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The Hither Shore

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Talion knelt on the parapet of the Black Gate, the body of Sauron's Black Hand cooling on the stones before him. The mists of the Wraith World circled the scene, casting a blue light upon Talion's face like the shimmer of a lake under the moon. He thought—or did he simply imagine?—he could at last hear his wife's voice again.

The next face he saw was not Ioreth's, however, but that of Celebrimbor, his soul companion in the battle just past. The wraith's face held the first expression of compassion Talion had ever seen amid those disfiguring scars. "The Black Hand of Sauron is dead," said the Ring-Maker. "The Hither Shore is calling us." The great mystery all Men fear, spoken of as a matter of fact.

The ranger turned away, his eyes drifting toward the horizon, where the fires of Mount Doom shone dimly through the pall of the Wraith World. That invitation, to rejoin his family in death, was all that he had wanted from the beginning of this nightmare. And yet… what he had accomplished in Mordor with the Ring-Maker's help had been more than any Man, Elf, or Dwarf could dream of doing even with armies at their backs. Could they banish the shadow of Mordor entirely, if they pressed on? Strike down the Dark Lord, ensuring that no one would ever again suffer the evils he and Celebrimbor had endured?

Celebrimbor knew his mind, of course, and spoke before Talion could even voice the suggestion. "This is no longer our battle. I tried fighting him. It can't be done."

It sounded like something Hallas would say. Like something that justified the Rangers of Gondor merely watching the Black Gate even as armies of uruk massed behind it: We tried fighting them. It can't be done. Talion picked up his dagger from the ground, and turned to face Celebrimbor again. Using the voice of contempt he'd honed goading Dirhael to refine his fighting technique, he said, "Could you really rest for all of eternity, knowing that you had the chance to stop him but did nothing?"

In an instant, the compassion in Celebrimbor's face vanished, replaced once again by the steel and fire of his forges. "Did nothing? You and I slew hundreds, no, thousands of Sauron's uruk. We cut down his strongest Captains and Warchiefs. We ended the Hammer, the Tower, the Hand. We liberated countless captives, including Queen Marwen and her daughter. Or have you forgotten Lithariel faster than you forgot your wife upon seeing her?" The wraith circled behind Talion, letting his grimace face only the mists. "We will never know their impact, but these victories cannot be dismissed. And they are enough, Ranger."

Talion spun to face the Elf again, and pointed toward Mount Doom. "There is one thing we have not done. You are the Ring-Maker. Forge a new Ring to oppose the old!"

If Celebrimbor had still possessed such bodily accoutrements as saliva, he would have spat. "I was the Ring-Maker, Talion. Now I am but a wraith, and you but a Man. Even the two of us together cannot bring back the powers that once worked in Middle-Earth but have deserted it in this diminished Age." He paused; it was the Elf's turn to look contemplatively toward the volcano on the horizon. "And even if such a thing were possible… Without the Ring, there would be no Dark Lord. Without the Ring, the wretched creature who found my hammer and crown would have lived out a happy life. Without the Ring, there would be no uruk, no Doom. Without the Ring, my wife and child would still live, as would yours." He rounded back on Talion, a scowl deepening the grooves in his ravaged face. "And you think more Rings will make matters better?"

The Ranger clenched his fists, one wrapped around the hilt of Acharn, and turned away, head bowed over the Black Hand's corpse. "I don't know. Is there truly nothing more we can accomplish?"

The wraith faded from sight, returning color to the world, albeit the rusty sunset hues of the Black Gate. Talion stood there, alone, a minute or more, while the Elf left him to his thoughts. With a sigh, he sheathed Acharn on his back beside Urfael, and took one last look at Mount Doom through the stinging wind and dust. "Very well, wraith. You've won."

Celebrimbor spoke in his mind without manifesting. The edge was gone from the voice again, its sorrow and sympathy returned. "I have forced your hand enough, Ranger. I will not drag you screaming across the veil. If you bid me stay, I shall stay." A beat, a breath from one who no longer breathed. "But I believe the blows we have struck against the Dark Lord will make it possible for someone to succeed where I could not."

"Yes." He took to the thought reluctantly, but had Talion not already accepted that his deeds here would go unsung, unknown? He would have to trust in the Elf lord's wisdom, despite his deceptions. "Very well. Our families have waited long enough."

"Indeed they have." Once more Talion plunged into the Wraith World as Celebrimbor manifested in front of him. And now there was something else on the Elf's face he had not witnessed before, even in the Ring-Maker's memories: a smile. The wraith extended a hand, and a glow like sunlight began to cut through the mists. The Ranger reached out, clasped the arm of his final battle partner, and vanished forever from Middle-Earth.