The City of the Stars
For eighty days the White and Blue Istari, mounted on swift Elven-steeds, had traveled down the King's road to the South, passing through sparsely settled plains of Minhiraith and the empty lands of Enedwaith in the full bloom of summer. Now, their journey to the heart of Gondor was near its end. As the Sun climbed to its noon-time peak in the vault of the sky, casting a brilliant glare from the snowy shoulders of the White Mountains, they surmounted a crest in the dusty road, and paused for a moment to take in the scene before them.
The Great River Anduin ran its course southward through the center of a broad, open valley, full of tilled fields and meadows, orchards and olive groves, vineyards and gardens, villages and farmsteads. The valley was flanked by the fair White Mountains to the West, the green hills of Emyn Arnen to the South, and the grim Mountains of Shadow to the East. Beneath the shoulder of Mount Mindoluin, easternmost of the White Mountains, and nearest to the Istari, climbed seven-tiered Minas Anor - the Tower of the Setting Sun, strongest of all the fortresses built by the Numenorans-in-exile. Between each of its seven snow-white walls were banks of bright green grass, flanked by the occasional barracks or armory. On the seventh tier stood a cluster of marble-walled buildings, which formed the citadel of the fortress, and contained the Royal Archives of the realm of Gondor, the South Kingdom of Numenor-in-Exile. On the slopes of Mount Mindoluin behind the fortress clustered a number of small domes, which had held the mortal remains of the Kings of Gondor since the days of Anarion son of Elendil. It seemed a quiet place, almost devoid of life, harboring only the scrolls and dusty relics of a fabled past.
To the east, a narrow defile pierced the sheer wall of the pine-clad Mountains of Shadow - Imlad Ithil, the flowered Valley of the Moon, and site of Minas Ithil, the fair Tower of the Rising Moon. The beauty of Minas Ithil and its vale were storied in the songs of Men, even though they lay hard on the frontiers of the Black Land. On their journey southward, the Istari had learned from passing travelers that Men of Gondor who lived East of Anduin were of old a hardy breed. They were charged with keeping a watchful eye on the Land of Shadow and with guarding the land of Ithilien, the eastern marches of Gondor, against incursion by the servants of the Enemy. Yet it had been so long since the days of the Battle of Gorgoroth, and indeed so long since any enemy had dared to threaten the might of Gondor, that it was rumored the Men of Ithilien feared the Shadow from the East no more than they feared a bogey from a childrens' tale. Their land was peaceful and bountiful, and its people more restful than watchful.
Between these fortresses, and bisected by the Anduin, lay mighty Osgiliath, the capital and commercial center of Gondor. Even from this distance, some five leagues away, the soaring marble towers and domes of Osgiliath could be seen plainly. Amid the spires of the city, on an island in the middle of the river, stood one vast dome that soared high above the others; the fabled Dome of the Stars, which was modeled on the Throne Room of the Royal Palace of Armenelos in fallen Numenor. The Dome of the Stars had risen over the Throne of Gondor since the days of its construction by Isildur and Anarion, more than a thousand years before. It was 'tither that the Istari were bent, to seek the permission of the King of Gondor to consult the ancient scrolls and records of the Archives at Minas Anor, so that they might equip themselves with the knowledge they needed for their foray in the dimly-rumoured lands far to the east and south of Anduin.
"The tales of this land speak truly," said Alatar softly. "Here there dwells still an image of lost Numenor in its prime, in those far-off days when the noble Dunedain surpassed in power and lore even the High Elves of Eldamar. It is an image of beauty and splendour such as I had not hoped to see in Middle Earth."
"Yet only an image," cautioned Pallando. "Let us not be deceived by appearances. We have already seen, in our journey south, that much of the North Kingdom of Arnor has reverted to wastelands, and that its people have abandoned its great monuments to ruin, and retreated into stern castles and towers, consumed by their own petty differences and ambitions. The Men of this South Kingdom are not so far fallen from the glory of Numenor as their northern cousins, yet no longer are they Numenoreans truly. You have surely heard it said by those Elves but recently arrived in Eressea from Middle Earth that even the Gondor-men have long mixed their blood with that of lesser Men, and are increasingly but Men of the Twilight, rather than of the Light."
"The Numenoreans ceased to be of the Light before their fall," noted Curunir sadly. "By far the greater part of those people were consumed by Darkness, by the lies of Sauron and the worship of Morgoth, before their land was devoured by the Sea. These Gondor-men and their northern kindred are but the descendents of those who retained enough memory of the Light to flee from the Darkness, knowing that otherwise they would fall into ruin. Yet even the founders of Gondor, the sons of Elendil, never dwelt in Numenor during the days of its greatest nobility and wisdom. Men of the Twilight have the Numenoreans-in-Exile ever been, by my reckoning."
"No doubt you speak truly, Curunir," said Pallando. "Yet these Gondor-men, whatever their flaws may be, are still the best living examples of nobility and wisdom toward which other Men can aspire. Alatar and I must study carefully, not only the records of this land, but the character of its people themselves, as models we can use for the edification of the Easterlings and Southrons. It is through careful observation of these Western Men, and thoughtful application of what we learn, that we shall make our first tentative steps towards leading our own charges East of Anduin towards the light."
"And yet," cautioned Alatar, "we must bear in mind that even the greatest of Men, if the Elves speak truly of them, are ever wont to slide into folly and error. We may learn much from the Gondor-men, yet perhaps we should not rely too closely on their example. Our own wisdom and intuition are a great store upon which we can draw for the edification of the Easterlings and Southrons; and being of less lineage and power, perhaps the wild Men who are our charges shall prove more malleable than the Men of Gondor, who by all accounts have grown proud and willful. Indeed, I fear they might prove so proud, Curunir, that they will spurn your counsel, rather than embrace it as they should."
"You speak wisely, Alatar, at least in so far as the fallibility of the Gondor-men is concerned," acknowledged Curunir. "We saw but little of the Arnor-men as we rode south, and I must rely on Mithrandir and Aiwendil for a fuller assessment of their character, which I trust they shall gain during their journey on the long road east across the settled lands of the North Kingdom. But I am indeed very interested in taking my own measure of the Gondor-men. I can cast a spell on them, if I must, should I wish to bend their will to my own when an urgent matter is at issue. But to do so continually would be a great strain, even on my powers."
Curunir waved his hand expansively. "If these sons of Numenor are too proud to accept our wisdom willingly, than we must take counsel on the methods we can use to make them see reason. Perhaps their mortality is to our advantage; for if the fathers prove stubborn and willful, mayhap the sons, under my influence, shall in time prove more amenable to our guidance, so that the land in their care may blossom, and yet remain vigilant of the Shadow's return. As to the receptivity to our wisdom of the Gondor-men, versus that of those whose ancestors lived long under the Shadow – well, we shall see whose task proves the more difficult."
As the Istari approached the West Gate of Osgiliath, whose bronze doors lay ever open to travelers, they were caught up in the bustle of carts and herds, merchants and farmers, travelers and messengers who filled the road, hurrying on their business as they journeyed to or from the vast city. The day waxed hot under the summer Sun, and the air was hazy and full of dust kicked up by the many wayfarers and their steeds and carts. The Istari, for all their strange garb and mysterious air, attracted little attention from these staid burghers and stout yeomen, who were consumed with their own mundane affairs, and eager to escape the Sun's heat in the shade of a market stall or a tavern.
Yet the tall, steel-helmed guards who leaned against the marble walls beside the Gate, their sable tunics and shields embossed with the White Tree emblem of Gondor, were awakened from their half slumber by the sight of these curious Men on horseback. Though the presence of these guards at West Gate of Osgiliath was hardly more than a formality – the Gondor-men believed that no conceivable danger could ever come from West of Anduin, and indeed the bronze doors of the Western Gate were open day and night – still it was their duty to question those whose garb or speech suggested they were not solid citizens of Gondor. The elder of the two guards, his grey eyes regarding the Istari with a mixture of surprise and suspicion, waved his spear at them, ordering them to halt.
"You three, in the peaked hats!" he cried. "Stand aside from the road, so you do not block the path of the other travelers, and then be prepared to account for yourselves. Twenty years have I stood guard at this gate, and not once before have I seen men of your ilk, or thus garbed, or on steeds so sleek and fair. What are your names, what are your homelands, and what is your business in the City of the Stars?"
The Istari did not move aside, but sat on their mounts squarely in the middle of the road, blocking the other travelers in spite of the guard's command. The burghers and farmers whose commerce was thus interrupted began to murmur and whisper amongst themselves, as if they had only now noticed these three Men and their strangeness.
"My friend here gave you an order!" said the other, younger guard, doing his best to muster the most serious look his smooth face could command. "You were told to make an account of yourselves. Think not that our spears are merely for show. Their sharp points shall stand between you and Osgiliath, until you do as you are bid."
"I am Curunir the White," said the Man who sat mounted between his companions. Curunir then smiled graciously. "My friends here shall offer names to those who require them in due course. We are of the Order of the Istari, and seek an audience with your King forthwith." Curunir's two blue-robed companions remained silent, their faces expressionless and impassive.
The two guards laughed sharply, and continued smirking as they took the measure of these arrogant strangers. "Perhaps if the King of Arnor rode to the gates of this city and demanded an audience with his Majesty, it would be granted forthwith," said the elder guard. "But I doubt not the King has better things to do with his time than conduct audiences with the likes of you, however fine your steeds may be, and whatever rank you may hold in foreign parts. A citizen of Gondor might petition His Majesty for an audience, but an outlander has no right to do so."
"Aye," said the younger guard, glaring at Curunir. "You seem a mite too big for your britches, old man, if you think you can get an audience with His Majesty in a snap, or indeed at all. And I've never heard of Istari. For that matter, I haven't heard your business, why you want to see His Majesty. Nor have I heard your friends' names yet either. And you're not going anywhere until I do."
Curunir frowned briefly, his dark eyes deep and penetrating. But then he soon smiled again. Gesturing demurely with his staff, he said "Their names are no concern of yours, my young friend. And our business is our own. Will you not let us pass, and take counsel with your noble King?"
The crowd of travelers who stood in the road before and behind the three Istari fell silent for a moment. Then these busy citizens of Gondor glared at the guards, and one cried "Yes, let them through!" Another bellowed, "Aye, what's the hold up? Let them pass, and then let us pass and get on with our business!"
The guards stared uncertainly, blinking as if they were trying to see through a mist. Then the elder guard, speaking slowly, said "Of course, good sirs. We meant no offence. You may pass freely."
"Thank you kindly," said Curunir. His companions glanced at each other, and smiled knowingly. "If I may trouble you further," continued Curunir, "perhaps your young friend here could escort us directly to the Dome of the Stars, so that we may save time that would otherwise be spent navigating the streets of this vast city?"
"Yes, of course," said the Man. "Boy!" he said, turning to his comrade. "Don't just stand there, like a lump on a log. Guide these gentlemen where they will!"
The younger guard blinked stupidly for a moment, but then, nodding slowly, he gestured to the Istari to follow, and led the way through the Gate into the teeming streets of the city.
The guard led the three Istari through the stone-flagged, arrow-straight roads of Osgiliath, past many houses and towers of elegantly carved white marble, and many silver and golden statues of the fabled Kings and prominent lords of Gondor. So they came at length to the bustling Great Market, full of wooden, canvas-roofed stalls manned by colourfully-garbed merchants hawking all manner of wares; fresh meats, fruits and vegetables from the lands about the city, salted fish from the coast beyond Pelargir, rich wines from Dorwinion, Dwarvish toys and blades from the North; strange fruits and pungent spices from distant lands. Their passage through the narrow alleys of the crowded market took the best part of an hour, and along the way they attracted the curious stares of some of the more idle citizens who spent their days there exchanging gossip. Then, at last, Istari came to the broad granite bridge supported by many arches that spanned the Anduin, whose dark blue, swift-flowing waters the Istari now glimpsed from up close for the first time.
Across the bridge lay the eastern half of Osgiliath, which from afar looked much the same as the western shore. Midstream in the river, spanned by the bridge, sat a long, narrow island, bordered by tall trees of Oak and Beech. From the center of the island arose the mighty dome of smooth white marble they had seen from afar; the Dome of the Stars, its peak some two-hundred feet above the level of the river, its base mounted on a square pedestal flanked by many fluted columns; the Palace and Throne Room at Osgiliath of the King of Gondor. Surmounting the Dome was a tall spire, to which was attached a long, flowing black banner beaing the Arms of the Royal House of Gondor; the White Tree, surrounded by seven stars, and surmounted by a crown. Smaller domes and outbuildings surrounded the central dome, housing the King's apartments, and those of his guards and servants.
"No wall surrounds the Palace," observed Alatar, "though I espy some dozen or so guards on the steps that lead up to its gate. The Gondor-men are indeed sure of their might, if their King thinks he requires no stronger protection against peril."
"Why should they not be sure of themselves?" asked Pallando. "It is a thousand years since any enemy menaced this city, and that must surely seem a long span of time indeed in the eyes of Men."
"There are many types of peril," offered Curunir. "Guards are of more use against some dangers than others. But if their mettle is not greater than that of yon guard who guides us hence, we shall have no difficulty obtaining an audience with His Majesty."
The Istari crossed the western span of the bridge to the island, and turned to the right, where a broad, paved courtyard flanked by marble-walled stables stood before the Palace steps. They passed an onyx obelisk some ten feet in height, engraved in chalcedony with the White Tree symbol of Gondor, which seemed to mark the boundary between the road and the courtyard. When they had ridden some fifty feet past the obelisk, Curunir dismounted, followed by Alatar and Pallando, and said to the guard "You have done well in guiding us hence, young sir. Take our horses and place them in the care of the stable-hands. Then you are free to return to your post by the Western Gate."
"As you wish, my lord," murmured the guard drowsily. For a moment he stared dully at the Elven-steeds, perhaps wondering how to lead horses that had no reins or bridles – for the Elves rode all their steeds bareback. But the horses, as if they knew their task better than him, neighed softly and trotted toward the stables themselves, while he followed in their wake.
Meanwhile, the three Istari strode across the broad courtyard, their staves clacking on the ground with each step as they stared upward at the magnificent dome that loomed above them, and the vast silvered doors, polished to a mirror-sheen, that led to the Throne Room within. Running up to those doors was a flight of two-dozen marble steps, flanking the entire breadth of the Palace, upon which stood a dozen soldiers clad in more elaborate armour and richer cloth than those who guarded the West Gate of the city, their shields and tunics bearing the Royal Arms rather than the symbol of the White Tree alone. These were members of the Royal Household Guard of Osgiliath. Two stood arms-length from each other at the base of the stairs; two at the top, in front of the doors, and four pairs at intervals up the steps. All of the guards stood at attention, proudly holding their spears straight in the air with their right arms, while resting their left hands on the tops of their rectangular shields, whose bases sat upon the ground.
As the Istari approached, the guards, who had been watching them keenly, suddenly crouched, took up of their shields, and then stood in a defensive posture, their spear-points aimed at these strange trespassers. A clear horn sounded from one of the lesser buildings near the Palace, and within moments some four-score guards rushed from a barracks that sat off the courtyard to the right of the Istari, their steel-shod boots clanging on the stones of the courtyard as they formed rows, holding up their shields, their spears aimed at the intruders in like fashion to the guards on the steps.
"HALT!" cried a booming voice, as a very large guard bearing a white feather on the peak of his silvered helm – no doubt an officer – strode from behind the phalanx of guardsmen towards the Istari. He bore no spear or shield, but his long, keen-edged sword was unsheathed, and as he approached them he pointed it at them meaningfully.
The three Istari stood still. "It appears the Gondor-men are not as lax as we had thought," said Pallando wryly.
Curunir sighed. "Indeed. And though it may prove necessary, I am loath to once again bind Men to my will through spellcasting, when reason should suffice."
"Perhaps you need not exert yourself again so soon, my friend," offered Alatar. "Allow Pallando and I to deal with these guards in our own fashion."
"As you wish," smiled Curunir. "I shall be most interested to see this display of your skill."
"NO talking amongst yourselves!" said the officer, who now stood but a few feet in front of them, still holding his sword-point towards them in most unwelcoming fashion. He glared at them with cold blue eyes, his grey-tinged sable hair showing from beneath his helm. The Istari noted that this guard, like those at the gate, seemed of taller stature and graver mien than the civilians who thronged the city streets – perhaps those in whom the blood of Numenor was stronger were more inclined to a career in the service of the King than to a life of commerce or husbandry.
"I am Maedhros, Officer of the Watch," said the Man. "Know that you trespass on the property of Ciryandil, King of Gondor. No Man is permitted to set foot off the bridge and road that span the Anduin into this courtyard unless he is in the King's service, or has arranged an audience with him."
"It is an audience with your mighty King that we seek, o Maedhros the nobly-named," said Alatar graciously, doffing his peaked hat and bowing deeply.
"Fine words won't gain you an audience with His Majesty," said Maedhros sternly. "If you wish to speak with the King – and can prove that you are citizens of Gondor, which by your strange garb, not to mention your outlandish accent, I very much doubt – then you must go to the chambers of the King's Steward, in yon tower on the western bank of Anduin nigh to the market, and leave with him a petition for a Royal Audience."
"Kind sir," said Pallando, likewise doffing his hat and bowing. "Time is pressing on us, and our words are for your King's ear alone. Are there not some other means…"
"No, there are not!" said Maedhros firmly. "Now, strangers, turn about-face and get you gone from this courtyard forthwith. Return not hither without a scroll sealed by the Steward, granting you an audience with His Majesty."
"I doubt you shall be able to escort us from this courtyard yourself, my friend," smiled Pallando, gesturing with his staff. "It appears you have many more visitors who shall occupy your efforts."
"What's that?" cried Maedhros. Turning his head warily, he suddenly gasped in astonishment. For from behind the Palace, and into the courtyard, came more than a hundred mummers and jesters in colourful garb! Like men and women they seemed, young and spry, dodging and weaving between the rows of guards, who gaped at them in astonishment. Yet they glimmered like rainbows in the mist, and when the guards sought to block their paths with spears, the strange figures passed right through them!
"Ghosts! Spirits of the Dead!" cried one of the guards, dropping his spear and shield in horror.
"Nay, an enchantment! We are bewitched!" shouted another.
"Stop them, you fools!" shouted Maedhros. "'Tis naught but a bunch of knaves, who must have slipped into the courtyard whilst we were distracted by yon strangers. Arrest them at once!"
But it was too late for Maedhros to impose order; chaos had already erupted amongst his men. Some sought to fulfill his commands, chasing after the illusive figures, who slipped between their grasp, or right through their very arms, laughing and taunting them as they led them ever farther from the Palace into the courtyard and the road beyond. Others, overcome by fear of the seeming spectres who had suddenly invaded the courtyard, dropped their weapons and ran for their barracks, calling upon the Valar to save them. After some minutes, the courtyard and the steps of the Palace were empty of guards.
Curunir smiled approvingly at Pallando, and the three Istari continued their walk across the courtyard, and then ascended the steps up to the Palace. At the top of the stairs and guarding they found Maedhros, who stood with his back pressed against the silvered doors, baring his sword at the Istari.
"Halt, I say!" cried Maedhros, mixed fear and resolve showing on his grim face. "I know not what manner of sorcerers you are, nor what devilry you have conjured up to disperse my Men. But you shall go no further! Back, or you shall taste cold steel!"
"Cold steel?" asked Alatar. "But that is not a sword you hold in your hands." He
gestured with his staff, feigning alarm. "Look!"
Maedhros looked at his sword. To his horror, it transformed before his eyes into a huge serpent! Like one of the deadly vipers of Far Harad it was, its scales green as emeralds, its yellow eyes glistening, its fangs dripping with steaming venom. It hissed and lunged at the unfortunate Maedhros, who screamed, and then ran down the stairs for dear life, chased it seemed by the deadly beast, which slithered after him with great speed.
"Well done!" laughed Curunir, leaning on his ebon staff to support himself in his merriment. "Well done indeed! You exceed yourself, my friends!"
"It involved naught but bending light, to create the illusion of solid forms," smiled Pallando.
"And leading Men to see with their waking eyes the phantasms the lie hidden within their own minds," said Alatar. He glanced down at the sword of Maedhros, which still lay on the porch where he had dropped it in his panic. "They shall regain their wits within a few hours, the strong-willed amongst them perhaps sooner than that."
"Come then," said Curunir. "Let us pay a visit to the King, before his minions return." He tapped the great silvered doors with his staff, and they opened inward, revealing a broad, arched corridor of smooth marble that led into a vast, dark chamber visible beyond.
The three Istari walked down the corridor, its cool air offering a welcome respite from the heat of the courtyard. At length they stood under an archway that opened on a broad circular room, some two-hundred feet across. The room was fashioned entirely of marble, smooth and white. Yet the dome above, which soared nearly two-hundred feet above the polished floor, had been painted a deep blue, like the evening sky. Hundreds of narrow holes had been drilled into the dome, in a pattern corresponding to the constellations of the stars as they were seen from the north of Middle Earth on a Midsummer's Day over a thousand years before. Each hole was occupied by a gemstone, most often clear, sometimes amber, sometimes rose, corresponding with the colour of the star that it represented. As the sunlight shone through the gems, they glowed as if they were stars themselves.
"It is indeed a beautiful sight," whispered Alatar softly, as they stood at the threshold, gazing upward. "In truth it surpasses the wonder of the Elven-towers that we saw at Mithlond."
"Yet this the most noble of the Gondor-men have in common with the Elves," said Pallando, "that their minds seem to dwell in the past, strange though such a trait seems amongst mortals. It is said this dome itself was made in homage to the even mightier dome that once crowned the Throne Room of Armenelos in Numenor, long ago. The forefathers of these Men expended great labour to recall to life this fragment of their glorious past, and I will not gainsay that. Yet little thought do the Men of today seem to give to the future."
"Indeed," said Curunir. "The minds of these Men seem occupied either with ancient history, or the mundane affairs of the present day, depending on their greater or lesser degree of nobility. I do not sense any trace of fear amongst these Men that the Shadow may someday return, that it is not annihilated, but merely slumbers, or bides its time. I am keen to see if King Ciryandil is at all aware of the threat. If not, then indeed we will have our work cut out for us."
"Or at least you shall," said Alatar. "Our own concern is with the Easterlings and Southrons. We shall have to leave the Gondor-men in your capable hands."
"And I say again, we shall see whose task is the greater challenge," frowned Curunir. "Yet we cannot afford to waste time here. We must see the King, and then set to work in the Royal Archives. Come!"
Curunir stepped through the archway and into the Throne Room, followed by Alatar and Pallando. The Istari withdrew their gaze from the Dome of the Stars, and took in the plan of the room about them. Its walls devoid of ornament, but for the plain, heavy marble thrones mounted on seven steps of marble at the southern end of the room, opposite the Istari. On the wall above the eastern throne was set a disk of burnished silver, representing the Moon, and above the western throne was a disk of gold, representing the Sun. These thrones were not empty, for in each was a likeness carved in marble of one of the sons of Elendil; the bearded likeness of Isildur sat beneath the Moon-throne, and an image of smooth-faced Anarion sat beneath the Sun-throne, recalling the far off days when these Men of legend had sat beside each other the Throne Room of Osgiliath, affirming their status as Co-regents of Gondor under the sovereignty of High King Elendil in the North. These thrones were flanked by silver doors, set into the wall of the chamber, which led into the private chambers of the King. Beside each door stood a silver brazier, which could be used to illuminate the room at night when the light of the gemstars set in the roof failed.
At the foot of the steps beneath the thrones of Isildur and Anarion was seated a tall throne of silver, its high back carved with the likeness of a tree in flower. This design was a likeness of that White Tree, descendent of Nimloth the Fair, that still grew amid the High Court of Minas Anor, and which was the symbol of the heirs of Elendil and the realms of Numenor-in-Exile. This had been the throne of the Kings of Gondor, when they held court at Osgiliath (as they most often did) since the days of Meneldil son of Anarion.
This throne was also occupied, but by a living, breathing Man. As the Istari strode across
the unadorned marble floor, their staffs clacking on its hard surface, Ciryandil, King of Gondor, came clearly into view. He was garbed in unadorned robes of grey wool, and over his shoulders was draped a sable cloak, held about his neck by a golden chain. Upon the grey tresses of his hair sat a silver crown, in the center of which was mounted a brilliant gemstone, and from the sides of which grew the white wings like those of some great seabird. Grey also was his trimmed beard, and even his pale skin seemed nearly grey, as if it had been many hears since it had felt the light of the Sun. His eyes could not clearly be discerned, for they stared downward as he sat, hands folded on his lap, seemingly deep in contemplation.
Suddenly he looked up at his unexpected visitors, his dark eyebrows rising in surprise, and the Istari could see that his eyes were the clear grey of the Sea under a winter sky. He stared wonderingly at them as they strode across the room, stopping some twenty feet short of his throne. The three Istari removed their hats, bowed, and then stared up at the aged King. Curunir appeared about to speak, but King Ciryandil was the first to utter words.
"Well!" he said, in a soft voice that seemed vaguely hoarse, as if from lack of use. "No visitors were scheduled to appear before me this day. I was sitting here alone and in contemplation, as I often do during the hours of sunlight, and yet now I find my reverie disturbed by you three lords – for you have a lordly air about you, whatever station you may occupy in truth. Yet it seems not meet that you should disturb me, here in the heart of my realm, without let or leave. I wonder greatly how you managed to enter this hallowed chamber, which is well-guarded – or so Captain Maedhros has oft assured me. Shall I summon him and his guards now to my aid, or are you prepared to account for yourselves and your presence here?"
"A thousand pardons, Your Majesty," replied Curunir, who bowed again, before returning his dark gaze to the King of Gondor. "Our presence is indeed unexpected, and for that we apologize. I fear your guards are – shall we say, otherwise engaged – so it was not difficult for us gain entrance to this marvelous room, and stand under its fabled Dome of the Stars."
"Otherwise engaged?" asked Ciryandil, frowning. "The guards of the Palace Court have not been caught napping since the days of Meneldil son of Anarion. Heads may roll, if any treachery is afoot; and if mere negligence is at fault more than one proud Officer of the Watch may find himself relieved of his command. But come sir, you have not yet stated your name, or your business. I leave your companions to speak for themselves."
"As for my name, it is Curunir the White. I am the head of the Order of the Istari, of which you doubtless have not yet heard, though I trust in time you shall come to know it well. We are from a distant land, far to the north and west of here. My business is the well-being of all Men; though a more specific task, for which I require the leave of your Majesty, draws me to Gondor."
"Curunir," said Ciryandil, repeating the name doubtfully. "Does that not signify "Man of Skill", in the Sindarin tongue of the Grey Elves? Oft a Man of Gondor will take an Elvish name, yet whether he does or no he still bears the name given to him by his sire in our own Common Tongue. Have you no other name, then?"
"Curunir must suffice, my liege," replied the White Istari.
"Is that so? And then there is the name of your Order, Is-dari," continued Ciryandil. "Indeed I have not heard of it, and it remains to be seen if I wish to. Yet that is a strange name, one I daresay is from the Quenya speech of the High Elves of the West, which is little known and even less used in Middle Earth. Merely to pronounce the words of Quenya is difficult, in the dialect of our South Kingdom. Wizards I shall call you, if no other name will suffice. At least that name flows smoothly across my tongue."
"Then Wizards we are," smiled Curunir.
"And as for your business," said Ciryandil, "the well-being of all Men is of no concern to me. I am charged by law only with the welfare of the Men of Gondor, and perhaps by blood with regard for the well-being of our cousins in Arnor to the North. Other Men must mind their own affairs, and would do well not to molest the lands or people of Numenor-in-Exile. But before I learn what errand has led you here, the success of which requires my leave, I wish to hear the names of your two silent companions."
"With regret, Your Majesty," they replied together, "we have not taken names among the Men of the West, for our business lies elsewhere. But you may refer to us as the Blue Wizards, if you will."
"What, are you of one mind and voice?" asked the King. "And why should I not enquire as to your own proper names?"
"Patience, great King," smiled Curunir, gesturing demurely. "They mean not to offend you. You may give them whatever names it pleases you, though they shall tarry in Gondor but a brief time before they depart, and once they have gone it is not likely that you shall see them again."
"I cannot say I would sorrow at that," frowned the King, his grey eyes narrowing, "for never in all the years since I assumed the throne have I received supplicants who offered such a reply when I asked them a plain question. But the Blue Wizards they shall remain, if they will give no other account of themselves. You say you are the head of your Order, Curunir, so you must have leave to speak on their behalf. I will put my question to you alone; what to you seek in the realm of Gondor?"
"Understand, Your Majesty," replied Curunir, "we are loremasters of the highest degree. This we can prove to you, by any means that you so desire. But while there are many things far off that are known to us, and are hidden from other Men, yet some things nearby may be withheld from our sight." Curunir paused, adopting a pensive air. "To put it plainly, Your Majesty, and meaning no insult to your royal dignity, we would be most gratified if you would permit us access to the Royal Archives at Minas Anor. We wish only to study them, for perhaps several years, and then with your permission we shall take your leave of this land."
"I daresay you might," replied Ciryandil, a wry smile upon his face. "And all I need do to be rid of you is grant you access to the inmost mysteries of Gondor, to which none but my Royal House, and our stewards, and our archivists sworn to secrecy, have ever been privy? Perhaps you also wish me to grant you a palace or two, and a mountain of gold from my treasury, and to place one of my armies at your command? For I would sooner do all of those things than I would put at the disposal of three foreigners the most precious heirloom of Gondor – the knowledge and wisdom of my thrice-renowned ancestors of exalted Numenor."
"I understand your reluctance, Your Majesty," frowned Curunir, his dark eyes flashing for a moment before they resumed their placid air. "But our researches are not merely for our own benefit. They are first and foremost to your benefit, and that of your House, and your subjects, and all the realm of Gondor, and yea Arnor beyond. For you stand in grave peril, though it seems you know it not."
"Indeed I am in peril, if you three Wizards can penetrate my inner sanctum unchallenged by my guards," replied the King.
"You are in no peril from us, Your Majesty," replied Curunir. "We mean you no harm; indeed, we mean you much good, and know many wondrous secrets, unguessed at even by the Numenoreans of old, which we can add to the store of knowledge found in your Archives in exchange for access to them."
The King's eyebrows shot up in disbelief at this boast, but Curunir continued, his voice dropping almost to a whisper. "No, it is not from we three Wizards that you are in peril, your Majesty. It is from that Doom which has ever been the bane of the Gondor-men – the Shadow from the East."
"The Shadow?" replied Ciryandil hoarsely. "I know not now whether to laugh or cry at your folly. The Shadow from the East, say you? Know you not that the Nameless One was defeated by my kinsman, the legendary Isildur, a thousand years ago? Even the unlettered peasants from the farthest marches of Gondor have heard that tale."
"Folly?" replied Curunir, his voice now louder, deep and resonant. "Nay, I fear it is not we Wizards who are mired in folly, but the Men of Gondor and even their proud King, if you think the Shadow is no longer your concern. Defeated, say you? So it was. And yet the Shadow was not destroyed. Long it has slumbered, and yet mayhap not for much longer. It may be the first stirrings of its awakening are already felt, beyond the boundaries of your land. Woe to the Men of Gondor, and yea to all Men, if they are not prepared when it wakens fully, seething with malice, burning with vindictiveness, ready once again to make war against all those who oppose it, lusting to rule this Middle Earth until the Breaking of the World at the End of Time."
"The Shadow was defeated," replied Ciryandil coldly. He stood up from his throne, tall and grave now, and pointed a long finger down toward Curunir. "It was defeated, and I deem it was destroyed entirely. The triumph of Isildur the Thrice-Renowned shall not be gainsaid. And I shall not listen to any more of your idle words, Wizard."
"You shall listen, Ciryandil of the House of Anarion!" cried Curunir, his dark eyes flashing fiercely, his deep voice booming across the chamber, echoing far down the corridor beyond, as he pointed his ebon staff at the King. "You shall listen, and you shall learn! For it is clear to my sight that the flame of wisdom ebbs low in Gondor, and it is my duty to rekindle it. Be seated, and harken to me!"
Ciryandil shrank back in amazement at the wrath of Curunir, whose form seemed for a moment to blaze with a brilliant white light that stunned his own mortal senses, and left him speechless and silent. Trembling, the King lowered himself onto his silver throne, and sat quietly, his hands folded, as if he were an erring pupil who had been scolded by a firm but just schoolmaster.
As the Blue Wizards stared intently at the King, leaning on their crystal staffs, Curunir smiled again, and resumed his former air of polite gravity. "Do not take offence at my harsh words, Your Majesty," he said, his voice now rich and mellow. "But my kindred and I have many tasks, and first and foremost is to ensure that the Men of Gondor understand the threat, so that they may understand the need to lend us aid in our struggle on behalf of Men against the wiles of the Enemy. I say to you again; Sauron was defeated, not destroyed. Have you not heard of Isildur's Bane?"
"I have," whispered the King, who now appeared thoroughly chastened, and attentive to the words of the White Wizard.
"Know you not what it signifies?"
"A weapon of the Enemy," replied the King. "Long ago did Isildur claim it from him, blood price for the deaths of Elendil and Anarion. The most learned of our scholars say that it was…"
"The weapon of the Enemy," replied Curunir. "We will not name it openly here, so close to the frontiers of the Black Land. Know you its fate?"
"Verily," replied Ciryandil, "as I said, it was taken by Isildur in blood price. It then brought about his doom, or so say the rumours that reached us from the North. Long has it been lost."
"Yet this thing was not destroyed," said Curunir darkly. "Know you not that it was shaped by the Enemy, forged by his own hand? That it was infused with his dark spirit, with the essence of his power?"
"So it is said," replied the King.
"Then think you," chided Curunir, "so that your understanding of this matter may surpass Isildur's. How can the Enemy have been destroyed, when that which was the essence of his power survived? You know from ancient tales that many are the cataclysms that
Sauron the Accursed escaped, and that he has taken new forms again and again. Why then should this time be different? Why then should he not return?"
Ciryandil frowned deeply. At length he replied "There is wisdom in what you say, Curunir the White. The greatest of our loremasters have not foretold such a thing; yet neither have they written anything that gainsays your words. It would be the most fearsome news received in Gondor for a thousand years, should the Enemy return in truth. Yet there has been no word nor rumour of him in all that time. What cause have we to believe that he awakens now, after a long slumber?"
"He may not awaken fully for some time, your Majesty," smiled Curunir, pleased that the King at last accepted the essential truth of his words, and now merely sought his counsel on the particulars. "Not in your lifetime, and hopefully not for many lifetimes of Men. But as for rumours that he begins to stir; indeed, there are rumours in this day and age, though mayhap they have not reached your ears here in the heart of fair Osgiliath. The Elves at least could tell you something of them."
"Indeed?" asked the King, a trace of his pride returning to his manner. "Yet the Elves have grown apart from us, and ever since the defeat of the Enemy and the dissolution of the Last Alliance we have been sundered from them. A strange folk they appear to many Men of my race, notwithstanding the ties of blood and friendship that long bound them to us in the days of yore."
"However the Elves may appear to your eyes, o King," replied Curunir, "they see many things hidden from the sight of Men. Still, these rumours of the Shadow's return could be investigated by your own scouts and agents, if you dispatched them for the purpose. It is said that in the Greenwood, for instance, darkness and a pall of fear have begun to spread across that land, and that Orcs and Wargs and giant Spiders and other fell beasts begin to infest the eaves of the forest. The realm of the Elven-King Thranduil has been much troubled by these evils of late."
"And you think that the spread of these beasts heralds the return of the Enemy?" asked the King.
"Not his return as such, but the first stirrings of it," corrected Curunir. "Much as the darkening of the sky with heavy clouds heralds an approaching storm long before it vents its fury. And I know not for certain whether the events in the Greenwood signal the return of the Enemy, though I have sent two of our Order, whom you have not yet seen, to scour the Greenwood for signs and draw their own conclusions. Yet there may also be other portents."
"Such as?" asked the King.
"Bearing in mind that the Enemy has long been devious, and conducts his war on many fronts, and many ways," cautioned Curunir, "consider then the decline of the North Kingdom of Arnor. Gondor waxes strong, Men say. Yet the decline of your sister Kingdom of Arnor has been visible even in your own time. It is falling into pieces, as King Beleg has been reduced in authority and stature by his noble kinsmen, who scramble to increase their wealth and power in their own petty landholdings. Should not the decline of one of the two halves of Numenor-in-Exile be of the gravest concern to you? For to set the Men of the West against themselves, and undermine their realms, has ever been amongst the foremost goals of the Enemy."
Ciryandil looked troubled, but remained silent.
"And have you heard no other rumours of discord in these times?" asked Curunir.
"We have," replied Ciryandil grimly. "The cruel Haradrim of the South, who have long been docile, have just this year dared to menace our garrison at Umbar, the southernmost city under our sway, which has long paid tribute to us. Our army put paid to the Haradrim, yet their boldness is troubling. And the Men of Umbar themselves, who are in some part akin to us, are not to be trusted; long ago they served the Enemy, and to this day they plot and scheme against us, seeking to cheat us and stir up trouble and dissension whenever they may. They have grown more restive of late; there are even rumours that they plan to rebel, and throw off the yoke of Gondor so that they may reforge their old alliance with the Haradrim, and once again menace the coastlands of Gondor with their Corsair ships, as they did during the wars of the Last Alliance."
The Wizards nodded sagely. Ciryandil fell silent again, for some time, and then at length spoke his mind:
"When I reflect on this matter, Curunir, I conclude that the dark prospect you have raised may be the thread that connects these troubles. And if that is so, it is ill news indeed. Yet you say that you wish to search the Royal Archives. Do you believe you would find information there that may help you to interpret these portents?"
"Indeed I do," replied Curunir. "And also to learn much of the Enemy and his ways, such as was known to your noble ancestors when they fought against him in Numenor as well as Middle Earth."
"And as for our part," said the Blue Wizards, "we would also learn what we might of the Easterlings and Southrons, so that we may work to free them from the influence of the Enemy, and teach them to live in peace with each other and the Men of the West."
"I can tell you all you need to know of the Easterlings and Southrons, my blue friends," said the King, his grey eyes flashing fiercely. "They are savages, fit only for the gallows." The Blue Wizards frowned, but said nothing in reply.
"Very well," said Ciryandil, "this is my decree. You, Curunir, shall have leave to access the Royal Archives of Minas Anor when you wish, as long as I am satisfied that your researches are to the benefit of Gondor. And you, the Blue Wizards, may examine the Archives alongside Curunir, provided that I have your word to assist his researches on the Enemy and his ways, and not merely to garner such tidbits as you can find about the savages who live beyond our borders."
"You have our word," the Blue Wizards replied.
"Then so be it," said the King. "And you shall all receive at Minas Anor such lodgings and board as are suitable for your station as loremasters and scholars of reknown. I shall summon my scribe to present you with a sealed scroll that will grant you access to Minas Anor and its Archives, which I shall leave in your safekeeping, Curunir. It shall note the Blue Wizards may have such access when accompanied by you. Also I will present the three of you with other scrolls that will grant each of you free passage and safe conduct throughout all lands under the authority of Gondor, from Andrast to the Sea of Rhun, and from the River Limlight to the harbour of Umbar."
"Your Majesty is as generous as he is wise," said the Wizards together, bowing yet again.
"And fear not," continued Curunir. "We shall put all of the knowledge we find in your records to good use. And we shall even leave behind some of our own knowledge, as I promised before, for the edification of yourself and your foremost servants."
"I look forward to seeing these examples of your own lore," said Ciryandil. "I would ask only that you speak no word of these matters to other Men. I would not have my subjects troubled by dark fears, and portents beyond their ken, not as long as the Enemy remains discarnate and is not fully awakened. For there is nothing they could do to stay his return, and ill rumours would serve no purpose other than to chill their hearts and dampen their spirits. Report the results of your researches to me, or to my Steward if I am not available."
"It shall be as you wish, Your Majesty," replied Curunir.
"Now, where is that dratted scribe?" continued the King. "I had thought that he and the other servants would be attracted by our raised voices of some minutes ago. But, the walls and doors of this chamber are indeed thick, and perhaps none of our conversation was overheard. To think that I might have to search the grounds for him myself! Such is the folly of old age, to seek solitude when prudence would dictate I never be far from my servants…"
While the King set about searching for his scribe, the Wizards stared at each other. Curunir seemed pleased, but Alatar and Pallando shook their heads and were troubled.
"You spoke truly, Curunir," said Pallando, as he and the other Wizards passed through the third gate of Minas Anor and rode across the grassy sward; four more gates and as many steep climbs to go before they reached the High Court and the buildings that housed the Royal Archives.
"Do I not always speak truly?" smiled Curunir. "But to which truth are you referring?
"Who would have the more difficult task," said Pallando. "I had thought that the Gondor-men would prove a model for the edification of the Easterlings and Southrons. Alatar felt that they might be a doubtful model, and indeed might be too proud for you to lead them along the path of truth themselves, whereas the wild Men were a blank slate on which we could write our wisdom. Yet we both agreed that, whatever the means, in the end our mission to the wild Men would succeed. But now that I have seen Men at their best – and still they are mired in ignorance and folly, until corrected – I begin to fear whether the Men of the East and South shall prove redeemable."
"I fear it myself,", said Alatar. "Though it has been long since the Enemy walked amongst them. We must have faith that we are able to turn them towards the light; perhaps we can even teach them a bit of humility amid the wonders of the world, so that they do not fall into the arrogance and inflexibility of the Gondor-men."
"The Gondor-men have much to be said for them," replied Curunir. "Their hearts are in the right place. All they need is good counsel and a firm hand. But, as you fear, it may well prove that those whose ancestors long dwelt under the Shadow from the East are less pliable to our cause than even the most stubborn Men of Gondor."
"I think Mithrandir is in error on this matter," said Alatar. "During our journey across the Sea, he oft stated the view that Men should only be offered guidance informed by our wisdom, and then should be left freely to choose their own course, for good or ill. 'For even the very wise cannot see all ends,' he would say, 'and it would be folly to think that we alone can lead Men along the path that is best for them.' Yet I now think that surely it would be folly if we subscribed to his views. If you had not been forceful with Ciryandil back at Osgiliath, Curunir, we would be wandering round the marketplace, wondering what to do next, and the threat of the Enemy's return still would not be taken seriously by the King. You have recognized all along that we would need a firm hand to deal with mortals."
"Mithrandir surely understands little of Men," replied Curunir. "Perhaps in time he will learn something of them, and alter his views. Or perhaps not. It would no doubt be for the best if Mithrandir sticks to the Elves, and Aiwendil to his bird-taming, while the three of us take the lead in dealing with the Men of the West, the East and the South."
The three Wizards then fell silent for awhile, until at last they had completed their long climb, and stood before the bronze gate of the seventh level. They dismounted their Elven-steeds – which the guards at the lower gate had told them were not permitted on the seventh level – and as several brown-tunic'd stable hands led their mounts away, they approached the guards at the gate.
Curunir stepped forth, and presented the scroll of marque he had received from Ciryandil to the guards. After examining it closely, and with a few suspicious glances at their strangely garbed visitors, they opened the gate and permitted the three Wizards to pass.
Thus Curunir, Alatar and Pallando came at last to the High Court, which stood upon the vast, flat-topped outcropping of rock that jutted out from the shoulders of Mount Mindoluin like the prow of a mighty ship. This court was covered with green grass, and buttressed on its western end by several graceful buildings and domes, which formed the Citadel of Minas Anor, and the royal residence of the King on those summer days when Ciryandil wished to escape the heat of the plains and breathe in the cool, fresh air of the White Mountains. They also contained the entrances to the Royal Archives, which long ago had been stored in chambers delved deep into the rock of the mountain, secure against fire, mischance and theft.
Before the Citadel lay the Fountain Court, and amid the bubbling of its crystal waters rose the White Tree of Minas Anor, grandchild of Nimloth the Fair. It had been planted by Isildur himself a thousand years before from a seed of the Ithil Tree, which itself had been the child of Nimloth, and which like Nimloth had fallen to the Enemy. Nimloth, which had sat amid the Palace Gardens of Armenelos in Numenor, was the child of the tree Celeborn upon Tol Eressea, and the grandchild of Galathilion that rose from its court in Tirion the Fair, city of the Noldorin Elves in mystic Valinor. And so this Anor Tree, which bore fruit and flower under the summer Sun, was a living link between the Men of Gondor and the Undying Lands, a reminder that the were the descendents of the Faithful Ones of Numenor who had served the Valar and maintained friendship with the Elves.
Four tall guardsmen stood at the four cardinal points around the White Tree. These Guards of the Fountain Court, unlike the others the Wizards had seen, bore on their black tunics and shields the entire device of the Royal House of Gondor – seven stars surrounding the White Tree, surmounted by a crown – and they wore silvered helms upon which were mounted the wings of sea-birds, identical in type to those attached to the King's crown. They stood proudly, their long spears held at attention, and stared impassively into space, without acknowledging the strange visitors who walked towards them.
As the Wizards approached the White Tree, the stopped for a moment, taking in its beauty and its wondrous fragrance that perfumed the crisp mountain air.
"It is not long since we departed the lamplight quays of Avallone," sighed Alatar. "And yet already the Undying Lands grow dim within my memory. It is as if this mortal body, dwelling within these mortal lands, cannot contain a clear vision of such grace and beauty as is found in Valinor. Yet here we see an image and a reminder of what we have left behind. I hope our sacrifice, our turning our backs on Valinor to venture into the darkness of Middle Earth, shall not prove in vain."
"Long will it be before we ever see the like of this fair tree again, once we set out East of Anduin," said Pallando. "You and I, Alatar, have taken oath and bond to spend our days in the wildest reaches of Middle Earth, until the Enemy at last meets his doom. And that may not be for an age and an age, if indeed it ever comes to pass. We should draw what solace we can from our time at Minas Anor."
"You have my sympathies, my friends," said Curunir gravely. "At least I shall be able to journey to Minas Anor now and again, and see this fair image of that which we have left behind. Yet I must also pass through an even darker road than either of you; for I am bound to scour the land of Mordor, whose shadow glowers in the East even under this bright Sun. Not till my researches there are complete will I be able to venture West of Anduin again."
"That is indeed an ill fate, as Cirdan said," offered Alatar.
"Still," said Curunir, assuming a resolute air, "we should not complain about our lot. We accepted it freely, for the Valar would not have forced it upon us had we been utterly unwilling. Even Mithrandir choose this course of his own avail, after long entreaty by the Valar. Though it brightens my heart to gaze upon the White Tree, we must all steel ourselves for the storms that are to come, and focus on the tasks at hand. To work, my friends!" And with that he strode past the White Tree and the fountain court, and up the steps to the bronze doors of the Citadel, wherein lay the entrance to the Archives beneath.
Alatar and Pallando turned their gaze away from the Fountain Court for a moment, and gazed at the jagged Mountains of Shadow on the Eastern horizon. They then stared grimly at each other, before turning back to the Citadel, following in Curunir's trail to the studies that awaited them.