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[center] Champion of Dol Guldur[/center]
1. First Fruits of War

Thranduil looked up from the documents he was studying as there was a knock on the door. A messenger entered.

“A letter, Milord. The courier said it was most urgent.”

Curiously, for the seal was unfamiliar, Thranduil opened the message and read it swiftly. Then he read it again, more slowly, and looked at the messenger in silence for a moment before responding. And when he did, his response was wordless and strange. For the king had spent the day peaceably, within doors, talking boat fees with the mayor of Lake-town.

But when he finished the letter, Thranduil thrust the parchment into a candle flame. His other hand went to his side, searching for his sword.

***
On Mirkwood’s western edge, halfway between the Carrock and the Old Forest Road, the forest thinned out and became a coppice called Rhosgobel. In the middle of the coppice someone had grown a house. It began with a large circle of twelve shrubs, the kind known in those parts as Yavanna’s Paintbrush for its size and its red foliage in autumn. The sturdy limbs of this plant had grown upward and had been trained to come together at a place about twelve feet from the ground., where they interlaced together like a dome of shapely fingers. At intervals the woody limbs separated to form window openings, and doors. But passersby could scarcely see the harmony of form and function, for the broad leaves of the Paintbrush grew like shingles on a roof, and in late summer, the house was as green as if the forest canopy had decided to settle on earth.

Gandalf the Grey stood leaning on his staff at the edge of the deserted coppice, He had traveled the twenty leagues from the Elf Path to Beorn's keep by borrowed horse, grateful for the convenience and even more for the speed. Then Beorn had found him a punt, old but floating.

"What do you know about boats?" Beorn had asked Gandalf.

"That I will not drown if I stay inside them."

"That is my understanding too," Beorn admitted. "Good luck."

Gandalf had had the luck, and so the passage downriver had gone well. Until he passed the Carrock, that is, and the water flowed so swiftly that Gandalf thought he might be carried far past the Old Ford at the Forest Road.

That will not do, thought Gandalf. We must have a care for spies. So he looked for a place to ground the punt when he was still five leagues away from Rhosgobel. Making landfall - and splintering the punt in the process - Gandalf had covered the remaining distance on foot.

Now he was weary. And in haste. But he spared a moment to admire the abode of Radagast.

While he was doing that, a gust of wind blew from the east. Immediately all the sounds of the forest vanished. The summer air lost its warmth, and Gandalf shivered. He turned sharply this way and that. He saw nothing.

The more reason to stop wasting time, Gandalf told himself. Summon him. But somehow he did not feel like shouting aloud for Radagast. He felt that someone’s attention might be attracted. Or someone’s spy might hear, and already secrecy was his greatest care.

Gandalf had an idea. He searched through his robe and cloak for his pipeweed pouch. Next he took out his fire kit – a firestone, piece of steel, char cloth and a palmful of fire fuzz. He settled on the grassy ground and laid out the char cloth, preparing to light the pipe. Finally, with a satisfying sniff of the Old Toby but not much hope of getting to smoke it, Gandalf filled his pipe, struck a spark that landed on the fire fuzz, and thrust a dry twig into the resulting flicker.

He had time for three deep puffs, and one good smoke ring, before birds and squirrels began deserting the clearing. Then Radagast appeared at the edge of Mirkwood, with a brown swirl of robes and more dismay than the animals.

“Greetings, Gandalf,” he said, and Gandalf was glad to note that Radagast did not shout. No matter what Saruman might say, Radagast the Brown was no fool. “Is it courteous of guests to frighten the inhabitants of this place with a smell like a firestorm?”

“I am well, thank you,” said Gandalf. “As for the inhabitants of this place, that touches on the reason for my visit. We have not talked for a long time.”

“I am easy to find, as you see.”

“Come, old friend, you must have guessed why I am here. Let us talk inside where I can rest my tired feet and cool my throat. The way from the river bank is dusty. See, I will put away my pipe.”

Inside the hut the air was cool and fragrant with the flowers that grew near all windows. Radagast had paved the floor with brown and grey flagstones brought by cart from the Great River. As Gandalf settled into a wicker chair he studied the flagstones. He marked that they formed a pretty mosaic pattern, suggesting the flowing of river water that had worn them smooth over the ages.

As Radagast brought him a cup of water, Gandalf said gently, “I would leave you be in this peaceful place if I could. But you have forsaken your charge and you know it.”

“Yavanna would not say so. How can it be wrong for me to nurture the creatures of the world?”

“If neglecting your duty allows the West to fall to Sauron, then it is wrong. Why are you not at Fangorn Forest at this moment, exhorting Treebeard to rouse the Ents? You were tasked to warn all folk who love the works of Arda. Yet here you sit with your eyes closed while Sauron’s power grows at your very doorstep.”

“Ninety leagues is hardly on my doorstep, supposing you mean Dol Guldur.”

“Saruman calls you simple. Do not prove it. Dol Guldur is on your doorstep, and if you do not believe me now, you will when we pass it in route to Galadriel. Time grows short, Radagast. We must act.”

"Well, I will go with you, Gandalf, although I have no wish to choose between attending a war council and abandoning the creatures that I love." Radagast the Brown went to collect his hat and pouch.

"Choices between evils," said Gandalf. "It is the first fruit of war."

TO BE CONTINUED