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Chapter One - "Elbereth... hear me... help me..."
Autumn, T.A. 3002
Gandalf sat beside a hatful of fire.
He smiled at the image such a phrase brought to mind. He had not, of course, built a fire inside his tall, peaked hat–the grey hat with its wide brim was battered, yes, but hardly ready to be consigned to the flames–but the tiny blaze crackling on the stony cave floor before him could easily have fit inside it. He inched a bit closer. He had just beat the raging storm, ducking into this cave as temperatures plummeted and billows of snow roiled down from high above the mountains. His nearly frozen bones cried out for a much bigger blaze, a great towering inferno that would not only melt the frost from his joints but melt the snows from the trees around him and bring summer back again. But though such a conflagration might be within his considerable powers, it was hardly prudent to so announce his presence to every sentient being within a hundred miles. Far too many of those sentient beings were orcs, despite the Eagles’ steadfast guard over these mist-filled mountains east of Rivendell.
So he sat hidden and slightly frozen in a cave beside a tiny fire, listening to the wind’s constant roar beyond the cave entrance. He held his hands out to the fire, admiring as always the beauty of the flames, but cherishing more the small comfort brought by knuckles that no longer ached from cold. He looked at the Red Ring of Fire, Narya, gracing his finger, one of the Three Rings that had not been touched by evil. He turned it this way and that, admiring the flame within the red stone. Few had seen the stone; Gandalf kept the ring well concealed always, and few knew he was its bearer, but sometimes, when he was alone, he drew it forth and let its power refresh him. But tonight, it seemed to hold no sway. He let his hands drop back into his lap with a sigh and the ring again disappeared from sight. Weariness the ring may chase, and valour’s fire of old it may rekindle, but Gandalf still had need of physical warmth and never more so than this eve.
He sniffed and idly watched the shadows dancing on the rock walls around him as he drew his cloak tighter around him. He supposed he should be content enough with this rare moment of peace and relative comfort; the cave was small but deep enough to block the wind and possessed some sort of unseen opening at the very top that cleverly drew out the smoke from his scanty fire but did not allow moisture to drip directly upon him. Finding such shelter had been a boon, but sadly, it seemed to be his only such stroke of good fortune in many long months. "Where is that creature?" he whispered to the flames and the walls around him. They did not answer, and Gandalf’s beard bristled. Would it have been too much to ask for this small cave to have held some sign of his quarry within its granitic embrace?
He smoothed his offended whiskers. Gollum continued to elude both him and his companion in this hunt, Aragorn son of Arathorn. Of course, he had not seen Aragorn in seven weeks, and the mighty hunter may have caught him in the interim, though Gandalf doubted it. He reached into his pack for his pipe. He did not light it, having run out of pipeweed weeks ago, but he stroked its bowl thoughtfully. Seven long weeks since he had parted ways with Aragorn, when they had separated at the roots of the Misty Mountains some three leagues north of the Eagle’s Eyrie. During their long sessions around the fire in Elrond’s study last winter planning their expedition, Aragorn had decided they would spend their first summer combing the caves all around the area where Bilbo Baggins had initially encountered Gollum, including of course, Gollum’s cave with its subterranean lake and small island. "We might find important clues, if nothing else. Besides, it would be foolish," he had said, his keen grey eyes gleaming, "to overlook him in the North in a blind rush to find him in the South."
Gandalf had bowed to Aragorn’s wisdom, and so it passed that he took the easier trails along the mountains’ roots, while Aragorn plumbed their depths and climbed their heights, following as always the riskier paths. And risks those pathways held in plenty: orcs, of course, but also cave-ins below and rock slides above, blinding fogs, sudden early blizzards, and yawning crevasses hidden by crusts of snow too thin to bear a man’s weight. And even if the fallen snow did not hide pitfalls enough, it could suddenly crumble down the mountain in a vast avalanche. Gandalf had seen one just yesterday, a rumbling cloud of destruction obscuring the mountain face not even a league away. He had felt the tremor in his feet. He wondered if Aragorn had seen it as well. He wondered...
He suddenly rose and hurried to the cave entrance. He looked upward, trying to see the peak and the scar the avalanche had left, but the darkness and the swirling, wind-driven snow hid it from sight.
"Aragorn, I hope you were not caught out in that," he muttered. There was little reason to think that of all the places Aragorn might have been, he had been on that particular mountain at that particular moment. "So why does my heart feel such sudden unease?"
The night kept its brooding silence, and, hardly reassured, Gandalf gave the darkness one last worried glance before he returned to his fire. He fed another tiny twig into it. He would let it burn another hour or so, he decided, and then he would douse the flames, brush aside the embers and ash and make his bed on the heated stone. It would warm him until morning, as long as he did not thrash about in his sleep. And Gandalf had dwelt long enough in this mortal body on this dangerous sod to have learned not to do that.
His mortal body also reminded him, with a loud rumble, that his stomach had not felt the comfort of food in many long hours. He pulled out a bit of lembas, given him by Elrond from his small store provided in turn by the Elves of Lothlórien, and took a small bite. The flavor, like all things crafted by Galadriel’s folk, immediately stirred in his soul a longing for that fair land far to the West from which he came and to which he longed ever to someday return. But not yet, not yet. There was a small matter of defeating the Enemy standing between him and his return to the Blessed Realm.
He snorted. Defeating the Enemy indeed; sadly, he did not seem to be doing very well in that mission.
He longed to turn his thoughts again to the past, to seek comfort, like any old man, in the memories of his youth, in the days when he called himself Olorín and moved freely without the constraints of this old man’s body. He remembered those times, but only vaguely, as one remembers a particularly pleasant dream, or a view of a beautiful city seen from afar. And tonight, like all such times when he tried to cast his mind backward, the present intruded, taking the form of a very persistent yet undefined worry gnawing at his heart. Again he looked toward the cave entrance, toward the hidden peaks where Aragorn toiled. Gandalf rose to his feet, restlessly pacing the opening to his cave. Dread, manifested in a prickling of his skin so sharp it almost itched, would not release him. But he saw and heard nothing.
"Fool of a wizard," he mumbled, "calling yourself Wise, and yet here you are, fretting over a man long used to taking good care of himself without any assistance from you."
He stumped back to his fire, put it out and kicked the embers to the cave wall, where he banked them until morning. He stretched out his bent frame and sighed, resolutely shutting his mind to any and all worries.
Sleep came quickly.
He was awakened suddenly, but by what, he was uncertain. Some small sound? A gust of wind? He blinked at the darkness; the howling snowstorm had moved on, but without a fire, the cave was lit only by what few stars shone through the cave entrance, and since he had been embodied as a Man and not an sharp-eyed Elf, starlight alone made for a poor lamp. He groped at his side for his staff. He started to quicken its glow, but something urged him to stop, to listen before revealing himself.
For a long moment, he heard only the low keen of the restless wind, but then came another noise, softer, more distant. From outside. A crack of a broken twig. The crunch of the crust breaking on hard-packed snow.
A bear, perhaps?
And then a low grunt and a sharp intake of breath.
Gandalf supposed it might be both–Beorn’s house was not too many leagues to the east. But somehow he doubted it was the skinchanger. The years were starting to weigh on Beorn, and rare it was these days that he slipped into the shape of a bear to prowl the wilds, and rarer still for him to do so on such a cold night. Gandalf gathered his legs beneath him and rose silently with an ease that belied his aged appearance. An old man he may appear as these days, but it was an Istari that empowered the bones and sinews, and though he was forbidden to use his full power, he could nonetheless move with unwonted agility when the situation called for such things as clambering up pine trees to fight off wolves, or sneaking through a cave to see what manner of enemy might be approaching.
He eased to the mouth of the cave, careful to stay in its shadow but close enough to the opening to gaze out upon the field of unbroken white...
No, not unbroken. There was a line of churned and jumbled snow that marked the progress of whatever man or beast moved in the night. He traced the path, wondering if the creature was approaching or moving away. The trammeled snow seemed to start near rocks some distance away, and then the trail disappeared into a small clump of stunted pine trees growing just below the cave entrance. Indeed, he heard a scraping sound from within their huddled mass, and then a low moan that could not have been the wind. Gandalf gripped his staff and held it at the ready. A shadow moved into the clearing, a shadow that moved awkwardly and breathed heavily and unevenly. The shadow–definitely a man, for Gandalf could finally see the hooded shape clearly–paused for a moment. He swayed unsteadily, then fell to his knees. Gandalf’s sharp ears barely heard his desperate, whispered plea. "Elbereth... hear me... help me..."
And then the man collapsed prone in the snow, face down, utterly motionless.
Pity and dread smiting twin blows to his heart, Gandalf hurried from the cave entrance. The snow was deep, but he floundered on, arms outstretched for balance. His foot slipped and he dug in with his staff and steadied himself. It felt like a nightmare, pushing and pushing but never getting any nearer, but at last he dropped to his knees beside the fallen man. "Easy, my friend," he gasped, his heart pounding more from fear than exertion. "Your prayer was heard, and help is at hand."
He shakily rolled the man onto his side, praying the foreboding he felt would prove false. The man’s pack prevented Gandalf from rolling him completely over, and the star shine was insufficient to let him see much detail about the man’s clothing, other than he wore a dark, hooded cloak, its true color muted by night’s shadow. A scarf was wrapped round and round his face, covering all of it save for the half-closed eyes. Gandalf peeled away the scarf, which crackled with ice, and then with great tenderness and sorrow looked upon the pale and pinched face. "Elbereth, help us indeed," he murmured.
It was Aragorn.
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