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Unto the ending of the world: 33. Ring of Doom
August 3 – September 1, 3019
At first Gandalf's travels had been aimless; all he knew was to get out of Sauron's reach. Later, he had started to think again about where to go and what purpose he could still find. For weeks, as he considered his choices, he had not even bothered to ride, leaving Shadowfax free to follow or not. In the end it had become obvious that there was only one course to take. Círdan would be glad to aid him.
Would that I could go there, Gandalf thought as he glimpsed the White Towers far to his right. Beyond lay the Shire. In his mind he saw a friendly light shining from the windows of Bag End, Bilbo opening the door to welcome him, Frodo opening the do... Shadowfax stopped just before the road turned. Gandalf closed his eyes and took a deep breath. No. He would not hide in the Shire.
Reluctantly Gandalf turned away from the temptation of his favourite haven. There were still some hours to go before the Grey Havens, and he was weary. Not that a chair or a hearth or even a bed would do much good. This weariness was of the mind and the heart; it would not be relieved by mere rest. His hand moved to the pouch where he kept Narya, and barely did he stop before he touched it. There was a sensation in his fingers almost like an itch, and he longed for the soothing warmth of his Ring's Fire, just as he knew that Narya yearned for his touch. He had been beyond Sauron's reach since he left Gondor, but would that still be so if he used Narya now? Surely, if he took only the merest trickle of power to bolster his strength, he would not open himself to the Enemy? Shadowfax tossed his head and stepped forward.
Gandalf took a shaky breath and moved the errant hand to his side, grasping a fold of his robe to give his fingers something to occupy them. They still itched. If he wanted confirmation of his course, he had just had it, the wizard thought as Shadowfax slowly walked on. It had been months since he had even touched Narya, and still the desire to use it was almost strong enough to overcome him.
Yet even now Gandalf had counsel and guidance to offer. But who would heed him? Denethor would not allow him to enter Gondor again. Perhaps... No, even Faramir would spurn his advice. The North? The Shire could not be refuge, but might it be ally? Another no; the hobbits would fight if – when – they had to, but there was so little they could do. The Dúnedain? That they would fight was not in question, but they were too few to be of significance, even if he directed their effort where it could do most good. It was a shame Halbarad had become so suspicious of him after his – admittedly ill-timed, but otherwise entirely reasonable – request for the use of the Orthanc palantír in Minas Tirith. After that, the Ranger looked upon all of Gandalf's acts with suspicion, and he doubted he could regain the man's trust. A slight itching came to his fingers once more, making Gandalf snort. Aragorn always said that Halbarad was the best at sensing the Enemy's traps. Right again, friend.
Aragorn. The sense of weariness deepened to sorrow. Gandalf had lost both friend and ally in him. The wizard's thoughts returned to Minas Tirith and the bitter scene after his defeat of the Nazgûl. A familiar argument started in his mind, one that he never lost, yet could not bring to an end. Leaving when he did had been his only chance, but when the remaining members of the Fellowship refused to come with him, should he have tried harder to convince them? Perhaps, but they understood what was descending upon the city and they made their own choice. He could not choose their path for them. Aragorn, though, he had in truth abandoned; avenging his death on Khamûl could not undo that. Still, had Aragorn been aware of their situation, his friend would have urged Gandalf to go before the city fell.
Gandalf silenced the tiny voice when it observed that even if he had refused to deal with Khamûl to exchange Aragorn for Frodo, he had been all too willing to exchange Aragorn for himself. He could only hope that the skill Elrond's sons had in dealing with Morgul wounds had been enough to protect Aragorn. But to let Sauron gain control over Narya – and over him – would have been worse. He glanced at his hand that was clenched around the cloth of his robe. His fingers did not itch or twitch. He sensed Narya was content to wait.
Yet there were Three. Were Elrond and Galadriel to join him, might the Bearers of the Three together have the upper hand on Sauron? But going to Lothlórien would bring him within reach of Sauron again, and – if he sought out Thranduil or the Dwarves rather than the other Bearers – that was true also of Mirkwood and the Lonely Mountain. Most of the allies he might yet have were beyond his reach, and likely already under attack or defeated, except Rivendell.
Shadowfax stopped abruptly, and Gandalf saw a figure in stained and tattered white robes sitting by the wayside, his horse nibbling at the grass beside him.
"Greetings and well met again at last, Mithrandir," the other spoke as he stood up. Although he looked even more bedraggled than Gandalf, he still sounded as lordly as if he were sat in Orthanc deigning to hear a supplicant.
"Saruman." Gandalf's terse acknowledgement amused the other wizard.
"What?" Saruman laughed. "No warm greetings for a fellow traveller? You pain me, Mithrandir."
"You wore out any warm welcome you might have received a long time ago, Saruman," Gandalf sharply replied, disgust and anger pushing aside the melancholy that had dogged him all afternoon. He itched to teach this traitor a lesson.
Saruman started to laugh again, but almost immediately fell silent. Finally he replied, "You are right of course. I should not expect to be welcomed..." He sighed, leaving his sentence unfinished.
Neither spoke during the rest of the journey to Mithlond. Gandalf wondered why Saruman had come here, and why Treebeard had let him go free, against what had been agreed. All that was of later concern, though, as at last the town came into view.
Gandalf halted briefly to take in the familiar sight, using the time to collect himself. He had not been near even a village since Ethring, nor had he spoken to anyone except Shadowfax since accepting shelter for a few days with a family of fisherfolk near the mouth of Greyflood. Raising a hand to shade his eyes against the sun, which was already low on the horizon, he noted that aside from the usual fishing vessels in port there were four large ships being worked on in the docks. Normally there would be only one, two at most, in preparation for the journey West.
The guards at the town gate let them in with just a nod in greeting. At the entrance to Círdan's residence, both wizards dismounted. As Shadowfax and Saruman's horse followed an Elf to the stables, Gandalf headed for the main door, Saruman almost on his heels.
The two guards beside the door quickly lowered and crossed their pikes, barring the wizards' path.
"Rhúnendir, what is the meaning of this? I must speak with your lord," Gandalf said, recognising one of the two.
"And so he will be informed," Rhúnendir replied, and gestured at a third Elf, who went off after a whispered conversation.
"I, too, will speak to Círdan," Saruman announced.
"His time is not yours to command, but he will be told of your desire," Rhúnendir said.
Gandalf tried not to let his pleasure at Saruman's reception show, but the other wizard turned to him and said softly, "It seems your welcome is less than… warm… also, Mithrandir; I would not presume too much if I were you."
It did not take long for someone to arrive back with word that the two could enter. "You must be weary from your travels. Please follow me; I will guide you to your quarters so you can refresh yourselves," the Elf said as they followed him. "I will come for you in an hour," he added as he turned to unlock the door to a guestroom and gestured for Gandalf to enter.
After the careful welcome, Gandalf had half expected that Círdan would put off seeing them until the next day. However, the Shipwright must have realised that Gandalf would have a reason of great import to come to the Havens now. Nor would Círdan let Saruman go unheard – or unwatched.
After about an hour, the two wizards were indeed taken to Círdan's main audience chamber. Except for Círdan himself the chamber was empty.
"Mithrandir, Curunír, welcome," the Shipwright said. "What brings you here?" His tone was polite, but there was a cold undertone in it that Gandalf had not expected. Perhaps he should have. Círdan, more than anyone else in Middle-earth, knew why he had been sent here, and was the one who had given him Narya in support of his task. Yet Círdan also, more than anyone else in Middle-Earth, would understand his need, and the importance of his request once he could speak freely to explain.
"I need a ship."
Gandalf glared at Saruman, who had spoken first, only to meet an equally fierce look in return. As he met Saruman's gaze, it hit him what the other had said. What was the former head of the Istari up to? What did Saruman truly seek here?
"Indeed," Círdan replied. "And what would you do with a ship, lord of Isengard?"
Saruman turned towards Círdan again, his expression going from haughty to something that almost looked like humility. He lowered his head briefly before replying. "I wish to return home."
"You wish to return home," Círdan repeated. "And is there any particular reason you wish to do so, or is this merely a whim?"
There was a brief flash of anger in Saruman's eyes. "A whim? You dare…" The wizard stopped and shook his head, and it was clear to Gandalf that he sought to calm himself. "Forgive my outburst, Círdan, old friend; I am a hunted man, and fear has the better of my tongue."
Gandalf snorted contemptuously. Hunted man, indeed.
Saruman cast him a brief glance, but quickly returned his attention to Círdan.
Círdan regarded Saruman for a long time. "If you are hunted, I do not doubt that it is the result of your own actions. Even so, I will think upon your request. We will speak again," he finally said. Next, he turned to Gandalf. "And you, Mithrandir, what is it that you seek?"
Gandalf hesitated. As soon as Saruman spoke, he had known Círdan would not grant his own wish, at least not without further persuasion. "I, too, seek passage West."
Now it was Saruman's turn for a contemptuous snort. Gandalf managed to find the restraint not to look at him.
"I see," Círdan said. "Your request for passage at least is more modest than Curunír's wish for a ship. Are you a hunted man also, Mithrandir, or do you have a loftier reason than self-interest for your wish?"
"I would prefer it if my reasons remain my own for now," Gandalf answered. Much as he trusted Círdan, rumour would soon spread if he spoke openly. Nor would he speak of the Three in front of Saruman. The look Saruman gave him was enough to make Gandalf consider that the other already knew too much.
"Then I can only say that I will consider your request also," Círdan said. "I will speak again with you both and in the meantime, you are welcome to the hospitality of my house."
The audience at an end, the wizards returned to their respective quarters. Gandalf contemplated staying behind to try to sway Círdan, but the Shipwright left the chamber along with them, his decisive steps as he walked away making it clear he was not in a mood to be persuaded.
Gandalf found no opportunity to speak with Círdan in private for several days. He could not determine whether Círdan was avoiding him or whether he was genuinely as busy as he seemed. Whichever was the case, he was relieved that Saruman also failed to get a hearing.
One morning, as the sun had only just risen in the east, and a thin fog lay over the Havens, Gandalf had gone outside to smoke. Just as he lit his pipe, he saw Círdan come down the path that led from his residence to the harbour.
As soon as the Shipwright spotted Gandalf he came over to speak to him. "My apologies for not seeking you out before, but with a ship about to sail, my time is not my own."
Gandalf nodded. "About ships…" he started, only to be interrupted by Círdan.
"I understand that you did not wish to speak more openly in front of Curunír," Círdan said as they walked along the quayside, "But the time has come for you to declare your intentions."
"I wish I could," Gandalf replied, "Yet even to you I cannot reveal all my plan."
"Your plan?" Círdan asked.
"You did not think I had one?" Gandalf laughed, though there was little mirth in it.
Círdan's expression was suddenly as stern as ever Gandalf had seen it. "In all honesty, I scarcely know what to think. Curunír clearly has no thought beyond saving himself from the Enemy's wrath. Perhaps there is nothing more than that underneath these hints of a great plan that you have given me; perhaps you truly believe that your leaving will help us against our opponent. If so, I will know what it is."
Gandalf looked down briefly. "Alas, I cannot say it." He held up his hand as Círdan started to answer. "No, wait, let me finish. Trust me. The ship that is about to sail. Grant me a place on that. That is all I ask."
Círdan looked at the water lapping at the foot of the quay for a long time. "No," he finally said as he looked at Gandalf again. "Unless you speak to me of your purpose, I will not endanger my ships or those who take passage on them."
"Sauron's strength grows greater by the day," Gandalf replied angrily. "If you will not aid me for my sake, do so for the people under his rule who suffer needlessly."
"Mithrandir, one more time. Why did you come here and why do you wish to go West?" Círdan spoke softly, but determinedly. At Gandalf's continued silence, the Elf sighed and walked away.
Gandalf had been sitting watching the water all morning. He had found a quiet spot away from the daily goings-on of the fishing boats and the work on yet another ship being prepared for the journey West. Here the docks were lower, suited to smaller boats and often used by those who wanted a place to fish or swim from, or just to sit and think.
The wizard drowsily drew in a long puff of smoke. The warmth of the sun was almost enough to send him to sleep, and for once his thoughts were not on ships, Círdan's stubborn attitude, or Rings. He had been arguing with Círdan for weeks, and his problems would still be there when he returned to them, he thought with a flash of annoyance. Not yet, though. The day is warm; I have a pipe full of good pipeweed, and a bit of time to spare before I… He was drawn rudely from his musings by approaching footsteps on the wooden boards of the quay, and voices arguing. Círdan, Saruman!
"By your own admission, Curunír, you are a traitor and a renegade. You are not welcome aboard my ships," Círdan said, just as he and the other wizard came around the corner.
Gandalf could sense Saruman's anger even without looking at him, but the former master of Isengard was given no chance to reply by Círdan.
"Mithrandir, well met," the Shipwright said smoothly. "Will you join us on our walk? There is a spot a bit further away that you might find interesting." Ah, not a chance meeting. Gandalf's curiosity was raised by Círdan's request.
"Certainly," Gandalf replied, suppressing his amusement at Saruman's frustrated anger. He could only wonder, though; never before would his own presence have inhibited the other wizard from speaking. Not that he believed Saruman's contrition was genuine, but the other had changed. Or was it that he himself had?
Círdan led them away from the town and the water, past an area of low trees and old ruins. Gandalf wondered that the buildings had been left to fall into ruin like this, but said nothing. It was not long after that they returned to the waterside, where broken paving stones marked the remains of a path. Finally, they came to what was left of a low quay, its masonry crumbling.
The Shipwright halted under a broken arch of white marble. "I sometimes come here when I need to be alone with my thoughts," he said.
Neither wizard spoke at first, but both looked around them curiously. By the age of the ruins, Gandalf guessed that this quay dated back to the Second Age. Círdan had not brought them here without reason, Gandalf suspected. If the Elf wanted to speak with them in private, his audience chamber or even his garden would have sufficed.
"Why will you not grant us passage?" Gandalf asked, causing Saruman to look at him in surprise at being included.
Círdan did not answer the question. Instead, he gestured at the ruined quay and the water. "What do you see?" he asked, and went on without waiting for an answer. "The work of our hands fails, the land itself changes. Only the Sea is always there, unchanging. Nothing else is, in the end." Gandalf wanted to interrupt, but Círdan continued. "The Immortal Lands endure, but they have been separate from Middle-earth since the days that this was Mithlond's main quay. I had no part in your coming here, and I do not believe I will have in your departure either."
Gandalf felt a shiver run down his back as he recognised the ring of foresight in Círdan's words. Meanwhile, Saruman had turned to look out over the Gulf of Lune.
"What is that?" he asked, pointing into the distance across the water.
"What is what?" Gandalf asked in return as he and Círdan followed the direction of Saruman's gaze.
Gandalf's uncanny feeling deepened. Still far out on the Gulf, a dense patch of fog moved towards them. There was a sudden tension in the air, much like the stillness before a great storm broke. As Gandalf glanced aside it was clear Círdan and Saruman felt it also.
"What is that?" Saruman repeated, now addressing Círdan. "You… this is some kind of trick!" Círdan merely shook his head in denial as he looked out over the water.
Slowly the mist faded, until all that was left was a sharp salt tang in the air, and a boat. Aboard, just one man… no, one entity. To most he would appear as no more than an old sailor, with grey hair and ragged garb. The boat had a single sail, which its occupant lowered as he neared the quay, using a broad paddle to close the last few yards.
Perhaps even Círdan saw no more than that ancient sailor clad in rough grey cloth, Gandalf thought, but to him that form was no more than an image, a shadow in the mind. Before him stood the Lord of Waters in his full power. Awe and sudden joy brought Gandalf to his knees. The weariness that had lain upon him for so long ebbed away, as though a dark taint was washed from him. He felt Círdan's love of the Lord of Waters pour out along with his own adoration. Saruman alone remained standing, until Ulmo turned to look at him, and he hurriedly sank to his knees.
There was a brief pause before the Vala spoke. "Rise."
"Welcome to Mithlond, Lord," Círdan spoke as soon as he stood, appearing barely perturbed by one of the Powers turning up in his lands.
The Lord of Waters looked at him, but if further words were exchanged, they were not spoken out loud. However, after a short time, Círdan bowed his head as if in acknowledgement and withdrew slightly.
Next, Ulmo turned to Saruman.
"Lord, I… I… forgive me, I…"
Saruman fell silent.
"Curumo," Ulmo said again. "Save your words for the Máhanaxar. Get aboard."
While the other wizard scrambled aboard the small boat, Gandalf felt his own courage almost abandon him. No, I faced even death without flinching, and I always intended this. Do not fall at this hurdle.
As soon as Saruman was safely aboard and sitting down, the Vala turned to look at Gandalf, who steeled himself to stand calmly under that terrible regard. While Ulmo spoke with Saruman, Gandalf had considered how to present his own case. He had not expected to do so here, but in Valinor before all the Valar, indeed in the Máhanaxar. Perhaps this was better – either way, he would certainly not emulate the obsequious cringing of the other Wizard. Best to be bold, even if he felt unable to match Círdan's quiet confidence now that he faced the Lord of the Sea in truth.
"Lord, without guidance, the Children are unable to muster the strength and wisdom needed to oppose the Enemy. If I were granted the full and unrestrained use of my powers, and more…" Gandalf waited, but the Vala showed no reaction. Onwards, then. "The Enemy had no part in the making of the Three Rings of the Elves, nor did he ever touch them. It should be possible to… Allow me to bring the Ring of Fire West so that I, together with its maker, can break it from Sauron's control." There was a disbelieving snort from Saruman, and a sneer in thought – that is your great plan? – but Ulmo remained silent still. Gandalf continued. "I can then return to Middle-earth to gather to me all those of the Free Peoples who will stand to oppose the Enemy."
"And how would you return? The ships of the Elves cannot sail back along the Straight Path, and I do not run a ferry service for erring Wizards, Olórin," the Lord of Waters said sternly.
Gandalf glowered at 'erring', but he knew better than to object. He had presented his case, and he could only wait how it would be received.
"Olórin, attend my words. A choice is before you. You may come with me now, but if that is your decision, it is final. You cannot return again."
"But…" Gandalf started, then as he was faced with a look as cold as the black depths of the ocean, changed what he was going to say. "And my other choice?" he asked.
Ulmo looked at him again. Gandalf quickly lowered his eyes, feeling as if a great wave was about to crash down and sweep him away.
"Your other choice, Olórin, is to become again who you were meant to be. Renounce the temptation of wielding power for its own sake."
At that, Círdan stirred slightly, and the Lord of Waters turned to him. "Your intent in passing on Narya was good, and it was then accepted in that same spirit. Indeed, for most of the Age, Olórin used it wisely and nobly. It was only with the return of the One Ring to its maker's hand that he grew careless, and thus all but lost himself."
Círdan nodded in acknowledgement of the Vala's words, and Ulmo returned his attention to Gandalf.
The wizard knew that Ulmo was waiting for his decision. What to do? He could only admit that he had failed. All his plans were overthrown, and all his deeds had in the end only led to disaster. Go home, and maybe someday find a measure of peace again? Or stay, in the hope that I can find redemption, if not in the eyes of others, at least for myself. Can I ask for more time to decide? One look at the Vala's face put an end to that idea. What do I do?
Gandalf looked away from Ulmo, dismayed, glancing down at the still-burning pipe in his hand. A wisp of smoke rose from the bowl, and the awe he felt before the Power became something gentler, smaller, but no less beloved. Would that I could go there…
"I will stay. But will you not at least take Narya?"
Nay, Olórin, I will not. I am glad at your decision, but the Ring is yours to bear, for good or for ill."
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