Gandalf left the White City behind him and set off northward around the eastern end of the White Mountains, going slowly and examining all as he went. Cemeteries on the edges of the towns and settlements of Anórien were filled with graves dug in the last year; woodlots had been hewn down and the scars of the pyres on which the later bodies had been burned could be seen everywhere. He passed empty houseplaces and abandoned farms, and villages left empty when the few survivors had decided to leave their griefs behind them in hopes of finding a brighter future in a different place, joining other villages or seeking the comfort of distant family who had made it through the plagues.
Calenardhon seemed emptier than ever it had, although he found this somewhat illusory. He found in his forays southward that many of the villages appeared to have been resettled in the foothills of the mountains, as if hiding from the plagues that had struck others. He was greeted warily, although some at least showed signs of relaxing once they received his news that the illnesses had been fought successfully in Minas Anor and southern Gondor. The word that they should keep dogs and cats apt to keeping rats and mice under control seemed to grant them surety that all was not lost. But many had died here, although nowhere as many as had died in Gondor proper.
Then he started north. Dunland had been worse hurt than Calenardhon, and the settlements west of the Road from what had been Eregion were equally hard hit. He found himself once again helping to cut wood for pyres and seeing them lit, seeing dead animals gathered and burned along with the bodies of those lost, finding ratters and other creatures to help control those animals known to be the worst carriers of the diseases.
“Why must we burn these bodies? Why not bury them?” demanded the son of Moran, who had died recently.
“That they not further spread the diseases.”
“But how can those who are buried spread diseases?”
“If animals uncover them they can possibly contract the disease even from the dead and spread it to the living.”
The Man appeared uncertain, but at last grudgingly gave the orders suggested by the Wizard, further frustrated that Gandalf had insisted they cut down wood only from the forests north and west of them, not east toward Fangorn Forest.
“You will rue it if you do otherwise,” Gandalf warned him and those around him. “The Onodrim will not take well anyone destroying their trees.”
None of those within Dunland had any idea where dwelt the Onodrim or what kind of people they might be, but none openly questioned the Wizard’s warning, so sternly was it given. They also agreed to see to an increase of the population of cats and such dogs as killed vermin, and to see to the burning of the bodies of any animals they found dead; but many appeared to privately question the wisdom of the advice given even as they publicly indicated they would heed the Wizard’s words. The Dunlendings watched the departure of the Grey Wizard with mixed feelings, although mostly they felt relief to see him gone. “Ever,” commented Moran’s son, “does that one come when evil stalks the land. A carrion crow he is.”
“While ever the evils seem to follow in the wake of the White Wizard,” one of his Men pointed out. “If I were to have the choice between the two of them, Gandalf is the one who ever seeks to set things right.”
“Pah,” Moran’s son spat, “there appears to be no profit ever in dealing with either of them, white or grey. I’d rather see neither.” So saying he turned back into his house, finding another village further into the hills than his own had sent word that the plague had come among them and begging his aid in fighting it.
As Gandalf approached Tharbad he became aware that he was being watched from the woodlands that bordered the road on the eastern side. It was not observation by Elves, he realized; and he did not think it was Men. But what kind of folk might it be?
He carefully settled his goods in the branches of the trees and set up a camp for himself with a small fire, and waited to see what might come of the watch being kept on him. Throughout the evening he heard nothing, and finally he determined they weren’t likely to approach, whoever they were, as long as they thought him awake. So he ostentatiously yawned and wrapped himself in his grey cloak and laid himself as if to sleep, keeping watch under lowered lashes to see if those who were observing him would approach his camp. It was well over an hour before his watch was rewarded, by which time he’d nearly slept indeed.
“But if he has any food to spare, it’s up there in the tree!” he heard a soft voice whisper.
“Hush! You’ll wake him!”
“We need something, Modoc. The bairns haven’t had anything for hours, and I couldn’t bear to lose them.”
The Wizard decided that it would be best to respond to that, but that he ought not to sit up and frighten them more than they were already. “If you were to ask,” he said without stirring, “I would likely share with you whatever I have.”
He saw nothing, and heard nothing for some moments--certainly no rustle of grass or bushes. It was odd, but interesting, this waiting game. Finally a voice spoke aloud, “Then you are awake, then?”
He sat up slowly and stretched. “Indeed, yes. You can come out, for I offer no danger to anyone unless they serve Sauron or those who follow his way.”
A small figure came out of the brush, the branches barely moving as he left their shelter, the grass barely indicating any movement; certainly his visitor moved almost as silently as an Elf. Gandalf’s eyes widened with interest. “Hobbits? Here so close to Dunland?”
The one who faced him looked at him suspiciously. “You know of my people?” he demanded.
“Well, yes I do. Although most I knew lived either east of the Mountains in the valley of the great river, or north in Eriador proper, those who came over the passes above Imladris.”
“We came by way of the pass above the great Dwarf city, shown the way by those who remember when more of our folk lived east of the mountains, they say in payment for the debt their folk have felt they owed ours from the days Harfoots lived near them and provided them with much of the food for their folk who dwelt under the mountains. There are few enough Hobbits remaining in the valley of the Anduin now.”
“And why do you come here at this time?”
“Much illness stalks the lands east of the mountains. We thought to flee it, but find it seems to follow us where we go.”
“Are there any among you who are ill?”
“We lost nine in our journey westward.”
“When I went north along the banks of the Anduin and its tributaries some years back I saw none of your villages.”
“With the manner the ones from the south and east of the river have sought folk to take, we have had to hide from them.”
“Ones across the river?”
“Yes--the yrch folk--goblins from south of the great wood. They would come over the river, and find those to take easily, take them--take them alive. We had to hide our homes. We saw them take so many of the Men who lived near us--their children and women, mostly, but now and then a Rider. Then they found the village of the Stream Fishers, and they took six before we found a way to get the others away from there.”
“What did they do with them?”
“How do we know? They came in the night, crawled into a hole, then disappeared again, taking the father of a family and three others. Then two nights later they came for two more. We came two days later to find the village in chaos. We took those who remained away, hid them in another smial. We came back, hid in the brush watching the village for four nights before they came back again. There were four yrch who came. We destroyed them. But we never found where they took our folk.”
“You destroyed them?”
“Even yrch folk cannot move if there are arrows through their knees or where the legs attach to the body. Believe me--we destroyed them. Then we began to lie in wait for those who came for the women and children of the horse folk. The horse folk found the bodies of the goblins the next day, but never knew who it was who left them there. One of the goblins was yet alive. They took it, questioned it long. Then the horse folk moved their village and went north. It was a loss, for we had been able to find much of use to us in what they threw out of their village, and now and then when we left gifts of fish they would leave gifts of other meats or cloth in return.”
“What forms have the diseases taken that killed your folk?”
“Black boils followed usually by death in a matter of days. A few who ventured near the marshes near the mouth of the Entwash suffered from chills and fevers which finally would go away, but return soon enough and then grow worse again and then better before growing worse once more.”
“Do any of those who came with you suffer from this?” the Wizard asked.
After a pause during which the one facing him looked back at the brush from which he’d emerged, he answered, “Two, a father and his son.”
“How many children do you have with you?”
“Six, from four families. One is the daughter of the father who was taken.”
“Do any have the black boils?”
“What food do you need?” Gandalf asked as he stood and reached up to bring down his satchel, calling on his ring to allow a certain--increase--in the food it contained. He carried with him plants and seeds and even some of the liquor made from soaking the leaves used in fighting the fever and chills carried by the mosquitoes, for he’d planned to take them to Argeleb and Elrond that there be a treatment for the chills and fever here in Eriador. Well, as he had a need for the liquor now, he hoped his description of how the healers of Gondor brewed it would be enough.
The next day he went into Tharbad and purchased supplies and two ponies for the group. Together they started on the road further north.
Modoc was taller than the rest of his group as well as fairer, his curly hair a dark golden brown in color where most of those who accompanied him had hair a great deal darker and, for the most part, straighter. “I’m surprised,” Gandalf noted, “that your folk carry bows. Most of the Stoors I’ve known don’t do so.”
Modoc shrugged. “My father came back over the mountains from the westlands with some who were returning to the valley of the Anduin. He left those he accompanied when he met my mother. He became the leader of our village. He insisted our folk learn to use the bow for our protection, and as we grew up I and the other children also learned to use the bow. He would tell us of the lands he left, of the village he was born in on the River Mitheithel, of how his people traded with Men among the Dúnedain. When we determined to go west to escape the diseases that killed so many in the valley of the great river we hoped to come there in time, there where he told us of, in the lands of the King.”
Gandalf nodded, smiling. “Then it is likely I have known his people. No longer do they live along the Mitheithel, however--they have moved into the Breelands as enemies had begun to invade the region of the land of Eriador where once most of the Hobbits dwelt. The King has assisted them to move westward. I would suggest you follow suit and look also to settle in the Breelands, for you will be welcomed there.”
“And where are these Breelands?” Modoc asked.
“North of us, here upon the road at the crossing of this road north toward the King’s cities and the West Road toward the Elven Havens on the Sundering Sea.”
The Wizard looked about them as they traveled. “I must leave you soon, but I will give you this warning--avoid camping where there have been signs of animals. And if any animal approaches your group behaving in an unusual manner, use your bows upon it--or stone it. Do not allow it to come closer.”
“Would it be ill with the ravings?” Modoc asked.
“Ravings?” asked Gandalf.
“It’s what our folk call it, where the creature cannot drink any more and in its agony seeks to bite what it can. It also is becoming more commonly seen east of the mountains.”
“They call it the water rage here, and I had not heard of cases of it seen in Eriador; but I’ve not been returned for long. But the plague of the black boils, it has been learned, is carried by animals likely to carry fleas, especially rats; and such animals also tend to be ill.”
“We will remember your warnings. But I fear we will never be able to repay your kindness. Even now those who were ill recover from their fevers.”
“It is the least I can do for your folk, as brave as they have been. And you can repay me by settling among your own kind and helping bring the earth back to fullness again.”
Four more days did he travel with the Hobbits before he finally left them, certain that now that they were well into Argeleb’s realm they would do well enough on their own. At last he took leave of them, turning more eastward toward Imladris. He felt strongly he must see Elrond as soon as was possible, tell him of the death of Minardil and then those of his son’s family, and plan for the council requested by Tarondor. He turned to watch as the group of Hobbits he’d aided continued following the road, and offered a prayer to his Masters for their aid to this small yet doughty folk.
As Gandalf traveled further north into what had been Rhudaur he found chaos, for war had raged widely between invaders from the south and north and the armies of Arnor off and on for the last forty years. The advancing plague spread in the camps of the opposing armies, then leapt to the civilian population surrounding the battlefields. The remaining cities in what had been Rhudaur were devastated, and entire villages were emptied as had happened in the southlands. Compounded by the raids and foraging committed by the invaders, the population of all of Eriador was much diminished.
Yet the diseases seemed to spread even more rapidly among the enemy armies than they did among the King’s forces. After all, as the Heir of Isildur Argeleb had received training in healing during the years he’d spent in Imladris during his youth as fosterling of Elrond; his orders that camps be kept as clean and orderly as possible, and that food and water be carefully protected deterred the proliferation of vermin among the Dúnedain. Once Gandalf spread the word that it had been found that the plague was being spread primarily by diseased animals encouraged by filthy conditions, camp surgeons and village healers began directing the spreading of shavings of cedar and other woods known to be disliked by mice and rats around the perimeters of the camps and settlements; and many added herbs known to kill fleas and lice to the grasses and other materials used to stuff mattresses and pillows. With orders to see the bodies of the dead and animals found dead burned and to keep all as clean as possible, to burn thresh and see it used no more, and to otherwise discourage the proliferation and presence of rats and mice within their settlements and homes, the plague was seen less and less.
The invading armies, however, were losing more Men by the day; until at last most of those who remained headed northward, seeking to flee ahead of the spread of the disease.
Then still another plague manifested itself--indeed, the water rage. Here the means of transmission was unmistakable--a bite by an infected animal passed the disease to whatever animal or person it bit. The eventual loss of personal identity and inability to drink, the pain the disease brought and the occasional violence such agony could cause were greatly feared, and rightly so. The disease was first seen among wolves, but soon was seen in all manner of fur-bearing creatures. The only good thing to say of its advent was that once knowledge spread that the disease was apparently rising among the animals of Rhudaur, hostilities slowed even more markedly as all found themselves watching out for signs of animals behaving in an unusual manner.
Elrond himself left Imladris to approach Argeleb, suggesting that those bands of the enemy remaining be isolated and left to the mercies of the epidemics. “Here we can allow the forces of the enemy to destroy themselves. Box then into a small area, and their willingness to live in filthy conditions will do more to dishearten them and to reduce their numbers than the most complicated of military strategies.”
Gandalf found Elrond and his escort in company with Argeleb and Arvegil’s own legions camped just south of the ruins of Amon Sûl. Elrond greeted the Wizard, and almost immediately asked, “You have seen these diseases, those of the plague of black boils and the water rage?”
“Indeed yes, and even more. Have mosquitoes and other biting insects proliferated here as they did in Gondor, bringing with them serious bouts of chills and fevers that appear to repeat regularly and for long periods of time?”
“We’ve seen such illness in some of the refugees from the southlands who have come here, but not among the population in general,” Argeleb advised him. “Such things were seen in the South Kingdom?”
“Yes--they told me when I arrived in Minas Anor that the sky was blackened as clouds of biting insects arose out of the marshes abutting Dagorlad, flying mostly south and west. Settlements and towns along the Anduin near the northern borders are now empty due to the disease. Then orcs carried vials of contagion up Mindolluin and with them poisoned the water supplies for Osgiliath, and most within the city died within two days, including Telemnar and his wife and children. He’d been king for only two years since his father died repulsing a Corsair assault on the Pelargir. Telemnar showed great ability in leadership that day, and the forces of Gondor were victorious; but see to what his leadership came?”
The news of the death of the entire royal family of Gondor caused consternation. “Sauron seeks to leave Gondor with no proper leadership?” demanded Elrond.
“You consider this the work of Sauron?” Gandalf asked in response.
Elrond turned his face south and east as if by will alone he could see over the distances and through the mountains and forests lying between himself and the evil of Dol Guldur. “I will swear the stench of Sauron lingers over all these plagues, that of the mosquitoes and that of the black boils carried by vermin and now that of the water rage as well. The mother of my wife tells me that all of these are seen also east of the Misty Mountains, and that all have been seen first in the lands between Dol Guldur and Mordor. She says also that orcs approaching Khazad-dûm slain by their border wardens were found carrying crates of diseased rats and wolves. These plagues have little effect on Elves, and we’ve had no reports of widespread deaths amongst Dwarves; but amongst the Men of the Valley of the Anduin both the plague of the black boils and that of the water rage have been common, and throughout southern Rhovanion many have suffered from the chills and fevers you tell us came borne by the mosquitoes.”
Gandalf sighed. “So I have been advised as well. The water rage had not been reported in Gondor when I left it; but with the poisoning of Osgiliath and the loss of the settlements and towns along the River so much of the population has been lost, particularly there in the regions nearest the capital and Minas Anor, that I doubt that the Enemy sought to do more there to cause consternation. But Tarondor, who has taken his uncle’s place as King of Gondor, agrees with you that this has the stench of Sauron upon it, and he would see a council called to which he will send an envoy.”
“Tarondor would send envoys to such a council?” Arvegil asked in wonder. “Then he must indeed be concerned. The Kings of Gondor have expressed little enough worry for the actions of the one they call the Necromancer for most of this Age of Middle Earth.”
“The diseases sent in the vials of glass to be poured into the water supplies of Osgiliath and Minas Anor have been shown to be as dangerous to orcs as to Men,” Gandalf said, “and the second great cloud of mosquitoes released from the marshes north of the Morannen just before I left Tarondor’s side was blown east as a strong wind from the Sundering Sea cleansed the land of Gondor. I suspect those lands that lay so long under Mordor’s sway have been as devastated by the experiments as was northern Gondor.”
“But how are we to deal with this epidemic of chills and fevers if it comes our way?” Elrond asked.
“I have brought seeds and starts of a healing herb from another great land over the Sea, one the healers there told the explorers from Gondor has been shown effective in countering the disease and its symptoms; and they, too, have found the disease is most rife where mosquitoes breed in warmer climes.”
“Warmer climes,” noted Arvegil. “Then perhaps little enough of that disease will come our way, Adar, Adar Elrond.”
“I will see these seeds planted in Imladris where they will be better protected, then,” Elrond suggested, “and will see the plants dispersed as reports come that the disease is seen and recognized. And I will share them with the rulers of the Golden Wood as well. I suspect they will see more of it than will we.
“So,” he continued, looking at Gandalf with calculation, “the Powers have seen to it that the proposed second wave of the chills and fever should rebound upon those most likely to fall upon Gondor from the east, while here in the north the invaders from south and north have been harder hit by the black plague than the folk of Eriador, although among the folk of Eriador there has yet been much death and loss. If we are careful, we should be able to contain the effects of the water rage as well.” He looked at Argeleb. “I suggest that your folk begin to look at keeping non-poisonous snakes, toads, and large lizards as pets alongside cats and dogs, for such creatures cannot contract the water rage and will further help to stay the spread of those vermin that carry the black plague.”
“I will suggest it,” Argeleb agreed, “although few enough of my folk can tell poisonous from non-poisonous serpents. But toads are thought entertaining and so the suggestion we encourage them in gardens would be well received.”
Arvegil nodded. “And I will see to it the word is passed that any creature seen behaving in a manner not typical of its kind is to be slain with arrows and its body burned as soon as possible.”
“If we are to have a meeting of the Council,” Argeleb asked, “then where shall that meeting be? To hold it here in the North would be most difficult for any envoy sent by Tarondor.”
“In Rhovanion, then?” Elrond suggested. “In Rhovanion in the late spring of the year coming?”
All looked to one another, and finally there was a general nod of agreement. Elladan looked into his father’s eyes and asked, “But what of Saruman?”
“He must be included,” Elrond said, “or at least apprised of the council. But I’ve heard nothing of his movements for some time.”
“He had been before me amongst the Dunlendings,” Gandalf said. “One of those who had held lordship among them had thought to build a city, but in the end did not do so as the black plague hit his folk. Saruman had been advising him in how to plan the water supply and drainage from it. He died just ere I arrived, and I fear I disrupted his funeral. His son did not take the news his father’s body should be burnt rather than buried well. Saruman had left their people some months previously, although they did not tell me whether he rode north or west or east.”
“So, none knows where he is at this time?” Argeleb said. “Then all we can do is send word in all directions hoping he will hear and come.” The rest indicated their agreement.
“Well enough, then,” Elrond said. “Now, Gandalf, if you will tell me how it is the virtue of these plants is best bestowed....”
Gandalf agreed to carry the news and word of the coming council west to Mithlond and those among Elves who lingered yet in what had been Lindon. Among other things, he was curious as to the fate of the Hobbits who had been shifted west to Bree and, he now understood, beyond the Baranduin River. That Argeleb had agreed to such a disposition of those lands pleased him greatly, and Elrond had also appeared both surprised and reassured by the news the Periannath would settle there. “I cannot tell you precisely why this word is as comforting as I find it,” the Elf said privately to Gandalf before he left the company of the King, “but I find in my heart a feeling that such will in the end work to the good for all.”
“You feel it, too, do you?” Gandalf answered him. “That you also know such surety reassures me, although I suspect it may be a great time before we see the reason why such a grant should have been desired by Valar and Creator. I find myself mostly glad that such a people has at last a land of its own where they may bring their own gifts to bear on bringing forth beauty from the earth. A most delightful folk, the Hobbits.”
“I will send Elladan with you west, that he might bear back to me whatever word Círdan might wish to send, and that he might aid you should you find the plagues have preceded you to Bree and beyond,” Elrond suggested; and soon after, with the son of Elrond by his side, the Grey Wizard began his journey west, mounted on a horse given to his use by Argeleb.
The Hobbits watched after the Wizard as he rode northeast, then turned to follow the road themselves, reassured when they realized others traveling the King’s highway paid them no mind to speak of. As they began looking for a place to camp for the night, however, Modoc suggested his cousin Delac find a secluded hollow that couldn’t be seen from the road. When Delac returned appearing extraordinarily pleased with himself Modoc found himself intrigued. “What is it?”
“Only that I have found the perfect place for our night camp, Modoc. Come and see!”
As they entered the small clearing Delac had found Modoc was at first confused, then laughed. The open space was encircled with a shrub they had always called pestbane, a plant used to kill many insects that seemed intent on making life uncomfortable for Hobbits. Modoc laughed with delight. “Well found indeed, cousin. Well, we should sleep well enough here. And we must make certain to take many of the leaves with us. In the morning all of you take leaves, crush them in your hands, and rub the juice on your skin wherever you can reach, then take more with you. We’ll look for such stands as we travel to refresh our store--shall we?”
The next morning after they’d broken their fast they did as Modoc had suggested before starting their day’s march. In the evening they found themselves glad for the luck in having found the bushes the previous night as they overtook another party of Hobbits along the road, this one with four suffering from the plague sores. They were able to use the leaves they’d brought with them to rub down their new companions, and offered what aid they could to those who were ill. An errand rider from the King’s people found them, and fetched a healer from the nearest village.
Two days later they were able to go on. Two of those who’d been ill had died, and the other two appeared likely to recover in time. Four of their family members stayed with them to bring them afterwards, indicating they would follow when they could. The healer had been excited to learn of the pestbane, and immediately sent some of his folk out to harvest more and to seek even more stands. The realization that here was an excellent way to combat the plague of black boils was very satisfying.
Two weeks later they reached Bree. The gate guard shook his head as they arrived. “You going to remain here in the Breelands, or follow them as went west across the Baranduin?” he asked.
The Hobbits looked at one another. “What’s this Baranduin?”
“River--a day’s walk that way,”
“Who went that way?”
“Lots of Hobbits gone that way. King give land to you Hobbits, you want to go.”
“A land was given to Hobbits?” asked Delac. “Since when is there a land only us Hobbits might live in?”
“Two Hobbits whose family came from the eastern river valleys begged it from the King, and he give it to them--to them and all the other Hobbits who might wish it. You goin’ to follow?”
“Perhaps. We’ll have to discuss it--our group.”
And the next day they were heading along the West Road, into the lands given, reportedly, to Hobbits and Hobbits only.
“You want to settle here in the Shire?” asked the Hobbit who stood before the others on the Great Bridge.
“Yes, if we will be accepted. To have a land where only Hobbits dwell....”
“That is the gift given us by the King. But there has been much illness here.”
“Here, too? We saw much of it in the lands east of the mountains, and as we traveled north. We have learned much of how to deal with the pests that spread the disease.”
“Pests?” The Hobbit on the Bridge straightened. “The diseases are spread by pests?” At Modoc’s nod he smiled with much relief. “Then, if you know how to fight its spread we welcome you indeed. Too many have we lost. But I fear I have been rude--Foldgard of the Tooks, at your service.”
The newest residents of the Shire exchanged looks. Finally their leader turned. “Modoc from the valley of the Anduin, at your service--Modoc and my companions. We are come to join you.” And as they crossed the Bridge Modoc looked back at the lands between the river and the forest to the east. “No one lives there?”
“No, not at this time. The King gave us the land west of the River, not that east of it.”
But as he followed Foldgard of the Tooks westward, Modoc cast covetous looks back at the ridge he could see rising between the river and the distant forest. It looked such a perfect place to dig a smial....