wizard stirred and groaned. Their minds met, and in an instant, all the news that Radagast had brought from the North became known to Gandalf, and every detail of Gandalf's long, arduous journey from the time of their last meeting, by chance, upon the road, in early summer of the previous year, was made vividly clear to Radagast. Both men frowned and sighed, for so much pain and suffering had been endured, by so many...
And yet, the task is finally done...
Yes... And we both had a role in it...
This is your triumph, Olorin. My role was late, and insignificant...
...but vital. How much more dreadful would this day have been, had it not been for your actions in Imladris, and for your swift coming with your friends the Lords of the Wind...
...Gwaihir counts you as friend as well... And speaking of friends, I have met some rather cheeky ravens that claim to know you...
...Ah, yes, Coräc and his wife, the remarkable Morigian... true friends they were, and are, to me... But tell me more news of Frodo...
...I cannot, for though I tried to reach his thoughts, his fear and grief were too great... I could not penetrate his mind without fear of doing him more harm...
...Hmm... Perhaps I should try...
...Have you the strength?...
...Enough, I think, for this one last thing...
The Brown Wizard raised his hand and his fingers lifted up and away. After cradling his patient's head and shoulders to allow him to drink some cool water, he laid him back down and parted the cloak. In two thousand years of caring for the Olvar and Kelvar, Radagast had seen much cruelty inflicted upon every sort of living creature's flesh, and he was able to gaze upon the innumerable, entangled marks and wounds calmly, though not without compassion. His eyes flickered up and down, back and forth, and with the gentlest of touches he assessed what could not be seen on the surface: fractures, torn sinews, internal injuries. He frowned and made his decision, grounded in the first and most important principle of a healer: do no harm.
He worked rapidly, skillfully administering a blend of his tinctures, enough to ease his colleague's suffering but not enough to further dull his fading alertness. He knew that any attempt to cleanse and bind every wound would not only be futile, but would increase his discomfort. Radagast focused instead upon gently bathing Gandalf's face and hands with warm water suffused with soothing oils. Upon his torn and cracked lips he spread a thin layer of cooling ointment. He did his best to rid his tangled, filthy hair and beard of caked dirt and dried blood. Over his empty eye sockets he bound a clean white cloth, and he hid his hands in soft bandages. Thus it was that Aragorn never directly beheld the raw ruination of his old friend and mentor's face. He never saw the almost unrecognizable condition of Gandalf's mangled, broken right hand, nor the charred and twisted remnant of his horribly burned left. And Peregrin, Gimli, Faramir and the rest of the search party made a vow that they would never tell him.
Finally, Radagast arranged several layers of loose white cloth about Gandalf's battered body, tucking the edges beneath him and restoring a measure of his privacy and dignity. He then wrapped the sable cloak about him again. Leaning down, he touched his fingertips once more upon his kinsman's brow.
...If you are ready...
...Any who wish to may enter now... I am ready... and thank you, Aiwendil...
When Radagast lifted the tent flap, five anxious faces turned toward him: Gimli, Faramir, Halbarad, Peregrin, and Legolas. Mablung stood back, facing the rest of the encampment, on guard, as ever.
"No more than two...oh, very well, three at a time," he murmured, his gaze circling over the Dwarf, Elf and Hobbit. "And do not tarry long..."
The Brown Wizard waited outside with the two Men while the members of the Fellowship slipped inside together. Their voices were hushed; only Pippin's could easily be distinguished. As far as Radagast could tell, none of them openly wept. He was glad for that, knowing how it would disturb his colleague. When they emerged, the men who would, he deemed, be closest to the Man upon the throne in the coming years entered, one at a time. They each stayed for only a minute. Then all stood outside the tent in silence.
Faramir spoke first. "He spoke of Father... He would hardly let me say a word, he wished only to express his deepest condolences..."
"The same for me," Halbarad said hoarsely. "Somehow he knew about my son..."
"He told me how sorry he was, about poor Sam..." Pippin murmured. "And that Merry and dear Frodo were wounded... And then... well, I think I won't say anymore..."
"He seemed almost... almost... joyful, somehow... I kept remembering when we left Lothlorien... That singularly hopeful look he gave me..." Gimli's choked whisper fell away to silence.
Legolas was the only one who met the Brown Wizard's eyes. "Master Aiwendil, the time is short, is it not?"
"It is, Thranduilion. I advise that you and your friends proceed now and join your other two Companions: Lord Aragorn and Master Baggins. Captain Faramir--or Lieutenant Halbarad--if one of you would send four strong bearers to me, we shall all gather in the tent where the Ring-Bearer now lies..."
"But isn't it risky, to move him now?" Pippin said in a worried whisper.
Radagast smiled gently down at the Hobbit. "You begin to think like a healer, young one. But in time, a true Healer must also learn what is known to warriors--the wisdom of knowing when taking a risk is worth the price."
* * *
As the bearers paced with the stretcher between them, Gandalf lay on the taut canvas and listened to all the sounds around him.
Radagast's leather-soled sandals... He could never be convinced of the value of boots... Pippin's bare feet... Gimli's heavy tread... Those light, barely discernible footfalls must be Legolas...
Farther off he heard creaking wagons, horses snorting and pawing at the dust, men shouting and calling out, a group of Haradrim arguing vehemently, about... how curious; they are vying for the chance to come before the new King and plead for his mercy... How surprised they shall be when they discover they need but ask for it... Dust whirled between the tents, and he heard the snap of a standard whipping about as the wind began to pick up. A North Wind... the night shall be cold again, here in Sauron's wasted desert... Nay! Not Sauron's! Not any longer...
He felt light, as light as spun glass. And like spun glass, he felt fragile, as though--and this is true, is it not?--the slightest movement would shatter his mortal shell, pulverize it into a sparkling powder that would disperse upon the wind. And my skin--what remains of it--feels as though it is pierced by a thousand shards of glass... His sense of smell had been destroyed along with the bones of his nose; his sight was gone. What taste remained was flooded with the bitterness of blood and ash. All that was left was hearing--and this was keener than it had ever been--and feeling, and that sense had been thoroughly conquered by pain. The brutal intensity of those final days had been unimaginably worse than anything he had felt in all two thousand of his mortal years. He shivered as he unwillingly recalled it, as a wave of it washed over him again... He struggled to fight the memories and pay attention to the present.
Interesting... I have but to listen and the thoughts of those with me are as clear as if spoken aloud... It took an effort to do so, before... Legolas ponders the meaning of his last vision in the Mirror, of the deck of a boat at Sea... Gimli frets for his father and his people far away in Erebor... Poor Pippin is so upset--I wish he did not have to witness this ugliness... The boy notices my discomfort, and it causes him distress... Do not worry for me, Pippin, I shall soon be free of all pain...
For the worst was behind him now. There was grief before him, and hard moments. He wondered if harsh, accusing words would be spoken, but if there were, he would accept them without question. He had made so many mistakes: his too-prideful manner for too many years with Denethor; abandoning the search for Gollum and the origin of his 'birthday present', all those lost years of nothing but a hunch and no proof; and of course, his foolhardy trust in Saruman. He felt so burdened by all the loss: Elladan; Elrond; Arwen; the rest of the Balrog's victims; and Sam, oh, especially dear Sam. He ached so for Aragorn--should I have warned him? Would that have made the bitter news of his beloved's injury easier, or more difficult to bear? All these thoughts and more rolled through him like a river of doubt...
Yet, it was done. The task was finally completed. His long exile was almost over.
The bearers of his stretcher slowed their pace, and he heard the voices of Faramir and Halbarad--I am so glad that his dearest friend, that stubborn, good-hearted fellow, Hal, is with him on this day.... And I feel certain he will find a true friend and counselor in young Faramir as well--as they approached the larger tent where Frodo was housed. More words were exchanged; he heard Radagast speaking in his bear-voice and the Peredhel replying in his musical tenor. Ah! Poor Elrohir, drenched in grief, still raw even weeks after his twin's death... Aragorn's voice was not among the speakers, but he knew the man was near, he could sense his spirit, he knew it well--and Frodo, he lives, but has not awakened...
The flap was drawn back and he was carried inside. He sensed the warmer air, the breath of many standing nearby. The tent was full of onlookers, but he ignored them. He felt Aragorn's eyes upon him. The intake of the man's gasp was loud in the closed-in space. Of course... this is his first clear sight of me.... He firmly pushed Aragorn's probing thoughts away and reached out to the unconscious Hobbit... Yet Aragorn also endures so much pain of body, mind and soul; his suffering is nearly overwhelming... I will turn toward you yet, old friend, but for now, the Ring-Bearer...
He sifted gently through the layers of screaming horror and guilt and sorrow and pain that wound about Frodo until he reached him, immobile as if struck by lightning, in the place he could not yet bear to leave: the place where he had his final glimpse of Sam. Gandalf watched as Frodo crouched upon the very doorstep of the Sammath Naur, looking up at his dearest friend. Sam held Sting outstretched, poised to strike. The gardener of Bag End gazed down at his Master with a twisted grimace of grief on his thin, haggard face, yet filled with determination to... to...take the Ring and fling himself over the edge, to destroy himself, as Frodo had thought to do? No! That was not what was written in those brown eyes. Determination--yes, undaunted hope that he could somehow save his Master's life. It was the only way that Frodo could live and yet the Ring be destroyed. Sam had not intended to sacrifice himself. He had been taken by the fury unleashed when he dropped It over the edge. For the Mountain had been ready to boil over, had been growing in ferocity for nearly two weeks, feeding on its Master's rage at being thwarted by a stubborn old man who refused to speak...
The hand--that had been Sam's idea, his desperate, final scrambling for any solution but the one displayed on Frodo's desolate face. That seemingly brutal act had been a supreme display of the purest love. Ah, that a friend should be forced to make such a decision, that any child of Arda should have to choose between life and such a horror...
He reached more deeply into Frodo's mind, and as he had with Sam, he brought him to the Garden Bench and sat with him for a while, smoking his pipe, blowing rings and dragons and sailing ships of smoke all about the West Garden at Bag End, and just talking, simply talking with a friend, about nothing in particular, as they watched the brilliant colors of the evening sky together. Gradually, Frodo's tormented mind settled. Slowly he released his grip upon his conviction that Sam's death had been entirely his fault, as much his doing as though he had pushed him into the Fire. Gently, the wizard reminded him of all that he had done to care for Sam--how he had nursed him back to health, how he had guided them both across the desolation of Mordor; how when one of them grew weary and weak, the other found the strength to carry on. He helped him see the truth: that only by the two of them together could the Quest be fulfilled. Finally he rose from the Bench, and made ready to take his leave.
Sleep now, my boy... You deserve a rest, and peace... Aragorn is here, he'll help you, you need but allow him to help you, Frodo...
....But what about you? When will I see you again, Gandalf?
....Who can say, my friend? We shall meet again, I promise you that... But where? When? Only the One knows... Farewell, for now, dear Frodo...
He returned to the tent, and listening to their thoughts and murmuring voices, he concluded that Aragorn and the other Healers had seen some positive sign in the Hobbit's condition. He released a sigh, all at once aware of how weary he was. All at once he felt the onrushing swiftness of time passing. Aragorn left Frodo's bedside and was now standing beside him, his trembling hand laid upon his shoulder. Gandalf's swollen, cracked lips parted. He drew in a ragged breath... and discovered he could no longer speak.
...I am here...
Elrohir was speaking in low tones to his foster-brother; he must also be standing nearby. "Mithrandir's time is upon us, I fear... Aiwendil?..."
Radagast's cool, calloused fingertips lay gently upon Gandalf's brow again.
"He will leave us soon. He waited for Frodo--though I know he had hoped it would be Samwise, as well--and he waited for you, Aragorn..."
...You must tell them, tell them everything... I am running out of time...
Then Gandalf listened as Radagast directed them to sit and hear his tale: both tales, for he explained how the two wizards had joined their thoughts in silent speech.
"What I know, he knows, and where he has been, what he has seen and learned, I know. And now all of you, who have labored long and endured so much in this deadly struggle, shall know all."
The story unfolded, starting in Moria. His deep rich voice took them to the Bridge of Khazad-dûm to watch the fall of the Balrog into the abyss and the flight of the Fellowship. But instead of following their flight he drew them down, down into dark places, then up though long narrow places, until the Dark Fire that had been extinguished was reignited high in the Mountains. From there they watched the hordes emerge and march to the Golden Wood. They learned of that ancient realm's destruction, and of the death of Celeborn and all but a remnant of the Galadhrim. As he continued, they pictured the swift flight of Galadriel in their minds' eyes, but the thundering of the marchers under the Balrog's command was revealed as well. He brought them North, and they could no longer hold back their moans and cries of distress as he told them of the convergence from West and East upon a high, fair valley.
"Imladris was prepared," he said softly, "for I was able to come there bearing warnings of the approach of the Balrog and his soldiers some days before the end. The Lady Galadriel and her followers came a few days later, and the Last Homely House and the valley was defended as well as it could have been... But it was to no avail."
Gandalf felt Radagast's fingers pull away from his skin as the Brown Wizard turned now to face Aragorn. "The Lady Arwen was inside the House with many others when the invasion burst upon us. Elrond, Glorfindel, Erestor, the Galadhrim warriors under the command of Captain Haldir, and any others who could bear arms were stationed at guard throughout the valley, and they fought fiercely, but the attack was fiercer still... They flung fiery projectiles, and Elrond's House was ablaze... The Lady of Imladris made certain that all were evacuated from the conflagration..."
Radagast paused, and Gandalf heard him take a step away, and the faint sound of fabric wrinkling. Was he gripping Aragorn's arm? Steadying him, for the news to come?
"I said that your betrothed was a courageous lady, and I spoke truly," he said. "She was the last to leave the House, and as she fled across the threshold to follow the others to safety in the hills, she heard a voice cry out behind her. She turned, and the old Hobbit, Master Bilbo, was there, lying upon the floor in the hall. The old fellow had become dazed and confused in the many passageways, overcome by the smoke and the heat. Arwen ran back and began to raise him up--but alas, the fire had already weakened the great supporting beams. A blazing plank of wood came crashing down..."
Gandalf's heart tore open, for Aragorn's groan of anguish was terrible to hear. Radagast's voice dropped low.
"The old Hobbit was killed, and Arwen was knocked down by a glancing blow from that flaming beam. Yet she lived, and when she was brought out, her only concern was for Master Bilbo, and that all the rest of the Household was safe..."
"Tell me! Tell me, I beg you!" Aragorn whispered hoarsely. "How badly was she injured? How badly?"
"She broke her arm in the fall... And she was burned..."
"How badly?" It was Elrohir's voice now, desperate and urgent. "Tell us, Aiwendil!"
Gandalf could understand why Radagast was hesitating, for it was difficult to report such distressing news, especially to those so close to a loved one. But your long years with no company but your friends among the Kelvar shows all too clearly now, my old friend... You never did learn how to talk to people... but then, I had not Saruman's glib tongue, either...
Radagast drew in a deep breath and finally went on. "She she suffered a deep burn upon her face... upon the left side... I am sorry, Aragorn... Elrohir..."
Gandalf felt the stillness gather about him, and he wondered if Radagast would tell them the rest. He began to send out a plea in thought to his colleague when Elrohir spoke.
"Who brought her out of the burning House?"
Silence... Oh, tell them, Radagast... Tell them!
Then Aragorn spoke, his voice still hoarse, but with a note of relief. "Why, I believe that Master Radagast himself did so..."
"Yes. It was I," the Brown Wizard murmured. "I am no warrior, you see. I had no place with the defenders of the valley..."
"Deny not your courage, my Lord," Aragorn said fervently. "And with all my heart, I thank you..."
"Alas, though the Lady and many others were able to hide high upon the steep sides of the valley, the battle below raged on," Radagast continued. "We watched, unable to help them... Hordes of Orcs were slain, and if the attack had been only of those folk and no others, they would have been repelled by the defense. But the Balrog seemed unstoppable." He paused again, and when he went on, the old wizard's deep voice was full of sorrow. "Yet, in the end, the Balrog was brought down, by the combined Power of the three mightiest of Elvenkind that remained, East of the Great Sea. Glorfindel, Elrond, and the Lady Galadriel, bearing the sword of Celeborn, stood together at the last..." At that, the room erupted in sounds of disbelief and murmurs of grief and dismay. "Yes, the daughter of Finarfin was powerful, indeed... Had she not joined them, I believe that Elrond and Glorfindel would have died in vain... But the three together achieved what none could do alone, though it cost them their lives... Once the Balrog was slain, his followers fled..."
The rest of the story flowed out quickly. The Eagles that had brought Radagast to Rivendell were summoned again, and Arwen--after her wounds were tended by the Healer of the Kelvar--was borne on swift wings to Thranduil, for the Kingdom of he Wood Elves had successfully repelled their own invasion and was largely intact. Radagast came South as quickly as the Windlord could carry him, with an army of Eagles beside him. As Radagast's tale came to an end, the others converged upon him, bursting with questions and pleas for other news from the North. The Grey Wizard was momentarily forgotten.
Gandalf had listened to the grim tale with growing heartache--for everything had felt so horribly wrong from that very first instant, all the way back at the Bridge in Moria. And this was how it had played out. The terrible glimpses he had seen in the Lady's Mirror had haunted him for months: images of the Balrog escaping, of the devastation of Lothlorien and Rivendell, and the strong sense that rage aimed at him drove the monster to these deeds. He had seen Arwen's burned face; he had watched Celeborn and Elrond fall. Not until his thoughts had joined to Radagast's had he known with certainty that Glorfindel and Galadriel would also die, but he had suspected it.
He asked himself the question he had asked again and again, since January: What could he have done differently? Could he have prevented all this tragedy and horror? And again and again in his mind's eye, he saw his fingers gripping that miraculous, unexpected rope...
And if I had let go? If I had abandoned the Company and pursued the Balrog, no matter what it cost me? He sniffed. Preposterous. He scolded himself for even considering such an arrogant, prideful thought. Alone, he could not possibly have destroyed the Balrog of Moria. The Dark Maia was far more powerful than he. Had I let myself fall into the abyss, I would have died there, in the depths of Moria--and who would have guided Frodo and Sam to Mordor? Who would have done whatever was necessary to give them their chance to enter undetected?
He sighed. It was finally clear to him. It could not have happened any other way.
The sounds of voices around him returned to his conscious awareness, and with those sounds his other remaining sense reawakened with a startling burst, as if every nerve ending was on fire. He was too weak now to flinch, or groan, or stiffen. He could hardly move a muscle in response to this new onslaught of agony. He realized that Radagast was now recounting the tale of the Three Companions after they parted from Boromir and Pippin. He tried to listen, though his failing flesh was vying for his attention.
...Tell them of Frodo and Sam... That is what is important. They must learn how brave they were...They must know how the Quest was achieved...
The remarkable tale wound forward, and the tent was once again silent as they listened in awe to Radagast's voice. What the Brown Wizard had learned from the Grey, and what Gandalf had just now gleaned from deep in Frodo's memories was recounted. They heard of the grim bridge over the poisoned stream, and the hazardous climb; they learned of spiders, and sudden rains, and the ash-dry desert, of Orc-wells and darkness and stumbling at the end on bleeding feet. Radagast's voice dropped low once more as their horrible, courageous choice was revealed.
"Just as no one of the three Elves alone could have brought down the Balrog, so too it was that neither Frodo Baggins alone, nor Samwise Gamgee alone could succeed," Radagast said quietly. "They would never have passed safely beyond Morgul Vale were it not for the deeds of another... Indeed, the deeds of many, for each one of you helped the Quest to be fulfilled."
Gandalf felt himself fading. His pain had peaked, and now dissipated somewhat. Though he could see nothing, he saw an edge beyond which light shone--beyond where there was no pain. Others were there, beckoning to him, welcoming him. He was drawn toward them, but he lingered, for there was still more to be said.
Radagast was there in response to his unspoken desire, and he brought the King to the bedside. Aragorn's left hand lay again upon his shoulder.
"My dear old friend," the Man whispered. "How I shall miss you..."
...ask him, please, ask him to forgive me...
"He can no longer speak," Radagast muttered. "He asks for your forgiveness, Aragorn..."
"W..what?! My forgiveness? I give him anything he asks--but why?"
"He saw her, you see... He had a premonition of Arwen's wounding... He..." And at that, Radagast paused, and Gandalf could feel him frowning down upon him, and could sense his reluctance--his annoyance, in fact. "You know how stubborn he is..."
He heard Aragorn grunt, then Radagast continued. "He has been harboring the curious delusion that all of this is somehow his doing, that he could have prevented it, had he only been faster, wiser, stronger... Well, I suspect this is nothing unfamiliar to you." The Man and the Brown Wizard snorted simultaneously. "He always was a peculiar combination of the one most convinced of the dire importance of his every deed, and the most obstinately self-doubting of any of us..."
Aiwendil, there isn't time for this nonsense... Finish it, I beg you...
At once, he could feel Radagast's uniquely warm smile beaming upon him. It was like basking in the Sun on a blissfully warm spring morning after a long dreary winter, and the urgency to cross over that edge was momentarily eased.
"He wishes to say a few more things," Radagast said gently. "And as you know, he will have the last word..."
The Brown Wizard turned to those gathered and addressed them one by one.
"Elrohir Elrondion, your family has been torn asunder, and your heart must also feel thus. But remember that a heart broken is an open heart; and do not fear to allow warmth and joy to flow into your open heart and heal those wounds."
"Halbarad of the North, may the rest of your days be marked by the contentment of the those who have found true peace...and by the laughter of many grandchildren."
"Faramir son of Denethor, graciously accept what fate brings you--for you, even more than your beloved and courageous brother, have inherited your father's keen wisdom and your mother's generous spirit."
"Gimli son of Gloin, true friendship comes in all shapes and sizes."
"Legolas Thranduilion, true friendship indeed comes in all shapes and sizes."
"Peregrin Took, you may always remain the smallest in stature of all of your Fellow Companions, but in wisdom and courage you have grown more than any other."
Radagast turned last to Aragorn, who had remained standing beside Gandalf's litter with his hand resting on his shoulder.
"And for you, my Lord, your friend has this to say: that you should recall that greatness is not an attribute of the flesh, just as authentic beauty is not found upon the surface. Only those whose strength resides in their spirit, whose power is founded upon wisdom, and whose hearts burn with the fire of genuine love are those who are truly great, just as only the beauty that blossoms from within is true."
Gandalf felt Aragorn's hand lift away and Radagast's warm spirit lean over him.
...Tell me, old friend--do the stars shine tonight?
The sky is alight with them...
...would you ask them...?
Radagast turned to Aragorn. "He has requested to be taken outdoors, beneath the Stars... It is time, my friends. We must release him."
Aragorn stepped forward, and with a wan smile and a shake of his head, he gestured to Elrohir and Halbarad to stand back. He placed his arms beneath Gandalf and lifted him up. With tears streaming down his face he carried him out of the tent and into an open space; the rest followed closely behind. He allowed his step-brother and his lieutenant to help him lower the wizard to the ground. From out of the shadows a great silver-white stallion appeared, treading slowly and carefully between the gathering crowd of men who had appeared. Shadowfax tossed his head and whinnied, took his place beside the King and waited.
The night sky shimmered brilliantly overhead, and the sky was as black as can only be seen in the most arid places. They stepped back and away, standing in a wide circle around the figure wrapped in Faramir's sable cloak upon the cracked ground. No one spoke; even Shadowfax was silent. Then, a gust of wind whipped in and danced in a circle, raising a cloud of dust. The black cloak fluttered, and the dust seemed to rise about it--and then the dust began to sparkle and shine, as though tiny fragments of glass were swirling up and catching the light. Or maybe they were bits of diamond, or perhaps they were miniature twinkling stars. The sparkling, swirling cloud rose up, and up, and they watched it rise into the darkness until it seemed to become one with the overarching stars... And then it was gone.
Staring upward, Pippin noticed through his tears that the starry sky twinkled on and off as a flock of black-winged birds flew away toward the West.
Aragorn was the first to look down. He blinked, startled for a moment; then he sighed, and smiled. The cloak was empty.
* * *
Radagast observed as Elrohir and Halbarad stepped up to flank Aragorn as he turned away from the scene. They were there, at the ready, when his weariness finally outstripped his doggedness, and he stumbled. The King would have fallen to the ground had his companions not clasped him firmly and supported him.
"No more delay, Estel..."
"You're coming with us, and don't try to pull rank. It won't work..."
The Brown Wizard came to Elrohir's side. He spoke directly to Aragorn. "Your friends speak truly, my Lord. Your need is clearly apparent, and seems urgent. May I offer my assistance? New eyes upon an old problem can sometimes provide a fresh perspective..."
They brought Aragorn to a nearby pavilion that Elrohir had wisely asked the Healers to prepare for just this occasion. Another cushioned cot stood there, as well as lanterns, a brazier, bandages, oils, tinctures, and the Peredhel's and his step-brother's leather kits. A bowl of steaming water waited, and beside it was a wooden platter piled high with recently culled athelas. Aragorn surveyed all this in a glance. He turned a feverish but questioning eye upon his foster-brother.
"I see you have stolen my kit... And just when did you take up the habit of hoarding herbs, Toro-nin?"
Elrohir's smile was thin. "As we passed through Ithilien I was not idle, little brother. And call it not hoarding--the King's Herb is the rightful property of the King himself..."
Radagast stood back and watched as the King suffered himself to be undressed by his lieutenant. At Elrohir's instruction, Halbarad helped Aragorn sit upon the edge of the cot and hold still while he cleansed his bare back, neck, shoulders and arms. The right shoulder wound was dressed, but the cloth was soaked through with a dark stain that had dried and clung to his skin. Elrohir dampened it thoroughly before cutting the bindings and peeling the cloth away. At once, the odor that Radagast had noted at his arrival was strong. The smell was sharp and earthy.
"Like spoiled mushrooms..." Hal muttered.
Elrohir explained the origin of the injury Aragorn had received at the Fords of Isen as the wound was revealed. The rounded lumps that Hal had seen at the encampment above the Marshes had grown, and their color was even darker and duskier now. The swelling extended down and around his flank and beneath his arm. Two of the three lumps had broken open, and the crusty, black drainage Hal had noticed before was now a thick oozing discharge.
Radagast stepped forward a few paces. Elrohir bowed his head and frowned at the ugly wound, and his frustration--and his fear--was easily read upon his face.
"Elrohir, are you familiar with this malady?" Radagast said softly as he approached.
Elrohir glanced up. "Nay... I have seen nothing like this in all my life... I have tried every remedy Ada ever taught us... We applied compresses, and every manner of poultices... We opened it several times, to drain out the pockets within. At first the purulence appeared ordinary, and responded well to our usual herbs. The wound worsened again after the battle for Helm's Deep, but the Ents gave us a potion, and it slowed the process greatly, while our supply lasted. Although I must admit that these dark nodules now visible began to grow even during that phase of treatment. I advised that it should be opened again, but Estel pleaded with me to avoid the knife until after this final battle, and I agreed... What is this, Aiwendil? Do you know?"
The Brown Wizard was momentarily lost in thought. His mind left the pavilion and he stood upon a newly wet, smoothly paved street in a steaming hot city, far to the East. The sky was a gleaming blue, and great clouds hovered on the horizon, promising yet more rain. Insects buzzed incessantly in the strange, drooping trees, and the brightest colored, noisiest birds he had ever seen called raucously to him. He was sure they were mocking him with his heavy brown garments in this stultifying heat, but he could not understand their speech. Saruman stood beside him, glaring with impatience, as usual.
This is all very interesting and droll, Radagast. But we have far more urgent business to attend to. Are you coming, or aren't you?
He had followed his colleague in silence. He had suffered through another dull, incomprehensible audience with the local Raja, had pretended to eat the overly spicy delicacies and partake of the potent liquor, though Saruman had relished both. He had slipped out of the glittering stone palace and returned to the wet street with the pink and blue birds, still cackling and calling. Guided by his keen sense of smell, he made his way through the warren of streets. The man was still there, waiting for him, for of course, that street corner was where he spent all his days, begging.
Kind Master, I felt it in my soul that you would return, and I thank all the gods that you did so... Do you think you can help my foot?
Radagast had tried, and failed, to treat the man's swollen, dark red, horribly misshapen foot, oozing with grainy black drainage with the odor of fermenting mushrooms, using the remedies he carried with him. The man said that many of his people--especially those too poor to own shoes or sandals--were so afflicted. Later, at the palace, he sought out the healers to the Raja, and learned of the slow, insidious malady named for the city where it was most commonly seen. The disease usually affected the foot, and was acquired by stepping on thorns, or so it was believed. The dark suppuration deeply invaded through every tissue until it lodged in the bone and marrow. And he learned of the only effective treatment, which, if not applied in time, allowed the disease to take its inevitable course toward a horrible death. Only then did Saruman express an interest in the topic, appearing suddenly at Radagast's side, listening intently to the conversation between healers of different worlds. The Brown Wizard thought nothing of it at the time, but on the day of their departure from the Eastern city of Madura, he saw Saruman taking a covered basket from the palace healer, and dropping a few coins in the man's waiting hand.
His thoughts returned to the tent upon the plain before the Gate of Mordor. He never forgot a thing... What a pity that such towering intellect was wasted on him...
"I have seen it, long ago, when I traveled in the East. There, as it mainly affects the foot, they call it Madura Disease, or Madura Foot." He shuddered. "Saruman was with me on that journey. I can only conclude that when he learned of this disease he kept that knowledge within him, until he decided that such a thing would make an extremely effective--and deadly--weapon, one that would eventually kill regardless of the severity of the wound."
"So; there is no cure..." Aragorn's back was still turned as he spoke in a hoarse, low voice.
Radagast came around the cot and faced the King. "That is not what I said, young man. There is a cure, and it is very effective. However, the treatment is... rather harsh." He studied the new King's hollow face, lined with pain, and his sunken grey eyes, encircled by dark rings. I deem him ready to hear this. Perhaps he already suspects... Though he fears and dreads it--as would any man...
"Tell me of this harsh treatment..." Aragorn said in a steady voice.
Briefly and clearly, the Brown Wizard explained what would be required to save the King's life. Elrohir's eyes clamped shut as he gripped the cloth he had been holding in both his fists. Halbarad jumped forward and placed his hand lightly on Aragorn's left shoulder; his face was a grimace of distress. Only Aragorn's features remained placid, though stern. I was right--he knew, all along...
"What about Treebeard's elixir? Can't we get more of it?" Hal asked in a whisper. "It seemed to help, Aragorn..."
"It merely slowed the process, Hal," Aragorn said hoarsely. "Eventually..."
Radagast interrupted. "Indeed; eventually, the drastic course must be taken. But the elixir of the Onodrim--if it is the one I am familiar with--could well forestall the urgency of the need, my Lord." His eyes gleamed, and one corner of his mouth rose. "And if I am not mistaken, sire, a few months delay of the inevitable might well be desirable, allowing two singularly important and joyous events to proceed undiminished: a coronation, and a wedding, perhaps?"
In the course of just minutes, Radagast found himself in the unfamiliar role of tearing out the heart of hope and finding a way to renew it once more. Dealing with these Speaking Children is quite bewildering; I find I much prefer my Kelvar friends... I do not know how Olorin managed it... He suggested that he and Elrohir perform a temporary procedure upon the King's wound at once, opening it and washing out most of the black grainy substance.
"If your loyal lieutenant Halbarad would go to the small tent where I tended Gandalf and return with the tinctures, I could ease your discomfort, my Lord..."
Hal left, and the son of the wisest Elven Healer in Middle Earth and the wisest Healer to ever travel from the West made ready for the surgery. Elrohir gazed at the Wizard with gratitude.
"Thank you, Master Aiwendil," he whispered. "My heart told me that such a thing would be necessary, but I could not bring myself to speak it aloud..." He paused and watched the Brown Wizard's gnarled yet nimble fingers rapidly arranging the instruments and tools they would soon use. "Aiwendil, you mentioned you are familiar with the elixir that the Onod gave us... Do you know the components? Perhaps we can make a supply, or even improve upon it..."
Radagast turned to him gravely. "I know the components... But young Elf, think from whence that elixir came--or rather, from whom. Fangorn himself told me that the brewing of it takes more than a century of careful tending... I would think that in over ten millennia the Onodrim have more than perfected their art. And it is, after all, a remedy designed for trees and Ents, not specifically designed for Men. No doubt, in time, a solution that can be applied upon the wound, or ingested, shall be invented by brave and curious souls building upon the knowledge of their ancestors... But your Estel does not have that much time." He placed his hand on the Peredhel's wrist. "Think on who would be most suitable for a swift journey West to Isengard--or Fangorn Forest--to find the Eldest of the Onodrim and make an urgent plea for an additional supply of his remedy, and dispatch them with a message from the King as soon as can be."
Elrohir nodded. "I know just who should go."
When Halbarad returned, the Peredhel watched as Radagast artfully swirled the multicolored solutions into a goblet of clear water, stirring and sniffing until he was satisfied. He then offered it to Aragorn, peering intently while the King drank, ensuring that he consumed every drop. Soon, Aragorn's eyes drooped, and they lay him upon his left side and prepared to open and drain the wound. When it was clear that Aragorn was deeply asleep and could feel nothing, they began.
As Elrohir and the Wizard carefully and thoroughly washed their hands when the procedure was done, the Peredhel spoke again in a subdued voice.
"I was wondering... Have you ever performed... the drastic procedure you described?"
Radagast gazed at him. "Of course I have, many times... But in the four-footed creatures I am more accustomed to treat, the procedure is called something quite different. It is known as a forequarter amputation, and it is tolerated remarkably well. Why, I have even seen horses run after such a surgery... Not as smoothly or as elegantly as they did before, of course, but with just as much joyful freedom of spirit."
Elrohir reached out and gripped the Wizard's arm. "Aiwendil, will you... will you stay, and help us--help me? Help him?"
Radagast smiled serenely. I honor your final request of me, Olorin: to stay among these curious, irrational and annoyingly talkative creatures, for a while... for as long as they have need of me...
"Of course I will."
Later that very night, Legolas and Gimli mounted their horse, saddlebags full of travel supplies, and made ready to head West.
"Now listen, Half-Elf," Gimli growled at Elrohir standing by. "You make certain that he waits for us! I am not about to miss his crowning, not after all we've been through!"
Legolas laughed. "As for me, I care little for such a ceremony--it is the wedding I shall not miss! Be sure to tell him! If he does not wait for us, he will regret it!"
Author's notes: I know it is hard to believe, but ... to be continued... really...
*Once again, I shamelessly pitch another of my tales, "The Kindness of Strangers," where readers may learn much more about the Ravens of the Clan of Isen.
And Madura Foot is a real disease, a fungal infection endemic to India. Amputation of the foot was the only treatment until modern anti-fungal antibiotics were discovered—most of them derived from compounds found in plants--in the last 20 years.