The Old Grey Wizard
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The Reluctant Warrior: 1. Chapter 1. Fumes and Gloom
The stars were thick in the sky over the steep-walled valley of Imladris. The silvery light cast faint shadows upon the flagstone floor of the south facing terrace. It was after midnight on Midsummer Night. Almost all of the travelers had retired to their guest chambers, and well they should, for their plans called for a departure at first light, which was now less than five hours away. But one of the visitors lingered on the terrace, exhaling his "foul fumes," as his host called them, outdoors, in deference to the sensitive nose of his long-time friend.
A stream of smoke flowed from Mithrandir's bearded and pursed lips as he leaned upon the balustrade, scowling into the night. His mood was dark, though he had managed to hide it from everyone, even from Elrond, if he was not mistaken. He had felt deeply troubled for many months--indeed, all this year. Something was awakening. Something of great importance and danger was preparing to move. He sensed no spark of life, and yet it seemed to have a will of its own; and that something, whatever it was, frightened him. Well, perhaps 'frightened' was too strong a word, but he felt apprehension, certainly. Something was about to happen, and he had no idea what it was. And he had plenty of reason to feel apprehensive at what he knew with certainty was about to happen; adding the unknown didn't lighten his mood in the least.
He was, of course, relieved that the Council had finally agreed to take action against Dol Guldur. He had waited for it long enough: ninety-one years, nearly a century since he had journeyed there. But the memories were still fresh; he knew Amon Lhac and the fortress built upon it inside and out. He would guide them, though others would lead. Their strength would be combined, although not all the Council members had agreed to participate. Dain, Dwarf Lord of the Iron Hills, had declined to send a representative to the latest Council meeting, reporting that his northern country was too busy fending off repeated Orc attacks. And Thranduil had refused to commit more than a handful of archers to the upcoming offensive; predicable, even though his realm would benefit first and most if they succeeded in emptying the stronghold. But the Woodland King had a point—his people had sacrificed sufficient lives in the fight against Dol Guldur over the centuries.
And so the Grey Wizard's relief was tempered by worry. Would they have the force necessary to dislodge the Necrom...no, it was time to say it: to dislodge Sauron? Or had the last nine decades allowed the Enemy sufficient time to garner the strength to resist the amassed soldiers of the Grey Havens, Lothlorien and Gondor, a platoon of northern Rangers, the sons of Elrond and other more seasoned warriors from Imladris (including an experienced Balrog-killer) and the blended powers of three Istari? Quite possibly, he thought, as he frowned more deeply.
He pulled on the pipe thoughtfully, and let the smoke envelop him. Oddly comforting, this pipeweed; a reasonably benign habit, he mused, for someone like him to have acquired. It forced one to slow down, to take the few moments necessary to fill the bowl, tamp the dried leaves into place and strike flint or hold a burning twig to it and light the pipe; and then the measured inhalations and exhalations, particularly if he was in the mood to form rings and other fancies with the smoke. No doubt there was something in the leaf itself, an essence in the herb that lightly stimulated and soothed at the same time. Attention to such small details calmed him at times of worry or when gloominess threatened to overcome him.
And now was proving to be one of those times: the year 2941 of the Third Age, a year that gripped him with a sense of rising impatience and simultaneously a feeling of fate rushing forward. Impatience, for had he not come to these shores nearly two millennia ago? How long would this mission take? Why had his Enemy proved so elusive, and success so ethereal? High time that things finally seemed to be in motion, that the inevitable drew within distant sight. Lately the portents were so plentiful he felt crowded by them. Why, just in the last month he had found something that seemed to call out to him to take it, it was so well suited to his needs.
Yet dread was mixed with his eagerness to bring his task to fruition. A warning had sounded in his heart over two thousand years ago, when he first understood what the Council of the Ainur had charged the Five of them to do. The expenses to be paid for the goal to be achieved, his foresight told him, would be very high. At first he had dismissed this warning as simply a manifestation of his trepidation at taking on this responsibility. He had felt no shame at admitting his fear of Sauron, and perhaps his open acknowledgement of it before the entire Council had amplified that fear. But with time his foreknowledge had become ever more certain: it was likely that he would not return peacefully across the sea. A deadly battle lay before him, one that would conclude with a violent and exceedingly unpleasant end to his mortal existence.
Foreknowledge was, he knew, a slippery thing. One might "see" what later proved to be something else entirely, or misinterpret the signs altogether. Yet if he tried to envision a different future, the glimpses that came to him were even worse: a sky churning with smoke; everyone he knew best in Middle Earth enslaved; his own chained wrists; or utter blackness. This time the sense of fate was very strong, and the images unmistakable. And though he wished to avoid such a trial, his heart whispered otherwise. Were he to try to forestall this fate, a doubting voice told him, the one chance for the success of his task would be lost.
A small shiver went through the wizard. He had not shirked duty despite his understanding of the price. He had kept the knowledge to himself and done his best to prepare. And the last two thousand years had given him ample opportunity for honing the skills required for battle—far too many opportunities, he thought. It had never been part of his nature to use aggression as a solution to any sort of a problem; he would much rather choose negotiation, or stealth, or intimidation. It was even preferable, as he had just demonstrated with a certain trio of rather foolish trolls, to resort to a little trickery. But all too often, it seemed, he had been forced to use more direct means of conflict resolution, and though he was quite good at it, he did not like it one bit. He had never developed a warrior's glory in the fight itself, or become hardened to taking life. To kill even an Orc caused him a pang of regret, for a small part of him held on to the hope that even the most corrupted beings might have a chance to heal. Yet it appeared that he was destined to suffer a warrior's fate, and die by violence.
Once, such a fate would have caused him no great doubts—for, after all, he was Maia. His being could not be destroyed, not while the One endured. But in the centuries he had been burdened with mortality, he had become estranged from what he once was. He could hardly remember what his existence in Aman had been like. His mind was clouded, his every sense muffled, his power seemed flimsy. What would happen to him, now, if death came? Would his weakened being truly be sustained beyond it? He had always found a way to comfort other mortal folk who faced precisely this fear. He had assured them that beyond this life was another place, a gift that the One had devised for them. But he no longer felt remotely like a Maia. And he knew he was not the same as any other mortal. What might be true for an ordinary man might not be true for him.
He was too old for this, he sighed. His bones felt old, as though this cloak of flesh carried the burden not just of two millennia but the weight of all the long years of time and all that had come before time began, before there was anything but thought and music. More than anything else, he mused, he felt exactly as he appeared--as an ancient, increasingly irritable mortal man. He rolled his shoulders forward and stretched his back until he felt a satisfying crack in his upper spine. He was weary, and there was so much left to do—beginning with the tasks left to be completed in what remained of this night.
The sounds of Elven music came to his ears. Fair voices, raised in song, and the muted notes of a lute floated by, followed by peals of laughter. He could not help but smile faintly in response. Elves had an unquenchable ability to find mirth and reason for song even on the brink of disaster, and the people of Imladris had no reason to share his glum mood. He chuckled, for no doubt Thorin and company were also still at it with their harps and viols, rolling on in basso-profundo tones about their yet-to-be-won gold and jewels and their yet-to-be-realized triumph over a fire-breathing worm forty times their collective size. Elves and Dwarves were more alike than either race would ever be willing to admit. It seemed likely that in the entire Last Homely House only the estimable Mr. Baggins was truly asleep, and Mithrandir was only certain of that because he had witnessed Erestor imperiously ordering that the blissfully snoring and drooling hobbit be removed from the Hall of Fire to his sleeping chamber at least an hour ago.
The wizard's smile faded. Dol Guldur. This would be his third journey to that dismal fortress. Strange, he thought, how fate kept encircling back upon itself. For it had been to gather proof of his suspicion that the Necromancer was indeed Sauron and not one of the Nazgul that he had made his second clandestine visit there nine decades ago. In that he had succeeded; his failure came later, when he brought his evidence to the Council only to have Curunir inexplicably thwart him, convincing the others that this vital information should be set aside "until the time is ripe." He had nearly choked on his frustration. A waste! he had cried out to himself: the elaborate spell of concealment, the danger, the narrow escape. That nothing would come of his imperiling himself was almost more than he could bear. Mithrandir had doggedly brought the issue up with members of the White Council again and again, while the power of Dol Guldur became more obvious, until no one could argue any longer that the time wasn't ripe.
And yet, something else had come of it. For it was in the pits of Dol Guldur that he had met the dying Thrain and obtained from him the map and key that Elrond had examined just this evening. That chance meeting had taken ninety-one years to reach fulfillment as well. Down a hallway in this very house was Thorin Oakenshield, the son and heir of that mad wastrel he had discovered in the darkness.
How curious indeed that in the very same year, after such a long delay, the circles of fate would overlap and come to completion.
The wizard snorted out a cloud of smoke. Completion? Not likely. He wasn't fool enough to believe that his upcoming venture to Dol Guldur would lead to any sort of true end of things. Sauron might be driven away, for a while. But he could not so easily be gotten rid of, not for good. This would definitely not be the end of his mission. He felt reasonably certain that the time had not yet come for the dire fate he foresaw for himself—no, he sensed, that would be later, in some more distant future. And who knew what to expect from the Dwarves' adventure? Might Smaug be destroyed? It was his secret hope, and the primary reason he had decided to become involved in the entire distasteful treasure hunt at all. But, he sighed, a far more likely outcome would be the fiery deaths of thirteen Dwarves and one naive and frightened hobbit. He would be sorry if that happened; he had become rather fond of the fussy and irascible little fellow.
Mithrandir tapped the bowl of his pipe on the rail of the balustrade, knocked the last few glowing curls of pipeweed onto the flagstones and crushed them with the toe of his boot. It was late, and time to put away these gloomy ruminations. Something had happened this evening, something he had not anticipated, and he must go and find the Lord of the House before he turned in. The portents had suddenly shifted, and if he had misinterpreted one sign, perhaps he was wrong about other more crucial details.
Enough doubt had crept in to fan the flame of his hidden fear. There were things that must be discussed, and by the occasional scathing look thrown in his direction by the Lord of Imladris, Elrond also had some things he wished to say. He might as well hear them now. And it seemed likely that at the discussion's end he would be parting with an object to which in a short time he had become uncharacteristically attached. But he was determined to do what seemed only fair and logical, whatever twinge of loss he might feel. The wizard glanced up at the second story window he knew to be Lord Elrond's study; the light was still on. He hurried indoors.
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