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34
The Return of the Shadow

The Return of the Shadow


“Thou hast well earned the Master’s promised reward,” the Mouth of Sauron assured the Man who stood before him. “He would have me assure thee that he is well pleased by thee and thine efforts on his behalf.” The creature indicated the Dark Lord’s servants who stood on either side, and the chest of treasure that lay at the black-booted feet of one of them. “Three fine horses there are, also, awaiting thee out beyond the entrance to this place, along with the weapons that thou hast--requested. Take them with our thanks!”

The Man was rather small compared to the Men of the western lands, although he was yet powerfully built. He wore clothing of felted animal hair, and boots and a hat of the same with a circle of grey fox fur around the rims. His coloring was more yellow than one saw in the west of Middle Earth, his eyes as dark a brown as his nearly black hair and mustaches, tilted slightly upward. He looked uncertainly at the being that stood guard over the chest of treasure, sensing the evil nature of the robed and hooded figure, wondering if it was safe to approach him to take the chest. “You have him,” he said, hoping to distract those facing him. “What will you do with him?”

“That is no matter to thee,” sniffed the Mouth. “It is enough that thou didst find him and bring him to us. The Master shall get from him what information he wishes to know—that is all that shouldst concern thee.”

“Those with whom he dwelt—they believed him to be a god.”

The Mouth cocked his head. “Do they, then? And why is this?”

The Man shrugged uncertainly. “He has dwelt among them for many, many lives of Men, and has wrought great wonders amongst them. Or, so they told me.”

“And thou didst find him in the land known as Hinya?”

“No—he lived in that land, it appears, for many, many years, perhaps past counting. But when he heard the rumor of our coming he left that place, heading south and east into lands thick with trees and swamps. It was there that I found him.”

“And there thou didst take him prisoner?”

A cruel look crossed the Man’s face. “He came to me, offering himself in exchange for a child I had taken as a hostage.”

“And thou didst return the child to its people?”

The Man shook his head. “Once I had this one, my men slew them all. We did not come there to merely enslave such weak ones, but to cleanse the earth of them.”

Those gathered about the chamber examined him with more consideration than they had shown him before. The Mouth finally asked, “And what shalt thou do with thy reward?”

“I will arm my men with better weapons than those who serve my brother carry, and we shall unseat him as Ghan, and I shall take his place. When he succeeded our father, he took my woman from my yurt into his own bed. I will have her back again, and all of the others he has gathered to him also.”

The faceless guardians examined him for some time before the Mouth asked, “How long didst thou hold him as thy prisoner?”

“Some eight cycles of the moon have passed during our journey here to claim your reward.”

“Tell me this—dost thou think him a god?”

Again the Man shrugged, although this time he also shook his head. “Nay, I do not. Not when he bleeds as do all Men.” With that he came forward and hefted the chest upon his shoulder in defiance of its black-garbed guardian, and proudly walked away with it, although his back felt naked until he managed to quit the building in which the Dark Lord’s people had met with him. The sooner he collected now the horses and weapons promised him, the happier he would be!

*******


Pallando.

The ragged form before him raised dark eyes to examine what could be seen of his former brother. “Aulendil,” he acknowledged in a rough whisper through cracked lips. His bruised face managed a humorless smile. “So, this is what you have sunk to. A shadow of yourself indeed!”

At least I am not bound to the seeming of a mere Man.

“No—not any more, not since as Zigûr you were caught in the ruins of your own temple. You cannot even assume that form again, can you?”

The Mouth of Sauron raised his fist and struck the Blue Wizard across the face. Indeed, as the Wainrider who’d captured him had said, Pallando did bleed as do all Men, a stream of blood erupting from his broken nose.

Who sent you, and why?

It took a time before Pallando could answer. “Our Masters—to teach the citizens of Middle Earth to stand up against you.”

Why?

“Is it not true that you wish to render the entire world subject to your will? Why do you think? You are no god. You are not even as great as our Masters.”

Another blow was administered. The Blue Wizard fell to the floor, unable to stir for some time. At last he struggled up on an elbow, shaking his head as if to clear it.

There are those, we are told, who have considered you to be a god.

Pallando struggled to speak, finally managing, “I never--never told them I was such.”

Why not? Do you not have powers no Man, Elf, or Dwarf can equal?

The painful grimace the Mannish shape before him gave was apparently intended to be a rueful grin. “I—I did have. But no longer. We bound—bound ourselves—bound ourselves to a Man’s estate—when we accepted—this mission. Oh, we age—age slowly, and do not die. But we are—Men—in all but nature.” One eye was swiftly swelling shut as Pallando gave his adversary a searching look before continuing more strongly, “I gave over the—the greater part of my power here, ere I gave myself into that Man’s keeping. He did not know what I laid aside. He did not know the purpose of that which I laid aside. He took it, once his people slew those—those who had harbored me, and cast it into the flames. I have no extra powers now. I am not certain why I linger yet. Alatar did not remain, not once his was taken from him and—and broken. I do not understand why I continue, but he did not. I doubt I will remain much longer.” He smiled more clearly. “You have not won, brother that you were to us.” Then he stopped, his body spasming, blood flowing suddenly from his mouth. “You have not won—can not win. Lost too—too much….”

His body died, his fëa quitting the form that had held it so long. The body withered away, and a silver ash lit from within by an intense blue glow rose up from it and formed into a rough bodily shape that turned toward the West. A breeze sprang up and lifted the shape, drew it out of the room and dispersed the silver ashes, and the blue light flew West with a speed that shocked those observing it.

The dark fires that limned the shadow that Sauron had come to be shrank in on themselves in his uncertainty. The Blue Wizard was no more. But there were others of the Istari, there in the West, at least three he knew of. Alatar had been one of the others bound into bodies that appeared to be those of Men? But he was no more, either? What had been broken—what cast into fire—that had caused these two to lose the integrity of the bodies they’d worn?

He’d not been able to gain by the Wizard’s death, or to learn the answers he truly needed to know. Perhaps it was time to return to the western lands, back to his stronghold at the edge of Thranduil’s realm. There he might be able to learn more. Those who had traffic with the Istari would stray there from time to time. He could possibly learn what he needed to know from them, now that he knew they had been of the Maiar. Yes—time to return to face his enemies more directly again….

*******


She was matriarch for one of the few clans of her people remaining in the valley of the Anduin. It was told in the most ancient of tales that once their people had been numerous here, east of the great Mountains, with most of the Stoors delving their smials into the banks overlooking the great river and its tributaries, fishing the waters and scavenging the banks, occasionally trading with Men; the Harfoots built villages up in the folds of the mountains where they grew their crops and traded with and learned from the Dwarves; and the Fallohides wandered the woodlands, hunting and learning from Elves, then sharing what they’d learned with other Hobbits.

Almost all of the Hobbits in the valley of the Anduin had migrated west of the mountains during the long years of drought and wildfires, but a very few had remained in their original homeland. Then, after a long absence there had been a return of Hobbits back from the lands they called Eriador, but they were few in number, bringing with them tales of assaults on their villages by Men, orcs, and wolves, and of battles between Men and monsters from the north that were waged in the fields, and the thefts of a year’s harvest to feed the armies of both protectors and invaders.

These returnees had not prospered for long after their return, and now she could count on one hand the number of communities of Hobbits within a five-days’ journey, and still had a finger left over.

Her own clan had managed to hold a steady population until she and her husband had reached the age of sixty. Seven children they’d had, but now only one daughter was left to her. The catarrh had swept the community, and not just the oldest and the youngest were lost, but also many who normally would have been little troubled by such illnesses. Five of her children were lost at that time along with her husband, her so wise Buccol. That left two daughters, her oldest and her youngest, and their husbands, none of whom was ready to take on the responsibilities inherent in being Master—or Mistress—of the clan. So the position had remained on her shoulders. Then the husband of her oldest daughter had been captured by orcs, taken by them while he’d been shelving his boat wrought of reeds on the riverbank near the place where the foul things had been denning during the daylight. The signs had been unmistakable. Her daughter, who’d been seven months pregnant, had been inconsolable, and she’d gone into labor early. She’d not survived the birth of this, her second child; and a mere hour after she’d taken her first breath the infant took her last one, having whimpered piteously the whole time of her brief life. Her first child, Sméagol, could not understand what had happened to his parents or the delicate baby sister whom he’d held so briefly.

Sméagol had come to cling to his cousin Déagol, who was only a year older than he, and often the two children appeared inseparable. But the younger lad’s curiosity disturbed Déagol’s father, who felt this was an objectionable trait for one of their children, and the companionship between the two lads usually ended at the entrance to the rooms Déagol and his father inhabited. So the Grandmother did her best to make it up to the younger child, calling him her precious one in memory of her beautiful daughter who’d given birth to him, and whom she’d loved so dearly.

She found herself worrying about the lad, and she had to admit that she tended to spoil him somewhat. As he grew, he seemed to take so strongly after his Grandfather Buccol, and there were so many times she would look after him as he went out of the door and could swear it was her beloved husband she was watching after.

She could not shake the feeling that this precious grandson of hers was intended to do great things, although she had no idea quite what.

*******


Eight Hobbits went to visit the Bylode Clan, some way south of their own smial, which lay near what Men called the Gladden Fields. But once they reached the region where the Bylodes had lived it was plain that there were no Hobbits living there any longer. The fields the Bylodes tended beyond the bank where their interlaced holes had been dug had been trampled and were filled with weeds that Hobbits would never have allowed to take root.

But it was Sméagol who found the fire pit, a pit into which the fine bones of Hobbit children had been thrown after a feast.

“Goblins! Orcses!” Déagol’s father had exclaimed with dismay. “Orcses have been here, and have slain the Bylodes!”

So it had proved, although they managed at last to find one older lass who’d escaped with her little brother and who’d taken refuge in a bolthole beyond the bank, dug into the mountain’s flanks far the other side of the fields. Both were filthy, and stared at them with wide, unbelieving eyes. Neither would willingly speak, and all the Grandmother could think was that they’d had to depend on silence to hide themselves from the orcs to the point they’d stopped talking at all for fear they’d be found and eaten, also.

The small community of smials had been broken into, and almost everything of any value—certainly all edged tools and the jewelry the Bylodes had possessed—had been taken. Some ornaments had remained, but the kiln had been smashed, and the small smithy the Bylodes had kept had been robbed of its anvil and its store of iron and most of the smith’s tools and hammers.

Furniture had been overturned and cushions and featherbeds torn apart and stuffing scattered and trampled upon with muddy boots. Blood could still be seen spattered upon walls and the remains of curtains and carpets.

They’d been unable to get the lass to leave until she’d gone out into the remains of the small apple orchard and found a particular tree, where she dug into the ground, eventually using the remains of a broken plate brought her by someone who’d found it in the shambles of a kitchen in place of a spade, until at last she found a leather bag, filthy with dirt, that she wrested from the earth. This she’d held close to her chest, not allowing anyone else to look at its contents. They brought the two children and the very few items they’d found that were worth salvaging, along with a store of wood appropriate to the making of bows and arrows, and returned to their own valley. Now there were perhaps only three other communities of Hobbits within five days’ journey of their own smial.

The Grandmother shivered to think this, and did her best to hug the young lass and her little brother to her to reassure them they’d never be in such danger again.

When they returned at last to their home, all of the menfolk were sent out to find good flints with which to tip arrows, and all of their residents old enough to bend a bow or heft a stone were set to practicing so that if they were attacked they might at least defend themselves.

*******


One day she could find Déagol but not Sméagol when she came in from the fields. “And where’s your mate?” she asked, concerned for the younger lad’s safety.

“Gone with Uncle Jace,” he said around a mouth filled with flat bread. “Gone to cut the peat.”

Jace was her own uncle, really, and as hardy a Hobbit as he’d ever been in spite of his age. He loved the peat bog where they obtained the bulk of their fuel, and was the most knowledgeable of the whole of the great smial in the ways and history of the river as it passed through the Gladden Fields and by the valley of the tributary along which they’d delved their own home. Now and then he would find objects within the peat that he would bring home, objects lost untold years ago by others who’d crossed the water or who’d wandered within the bog land that edged the fields, and each object he’d found had been examined as closely by Sméagol as it was by his great uncle.

“Too curious by half, the both of them!” she muttered, then summoned one of her sons-in-love to send to search them out and bring her word.

“They’ve found the bones of a great Man,” he told her worriedly when at last he returned from his errand. “Neither Jace nor Sméagol will come away until they find the whole of him! Jace wishes me to bring back to him the skin of the bullock we got in trade from the Men of Horses.”

It was after dark before those who’d gone out to the place where Jace and Sméagol had been digging returned, their finds wrapped in the bullock’s hide. The Grandmother could see the excitement, barely held in check, in her precious Sméagol’s eyes, as he followed the grownups into the smial and down the hall to the room closest to the river where she’d set up the great slab of wood kept there on two trestles to receive their burden.

“He were more’n any Man, he were,” Jace insisted to her as they walked down the passage. “Had to’ve been a giant! Tall? Won’t b’lieve as how tall him was!”

The Grandmother held her own peace until they were in the room, then sent some of the menfolk to fetch more lanterns, which she hung from the ceiling around the chamber so as to light up all that had been found.

Most of the bones were loose, but a goodly portion of the spine was still intact, as were one hand and a foot, the sinews still leathery. Some scraps of cloth and part of a boot were there, as well as one finely tanned belt purse that even now bore traces of what must have originally been a brilliant blue dye, its cords wrapped with silver thread. As for the sword brought in with the body—it was a marvel, its hilt wrapped with silvery wire with no hint of tarnish to it. The blade was pitted, with what appeared to be images of a rising Moon on one side and a Sun setting over what must be the Sea on the other; there was a circle of stars, six of which remained visible, around the Moon; and a tree flowered in front of the Sun’s disk. There was also a long knife, its tip broken off, and a notch further down the blade; but still the edges of both weapons were surprisingly sharp. The sword belt had been the same royal blue as the belt pouch, and the ring buckle had been embossed again with seven stars. The belt was in far worse shape than the belt pouch, however, and the sword’s sheath was so far gone little could be told of its original decorations, save for the shape of a silver crescent moon inlaid into the leather, about which it could be seen that the sheath was again that deep royal blue.

Jace produced a ring he said Sméagol had found about one of the finger bones, again of the untarnished silvery metal seen elsewhere. Its face showed a crescent moon with a single great star caught in the midst of the crescent, a brilliant clear stone set in the center of the star. About the crescent again were seven embossed stars, each set with a tiny faceted stone. He also produced a blackened iron arrow point such as the goblins used, telling how one of his nephews had found it in the center of the rib cage. And this same nephew handed her a golden chain and locket he’d found, one that apparently had been worn about the great warrior’s neck. The locket had a single great star and the image of a flowering tree upon it, and as if at a distance a great boat upon silver water. The locket was empty, but from the internal structure it appeared that it had held something like a ring, although the ring found by Sméagol could not fit within it, having too large a boss.

“We must see of what kind this one was,” the Grandmother said. With that pronouncement, she nodded at Jace, and the two of them began setting the bones in order, starting with the skull and jawbone.

It took two days to finish the job. Most of the bones had been found, and most of those were yet whole. Where now and then a bone had been broken in the recovery, the shards were gently laid with the broken ends bound together with red yarn. Throughout the whole process Sméagol watched avidly, helping as he could, soon recognizing which bone must come next in the process and handily finding it amidst those still lying on the hide.

Once the bones were finally in place, it could be easily seen they were from one of the tallest of Men. “A giant of a Man it was, fer certain,” pronounced Jace with authority. “Easily thrice the height of the tallest of us Hobbits!”

“Indeed,” agreed the Grandmother as she used the rest of her skein of red yarn to measure the length of the array of bones. “No question of that.”

“How’d he end up in the river?” asked the one who’d found the locket.

The Grandmother shrugged, looking at the iron arrow point. “I’d say as him was shot by a goblin archer. Whether him was in the river first, or him fell in after, I couldn’t say. But when the current brought him to the spit where him fetched up, his body caught there. If’n it were in spring, it might of been in flood, and the flood could of left it all covered in mud. Buried by the river itself, or so it seems.”

Jace nodded. “And then, when the river changed its bed as it does, all that area where him was buried went to bog land, and the peat filled it all in. Mud’n’ water, it kept the bones together and mostly whole, an’ the peat, it helped preserve some o’ the leather’n’ flesh.”

“What’s in the bag?” asked one of the older cousins, voicing the question Sméagol had desired so much to ask but hadn’t dared as yet.

The Grandmother worked carefully on the knot that closed the bag. One of the uncles offered her the use of his small belt knife, but she waved it off, explaining, “Mustn’t damage it. What’s inside might need containin’.” Finally, with the help of one of the pins she used to hold her hair away from her face, she managed to loosen the knot and undo the ties, and with a grunt of satisfaction she worked free the drawstrings and pulled open the mouth of the bag. As she looked inside, however, her face went still with awe and wonder, and carefully she reached into it.

What she pulled forth was a wonder to all who’d crowded into the room. “A silver ribbon!” exclaimed an older lass.

“Not made of any cloth,” the Grandmother breathed. “No, this ain’t made of cloth at all. It’s the finest silver wires as ye’ve ever seen!” Yet, in spite of being made of silver wires as she’d said, the ribbon rolled from her fingers like the heaviest of fine linen (these Hobbits being totally unfamiliar with silk and its properties). In the center of the ribbon shone the brightest and greatest of gems that any of them had ever beheld, reflecting and magnifying the light given by the lamps as if she held a perfectly white star suspended from the silvery ribbon.

“What is it?” whispered one of the lads.

One of the uncles asked, more practically, “It’s valuable, ain’t it?”

But the Grandmother was already shaking her head. “This is something not meant for the likes of us,” she said. “There is power here--great power, but of a sort intended for the great ones as are honored by the stars, not for hole dwellers. It would be dangerous for our folk.”

She turned the gem on its fine ribbon so as to examine it more closely for a moment before returning her attention to the skeletal remains laid out upon the slab of wood. “It is best to let this one lie with honor, this one the river took so long ago. If we do not do so, his spirit might well walk amongst us and breathe illness into our children. But if we treat his remains with honor, it is likely he will grant us good fortune.”

So saying, she reverently replaced the ribbon with its great, starry gem back into the belt pouch and retied the knot, pulling the strings as tightly as she could, and set it aside. She had one of the more responsible nieces fetch her the oil pressed from grain in which she often steeped healing herbs to use as a rub for sore muscles. Using a fine brush, she carefully anointed the bones and remaining leathery flesh. The locket was laid as it had been in life, the back of the chain tucked behind the skull and neck bones, the locket itself centered over the sternum. The ring was replaced about the finger that Sméagol indicated it had circled before, and the iron point to the arrow laid within the rib cage as if it still pierced the no longer present heart of the great Man. The remains of the belt encircled the waist as best it could, the ring buckle centered above the pelvis. The notched knife she settled near his right hand, and the sword along his left side. The belt pouch she set nestling against his right hip, and Sméagol eyed it and the ring longingly. A right magpie him is, she thought worriedly as she caught the expression in the lad’s eyes. But none of this is the business of us Hobbits. No, it’s the business of the Star-Men.

She had her remaining daughter fetch the length of white linen that had only recently been cut from the loom, and this the Grandmother laid over the great Man’s bones. With that done, she removed all of the lanterns, having various of the menfolk carry each back to where they’d come from, and she settled four tall pillared candles upon the slab of wood and left them burning there as she and Jace shepherded the others out of the room. Over the next two days a wall of stones was built to seal off entrance to the room, and once it was done she set the lasses to filling in the cracks with plaster so that none could tell that the room existed beyond it.

Good fortune did seem to surround the smial and its inhabitants afterward, so she was very glad they’d honored the great Man as they’d done. Orcs and vagabond Men didn’t appear curious about what might be up their valley, the young trees they’d planted along the tributary to the Anduin to take the place of those lost in fires and to borer beetles grew quickly, they didn’t need to rely so heavily on the peat for fuel, and their trades with the Horse Men went well. And when Dwarf traders chanced upon their valley they were moved to pay far more liberally than was usual for the foodstuff and cloth wrought by the Hobbits that the residents of the smial were willing to trade.

Still, Sméagol’s imagination seemed fixed on the contents of the now hidden room, and more than once she found him working at the plastered wall with his belt knife, and she was forced at last to punish him for it. “I told you,” she said sternly, “what’s in there’s not for the likes of us Hobbits. Leave it be—what’s there is best left to itself. We’ll disturb him no more—him died the death as was allotted him, and now him lies in peace, his own goods by his side. Him was a warrior—never question that, and now if him’s moved to protect us as him can, we’ll accept it and be glad. Now, you leave that wall alone!”

A new coat of plaster was smoothed over the one he’d marred, and he didn’t work at it again, or at least not that he was ever caught at.

*******


A raven found the Grey Wizard near the top of the High Pass, and was so persistent that Gandalf realized Radagast had sent this to him. It kept repeating “Dol Guldur, Dol Guldur!” It was enough—that was where the Wizard headed at speed, arriving far sooner than was his wont.

Apparently Thranduil had advised a patrol to be on the watch for the Grey Wizard’s arrival, for he was met by Prince Theron and his men within a day’s time of entering the southern reaches of the Elven King’s realm. “The Necromancer is back,” was the blunt message Theron delivered, and together they made their way to a place from which the keep could be viewed—farther away from its walls than they’d come before. “We became aware of more activity by wolves, wargs, and orcs perhaps two cycles of the moon past, and then a great party of evil Men arrived, accompanying one of the Nazgûl. Two more of the Wraiths arrived by night, apparently accompanying their fell Master, four seven-days ago, along with a large platoon of orcs and two more companies of Men, and three wagons filled with Men, women, and children from a land somewhere to the east. All were slender, with dark hair and eyes, and many appeared ill. There is no question that all were prisoners.”

Gandalf felt his heart grow cold within him. “More subjects for his—experiments, then.”

“So it would appear. We cannot approach as near as we could before, and the large bats that drink blood are active in the night time, causing us to give the place even a wider berth when all is dark than we do when Anor shines upon the world.”

The Wizard could feel the brooding evil, alert and filled with malice, that now directed the watch upon the place. He was certain within his heart that the Necromancer was Sauron—how could he be mistaken when the awareness was so strong? But he knew in the depths of his being that Saruman would continue to argue with him….

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