The Grey Shores

by Nefertiti

Disclaimer: No rights claimed, no income earned.

Feedback: Yes, please, but don't bother to tell me that Gandalf having sex squicks you. I am unrepentant. (If you tell me that Gandalf having sex squicked you before but no longer does, you will make my day.)

Summary: After a crucial battle produces discouraging results, Glorfindel and Mithrandir assess their goals and prospects.

Author's note: Book-canon. The opening scene takes place in late 1974 of the Third Age, shortly before the Battle of Fornost, which occurred in year 1975; the remainder takes place in the days immediately after the Battle. The story is based largely on the description of that battle and Glorfindel's role in it given in Appendix A of The Return of the King. The appendices give no clue as to Gandalf's whereabouts or activities between his arrival in Middle-earth c. 1000 TA and his visit to Dol Guldur in 2063. Elsewhere Tolkien suggests that he spent this time in traveling and familiarizing himself with the places and people of Middle-earth. I have assumed this but taken the liberty of having him present at the Battle of Fornost as a strategist and healer.

He and Glorfindel have been lovers for nearly a thousand years by this point.

Deepest gratitude to my dear Elanor, who not only betaed this and made many valuable suggestions but also forced me to liven up my exposition. Many thanks to Sarah and River Woman for unwavering friendship and encouragement.

Chapter 3

Elrond glanced around the solemn faces gathered in his study for a strategy meeting. Galdor and a couple of other Elves from the Grey Havens had just arrived after the long-and very dangerous-journey bringing urgent news. Several Elves of his own household and Mithrandir had responded to Elrond's hasty summons to hear what the newcomers had to report. All knew that Imladris itself could easily come under attack in the not too distant future if the Witch-King of Angmar gained further sway over the vast territories between there and the Havens.

"Galdor," he began, as soon as all were seated. "I shall not waste our time in courtesies. What news from the Havens?"

"You probably guess already, all of you, the news I have to tell. Of late, the Witch-King of Angmar has ridden out with his troops from his capital at Fornost. More often than not, the battles have resulted in the Dúnedain being pushed into a smaller and smaller territory. Now, finally, he has essentially overrun the entire kingdom of Arnor. Arvedui has fled, and we fear that he will perish, if he has not already, in the cold lands to the north. I fear, too, that he will prove to have been the last king of the northern realm for a very long time. The Dúnedain have become exiles, nomads, resorting to stealth in their efforts at resistance against a far stronger foe."

The group had stared at him during all this. They were appalled, despite the fact that the Witch-King had long been making successful incursions into Arthedain, the last remaining piece of the ancient Númenorean Kingdom of Arnor. Finally Mithrandir spoke. "What of the fleet from Gondor? King Eärnil II swore to me that he would send a mighty force to aid his comrades in the north."

"They arrived too late, alas. The Northern Kingdom was lost by the time they arrived."

Mithrandir closed his eyes and sighed in exasperation, then glanced around at the others. "Exactly as I feared! This tardiness is all too typical of how our allies respond to appeals for help-even in this case, when the help was needed by their own people! You should understand, Galdor, that during this year I have spent months in Minas Tirith, attempting to persuade the King to act. It was one of the most frustrating periods of my entire time here in Middle-earth, watching him dithering. Making my way back here after the order for the fleet to depart was already given, I could not help but feel that they would not come in time."

Glorfindel gave him a little sympathetic smile. "Perhaps he had fears for the Southern Kingdom as well. Gondor has seen so many invasions over the past few centuries."

Mithrandir tapped his fingertips on one arm of his chair and shook his head. "No doubt, but his fears are largely groundless-for now, at any rate. It took over a century to accomplish, but the Wainriders were defeated, and there has been peace there for over thirty years now. Gondor even controls the entries into Mordor, though I must say, I have begun to wonder if they are vigilant enough to ensure that evil does not creep back into that ruined land. Moreover, although Prince Eärnur is a valiant warrior, in my honest opinion, he is also rash and not over-wise. I talked much with him during my weary stay in Minas Tirith, and it did not bolster my confidence. Once he inherits the throne, the situation at Minas Ithil is not likely to improve. I shall, of course, do my best to persuade him to strengthen the guard there, but . . ."

He trailed into silence for a moment, letting that grim thought sink in, before concluding, "At any rate, supporting his northern kindred should have been Eärnil's primary concern. Now he has failed them."

Galdor stared at him. "Yes, and now that the Dúnedain are so decreased in power, I fear that the Witch-King could threaten us at the Havens-or you here in Imladris."

Elrond replied, "No doubt. I realize that we have long kept these precious enclaves safe through our defensive strength. But that strategy can no longer protect us. We must attack the Witch-King as soon as possible, in my opinion. I assume that Prince Eärnur's troops are still at the Havens, awaiting our decisions here?"

Galdor nodded. "Naturally I assured him that we would travel quickly and, with good fortune, return with a plan agreed upon by the Wise here. Already, however, much time has passed in our journey. We had to travel far out of our way to avoid the widening threat of the Witch-King."

Elrond resumed. "Well, I think we have no real option but to send our own troops to join with those of Gondor and of the Havens and then to attack Angmar as forcefully as possible. We cannot lose this opportunity of having much of the might of Gondor so close to hand. And as you say, the Witch-King might attack either the Havens or Imladris-or eventually, of course, both-now that he has gained sway over so large an area."

Mithrandir glanced up at him in mock surprise. "Attack? My dear Elrond, do my ears deceive me, or is an Elf counseling us to march out and attack?"

Elrond gave the smallest of wry chuckles. "Yes, my dear Mithrandir, you heard me correctly. And I hope it makes you happy." He raised his eyebrows inquiringly.

"Naturally, since, as you say, we have no real option. It is good that we agree on that and can waste no time in debating it. We should begin to plan immediately, for I fear that such a large campaign cannot be organized until the New Year has come. In the meantime, Galdor and his comrades can take news of our intentions to the Havens and make sure that Eärnur makes no foolish decision, such as returning to Gondor or attacking Angmar on his own. He has a distinctly too much confidence in his own power, that young man."

With just a hint of hesitation, the wizard turned to Glorfindel. "You, I assume, will lead the force from Imladris."

"Of course."

"So be it. And now, since we are all agreed on our basic strategy, let us turn to the more mundane details of how to launch into this campaign. Galdor's group will not, alas, enjoy the hospitality of the Last Homely House for very long, for they must hasten back to Cirdan, and they must be able to carry with them as precise a description of our plans as we can devise before they leave."

A few hours later, when a more detailed scheme for the campaign had been drawn up and the tasks of organizing its execution had been assigned to various members of the group, the meeting broke up. Mithrandir detained Glorfindel and shut the door after the others had gone out. They embraced briefly, then stepped back to stare at each other for a moment.

Glorfindel was the first to speak. "We have faced many grim and dangerous tasks over the centuries, but I think never one so threatening."

"True. I realize there is no help for it, but you know how I dread the idea of your confronting such a foe. The Witch-King is immensely powerful, of course, but just how powerful . . ." He shrugged.

"What will you do during the campaign? Not return to Gondor, I presume. From what you said there is little to be done there."

"No. I shall come with your army, I think. Not as a soldier, for I am far less powerful in that way than in others. I know that you will have mighty warriors in your company, and that if any one is most likely to be able to defeat our foe, it is you yourself. There will be need for devising tactics, however-and, alas, for healing. Those things I can do well, and there is no greater threat in all of Middle-earth that claims my attention just now. And, I must confess, it would be very difficult for me to be elsewhere when I know you are in such danger." He paused. "On the other hand, the idea of your being carried from the field, broken and wounded, urgently requiring my aid . . . Well, as Elrond says, we really have no choice. Any help that I can possibly give to reduce the risk to you and the others, you know I will gladly provide."

"Of course I know that, and it will be an enormous comfort having you with me at such a time. Naturally I would not want you to go into combat. The aid that you give us with your wisdom and insight is far more precious than anything you could do for us on the battlefield. I would never risk your life in such a way unless it became absolutely necessary. And you need not urge me to be cautious for my own sake. I am not the rash young Prince of Gondor, you know. Well, at least we can take encouragement from the fact that, if we can defeat the Witch-King, it will mark an enormous step forward in our tasks here in Middle-earth."

"It will indeed," the wizard said softly, hugging the Elf against himself again. They stood there for a short while, then went out to join the others for dinner.

The Battle of Fornost had been over for nearly two days, and the Grey Istar straightened up from having assisted one of the Elven healers in the small field hospital the held the wounded from among the Imladris soldiers. The healer looked into his face sympathetically. "I think, Mithrandir, that you have done enough for now. We have tended to all those who have sustained serious wounds, and you look as if you will soon become a patient yourself if you do not get some sleep. Thank you for all your help. I'm sure we have managed to save many that would have been lost without your expertise and special powers."

The wizard smiled and nodded wearily. He looked around and had to admit that they had reached a point there was nothing more that required his skills. Others could handle what needed doing. Lifting a hand briefly in farewell to his colleague, he went out and walked the short distance to his tent. Glorfindel had gone off shortly after the battle ended to help supervise the surrender of what few forces remained in Fornost and to survey the lands nearby for any lingering pockets of resistance. Mithrandir had barely had a chance to exchange a few words with him before plunging into the healing work. He wondered vaguely where Prince Eärnur of Gondor was. The Istar was happy to have had an excuse not to speak at length with the Prince after the battle ended. The reckless young fellow had been furious that the Witch-King had fled and that Glorfindel had not allowed Eärnur to give chase. The Istar himself had felt nearly crushed with disappointment that the battle had not brought an end to that vicious enemy, second only to Sauron himself in power and cruelty. He still wondered why Glorfindel had rushed to that part of the battlefield where the sudden appearance of the Witch-King was spreading terror among the alliance forces, only to permit him to escape.

Now, entering his tent and sitting down at his small portable desk, he reflected on the irony of his earlier fears for his lover. The idea of Glorfindel confronting the Witch-King in direct combat had haunted him ever since their conversation at Imladris, but he had accepted it. That was the Elf's duty, and no one else was nearly as likely to succeed. Why, why then had he not seized upon that opportunity to kill their enemy? the wizard asked himself yet again. He certainly did not relish questioning the Elf on the subject. The medical work had allowed him to forget his larger worries for a while, but now he felt near despair at the outcome of the battle, and on the face of it, Glorfindel was primarily to blame. He quickly ate a piece of fruit and collapsed onto his cot. Such was his exhaustion that, despite his worries, he fell asleep almost immediately.

He must have been asleep for a few hours, he realized, for the tent was bathed in dim candlelight when he woke up. Glorfindel was sitting at the tiny desk beside the tent's entrance, staring at some documents in front of him with unseeing eyes. The Elf turned his head slightly but did not look at the wizard as he rose and crossed to stand behind the chair. Leaning down, Mithrandir wrapped his arms around Glorfindel's neck from behind and rested his chin on the Elf's shoulder so that their cheeks were pressed together. Neither spoke for nearly a minute. "So, we have won," the wizard finally murmured with a trace of bitter irony in his voice. "I take it you encountered no serious problems in dealing with the aftermath of the battle."

"No, nothing serious," Glorfindel said, raising his hands to grasp the wizard's forearms gently. "It is essentially all over, and I hear that our wounded have been attended to, in part through your good offices."

There was another rather tense silence, and finally Mithrandir raised the subject that was on both their minds. "No sign of the Witch-King in all your searches? You did not find an opportunity to do what I would have expected you would do on the battlefield-or at least allow Eärnur to attempt, as he was so keen to do? To dispatch our enemy according to plan?"

Glorfindel could not miss the restrained puzzlement and anger in the Istar's voice. "No, there is no sign of him. He has, I think, vanished from the north. With the combination of Cirdan's forces from the Haven and Eärnur's from Gondor and mine from Imladris, we have finally expelled him and can take back some considerable degree of control of the northern lands, from the Misty Mountains to the Blue."

"That's all very true, and yet Arnor lies in ruins. It will be very, very long, I fear, before the Men of Númenor can truly take control of these lands. The remnants of the Dúnedain will endure a wandering existence well into the future. Worse yet, the Witch-King has been allowed to go freely whither he will, and I have not the slightest doubt that he will appear again, creating perhaps worse evil elsewhere. We have not seen the last of him by any means, and I cannot take great joy in this victory. Frankly, I am baffled-"

"Yes, I know, Mithrandir!" Glorfindel said sharply, and the Istar straightened up and stood looking down at him. "I know, you are baffled, Eärnur is baffled-and you are both angry, and I am a bit baffled myself. That is, I know that it was right to let the Witch-King flee, but I do not understand why. All I know is that we could not have killed him, despite the great armies we had arrayed here and the power of some among us."

The wizard turned to try and pace but was stymied by the small size of the tent. He faced the Elf once more. "Oh, yes, your prophesy. Eärnur reported that to me when he returned from the battle. He was not in the best of moods, so I excused myself to return to tending the wounded. I hope he has calmed down by now, by the way, but I would advise you to be careful in approaching him. I thought that in his rage he might have misremembered your words, but others later confirmed that in restraining the Prince from giving chase to the Witch-King you said, 'Do not pursue him! He will not return to this land. Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall.' Would you care to elaborate on that, my dear Elf?"

Glorfindel twisted in the chair to look up at him. "If you mean, can I explain it, no, I cannot. Does 'man' mean an adult male of any race? I suspect so, but I am not certain. And as to who or what else might fell him in the end, I have no idea. I am convinced, however, that a foresight was on me. I know in my heart that what I said is absolutely true and that we would have risked great harm to ourselves if we had pursued him. None of us had a chance at defeating him. That foresight was given to me as a warning, and it saved us from hideous losses. You must believe me, Mithrandir . . . my dearest Mithrandir, for that prophesy must inform our strategies for the future, and we must not make any rash moves to assail him when he inevitably, as you say, resurfaces to plague us once more."

After a short pause the wizard replied quietly, "I do believe you, Glorfindel. We have trusted each other's judgment for nearly a thousand years now, and I have never known you to act unwisely or recklessly-beyond your utter folly in taking an old greybeard into your bed and allowing him to share your life whenever possible."

Glorfindel swallowed and smiled rather shakily, stretching his arm out to take the Istar's hand. "Oh, that. Everyone is entitled to one mistake."

Mithrandir pulled suddenly on his hand, bringing the Elf abruptly to his feet and embracing him loosely. "Yes, but you have gone on making that mistake for an absurdly long time, and you seem determined to perpetuate it in the future."

Glorfindel stared tenderly into his eyes and shrugged. "Yes, well, I'm afraid it's too late to do anything about that now. I must suffer the consequences."

The wizard grinned. "I think the immediate consequence will be that I shall take you into this rather rickety little bed that they have supplied me and try to make love to you without either its collapsing or one of us tumbling off. I have been harboring rather unpleasant and, I'm afraid, unfair thoughts about you for two days, and I believe that that would be a very effective way to banish them from my mind." He paused. "I should ask, though, if you have some pressing matter you should be attending to at the moment."

Glorfindel shook his head slowly. "No, the most pressing matter for me was to convince you that my foresight was real, and I half expected you to take a great deal of persuading. I should have trusted you to trust me, my darling Istar. Now I think we can put our worries aside for a little while."

The grin faded from Mithrandir's face. "Yes, they are far from gone, aren't they? But yes, let us put them aside." He pulled Glorfindel more tightly against himself and brushed his lips teasingly against the Elf's. Having been reunited after days of danger and worry, and having largely avoided what both had feared might be an acrimonious conversation, they continued these light, tantalizing movements for some time, gently tasting each other and savoring the first small twitches of arousal in their cocks. At last Glorfindel snaked his tongue inside the wizard's mouth and the eager sucking in response made their mutual arousal suddenly soar. At last their mouths came apart with a wet little sound.

"You have amply demonstrated your skill as an archer on the battlefield, my brave warrior. Allow me to show off my own aim now, if you don't mind."

"Of course. This is the one sort of surrender I would not shun. I fear, however, that you will indeed have to depend on precision for this maneuver. A more vigorous attack might well lead to the collapse of this little battlefield. It looks, as you say, a trifle rickety."

"Yes, and it squeaks. A very vigorous charge would be evident to half the camp."

They unbuttoned each other's shirts, and as Glorfindel removed them both, the Istar leaned in to tongue and suck the Elf's small pink nipples. He continued this as Glorfindel moaned softly and unbuttoned their trousers, pushing at these a slightly until they slid down. Stepping out of the crumpled garments, they pressed together and stroked each others bodies slowly, lingering over the nipples and kneading the buttocks until they were both fully rampant.

Mithrandir, however, continued to slide his tongue over Glorfindel's hard, pointed nubs, humming softly with pleasure. After moaning in response for a while, the Elf opened his eyes and whispered, "I know you love that, Mithrandir, as do I, but another part of my body demands more urgent attention. Shall we move on?"

The wizard pulled reluctantly away, staring at one pink bead as he continued to rub it with a fingertip. "Just a little longer," he begged with exaggerated regret.

Glorfindel arched his chest luxuriously against the Istar's finger and smiled as if anticipating a familiar answer. "How long?"

Mithrandir flicked his tongue roughly over the tiny peak, sighing, "Oh . . . hours."

The Elf laughed, but carefully, so as not to dislodge his lover's eager mouth from his chest. "Beware. Someday I shall actually take you up on that offer and indeed let you go on for hours. I'm sure you would lose interest long before such an interval passed."

Rolling both hard little peaks between finger and thumb, Mithrandir gazed at them fondly. "It's hard to imagine, but I suppose it's faintly possible. All right, my lovely, exciting, frustrated Elf. Let us proceed."

They pulled apart slightly and glanced down at the cot. "Shall we risk it?" the wizard asked with a grin.

"Well, the ground is certainly too stony for that to be a pleasant option, and there is nothing solid to lean on. We shall just have to be careful. Though after a certain point, I suppose the bed could probably collapse and we would not notice."

"You may be right. I'm glad to hear you express such faith in my prowess."

The wizard guided Glorfindel to lie on his stomach, opened a drawer in the desk to remove a jar and small towel, and then lowered himself onto the Elf's back. Glorfindel slowly writhed beneath him, pressing his erection into the thin mattress as the wizard explored his back with lips and tongue and slid one hand between his thighs to tickle the back of his testicle sac. Eventually Mithrandir opened the jar and delicately began to smear a dab of ointment around and over the little puckered entrance with one fingertip.

The Elf moaned impatiently. "That feels splendid, but you seem oddly determined to torment me with your slowness. I am aching for you to go inside me."

Mithrandir chuckled and slid the tip of his finger through the tight hole. "I suppose I am just delighting in the fact of having you back safely after the battle. Or perhaps it's just that I am still a bit tired from working with the healers." He slid his finger in and out, gently circling and stretching.

"You pick a fine time to tell me that, after you have laid me down here. Shall we change places, my poor, exhausted fellow? I am feeling anything but tired." He thrust a few times against the mattress to prove it.

"Oh, I am not that tired. Here, I shall stop tormenting you and prove it." He rose and knelt between the Elf's thighs, urging him onto his hands and knees with legs spread. Quickly now the wizard worked to loosen the entrance. "Pass me that pillow, please. I fancy if I raise myself just a little, my aim will be perfect."

Glorfindel handed it to him, remarking, "This is a poor excuse for a pillow, but I certainly hope it will work."

Mithrandir doubled it over and knelt on it, lubricating his erection and pressing it slowly and steadily into the Elf. Soon Glorfindel's entire body flinched, and he groaned loudly as the wizard began to thrust. "Remember, my dear, that we are in a tent," Mithrandir managed to say, and he reached around to stroke the Elf's straining member. The cot had immediately begun to squeak rhythmically and ominously, and the wizard laughed despite his arousal and murmured, "Hopeless."

At once he heard various gasps and snorts as the Elf struggled to quiet his reactions. "You have proven your aim, Mithrandir . . . now can you demonstrate your vigor and speed? I can't keep quiet forever!"

The Istar sighed happily. "As you like it." He pumped faster and harder, eliciting more strangled moans. He admitted in a strained voice, "It's not easy . . . keeping quiet . . . is it? Besides . . . this wretched bed is making . . . more noise than we are. I think . . . we shall just have to . .. finish quickly."

Glorfindel gave a snort of laughter and managed to mutter, "I'm glad you finally realize that. Harder!"

The Istar pounded into him as hard as he could, keening softly as his own bliss rushed suddenly toward him. Almost immediately he felt hot spurts coat his hand as the Elf gave one harsh, loud groan, then sucked his breath in between clenched teeth and emptied his balls in near silence. Soon Mithrandir spilled within him, moaning despite himself as the pleasure seared through him, He leaned against his partner's hips as the last spasms faded. After a short while during which the only sound was their panting, Mithrandir straightened up and wiped his hand, then carefully cleaned them both as he withdrew.

They shifted about until they had contrived to lie more-or-less side by side, with Glorfindel hugging the wizard up partway over his muscular chest. After a little period of contented silence Glorfindel remarked, "Neither of us managed to remain discreetly quiet there at the end."

"Mmmmm. No. Neither did the cot. Oh, well, at least it did not collapse."

"Yes, rather disappointing, that. We shall have to try again. With me on top this time. That might do it."

"Oh, fine! Then where would I sleep?"

"In my tent."

"Isn't your bed just as narrow as this one?"

"Yes. But perhaps we could find a second bed. Or perhaps we could manage to put this one back together. Don't worry so much, my dear Istar. Have we not always found a way?"

Mithrandir yawned. "Yes. Well, it's a good thing that this bed is still usable. My nap does not seem to have precluded the need for a good night's sleep. I certainly do not feel like rising, let alone dressing and walking to your tent."

"All right, I will leave you to a well-deserved sleep. Don't take my teasing too seriously. Your actions were marvelously vigorous, my dear Mithrandir. If they didn't collapse the bed, I'm sure I would not be able to. Before you sleep, though, I should tell you that I would like to set out for Imladris with a small band of my soldiers tomorrow. We can leave the rest to strike camp and follow after the wounded have had time to recover enough to travel. I would like to get back and report to Elrond as quickly as possible. The outcome of this battle will require a profound rethinking of most of our policies. I assume you will come with me."

"Of course. I want to be there for that discussion. For one thing, you will need somebody there who believes and is willing to back up your explanation as to why the Witch-King is still at large in Middle-earth. And we still face enormous difficulties and, as you say, changes in our policies. Well, I shall endeavor to put all this out of my mind for now, or I shall never get to sleep-despite the fact that every muscle in my body has gone delightfully limp. We shall have much time for discussion on the road."

"Despite their drawbacks, I begin to look back on your cramped, flimsy tent and its narrow, squeaky cot with great fondness," Glorfindel remarked with a rueful look as drops of water slid over his face and trickled from his golden hair. It had been raining since before dawn, and the ruined countryside of ancient Arnor contained no inns or hospitable farmhouses to afford a temporary respite from the weather.

"You should wear a hat, my dear Elf," Mithrandir said, raising the brim of his own to look at Glorfindel, who was riding beside him at the head of a small band of Elven warriors. They had been on the road for only a few hours and faced a long journey back to Imladris.

"I doubt I would look very impressive in something like that," the Elf said, glancing up to the peak of the pointed blue hat.

The wizard, despite being fairly miserable himself in the cold rain, bristled in mock annoyance. "What's wrong with this hat? A wizard must look like a wizard, after all."

"Oh, I'm not saying there is anything wrong with it. It suits you much better than it would me, and rather surprisingly, it does enhance your air of dignity and wisdom."

"Ah, well, that's better."

They both lapsed back into gloom and rode for a while in silence. At last, after nearly another half hour of riding, the rain diminished to a soft drizzle and finally ended altogether, and lighter patches in the clouds suggested that the weather would gradually clear. Now that the pair was able to ride more comfortably, Mithrandir glanced around to make sure that they were far enough ahead of the lead soldiers that their conversation would remain private, then again turned to the Elf.

"I assume you are feeling as discouraged as I am, my dear Glorfindel."

"Quite discouraged, yes. I had steeled myself to facing the Witch-King and, with great good luck, defeating him or seeing him defeated by another. Believe me, no one regrets his escape more than I."

"Yes, but your foresight about his fate worries me even more than does his disappearance. How are we to deal with such a foe? For the first time, I really wonder if we can."

"Well, we can but go on trying."

"Yes, go on . . . and on and on. I knew when I first arrived in Middle-earth that I would be here for a very long time, perhaps millennia, given the immensity of the tasks that were set before the Istari. Still, to find myself at this stage, with nearly a thousand years gone by and our cause, as far as I can judge it now, in a somewhat worse state than when we started-well, it is enough to discourage anyone. And you know that I have ordinarily been quite hopeful. The North Kingdom now totally lost, its great warriors left homeless and kingless. A dark power long ensconced in Dol Guldur, and still we have no real evidence that it is, as we fear, a Nazgul. The great forests continue to shrink, and lands lose their inhabitants. Dragons are creeping back from remote regions, probably to pose a real threat eventually. The Dwarven rings disappear, one by one." He sighed.

Glorfindel felt the weight of all these problems no less than did the Istar, but he felt compelled to try and cheer his lover just a little. "You do not list the encouraging signs. The Southern Kingdom is now safer than it had been in centuries. Minas Tirith holds sway in that part of the world. There are prosperous areas here and there, strong and relatively safe."

The wizard looked at him with the trace of a smile. "True. And over the past few hundred years I have noticed that some of the lands just south of here are becoming inhabited again."

"Really? Surely not by Elves, or I would know of it. By Dwarves, then, or Men?"

"No, by a small and rustic race that I believe are called Periannath by the few Elves that are aware of them. Their fields and villages lie along one of the natural routes between the Havens and the Misty Mountains. I rather like them. Have you never encountered them?"

"No. I have seldom been able to visit the Havens since that memorable time I went to escort you to Imladris. And not at all in many years now. I have relied on messengers of various sorts to exchange news and plans with Cirdan and Galdor and the rest. Well, if these lands are supporting new, productive, friendly populations, it is a hopeful sign indeed. Perhaps the trend will continue, and we shall see these more northerly lands regenerated as well. For now, though, this victory reminds me all too much of that other one, where Gil-galad fell before the Black Gate in the defeat of Sauron, and yet evil was merely pushed back for a while. Except for the Havens, Gil-galad's kingdom lies more desolate than ever."

They rode on for a few minutes without speaking before Mithrandir spoke again.

"Yes, for now I cannot help but feel that we are taking two steps backward for every one in advance. Still, perhaps one day we shall see Gil-galad's realm renewed . . . You know, my dearest Elf, that you are one reason why I long to accomplish my mission." He reached out, and the two held hands as they rode.

"I am well aware of it, Mithrandir. The ways in which you convey your . . . feelings have always been most eloquent." He swallowed and looked down. "I too had hoped that after such a long time there would be more signs of real progress . . . some indication as to when the longed-for day might come . . ." He glanced up to find the wizard's dark eyes fixed upon him. Mithrandir simply nodded.

After another short silence, the wizard said sadly, "We shall, I fear, have to be separated even more than usual for the foreseeable future. My sense is that the worst danger now lurks in southern Mirkwood. Dol Guldur's mysteries will eventually have to be solved. And if Gondor's guard over Mordor falters . . . At any rate, I must leave you to the sad, watchful vigilance that will be Imladris's lot. The north is far from safe, even now."

The wizard squeezed Glorfindel's hand. "I have so far neglected to tell you, by the way, my dear Elf, how much I admired your handling of the campaign against Angmar and your bravery in battle. Many spoke of it to me. You have truly acted in a manner worthy of Gil-galad's memory. And although his ancient realm remains in dire straits, but at least you have done much to stop its decline and prepare for its re-growth. And perhaps new populations will indeed begin to move into it."

"I dearly hope so, and thank you, my sweet Istar, for your kind words. I think now one of my main duties must be to help the Dúnedain to regroup and organize for their new, homeless way of life."

"Exactly, and it occurs to me that you should help gather the heirlooms of ancient Arnor. The scepter of the King, for example. It should be taken and preserved at Imladris, in the hope that someday it can be handed over to the rightful heir. Someday. It will be a very long time, I fear, before the situation changes enough for us to sense real progress in our struggle."

Glorfindel glanced behind to make sure that they speech was still secret and then asked, "What of your fellow Istari in all this? I realize that Radagast has given us aid in monitoring the shadow in southern Mirkwood and in sending messages via birds and beasts, but . . ."

"Yes, well, those are useful contributions, of course, but I doubt that we can count upon him for much more. Each time I visit him he seems more withdrawn, less knowledgeable about what goes on in the wider world. And he travels far less."

"And Saruman?"

"Since his long journeys far into the east, he has spent much of his time in Gondor. Exploring the southern lands thoroughly and in particular doing research in the archives of Minas Tirith. It is possible that his work there holds some potential. His thought is to try and rediscover the means by which the great Elven rings were created. If he could do that and if new rings could be made, it would presumably enhance our power considerably."

"Do you think there is really much chance that he can do such a thing?"

"Not a great chance, no, but I suppose the advantage would be so tremendous that it is worth his trying. If he succeeds, it might prove the dramatic breakthrough that we long for. And if anyone can do it, he can. Though I cannot help but worry that he too spends less and less time exploring the peoples of this continent and getting to know them. To me, it seems more likely that the inhabitants of the various lands offer us more power and hope than any rings made by Saruman could. Who knows what potential lies hidden in some little-known corner of this continent? I told you about my visits to the Ents of Fangorn Forest. Marvellous creatures, and very strong, I deem, though they may have forgotten it in their slow, quiet way of life. My wish is to continue to travel and get to know all such beings. I wonder if Saruman dreams of the unsuspected help and friendship that seem to exist in almost every part of Middle-earth-at least those parts untouched by the shadow. Discovering them, I must say, is part of what has sustained me in the face of many setbacks, and there are probably many that I do not know yet. I am not sure what all these people can actually do in our struggle, but I suspect that it may someday be vital to be familiar with them and be able to call upon their aid. For the Istari will not save Middle-earth, if it can be saved at all. Its own people will." A smile had spread slowly across his face as he spoke, and he looked more hopeful than he had all morning.

"Have you discussed all this with Saruman? Perhaps he should divide his efforts somewhat, rather than researching one area so much, and one that might never bear fruit at all."

Mithrandir hesitated before answering. "I have talked with him about it, and he knows my opinions. Frankly, though, I find it more than a little difficult to understand Saruman at times. His concerns seem so different from mine, despite our common mission. I can't grasp how he feels about Middle-earth and what we should be doing here. Oh, I can talk to him about strategies and exchange information and so on. But later, when it comes just to having a chat over a meal or taking a walk outdoors and discussing the things we see . . . well, I find myself a trifle uncomfortable and, strangely, even at a loss to find something to say-and you know that is seldom a problem of mine."

Glorfindel laughed loudly. "Far from it! And I find it hard to believe."

"Oh, I assure you. If ever you think I am chattering away too long over a dinner table or by the fire, just fetch in Saruman, and he will absolutely cast a pall over the entire group-including me!"

Glorfindel continued laughing more quietly during this. "True, I did not find that I had much to say to him or he to me on those rare occasions when we have spent any time together-but I rather assumed that that was simply because we knew each other so little."

"Yes, well, I have spend much time with him, and still I feel I know him little-in any personal way, that is. He is so guarded in his conversation and seems to think over twice every little thing that he says. No, I think it comes down to the fact that we just don't like each other very much. A real pity. Still, he is brilliant and powerful and a great support to our cause.

"No doubt, but getting back to all these various peoples that you say may someday save Middle-earth. How are they to be brought together? Most of them are either unaware of each other or even at odds with each other. Indeed, I am not quite sure myself just what peoples you are referring to-not all of them are familiar to me, I am sure. Like the Periannath you just mentioned. The Ents I had at least heard of before you first visited them."

Mithrandir shook his head. "Well, that, of course, is precisely the problem-bringing them together. You are quite right. The various people do seem surprisingly unaware of each other's existence. In all these years I have grown more and more to feel that our efforts can best be directed in trying to organize their various policies and beliefs around an overarching vision of creating a united front against our enemies. The problem," he added with a little laugh, "is just what that vision should be."

"Well, Saruman does not seem to be providing it. I believe it may fall to you, my dearest Istar."

"Oh, I hope not! I do not think I am adequate to such a mammoth task. At this point I cannot imagine what such a vision would be. That which we are fighting is so amorphous, and no one blow that we strike seems to diminish it. Always it slips away, reforms, regroups. If you asked me right now to formulate a way by which we could make a decisive move against the shadow-assuming, that is, that we could indeed coordinate the various peoples into a sufficient force-I would frankly have no idea. There seems to be no center of power among our opposition, no target at which to aim . . . No real goal to pursue. Only vague and dark suspicions and the occasional localized outbreak of violence of the type we have just experienced. No, it seems to me that my efforts can best be spent in continuing to explore just what the various people's policies and beliefs really are, so that I can contribute that knowledge when the time comes."

"Contribute it to whom, though? To what? It comes back to the question of who should formulate this overarching vision?"

"The Wise, I suppose. The Istari and the various high Elves, in cooperation with the Kings of Gondor and the great Dwarf chieftains. Even as I say that, though, I sense the enormity of the task. All such groups tend to decide on measures that protect their own territories, not sally forth to unite with others. Elves are not alone in that. Eventually, however, we simply must become more organized and tight-knit, but after all this time we are still, alas, just groping in that direction." He sighed again. "And I cannot see even that process ending any time soon."

Glorfindel was still holding the wizard's hand, which he now raised and pressed to his lips. "Do not be too discouraged or lose the great patience that has so far sustained you. I know our victory here was heavy with disappointment, but I suspect that during your journeys around Middle-earth, you have made more progress toward our goals than you realize."

"Have I? Well, perhaps you are right. You lighten my spirits somewhat, my dearest Elf. And truly, what can we do but go on trying? After all, as I always say-"

"Even the Wise cannot see all ends." The Elf grinned at him.

"Do I say it that often? How tiresome!"

"Oh, not really." Glancing back toward the soldiers behind, the Elf smiled and shrugged, leaning over to exchange a brief kiss with Mithrandir. "Not all ends, perhaps. But you have given me a vision to guide me through even the worst setbacks. A vision of one way that all this could end. I shall not be entirely discouraged as long as I have that."

Mithrandir squeezed his hand. "Nor I, my dearest Elf."