February 1, TA 3019/AD 1200
The Sons of Elrond had returned. The Master of Rivendell now had a reasonable idea about what kind of situation he was dealing with. The term ‘unprecedented catastrophe’ came to mind, but the Keeper of the Ring of Water was well aware that what had happened did indeed have a precedent, or rather a pair of precedents. Of course, said precedents were the Downfall of Numenor and the War of Wrath, both of which did next to nothing to waylay his fears and in fact did much to increase them.
Imladris itself was largely unharmed, in a large part do to the power of the Ring of Water, but everything else could best be described as...wrong. All west and north of the Bruinen had been changed in the storm, becoming unrecognized and alien lands. The sun, rather distressingly, now appeared to rise in the north and set in the south instead of coming from the east and descending in the west. It was like that whole of the Misty Mountains had been torn from Middle-earth, rotated clockwise a great distance and then slammed down into some new world.
The more that he heard of his sons’ report, the more that Elrond felt that such a theory might not be inaccurate. The strange new lands were not the sparsely populated wilderlands of what was once the Kingdom of Rhudaur, but rather an apparently functional and vibrant realm of men. What Elladan and Elrohir had seen made it clear that it was no land of Middle-earth, or at least none that they new of: the customs of these men were almost unrecognizable, their tongue completely alien.
Now the Master of Rivendell looked out for himself over the alien lands. The sight of Elrond, Son of Earendil and Elwing, was long, and from the sanctuary of Imladris he looked out over this new world. Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel had been brought to this place, he saw, as well as Thranduil and his people and Dain Ironfoot and his (although the realms of the Woodland and Erebor seemed to have been thrown wildly to these lands, no longer lying by each other’s sides).
But that was the only good news that he had found. The rest of the Free Peoples, Gondor and Rohan and the Dunedain, had either been left behind or were otherwise hidden from his sight. Dark things were stirring, he saw, the beasts of Mirkwood and the Mountains coming alive, like wasps whose hive had been struck with a stone. Above all, the Enemy was here among them, like a wolf among lambs. He could see the Shadow rising, the armies of Sauron preparing to march out and set this world ablaze. The Eye of Sauron was ever watchful, his gaze already reaching out over this new world. He may well have been pleased by what he saw.
Like the elves, the men of these lands had sent many scouts into the places that they had seen arrive within their own. A good number of these had been captured in the foothills of the mountains, and Elrond had spoken to several of them. Their tongue was like none he had heard before, but not for nothing was he one of the wise, and soon he had learned much of the place he now found himself in.
It was a world of lesser men, more alike to the wild tribes of the east and south than to the descendents of Numenor. They were petty, squabbling over scraps of land and titles that to Elrond’s ears meant nothing. There habits were strange as well, with much of their time spent hands clasped together, chanting at the sky. Whenever they so much as looked upon the elves, they did so in reverence and awe, many throwing themselves to the ground before them. When they were questioned about such actions, they spoke often of a great King and Lord, a master of all the world, of whom they apparently thought that the elves were servants.
Now Elrond sat in thought, his mind churning with this new information. He doubted that the men of this new world were a threat in and of themselves. No, there were far darker things to fear. The greatest bulwark against Sauron’s might, the Kingdom of Gondor, had vanished, and those Free Peoples that remained were scattered, each with their own crises to face: shattered halls in Erebor, monsters in the Woodland Realm. There was very little left, then, to hold back Sauron's wrath and if left unchecked, the Enemy would rampage across this world, forcing all nations, of Men, Elves and Dwarves alike, to bow down before him. The world would be forever enslaved to the shadow, the Lord of the Ring its absolute master.
Elrond was no fool. If this world fell his people would fall with it. Sauron would not allow him to endure, or any that might dare upp. That much was certain. But how much faith did he dare place in Men? If the answer was none or little, then the only hope lay with the Fellowship, the Nine Walkers and their Quest. But if the lands of men fell, there would be no world left to save. What hope would there be, what kind of victory won, if those that remained had nothing to return to but ruin and ash, smoke and flame? The horrors wrought by the Dark Lord would be so terrible as to render the final victory against him moot, leaving them to stand upon a field of dust and echoes upon their return.
And so these lesser men, peoples of many weak and divided lands, would have to stand against the Black Tide, if anything at all was to be won in the end. Elrond put little stock in Men. He had been there, three millennia before, when their strength had failed utterly, when Isildur had taken the One Ring for himself instead of casting it into the fires of Mount Doom, and perished before he had been able to repent of his greed, allowing the One to be lost for so long. And now he would have to place more faith in them than ever before.
No. No, that wasn’t what he was going to do. He would not stand aside and let those that he had never met decide his destiny for him. He would not wait for these men to fall, like Isildur had. He would not waid for Sauron to slaughter those that dared stand and enslave the rest. If these strange men were to have any chance against the Enemy, they would need to first be warned of what was to come. Then they would need to stand as one, united against the threat. The Master of Rivendell would not simply sit in his house and wait for others to do so. Good thoughts would not save the world. Actions would.
There was work to be done, then. The armories of Imladris were by no means bare, but they were not full enough to wage a war. Whatever Lords of Men dwelled near him would have to be contacted, some kind of relationship established. The scouts that had been caught and imprisoned would be released to their homes as a sign of goodwill, carrying with them a message to their masters to meet at the Ford of Bruinen. From there, who knew what would happen, but Elrond hoped for the good. The men of this world would not be allowed to be destroyed without a fight.
Long had the time of the elves been ending; long had they been leaving the shores of Middle-earth and sailing for the Undying Lands. But now, with the world around them one threatening to fall and take them with, the people of Rivendell once more took up the call to arms. Even as the Calling to the West, dimmed though it was, cried out to them, they began to prepare for the coming storm, bracing themselves against the war that they now knew was to come. These were to be the last days of the Elves, in a strange and foreign land.
And what an ending it would be.
Frodo Baggins had been raised for much of his life by a great scholar, even by the standards of the story and song minded Hobbits. Bilbo Baggins had always been something of an oddity among his neighbors, being somehow both something of a hermit and one of the most outroverted hobbits in the Shire, going out to every party and picnic and other gathering of his neighbors that he could find and then scurrying home as quickly as he had come, reportedly doing little but pouring over his old books and humming the songs of foreign parts.
Some of these habits, although by no means all, had been inherited by his nephew/adopted son. Frodo was by no means some foolish Took or Brandybuck, but he was a good deal more adventurous than the far majority of his peers, being far more keen about the happenings of the outside world. Bilbo had helped to foster such feelings, telling him tales of distant lands like Erebor, Rivendell, Mirkwood and beyond, singing him the songs of elves, dwarves and men alike. He had listened to all his uncle’s tales with rapt attention, doing all he could to learn the stories for himself. The legends of Middle-earth did not inspire in him quite the same passion as they did within his uncle, but compared to the other denizens of the Shire, Frodo Baggins was among the most prone to knowing of the world beyond the bounds.
Bilbo had not told as many stories of the Golden Wood as he had of other realms, but those tales he had told spoke of a magical and wondrous place, seemingly untouched by the relentless passage of time. Frodo heard descriptions that were full of words like ‘wondrous,’ and ‘amazing’ and ‘beyond imagining.’ The Ringbearer had always smiled lightly when his uncle had spoken of this land, almost rolling his eyes at what he had then believed had been obvious superfluousness.
Now, looking upon the realm with his own eyes, Frodo realized that all of the legends and songs that he had heard did little to no justice for the sights around him. If one was to ask him to describe that place with a single word, the young hobbit was of the mind that the task would be utterly beyond him. If there was a single place in all of Middle-earth that one could describe only as utterly indescribable, it would be the Golden Wood.
It was almost as if at the moment of Lothlorien’s creation, someone had frozen the entire land in a single moment and then repainted it one stroke at a time, taking as much care in drawing an inch of this land as had been put into the whole of the Shire. The artist had made not a single mistake, and although they had only used those colors that the Hobbit readily knew, it was almost as if they had discovered new shades of gold and silver and green and blue to use, painting every single detail in such a way that everything seemed to have an extra dimension, beyond height, width and depth.
The beauty of the place, indescribable as it was, could not wholly mask that which now transpired within. For the first week or so after the arrival of the Fellowship, there would have been only been peace and tranquility if not for all those that mourned the Fall of the Grey Pilgrim. Those Eight Walkers that remained had slowly began to mend of their wounds, the Lord and Lady of the Golden Woods allowing them to heal, and grieve, on their own times. Little of either had they seen after their initial report, Celeborn and Galadriel both going about their own tasks, out of either fear or respect for the One refusing to give counsel about the Quest.
But then something had changed. There had been a storm the tenth night after their arrival, one that seemed to dance around the edges of the forest, held just barely at bay by some invisible force. When the day had dawned, the Fellowship awoke to a realm that felt...wrong, as if the inaudible song that had emanated all throughout the woods had changed in key, from a beautiful and melodious tune whispered on the winds to some dark and foreboding song in a minor key, sounding out from below the earth.
The elves seemed... different. Scared, almost. The whole land was full of tension, like a rope was wound far too tight around almost everything. Soldiers appeared everywhere, but especially towards the north and west, eyes ever watchful for any intrusion of the lands of the elves, nervousness obvious in their features. Soon afterwards, the Fellowship had been summoned before the Lord Celeborn. The Master of Lothlorien had informed them of all that he knew had happened, of how all the lands south of the Celebrant and east of the Great River had been warped beyond all recognition, the plains beyond utterly alien to all who looked upon them. The dumbfounded Walkers had barely been able to grasp what he had told them, and when they asked if the Lord knew anything of why such things had happened their only answer had been silence.
Since then, the Fellowship had done very little. Aragorn and Boromir had both gone off into the woods, trying to find space for themselves to meditate. Now they reappeared for meals and for rest, but the majority of their time was spent in each other’s company, discussing with each other about what had transpired. Legolas joined them at times, and at others could be found at the grove in which the the archers of Lorien practiced their skills. Gimli either slept or ate, with very little in between, and Merry and Pippin joined him.
Frodo himself wandered all throughout the woods, exploring the winding paths of the Golden Wood, his mind thinking of many different things: the Ring, the Quest, but especially about Gandalf. Gandalf, the wise old man that had almost been an honorary uncle to him, mysterious and wondrous as he was cheerful and kind. He grieved for the Wizard, missing him, from his bushy eyebrows to his quick temper to just his voice, those soft tones that had always soothed and calmed him.
A week or so since the storm had come over, and Frodo was yet to find any measure of peace. Neither had Sam, his constant companion, and so the two now walked together under the rustling leaves, wandering along the paths of the woods as twilight came down around them. Trying to take his mind off of his usual, and much darker, thoughts, Frodo spoke as he walked, he and Sam both trying to keep the subjects of their talk as light as they could.
“So, Sam, what do you think of elves now? Now that you’ve seen more of them, I mean; it’s been awhile since I asked you that.”
“Well,” said Sam, nodding to himself a bit, “I reckon that there’s elves and there’s elves. They’re all like each other, and yet not, if you know what I’m saying. These folks are a lot different from the ones we met back in Rivendell: these ones seem to belong here even more than we hobbits belong back in the Shire. It’s hard to say if they’ve made that land or if the land’s made them!”
“It’s wonderfully calm here,” Sam continued on, gesturing with his hands a bit as they walked further down the path, “Even with all the worry about the storm, its like there’s not much going on here abouts, and nobody really wants anything to happen. If there’s any magic about, its right down deep, where I can’t lay my hands on it, in a manner of speaking.”
Frodo nodded. “You can see and feel it everywhere.”
“Well,” Sam replied, “you can’t see anyone working it. It’s not at all like poor old Gandalf’s fireworks. You know, I’ve always wanted to see fancy elf magics, and to be honest I think that we might well be seeing them now. I’ve never heard of a better place then this. It’s like being home and on holiday at the same time, if you understand my meaning. I almost don’t want to leave. But all the same, my old gaffer always used to say that ‘the job you never start is the one that takes the longest.’ I don’t think that these folk could do much more to help us than they already have, magic or not.”
They both stopped for moment then. Sam looked over a Frodo, his eyes a bit distant.
“I think that we’ll miss Gandalf the most once we leave here.”
“That’s only too true, Sam,” Frodo replied with a deep sigh, his grief for the Wizard still all-too raw. “But before we leave, I would very much like to speak to the Lady of the Elves again.”
Almost as if answering on cue, they saw the Lady Galadriel herself coming down the path before them, tall and white and fair beneath the trees, her mere presence seeming to cast a soft glow on their surrounding, even in the fading light. She spoke no words, but silently beckoned the pair of Hobbits to follow her. The two complied, and she led them down into an enclosed garden. No trees grew there, and the whole enclosure was lit with starlight.
The Lady herself walked down into a deep hollow where ran a silver stream, and at the bottom stood a silver basin. Using a silver ewer that had been left besides the basin, Galadriel filled the basin to the brim. Once the water had stilled, the Lady of the Golden Wood turned to the two hobbits, tall and pale in the dark of the dell, and began to speak.
“This is the Mirror of Galadriel. I have brought you here so that you may look in it, if you will.”
Filled with awe, Frodo was the first to break the silence: “What will we look for, and what will we see?”
“Many things I can command the Mirror to reveal,” the Lady said in reply, “and to some I can show what they desire to see. But the Mirror will also shot things unbidden, and those are often both stranger and more profitable than that which we wish to behold. I cannot tell you what you will see, if you you leave the Mirror free to work, for it shows many things that were, are and may yet be. Do you wish to look?”
When Frodo did not answer, she turned to Sam, the same question going unspoken. Nodding, Sam spoke.
“I’ll have a peep, Lady, if you’re willing. I’ve always wanted to see elf-magics for myself. And I wouldn’t mind a glimpse of home: we’ve been away for what feels like a terribly long time.”
Frodo watched as his friend climbed up onto the foot of the pedestal and leaned over the basin, looking at his reflection in the waters. Then Sam smiled, a longing smile, chuckling a bit.
“Ah, I wish I was there! Come and see, mister Frodo! They’re all laughing and dancing and singing together! I think that it’s the harvest feast!”
Frodo smiled at that, as did the Lady, although Galadriel’s smile was a far more bittersweet thing. “Alas, Sam,” the Lady spoke, “What the Mirror shows one it rarely shows another. If Frodo were to look, I doubt he would be able to see the same smiles and dances.”
Sam frowned a bit at that, walking away from the Mirror. His eyes looked almost on the verge of tears. “I do wish that I could go back, right this moment,” he whispered, almost to himself, “I almost wish that I hadn’t looked. I don’t want to see any more magic.”
Sam sat on the ground, head in his hands. “I do hope to get back home some day, to go to those dances myself.” He took a deep breath, steadying himself. “But I’ll do it by the long road with you, Mister Frodo, or not at all.”
The bittersweet smile still on her lips, Galadriel turned to Frodo, speaking again.
“Do you wish to look, Frodo?”
“Would you advise me to?”
“No,” replied the Lady, “but nor would I advise against it. I am not a counsellor, here to sway you one way or another. You may learn something, for good or ill, that is useful, but at the same time it may not be. Seeing is both good and perilous. I do, however, think that you have the courage and wisdom enough to see, or else I would not have brought you here. Do as you will!”
Frodo mulled his options over for a few moments, deep within his own thoughts. Then he nodded to himself, and approached the basin. “I will look,” he said to the Lady, and he climbed onto the pedestal as Sam as had done, looking down into the dark waters.
The first thing he saw was a lone figure, which reminded Frodo all too much of Gandalf. He almost called out the Wizard’s name, but then he noticed that they were dressed in robes of white, not grey. A white hood was pulled over most of their face, and as the image became clearer he saw a white staff in one hand and a silver sword in the other, and all around him sat a large crowd of finely dressed men, the whole group trying to speak over each other.
The vision shifted, now showing Bilbo, and Elrond with him, both pouring over a massive pile of disordered papers, other elves running through the scene, carrying with them even more tomes, all of them looking restless and weary. The scene blurred, then cleared, Bilbo and Rivendell being replaced with a broken forest, shattered trunks thrown in all directions, small fires burning all around.
The scenes began to change more and more rapidly, one moment flowing rapidly into the next. A burning city on a river, orcs celebrating on its ruins...a lone mountain, a massive host battering itself against a great gate that had been hewn into the rockface...a fortress with massive stone walls and its back to the sea, a desperate battle being fought all around it...a long and winding road, corpses hanging from the trees all along its route...
And then, without warning, the entire mirror went dark, its surface turning as dark as the blackest of nights, a bottomless abyss that seemed to burrow down to the depths of the world. As Frodo looked into the darkness, a lone eye appeared, a terrible, flaming eye that grew ever larger, rapidly filling the whole basin. As the hobbit stood in terror, unable to cry out, the burning sphere started to rove in all directions, searching for something, and Frodo, in utter horror, realized that it was looking for him, and the Ring, sitting on the chain around his neck, became unbearably heavy, like a massive stone, and began to dip towards the water, curls of steam starting to rise from the Mirror.
And as suddenly as the Mirror had gone black, the vision faded entirely, the basin once more reflecting only the stars above. Shaking, Frodo stepped down from the Mirror, and looked over toward the Lady Galadriel, panting slightly as he moved away from the pedestal and the basin. The Lady looked over him, her expression somewhat darkened, her eyes ever unreadable.
“I know what you last saw in the Mirror,” she said, moving forwards towards him, “for it is also in my mind. But do not be afraid of it! It is not merely by hiding in the trees, nor by the strength of my people’s bows, that this land is defended and maintained against the Enemy. Even as I speak to you now, I see the Dark Lord and hear his thoughts about me and my lands. Always, he is trying to see me and hear my thoughts, but the door is still closed!”
She then lifted her arms towards the east, making a gesture of rejection and denial, and for a moment the Evening Star, Earendil, most beloved of the elves shone almost like the sun, the Lady of the Golden Wood, a silver-gold ring with a beautiful stone set upon it shining in the dark. Frodo looked on in awe, and he quickly realized that he was looking upon a master of one of the three Elven Rings.
Divining his thoughts, Galadriel smiled at him as she lowered her hands once more, turning her gaze upon him.
“Yes, Frodo. This is Nenya, the Ring of Air, and I am its Keeper. I am not usually permitted to speak of it, but it can not be hidden from the one who bears the One. The enemy suspects that I have it, but he does not yet know. And you, Frodo Baggins...your coming here is, to us, almost as the footstep of doom. If you fail in your quest, then Lorien and all its peoples will be laid bare to the enemy. And yet if you succeed, then the power of this ring will be ended, and my people will fade away, either into the West or to the simple tides of time.”
The Lady’s face was ashen now, and a great sadness filled her eyes. Bowing his head, Frodo could only stand in silence. Finally, he spoke once more.
“What do you wish?”
A small smile played at Galadriel’s face as she replied. “I wish only that which should be shall be. The elves’ love for their lands and their works is deeper than the depths of the sea, and the regrets that they carry with them are even deeper. And yet...we would cast away everything rather than submit to Sauron’s will. You are not at fault for whatever happens to us, as long as your quest is completed. If there is one thing that I wish for, it is that the One Ring was never forged, or failing that was never found.”
“You are far beyond me in wisdom and courage, Lady Galadriel,” Frodo said, “If you ask me for it, I will give you the One; it is far too great a matter for me.”
Galadriel laughed, sudden and clear, and Frodo for the first time that night truly saw the Lady of the Golden Wood. If one was not paying close attention, the daughter of Finarfin would appear the same as she always had: fairest of all the elves of Middle-earth, without blemish or fault upon her. But if they looked closely, they would she the clear signs of a creeping, unknown fear, of nights spent wondering about the fate of her people, of too many question that had gone without answer. Her eyes were as deep and timeless as they always had been, but now bore the slightest tinges of fear, and her face was stretched, like a bedsheet ever-so-slightly too tight. Galadriel, Frodo realized, was scared, scared of something that the young hobbit couldn’t quite put his finger on.
“I may be wise, but here I have met my match in terms of courtesy. I will not deny that my heart has many times greatly desired what you now offer me. Time and time again I have wondered at what I would do with the One in my possession. And now, with me and my kin facing the greatest calamity perhaps since the sundering of Numenor, a time when the lands around us are changed beyond recognition and the unknown surrounds us near completely, you would offer it to me freely!”
Galadriel seemed to straighten, a dark breeze blowing through the garden. “In the place of the Dark Lord you would coronate a Queen, not of the shadow but of the morning and the night! Fair as the sea and the sun and the snow upon the mountaintops! Dreadful as the storm and the lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth! All would love me and despair!”
For a moment, the Lady of the Golden Wood stretched out the hand which bore the Ring of Air, reaching out to Frodo. A great light shone all about her, but it was cast only on herself, and it shone on an elf who was tall and beautiful beyond all reckoning, and as she looked upon him Frodo reached out the One towards her outstretched hand and for a second Lady Galadriel of Lorien moved her hands towards it…
And then, almost as quickly as Frodo could blink, she drew back her hand, the light around her fading away. She fixed an intense gaze on a point that the hobbit couldn’t quite figure out, and then she turned from him, panting for breath. She seemed to have shrunken, not simply back to the form of a simple elf in white, but beyond, into a somewhat frail and tired thing, who slouched over and seemed just barely able to support herself.
“I have nearly failed the test,” she murmured, mostly to herself, “but I will remain Galadriel.”
She turned back to the hobbit after a moment, her breathing the only sound in the small clearing.
“I will not diminish yet. I will not go into the west yet. I will stand against the Black Tide that rises even now. But I will remain Galadriel. As for you, Frodo Baggins, we have now both chosen our paths. The tides of fate now flow freely. I will not send you blind into this new wilderness. For now, you are free to remain here. But know that the road you have chosen is now that which you must walk.”
With that, the Lady of the Golden Wood gestured to the pair of hobbits to follow once more, and the trio began the slow and winding walk back towards the heart of Caras Galadhon, no more words passing between them.
The drums sounded in the deep. The sounds were slow, like the heartbeat of the mountain itself, echoing all throughout the Black Pit. In the deep crags below the mountain, far below the dwellings the Children of Durin had delved through the solid rock, the shadows moved, darkness against darkness scrambling over broken stones, harsh growls sounding out as those that dwelled below rose out of the deepest holes of the mountain.
The cries rose, moving out of the shafts where the Dwarves had searched for gold and silver and jewels and Mithril, plundering the deep earth of its wealth. They were answering the call. In the heart of Moria, a black fire burned, drawing all the hordes of that horrible place out like so many moths. A terrible scream echoed through all the labyrinthine caverns, a hideous sound that summoned all the orcs and goblins of Moria to it.
Again and again, as the drums in the deep sounded ever louder, the Bane of Durin roared.