46. The Shadow Lengthens
"Nice view, huh?"
"It is impressive," Morion agreed.
They were standing on the top of the rebuilt Barad-dur. It was astonishing what you could accomplish when you had armies of orcs with nothing to do but build. Not to mention thousands of slaves who existed solely for feeding those armies.
"Sauron's starting to look for the Ring."
"He's looking in the Anduin," Khamul said.
"But he's looking for it. He will find it. If not now, then soon."
Khamul snorted. "He wouldn't think of looking in the Shire. He doesn't even know Halflings exist, I'll wager!"
"Perhaps not, but he can learn. His tower is rebuilt, his armies are massing, Sauron is preparing for war. He has spent this entire age gathering his strength. The only thing missing is the Ring. He will stop at nothing to find it."
"And what happens when the orcs come knocking on the Halfling's door?" Khamul asked. "If they do. I don't think Sauron even knows the Shire is there!"
"They will take the Ring and we will be bound to Sauron forever. There will be no more wandering around wherever you please. There will be no free will. We will exist to serve Sauron, nothing more." Morion gasped and pressed a hand to his throat. "And Morgoth stirs. Imagine, a battle between the two Dark Lords."
"Will it come to that?"
"When the Ring is in Sauron's possession but not on his finger, Morgoth will attempt to take it for himself."
"Yes, through me. He could, I think, take over my mind and body this instant if it pleased him. He's waiting though."
"For the right time? I don't know."
"What's the right time? When the Ring is found by an orc, when Gondor falls, when?"
"I don't know," Morion hissed, looking more pained. "I don't know anything!"
Khamul frowned in disgust. "Well, I'm going to get to the bottom of this."
"What do you mean?"
"Sauron sure isn't going to tell me anything, and Aica isn't giving out information either. So I'm going to have a look for myself."
"A look at what?"
"At the state of affairs in the world."
Morion laughed. "You think you can do that by what, riding around?"
"Yes," Khamul said. "And I'll have a better idea of what's going on than any of you! Even Sauron, I'll wager!"
"I beg your pardon, Master Bartender, but I am looking for someone."
The bartender glanced at his customer. "And who might that be, sir?"
"A ranger. Are there any in your fine establishment tonight?"
"Why, there's one, sir. He's over in the corner. Rather young fellow, but still all gray and tired-lookin'."
"My thanks." The man walked over to the corner and the young ranger. "Good evening… My apologies, I do not know your name."
"They call me Strider," the ranger said.
"Do they indeed? I cannot imagine why."
"I walk fast, they say."
"Fascinating. Do you know who I am?"
"I am a friend of Master Elrond."
Strider seemed interested. He pushed back his hood, revealing dark brown hair that would be getting flecks of gray in it quite soon. He had sharp gray eyes, rather like a Sindar, but this was quite clearly a Man.
"My name is Gandalf the Grey. Have you heard of me?"
"I have indeed. You are a Maia." Strider spoke in a quiet voice, occasionally glancing at the other patrons to make sure they weren't listening in.
"Perhaps I am. There are other Maiar in this world though. Far more dangerous ones."
"He's rebuilding his stronghold in Mordor, rumors say."
"The rumors are correct. We missed our chance to end him in Dol Guldur, so he has gone back to his ancient fortress. Fitting that that is where we will end him."
"You sound doubtful, young Strider. Never fear, we'll find some way to bring him down."
"The Ring, perhaps?"
Gandalf smiled. This was as clever a chieftain as any he'd met. "If we had it in our possession, that would be a certain way to make an end of him. Alas, it is lost. Or perhaps not alas. It is a good thing that Sauron does not have it."
"Why are you talking to me about Sauron?"
"I am a wanderer dressed in a shabby cloak, but I am also a Maia. You are a ranger dressed in weathered clothes, but you are also the last heir of Isildur."
"What if I am?"
"You are the last chieftain of the Dunedain."
Strider frowned. "Has Master Elrond seen something? Am I going to be murdered?"
"Unlikely. No, actually quite likely, but I don't think it will come to that. More likely you will die in battle. What I mean to say is that the end of the Third Age is coming. Sauron has rebuilt the Barad-dur and is looking for the Ring. Someone will find it. If it is us, then we must destroy it. If Sauron finds it, he will rule Arda until the end of time. If we destroy it, Sauron will fall."
Strider sighed. "Destroying the One Ring of Sauron is no easy feat."
"No, it is not. But we cannot let him regain it."
"And you think I can somehow prevent this?"
"I think that it would be wise of you to travel Middle-Earth and observe how the shadow grows longer."
"My thoughts precisely. I am on my way to Rohan."
Gandalf smiled. "And the court of King Thengel. He is glad to be on the throne, I'm sure. His father reigned for long enough."
"He's very nearly an old man and he's only just got the crown. I will go to Gondor after that."
"Gondor and Ecthelion II. What will you tell them of yourself?"
"Nothing. I am a soldier, nothing more. Though I believe Ecthelion is a wise and good man, even wise and good men can be rash when confronted with the seizure of their power."
"You are wise beyond your years, young Strider. Keep your eyes open, and glance behind at your back every now and then. It wouldn't do to find a knife there."
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