Accompanied by Elladan, Gandalf went west from his meeting with Argeleb and Elrond, passing into the Shire in the darkness of night, camping in wooded areas during the day to watch the new residents of the area building their homes and cultivating the land, and felt very pleased with what he saw. Some homes were being built openly now, and they even saw artistic embellishments to how they were constructed in some cases. Hedgerows planted by the farmers of Cardolan were being renewed by the new Hobbit residents; and children played along them, waded in the ponds and shallow streams, or stood guard over their family’s fields with piles of stones at hand. Goodwives gossiped as they beat their clothes on rocks along the small rivers and watched their children play, or hauled buckets of water up to their smials or low houses to fill kettles over large fires outside the kitchen doors. Those nearing adulthood had been set to gather extra foodstuffs from fields and the edges of forests, and often were seen swatting away the greedy hands of their younger brothers and sisters from provender intended to supplement the stores from the last harvest.
But signs there were of the plagues of the outer world having come here also, with burial grounds already established all too clearly boasting numbers of graves a year or less old, and that lost look folk tend to get when they turn to share a comment or observation with someone beloved who is no longer there to hear, or who look for the child playing in the fields or coming along the lane who is no longer there to be watched. He saw none who were openly ill, however, indicating that most of the Enemy’s ill-sent diseases had finally passed from the region.
“They are much given to farming, obviously,” Elladan observed.
“Yes—if one among the Valar is their patron it must be Yavanna,” Gandalf agreed quietly, examining the round windows clearly displayed in a smial dug into a bank to their right. Along the Mitheithel and the Anduin and its tributaries, windows had been uniformly screened that they not be easily detected. Here in the land granted to them as their own the Hobbits were choosing to declare themselves openly, and none would stand in doubt as to where their doors and windows might lie.
Halfway through the land they found they were not the only folk other than Hobbits sojourning in the King’s gift, for the folk of Gildor Inglorion surrounded them. “You have business here in the land given to the Periain?” Gildor asked the Wizard.
“We go west toward Mithlond to bring news of another council begged by Tarondor of Gondor, one to which Argeleb will likely send his son,” Gandalf answered. “Will you come? We hope it will be held in Rhovanion in the springtime.”
“Does it focus on the waves of diseases loosed on the mortals of Eriador?” asked the Lord of the wandering Elves.
“Indeed,” Elladan answered. “My father, my brother, and I have been long among the Dúnedain aiding in dealing with the plagues, and it appears that at last they have been controlled.”
“How is it,” asked Gildor’s son Glorinlas, “that Tarondor is now in a position of authority to seek such a council? Is he not nephew to Telemnar?”
“Yes, Telemnar indeed was uncle to Tarondor; but Telemnar and his wife and four children all perished of disease that has all but emptied Osgiliath,” Gandalf explained, going on to describe the poisoning of the water supply for the capital of Gondor and the effects of the various plagues that had swept through Gondor and Arnor.
When he was done, he and the Elves found themselves searching one another’s faces. At last Gildor muttered phrases in Adûnaic that the Wizard had not known the Elf knew, and many of those who’d accompanied Gildor and his son into the heart of what had been Cardolan found themselves discussing the news from south and east in low tones. At last, having apparently exhausted himself of his store of Adûnaic expletives, Gildor looked between his son, the son of Elrond, and Gandalf. “Tell me this is not Sauron whose mind is behind these atrocities!” he challenged.
Gandalf sighed. “I cannot say for certain one way or the other, although I will swear also it sounds like the doings of the Accursed One and his minions. However, Saruman is not as certain, and cautions us not to speak of this in certainty as the accustomed enemy when it may well be a new one.”
“A new one who has managed to remain in power now for how many hundred years?” demanded Gildor. “Nay, I will not assume this is someone newly come to evil when the actions are so reminiscent of what was wrought on our lands during the Dark Years.” He glared south and east toward the area where Dol Guldur lay at the south end of Thranduil’s realm. “And with each new year the manner in which the free lands are assaulted grows increasingly inventive,” he muttered, half under his breath. He again looked at his son in question. “What think you, Glorinlas? Shall I go to this council?”
The younger Elf sighed as he also turned his eyes as if seeking out the stronghold of this dark Enemy. At last he answered, “I think we must send at least one, do you not agree, Adar? Would you go yourself, or would you have me go in your stead? But you know more of the Necromancer’s actions in this last half age than I do, and are in a better place to compare them to what is remembered of Sauron’s doings from the First and Second Ages.”
Gildor took his own steadying breath. “Then I will go, also.” He turned to the Wizard. “When will you leave Eriador, and by what route?”
“In the second month of the new year in the reckoning of mortals,” Gandalf said. “I will go over the high passes east from Imladris then, for I would find Radagast and bring him also, and what wandering tribes there may linger in the northern regions of the vale of Anduin. Pelastor and his folk still linger there, I believe. Perhaps he will again bring to the council what he has seen. And, as I come south, I may find some from among the Hobbits who will come with us, for they have shown themselves perceptive and caring for the fates of others.”
Gildor and Glorinlas shared another look, then turned back to the Wizard. “Then one of us will be in Imladris at the beginning of that month to accompany you,” Gildor told him. “Would the two of you wish to join us for the night?”
Gildor’s party left shortly before daylight, and Gandalf and Elladan headed west shortly after. As they went by a series of green hills Gandalf saw and recognized the Hobbit Modoc he’d met along the North Road. “I would speak with him,” Gandalf explained to his companion, “and learn what more has befallen him since last I saw him.”
Modoc was guiding a plow dragged by a pair of small oxen in fields being carved in an area of low rolling ridges and valleys. Gandalf was pleased to see the furrows being dug were not straight but curved to match the terrain, so that in heavy rains or winds topsoil would not be as easily lost as they would were the furrows straight. Woodlands were sparser in number here than they’d been eastward, and so it would be difficult for the Wizard to hide himself other than by skulking amongst the hills and vales. Gandalf stepped out from the cover he’d taken, allowing himself to be seen by the Hobbit, who on recognizing the Wizard gave a cry of pleasure and hurried toward him, leaving oxen and plow behind him.
“Our friend!” Modoc called as he came closer. “And what do you do, here in these lands?”
“It is Modoc I see? Well met! I am on my way west on the King’s business, although my companion and I travel quietly that we not disturb the folk who have settled here. So, it appears that the plagues made their way here also, but appear to now be past.”
“Yes, your news that it had been learned they were caused by fleas carried by animals with fur has helped to stop the plague of the black boils, while there have been no cases of the water ravings reported, for all animals seen to behave unlike the ways of their kind have ever been destroyed out of hand and their bodies burned.”
“Very wise. So, you have chosen to settle here in the lands gifted to your kind by the King.”
“Yes. Most of the desirable land in the Breelands appears to have already been claimed and farmed. To live openly in a land given wholly to our kind we found desirable, so this is the way we turned. Because I carried news on how it is the plague might be defeated I have been befriended by the folk of the Tooks, who have taken this land as their own. They have offered to allow me and those who accompanied me to settle here among them, although I think we will in time return to the valley of the river to the east to settle there. We are, after all, a people who settled ever in river valleys, we with strong Stoor blood.”
“Excellent! Well, I will tell you our business--there is to be a council of leaders of all peoples for those who will come to discuss the spread of the various plagues that have killed so many throughout all lands. Would you or any among the Hobbits of this land wish to come with me to it?”
The Hobbit’s expression became more alert. “Where and when will this council be held?”
“In the spring. At the end of the second month of the new year there will be a gathering of those who choose to go east of here, near the base of the pass where the East Road climbs over the Mountains of Mist.”
“The way my father came back into the valley of the Anduin, then.”
“Yes,” confirmed the Wizard.
“Where do you go from there?”
“Across the mountains and then south through the valleys to Rhovanion. We hope to convince some of the horse folk from Éothéod to attend and speak to the kidnapping by the goblin folk of which you advised me, and your news as to how Hobbits also have been attacked will add to the amount of attention given this information.”
“Then, if I were to go, I would travel through the lands from which I came.”
“Yes, that is true.”
“How long before I would return here?”
“In a year’s time, perhaps--maybe earlier if you were allowed to ride with the King’s son, who plans to attend, for he would seek to return swiftly here once more. He cannot be long from the land of Arnor.”
“You would not seek to take me now?”
“No, not this moment, for we must go first west to the Grey Havens and to Lindon, and then return east again to the passes.”
Modoc looked thoughtful. “It would not be easy for me to go now, for we have found one my son loves and would take to wife, a child of one of the Tooks. It is for her sake we work her father’s lands before I go east again to the river valley, which we call the Marish, for much of it is very wet. Can you linger a day or two, and I will tell you what I know, and how to find the homesteads of my people of which I am aware, so that you might stop with them and perhaps get more news on how the evil from the south of the Mirky Wood affects them?”
At a sign from the Wizard Elladan came forward. “This is one of the sons of Elrond of Imladris. Either he or I will return this way in perhaps two weeks. Can you write out the information you wish to convey so that we can take it with us? It would perhaps be of more value, if neither you nor any of your kindred will agree to go with us, then merely your words remembered.”
“I don’t know how to write,” Modoc began slowly, “although Blanco, the father of my son’s beloved, certainly does. I could enlist his aide to write out our story, if you wish. Then, when you return, you can come to the farmstead he has dug out for himself beyond that ridge there, if you don’t find me here working in the fields, to fetch it.” He was examining Elladan with interest and some awe. “You are from among the Elven folk, then? It is a great honor, for my family has ever held but the greatest of respect for your people.”
“Few enough of your folk have we seen, but of those we have known we have found reason to honor you in return,” Elladan said with a most graceful bow. “Then if Mithrandir and I find ourselves parting and it is my duty to return this way, I will seek out to take the letter you would send.”
With that understanding, Elf and Wizard took their leave of the Hobbit and continued on their way, assured of more knowledge of how the hidden Enemy in Dol Guldur sought to disrupt the lives of those who sought to live free in Middle Earth.
Círdan spoke of incursions of ships from the southlands, apparently from Umbar and even Harad, along the common routes of fishing and trading vessels sent out by Elves of Mithlond and Lindon and the Northern Dúnedain. Four northern ships had been assaulted, and one lost; but two of the enemy’s ships had been captured. On board had been found crates of dying animals covered with fleas, and many of the sailors aboard the ships were sick or dying themselves. The animals had been slain cleanly and their bodies consigned to the sea with prayers of apology to Ossë and Ulmo, the enemy sailors given what aid was available, and the two ships fired after the surviving sailors were moved to a Dúnedain vessel (once the captain was assured they were free of fleas themselves) to be transported back to their own lands.
It had been learned agents from an unknown source had hired the vessels to carry their deadly cargo northward, and had incited the Corsairs and Haradri slavers to seek prey further north. This news added to the decision by Círdan to send Galdor to the council to take place in the spring in Rhovanion.
While Gandalf and Elladan tarried in Mithlond, a Dúnedain ship returned from a voyage southward with news two more vessels from Umbar had been found drifting with the tides off the coast south of Lindon. On one ship all the crew had been found dead, and on the other they found but two alive, one of whom died, both covered with black pustules.
“They were filthy beyond belief,” the captain said. “One sailor was sent aboard both ships, and he insisted on swimming back to our ship from the second rather than rowing back in the ship’s boat, for he said the place was filled with biting fleas. He even took the remaining sick sailor into the water with him to wash away the accumulated filth, and brought him aboard naked and nearly drowned. Our Man became ill, but we were able to save him, although it was a near thing. We fired both ships, and after giving the remaining sailor what aid we could we sent him ashore to the care of the fisher village at the mouth of the Baranduin.”
No search had been made of either vessel once it was certain the crews were dead. Círdan exchanged looks with Gandalf. “More plague vessels,” he commented. “It would seem our enemy is intent on destroying the population of Eriador by whatever means he can. However, it appears that the length of the journeys against the currents by those lacking in knowledge of our waters works against him, leaving the ships carrying his cargoes of death vulnerable to his designs.”
Círdan agreed to send out some of his swifter vessels to watch for more incursions from the south, and it was decided that from now on one warning would be given the crew of any unknown ship sighted, and then it would be fired from afar if it failed to turn back to its own lands.
Within days Elladan and Gandalf left Mithlond, and Elladan turned southward into Lindon to speak to kinsmen there while Gandalf went back through the Hobbits’ lands to his planned meeting with Modoc. Blanco was working alongside Modoc and his son in the next field to that in which he’d been working before, and together the three turned from their sowing of barley to meet with the Wizard as he came out to meet openly with them.
“Who is this enemy who sends these plagues?” Blanco demanded.
“We are not fully certain, but he is known at this time as the Necromancer. He has built a stronghold in the lands south of the realm of Thranduil, far east of the valley of the Anduin, and from there he has let loose many great evils against all the free lands. We do not know what all he does to those he kidnaps, but it appears that he delights in murdering them viciously, somehow apparently harvesting their life forces for his own evil purposes. We do know that evil wolves and goblins and other creatures of darkness flock to him, and when his power is rising they breed freely and harrow the surrounding lands.”
“Whatever we can do to aid in the fight against him, which I admit isn’t much, I swear to offer those who oppose him,” Blanco said solemnly. “I make this now for myself and all my progeny from this day forward.”
Delac looked at his future father-in-law with concern. “But how are we to aid in such a fight, A’da Blanco? We are not warriors, but primarily farmers. We have no great might to send out against evil enemies far away; and I have no desire to return to the valley of the Anduin myself.”
Modoc, however, was shaking his head at his son’s words. “No, Delac, he has the right of it. Perhaps we can offer little aid at this time; but never underestimate the power of love, perseverance, and faithfulness. In the end, the work of ants can carry away a mountainside while armies of Dwarves with great picks make little headway against it. In our way, we can offer support even to the King of Arnor, as he made plain in the charter for this land he granted to Blanco and Marcho. And who knows? Perhaps one day we of the Hobbit folk will rise to trouble the counsels of the Wise themselves! One can never know.” He began to chant, “For the want of a peg the wheel was lost; for the want of the wheel the cart was lost; for the want of the cart the harvest was lost; for the want of the harvest the people failed--and all for the want of a wheel’s peg.”
Those words were to return to Gandalf centuries later, when he found himself looking into the haunted but determined eyes of a Hobbit not fourteen miles from the field he now stood within.