Sterday, 23rd of Afteryule, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Ranger-camp on the Island of Tinnudir, Evendim
|Mallacai, Leader of the Seekers of the Seven Stars|
"Nai osto eleni calyantes tier," he said.
I nudged Gaelira.
"What?" I whispered.
"It is our traditional greeting: May the Seven Stars illuminate your path," she replied. Then she turned to Mallacai and bowed.
"Well met, my lord," she said. "Yes, we are Elladan's Outriders, and we come to you seeking aid on the heels of mighty victories against our Adversary." Out of the corner of my eye I saw Nephyn shift her weight, but she said nothing. Mallacai's eyes darted to her, but then he looked at each of us in turn. I felt rather uncomfortable under that azure gaze. I blinked and lowered my eyes a little.
"Mighty victories, indeed," he said in his sharp yet buttery voice. "I confess I had not thought it possible for your Company to succeed in Fornost, yet here you are. Perhaps I was wrong not to support Gaelira's wild schemes after all, but I shall endeavor to rectify my oversight." His words might have been harsh, but he smiled kindly as he said them. After a brief pause, he addressed Lagodir, Nephyn, Drodie, and myself.
"The four of you are due some explanation, I think," he said. "No doubt Gaelira has told you of us, the Seekers of the Seven Stars, but I will tell you more. You will see the name was not given in idle fancy. It is a long tale, for our roots reach back even unto the Elder Days, but I will shorten the telling as much as may be, for there are now great deeds to be done, and I perceive that you five shall play no small part in them."
"It has been told among the Elves since the First Age that Varda, taking pity on the Exiles in their hopeless war against Melkor in Middle-earth, desired to aid the Firstborn in the conflict. However, Manwe had forbidden any direct involvement by the Valar, and so she watched her people from her throne for many long years as they fought the long defeat. At last, the Queen of the Stars could bear the anguish no longer and sought to aid the Elves indirectly. It is told that, one unnamed night in the deep darkness of the Elder Days, Elbereth caused Seven Stars to fall to the earth -- seven artifacts of incredible power which could turn the tide of war against the Great Enemy."
"No story ever fully describes the nature of these Seven Stars, as they eventually became known. Many thought them to be powerful weapons forged by Varda herself. Other tales tell of mystical lore or shards of holy power which could undo the counterfeits of Melkor. Some even spoke of heavenly messengers which had been dispatched to wage battle against the forces of darkness. No two tales agree on these points, but all do agree that these relics were sent to seven far-reaching places throughout Middle-earth, and no one was ever able to gather all of them together in one place. Some believed all seven had to be united for their true power to be brought to bear against the enemies of the Eldar, but the histories do not agree on this point either. It has afterwards been said that at least some of these artifacts were found and used in the War of the Jewels, one of which was suspected to have been discovered by Fingolfin, or somehow brought to him, and it took the shape of a mighty sword of light, which he used to battle Morgoth himself before the gates of Angband. Whatever the case, no one knows whether any of these mighty things still exist in the wide world."
"At the end of the First Age, some said that all of the Seven Stars were lost in the cataclysm known as the War of Wrath. But most believed the Stars yet survived, hidden, perhaps, until they were once again needed in the defence of the Free Peoples."
"Rumor of their being seen or heard of inspired many a lonely adventurer or brave treasure-hunting party to search for them throughout the Ages, but if anyone had ever recovered one of the Stars, it has never been reported. This ancient saga still survives to this day, and to this day no two persons agree on just what the Seven Stars actually are -- the telling always seems to shift to match the needs of the times. In times of war they are shining greatswords that lend unconquerable courage to even the faintest of hearts. In times of peace, they become powerful relics which can command the rains and ensure a fair harvest. Whatever the truth, the legend of the Seven Stars has grown over the millenia and not faded. Few indeed are those who do not dare to hope that these mighty things still exist, probably buried deep in some Dwarf-horde or dragon's plunder."
"Long ago, in the dark years of the Second Age, Sauron betrayed the Elven-smiths of Eregion by forging in secret the One Ring to rule all the other Rings of Power. Instantly aware of the Dark Lord's treachery, the Elves took off their Three rings and hid them, knowing they would be laid bare to the Master of the One if they tried to match his power with theirs. In the ensuing War of Sauron and the Elves, many began to fear for the safety of their homeland and their folk, aware they could not turn back the armies of Mordor. They began to search for weapons that could replace the Three Rings -- weapons that would not be compromised by Sauron's master Ring. The stories of the Seven Stars were in the minds of even the mightiest Elves in those days."
"And so a kinship was formed: the Seekers of the Seven Stars. Although it was originally an organization formed by the Eldar and made up of Elves, it quickly began accepting adventurous sorts from any race throughout Middle-earth. Many of the most famous treasure-hunters in history were members, as folk from every walk of life dreamed of one day, somehow, locating just one of the fabled Seven Stars. No one ever did find one of the things, though there were many who claimed such and many others who performed great service for the Free Peoples in the ensuing wars against Mordor. But, as the Second Age ended, Sauron was vanquished, and the One Ring was lost, the Seekers dwindled in number and reputation until they were little more than a odd fellowship of a few zealous believers. But now, as the Shadow stirs again in the East and the threat of war marches across many lands, the Seekers have once again arisen to swell their ranks. Our mission is to locate any or all of the mythical Seven Stars, learn their true nature, and use them in the defense of the Free Peoples against the Shadows of the Enemy."
"Today, in the Third Age of Arda, the story of the Seven Stars still survives. Times being what they are, many now believe the Stars to be legendary implements of battle, incomparable gear of war, or the Power of Command. As the minstrels continue to weave ever more elaborate tales, we seek to combat the Enemy's ever-expanding power."
My head was in a whirl of wonder: it seemed I had landed myself in the middle of a tale which came straight out of the Elder Days! Despite my elation, however, something didn't make sense to me.
"What has all of this to do with us, though?" I asked timidly. Mallacai turned his piercing blue eyes on me, but this time I did not look away.
"A just question," he said with a smile and a slight inclination of his head. "You know, of course, that Gaelira devised a plan to steal the palantir of Amon Sul, which is now held by the Enemy in the bowels of Carn Dum, in Angmar. It was a plan so desperate, so audacious, that no one, not even I, could condone it, and none of the other Seekers would support the idea. But Gaelira persevered under the withering derision of many and managed to launch the endeavor despite it all. She is to be commended for her selflessness."
"Is that how you define selflessness?" asked Nephyn heatedly. "By ensnaring innocent folk in an elaborate falsehood?"
"Your indignation is certainly understandable," Mallacai replied as he bowed deeply to the huntress. "But I implore you to forgive her; the secrecy of this mission is of the utmost importance, for if our foe gains the slightest inkling that we mean to seize the palantir from him, then all hope for this gambit will be lost. It was absolutely necessary to test each of you -- both in skill and in heart -- to ensure you had any chance of success in this dire quest. Carn Dum holds untold evil; there are forces there which could slay weaker folk out of sheer terror, and corruption will be in the very air. Only a fellowship bonded by love and trust could ever hope to triumph. Yet your Company has defeated the Bone Man, the horror beneath the Barrow-downs, and even the ancient wraith within Fornost. I deem that, with the right armaments and a strong trust, you could enter where even armies cannot go. I wish to help prepare you for what lies ahead, if you all remain resolved in this."
No one answered. I shifted nervously and I could sense Gaelira was restless. The revelations which had stemmed from Luean's discoveries had deeply shaken the trust of the Company and I was not sure whether the bond we had formed over the last month would hold. Then Lagodir spoke.
"I do not understand all of this," he said with a frown. "You say you wish to infiltrate the stronghold of the Enemy's forces in the North of Middle-earth and recover a palantir. I know enough of the history of those stones to understand how precious a thing it is and how valuable possessing it would be in the service of the Free Peoples against the might of the Nameless One. But why then did Gaelira agree with Saerdan the Ranger to make an exhibition of ourselves -- to openly attack our foes and draw the Enemy's attention to us? How can we hope to succeed at this quest, noble though it be, now that we have squandered the element of surprise?" Mallacai looked at him.
"Spoken as a true soldier," he said. "The answer to your question is twofold: The forces of the Enemy have grown bold through lack of resistance and have overrun much territory in Eriador for no other reason than those who should have resisted them failed to do so, thinking that by yielding to the armies of Angmar that Angmar would, eventually, be sated with land and seek no more. This, of course, is always folly when dealing with the malice of Mordor and its spawn. You five are among the few who have had the skill and the heart to fight back. Your victories have given more hope to others throughout the North than you seem to realize, and the morale of many Free Folk rises when they hear the tales of Elladan's Outriders as they gather at their inns and taverns. That is the first reason. The second is more practical: by crippling his forces in many places throughout the North, the Steward of Carn Dum is lulled into believing your objective is to resist his advance on the front lines; that you are pushing back at his forces where his forces are pushing in. He does not fear this, for his eventual victory is assured so long as he commands those forces from his stronghold in Angmar. Yet it is in Angmar that we will land our true blow, and this is the furthest thing from his mind." I could see Lagodir was processing this explanation. It made sense to me, when laid out in plain language that way.
"And what will you do with this Seeing-stone once you have it?" I was surprised to hear it was Drodie speaking.
"The palantir is a powerful artifact. It will be used to spy upon the Enemy and learn of his military strategies," Mallacai answered. "The knowledge gained by doing this will be invaluable to the defence of the Free Peoples of all Middle-earth. However, using the palantir also carries great risk, for we believe the Dark Lord holds one of its brethren; most likely the stone which was once held at the tower of Minas Ithil in Gondor. No one is certain what will happen to he -- or she -- that seeks to use the Amon Sul-stone. If Sauron has indeed dominated the Ithil-stone it could be that he may destroy or even possess anyone who uses another palantir against his will, for the orbs are all linked to each other. Yet, if Gaelira's plan succeeds it could mean turning the tide of the coming war with Mordor, and that is why she has volunteered herself to use the stone, should it be recovered."
I gaped. At the end of it all, it turned out that Gaelira was willing to possibly sacrifice herself in service to others! No wonder no one was willing to join her on this quest, I thought to myself. I felt heartily sorry for mistrusting her intentions.
"And that's all?" It was Drodie again. The Dwarf was making no effort to conceal his natural disdain for what he clearly regarded as nothing but more Elvish trickery. Mallacai paused.
"If, in fact, the palantir is recovered and if, in fact, it can be used safely, then we intend to use it to search for the missing Seven Stars," he said. "In this manner, it may be that evil will finally be removed from the world and the Elves will have atoned for their many, many sins." Drodie roared with laughter.
"By Durin's Beard!" he guffawed roughly. "Seeing-stones and Seven Stars! Ah, me! You can always trust an Elf -- to over-complicate everything and seek elaborate answers where none are needed, that is. If there is to be an attack on Carn Dum, secret or otherwise, then Drodie the Dwarf will be in it, and that's all I or any of you need know. You can have your silly baubles if you must, but once I personally remove this Steward's head from his bony shoulders we will see who has done the greater service in the defence of the Free Peoples. I care nothing for the rest of your nonsense." Mallacai gave him a dark look, but turned to the rest of us.
"And what of you?" he asked. "Do you also remain committed to this errand?"
"I cannot say that I agree with the strategy you have devised," said Lagodir, "But you will have my sword in its service, for I perceive that this is a most valorous quest indeed, and all of us will win immense honour thereby." I looked at him. The Gondorian's eyes were glinting with eagerness; clearly something about this mission held a strong attraction for him, and I wondered greatly what it was.
"I am not certain of anything anymore," Nephyn said reluctantly. "Save this: that my road leads me onward and not back. I will remain with the Company."
"And what of the Halfling?" asked Mallacai with a smile. I looked up at him and I swallowed. In that moment, I felt no concern for myself -- only a love for those with whom I had fought and bled, and would again.
"I will go on," I said in my small voice. "I don't understand what possible use I can be among such accomplished warriors, but in spite of -- and because of -- all that we have been through together, I know I am meant to be with them." Mallacai nodded and looked at us.
"Very well," he said, and he clasped his hands behind his back. "You have achieved much, and for that you have earned great renown, yet there remains much to do before you can hope to enter the defiles of Angmar. Yet, in this, I am able to assist you. Under my command are craftsmen of skill the like of which is no longer to be found in the World today. I shall give you now each a task to complete. If you succeed, my artisans will be able to create for you items of incomparable value, for the power of such equipment is enhanced by the great struggle to obtain it. Armed with these and the renewed bonds of trust and love that you forge in the process, you will be ready for your greatest task." He walked up to Lagodir.
"Swordsman of the South Kingdom," he said as he stared into the Gondorian's eyes, "You cannot escape your past, no matter how many leagues you put between yourself and your homeland; your past will find you, soon or late. But, if you face it instead of fleeing from it, then and only then can you hope to overcome. Bring me the armour of Unagh, Siridan, and Agarochir, the champions of Angmar which lead the forces invading Annuminas, and earn some measure of the redemption you so recklessly seek."
Next, he stood before Nephyn.
"Your life has been hard, young one, marred by a solitude of both body and spirit. You are right to say that your path lies onward and not back, for no rest would you find were you to try and return to the life you knew. The answers you seek can be found, but you will not succeed on your own. Bring me the raiment of Naruhel, the Red-maid, and may you learn forgiveness in the process."
Then, he came to Drodie.
"I have ever found your kind to be as stubborn as the mountains which bore you into this life," he said with a tinge of dislike in his voice. Drodie stared up at him defiantly. "Your self-reliance is admirable, yet in the dungeons of Carn Dum such arrogance will surely mean your death. Bring me the hide of Brullug from the deepest caverns of Sarnur in Ered Luin. There, you will come to know what it means to rely on others -- or perish."
Gaelira was next to meet Mallacai's gaze.
"Child of the fallen Noldorin," he said, sadly. "Your tale has been long, as full of acclaim as it is anguish. You cannot return Aeglas, Glorwen, and the others to this world, but you can atone for their loss. Bring me the crown of whatever animal has assumed the mantle of the Great Goblin, and I will relinquish to you your sword, which you were forced to surrender in shame all those years ago."
Finally, he came to me. I did my best to look directly into those eyes, but Mallacai bent over and smiled at me.
"I come to you last, Padryc, who have proven to be not as small in courage as you are in stature. Bring to me the fangs of the Spider-queen in the Wovenvales, and you will learn your true value to this Company." The Elf stepped back and looked us over once more.
"Go now," he said and extended his palm outward in token of farewell. "Go, and may the blessings of all Free Folk go with you. I have much to attend to here, for the armies of Angmar are already on the move. If you choose to pursue these tasks, then you must steel yourselves for much hardship. Yet only through facing and conquering such trials does your quest stand any chance of success. Farewell."
We said our goodbyes and left the dark keep. When we emerged from the building, we saw that night had descended upon Tinnudir. We made our way back to the Rangers' encampment and settled down around our own campfire for some food and talk.
"What is all this about running errands for some dandified Elf?" Drodie growled in annoyance. "I would just as soon march straight into Angmar and knock on the doors of Carn Dum first. What a waste of time!"
"You forget our near disasters in the Old Forest, the Barrow-downs, with Bleakwind, and even in Fornost," Gaelira said gently. "Victories they were, yes, but they were narrow and nearly proved ruinous. We will have no luck in Angmar." I looked down at my waybread. Thinking about all of the dreadful places Mallacai had mentioned had me in no mood for eating.
"I should like to know just how it is this Elf learned about -- about each of us," said Lagodir, who seemed a bit shaken. "Unless, of course, that was also Gaelira's doing?"
"I told him nothing you haven't openly told the rest of us," Gaelira responded. "But Mallacai is wise and his lore runs both deep and far. Those with as much knowledge about the past as he possesses can have remarkable abilities when looking to the future as well."
"Do you mean to say he can read the future?" asked Nephyn, her eyes wide. Drodie snorted, but held his tongue.
"No, I would not put it so," came Gaelira's reply, "But certain actions foreshadow certain ends, and the Eldar have seen many a tale play out to its bitter conclusion. It would be wise to heed his advice, but each of us will have to decide if we wish to face the challenges he has laid before us."
"I fear no challenge," said Drodie immediately and with finality.
"Nor do I," said Lagodir, but his voice was low, as though he was distracted by something.
"I feel I must follow this path I am on," said Nephyn slowly. "Yet I fear where it may lead me more than what I might encounter along the way."
"For myself, I am required to face a failure which has haunted me for many years," said Gaelira with a sigh. "I had feared it would prove thus, but I will not now turn away from what I have begun. Not so long as I have the rest of you with me." I wondered what event in her past Gaelira was referring to, but none of us dared to ask.
"Well, you'll have me with you at the least," I said, trying to sound more cheerful than I felt. "The places he wants us to go sound downright terrifying, but I am willing to try and make a difference. But I would like to know," I asked Gaelira, "Do you really mean to put yourself in danger by being the first to use that Seeing-stone, assuming we ever manage to get hold of it?" The she-Elf nodded.
"This War we are in now is only the extension of the Wars of the First Age, which broke the very earth itself from the fury of the fighting," she said. "The Noldorin have, sadly, been largely responsible for much sorrow which has befallen the World." Here, Drodie sucked his teeth loudly. "I hope to gain my people some measure of redemption by offering myself up for this cause."
"That is... really quite moving," said Nephyn quietly.
"Very honourable," said Lagodir.
"Once we are out of Carn Dum with the palantir, I will send Hremm to notify Mallacai, who will provide me an escort to transport it to Rivendell. Lord Elrond has heard of the Seekers' intent to steal the Stone of Amon Sul, although he was not aware of our adventure when it began. I suspect he has guessed as to my purposes now. In any case, he had previously refused to ever use the palantir even if one could be found, for he fears what the Dark Lord might do if he retains another of the stones. But there is power to protect the stone in Rivendell if we can get it there. Once safe, I will put myself in danger by using it first. Then, if I am unharmed, Elrond will be free to bend it to his own will and great good will be achieved for the Free Peoples."
"After this Mallacai chap gets his turn with it to search for his Seven Stars, no doubt," Lagodir chimed in.
"I do not believe the Seven Stars actually exist," said Gaelira as she shook her head. "I cannot fathom how, if things of such power ever lay beneath the Sun, that they could possibly remain in the World undiscovered for thousands of centuries. The Seekers certainly retain that ancient tradition, but very few of us actually believe in the old tales. We were a scholarly brotherhood for most of our existence and we performed great deeds in the service of others. In these latter years it seems we have been recruiting more warriors and fewer sages, but such is the need of the days. My only desire is to secure this mighty boon so that I can deliver it to Lord Elrond, who has the power to use it for the good of all." She paused and looked at us.
"I give you my solemn word that this is the whole truth," she said pointedly. "There is an uneasiness among our Company that bodes ill for the trials we are about to face, and part of that trial is overcoming our distrust of each other. For what I have done before now, I apologize to you all from the depths of my soul and I swear by the Valar I've never held friends so dear. This gambit of mine is my own contribution to the War, and I have a slim but steadfast hope that it may help to save those simple things which make life worth living."
"And what will happen to you if the Enemy does hold one of the other Seeing-stones?" I asked in a trembling voice. "What if it is not safe to for you to use the palantir?" Gaelira stared into the campfire.
"I do not know," she said, finally.
We talked for a while longer, but the conversations never really went anywhere. There was some discussion about what to do next, but we could not reach a consensus. After a time, we decided to hash it out in the morning, so we each began to prepare for sleep.
As I settled into my blanket and huddled near the campfire with my journal out in front of me, I saw Gaelira standing by the waters of Lake Nenuial, staring southward. I thought about the danger into which she was willing to put herself and whether I would do the same in her place. Then my thoughts were interrupted by Lagodir turning repeatedly as he lay on the ground nearby. He rolled over and saw I was still awake.
"Padryc," he said to me in a low voice, "Do you think -- do you think that a Man's honour can be regained if it is lost?" I raised my eyebrows.
"Yes, or a hobbit's," I said and grinned. "Or an Elf's, or even a Dwarf's. Right and wrong do not change with the seasons, nor are they one thing or another depending on whatever kind we happen to belong. We all make mistakes, but in the Shire when we wrong someone we work to set it right however we can. Maybe that's not what some folk call honour, but it seems more or less the same thing to me."
"Yes. Yes, you are right, of course," he said. "Good night, then."
"Good night!" I said. I finished my record, then allowed myself to be lulled to sleep by the gentle lapping of the water on the shore.