Saruman and the Blue Wizards

Beyond the Sea of Rhun

On the lowermost battlements of the Eastern tower of Carach Angren, the basalt-walled Towers of the Teeth that guarded the Haunted Pass into Mordor, Bergond and Huor leaned on their spears, their black tunics blowing in the chill breeze of early spring as they gazed southward into the dead lands that stretched before them.

"This is what we get for being late for parade," sighed Bergond, his youthful face lined with recent cares. "It's your fault, Huor. You convinced me to go out for a night on the town, and who could say no the taverns of Pelargir when offered an invitation? And then we both got proper drunk, we did, and on account of that we were late. 'Think so lightly of your duty, lads?' asked the officer-on-parade. 'Perhaps the soft lands hereabouts have softened both of you. A year on the frontiers of the Black Land will toughen you up!' And now here we are, and still ten months of our tour to go. Ten months manning the oars on a galley would be better…"

"Will you never stop goin' on about that, lad?" growled Huor, rubbing his thumb across his brown-bearded chin. "You're of age, not a stripling; you went carousing with me because you wanted to, not because I made you. And so what if that cursed officer did send us to the worst posting in all the lands ruled by the King; that's just our lot. Grousing about it won't make our time here any shorter."

Bergond was about to reply, when suddenly he stood up straight, shielding his blue eyes with his hand. "By the Valar!" he cried. "Look! There's someone out there!" he continued, gesturing to the wastelands that stretched away southward.

"That's your eyes playing tricks on you, lad," replied Huor. "No one's out there, not in that accursed land."

"We're supposed to be keeping watch on it, aren't we?" asked Bergond. "So there must be something to watch for, or there wouldn't be much point. And I saw a white flash, what looked like a horse bearing a rider, as sure as I'm standing here." He pointed, and cried, "Look, there it is again!" Other shouts and cries began to echo from battlements higher up the tower; clearly, Bergond's eyes had not deceived him.

"Why, I see him now!" said Huor, his jaw dropping with astonishment. He then turned swiftly from the battlements, picket up a battered bugle that lay on a bench, and sounded the alarm. Within moments, his cry was echoed by other bugles and drums, from the Western as well as the Eastern tower, as scores of archers rushed to their posts, and stared in wonder at the figure advancing toward them in plain view. In a thousand years, this figure was the first to emerge from the wastes of Mordor that had ever been seen by a garrison of Carach Angren, and fear and wonder vied for mastery of their hearts.

After perhaps a score of minutes, the entire garrison could see him clearly now; an old man, with a black beard, garbed in robes that perhaps had once been brilliant white, though now they were now the colour of cream as through many years of use. He was mounted on a white steed, which had once been proud, but had clearly seen better days – it was gaunt, and its ribs showed through its flanks. The man bore a black staff, and a meager saddlebag, though no weapons or other gear could be seen.

"Halt!" cried Huor, as the Man approached within arrowshot of the Eastern tower and its door – he had presumably chosen to approach one of the towers, as the gate that stood amid the wall connecting them, which led from the frontiers of Mordor into the lands beyond, was sealed-shut and unmanned. He halted his weary steed, and gazed up at the battlements as he pulled what appeared to be a tattered scroll parchment from his travel-stained robes.

"Who are you? Account for yourself!" shouted Huor and Bergond, and their cry was soon echoed by others from the garrison.

"I am Curunir the White!" cried the Man, in a voice that was astonishingly deep and loud. "I bear a letter of marque from your King Ciryandil. Let me pass into your tower, and take food and shelter there for the night."

"King Ciryandil lies dead these past fifteen years!" cried Bergond, and other guards echoed his cry.

"That is grievous news," replied the Man, and all at once the garrison felt weighed down by his sorrow. They withdrew from the battlements, and stared down at him somberly.

"Yes, that is grievous news," continued the man. "Though it is twenty years since last I set foot in Gondor, and much has no doubt transpired there that was beyond my ken during my time in the wilderness. No matter; King Ciryandil's letter of marque, unless it has been revoked by his successor, remains valid."

"Stay there, sir," replied an officer who had joined Bergond and Huor on the battlements. "We'll send a squad out to investigate your letter at once. If it is signed and sealed by the old King, I'll deem it valid, and give you entry here as you wish."

"That is most kind of you," replied Curunir, and the guards of the garrison felt their hearts warm as they contemplated the benevolence they were showing to this harmless old Man.

"Poor old blighter," said Bergond, shaking his head. "He must be half-starved after crossing the wastelands."

"Aye," offered Huor, "Mordor seems an odd place for a lord to go holidaymaking."

Fed, bathed, and refreshed, his robes washed and clean anew, Curunir found himself in the cramped study of Baldor, the Warden of Carach Angren, sitting opposite his wooden desk.

"I'm amazed you could survive in Mordor even for a month, my lord, let alone twenty years," said Baldor, shaking his graying beard in amazement. "We can see across the vale of Udun and into the plain of Gorgoroth for miles from atop these towers, and there's nothing for a man to live on in those lands; not a stream or a well to drink from, and no so much as a rat to eat. There's nothing there but ash and dust and bare dry rock."

"That is so," replied Curunir, nursing a silver goblet of mulled wine. "But not all of Mordor is a wasteland. Away south, by the Sea of Nurnen, there are streams that bear water fit to drink, and in their valleys grow grasses and bushes that shelter rabbits, pheasants and other small game. I dwelt in one of those valleys, in a stone hut of my own devising, and my diet was adequate if spare. Indeed, the soil in that region would be very fertile, and bring forth bountiful crops, if it were irrigated with water from the streams. I came across the remains of ancient ditches and settlements, and it seems that land was once used by the Dark Lord to grow the food that kept his armies on the march."

"Say you so," frowned Baldor, narrowing his hazel eyes. "Well, no matter how fertile it might be you'll not find any man of Gondor who would dwell in that land, which lay for so long under the Dark Lord's shadow,."

"No doubt," offered Curunir with a wry smile. "The brave soldiers of Gondor will not even patrol on horseback within the bounds of Mordor, so I suppose it is not surprising that mere civilians fear to settle there."

Baldor felt his back stiffen at this seeming gibe, though his sense of propriety stayed him from offering a riposte. Instead, shifting the ground of his questioning, he asked "I suppose it might be above my station to ask what you were doing in Mordor for so many years, my lord?"

"No doubt it is," replied Curunir, to Baldor's displeasure. "But I was seeking to learn what I could of the Dark Lord and his lands," continued the Wizard, "for reasons that were well known to your late King Ciryandil. And indeed I learned many curious and valuable things, though I shall not reveal them to any other than Ciryandil's heir. Suffice to say I am satisfied that the Black Land does not pose a threat to Gondor for the present, though that is no excuse for being lax in your vigilance. And speaking of Ciryandil, I understand from conversing with your soldiers that he was slain fifteen years ago outside the walls of Umbar?"

"That is so," replied Baldor sadly, his ill-humour at this haughty lord subsiding into grief as he dwelt on the recent events in the South. "The Haradrim roused themselves from their long slumber," he continued, "banded together in a great confederacy of many tribes, and made war against the city. They attacked from the desert at night, evading our scouts, and were aided by many of the treacherous Umbar-folk, who seemed to have forewarning of their assault, and who murdered the garrison by the South gate in order to allow the Haradrim within the city walls. They butchered all our poor lads who did not manage to find safety in the Citadel, and they lorded it over the city for a time, feasting and reveling, and making many boasts and idle threats against our boys who held the Citadel against them."

He slammed his fist on the table. "Gondor's vengeance was swift. Ciryandil dispatched many ships bearing many legions to Umbar; and though he was a scholar by inclination, he came at the forefront of his armies, armed and armoured on his snow-white steed, an image of the splendour of the Kings of old. I was a regular major in the Army then, and participated in the action myself. Our lads besieged the city for weeks, and at length, combining our efforts with those of our men who still held the Citadel within, we broke through the city walls, slaughtered or drove off the Haradrim within the city, and put paid to the Umbarian traitors who fought against us. But alas, even as our victory was almost complete, a stray arrow of the Haradrim caught our King in the gorge, which it seems was a weak point in his armour; he fell to the ground stone-dead, or so they say. At least he died a hero's death, and not suffer much."

Baldor then sighed again. "His son, King Ciryaher, who was with his father when he fell, has redoubled our vigilance in the South, but he is beset by many troubles. For though we have reinforced the walls of Umbar, and maintain our hold on it by the strength of our navy, which ferries supplies and men to there from Pelargir, the lands outside the city walls are still under the sway of the Haradrim. The road that leads from the Crossings of Harnen to Umbar has become well nigh impassible, for the Haradrim, mounted on horseback and firing their deadly arrows while in the saddle, infest all those lands now, so that it is not safe to send supply convoys to or receive goods from Umbar by road. Our trade with that city has suffered much. And through our soldiers can whip the Haradrim in a straight fight, as we did at Umbar itself, we are ill-suited for combating the hit-and-run mounted raids they make on us when we venture out into the desert. So the South is once again at war, and there is no sign of an easy or clear victory for either side."

"That is grievous news," frowned Curunir. "Anything that threatens the power of Gondor is a threat to all the Westlands. I learned much during my travels in Mordor, but it was at the price of being cut off from news of events in the outside world. I wish now I had spent less time there, for perhaps I could have helped Ciryandil to have won a decisive victory at Umbar; and yea, maybe he would not have fallen that day had I been there."

"Perhaps, my lord," replied Baldor doubtfully. "Though the past cannot be undone. And things are worse still than I have said, for even as Gondor is locked in war with the Haradrim in the South, our frontiers are harassed by the Rhunlings in the East."

"The East?" cried Curunir, setting his goblet down on the desk, and staring at Baldor with such intensity that the Warden began to find it unnerving. "Tell me more of this, Baldor! What news of the East?"

"There is less to tell than of the South," replied Baldor uncertainly. "No great battles, or deaths of Kings. But there have been many small skirmishes and raids, which have grown bolder over time. The Rhunlings were not so daring in the past as they are in recent years. And they have grown more deadly, too; for of old they fought only on foot, with crude weapons of stone or copper, but now 'tis said they fight from horse-drawn chariots, armed with weapons of steel! How they learned the arts of horse-taming and steel-making, in only a few swift years, I know not."

"Weapons of steel…" whispered Curunir, his dark eyes narrowing. "You are sure of this?"

"Indeed, lord, it cannot be doubted," replied Baldor. "I spoke not a fortnight ago to one of our captains from the Eastern marches, who had been sent back to Gondor on a litter on account of his grievous wounds. His shoulder had been cleaved nigh asunder by a curved steel blade of one of the Rhunlings, which cut right through his armour."

"Aye," Baldor whispered darkly, "my chief fear is that the Rhunlings will all unite together as have the Haradrim, and mayhap even form alliance with the Haradrim, and the Variags and other Southrons as they did in the Dark Years of old. Then Gondor will be hard put to the test on both fronts, East and South; and while we are the better men, we would be far outnumbered by the Easterlings and Southrons if they combined their strength against us."

"Who are the chiefs of these barbarians, the Haradrim and Rhunlings?" asked Curunir intently. "You say that the Haradrim have united in a confederacy, for instance. Who was the great chief who forged those feuding tribes into a single nation, bent on war

against the Sea Kings?"

"I know not, my lord," replied Baldor somberly. "The Haradrim captives, when interrogated, would only say Inzullor. A name in our own ancient tongue, oddly enough. Mayhap he is one of the Umbar-men, one whose forefathers were Black Numenoreans of old."

"Inzullor…" repeated Curunir. The White Wizard was silent for some minutes, deep in contemplation, before Baldor heard him whisper, "My friends, what have you done? Have you so swiftly met with ill fortune, or been driven astray from your purposes?"

"My lord?" asked Baldor, puzzled.

"Never mind," replied Curunir firmly. "I had planned to return to Gondor for a time, and then head northwards. Now my plans are changed. I require your assistance, Warden."

"You have it, my lord," replied Baldor, "at least whatever assistance you are entitled to by your letter of marque."

"Take possession of my steed," said Curunir, "for it is old, and after many years of toil it is not up to new challenges. In its place supply me with the best steed you have; not the finest in pedigree, but the one best equipped for enduring a long, hard journey over barren lands. And provide me also with fresh supplies, enough at least as the horse can carry as a burden in addition to my own weight."

"As you wish, my lord," nodded Baldor. "When do you require these things?"

"By dawn tomorrow," replied Curunir, rising from his chair. "I ride into the East at first light."

Spring had passed into summer, and many long miles lay behind him, before Curunir, mounted on a mighty dun-coloured stallion, found himself within the land of Dorwinion by the western shores of the Sea of Rhun. He had reached the end of the East Road, and had planned to take ship across the sea from the town of Nindemos, Hasufeld in the local vernacular, to hasten his journey to the distant land of the Rhunlings. But as he stood at the top of the hill that lay west of the town, and the bright blue waters of the Sea unfolded before his view, he felt his heart sink into his boots.

What he had taken as smoke from the cooking fires of Nindemos had, it seemed, another source. For Hasufeld was no longer standing. In its place was strewn a pitiful mass of burned timber and wreckage, dead animals and dead men. Nindemos was ruined, and not a single one of its citizens or guards appeared to have survived the massacre.

For some hours, Curunir regarded the tragic spectacle in grim silence, deep in contemplation. Then, as the Sun was sinking into the West, he heard the footfalls of many horses on the road behind him. Wheeling round in alarm and edging his horse forward, preparing to defend himself if attacked, he breathed a sigh of relief as a battalion of cavalrymen bearing the banner of Gondor came into view over the rim of the westward hills. After some time, the Gondor-men drew nigh to Curunir, and blew their horns as they caught sight of him.

"You there, stay right where you are!" cried their officer, as Curunir rested his staff on his lap, and raised his hands in a gesture of supplication.

"Peace!" replied the Wizard. "I am on your side." He slowly withdrew his letter of marque from the fold of his robes, which he showed to the officer as the cavalrymen drew abreast of him, their long spears at the ready.

"I see that, my lord," replied the officer, handing the scroll back to Curunir after he had gazed at it. "I am Captain Hador. We received word from the locals that the accursed Rhunlings had launched a raid against the port of Nindemos, and we are on our way to investigate. If I may make so bold, what is your business in these parts?"

"I am Curunir the White, and was on my way to Nindemos, or Hasufeld as some call it, on my own affairs," replied the Wizard. "But I fear both of us have arrived too late. See for yourself." Taking his staff in his right hand again, and the reins of his steed in his left, he turned around and rode back to the crest of the hill, accompanied by the cavalrymen.

As they saw the remains of Nindemos, their faces turned pale. Some of the younger cavalrymen wept, thought most spoke words that were hard and grim.

"Indeed we have arrived too late," spat Hador, his grey eyes burning with wrath. "An entire garrison of our men slaughtered, and the simple folk of Dorwinion who dwelt there besides, yea, even the women and children it seems!"

Hador's face twisted with disgust. "This is the work of the maggots of Rhun, and a grave blow to the honour of Gondor. And verily, to our power in these parts; for why should the Dorwinion-men submit to the yoke of our King, if the King's soldiers cannot protect them from evil?"

"No doubt you arrived as soon as you could," replied Curunir soothingly, and the riders relaxed somewhat, though still their faces were marred by gloom. "But come, let us proceed yonder and investigate. I sense no life in those ruins, but we may learn more of this grim deed, and those responsible for it."

Hador nodded and, accompanied by the wizard, led his men downhill into the remains of Nindemos. Yet as they rode through the smoking ruin of the town, there was little more to learn. All about lay the burned bodies of the townspeople, alongside fallen soldiers of Gondor, though the curious bronze armour of some of the burned bodies suggested that those corpses belonged to Rhunlings. "These dogs care not even for their own," spat Hador.

Curunir nodded somberly as he dismounted, running his fingers over the chest-armour of a Rhunling, in order to determine the quality and methods of its workmanship. He muttered inaudibly, and then stood up, taking in for a moment the half-burned remains of a sign that bore a carved vine and grape-leaf. Turning to Hador and his men, who had also dismounted, Curunir said "It appears we have indeed arrived too late. Not a single man or woman, not even a beast still draws breath here. There are many hoofprints and wheel-ruts pressed into the earth, and so the Rhunlings must have made a mounted raid in force, perhaps even under cover of darkness to take the garrison by surprise. The garrison was inadequate, and swiftly succumbed, and the townspeople were hopelessly outmatched, though no doubt they made what efforts they could to defend themselves bravely. You can see the burned ribs of a few ships jutting from the waters of yon harbour; it seems that even the boats were burned, and as like as not no one managed to escape by sea."

"Aye, a grim day indeed," replied Hador, shaking his head. "If only we had a larger garrison here…but our armies in this land have been reduced to a skeleton force, so that the King can fight his war against the Harad-men away south in Umbar. No doubt the troubles of a few border villages in Dorwinion count for little in the councils of state held within the marble halls of Osgiliath. But I fear that Gondor will soon lose its hold on this land, unless we receive reinforcements and soon."

"The Dorwinion-men will surely be arming themselves even now," replied Curunir. "I noted on my ride eastward that their farmsteads have high walls, and seem to have been built with a mind to defence; though an isolated farmstead could no better endure a raid by a large party of Rhunlings than did this town. But the Dorwinion-men will have to defend themselves, if Gondor cannot come to their aid."

"Aye, and that is my fear, in truth," said Hador. "Either the Dorwinion-men will perish at the hands of the accursed Rhunlings, or they will survive on their own efforts, and no longer see the need to submit to Gondor's yoke. Either way, Gondor's empire in the East will soon be lost, unless some miracle can turn the tide."

Curunir raised a black eyebrow, but maintained a diplomatic silence; he saw no great harm in the Dorwinion-men living under their own rulers, as long as they remained friends of the Gondor-men, and helped them to stem the tide from the East.

"What now, captain?" said the White Wizard, changing the subject to matters closer at hand. "What are your next steps?"

"Our duty is clear," replied Hador. "First, we must gather all the bodies of our fellow Gondorian soldiers that we can find, and bury them together under a grave-mound, offering them the proper funerary ceremonies as best as we are able. When that is done, we shall then gather together the bodies of the Dorwinion-men, and burn what is left of them in a great pyre, for it is the custom of that people that upon death their bodies should be burnt to ashes. The Rhunlings," continued Hador, spitting on the ground, "well, we shall leave what is left of them to be picked clean by the crows and wild dogs. They deserve no better." He gave orders to his men accordingly, and as they set to their work, he turned back to Curunir.

"And what of you, my lord?" he asked. "Whatever business you had in this town, you have surely journeyed hither in vain."

"That remains to be seen," replied Curunir grimly, as he re-mounted his horse and took its reins in his hand. "It is clear the tracks of the Rhunling raiders lead away southward, and presumably they will follow the shore of the Sea, south and east, until they reach their own homelands. In their path I shall journey also; for mark my words, Man of Gondor, there will be a reckoning for the Rhunlings' evil deeds here!"

"You mean to pursue them yourself, my lord?" asked Hador incredulously, beginning to wonder if this mysterious stranger was touched in the head. "You will surely meet your doom if you seek to bring justice upon the Rhunlings single-handed. I would dispatch my cavalry unit to help you, but my standing orders are to return to our headquarters in the mountains away west of here when we encounter proof of a Rhunling raid, so that General Orleg, Gondor's commander-in-the-field for Dorwinion, can decide upon the best course of action. At the least, my lord, you should follow us. I'm sure the General would not be averse to your joining any punitive expedition we chose to make against the Rhunlings."

"I have not the time to wait for your General, good Hador," replied Curunir, wheeling about and spurring his steed to action. "And I assure you, I require not the help of any Man!" With that, he was off, and soon disappeared from sight as the Sun sank lower into the West and the shadows of evening lengthened.

"Well, that's the last we'll see of him," muttered Hador to himself. "But as my grandmother used to say, no good can come from standing between a madman and his fancies."

Curunir pursued the Rhunlings for a day, and another, and again another, for his mortal steed could not close the distance with the raiders, who had more than a day's head start in their favour. The weeks passed, and as summer reached its balmy heights he followed the grassy shores of the Inland Sea, south and then east, at length passing far beyond the eastern shores as he rode into the unknown vastness of Rhun. He followed the trail to an empty stretch of marshes, and then knew his chase had been futile; there the trail was lost entirely.

Yet he did not abandon his higher purpose; to find Pallando, and learn what the Blue Wizard knew of events in Rhun, and indeed what role he had played in setting them in motion, as he surely must have done. Curunir wondered why Pallando, who had been instructed to bring the light to the Easterlings, had instead brought them the knowledge to forge weapons of war, without inculcating in them the wisdom they would need to use those weapons in the cause of justice.

But his questions remained unanswered. In this vast land, flat and featureless, an endless succession of grassy plains and barren marshes and sparse copses of Birch and Poplar, there were no roads, and no people that Curunir could find, and no way at all of learning the Blue Wizard's whereabouts. Sometimes, Curunir would see a cooking fire on the horizon, and he would signal his approach to them; yet by the time he had reached it, the Rhunlings would long since have departed. They lived off the land, pursuing their quarry from one place to another, and dwelling but a little stretch of time in any place. Now that they had tamed horses it was fruitless to try and catch up with them.

Summer passed into autumn, and autumn passed into winter, and still Curunir could find no trace of his quarry. He wandered for leagues uncounted, living off the land as did the Rhunlings, and when the snows of winter arrived he built a simple cabin for himself amid a wood of Birch trees; but even his cooking-fires did not attract any notice, or at any rate they did not draw the Rhunlings to him as he had hoped.

As the snows melted, the flowers sprang forth, and the grasses and copses turned a brilliant green amid the brief spring that graced the land before it was browned by the harsh summer Sun, Curunir resumed his wandering. Yet his search, which consumed all his thoughts, proved no more fruitful than before, and as the seasons turned and the snows arrived again at length, he came back to his winter camp, with its spare cabin and its glade of Birch trees that ever sighed under the caresses of the East wind.

Full twelve years passed in this manner, and Curunir and his steed grew ever-more lean and careworn, while his robes grew so dusty they were now more beige than cream. "My cloak shall soon be as brown as that of Aiwendil the Bird-tamer," he said to himself, and laughed outloud at the thought, though his laughter was soon lost amid the grasslands that sprawled beneath the deep blue vault of the Eastern sky. He was aware of the irony, for had he mastered Aiwendil's gift of communicating with beasts, a talent Curunir had once deemed petty and beneath his notice, he could have set many wild birds to scour the land for him, and bring him news of Pallando. He resolved to learn more of that art, should he ever return to the West of Middle Earth, rather than forever wander the empty lands of the East as it now seemed was his fate.

One evening in early spring, when the pale wildflowers had again short forth from the newly-thawed ground, and the buds on the Birch trees had begun to open into slender leaves of brilliant green, Curunir found himself striding along the well-worn path from his cabin to a little stream that served as his source of water. He was also on the lookout for kindling wood, since the fire on his hearth had gone out that afternoon. The stars had begun to glimmer in the darkening sky, and Curunir briefly glanced at his steed, which had been grazing happily on a patch of wildflowers that grew in the clearing about the cabin. The beast had suddenly raised its head, and now stood at attention, its nose twitching, its ears alert.

"What is it?" whispered Curunir softly, placing his leathern water flask on the ground and following the beast's line of sight into the Birch forest. "Have we company at last, in this lonely place?" The horse whinnied softly, stamping its foot, and turned and stared at Curunir with a gleam in its eye that struck him as astonishingly intelligent and full of joy.

Then suddenly he heard it – the singing of soft voices, hardly distinguishable from the sighing of the wind amid the trees, and the faint notes of a harp or lute, which seemed to blend with the tinkling waters of the nearby stream, and the twittering of the woodland birds as they settled down for their nightly rest. At once he felt his own spirits rise, and understood his steed's mood; for these signs could mean nothing less than the presence of Elves, in this very wood!

"Avari," he whispered, his dark eyes now staring intently into the copse of Birch tress, in the direction from which the faint singing and music could be heard. The absence of any company had long since led him to speak to his horse as if it were a Man, though he was aware of the eccentricity of this habit.

"The Unwilling, the Wild Wood Elves of the East," he continued. "Ages ago they forswore the journey of their kindred into the West, and they vowed to dwell in this Middle Earth until the End of Time, even should their bodies fade under the mortal Sun, leaving them as forest spirits of twilight and starlight. In Laurelindorean and the Greenwood, they have been tamed by great lords of the High Elven and Grey Elven kindreds. But here in the East, the Avari are truly wild; they have no kings and no cities, and wander from place to place, from one wood to another, as their fancy strikes them. So it is written in the scrolls of lore."

Curunir paused for a moment. "They may be dangerous. In this rude land, they would have good reason to fear and shun all strangers, and to great them with a hail of arrows rather than kindly words. But I must risk it." He pursed his lips, and then whistled; a long, clear note, strangely melodious, that carried deep into the wood, echoing amid the rustling trees.

His horse stared at him curiously, pawing the ground. "Now it's done," Curunir admitted. "I've revealed myself to them as plain as day. They may flee, but I trust their curiosity will overcome their fear, and then I shall be able to exchange words with them."

The singing and music had stopped, and all Curunir could hear was the sighing of the wind amid the trees, the rustling of the newly-opened leaves, and the bubbling of the stream. But a hush had fallen on the birds and beasts of the forest, and his senses told him that the Elves were drawing close to him now, determined to discover the nature of this intruder in their sylvan realm. Cautiously, he retraced his steps to the cabin, and took hold of the staff that he had left leaning by the open door – it would not hurt to have both the symbol of his authority, and the instrument of his power in hand when the Elves laid eyes on him. He returned to the clearing and waited, while his steed began once again to whinny and paw the ground, a trace of unease in its manner now.

"They are very close," whispered Curunir, using now the Sindarin tongue of the Grey Elves who lived far to the west. Then a brown-feathered arrow struck the ground at his feet, and he jerked his head upward. They had journeyed to him through the treetops!

"Close enough to put the next arrow through your heart, if you so much as twitch an eyebrow!" cried a voice from high up the nearest Birch tree. The words were in an archaic dialect, distantly akin to Sindarin, which Curunir could interpret with some effort. "Remain still!" said the voice, which was soft and yet cool. "Neither move nor make a sound, till we have taken a better look at you."

Curunir remained silent, frowning slightly while his horse sank to the ground, strangely passive, as if the Elves had placed an enchantment on it. Then, at length, the voice from the trees laughed softly.

"So, I see," it said. "You are in form like a Man of the West, or akin to them. Seldom have we seen your sort in these lands. But you have within you a spirit and a power that are surely beyond the measure of mortal Men, and I have not met your kind before. Stand still! I shall come forth and meet you, but do not attempt any trickery! The arrows of my kindred are still trained on you from the treetops."

Curunir saw a shadow drop from the trees into the clearing, and then all at once the Elf stood before him; tall and pale, with the fair features and pointed ears of all the Elven-kind, his long tawny hair and sparkling green eyes matching the dark green tunic and beige leather breeches and boots that formed his simple garb. A quiver of brown-feathered arrows was slung over his back, and a bow of smooth, dark-stained wood was held in his right hand.

"I am Tuilen," said the Elf. "I am the eldest of my kindred, and speak for us when the need arises, though it seldom does. What is your name, and what is it you seek in these lands? For plainly you do not belong here, and yet some desire has brought you hither."

"I am Curunir the White," replied the wizard, now standing proudly over the Elf. "I am a Man in body, and yet more than a Man as you have guessed. More than that I shall not say, beyond that my purposes concern the welfare of the World, and the destiny of this Middle Earth. I do not trespass here out of any purpose that would harm your people, fair Tuilen; I seek merely news of my cousin, who has dwelt in these lands for some time."

"Your cousin dwells here also?" asked Tuilen, his eyebrows raised. "That is the strangest tale I have heard in many a long year. What desire has brought him to this land, then, if cousin he be in truth?"

"Well, his is my kinsman of a sort," demurred Curunir. "His business is his own. But mayhap you have heard of him? He is somewhat alike in form to myself, but his eyes are blue, and a blue sphere is affixed atop his crystal staff, and blue are his robe and his hat."

Instantly, Curunir found the sharp tip of one of Tuilen's flint-headed arrows pointed at his throat, the shaft fitted to the bowstring, which the Elf now held extended with three slender fingers. His green eyes were cold and unfriendly. Curunir could hear the bowstrings of the other Elves in their treetops, straining with tautness as the Elves aimed at his heart.

"You are here to serve the self-styled Blue Lord of the East?" asked Tuilen coolly. "Yes or no? Answer falsely, or poorly, and you die."

But Curunir had overcome his initial shock, and now made the slightest motion of his staff, while his face assumed a benevolent mien. "My dear Tuilen," he said, in a voice suddenly deep and mellow, "by what cause have I offended you? I mean you not any harm, nor am I here to help those who would do you ill."

Tuilen stared uncertainly at the Wizard for a moment, and then slowly lowered his bow and arrow, nodding. He whispered briefly at the trees, and the other Elves likewise relaxed their bows. "Aye," he said at length, "my reaction was hasty. But we must be cautious when we deal with strangers in this land."

"But of course," smiled Curunir benignly. Then he assumed a more serious air. "Now come, noble Tuilen. Tell me more of this Blue Lord, as you called him. Has he been molesting your kindred or your lands?"

"He is the source of many woes," replied Tuilen bitterly. "Over three decades ago he appeared. One of my brothers spotted him from afar, accompanied by a host of the savage Men of these lands; and that was a strange thing indeed, that they should admit a Westron to their camps as a guest, rather than slay him out of hand as is their custom. News of this soon spread amongst my kindred, for though there are few of us, we have many ways of sending word to each other swiftly and silently, and many of the birds and beasts are our friends. But the admission of this Man to their camps was only the beginning of the strange events of these recent years."

Tuilen then explained to Curunir how, apparently under the tutelage of this blue-robed stranger, the Easterings swiftly learned how to tame horses, and how they had begun to trade with Dwarf and Orc-mines in the mountains that lay to the north and east of their lands, exchanging hides and cured meats for ingots of copper, tin, iron and other riches of the earth.

"My kindred use only flint for our arrowheads and spearpoints, as we ever have," continued Tuilen. "That is our way. It was also the way of the wild Men hereabouts, ever since their ancestors journeyed into these lands from the Far East in ages past. Seldom have we had dealings with the Dwarves, and never with the Orcs, but we know both of them can melt certain rocks and forge them into weapons of metal. Under this Blue Lord's direction, the Men of these lands have built their own forges and smithies, and these ring out night and day with the sounds of weaponmaking. Many forests near to their smithies have but cut down to fuel the fires, and that is the cause of our enmity towards the Blue Lord; for the forest is our home, and we will not tolerate threats to it. If all the scattered woods of this land were cut down my people would either have to flee in exile, or else perish for want of food and shelter."

He sighed, and then continued. "Moreover, the Men of this land, who were once scattered clans, are forming into a great army. Their womenfolk, elders and younglings live still in shifting camps on the plains, but vast numbers of their men of fighting age now live in settled camps by the Blue Lord's forges. They send out riders in great vessels of metal drawn by horses into the West; sometimes they do not return, but more often they do, laden it seems with booty from the Westrons. The Blue Lord could send many more Men west in force, should he wish it."

"That is an evil tale," replied Curunir, frowning darkly now. "But where are these forges and smithies? A dozen years have I crossed the trackless wastes of this land, and I have seen no sign of them."

"They are in the foothills of the Red Mountains," replied Tuilen. "Leagues upon leagues to the east of this wood. I am not surprised you have not encountered them, for these lands are so vast that a man could scour them for a hundred years before happening upon the Blue Lord's encampment by chance. But I can tell you how to proceed there directly, if you wish."

"I would be most grateful indeed," smiled Curunir. "It is plain that the one you refer to as the Blue Lord has strayed far from the purposes for which he was sent hither. I mean to set him back on the right path, and in so doing to end the threat that he poses to the ways of your people."

"For that, you would have our own gratitude, Curunir the White," bowed Tuilen. "Listen then; from this spot, ride due east, towards the rising Sun, until at length you come to a vast, dry riverbed. It is deep, and broad, and full of many hillocks of sand and gravel; you cannot miss it. Turn and follow its path, north and east, and after some weeks, or perhaps months, you will arrive at the roots of the Red Mountains. The Blue Lord's camp and his forges sit at the head of the river-valley, between the flanks of two hills. They draw water from the springs that still sit at the source of the riverbed, though most of those springs dried up in ages past, reducing the once mighty river that flowed through those parts to the barren land, stripped of its trees, through which you will ride. If you set off on the morrow, you could reach the camps before the end of summer."

"So be it," replied Curunir. Then he smiled again, his voice now soft and low. "But please, good Tuilen, might I not now entertain you for the evening, simple though my accommodations are? It is long since I have had any company, I and would offer you such hospitality as I can."

"I must decline," smiled Tuilen briefly, blinking as if a spell had been lifted from his eyes. "My kindred have our tasks, as you have yours, and we cannot tarry here. The wood awaits us, and we must sing under the stars throughout the evening if the flowers are to fully blossom, and the trees to ripen forth with leaves. Thus is the land reknewed. Fare you well!" And with that, he turned and dashed into the wood, while a soft rustling in the treetops signaled the departure of his kindred.

Curunir sighed, and then turned once again to his steed, which now lay asleep on a bed of flowers that seemed to smell more sweetly than they had but a few hours before. "Sleep indeed, my friend" he whispered. "Tomorrow you will have a hard ride ahead of you."

Spring passed into summer, and Curunir had ridden over countless leagues of country that grew more treeless and barren has he drew farther east, following the course of the dry riverbed that Tuilen had mentioned. At length the craggy ramparts of the Red Mountains began to loom up on the eastern horizon. Then, Curunir saw many smokes rising forth from a narrow valley at the root of the mountains, and knew that at last his long journey was nearly complete.

"Indeed you have been busy, Pallando," whispered Curunir under his breath. "I trust you will not be unduly surprised when I inspect your labours and find them wanting." He spurred his horse from the crest of the valley down its shallow slopes, meaning to follow it straight into the Blue Wizard's encampment. But as he descended into the valley floor, which was littered with many broken boulders and rocks of dusky red stone, his horse began to neigh and paw the ground uneasily, looking this way and that.

"Yes, I sense it too," he whispered, lifting his staff from his lap and holding it in his right hand, ready for use. "There are unseen sentinels here…"

Without warning, a black-feathered arrow shot from behind one of the rocks, grazing Curunir's steed on the flank. Screaming with panic and pain, the beast bolted, throwing the White Wizard to the ground. Curunir jumped to his feet, staff at the ready, only to see from the corner of his eye that his steed was galloping madly up the valley slope and into the West, carrying his saddle, canteen, and all other possessions. Only his staff remained in his own hands. But he could not call to the beast to return, for his attention was distracted by several more black-feathered arrows, aimed straight at his breast!

Frowning with concentration, Curunir spun his staff faster than the eye could see, knocking the deadly arrows off their path. Then, speaking a Word of Command, he pointed his staff at the boulders before him. A flaming orb shot forth from the staff, exploding amid the boulders with a deafening roar!

As the blast echoed up and down the valley, Curunir strode cautiously toward the boulders, staff at the ready. Amid the stench of burning flesh, he could hear pawing and scraping on the gravel of the valley floor, and the odd curse muttered in an uncouth tongue. His nostrils wrinkling with disgust, he stood still, and pointed his staff towards the boulder.

"Snaga!" he cried, uttering the Black Speech of Mordor – he had found a Key to it during his travels in that land. "Come forth! Your comrades lie dead, and so shall you, if you do not obey my commands!"

Growling now, the creature crawled forth from behind the boulder, and wallowed in the dust, its sickly gray flesh and ebon-scaled armour singed and burning, its scarlet tongue lolling out from its grotesque visage, its yellow eyes glaring with hatred at its foe.

"You know the Dark Lord's speech?" spat the Orc; for such it was. "How can this be?"

"I know many things," replied Curunir guardedly. "Now, speak! Whom do you serve, and why did you and your dead fellows attack me just now? Are you bandits, or guards?"

The Goblin screwed up its face with rage, and spat a string of foul curses. But then, compelled by a will greater than its own, it answered the White Wizard's queries.

"I serve…the Blue Lord, now," it spat. "Black has become blue, and blue has become black," it wheezed, gurgling in its throat with what Curunir imagined might have been its idea of laughter.

"And the Blue Lord commanded you to guard this valley?" asked Curunir, not interested in exchanging riddles with this foul beast.

"We guard. We serve. We send iron ingots to Men," gasped the Orc.

"And for what price?" asked Curunir.

"Flesh is sweet," gurgled the Orc. "And none sweeter than…" It convulsed with a harsh, racking cough.

"Sweeter than what? What say you?" asked Curunir, curling his lip. But the Orc gave a last gurgling cry, twitched and then lay still. Curunir stepped cautiously toward it and prodded it with his staff, but it was clearly quite dead.

"Disgusting creatures," muttered Curunir. "Why should Pallando have any dealings with them, trading the flesh of who knows what beasts for their ores and their blades? My displeasure with him grows by the moment." He turned his gaze to the West, but his steed had long since passed over the edge of the valley in its frantic escape, and now it was beyond sight or earshot.

"Well, my little fireworks display certainly will not have gone unnoticed," sighed Curunir, speaking to himself. "There's nothing for it but to walk towards the camp and await my welcome, such as it may be. It had better surpass that offered by these Orcs, or my reckoning with the so-called Blue Lord shall be swift indeed."

Turning back toward the East, Curunir strode purposively amongst the rocks and boulders, following a winding course that led inexorably towards the wisps of smoke emanating from the feet of the ruddy mountains, which drew closer with each passing minute. Perhaps an hour or so had elapsed, when he heard the footfalls of horses echoing down the valley in front of him, and what sounded like the rumbling wooden wheels of a crude chariot.

"At last, the welcome party," laughed Curunir grimly. He strode toward a clearing amid the boulders, and then stood, tall and proud, his staff planted firmly into the dust. Only a few more minutes passed before a score of riders appeared amid the boulders opposite the clearing, wearing crudely-wrought armour and spiraled helmets of flashing bronze and tunics of crimson cloth, their standard-bearer holding a banner of pure azure. Behind them rumbled a heavy chariot, drawn by half-a-dozen brown horses, and driven by a single man garbed and armoured like his fellows. The standard-bearer cried out in a harsh tongue, and amid a cloud of dust the party came at once to a halt.

As the dust settled, the standard-bearer rode forth, stopping several paces short of Curunir. The White Wizard carefully scrutinized the young Man, noting that his olive skin was clean-shaven but for a long, thin moustache of oily black hair, and that his brown eyes were both shrewd and fierce. He bore a curved sword in a leathern scabbard, the hilt and pommel of which gleamed of steel.

"Welcome, o Curunir the White," said the standard-bearer at length, speaking the Common Tongue of Gondor with an outlandish accent.

"You know both my name, and the Common Speech?" asked Curunir, his dark eyebrows flashing in surprise.

"Indeed," replied the Man. "I am Jagati, lieutenant of the Aral-Rakanand eldest son and heir of Targul-Rakan, the Grand Chief of our nation. Our master Aral-Rakanhas been expecting you would visit him in time. Your chariot awaits, my lord. It shall bear you to our master's camp."

"Your master did not set out such a warm welcome farther down yon valley," scowled Curunir, jerking his head toward the barren vale behind him. "I was waylaid by a party of Orcish guards, and lost both my steed and my possessions."

"Yet I deem the Orcs had the worst of the encounter, my lord," replied Jagati with a sly grin. "Else you should lie dead. Nay, do not take offense, my lord," said the man, raising his left hand in supplication as Curunir's scowl deepened. "Merely a jest on the part of my humble self. Please, climb aboard your chariot, and we shall bear you to the feasting hall."

Nodding silently, Curunir strode towards the transport, ignoring the intense stares of these strange and savage men, and alighted in the chariot, gripping the bronze rim with his left hand while keeping a steady grip on his staff in his right. The charioteer raised the reins, and with a harsh cry he wheeled the cart around, rumbling back towards the East as the party of horsemen formed an escort.

Another hour passed, the barren foothills of the Red Mountains looming high overhead, until at last the Rhunlings turned a corner in the dry valley and came upon a steep gorge, within which lay the Blue Wizard's camp. It was a vast series of crude huts of hide and bone or wood, from which issued the fumes of countless dung-fires, and which sprawled around several low, solid buildings of carved sandstone, clearly quarried from the nearby mountains. On the far side of the stone buildings were many smaller stone huts, from which dark plumes of smoke issued forth. The walls of the gorge echoed faintly with the ringing of many hammers on anvils, just as Tuilen had said.

"This is the Aral-Kurulen," grunted Jagati, who now rode alongside the chariot. "The camp of the Blue Lord, our master."

"Even the King of Gondor would be impressed, I'm sure," replied Curunir with a wry smile, as he took in both the size and the squalor of the vast encampment.

"The King of Gondor. Bah!" spat Jagati. "We have heard tales of his stone houses. They are nothing beside those we have built, and less beside those we shall build in times to come! This city shall be the heart of a great empire, Lord Curunir! But you shall learn this soon enough. Our master will say more."

"Of that I have no doubt," replied Curunir, ignoring the Rhunling's absurd boasts.

The party passed through the warren of huts, as many young warriors, some armoured, come clothed only in loose-fitting pantaloons, came forth from their dwellings to stare at their mysterious guest. Curunir noted that there were no women or children amongst them. A camp of war, just as Tuilen said, he thought to himself.

At last, the chariot drove past the last of the huts, and through a heavily-guarded gate in an enclosing wall to the compound of ruddy-hewed stone buildings. The chariot came to a halt at the foot of a flight of stairs that descended from the largest structure, a broad, squat, heavy edifice that had only one doorway at the top of the stairs, and a few narrow windows that could double as arrow-holes if required. An azure pennant mounted on a pole on the roof above the doorway flapped in the East wind.

The horsemen dismounted from their steeds, swiftly forming an honour guard for Curunir as he alighted from his chariot on the crimson sands. As he stared up towards the doorway, a score of spear-bearing guards issued forth, their bronze helms decorated by long azure feathers of some unknown bird. One of them held up to his lips a small brass horn, which issued forth a brazen peal that echoed across the ruddy-walled valley. Then, as Curunir sighed impatiently at this display of pomp, a familiar figure came forth from the doorway, and stood at the top of the stairs, leaning on his crystal staff, his flowing blue robes and cloak standing in sharp contrast to the ruddy tones of the encampment.

"Curunir the White!" cried the figure in a high, reedy voice. "At long last! I am glad to see you survived you perilous journey into the Black Land. Now, we are together again! We have much to discuss, you and I."

"Aral-Rakan," replied Curunir. "Or such is your name in these parts, if I have been informed correctly. There is indeed much to discuss, though with your pardon I shall wait until after my evening repast to do so.

"But of course," replied the Blue Wizard, smiling broadly as he gestured toward the doorway with his crystal staff. "Please, come inside! A feast has been prepared for you. There shall be plenty of time for talk once the Sun sinks into the West, and the Moon lies overhead. Come!"

Wordlessly, Curunir strode up the stairs, his staff clacking loudly with each step, until he passed into the doorway, followed by the Blue Wizard.

The so-called feast was one of the worst meals that Curunir had endured in his long exile in the East. He did not enquire too closely but he suspected the main course, served in bronze platters and bowls set on the floor, was nothing less than boiled horse flesh, and the beverage appeared to be fermented mare's milk. Pallando – Curunir refused to think of him by the barbarous name of Aral-Rakan, despite his public appellation - ate almost as sparingly as he did. However, the Rhunlings present, from their grizzled Great Chief Targul-Rakan, resplendent in his armour of polished bronze, to the blue-robed, shaven-headed acolytes who served as Pallando's aides, tucked into the meal with relish.

The close, smoky atmosphere of the room, lighted by a large brazier of brass around which were arranged the padded leathern cushions of the guests, completed the general atmosphere of barbarism and squalor. Yet it was apparent that the Rhunlings were very proud of their feasting hall, and perhaps not without reason; after all, a generation before, they had lived only in huts of bone and leather, and luxuries such as bronze serving dishes and cushions had been utterly unknown to them.

After the meal the Rhunlings, who had made a show of bowing repeatedly before both Curunir and Pallando, departed for their own tents, leaving the two Wizards to themselves. As he reclined on his cushions, picking a bit of gristle from between his sharp white teeth, Pallando turned to Curunir with a curious gleam in his bluish-grey eyes.

"Well, my friend," said the Blue Wizard, "what do you think? I don't mean the meal," he added quickly, noting that the White Wizard's face was tinged with a distinctly greenish hue. "I haven't had the time to instruct these folk in the culinary arts, regrettably. But what do you think of what I've accomplished amongst these Men, in such a short space of time?"

Curunir stared at the flames of the brazier, choosing his words carefully. "There is no doubt that these Men have come a long way…" he began.

"Indeed they have!" beamed Pallando. "They have proven apt pupils. The Gondor and Dorwinion-men have long slandered these folk as hardly above the level of beasts. Yet they are as quick to learn, and to improve themselves as any other Men, once the opportunity presents itself. Indeed," he sighed, "the Gondor-men's arrogance never ceases to amaze me. After all it was not so long ago, as you and I measure things, that even the Edainic ancestors of the Gondorians lived little better than these folk."

"As I said, these Easterlings have come a long way," said Curunir. "But," he continued, raising a sable eyebrow in admonition, "you surely realize they still have far to go."

"Well, of course!" replied Pallando with a frown. "I cannot bring them the Sun and the Moon all at once. But you should have seen what these folk were like when I first arrived in this land, Curunir. They had nothing – literally nothing at all. All that you see here, from this building, to their armour and weapons, to their forges and smithies, to their taming of horses, and use of chariots; all these things I have brought to them. In one generation I have raised them from crude savagery to organized barbarism; in the next I shall begin to raise them from barbarism to civilization. They will be taught the arts of writing, once I have finished devising an alphabet for their speech, and I shall replace their cluster of tents with a city of proper houses of stone, and invite their wives and children who are scattered across this land to live here with them."

"A curious choice of words," replied Curunir. "Raised them to barbarism, you say? I have seen the handiwork of these folk by the shores of Dorwinion, and barbarian strikes me as to too fine a name for them. Butchers would be a more appropriate appelation."

"You mean their penchant for raiding?" asked Pallando, waving a pale hand dismissively. "Please, Curunir. Surely, you of all people can see things in their proper perspective. These folk have long suffered the depredations of the Doriwinon-men and their allies in Gondor. The Westrons have stolen their fish, and the horses and kine of this land, offering nothing in return but cold steel when the Rhunlings resist. Why should the Rhunlings not seek to exact a thorough revenge, now they have the means to do so? It is only natural."

"Natural?" cried Curunir, his deep voice echoing across the dusky hall. "What I saw at the town of Nindemos was not not natural, Pallando; it was a cruel slaughter, down to the last man, woman and child."

"Oh yes, Nindemos," murmured Pallando, with an abstracted air. "Hasufeld, the locals called it. I remember that village from my journey eastward. Was it ruined, then? Well, 'tis a pity. But I cannot be stayed from my purpose by such temporal considerations. I must take the long view with an eye to the future, as must you and all members of our Order."

Pallando raised himself from his cushions, and began to lecture the White Wizard with the gently chiding air of a wise schoolmaster correcting an erring pupil. "If you will the ends, Curunir, you must will the means," he smiled, spreading his hands expansively. "I cannot raise these people to the status of a powerful and civilized nation if I deny them the tools they need to strengthen themselves. Nor is it possible for me to check their every move. The Men of Targul-Rakan's generation and that of his son Jagati are raiders and plunderers by nature. That is all they have ever known. But, when their places are assumed by Jagati's infant sons, I shall set them along the path of order and discipline."

"I think it is you who are in need of a proper perspective, Pallando," replied Curunir, pointing a long finger up at his counterpart's bearded face. "You were not sent hither to forge an army for the Rhunlings. The King of Gondor would soon cease to be our friend if he saw what you have done here, and knew that your proteges were behind the disturbances on Gondor's eastern marches."

"What care I for Gondor's friendship?" asked Pallando dryly.

"I thought you once viewed the Gondor-men as models for the Easterlings?" asked Curunir. "But be that as it may, it should be enough for you that I care about Gondor's friendship. And, if you actually paused to reflect upon our mission for a moment, you would recognize that we cannot hope to lead Men against the Dark Lord without ensuring that the Men of the West are our firm allies. To alienate them from we Istari would be a disaster to our cause."

"My cause is first and foremost to uplift the Men of the East," replied Pallando, "and I am well along the path to so doing. How can you be so naïve as to think that such a task could be accomplished, without any friction with the Men of the West? It should be sufficient for you to worry about the West, Curunir; I shall focus my attention on the East, as I must."

"Is that so?" replied Curunir. Inwardly he was now seething with anger at Pallando's arrogant manner, as it seemed to him, but he decided to conceal his wrath for the time being. "Tell me, then," he continued, "more of what you have done for these Men of the East. After all, you must recognize that it is not enough for you to improve these Men's material capacities. What of their spirits? For centuries their ancestors were tainted by the worship of the Dark Lord. What have you done, Pallando, to set them on the path of rightiousness, to turn their minds away from the darkness and toward the light? Have you begun to turn their thoughts toward the Valar, and toward Eru?"

"Did you not see my acolytes at the feast?" replied Pallando, his eyes taking on a distinctly dark hue as he began to radiate displeasure at Curunir's insistent questioning. "I have taken the shamans of these people and placed myself at their head, so that they now follow my teachings. On all matters of the spirit, the word of Pallando, of Aral-Rakan, is now the will of the Eternal Blue Heaven to these Men. Now at least they worship the Sky, rather than the Dark Lord."

"And of course you speak with authority on behalf of the Sky?" scoffed Curunir, who could no longer contain his scorn at this glorified conjuror's pretensions. "Then these Men are still heathens, who worship merely that which is visible. Have your forgotten that the Valar only invited you to accompany our mission to these mortal lands at the last minute," he continued, "and then only because your friend Alatar insisted? You are by far the least of any of us in your wisdom or powers, save Aiwendil the Bird-tamer. Who are you, Pallando, to take the place of the Valar as the source of spiritual guidance for these Men?"

"Have a care, Curunir," warned Pallando, frowning deeply beneath his long black beard. "My patience with your poor manners grows thin. I am the master here, not you; amongst these Men my word is law. You would do well not to forget that, ere you chastise me again."

"Have a care?" replied Curunir as he rose to his feet, his dark eyes glowering. This farce had gone on long enough; it was time to set the so-called Blue Lord in his place. "Do not speak to me as if I were one of your mortal lackeys, Pallando!" continued the White Wizard. "I am the head of our Order; you will take your lead from me."

"I take my lead, as you put it, from no one," replied Pallando coolly. "I respect your lore-mastery, as foremost in knowledge amongst our Order, and on that account I welcome your counsel and your aid; no more. And I have gained much mastery of lore myself since I arrived in these lands, though many trials and experiments. Perhaps my mastery of some fields of lore now rivals, nay, even surpasses yours, Curunir the White."

"Was that an idle boast, or merely a jest?" asked Curunir.

"It was neither," said Pallando evenly, "but a statement of fact."

"If it is a statement of fact, then it shall be put to the test," replied Curunir. A demonstration of his own lore-mastery should soon bring the Blue Wizard to heel. "Let us begin with your experiments, as you call them. What is their nature, what is their object, and what have you learned from them?"

"Ah, I knew you would be interested," smiled Pallando cryptically, who bent down for a moment, taking up his crystal staff. "In the Westlands, hindered by the petty laws of the Gondor-men, you would not have had the opportunity to work with such material as is available here. Come and see!" He turned and marched across the dusky hall, while Curunir, his skepticism at odds with a warning somewhere at the back of his mind, took up his own staff and followed the Blue Wizard.

As they reached the far end of the hall, Pallando turned from the broad, torch-lit passage that lead to the exit from the building and, moving through a narrow doorway to the left of the passage, descended a spiraling staircase, lit only by the occasional flickering torch. As Curunir followed, his nostrils wrinkled at the indescribable stench that began to well up from below, but he chose to ignore his physical discomfort and focus his attention on Pallando, who again was speaking:

"It is of course my task to improve these Men, to make of them more than they are," said Pallando, seemingly oblivious to the foulness of the air. "But I have not limited my work to uplifiting them materially or spiritually alone," he continued. "It occurred to me some time after my arrival here that Men, who are after all frail and weak creatures, could use much in the way of physical improvement as well."

"Physical improvement?" asked Curunir, who began to feel his skin crawl; a sensation he imagined was related in some fashion to that feeling he had heard Men name as fear. "You mean to improve on the design of Eru?"

"Well, it sounds rather presumptuous of me when you put it in those terms," demurred Pallando. "I have not changed their basic design; but I have experimented with, you might say, enhancing that design to compensate for certain weaknesses, weaknesses that manifest themselves in particular in a land as harsh as this one."

Curunir said nothing in reply, his mind focused now on the scene before them as they reached the bottom of the staircase. They found themselves in a small, dingy room, carved from the living rock beneath the citadel, and lit by a single torch. Various dark passageways branched off from it, one of which was secured by a solid-looking door of some heavy hardwood. On a crude wooden bench in front of the door sprawled an Orc, armoured in iron and garbed in filthy black cloth, lazily gnawing on the raw shinbone of some unfortunate creature. At least the source of the stench is apparent, Curunir thought to himself. The Orc, which had a large set of keys attached to an iron ring on its black leather belt, appeared to be a jailer of some sort. As it saw Pallando and Curunir, it belched loudly, and then rose to its feet, its swart, scarred features twisting into a horrible grimace that seemed both half-mocking and half-ingratiating.

"Aral-Rakan, my lord," hissed the Orc. "And it seems you've brought company from foreign parts?" His cold yellow eyes glanced up and down over Curunir, and he licked his cracked black lips with a swollen crimson tongue. Curunir's lip curled in disgust; he was tempted to smite the foul creature then and there, but refrained from doing so for the time being.

"These tunnels are Orcish mines, hence my choosing to locate my smithies and forges near them," whispered Pallando to the White Wizard. "I have made a bargain with the Orcs to our mutual advantage, as you can infer." Then turning to the Orcish guard, he said "Ugronk, this is Curunir, my cousin from the West. He is an honoured guest. Treat him with the respect that is due to him."

"Certainly my lord," croaked Ugronk, bowing his misshaped head up and down repeatedly. "And how might humble Ugronk be of service to your lordships?"

"I wish to show my guest the results of my experiments," replied the Blue Wizard. "Kindly open the door for us."

"Ah, a tour!" cackled Ugronk. "A rare treat you're in for, my lord Curunir! Sights and sounds such as you can't imagine!"

"No doubt," replied Curunir disdainfully. "Now, more door-opening and less idle prattle from you, if you please."

"As my lordship wishes," hissed Ugronk, removing the keys from his belt and insterting them into the keyhole of the door. The mechanism of the lock turned with a metallic clang, and then Urgonk pushed the door open, revealing a broad passage beyond, lined with occasional torches. It was then that Curunir first heard the sounds that issued forth from beyond the door; like the chittering of bats they seemed, and the barking of dogs, and a thin, hysterical tittering, mixed with other sounds that he could not describe.

Once again, Curunir felt his skin crawl, and he silently cursed the frailness of the mortal from that he had assumed.

"This way, my lords," cackled Ugronk, gesturing to the open doorway as he returned to his bench. "Enter and enjoy!"

Wordlessly, Pallando strode into the passage, followed by Curunir, who kept close behind.

"These experiments, as you call them…" began Curunir, his deep, mellow voice betraying nothing of the mounting alarm he felt welling up from within.

"You will see their fruits soon enough," replied Pallando. "It is best if you see them first, and then I will explain to you how and why I attempted them. I should caution you that the results are not yet, well, perfect. There is still much work for me to do. But I have already learned a great deal, more than I could have dreamed of in so short a time."

They walked along the dimly-lit passage, and then followed a sharp turn to the left, coming upon a row of dozens of iron-barred cells each containing a single occupant. The noise that came from the cells was nearly deafening, but that was not what shocked Curunir to the very core. Within each cell, dimly lit by the torches in the corridor, he could see shambling, loping things.

All were Man-like in shape, but none could truly be called a Man. In one cell shuffled a creature that appeared to have the head of a wolf grafted onto the body of a Man. It sniffed the air, and then opened its jaws in a hideous lolling grin as its red eyes gazed at the Wizards as it bayed a dreadful howl. In another cell, a mottled creature with the legs of a frog hopped about, incoherent grunts and wheezes issuing from its wattled throat. In a third cell, a creature with the body of a small man, but the wings and face of a bat hung upside down from the ceiling, seemingly deep in sleep. And, in yet another cell, a huge, hulking creature with the long, pointed ears and hideous visage of an Orc, but the tall, clean-limbed body of an Man stood upright, its cold yellow eyes regarding the visitors warily.

"Ah," smiled Pallando, as Curunir looked on in silence. "The others were only groping attempts at perfection on my part, but from my failures I have learned much. Here you see the results of my finest experiment yet. How are you, Thag?" he asked, addressing the Half-Orc creature.

"Care you for my welfare, master?" growled Thag, displaying its wickedly pointed fangs in a grimace.

"It speaks!" gasped Curunir.

"As thou doth speak," replied Thag, eyeing the White Wizard with a baleful glare.

"Thag I have created from the blood of Men and Orcs," explained Pallando in his thin, reedy voice. "He is taller and stronger by far than any Orc, with a keener mind, and yet he is more ruthless and aggressive and with a longer span of life than any Man. From him, I could breed a stable hybrid, one that would greatly strengthen the bodies of Men. Or, if I chose, I could breed his kind into a caste of warriors, while other Men served at other tasks. Truly, it is a waste of his potential to keep him in this cell, but the Rhunlings are not yet ready to be introduced to him. Perhaps in a few years."

"I have already had an introduction," smiled Thag, as he lifted up from the floor what appeared to be the gnawed shinbone of a Man.

"Indeed," replied Pallando primly, "there is little point in allowing the bodies of the dead to go to waste, when they can be put to use."

Curunir, still too stunned to fully grasp what he had seen, never the less managed to regain his focus and turn his dark gaze squarely at Pallando. "I have seen enough," he said. "Show me to my chambers on the surface; we can continue our discussion on the morrow."

"As you wish," replied Pallando. Turning his back on Thag, he walked down the corridor, Curunir close at his heels. They passed Ugronk, who gave them a knowing leer as he shut the door behind them, and climbed the stairs back into the main corridor of the citadel. Pallando clapped his hands, and two shaven-headed, blue-robed acolytes swiftly appeared from the shadows.

"Attend to the lord Curunir, and see him to his chambers," said Pallando, who then turned on his heel and strode towards the great hall. Curunir, wordlessly, followed the acolytes to a small stone-walled cell, lit only by the moonlight that shone through a narrow slit window, and containing only a pitcher of cold water and a leathern mattress stuffed with down. Curunir gestured for the acolytes to depart, lay down his staff next to the mattress, and then stared out the window at the Moon as he made his passage across the starry sky.

"To think that this is the same Moon that one sees from Minas Anor, from Mithlond," he whispered, "and yet here it illuminates things beyond the nightmares of Men and Elves." Long he pondered the day's events in silence, before reclining on the mattress for a few brief hours of sleep.

As soon as the Sun had risen above the Red Mountains after dawn, casting the long shadows of mountain peaks over the compound and its encampment, Curunir arose from bed. He found several strips of dried horse-flesh and a clot of butter on a brass plate that lay next to the water pitcher on the floor – presumably left there by one of the acolytes before he awoke. After breakfasting and washing his face and hands, he donned his hat, took up his ebon staff and strode down the dusky corridor to the entrance of the building. Striding outside onto the parapet before the door and into the cool morning air, he saw that Pallando was awaiting him, his bearded face veiled beneath the shadow of his own hat, leaning on his crystal staff as he across the spawling encampment towards the flat, dusty lands that lay to the West.

"I trust you slept well?" inquired Pallando conversationally, though without turning to Curunir as the White Wizard stood beside him.

"I slept little," acknowledged Curunir, "for I have had much to consider."

"No doubt you have," replied Pallando. "I confess I was displeased by your tone as we spoke last evening. Now at least you have had some time to reflect on what you have seen, and understand the soundless of my actions, which after all serve a higher purpose."

"Indeed," replied Curunir. Pallando, perhaps unwittingly, had given him the opening he had sought. "Tell me, then, what is that purpose?"

"Well, surely you know," replied Pallando briskly. "To uplift Men, to make of them more than they are."

"But to make them into what precisely?" asked Curunir, maintaining an even tone.

"Well, whatever we wish," replied Pallando. "Stronger. Smarter. Whatever pleases us. Is it not as you yourself have said many times, Curunir? We are wiser than Men; we must lead them for their own benefit, and shape them according to our wisdom."

"I have indeed said that," acknowledged Curunir. "But you have only discussed means, Pallando, not ends. Our ends, may I remind you, are to uplift Men from the yoke of Sauron and his darkness, and to prepare them for the coming struggle against the Dark Lord, should he return from the Void."

"Have I not done so?" snapped Pallando, once again clearly displeased, and making no effort to hide his displeasure from the White Wizard as he gazed up at him, his inscrutable eyes now a dark blue.

"I am not at all sure that you have," replied Curunir somberly. That was certainly an understatement, he thought to himself.

"Then what fault would you find with me?" snapped Pallando. "Place your objections out in the open, under the light of the rising Sun, so that I may dispense with them. I am in no mood for games and guessing."

"I will leave aside your experiments, as you call them," replied Curunir, "though that is too delicate a name for such monstrosities. And I will even leave aside your making alliance with Orcs, foul creatures whom have only ever served the Dark Lord in their black hearts. No, I will leave these things aside, for the present, and focus on what you have done, and not done, with these Eastern Men themselves."

"Then get to the point," said Pallando brusquely. "Many tasks press upon me, and I will not spend all day standing here and being lectured by you."

"When these Easterlings were savages, they served the Dark Lord," observed Curunir dispassionately – though inwardly he waxed wroth at the Blue Wizard's insolence. "Now that you have uplifted them from savagery to a higher state, they serve you. Yet I am not sure the Dark Lord would be displeased at you have done, if he could see it."

"He should be displeased," frowned Pallando. "I have deprived him of a great part of his servants. These people will never again serve him again, as long as I draw breath."

"Yet you have made them stronger," rejoined Curunir, "without making them better. They still make raids upon the Westrons, they still hate the Men who should be their allies against the Dark Lord. And now they assail the West on horseback and in chariots, wearing armour of bronze and bearing weapons of iron and steel, where once they came wrapped in furs, on foot and wielding spears and arrows of flint. A formidable threat to the West have the Easterlings become, a heavy burden upon Gondor; and Sauron, who has ever hated the Men of the West, and sought to harass and destroy them, would be well-pleased at that."

"What good would it avail him?" asked Pallando. "I say again that the Easterlings serve me alone; they will no longer answer the Dark Lord's summons. Sauron would have only the Orcs at his command, and other, even lower creatures. However numerous, they are no match for Men."

"Is that so?" enquired Curunir innocently. "Only the Orcs, you say? Do not the Men of the South still worship Sauron as their lord?"

Pallando then smiled cryptically, and turned his gaze from the White Wizard back to the encampment. "Ah, Curunir," he said, "you were ever a subtle one. Now you wish to learn what I know of Alatar's dealings with the Southrons?"

"The thought had occurred to me," replied Curunir dryly. "I know that you and he are sufficiently close to each other in spirit and in your powers that you can speak directly into each others' minds, even from great distances. You must surely know all that he has done, even as he knows what you have done."

"Alatar has made…progress," replied Pallando, turning his gaze back to Curunir. "We both have, though we have only begun to exert our power." An edge of excitement crept into his voice now. "We have only to…"

"Only to what?" smiled Curunir. "To break the power of Gondor, so that the Western Men answer to the command of the Istari as fully as the Men of the East and South?"

"Ah, you see clearly indeed," replied Pallando, surprised sudden at the change in Curunir's humor. "Well, I have always respected your wisdom, as I have said. And yes, Gondor is an obstacle."

"No doubt," replied Curunir. "The Sea-Kings are stubborn, and will ever resist our rule. We have seen enough of them at Osgiliath and Minas Anor to be sure of that."

"Yes, yes!" replied Pallando, his eyes shining strangely now. "You understand fully! Our power over Men will never be complete, as long as Gondor stands in the way." Pallando strode back and forth on the parapet between the door and the stairs, words pouring out of him now like water out of a broken dam. "Oh, its Men are of use, of course; but not until their false pride is broken, and their foolish Kings are swept away. Then we can remake them as we see fit, just as we shall the Easterlings and Southrons."

"And then," finished Curunir, "with Gondor brought to heel, all Men shall answer to us alone. Curunir shall rule the Westrons, Pallando the Easterlings, and Alatar the Southrons. Is that what you intend?"

"Yes, yes, of course," demurred Pallando, turning again to face Curunir. "I understand your earlier rudeness and sulleness now. You suspected that Alatar and I meant to remove you from the equation, and rule all Men ourselves." He smiled. "I assure you, my dear Curunir, nothing of the sort ever crossed our minds. We will destroy the Sea-Kings, and then you shall rule their people in concert with us! And you are trusted by the Sea-Kings, Curunir, and can employ the power of your Voice against all but the strongest-willed of them; by their side, serving our cause in secret, you could help us to topple them swiftly."

"I understand fully," nodded Curunir. "You have waited merely for me to travel East or South, as I said I would in time, so learn if I would look favourably on your bold and cunning plan. Things will go far easier for you if I aid you in the defeat of Gondor. But Mithrandir and Aiwendil, what is to become of them?"

"The grey wanderer and the bird-tamer?" scoffed Pallando. "Faugh! You know their measure, Curunir. Let Mithrandir tend to his Elves, and Aiwendil to his forests. Their concerns are solely with things of the past; in time, they will have no place in the world that we shall build. If they steer clear of our path, we shall ignore them; if they mean to cause trouble, we shall deal with them."

"And what of Sauron?" asked Curunir, a troubled tone creeping into his voice as he raised a dark eyebrow.

"What of him?" replied Pallando, with a wave of his hand. "A thousand year ago he was utterly defeated by the actions of mere Men, and a handful of Elves and Dwarves. Truly, his power has been much exaggerated. He no longer even has his Ring; and without that bauble, what is he now? A Shadow of Fear. Yet fear does not lie heavily upon the hearts of beings such as you and I and Alatar. How can he withstand the three of us? If he dares to show his head, we shall subtract it from his shoulders."

Pallando smiled sagely. "No, my friend, do not trouble yourself with Sauron. Had we not been sent to Middle Earth, he might have regained some of his former power. But our coming here has spelt his doom, his utter end. He will never rise again."

"At last, all is clear, my dear Pallando," beamed Curunir, in his richest, most mellow tone of voice.

"Splendid!" cried Pallando, his eyes blazing eagerly. "Then you will join with us?"

"First, answer me this," replied Curunir, still smiling. "Have you and Alatar gone utterly mad, or have you merely lost your wits in your dotage?"

"What?" barked Pallando, his black-bearded face turning pale as he took a step backwards from the White Wizard, his eyes grey and wary.

"To be sure, I appreciate your confessing certain details of your pathetic little plan, even if you have not revealed all," replied Curunir, his smile fading as his voice took on a sterner edge. "Alatar and Pallando as the gods of Men in Middle Earth, and for a time Curunir as their adjutant – no more than that, as there will be little left of the Gondor-men once they are broken in war. You will defeat Sauron, or so you think – for it is plain that you understand nothing of the full extent of his power, which is vast beyond your imagining. Sauron was bested by Isildur through chance alone, and he will not be careless a second time."

Curunir frowned. "Your ambition, in sum," he said, "is to ensure that in the place of the Dark Lord, Middle Earth shall lie forever under the yoke of the Blue Lords. And undoubtedly, the time will come when you decide that Curunir is of no more value to you than Mithrandir or Aiwendil, and you will dispatch me as you will them. That is your plan in its entirely, is it not?"

Pallando said nothing, but he glared coldly at Curunir, the knuckles of his right hand turning white as he gripped his crystal staff.

"And I say to you, Pallando, and to Alatar," intoned Curunir solemly, "that you are both greater fools by far than Aiwendil the Bird-tamer. At least he knows his place, and does not seek to rise above it. But you – you two think that you can rise as high in Middle Earth as the Valar have risen in Aman, the very goal for which Sauron has ever sought, and Morgoth before him. You have become so intoxicated by your power over these fragile mortals that you have set yourseleves against the will of the Valar. And in all this, I deem you to be nothing more than Sauron's unwitting pawns; for I foresee that everything you have done will serve his ends."

Curunir fixed his dark gaze squarely at Pallando. "I will tell you this, Pallando; I know not from whence this crazed scheme first entered into your minds, but I do know that I shall put an end to it. And I shall begin here and now, with you. Will you renounce your amibitions, and beg the forgiveness of the Valar; or, will you force me to do as my duty requires if you defy me?"

Pallando's eyes were now the colour of glacial ice. "Fool!" he hissed. "Lackey! You dare call Pallando and Alatar pawns, when you yourself are but a pawn of the Valar, their dupe! Think you they care for aught but their own power, even now when they are removed from this world? But it is you who you have reached the end of the road, my friend!" A sinister blue glow enshrouded his crystal staff as he raised it, pointing it at Curunir, uttering in a suddenly-deep voice a Word of Command.

With a move faster than mortal eye could see, Curunir thrust his own staff toward Pallando and spoke the Counter-Spell. For an instant, the sky darkened, followed by a flash of light. Then, with a thunderous roar, Pallando was blasted off the parapet and clear down the stairs, only to land sprawling on his back in the ruddy dust below!

Curunir leaped down the stairs and was on him in an instant. But not fast enough; Pallando had already completed his spell, and now its power surged forth as inexorably as sunset is followed by sunrise. A glowing blue flame shot forth from his staff, grazing Curunir along his left arm.

Curunir gasped with pain as the blue fire scorched his arm, while smoke issued from beneath his charred robes. He could feel the scars of burns forming on his injured limb, but had not time to devote his energies to healing them; Pallando was pointing his staff at him again, this time chanting an incanation that would incinerate the White Wizard once and for all.

Enraged, Curunir decided to unleash his full power on Pallando. Thrusting his staff forward, he spoke another Word of Command. A huge fireball shot forth from his staff like a boulder from a catapult, straight towards the Blue Wizard. Instantly aware of his peril, Pallando shifted his aim from Curunir to the fireball, and the glowing jet of blue flame from his staff met the blazing fireball from Curunir's in mid-air.

The brilliant flash and mighty explosion that followed nearly blinded and deafened both Wizards, knocking them sprawling on the ground, and from it surged forth a wave of devastation. In an instant, the buildings of the compound and its surrounding wall were smashed into pieces, scattered about as if they were children's toy blocks. The tents and forges near the citadel were swept away like leaves before the wind, along with their occupants, and the noise of the explosion surged towards the very walls of the Red Mountains, from where it echoed with an ominous rumble.

Curunir was the first to recover his wits and stand to his feet. His vision was blurry, his ears were ringing, and he could feel that his body was bleeding from a number of cuts and scrapes, and see dimly that his robes were torn and nearly blackened by dust. Everything within a quarter of a mile had been devastated, and the broken bodies of the Rhunlings who had been in the nearby tents and forges were strewn around like rag dolls. Cries of shock and horror were heard from the remaining encampments, as the Rhunlings rushed forth to tend to their fallen comrades, and uncover the source of this disaster.

But Curunir paid no heed to any of these things; his attention was fixed on Pallando. The Blue Wizard, who looked as scarred and disheveled as Curunir, rose unsteadily to his feet, his hands still grasping his crystal staff. Both Wizards had lost their peaked hats, and now stood facing each other, their long black hair flowing in the East wind. For all that he had said earlier about Wizards being above fear, Pallando seemed to Curunir to be feeling its effects himself; his eyes were wide, his face stark pale, and his whole body trembling with a palsy.

Curunir lifted up his staff and strode toward him, determined to end the matter. But Pallando was not finished yet; with a wave of his staff, he spoke yet another Word of Command. There was a flash as if of lightning, and then the ground beneath his feet began to stir.

Suddenly, from the dust there surged forth great crimson-scaled serpents, their yellow eyes blazing, their jaws dripping with venom! The Rhunlings turned from their fallen comrades and screamed, dropping to the ground with horror, as the serpents roiled about, snapping and hissing with primal savagery.

But Curunir merely laughed. "Is that what you've been reduced to, Pallando?" he jeered, his voice now deep and cold. "Your old conjuring tricks?"

He made a pass with his staff, speaking the words of the Counter Spell. Instantly, the serpents disappeared, as if they had never existed. The Rhunlings were now too awestruck to do more than genuflect and pray to their Eternal Blue Heaven for deliverance. Curunir looked this way and that, seeking Pallando, who no longer stood before him.

Then he caught sight of Pallando, who stood some twenty paces away, and who had torn off his long sky-blue cloak and was holding with his outstretched left arm. He was speaking the words of yet another spell, and to his alarm Curunir realized that the Blue Wizard might have one more trick up his slieve.

Curunir moved swiftly - but while he had been distracted by the serpents, Pallando had already set to work on his next spell, the final words of which he had finished as Curunir caught sight of him. A blue vapour was already issuing forth from his staff, surrounding himself and his cape, while the East wind suddenly picked up in strength and made a sharp turn to the South. Even as Curunir aimed his staff at Pallando, the Blue Wizard's cape straighted and became a flat surface, like a sail kept aloft by the current of wind, and Pallando had leapt on top of it. And even as another fireball surged forth from Curunir's staff, the Blue Wizard, standing atop his floating cape, gave him a mocking smile as he dodged the flames and sailed through the air toward the South.

"Farewell, Curunir," came a shrill cry that receded with every second. "I told you I had learned new powers beyond your ken!" For some moments his tittering laughter could be heard, at length diminishing till the only sound was the wind moaning down from the mountain passes.

Curunir stood amazed, for he could only begin to conjecture on how Pallando had accomplished the feat of flying through the air, and how he had put up such a stiff defense. That he had survived even the first onslaught of the White Wizard was in itself incredible. Pallando had always been one of the weakest of the Order; had Alatar, who was second only to Curunir in potency, taught him new powers from afar? Or was there some other explanation?

No matter for the present, thought Curunir; at least he could understand Pallando's actions in the duel plainly enough. When Pallando failed to defeat him in the contest of spells, he had chosen to retreat southward, and that could only mean that he intended to join Alatar in the distant lands of Far Harad. There, the Blue Wizards might hope to make a joint stand against Curunir, when the White Wizard came to perform justice upon them.

For follow them he would, and find them at length he would, even if it took a hundred years; of that Pallando could have no doubt. Pallando must have realized that even though his power had increased greatly, he had done nothing more than ensure that his own death in any duel with the White Wizard would now be a matter of minutes rather than seconds. And even Alatar, though more powerful still, could not hope to match the full power of Curunir when acting alone. Only together, using their combined powers and wisdom to the utmost, could the Blue Wizards hope to destroy the White.

Regrettably, Pallando had managed to gain a considerable head start over Curunir, and his precise destination in the unknown lands of the South could only be a matter of conjecture. Curunir would have to proceed on horseback, and it might take him as many years to find Pallando and Alatar in Harad as it had taken to find Pallando alone in Rhun. No matter – the end would still be the same.

Curunir snapped his attention back to the here and now, as the terrified moans of the Rhunlings gave way to outraged cries. Turning round, he saw the bronze armoured forms of Targul-rakan and Jagati, with three-score of their warriors, striding rapidly towards him, their swords drawn, their blood-lust stirred up by the incitement of a party of blue-robed acolytes who followed them from behind. The grizzled, grey-moustiached Targul-rakan himself was babbling a string of apparent threats and insults that Curunir could not be bothered to try to understand, though he could make sense enough of Jagati's accented Westron.

"Curse you, White Demon!" shrieked Jagati, his eyes full of rage and bloodlust, far beyond fearing his own death. "You have defied and driven away our master, destroyed our encampment, and slain many of our best Men! Aral-Rakan our master long warned us that you might disdain his wisdom and prove a traitor, and commanded that if you did we should spare nothing to slay you! Now indeed you shall die!"

"Is that so?" asked Curunir evenly, raising a black eyebrow. He contemplated using the power of his Voice to stay the assult of these Men, but then thought better of it; he could not be certain the effect of his spell would last for long once he had departed, and he did not wish the Eastern threat to Gondor's borders to remain unchecked.

Thrusting his staff toward them, he spoke a Word of Command that sent a broad sheet of flame hurling at his foes, mowing them down like wheat under a scythe! Targul-rakan and Jagati were reduced to ashes at once; their warriors and leading acolytes took some seconds longer to die, their curses and threats transformed into shrieks of agony before they expired.

The handful of surviving acolytes, their blue robes singed and torn, began babbling now in fear, and sank to the ground in genuflection as Curunir strode towards them. The warriors nearby did likewise, sprawled pitifully in the dust as they seemingly begged for mercy from the terrible White Lord of the West.

"It appears you will need a new lord now," observed Curunir dispassionately. He then turned his dark gaze from the Rhunlings, and strode toward a group of shaggy, tough-looking ponies who still stood tethered to a wooden pole driven into the ground, and who were on their knees, neighing in fear at what they had seen and heard. One of the ponies was saddled and equipped with a bag of food and flask of water, is if its owner had been about to take it on a journey. Curunir quickly ran his hand over its muzzle, whispering words into its ear. After a time it ceased trembling, and then stood upright, as if its fears were slowly diminshing. Untying the pony, Curunir took its reins in his left hand and mounted it, still holding his staff in his right hand as he rode through the shattered encampment like a conquering lord. Dusty and battle-worn, he looked an odd sight on the diminutive beast, with the black-booted feet of his long legs nearly touching the ground, but not one of the Rhunlings made any attempt to stay him as he wheeled his pony southward and spurred it to action.

After some time, he passed beyond the outskirts of the encampment of the Aral-Kerulen, and paused for a brief look backwards. His wounded arm was rapidly healing now that he had turned his mind to it, and so he allowed his thoughts to stray for a moment. The clouds of smoke and dust from his duel with Pallando still stained the sky, and a low wail issued forth, as the Rhunlings realized the full extent of their losses.

At least, without their Great Chief or his son and heir, they will not remain united for long, thought Curunir. Civil war will soon break out, and they will turn from slaying the Gondor and Dorwinion-men to slaying each other as of old. Thus have I bought time for Gondor and the West.

Turning back to the dusty plains that lay before him, the ramparts of the Red Mountains shielding him to the left and the open steppe unfolding to his right, he spurred the pony onward, on the start of his long journey into the lands of the unknown South.

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