Pallando was awoken by the bright sunlight streaming through the window onto his face. It was close to noon, he had slept far longer than he had planned to. As he clambered out of the bed he tried to remember the last time he had been able to sleep so late. He couldn’t. In fact he had to think awhile before he remembered the last time he has slept in a proper bed. It wasn’t easy traveling across the world, especially when you were trying to stay out of sight. But now he was under the watchful eye of an old friend and he could afford to let his guard down, if only for a night.
When he came down Maric was washing his mugs, like a good barkeeper. “Ahh, you’re awake” he said in a cheery voice, rather different from his demeanor the night before. “Would you care for some lunch?”
“Lunch? Have I really slept that late?”
“Indeed you have. But you wouldn’t be the first weary traveler I’ve seen to do that. Have a seat and I’ll get you some food.”
“Lunch sounds wonderful. But first, do I call you Alatar, or do you prefer Maric Whitehood now?”
Maric stopped washing and for a few seconds stood silently. If Pallando was close enough to see his blue eyes under the bushy white eyebrows he would have seen them glazed over as if his mind was far away, in both space and time. Finally, he said, “Alatar will do, old friend.”
Over lunch the two old friends talked and talked. They talked of the incessant wars in the West, the rise of new powers in the South and the growing strength of the so-called Centre Alliance. Pallando brought news of just how low the old kingdoms of the West had fallen, of the shrinking woodlands and the plight of the last of the Eldar. But in the South the jungles were vibrant still and in them were different beings — rakshasa they called themselves — immortal and strong like the Eldar of old but dark skinned, quicker to rage and given to illusions and deceptions. Pallando spoke of strange creatures that stirred in the Central Plains — man-horses gifted with great knowledge and wisdom rumored to have the gift of seeing through time. They were secretive and aloof but Pallando thought that they were the powers that propped up the thrones of the Centre Alliance. He had skirted around the Great Desert on his journey East but even in the border cities he had seen amazing sights and sensed the presence of terrible magic — powers that were Maiar-equal at least but seemingly commanded by mortal Men. And finally he had passed over the Red Mountains and come at last to Shi Taiyang — great capital of the Sun-lords of the East.
At this point Alatar interrupted him, “But why, Pallando? Why? You have traveled across the world, farther even than Mithrandir or Aragorn did long ago. And now you come knocking at my door carrying impossible treasures. What is the meaning of it?”
“To tell the truth, Alatar, I don’t know, I can only suspect. But I suspect that the age of Men is coming to an end. This is a world of many creatures. In fact, I suspect it always has been. But till now they have been content to stay out of the affairs of the world, out of the knowledge of the Children of Illuvatar at least. But now they are stirring. They are coming out of their jungle hideouts, out of the plains and the desert and the ice. And they are not quiet farmers and brewers like the Halflings of the Shire. They are forming empires and alliances, gathering armies and building citadels. They have the power to move earth and water, they play with wind and fire. What else they are capable of, I can only imagine. All I know is that here in the East the Sun-Lords have established the last strong nation of Men on Middle-Earth.”
“And you wish to give them strength against the tide of change that now sweeps the world? Is that why you bring your treasure here? You think they are strong enough to wield the power of Ring-lore and not be corrupted by it?” As Alatar asked this his eyes seemed to grow brighter and sharper. They focused on Pallando, unblinking.
Pallando for his part smiled a little, “You are sharp as always. Yes, I think the Sun-Lords can wear Rings without falling to them. But as for the rest, you are not quite right. I brought them here, but they have not traveled far. They were forged in a small town just two days ride from here. They were made by and old man and his grandson.”
Alatar was visibly surprised. “Are you telling me that these Men of the East have rediscovered the making of Rings? I do not think I believe you. It took Celebrimbor years to perfect the art of Ring-making and that too under the tutelage of Sauron. Curunir himself only made the smallest steps and he tried for decades.”
“Yes, I know all that Alatar. But you have seen the proof with your own eyes. I saw their forging myself. The night I left it was raining; the old jeweler wore the ruby Ring and kept the fire going through the rain and the damp. These are Rings of Power, Pallando and the East-Men wield them like they are hammers and spades.”
“So what do we do now? Do we go to the Sun-lords and offer guidance like Mithrandir did to the Kings of the West?”
“No, no. It is too soon for that. And I feel the Sun-Lords should be allowed to grow accustomed to these powers on their own. For now we should only watch. Besides, affairs in the West are more pressing — the last of the Firstborn will not long survive the decay of the West.”
“The Sun-lords have mighty armies. But even if they wield the power of the Rings, they cannot march across all of Middle-Earth. And they have no alliances with the Houses of the Eldar.”
“True. But the Sun-Lords are not the only strength in this part of the world. There are powers here that are older than them by far and they owe us a debt, if you remember.”
“You mean to go North then? To Rorikshore? Or even further?”
“To Rorikshore. I have no intention of meeting the Frost Giants just yet. But there is an impulsive young vampire in Rorikshore I have been meaning to see for a while.”
“I thought the vampires had been purged from Rorikshore.”
“The vampires purged? Hah! Rorikshore would fall to the Sultanate within a day if the Vampires left. No, I suspect it’s an elaborate rouse. Or someone’s idea of a practical joke. We shall find out. Will you come?”
Alatar did not respond immediately. He furrowed his eyebrows and for a while his eyes had that far-away look again. And when he did speak he sounded like the tired old man from the night before. “I’ve lived a quiet life for many years, letting the world pass me by. I was content to sit by and watch the turn of the world. And then you show up to my door, uncalled for, with magic Rings and tales of man-horses and demons. You want me to aid a long lost people at the other end of the world. You want to drag me along to chase vampires and frost giants? You want me to give up home and hearth for danger and toil and a fool’s hope? Why, of course I’ll come!”
If Pallando and Alatar had been younger they would have laughed out together. But now they just sat together, silent, with little smiles on their faces. To be alone together and not say a word you must be very close friends. Alatar and Pallando were the closest.