“Oh, look - another village is on fire.”
Melkor glanced up from where he had been shoving at Ancalagon’s long, spiked tail wrapping around the stone cottage like a writhing snake, attempting to push it away from the large herb garden where it was crushing the sage. That would never do, the loss of such a savory herb, certainly not. The dragon himself was on the other side of the stone building, bothering the sheep - a task he had become rather accustomed to doing. The furry beasts had gotten quite used to him over the generations through his hassling, even if he did eat one every so often. Or perhaps the sheep were really quite dim, a thought that was too disconcerting to give much ideation to, that they would allow the dragon among them without noticing their dwindling number as they were slowly consumed.
Now, however, Mairon’s words came idling through Melkor’s bizarre thoughts of dragon herding and sheep consumption, and he stood from his crouch out of the fragrant, crushed herbs to instead come to the Maia’s side to gaze with him down from the high rise of their cliff’s bluff.
Sure enough, a blaze of flame and wraiths of thick black smoke rose into the darkening sky from a distant town, far on the horizon.
Melkor frowned and crossed his arms across his chest as the tail now at his back slithered away with a hiss across the grass, Ancalagon slowly making his way around to join them. “How extraordinary,” he muttered under his breath. “What number does that make, nine?”
“Eleven,” Mairon corrected succinctly, gaze still thrown out over the expanse of land open under their mountain’s face. The sun continued to sink quickly, until the orange glow of destruction in the distance was the brightest light through the twilit sky. “Eleven fires in the last two weeks, all started by Men upon their own towns. They are in a state of unbridled chaos, I imagine.”
“There is no need to sound quite so happy about it,” Melkor said, smiling himself.
“I am not happy,” Mairon deferred automatically. “Merely...amused.”
The ground quaked slightly as Ancalagon approached from behind, stretching his vast wings in agitation and folding them once more at his back. A trail of sheep followed him as always, when he was this near the property, bleating unhappily at having to leave their pasture (though why they did at all was a mystery to none save the sheep). They gathered under his large, tree-like legs, and it was a miracle none were crushed beneath massive feet as the dragon stepped over them.
“What is all of this? More death and destruction for us to miss our part in?” he rumbled, his sharp golden eyes catching sight of the fire.
“Almost seems a bit of a folly, doesn’t it?” Melkor mused softly to no one in particular.
Still, Mairon answered. “No, not a folly at all. I must say,” he continued with another wide grin to show slip of teeth, “I enjoy watching the chaos unfold from a distance, as a spectator would in a glorious game of sport. Shall we make bets this time, too?”
The gavel was loud as it fell against the bench at the front of the room. Several people did not hear it, their shouting arguments continuing to ring as they stood from chairs and screamed with anger amongst their fellow townspeople and the gathered visitors alike. Fear had taken hold like nothing else could, infesting even the healthy among them until everyone was sick with it, and no one was capable of resisting the pull when that fear gave to such irascible fury.
This particular town’s leader, a stout man named Alward who had to stand on his chair to be seen when everyone began to brawl as they were, brought the gavel down thrice more, waiting for it to cut through the remaining disagreements as they rose up into the rafters.
Various town and village leaders - and several others besides - had gathered here for the first time since this illness had grasped them so viciously, in the hopes of finding a way through the pain and panic of impending doom by banding together. No answers had since been forthcoming, which led to these horrible arguments.
The request had gone out to the neighboring elders seven times over the last ten years, when the first signs of deathly plague became apparent, and it had taken riots and fires and the deaths of thousands to bring them all here. All nor naught so far, quite unfortunately.
Finally, after another attempt with the gavel, ringing silence fell and gazes turned toward him. Alward cleared his throat nervously, meeting the eyes of several men he knew and even more he had never met before in his life. Fear was palpable on all their faces. He had no idea how he had been put in charge of this whole thing. “We - we need to take a tally,” he began, stuttering slightly, “of how many we have lost to this disease.”
“My entire village is gone!” one man roared from the back. “Save me and three other souls! We’ve had to retreat to Dolan’s home and forsake our community to flame and rot!”
Cries rang again at the outburst and Alward hit the gavel quickly before another outburst could begin so soon after the last. “I have heard of your plight, Horik, and I am terribly sorry for it. And in fact - right, in fact, it was Dolan who - who suggested these notes and details should be taken.” He paused to wipe an old, yellowed handkerchief across his forehead, sweating profusely with his anxiety and a twinge of headache. “We should, perhaps, send word to the White Council, now, for proper aid.”
“The White Council!” someone else repeated, dismayed.
Another took up the exclamation of surprise, adding bitterly, “Do you think they’ll come help despicable people such as ourselves when they’ve let us waste away for ten years?”
“We’re half-dead already,” someone else piped up miserably, slouching low in her seat and covering her face with a thin hand. “No one will arrive in time. Sending a missive of aid - where do we even send a letter to? No, no, we’re all going to die, we’re going to die!”
An old hunched man at the back stood amidst the uproar even as Alward attempted vainly to regain control. He leaned heavily against his cane and the chair in front of him as he found his balance before strutting out and hobbling to the front of the room, coming to Alward’s side at the long table where this town’s council normally sat to hold meetings. A teenager dashed up the aisle behind him, holding their single bag of belongings.
Alward looked at him, grateful. An elder from the closest village to his own, come to his rescue through the chaos.
Dolan, the old man, gazed at him through milky eyes. “Just try to get them under control and send them on their way home, lad. Nothing more we can do here,” he said, voice hoarse and wheezing. “I will write our request to the White Council, to the elves still left here, to anyone who will listen to our pleas. Perhaps this plague will not kill us all yet.”
All Alward could do was nod emphatically, his heart leaping into his throat with fear as he watched the other man and his grandson leave the hall.
The forge, attached to a back wing of the large stone cottage, had once again become Mairon’s refuge. This one, certainly, was smaller and built only for himself - not for the fashioning of an army or for several smiths to crowd around various hearths all at the same time with their many projects. No, this little forge was all of his own making. Small and comfortable, perfectly sized for him to craft anything he desired, with the fires blazing gloriously around him.
It was the one request he had made when they started this crazy journey so long before, that he always have a forge, no matter where they went or ended up. Melkor did not argue with that request, and certainly not as he had grumbled over their inclusion of so many wolves in their midst as they set off. A forge - and the jewelry it created - was a small price compared to dog hair all in his clothes and whiskers shoved in his face.
Each stone here was of Mairon’s own placing, each tool his own creation. The fire had been lit from his own hand and rarely did he let it extinguish; smoke could be seen curling, grey and wispy, from the rear venting chimney at all hours of the day or night. It gave him a peace he had never experienced before, one he cherished like so few other things in his long life.
Just now, Melkor - who usually enjoyed sitting out here with him as Mairon worked, watching and keeping company as he used to do so long ago in Almaren - was off on some oh-so-perilous journey with Ancalagon. A “hunting trip”, they called it, and it was not perilous at all regardless of how Melkor always played them up before he left. They had merely flown to the neighboring mountain to poke at the wild creatures there, and perhaps bring a few back for their dinner. They would be returned by sunset.
And so Mairon had the hours to himself, whiling them away repairing a wall sconce that had somehow been damaged by...well, he wasn’t quite sure, but it was very dented, and the entire side piece likely required replacing. He was sure either Ancalagon, Melkor, or Draugluin were responsible for the poor metal’s demise. Or all three together, even if none were owning the accident.
A faint tinge of magic hinted against his senses, and he placed the tongs on his anvil, pausing to taste the bitter, somewhat familiar, tang of it on his tongue for a moment. It was very weak, and very far away. Nothing, perhaps, but a stirring on the wind? He pulled once more at the filigree edge of the sconce, righting it into the correct shape.
Suddenly Draugluin - always close beside and currently curled by his legs in a large half-moon - rose his head and began to growl at the back of his throat. Moments later, a louder, more vicious sound of the same was taken up at the front of the property by one of the dogs, who began to snarl fearfully.
Mairon dropped the sconce and tongs and ran around to the front of the cottage, anger pulling his own magic close under his skin. It rippled and pulled, fire igniting at his fingertips as he rounded the side and saw an old man with a sneer across his face, holding a long, thin staff and pointing it menacingly at the ancient herding dog, whose teeth were bared in a vicious, angry growl.
Three more dogs had closed in beside their fellow, and Draugluin came bounding up at Mairon’s side, hackles raised. Magical fire erupted over his hand, and he clenched it into a fist. He recognized this person, and fury built quickly in his chest.
“If you harm even one whisker on any of these innocent animals, I will kill you where you stand.”
The man looked at him, incensed at such a kindly welcome as this, and stared for a moment at the sparking white and yellow fire about Mairon’s fist and arm. “Call off your fel beasts,” he demanded.
“They are dogs,” Mairon spat, his eyes flashing angrily as he watched the staff, far too close to the shepherd’s snout. “Very mortal, very weak, dogs. Or have you lost too much of your power, Curumo, to realize that?”
The glare he received was a mixture of shock at recognition and utmost reprehension for the taunt, and it was glorious enough he nearly let his fire out. At any rate, he clicked his tongue, and the four dogs who had the old man cornered - not an old man at all - slunk to him, curling around to look out from around the back of his legs beside Draugluin. All hackles were still raised.
The man straightened and attempted to rearrange his expression closer to one of arrogant neutrality as he ran his free hand, the one not still clutching that damned staff, over his flowing white robes to free them of dirt that was not actually there. “I go by Saruman now,” he said stiffly. “Saruman the White.”
“Yes,” Mairon replied, “I am aware.”
“One would think, Gorthaur,” Saruman said snidely, his lip curling with distaste, “you would be more apt to call a person by their current name than most.”
The jab did not bother him after so many ages of changing names and titles, though Draugluin, understanding more than the wizard realized, growled and stood from the crouch he had taken. Mairon put a comforting hand on the wolf’s high back, lowering his eyes momentarily to the great beast before raising them again to the ancient face across the grassy yard.
He chose his words carefully, crafting them in his mouth before speaking to be sure the full weight would land heavily across those white-clad shoulders. “One’s currently given name,” he said slowly, “is not always the most accurate. I find it better, then, to call a person by the name that best suits them. At least, however, in this curious circumstance. You shall always be Curumo to me.”
Saruman sneered, his elderly face wrinkling with obvious anger. “You dare to speak of things you have no understanding of.”
Mairon watched, fully unconcerned as the man stepped forward across the brightly green grass, stalks bending under his heavy footfalls. “I understand quite well,” he said clearly. “I knew of your arrival in Middle Earth the moment you came upon these shores, and have been at least vaguely aware of your movements around this vast land in the time since. I am also aware,” he added, pausing to lower his voice and tip his chin up. He was still the taller of the two, moreso now with Saruman just as hunched as a man of his appearing age should be. He smiled, a seething, predatory grin with no hint of comfort.
“I am also aware of the fact that you returned a great deal of your power to the Valar in return for this...this position?”
“Do you propose to say I am weak?” Saruman hissed, stopping still with a good distance between them and lowering the end of his staff to the ground. The top flared with a pulsing light, and Mairon glanced at the bit of magic, an unimpressed eyebrow raised. “Do you have any idea the tasks set upon us during our time here, what we have accomplished over the last age alone? And you would stand there and call me weak!”
Mairon looked away, toward the open cliffside and the magnificent view it offered, already growing bored with the argument. He sighed. “As a matter of fact,” he replied, “I do propose such a thing. Especially now. Gracious, Curumo, giving away your power when you had so little to begin with?”
“You are a vile creature.”
There was a snap, and the flare of light flashed outward from the staff’s crystal. Mairon snarled and raised his arm in an arching gesture, breaking the spell before it could form and encasing his dogs in a barrier to protect them from whatever had been growing so near to their delicate bodies. They whimpered and slunk closer to him, balls of trembling fur flush against his legs.
“Were you going to attack me?” he asked, cold voice cutting through the rigid silence that had fallen as the magic quickly dissipated, its stench still putrid on the air. “I would recommend against that course of action.”
Saruman lowered the staff and ran a hand over his shoulder to brush his hair back. His face was still contorted with rage, though he took a moment to contain it. “As you say.”
“What do you want?” Mairon bit out. He reached behind him, feeling a cold nose bumping into his palm, another beside it. The dogs were calming, even if very slowly. “This is surely not a social call. So out with it, what is your woeful mission here? Tell me so you might leave sooner rather than later.”
The wizard was silent for a moment longer, the tension around them both still very tense, and Mairon pursed his lips. He felt power still humming under his skin, ready to pull forward should the need arise, and he narrowed his eyes as he watched Saruman stare furiously back at him.
“I am here,” he finally said quietly, “to speak with your Lord Vala.”
Mairon let out a barking laugh of surprise as these words sunk in, soft as they were. “Melkor?” he said, the name bold off his tongue when the other refused to say it at all. “You wish to speak with Melkor? Why?”
Saruman’s lips twitched into a deep frown, his nostrils flaring as he took in a quick breath. “You have the audacity to refer to one of the Valar by name alone?” He looked around, as though expecting someone other than themselves to appear from the brush or forest and smite him for such a thing. “You beastly thing, forgoing such significant formalities as those.”
But Mairon simply laughed again, the sound cruel through the dumbfounded stillness that continued to fall taut around them. “Formality is something we left behind a very long time ago,” he said by way of needless explanation. He tilted his head to the side, raising a hand and feigning an examination of his fingernails, spotless though they already were. “If lack of formal titles disturbs you so, you should hear the words that pass between us in the bedchamber. Though, on second thought…”
He dropped his hand, watching with glee as mottled color spotted over the old man’s hollow cheeks. He smirked, white, pointed canine teeth showing between his lips. “On second thought, I am not sure that is a place you have ever been welcome, is it.”
Saruman’s face turned into a sneer of rage as such a personal image of his past was thrown forward and he opened his mouth to retort, the words forming already blistering. But Mairon waved off his argument in a very bored fashion, no longer enjoying the battle of wits, as it were, quite as much as he had been a few minutes before. His former forge companion was far too easily riled, as always. He raised his eyebrows as their eyes met again.
“Repellant,” the wizard whispered, his voice full of loathing where there had once been so much admiration. “You are wholly unworthy of - ”
“Melkor is not here,” Mairon said firmly, cutting off any coming squabble and returning easily to the apparent business of their meeting. How tiresome his comments were. “Why, exactly, did you need to speak with him?”
“I would not presume to share business that is not yours, Sauron,” Saruman spat, shifting his staff to the other hand. The use of the name did not achieve the desired effect, and Mairon simply continued to stare coolly at him across the way. He returned the staff to its previous hand, unnerved. “I will return, instead. When will he be back to his house?”
“I do not know. And,” Mairon added before an argument to the contrary could be put forth, “it is doubtful he would see you should you return, regardless. I would say you have - well, roughly the chance of a snowdrift upon the hottest hearth in my forge, of speaking with him directly. Melkor is not one of the Valar you charmed in Almaren, is he?” Saruman’s cheeks colored with anger again, and Mairon decided he appreciated that particular shade of red.
“I suppose you charmed him all for your own, then, did you?” he snapped waspishly, a scornful turn of his mouth twisting his features into something rather ugly.
“Why yes, I suppose I did. There was certainly not a lack of charm from either side, during those times, one can be sure.” Mairon paused to smile again and take a deep breath, pretending to be lost with memories long gone. “So, dear Curumo, explain yourself, will you? And I do promise to put forth your request to my - to my Lord Vala.”
Saruman huffed derisively, a rude sound that brought Mairon’s attention back to him. “Am I to gather your word means more now than it ever has before?”
“You can infer whatever you wish to,” Mairon replied, not bothered by the barb. “Though you can be assured, if you leave here now with your tale untold, it will remain that way. Melkor will not listen to you.”
The wizard’s lip curled again nastily, his anger and frustrations obvious. Silence fell once more, stretching between them like a physical thing that could be severed only with a knife, and sharp enough itself to cut. “Fine,” he finally said, the single word filled with all the hatred seen in his posture. “Fine, I will give you the request.”
“A request, is it?” Mairon opened one arm backward, gesturing around the back of the cottage in a real, albeit almost painful, offer. “Would you like to come into my forge? I will not invite you into the house, but you look as though that frail body you inhabit could use with a good sit-down and a drink.”
“Certainly not. I would not put it past you to poison me with something in my tea.”
“Poison,” Mairon scoffed with a genuine laugh. “Poison is not my style, you should know that by now. Nothing, really, is my style any longer when it comes to death and decay, though poison has never made the list. Now.” He dropped his arms and crossed them about his abdomen, sighing heavily. “What is it that brings you here? Please, do not make me ask you again. Draugluin and I both grow impatient.”
Saruman threw a glance toward the open cliffside just as Mairon had done, though his eyes fell downward, toward the towns dotting the countryside. He pursed his lips tightly before taking a breath to speak. “I come here,” he said with the air of a politician, “on an act of mercy on behalf of the Men you see below you.”
Mairon looked out as well, remembering vividly the fires that broke out so freely and so often as the sun set. He did not speak.
“I am their agent, and they called on me for aid when their times turned grim.”
Nothing else was forthcoming quickly enough, and Mairon rolled his eyes as he turned his bored gaze back around. “And this has bearing on us...how, exactly?”
“The Men below, and all over Middle Earth, are dying.” Saruman paused again, perhaps for dramatic effect that had no such weight as Mairon merely began to tap his foot. Draugluin flopped down onto the ground and rolled against Mairon’s legs, just as bored as his master, and the other dogs quickly descended on him with tails wagging as they began to play with loud growls. Saruman watched the wolf warily.
“They are dying of plague,” he continued pointedly after a moment.
“Yes, yes, I know this.”
Mairon crouched, losing interest in the conversation completely and instead urging Draugluin onto his back to scratch at his large stomach. The four dogs nearly bowled him over in their excitement, and he threw an arm over the shoulders of one closest, who pushed its nose happily against his cheek in greeting. “Oh, I know, I know,” he crooned sweetly.
Another dog reared back and planted her front feet on his upper back, until Draugluin, still belly-up, kicked at her playfully with a very large back leg. The dog fell away, and Mairon reached for her to rub about the ears. “Our visitor is outstaying his welcome, isn’t he? Should we leave him here and go elsewhere, take a run through the woods? Does that sound fun?”
The dogs started happily yipping their response, and Draugluin jumped quickly to his feet, shaking the dirt and grass from his shaggy fur. Mairon laughed, grasping the giant beast loosely about the neck and leaning against him. “Would you like to chase him away, my dear friend? Shall I set you free on him? Yes, precious, shall I?”
Draugluin howled with the idea, the noise loud and echoing hauntingly across the mountaintop as it was taken up by the dogs and several other wolves nearby. This time Saruman took a full step backward from the scene.
“You are appalling,” he grumbled, grip tightening on his staff.
“And you,” Mairon replied distractedly, not looking at him, “truly are outstaying your welcome. For the final time, speak or leave us.”
“If you must know, I come with the request of aid,” Saruman finally snapped, slamming his staff so hard into the ground with his annoyance it sunk over an inch into the dirt. He twisted it out again. “This - this plague, it has already killed many thousands, and the Men are ill and frightened. I need -” He cut his suddenly flowing words off sharply as he heard his own implication, bushy grey eyebrows narrowed. “I need assistance, and thought, perhaps, I might find it here in the form of a higher power.”
Mairon fell onto his back with a whoop of laughter, allowing Draugluin and all four dogs to leap atop him and run their wet tongues about his face as they yipped and barked excitedly. Any pretense of taking this meeting seriously was fully vanished, not that he cared in the least.
“Let me be sure I understand you,” he said, voice muffled and only just heard from beneath a great amount of fur. He caught sight of Saruman standing back, staring in open-mouthed dismay at the scene, before the shepherd padded around Mairon’s head and pawed happily at his nose. He turned his face away, reaching for the dog anyway.
“Let me be sure I understand what you are saying,” he said again, tenderly taking the animal’s soft snout in both hands and to look at her sweet brown eyes. One of them had a deep scar over the lid. He received a pleased lick in return for the attention. “You are intruding on our solitude after we spent so much effort setting ourselves aside, after we called a truce and walked away from everything without any intention of getting involved again - to get us involved? And for nothing in return?” He laughed again, a mirthless, bitter sound that made Draugluin whine.
“Absolutely not. You should leave now.”
The argument was instantaneous, and Mairon was glad he was already preoccupied with his companions lest he lose his temper fully with this ridiculous affair.
“Would you be so selfish to hide your magic and power away up here on this mountaintop, to watch Middle Earth fall into ruin, when you and Lord Melkor have the ability to bring peace to a dying people?”
Mairon sat up at that, gently pushing the animals back as they continued to climb around him. They obeyed with no complaint at the gesture, falling away to sit close by with tails wagging as they watched him closely. He turned a resentful glare to the wizard, who was still standing across the yard. “Why would we bring peace to those who only ever sought our ruin?” he asked acidly.
“It was the elves -”
“The Firstborn still had much sway over Man,” Mairon interrupted shortly. “Our residence in Middle Earth brought us pain and misery at the hands of everyone we faced, and you would ask us to save it? Does your soul truly believe it is an old man going senile?”
“I am prepared,” Saruman offered quickly, before Mairon could get to his feet for a final dismissal, “to bring news of your good deed to the White Council.”
Mairon fell silent for a long, beating moment, weighing these words carefully as they hung between them. “To what end?”
“With the proposition you and your - your Lord Melkor be left in peace here. If that is what you desire.”
“We are already at peace,” Mairon replied, unsure now and doing his best to keep that from his voice. The wolf stood again, coming to his side to offer what unspoken support he could. Mairon reached a hand to rest on his shoulders, towering now near the top of his head as he sat. “Unless this is some form of bribery or threat?”
“There has been talk among the Council,” Saruman began quietly, and Mairon could tell this was information he had not initially been planning to share. He paid closer attention than he had previously, his consideration finally caught. “Talk of bringing forces here to subdue you both permanently, and of bringing you to Valinor for trial and condemnation to the Void.”
“Talk amongst who, specifically?” Mairon asked breathlessly, feeling flutterings of anxiety for the first time in longer than he could remember. War was something they had left behind, something they wanted no more part in. He had been so certain this had been made clear.
“Some of the Council, as I said. And…” The wizard looked away, and it was as though their old, withered friendship flared again for one short moment. “And some of the Valar in the West. I cannot say I agree with their assessment of the situation, now that I have seen you here. And perhaps by intervening with this plague -”
“We could put forth a good mark in our favor, yes.”
Their eyes met again, and Mairon narrowed his eyebrows, mind made up. “I will visit one of these towns myself,” he said, “to get a better understanding of the problems they are dealing with, and will present the idea to Melkor. If we believe this is something we should become involved in, we will do so. My condition for such involvement in saving the race of Men is simple - we are to receive pardon from the Valar on their high thrones in the West, and we are not to be bothered here again, under any circumstances short of apocalyptic. Do you agree?”
Saruman opened his mouth only to close it again, taken aback at the bold requests. “I am not certain I can promise such things.”
“Then Melkor will have no helping hand in your situation,” Mairon replied firmly. “Do you need the assistance of a Vala in this mess of yours, or not? You had best make your decision now, for it is doubtful you will be welcomed back here again.”
“Very well,” Saruman said with a terse nod. “Your terms are accepted. Will you have me return at a later date to discuss plans for a cure?”
“I just explained you would not be welcomed here again once you left, and that was regardless of your answer.” Mairon frowned, though this time it was not held with the fury he had felt minutes before. He felt a kind of melancholy pulling at his chest, as memories from so long ago came and went through his mind of a time spent in a very different place with this same being while their friendship was still true. “You will know quite clearly if we intervene, I can assure you. Please do not return.”
He watched as Saruman nodded a final time, his understanding evident, and turned to go. No farewells were given, and none were missed. He continued to gaze after him as he walked slowly down the path leading away from the cottage out of sight and several minutes later heard the heavy beating of hooves.
Mairon stood and beckoned to Draugluin as he paced back to the forge. The other dogs followed close behind them.
There was much to think about, and the fire would help focus his mind.