sm_prologue.htmlTEXTStMlX2>&r Shieldmates: Prologue

Unofficial soundtrack: "Saved" (Queensryche), "Torn" (Creed) "Into the Abyss" (Christopher Franke), "Poison My Eyes" (Anthrax), "The Water is Wide" (Charlotte Church), "In the Eye" (Suzanne Vega)

by Jacynthe Demorae

"Love is at once so great and so frail that there is perhaps no thought that can at the same time so appall us and uplift us. And there is in love, at times for some an unfathomable mystery. That which can lead to the stars can lead to the abyss. There is a limit set to mortal joy as well as to mortal suffering, and the flame may overlap itself in one as in the other. The most dreaded mystery of a love that is overwhelming is its death through its own flame."

--Kisma K. Stepanich, "Muirneach Deidre and Naoise: The Beloved."

Year 3018 of the Third Age, the Last Homely House east of the Sea

It is here, Elrond thought, in my house. For the second time, the
One Ring comes to my door.

He did not know whether to rage or laugh--or perhaps weep. He had
not known what Bilbo Baggins had carried when he had returned from
the Lonely Mountain. He hadn't even sensed it. To think, the One Ring and two of the Three, in the same place. The narrowness of that escape still made him shudder. It was one more reason to sing the praises of the Valar, who kept them all under Eru.

Tonight, the people of Imladris celebrated the defeat of the Nine, and the victory at the Bruinen Ford. The revel had an edge of brittle defiance to it, as if the celebrants could feel the Darkness pressing in against the edge of their fragile circle of light. He'd left them in the Hall of Fire, escaped to a secluded corner of the gardens. He wanted quiet now, and shadows that did not move.

Behind him, Elrond heard the quiet tread of an approaching figure, too purposeful for a late-night stroller in the garden. The muted thump of a staff-end against the paving stones made the identity of the approaching interloper clear. He should have known his departure would not have gone unnoticed--and by the one person whose questions he could not easily avoid.

"Mithrandir." He did not stand to greet the wizard. A petty gesture and beneath him, he knew. Without asking leave, the wizard settled himself beside Elrond on the garden bench. For a time, they sat together in silence, each lost in his contemplation of the night.

"Even Elbereth's light cannot soothe you this night," the Istar observed. "Will you not speak, and unburden yourself?"

"And shall I confide in you, Mithrandir, and add to your store of secrets? How long have you known the Ring was abroad?" Elrond demanded.

Before he answered, Mithrandir drew out his pipe. He took his time
filling it, tamping down the fragrant pipeweed. By the time the first tendrils of smoke curled upward, the edge of Elrond's temper had dulled.

"I suspected Bilbo might have a Ring of Power," Mithrandir admitted.
"One of the lesser Rings, unnamed and inconsequential, in relation to the Great Rings. I did not think otherwise until Bilbo made his plans to leave the Shire. Only after I read Isildur's account and tested Frodo's Ring did I come to certainty."

Isildur. Elrond closed his eyes against the pain of that name. It spread through him like Morgul-poison, gnawing ever closer to his heart. And now, Celebrian was not here to help him bear it. Now, everything that gave him strength was threatened.

"I stand at the brink of the world's end--again," Elrond whispered into the night. "And I do not know if I have the strength to fight off the Darkness as before."

There. He had spoken freely. Let the wizard make of that what he willed.

"The Elves have suffered much throughout the ages of this world,"
Mithrandir said, his voice a comforting rumble. "It is no wonder then that so many are leaving these shores. Yet, you have stayed."

He waved away the words. "You know why."

"As it was passed to you, so you might pass it to another," Mithrandir reminded.

"And leave my successor to face the coming Darkness in my stead? Say whatever you will of me, wizard, but do not suggest that I am a coward!"

"I made no such suggestion. Your pain drives you to speak so."

Elrond said nothing more, but rose to his feet and began walking, taking a path that led back to the house. He had much more to say on this subject, but he was not fool enough to do so where they might be easily overheard. Mithrandir followed him like a shadow, never seeming to hurry. Even Elvish eyes might prove taxed to see his gray-clad form in the night.

Mithrandir did not clutter the air with idle conversation as they made their way back to Elrond's study. They passed other revelers, members of his household. He could have turned the wizard away with a word--but he said nothing. The silence continued between them, until Elrond stopped in front of the wide, arching casement.

"There is nothing in this world that I loathe more than the One Ring," Elrond said at last, keeping his voice even with an effort. "Not only because it would enslave all the people of Middle-Earth, not just because it would wither and blacken the land and turn the waters to sludge--"

He heard his voice rising, and forced himself to silence. But his hands had curled into fists, and they trembled with the force of suppressed rage. He heard Mithrandir's footsteps on the stone floor and turned around. The wizard came to rest against one of the great stone pillars that supported the arched ceiling. The Istar looked at him, head tilted to the side, kind blue eyes questioning.

"It is Isildur's Bane," he bit out. Oh, and it was the purest, most self-centered folly, to focus only on that one part of the Ruling Ring's blood-soaked history. Isildur had not been the first to die because of that Ring. The suffering it orchestrated extended far beyond his life and the lives of the Dunedain.

But it was that death, that theft which had broken him. Celebrian had strengthened him, restoring his focus and bolstering his will. But all of her love had not been able to heal him. Just as his love had not been enough to keep her here.

"Why does the mere mention of Isildur pain you so?"

Elrond jerked his head up. "You have an unseemly desire to learn all of my personal thoughts," he said in an attempt to conceal his disquiet.

Mithrandir was not deceived.

"Elrond, my friend, your strength of will makes you a formidable warrior and a master of the healing arts. It also drives your friends to distraction, who only seek to offer you aid and comfort," the wizard sighed.

"Forgive me, Mithrandir," Elrond said after a moment. "I knew this day would come, but I hoped in my heart that it would never dawn."

"You were not alone in that hope."

They lapsed into silence again. Outside the window, they could hear
the short, sweet song of night birds, with the soft roar of the waterfalls in the distance. Elrond turned away from the window and settled into one of the nearby chairs. This room, with all of its careful chronicles of past ages, its maps and small treasures, was his sanctuary. It held answers to puzzles unraveled, and pointed to questions yet to be asked. And it was the only place where he felt it might be possible to give Mithrandir the answer to his question.

"The strength of Men is also part of my own strength. Though I chose to be counted among the Eldar, I have never forgotten the heritage that brought such a choice to me," Elrond said at last. "When Isildur failed--" his voice tightened on the name " --I failed as well. I still do not find it easy to live with that failure."

Mithrandir drew closer, seating himself in the chair across from Elrond's. "Then let a friend share your burden, for if you feel you carry some of the blame for this age's darkening, I do as well. I trusted that Saruman could not be corrupted, that his wisdom would keep him from the paths of the Shadow. I relied on memory, when I should have trusted my own senses. Much might have been prevented, if I had..."

"I could have prevented it all," Elrond said softly. "I was there... He would not heed me!"

"You speak of Isildur?"

His heart shivered again at the name, but Elrond met the wizard's gaze directly. The blue eyes were deep with sorrow--and compassion. Still, he hesitated. In all his long life, he had been moved to speak of those terrible days only once, only to Celebrian. Even then, he had held back. The shame and the grief still cut too deeply.

But now, the Shadow moves against the most innocent dwellers of Middle-Earth, he thought in sorrow. The Periannath, overlooked in so many of the old songs and tales, had drawn the attention of the Eye. And they were so poorly equipped to defend against that evil. He recalled how he had fought to keep the Perian from fading beneath his hands. Even with Mithrandir's aid, he had believed that that bright, valiant soul might be lost to cruelest slavery.

The time is past for secrets and silence, he decided. Let the story be told. But where to begin? Three thousand years could not be compressed into one night.

"Elves are a people of secrets, and though they breed only sorrow, we hoard them like Dwarves hoard gold," he said, almost to himself.

Mithrandir made a sound of encouragement. Elrond steeled himself,
reaching back through his memories to touch one long shut away. The
memory of the Perian's suffering flashed before his mind's eye. Seventeen days he bore a shard of a Morgul blade, a trial that would have overcome mighty warriors. And all you need do now is speak...

"In the year 3430 of the Second Age," Elrond began heavily, " the High King of the Noldor took counsel with his dearest friend, Elendil, king of the realms of Gondor and Arnor. Sauron's forces had already over-run many of the free lands of Middle-Earth. They decided we must make our stand now, lest all of Middle-Earth fall under the Shadow. They joined their forces to form a great League, the likes of which had not been seen since the Battle of Thangorodrim.

"History names it the Last Alliance of Elves and Men..."

On to Chapter One.  2A\7d(|V[$I&<<>/<)SS)z.$y@O&  FB  FB   % @  # #$#d##/+%Nj+N]M]M99???9N++10]]#"' &5476327767632>'L/? :MyO; )LGJ 2)N2PMwp T