"Welcome back, Gandalf," Elrond greeted him, once the Wizard had taken a very hot bath and donned his freshly cleaned robes. Elrond was intrigued by his guest’s clothing, which would appear filthy on his arrival from his long journeys, but always appeared freshly cleaned when he donned them once again. Were they somehow bound to his nature as one of the Istari that when he cleansed himself his clothing was cleansed somehow by extension? Or was it an ongoing spell Gandalf had worked on them?
He knew that Gandalf had done a great deal of study on spells as used amongst Elves, Dwarves, and Men during the time he’d spent in Middle Earth, not that Men could, for the most part, easily invoke spells, particularly now in these latter days. The Dúnedain of the North had chosen to turn away from spells, describing them as offering too much temptation to avoid honest labor, although they still inscribed runes of strength, endurance, and protection against the evil offered by the Enemy and his creatures on their weapons, admitting that in the case of such there was a need to invoke fair spells against evil ones.
"Well," Elrond asked as he offered his guest a goblet of fine wine he’d been sent by Thranduil, "who comes?"
"I spoke with Radagast before I left the valley of the Anduin, as I told you; one of his birds found me in Mithlond and brought me word he is on his way, and that he actually entered Gondor to speak with Rómendacil as the King was doing a progress through Ithilien. As I feared, neither Rómendacil nor his heir will come, the King expressing disdain at what conclusions and decisions might be arrived at as a result of the council. Malvegil cannot come, although he may be sending Argeleb. None of the kings of Men in Rhovanion would agree to come, citing the conditions of the passes at this time of year. Thranduil is coming, accompanied by his two sons. I did stop along the edge of the Barrowdowns of Cardolan where I met with Iarwain--he laughed when I suggested his wisdom would be welcome, telling me, ‘And what heed would any give to me, the songspinner, the dreamwalker? Nay, friend, I’ll not go so far from my own doors, for you know better the movements of the shadow-clad ones than I.’
"Celeborn and Galadriel are to accompany Thranduil over the passes above Imladris, and I believe it shows the fullness of the concern that Thranduil has for the growing shadow within the southern borders of his own woodland realm that he will do so, for he’s not been congenial with his kinsmen within Lorien since the death of his father, as you well know. Círdan himself comes, leaving Galdor at the Havens to oversee any emergencies that might arise. Gildor Inglorion and several others of the lords of the wandering bands also come, including Marengil and Pelastor of the vales where the headwaters of the Anduin flow."
Elrond’s eyebrow rose. "Marengil and Pelastor leave their own lands? I’d not thought to see that."
"I suspect they will come with Thranduil, Celeborn, and Galadriel."
The lord of Imladris nodded automatically in recognition of that last, his own mind on the idea that Elves of the wandering tribes east of the Mountains of Mist would come west. Did these intend to return to their own ranges after this council? Somehow he suspected they would not. "Do any among the Dwarves come?"
"Dúrin states he will send one of his folk, but all others indicate they will rely on his emissary."
"And the Periain?"
Gandalf took a deep breath, then shook his head. "Elladan told you that I came to the defense of a company of that folk who’d come westward into Eriador led by Bilbiolo of the village of the Makers of Bags, and that their guide received a mortal wound from the trolls who assaulted them?"
His host’s face went still. "Yes, he told me he believed that would be the result of the wound. So, he did leave the circles of the world?"
Gandalf nodded, his own face reflecting the grief he still felt. "Yes, he left the bounds of Arda and, I hope, even now stands in the Presence." Elrond looked up into his face, his grey eyes searching the shadowed blue ones of the Istar. "I know of no others of his kind who would come to this council save perhaps his nephew Merlin; but Merlin is constrained by the limitations set upon him by his father and his father’s kindred, who see communication with those unlike themselves as possibly dangerous--certainly as unsettling. I came upon him working in their fields as I traveled here from Mithlond, and he stated he dare not come, not while his father and his father’s brother’s son yet live. But he cares for the family of his mother’s brother, and looks to marry in a few months a Hobbit maiden of marked beauty. I was able to speak briefly with her as well, and she spoke with fond memory of the time when she healed in this your house from the injuries that almost took her life as they passed over the mountains into Eriador."
"Starflower?" Elrond asked, his attention caught. "Bilbiolo’s nephew and Starflower look to wed?" He began to smile. "I cannot say why, only that this bodes very well for the Periannath and all who deal with them--very well indeed." He sighed, sipped again at his drink, set it aside, then stood erect. "I will advise Celebrían and Arwen and allow them to begin arranging quarters for all you’ve advised are likely to come. And I will speak also with Erestor and Glorfindel, who will be interested in knowing who comes and may have understanding of why." He shook his head. "I fear Pelastor and Marengil will not linger much longer in Middle Earth, Gandalf. But what of Saruman?"
"He sent word via Malvegil he comes. I had no idea, but he’s been north to Angmar last."
Elrond considered for a moment. "He has done much personal investigation of the Enemy’s own peoples. To know the Enemy is good--but can also lead to identification with him if it goes too far."
Gandalf gave only a shrug in answer, for he could not help but agree with the Elf’s wisdom.
Elladan and Glorfindel were keeping watch on the pass, while Erestor rode out westward along the Road watching for those coming from that direction. Saruman arrived first, having been met by Elrohir two days northeast from the ford of the Bruinen and accepting the guidance of Elrond’s son into the vale of Imladris.
Elrond greeted Saruman courteously. "Welcome, my lord, to Imladris. If there is aught we can do for you...."
The White Wizard saw that Gandalf had arrived before him and paused; then smiled graciously. "Lord Elrond, Gandalf--it is an honor to see each of you again. You have been here long, Gandalf?"
"A few days only, having come from Mithlond and Annúminas."
"And what news is there from the Havens?"
Gandalf shrugged. "Little enough. The ship traders of Arnor have done well in the past season, with one ship of exploration returning after a very long voyage west to another great land. They have returned with several new seeds and plants they’ve not seen elsewhere, including a root vegetable somewhat like a yam but with a mealy white flesh under a rather fine brown skin, and a number of vines whose fruits have thick shells, while the meat about their seeds is reportedly very tasty. I told a husbandman among the Periain about them, and he is very interested in acquiring samples for the sustenance of his people."
"You have spent time discussing possible crops with husbandmen?" Saruman appeared surprised by the idea.
"For their people the possibility of new crops is always of deepest interest, I find."
"The Periannath certainly don’t merit a great deal of study, do they?" Saruman asked in a tone of indulgence.
Gandalf examined his nominal superior briefly, then smiled. "Perhaps they are of little enough importance in the larger scheme of things, but I find them highly interesting and definitely diverting. They are proving a fascinating study in self-contradictions. Many display a degree of land-sense equal to that of any Elf, while the hunger for knowledge of others is prodigious. Yet most are suspicious of outsiders and change or any unusual talents at the same time they are among the most hospitable of hosts imaginable and thrive on diversity and the unusual. And how they can take the most common of foodstuffs and make a veritable feast of them is most wonderful.
"However, I believe that what you might tell us of what you’ve learned in the north and east would perhaps be of more importance to the deliberations of the council once all who will come arrive."
Three days later all likely to come had been greeted by Elrond and his folk. Those coming from across the Mountains of Mist arrived together, Elves, one representative of the horse folk who introduced himself as Aelfric, and Radagast. Círdan arrived with Gildor and several other lords from those of the wandering companies that traveled the westlands and Argeleb, son of King Malvegil. From the south came a party of Dwarves from Khazad-dûm, led by Dúrin the Fifth’s second son Gláin, one of his companions the Balin Gandalf had met east of the mountains.
After a feast of welcome and a night to rest themselves, all assembled the next morning for the council. Elrond looked around the company and greeted them, naming each to the rest.
"And so here we are come together to consider our mutual defense against the Shadow. For a time we will know peace and growth, but ever the Shadow grows yet again. Whether the one who has taken refuge in what we have come to call Dol Guldur is one we already know or another we cannot as yet say; there is much of the taste of Sauron about him, and yet he is different. Unlike Morgoth’s second he does not show himself or travel through the lands to cozen its people. Such was ever Sauron’s way, to take upon himself a fair guise and speak what appeared to be fair and wise words in the ears of the unwary that they might be caught in his webs and turned from their appointed ways to his designs."
"This one," Thranduil said, continuing the tale, "having taken the place and built his stronghold, does not stir from it himself. He draws to himself the creatures of darkness, however; and about the place fell beasts breed. Orcs have begun to gather there and are used by him to harry the roads past our realm. Some of the most recent to come out have ridden on wargs and thus have gone further afield than most of their kind will do. And in the depths of the wood have begun to be found great spiders the like of which have not been seen since the War of Wrath. Their webs are of normal silk and not of shadow, for the most part, although some of the greatest weave shadows amongst the silk; they feed on whatever living things they can catch, although a few have been known to seek to poison trees as well as the animals and travelers they can snare. These great spiders, however, unlike their normal kin, do not build webs in places of sunlight--only in the darkest of shadowed spaces, although ever across traveled paths."
"You think perhaps the blood of Ungoliant runs within them?" asked Celeborn.
"From where else would come their great size, their cunning, and their antipathy toward Light in any form?"
"How are their webs to be destroyed?"
"For those only of normal silk any blade appears effective, if the hand to wield it has strength enough behind it; for those with shadow woven into them only those blades wrought by the Noldor for the most part appear capable of easily parting them, although other blades can be used if one has time to spend a day or better parting single strands. Even then, however, the swordsman must be highly determined if he is to cut through any of the thing."
Saruman asked, "How are these to be killed?"
"Not easily--multiple arrows to eyes and abdomen may work. A sword tends to work better, but their ichor can be very caustic and will sometimes burn the flesh with an acid not easily quenched. The best strategy seems to be part head from body; but getting close enough to the creature to do this undetected is nearly impossible; and then again the Noldor-wrought blades appear to be most effective."
Radagast asked, "What other creatures congregate about the Dark One? Do werewolves and vampires gather to him?"
"Fortunately there are few enough of such remaining in Middle Earth. A few came to Dol Guldur in its earliest days, but we have not seen them apart from there for some time. However, many bats carrying diseases issue from the place at intervals, and the wolves he breeds seek to feed on Men and Elves rather than following herds of grazing animals and preying on the ill and weak as do normal wolves."
Saruman asked, "And the slaves to the Rings given to Men?"
Elrond answered, "Angmar, ever Sauron’s greatest lieutenant, lingers in the northlands and harries the borders of northern Eriador. Rhudaur as a land of the Dúnedain has been no more for the last twenty years, although those displaced from Dunland and the hills of the south move ever north, slaying as they come; now he appears to focus on the folk who have settled in what was Cardolan."
Prince Legolas of Mirkwood added, "There is evidence some of the Ring Slaves may be working from Dol Guldur--the one known before as Khamul is believed to serve as the Necromancer’s primary lieutenant. Most, however, appear to dwell in what was Mordor or lands eastward of there."
"You call the one who dwells in Dol Guldur the Necromancer?" Saruman’s attention was fully caught by this. "Why?"
Thranduil answered, "He appears to feed somehow on the deaths of those taken by his slaves. The few who have managed to escape his clutches before being drawn into his dungeons speak of the feeling of great power being transferred they’ve sensed as they are certain their former companions are slain."
This caused Saruman great pause. Finally he said, "I see. This bears study." All looked at one another uneasily. Finally the White Wizard asked, "And what of those Rings of Power given to Dwarves?" He fixed his attention on Gláin.
The Dwarf’s face grew stiff. "From what we can tell, all but three were lost before the end of the last age, taken when Sauron’s creatures captured their keepers, or swallowed by the dragons he loosed upon our people’s kingdoms. I can tell you nothing of those that remain, for it is not permitted. We of the Khazad do not speak our secrets before others. However, never has he managed to control us through the Rings as he did Men, which is why he has sought to slay those gifted with them to recapture them, or has given them for the prey of the dragons."
Again all looked at one another, for this was news to most. "Only three of the Rings remain?" Gandalf persisted.
"Of this we are certain," Gláin repeated. "Two have been taken where his servants are unlikely to come, and the last is in a place of greatest strength among us. We do not believe he will ever be able to come there to take it by force."
Gandalf’s face showed great concern. "Yet the strong places of those who have defied those of the Shadow have always fallen in the end, by a failure of the watch against its malice, by unwariness in response to the fair-spoken word, by betrayal from within. You cannot count on your defenses holding indefinitely."
"And who among us would think to betray the line of Dúrin?" demanded the Dwarf.
Gandalf sighed. "And how many times have the servants of the Shadow taken hostages to use the love felt for the victims to force sires to betray their kingdoms, or lovers to give over their most deeply guarded secrets? Do not think even Khazad-dûm safe from betrayal or infiltration.
"And do not forget that although Sauron was not able to draw the wielders of the Dwarven Rings into wraithdom as befell those who wore the Rings intended for Men, yet he has used them to increase personal greed and suspicion toward those seen as outsiders. Can your sire call upon allies among Men and Elves if his kingdom is assaulted, even from among those who dwell closest to his gates? That you have agreed to come to this council shows that your father and you, at least, see the need for all to stand in common purpose against Morgoth’s successors; but when Sauron’s forces assaulted Eregion how many of your people were willing to aid Celebrimbor other than allowing some of the refugees to flee to safety through your halls?"
What could be seen of the Dwarf’s face behind his beard was flushed with fury. Balin, however, stood up thoughtfully. "He is right, Lord Gláin," he counseled his companion. "This is not intended to insult you or your father, but simply to point out that our own suspicions and greed all too often isolate us from what aid others would prefer to give us openly, trusting that we would similarly aid them were situations reversed. All too often we drive away those who would fight by our sides."
"And what do men or Elves know of the love of the children of the Smith for the depths of the earth?" Gláin demanded. "What do they understand of the glory of finding precious metals and stones and seeing them properly wrought?"
"And do you deny," Argeleb asked stiffly, "that there are smiths among Men and Elves who can and do craft fine weapons and finer adornments?"
Gandalf looked from Elrond’s stern expression to the face of Argeleb and then that of Gláin. "And so first Morgoth and then Sauron have ever sought to sow competition and thus division between those who ought to be allied. The workmanship of Men differs from that of Dwarves, Elves, and even that of the Pheriannath; and what is true for Men is true for each of the others as well. Yet, instead of appreciating the special qualities of each race’s works, we each covet the strengths and disparage the weaknesses of the others."
"Enough of the bickering," Saruman said coldly. "This is not a time to quibble over who is strongest or weakest or most gifted. We know we face one who apparently has learned how to harvest the life-force of others and who uses that power for some purpose of his own. We know he has built a stronghold at Dol Guldur in southern Mirkwood, and draws to himself evil creatures. It may be Sauron, but may be but a Nazgul, although all know that is evil enough. We know he threatens all.
"If this is indeed Sauron then he must seek for his own Ring. Who will tell what is known of its loss?"
Argeleb looked to Elrond, who had tutored him in younger years, and at a nod from the Lord of Imladris he related the story brought to Imladris regarding the ambush of Isildur’s company; Elendur’s insistence that his father take the Ring out of the locket in which he carried it, and don it in order to escape the assault; the self-sacrifice of Isildur’s three older sons and most of his Men that he might be able to escape and return to Imladris to safety and his wife and remaining son; the tracking of the King; the betrayal by the Ring as he sought to swim the river; the coming of the last two of the party bringing with them the shards of Narsil and word of the King’s death in the River Anduin adjacent to the Gladden Fields.
Galadriel then spoke, the first time she’d addressed the rest since the council began: "When we parted from Isildur at Osgiliath, I felt danger surrounding him, and advised him to take the western route. However, flush as he was with the victory against Mordor he told me he would go whatever way he and his sons and scouts felt best. I also warned him that although Sauron had lost the greater part of his power along with his Ring, that meant he himself carried that power about his neck, and that the creatures of evil would likely be drawn to It.
"'In taking It for your own instead of seeing It destroyed while the Mountain was yet at hand, you have left It as a burden to future generations, for that portion of Sauron’s power and nature It contains goes with you wherever you carry It. You have caught yourself in a cleft stick of your own making, for you will find the creatures of darkness will sense Its presence and seek the comfort of Its dark power, dogging your way even when they have no idea who you are or what you carry; and you cannot leave It behind you or seek to hide It--not only will It not allow you to appear to abandon It, but wherever you seek to bury it deep evil will come, drawn again by Its presence, seeking to find themselves by Its power.’"
"You foresaw that if he took the eastern route along the river’s valley his party would be attacked?" questioned Argeleb.
"I foresaw only that parties of evil creatures hid there, lying in wait for whomever took that way, and that by carrying the Ring amongst them he might as well go forth by night carrying great torches and beating drums and gongs through territory known to harbor orcs and wargs thinking to pass unseen."
Again all found themselves looking at one another.
Aelfric, who’d accompanied Radagast, asked, "When the Ring of Power was cut from Sauron’s hand, was he truly destroyed?"
The three Istari exchanged looks. Saruman answered before either of his fellows could speak. "He was of the order of the Maiar, and as such cannot be unmade by any save Iluvatar Himself. He appears to have poured a great deal of himself into his Ring along with the power he gave It. By creating such an external focus for his power and nature he places it under great pressure; and just as by constricting the flow of water through a tube of intestine or metal one increases the pressure with which that water emerges so that it may be directed greater distances or increase its ability to cleanse away adhering particles, so by forcing so much power into such a limited shape it increases the precision and intensity with which that power, once released, can be directed. Have not those who bear the three Rings made for Elves found this to be true?"
The Elves in the party looked at one another; finally Círdan answered, "I can tell you such was reported by Gil-galad."
"Who bears each of those Rings now?" Saruman asked.
"As is true for the Dwarves, we do not speak openly of them or their disposition," Círdan told him. "You should know the truth of the ancient saying, that a secret may be freely shared amongst three and will go no further if two of those three are dead. Do you truly believe that, if he were certain who held the Three and where they dwelt, Sauron would avoid them? Nay, he’d do as he did with the Nine and the six of the Seven he was able to take before--he’d come against the bearers of them and seek to slay those holding them that he might take them to himself, draw upon their Power while he could and corrupt their natures as he was able, then would gift them to those he felt he could most easily corrupt and dominate. And so it would be he would seek to dominate those ruled by the bearers of the Rings."
"But he cannot do this without the power inherent in his own Ring," Saruman objected.
"You are certain of this?" Círdan challenged him. "Yet, if he is indeed the one who grows in power in Dol Guldur he does so without the benefit of his Ring, unless It has returned to his hand in the thirteen hundred years since he lost It."
"I do not believe," Galadriel said, shaking her head, "that he has found It again. If he had, already would not just passing Men and Elves be under attack, but the very centers of our realms."
Still once more did all look at one another.
And so the discussions went for the rest of that day, and the next, during which Saruman, Gandalf, and Radagast reported much of what they’d learned in their journeys throughout Middle Earth. Most were fascinated by what Saruman reported of how evil was so often expressed in the eastern and northern lands.
"I’ve not yet traveled south to Harad," he admitted, "so can tell you little of how the Shadow lies there."
Aelfric considered the White Wizard closely. "And what did you do there in those lands when you saw such evil being worked? Did you do anything to stop those who so exercised dominion over others to slay and maim simply to express their own power?"
Saruman went quite still, examining the horse lord coldly. "It is not given to those of us among the Istari to fight evil solely on our own--we were sent to counsel and advise primarily. It is up to those who hear our words to choose to stand against the Shadow as they will."
"And did you counsel the one you saw slaying his own brother to take power over their people not to endanger his soul by turning to fratricide?" Aelfric persisted. "Did you advise his women to strive against him, or his Men not to take part in the murder of their rightful and more honorable lord?"
Saruman’s glare was icy, although his words were carefully modulated. "And do you think to teach me how to do what is expected of me?" he asked smoothly enough. "If you had been there, would you have embraced death for that one?"
"Can you indeed be slain?" demanded the Man.
The question caused great pause. Finally Gandalf answered, "It is probable that our bodies can be slain as is true of those of the Elves; what will become of us then we do not as yet know, of course, as such a situation has not yet been met." But none appeared to realize that the original questions posed by Aelfric had not been answered.
On the third day discussion was made whether those who’d met this time should come together again, and if so when or under what conditions.
"Perhaps we should meet every hundred years or so," suggested Radagast.
The horse lord snorted. "Then we of the race of Men would be foolish to continue as part of the council," he said dismissively, "as rarely to our lives last so long."
The Dwarves exchanged looks also. "Nor do we commonly live so long," Gláin said. "Oh, we may live several hundred years; but what is that compared to the lives of Elves and Wizards, who do not die unless slain? Nor has what has been said so far have need of our presence for further discussion. Either it does not concern Dwarves directly, or we are powerless to act against it on our own as well as being of little use alongside your folk. Nay, I suspect our people will be unlikely to send others to your future councils."
Argeleb’s face was troubled. "Those of us who are mortal simply cannot hope to offer much assistance to the deliberations of this council over time, my Lord Elrond. I will direct that my descendants are to attend future meetings as they are able; but in our case each succeeding generation must be instructed anew the dangers we face and the wisdom garnered by our predecessors. Nay, I suspect it is best we simply prepare to follow the direction of the Wise in dealing with the successors of Morgoth from this day forward. Let those of us remaining of the northern Dúnedain serve as the weapon against the servants of the shadow as wielded by those whose wisdom is honed by ages of struggle against Morgoth, Sauron, and those who follow them."
Saruman said delicately, "Then shall this council, this White Council, if I may be free to dub it that as it shall ever stand against the powers of darkness, continue as a forum for those among the Wise who can garner wisdom not just over the space of years but through centuries or even millennia?"
Now it was the Elves and the three Wizards who looked to one another. Pelastor sighed as he looked at Marengil, then said, "It should probably continue as you indicate, Lord Saruman. But know now that not all among Elves who have come this time will remain until the present darkness is totally overthrown--indeed several of us prepare even now to pass into the West, leaving Middle Earth before our people and our lands fall under the power of the Shadow as it rises again."
Argeleb asked, "And whom will you appoint to lead this council?"
Galadriel looked warily about the circle. "I would suggest Mithrandir for this purpose. He knows best so far the strengths and weaknesses of each of the peoples who oppose the Shadow."
Marengil objected, "That might be, but Saruman has the greater knowledge of the Enemy himself, and has seen the lands he has dominated and to what they’ve come since his fall."
The debate was strong and intense, and the Dwarves found themselves taking part in it as well as the Men.
In the end Saruman was named chief of the White Council, and having agreed to come at the call of any of the Council’s members all agreed to disband.
Saruman, guided by Glorfindel, left that evening, reluctantly accompanied by Radagast, Pelastor, the Dwarves, and Aelfric, who intended to go south with him to the Redhorn Pass and return eastward from there. Galadriel and Celeborn, however, explained they would remain in the home of their daughter and her husband for a time, and graciously bade farewell to the White Wizard and his companions. Marengil indicated he and his people would go west to Mithlond with Círdan, for they had determined to indeed travel to Eressëa and so flee the turmoil they foresaw coming upon the mortal lands, while Thranduil stated he would go over the nearer pass as that road led him the more swiftly home, although he would linger here in the west a few days longer.
Argeleb sighed. "Foster Father," he said, "I would be pleased to linger until daybreak and then seek out my adar. He was headed south of here with his personal troops when I left him to attend the council--there was rumor of another incursion from those who’ve sought to take Rhudaur from the south."
"Gladly, child," Elrond said, smiling, "will I ever greet you and yours. And does Arveleg accompany his daeradar?"
"He came south with us, but was to turn back north to the administration of our lands while his grandfather is on campaign and I am here," Argeleb explained.
They gathered not in the Hall of Fire but in Elrond’s favorite drawing room for a time. Galadriel gave Gandalf a cool, searching examination. "When I suggested you might serve as the head of this council you certainly did nothing to promote yourself, my friend."
Gandalf shrugged and looked deeply into his winecup. "I do not wish to put myself forward."
"You heard what Aelfric pointed out, that Curunír watches evil being enacted and yet does nothing for the easing of those who are involved."
"He is right--our duty is not to stand alone against Sauron and his ways but to counsel and advise."
"Did he counsel or advise the one he told of who took for himself the title of Ghantsi? It did not sound as if he’d done so, Mithrandir."
Celeborn shook his head, staying his wife’s further comments. "Nay, my heart, perhaps Gandalf did well after all. Curunír holds the nominal authority of the White Council now, as he holds the nominal authority of the Istari. Yet he cannot stay any of us from doing as we find we must to oppose the returning Shadow."
Argeleb asked, "And what of this Shadow and the so-called Necromancer? Does Sauron again rise, or is this just one of the Nazgul seeking to take Sauron’s place as Sauron took that of Morgoth?"
Elrond’s face twisted as Arwen and Celebrían entered with trays of fruit and light cakes. "As I stated in the council, this one has the taste of Sauron to him, for all none see him. Why, if he is Sauron, he does not travel abroad as he once did I do not know." He accepted a slice of a green fruit from the tray his daughter offered, smiling up into her beautiful eyes. "Thank you, sell nín." He took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. Finally he continued. "Personally I suspect that when the Ring was cut from his hand he lost the ability to take a bodily form, and so is unable to appear fair in the eyes of those he would dominate as was true before."
"You must accept, Elrond," Celebrían pointed out as she offered her cakes to Gildor, "that none has truly seen him take any form since the fall of Númenor save for the armored shape he took in the final battle of the Last Alliance. Perhaps he has lost the capability to take on a shape since his physical seeming was lost when the Star Isle sank under the waves, and so he must use armor or something similar to hold any shape at all."
Galadriel sat straighter. "Daughter," she said quietly, "you indeed have inherited your father’s wisdom. Why did you take no part in the council?"
Her daughter sniffed. "What--sit with these others as only one among two or possibly three of womankind? The few times I have come into contact with Saruman he has barely looked at me, although I’ve seen his eyes following Arwen here as if calculating her worth in the marriage market." She set the tray on a low table and sat beside her husband, smiling up as her sons entered together.
"Any who seeks to marry our sister to any not of her own choosing must stand against us," Elladan commented as he reached to take a slice of melon from Arwen’s tray.
"Aye, he must face both of us--at the same time," Elrohir added, stooping to choose a cake from the tray his mother had abandoned. "Our sister is not to be bargained for like goods at a market stall."
Gildor laughed. "No, we can see that."
Thranduil’s darker son Tharen gave Elrond’s daughter an admiring glance. "I would have courted you, if you had allowed it, cousin."
The elleth shook her head. "Nay, I’ve not yet seen the one to stir my heart, Thranduilion. Fair of face and form are both you and your brother, but that is all I perceive at this time. But do not give up hope--I believe Meliangiloreth looks on you with favor."
Tharen smiled genially. "Well, she is also fair enough. We might speak ere I go." His smile faded as he considered what had been discussed before. "But the implication if Sauron has lost his ability to take a shape for himself without armor to offer form--it might explain precisely why since the fall of the Star Isle his sigil has become the Eye of Fire. If he has become a shadow alone, and was ever one to affect fire...."
Elrond considered his guest’s son with interest. "As Morgoth’s lieutenant he often appeared as a Balrog, although he didn’t remain long at any time in that shape. After all, he also appeared as a werewolf and as a vampire at different times. But the most common evil form he took to himself was that of the Balrog, and ever a great one at that. It was told us by Eonwë before he left us at the end of the War of Wrath that in the days before Morgoth’s rebellion was recognized by all Sauron was one who took life most easily from Aüle’s forge fires and so was predisposed to such a shape, as was true of most of those who came to Morgoth’s side from the Smith’s company."
Galadriel gave a nod of her head as she held a slice of apple untasted in her hand. "And so it was," she agreed. "While those who came from among Oromë’s train tended to take the shapes of werewolves and similar forms."
"And from whose service did Ungoliant come?" asked Legolas of Mirkwood.
"Irmo’s, I believe," Galadriel said quietly. "But Irmo repudiated her service early on, for she sought only to revel in the dreams of terror and seldom those of foretelling or beauty or ease."
"And so she came to the shape of a great spider, a weaver of Shadow," Thranduil said thoughtfully as he paused in his appreciation of one of the cakes."
"So, the former Balrog manifests now as a shadow, as he has no remaining physical reality left to him?" suggested Argeleb, trying to be certain of his thoughts.
"And as a shadow has no definition without the contrast of light about it, he must surround himself with fire to clarify the little shape he can take," agreed Thranduil.
"Giving himself the appearance of the great, fiery Eye," Gandalf said. "Yes, you have it, I think."
"Hotter than the hottest burning coal was Sauron’s hand as he grasped my Lord Gil-galad and slew him," Elrond said, his eyes shadowed by the grievous memory. "There was little left of his shining form when the fires about his body were finally quenched. Yes, a Balrog Sauron ever was in his heart of hearts. And in the past few ennin the visions I have experienced increasingly show the image of the Eye of Fire."
"How can we become certain that the Necromancer is indeed Sauron the accursed?" asked Marengil.
"As you have indicated you leave Middle Earth at this time, why do you even care?" asked Thranduil.
Marengil flushed, but answered straightly, "Yes, I go with my people; but I do not love Middle Earth the less for that. Ever I’d seek her good against the servants of Morgoth, whether I remain here or go there. I take my people, who have among them many mated couples and children--I’ll not lose the elflings under my care to the predations of the Necromancer or other creatures of darkness. And it has not been only northern Eriador that the folk of Angmar have attacked, I’ll remind you. The Witch King is also given to death magic, as Gandalf reported to the council. As for how Saruman crossed that border I am now curious. We’ve been unable to penetrate it from our side of the mountains to recover those who have been taken."
Again there was mutual searching as all considered this last statement. Soon all scattered, and Elrond went out into the gardens with his wife and Gandalf and Celeborn to consider the stars during the night hours.
Early in the morning more guests prepared to leave to return to their duties. Suddenly, as he was offering Argeleb a bundle of supplies to add to his packs Elrond stiffened, and Galadriel and Arwen, entering from the wing where the looms of the Last Homely House were set up, did likewise. Argeleb was concerned by this apparent attack of awareness on his former foster father and sister and her grandmother. Then he appeared to feel something himself.
Gandalf emerged precipitously from the hallway to the rooms he’d been granted, his face grey with concern. "Eärendilion!" he demanded. "What attack is this?"
But Elrond was already hurrying to the doors and calling for his sons. "Prepare a force to go forth," he told them, "and go southwards as swiftly as you can, toward the former King’s House of Rhudaur, I think. Malvegil is under attack." He turned toward Argeleb. "Will you ride with them, ion nín?" he asked.
Gandalf looked briefly to the side, nodded, and said, "I’ll go and offer what aid I can. But I fear it is too late...."
It was the next day that those who’d set off with Elladan and Elrohir returned accompanied by Glorfindel. Over a fine black stallion was bound a shrouded form, and the face of Argeleb was grey with fatigue and grief. He met the eyes of Elrond, Arwen, and Celebrían with quiet dignity. "My father is dead--hillmen from east of Dunland slew him."
Elrond closed his eyes in the pain of loss, then finally raised them to meet those of the grieving son. "And now, child, you are King of Arnor."
Argeleb’s face was empty. "And yes, I am now King. May the Valar strengthen me to it."
Gandalf’s own demeanor was very solemn as he gave over the grey he’d ridden into the grooms’ hands. "Know this, son of Malvegil, they will support you for what time you are granted."
"Thank you, Gandalf," Argeleb said. "I must leave this evening for Annúminas. Arveleg must be told, and we have a funeral to prepare for." He shook his head. "I fear I will not wield the Sceptre long; but I would see the realm of Arnor left in better condition for my son to rule than I receive it."