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Stirring Rings
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Fighting Fire with Fire

Fighting Fire with Fire

At Galadriel’s suggestion Gandalf remained two days, until a child was brought to him, a girl of twelve summers born on the edges of Rhovanion, one whose family had died of the new pox but who had herself inexplicably survived, untouched by the disease.

“At first we all thought my parents had but contracted the same illness I myself had known a month before, the cow pox. But this was much worse.”

“Cow pox? You worked with cattle?”

“We had five milk cows, and provided milk for our village. I often milked our cows. A new heifer we bought from another village came to us with the pox--it didn’t show itself until she’d been with us a week, and I caught it from her.”

“And when the new pox struck your parents, you did not contract it?”

“No, my lord.”

“Did any others within your village contract the pox that killed your parents?”

“A few. I lost also my brother and sister; and there was one other family in which the disease was seen. All died save two--the father, who suffered the pox but recovered in the end, covered with great scars where the pustules had been; and his third son, who did not become ill with it.”

“Had the son been ill with the cow pox?”

“Yes--he caught it from the same heifer as I did. They were close friends and often visited us. He loved cattle, and when we brought the heifer home he went out to examine it. He became ill with the cow pox at the same time as did I.”

Gandalf and Galadriel exchanged glances. “Have you any family remaining you can go to?”

“No, my lord. My grandfather is all that yet lives, as far as I know, and he is in failing health himself due to age. There are no others.”

“Will you go north with me, to tell the northern lords of this?”

She shrugged, her face filled with grief. “What else might I do? My own village will not have me back, for since all my family has died they believe I will bring bad luck to all of them. And although this is a beautiful place past telling, it is no place for one such as I. If the folk of the north will accept me, it would be better than to remain homeless and friendless there in my own land.”

So it was that when he left Lórien it was with a girl on his saddlebow. The trip took somewhat longer, for he must provide for her as well as for himself, but they still arrived in Rivendell not that long after the arrival of Arwen’s own party.

Elrond listened to the tale of the girl, and at last sent her with Meliangiloreth to be examined in the healer’s wing, remaining in the small parlor where his interview with her had gone forward, thoughtfully tapping his cheek with his finger as he considered what she’d told them. “The disease apparently came to them from a Man passing through the village headed north toward the upper valley of the Anduin. Her family offered him hospitality for the night, and the other affected family joined them for the day meal. The next morning when they awoke the stranger was too ill to continue on; within three days he was dead, and a few days later first her mother, then her brother, younger sister, and at last their father all showed the symptoms--small, itching, weeping pustules, and fever. And they all died, but she, who’d had the cow pox, didn’t become ill again.”

He rose and began to pace the room. “It appears that the policies of containment set into place during the black plague are still being followed, and Tarondar’s advice to his kinsmen in Rhovanion is still working to the good. This was what protected the rest of the village, as she tells me only the two households were affected, both of whom had been exposed to the stranger before the symptoms showed themselves in him. Only one of eight infected with the disease survived, and the one other survivor from those households is another who had also been ill at one time with the cow pox and then did not contract the greater pox.”

“Apparently,” Gandalf said. “Although not all villages are likely to be as careful in dealing with this new plague, I fear.”

“Word must be sent south immediately,” Elrond said. “But the idea that one might avoid becoming ill with a disease as virulent as this new pox is by exposing oneself to a fairly minor one such as cow pox is one that had never occurred to me before. Think of it--Gandalf--being armed against the greater pox by having had a lesser one?”


Arveleg accepted the warning from Elrond with great surprise. “Here we are, insisting all cattle found to be suffering from the cow pox must remain isolated until all symptoms are gone that our people not contract it; and now we learn that we ought perhaps to expose our folk to it anyway that they not become ill from a more deadly form? How does my Lord Elrond think I will convince our people to willingly let themselves and their children become ill with cow pox?”

Elladan, who’d accompanied Gandalf to Fornost where the King was currently residing, suggested, “If you’d rather see them die rapidly of the fever that comes with the greater pox, you may do so. In the meantime, it would be best to place quarantines on all newcomers to the villages until it is proven they do not bear this disease with them, and have them served only by those who have already had the cow pox.”

Arveleg nodded before turning to other concerns. “Araval has told me of the assault on Lady Arwen’s escort as she came over the Dimrill Stair. Once again the number of orcs in the Misty Mountains begins to grow. We’ve seen threefold increases in assaults on our folk by them in the last two years, and even more in the last few months. And sightings of troops of them moving from place to place have also increased. Ever we drive them back, only to have them return again and again. The threat of this new plague I am certain will come sweeping our way could not come at a worse time, for we have such need of increased forces to guard our own lands and those others under our protection. They have told you about the infestation of the mounds of Tyrn Gorthad with evil wights?”

“Yes, and your son was giving thanks for the protection he knows from being of the lineage of Eärendil.”

“Then tell me the news of the south. How does the Enemy now threaten Gondor--beyond this new plague, that is?”

Arveleg listened closely, his head nodding as he heard the details of the death of Tarondor, and the plans to deal with the threat posed by Umbar. As he heard how gold apparently intended to fund the building of more warships by Umbar had come through Rhûn and had apparently been arranged by Dol Guldur his expression hardened. “Always Dol Guldur is involved somehow, isn’t it? The Uruks who attacked the Lady Arwen’s escort had gear identified as being from Dol Guldur, didn’t you say?” At Araval and Gandalf’s indications of agreement he sighed. “And again the new plague of pox has apparently come from Dol Guldur as well?” He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “According to the records, ever since its building has Dol Guldur been behind the woes sent to strike at the health and safety of the Free Peoples. You say that the Nazgûl are tied to the place as well?”

“Yes--they appear to go back and forth between Dol Guldur and Mordor with frequency, although word from Círdan to Imladris received just ere I came there indicates that at least one of the Nazgûl besides the Witch-king himself has entered and left Angmar recently.”

Elladan continued, “Indeed such was the word brought by Endoril when he arrived a fortnight past to speak with my father. A ship with what appears to have been Umbari sails was seen far out beyond the entrance to the Lhûn, heading north. It passed a fishing vessel of your people who live near the shore, although those aboard gave the small boat no heed. Of the crew of four, three were badly struck by the Black Breath. Nine days later the same ship sailed with great speed southward, and was followed for some leagues by some of those sailors who plan to crew the next ship to Aman. Two insist that there had to be a Nazgûl aboard. They state the feel is identical to what they knew when they faced the Ringwraiths before and within Mordor.”

The King and his son searched the faces of the Wizard and the Elf. “Nazgûl other than Angmar? And what does this mean? A messenger, perhaps?”

“That is our thought on the subject,” Elladan agreed. “Glorfindel and Lindir have gone north to examine the border between Eriador and Angmar, and they plan to ride then the coastline to see what might be found regarding where the ship might have made landfall.”

Arveleg sighed as he shared looks with his son. “And we now deal with Angmar’s poison there at the Barrow-downs. What else does he have in store for us?”

Gandalf looked from Elladan to the two Men. “There is one other thing to think of--when the great plagues were loosed on Gondor and Arnor before, ships from Umbar and Harad were employed to bring diseased animals to the shores of Eriador. If this one carried individuals ill with this pox intended to infect folk from Angmar’s lands who would then be sent over the border into Eriador, it could be devastating, as could happen if infected victims are set down on the western shores.”

Araval’s jaw set. “I see. Those on our northern borders were least diminished the last time, for we had learned how to deal with the illnesses before they could come so far. The Enemy may indeed seek to infect our people from there first this time. Then it is to the borders we need to send cattle infected with the cow pox first.”

“You would willingly see our folk infected with cow pox, my son?” asked Arveleg.

After a glance at Elladan, the younger man nodded. “I would, Adar. Better some sick for a time with the cow pox and then recovered than to see our northern troops coming down with the greater pox with its dread fevers.”

“Have any survived this greater pox?” Arveleg asked of Elladan.

“From what was told to Gandalf and the message my father received from my daernaneth the night before we left Imladris there have now been reported more recoveries, but most are left with skin that is terribly scarred, and recovery is a lengthy affair in most cases.”

The two Men again exchanged glances. “I see,” Arveleg sighed. “Well, my son, I fear I must leave it in your hands to see those along the northern border protected as swiftly as possible.”


Finding sufficient cattle infected with the cow pox to possibly help protect the northern forces was difficult, but at last one farm somewhat north of Bree was found that had a large herd where many of the cattle were found so diseased. When the King’s officers came to the farm with several drafted from other farms and purchased the entire herd and drove them off northwards, the farmer was left scratching his head, particularly as he realized other cattle were being added to his herd. “But my cattle have been ill!” he objected. “Why would the King’s husbandmen mix healthy cattle with mine? Won’t all become ill? They don’t intend to slaughter them and feed them to the troops, do they? But they are dairy cattle, not cattle intended for the butchers.”

As no answers were given him, he shrugged and returned to his byres. The King’s engineers were there, and had indicated they would help to see his farm cleansed of the disease and see barns and byres rebuilt so that future cattle brought onto the property would not be likely to contract the condition. He had been paid a goodly price for cattle he’d thought must be slaughtered out of hand, and he did not understand; but in the end he decided it would be best to accept the largess he’d received and get on with it.

The herd was pressed northward as fast as it could go, and within a couple weeks was near the borders of Angmar. New cattle had been added to the herd as it went, allowing for there to be new infections regularly. All along the way Arveleg’s soldiers, scouts, and others encountered were called to meet with the herders, the situation hastily explained, and they were requested to handle those cows known to have the disease. Soon cases of cow pox could be seen all along the borders as the herders divided the herd and took them in all directions. Within two months most of those stationed along the border had recovered from the cow pox, many of them not fully certain as to why they’d been asked to allow themselves to become sick with the malady. Those cattle that recovered from the pox were taken to some of the lands held by the crown and allowed to remain there for some months before they were taken and given to families that needed milk cows; the others were taken from hamlet to hamlet so the folk of Eriador could get some protection against the expected plague.

Many parents were incensed that the King would ask them to allow their children to be infected with the pox--but then the first reports came of illness creeping northward, of travelers who accepted the hospitality of settlers in the southern reaches of Arnor, and who left behind them households where most or all died of a form of pox that brought with it terrible fevers. Suddenly many who had questioned the King’s wisdom found themselves accepting the idea that it was better to suffer briefly from this known form of the pox and know one would most likely recover quickly than to contract the new form approaching from the south and most likely all die.


Within a few weeks after the diseased cattle passed the position of the troop set closest to the place where the main route to Angmar crossed the border into that land several people, mostly farmers and craftspeople and their families, were forcefully ejected from the northern lands, sent south with little more than they could carry on their backs. They were immediately taken into custody by the King’s Men and brought to houses prepared on the orders of the King where they were given provisions and the caring of competent healers who had already recovered from the cow pox. Within days almost all the refugees became violently ill (although the healers remained well), and soon after most of them died. A few, however, were nursed through the disease, and when they were fully recovered they were taken to Fornost where they were questioned by the King himself. All had been taken from their homes by night and brought to one of the fortresses of the land where they and their families had been forced to inhabit a room in which one or more individuals lay dying of a form of pox; and after two days in that room they had been brought to the borders and sent over, and told to go as far south as they could get.

In the case of the three individuals who did not become ill, it was learned all had, at some time in their lives, suffered cow pox.


While Araval dealt with the expected plague, Gandalf and the King, accompanied by Elladan, approached the Barrow-downs, where they were joined by Glorfindel. It took several days to evaluate the situation and decide what was to be done; at last a strategy was decided upon. Starting at the western boundary of the ancient cemetery the four began a circuit of the mounds, Gandalf drawing a line as they walked with the butt of his staff. When they reached the center of the northern borders Elladan stayed as the other three walked on; Arveleg stopped at the eastern side, and Glorfindel opposite Elrond’s son. Gandalf continued on until he at last reached the place where his line began, and he closed the encircling boundary. Now all turned inward, and Gandalf, drawing on both staff and hidden ring, began an invocation and incantation; tapping the butt of his staff down at the place where he’d begun and ended the boundary he spoke a Word of Power, and blue-white flames rose along the line. Many of the wights, suddenly aware they were being bound fully within the burial ground, threw themselves against the boundary, but were driven back by the flames, crying out in shrill and deathly voices.

With his own will augmented by that of King, Peredhel, and Elf lord, Gandalf sealed the boundary to hold the wights already introduced within the bounds of the cemetery itself, and extended it to contain any further wights that might come there in the future. At last he raised his staff, and the work was finished.

He stepped back, exhausted, and was soon joined by the other three. Glorfindel examined him closely. “That was an exceptionally fine piece of work,” he said quietly. “None of them will be able to go out of the Tyrn Gorthad, save perhaps to the center of the stone circle, and even there cannot come fully. I believe you have saved the life and sanity of many by your actions.”

“I certainly hope so,” Gandalf answered. “What did you learn from your survey of the shore?” The four of them retreated back to Bree, leaving the burial grounds imprisoning spirits that had hoped to merely gather there before wandering freely among the lands of the living.


Telumehtar examined the message delivered to his Steward an hour earlier by an Elf. He looked up into the eyes of this, his closest advisor, and asked, “Do you think it is authentic?”

“You can speak to this Haldir, the Elf who brought it, my Lord. He waits in the lesser audience chamber. He came in company with two Men of Rhovanion who can attest to what he says.”

A few minutes later the King swept into the room where the Elf and two northerners waited his coming. He paused--he’d seen few Elves in his life, and those few far to the south at the Elven shipyard that lay just outside the walls of Númenor vi Ennorath. Most of those had had dark hair and grey eyes; this one had golden hair and eyes of a clear blue, his expression unfathomable. The Rhovanions, on the other hand he recognized; one was personal healer to the King of Rhovanion and the other the King’s brother, Lancomaë. “I greet you, Master Vilcoma, Lord Lancomaë. How is it I can serve the two of you?”

“It is we who are come to warn you, my Lord Telumehtar. A few months back reports began to reach the King of illness to the east, near the borders of Dol Guldur....”

Telumehtar listened for a few minutes, then interrupted them and sent for his son Narmacil, who had some skill in healing and who had even spent some three years in service in the Houses of Healing; his personal healer; and the Warden of the Houses of Healing, distracting his guests in the meantime with an offer of refreshment. As soon as those he’d just called for arrived, he had Lancomaë begin again.

Narmacil and the Warden listened closely, and together scanned the letter sent from Celeborn of Laurelindórenan. Master Orómil questioned Vilcoma about the onset of symptoms, what was known of how the disease was transmitted, how quickly victims developed the pox marks and the fevers, how swiftly they fell into death, how victims were kept apart to keep them from infecting others. When he’d apparently exhausted himself Narmacil took up the questioning.

“How many have you found who have not contracted this pox? Is it true that those who do not become ill with it, even though they have been exposed as much as any others, have all had the cow pox?” This was followed by questions about the cow pox, how to tell if a cow had it, how long it appeared to take for one who milked or otherwise handled an infected animal might be expected to develop the earliest symptoms, what kind of handling was known to cause the Man to develop the condition.

Narmacil again examined the letter. “How it is that this information has come so swiftly to our hands I do not know, adar, but there is no question that reports of this condition have come from near Cair Andros and Osgiliath. We have isolated those known to suffer from the disease and given them such succor as we could; but without understanding how it was spread there was little we could do for them. And in spite of the isolation we yet have begun to see more cases as the plague spreads. But if reports both from Arnor and Rhovanion indicate that it may be avoided by allowing our folk to undergo cow pox--it seems a small price to pay.”

Telumehtar took the letter back into his own hands and read it closely. “And the idea that this disease will most likely affect us on our eastern borders and in our port towns.... Arveleg reports that infected individuals were sent over his northern borders, there where his enemies are most likely to strike.” He shook his head. “The idea of fighting illness by inflicting a lesser illness seems to go against logic.”

Vilcoma and Orómil looked at one another. But it was Lancomaë who answered him, “Well, my lord Telumehtar, those who seek to fight grass or forest fires have found that sometimes the best way to keep such fires from burning the farms, villages, and homes of those who live in their paths is to burn those woods or grasslands closest to the endangered places in a controlled manner before the wildfire can approach closely enough to destroy all. If we can fight fire with fire, perhaps the idea of fighting a deadly infirmity with a lesser one is easier to understand.”

Telumehtar turned to the Elf. “You have been very patient, my Lord Haldir. I wish to thank you for bringing this warning. Do you know how it was forwarded to Lord Celeborn?”

The Elf gave a most graceful shrug. “I am no lord amongst my people--indeed, I serve as border warden for our land,” he said in a very slow, accented form of Sindarin. “Yet our Lords Amroth and Celeborn and Lady Galadriel have many ways of learning information from afar. However, in this case it appears that the Great Eagles have helped in the sharing of information, and that they and more common messenger birds have borne missives back and forth. Certainly Mithrandir met with them on his way northward, and they agreed that in this case it would be necessary to send such warnings as they could here to Gondor as well as to Rhovanion, as all the Free Peoples are equally threatened in this.”

“And where were the first signs of the disease seen?” asked Narmacil.

“Near Dol Guldur, my Lord Prince.”

The King’s jaw tightened. “Dol Guldur again,” he said through gritted teeth.

The expression of his son was similar as he said, “Indeed. Now, to learn how we might obtain cattle infected with this cow pox....”


The Breelands had several cases of the greater pox, all of which were isolated and reported immediately to the King’s officers, and the disease was swiftly contained there. There were two cases reported from the Shire; but it appeared the Periannath were more naturally resistant to the condition than were Men--or perhaps more had just been exposed to the cow pox than was true throughout the rest of Eriador; but there were no widespread deaths. And again the disease spread more rapidly in Dunland, southern Rhudaur amongst those who’d come north from Dunland and the wilderlands surrounding it, north into Angmar, and south into Umbar and eastward into Rhûn than throughout Gondor and Arnor. There had been a good deal of loss of life in Rhovanion, but less than might have been expected. But within a year and a half there were no more reported cases, and Gondor found itself with more time to build up its navy while Arnor had considerably less difficulty from Angmar than they’d expected.


Gandalf and Saruman met in the Anduin valley, not far from Radagast’s home of Rhosgobel. “You have not yet met with Radagast, then?” asked the White Wizard.

“Not yet,” admitted Gandalf. “There was much to do in Eriador before I came again over the mountains.”

“The messages regarding the spread of the pox and how it might be contained were well received,” Saruman noted.

“I am glad. How goes the building of Gondor’s navy?”

“Very well. Telumehtar and Narmacil are both canny tacticians, it appears, and Narmacil shows eagerness to advance against his enemy’s forces, once they show themselves.”

“And did you hear tell of the two younger dragons who assaulted other Dwarven enclaves?”

“No! Tell me.”

Once the details were shared, Saruman sighed. “When dragons again grow restless....” He did not finish. “And the folk of Arnor have armed themselves against the greater pox?”

“Indeed. The number of cases seen have been very few, and most of those in the southern reaches of the lands. Far more died among those who have entered into Rhudaur from the south than did within Eriador proper.”

“Perhaps we have no need to meet now with Radagast,” the White Wizard suggested.

“And after he sent word regarding the assaults by dragons on the Dwarves of the Misty Mountains?” demanded the Grey. “That would be poor return for what news he’s sent to us.” His mood lightened somewhat. “Or are you reluctant to visit his home shaped of living trees?” Gandalf asked.

“It is most unnatural,” Saruman grumbled.

“When it is most naturally derived?” his companion returned, a twinkle in his eye. “Oh--you can bear it for a night or two. Come!”

Reluctantly, Saruman followed his fellow toward the home of their fellow.


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