Manwë sat on his throne, a deep frown entrenched on his celestial face, his fingers drumming the carven wood handle. His unhappy stare moved across the three figures before him: the miserable, cringing wizard, the coldly wrathful elf-lord, and his bereft daughter, quietly weeping in the back.
"Well?" he said. "Am I to hear at least some excuses for this catastrophe?"
"It was like this, my lord," Gandalf said humbly. "Radagast said I had to get there right away. Saruman summoned me on a most urgent matter."
"Ah," Manwë said. "And you had no clue he had turned."
"Not really, my lord," Gandalf said, flushing.
"You never noticed the Orcs crawling all over Isengard."
"I wanted to think the best of him, my lord. You can understand…"
"I'm trying," Manwë snapped. "What else did Radagast say?"
"He said…" Gandalf's voice sunk to an abashed whisper. "The Nine were abroad, my lord."
"Merely a small piece of gossip," said Manwë bitingly. "And what did you do with this information fit for the society column?"
"I wrote Frodo a letter, warning him to leave the Shire right away."
"And you found a Ranger to take it to him immediately, of course. What any dimwit would do, since Dúnedain litter the landscape guarding the silly place. So naturally…"
"…I left it with Barliman Butterbur," Gandalf said, his face scarlet.
"An unusual choice," said Manwë, his voice crackling with sarcasm. "But you could trust him to keep it safe, even if he forgot to send it on."
"Well," Gandalf said. "I didn't realize there were so many spies in Bree."
"No, of course not," Manwë said. "They've only been moving in and out of the town in droves for years, while Rangers risk their lives keeping the Enemy out."
"One of the spies apparently got his hands on the letter."
"But since it was a model of discretion, it was of no use to him, right?" said Manwë, his eyes piercing the wilting wizard.
"Well," said Gandalf again, trembling. "I slipped a little. I'm afraid I put Aragorn's name in there."
"A small matter," Manwë said with a curl of his lip.
"But Frodo had to meet up with him."
"So true! Therefore you got this message to Aragorn, too."
"I didn't have time."
Manwë cast his eyes up to the heavens, silently calling on Iluvatar to give him strength. He sighed. "But besides the name, which would tip anyone with a knowledge of the history of the Northern Kingdom just who this man was, you didn't give anything else away."
"Just the verses, my lord."
"You mean the poem that says he has Elendil's sword and that he'll be crowned king one day?"
"Yes, my lord," said Gandalf in a barely audible whisper.
Elrond let out a sharp curse. Manwë quelled him with a wilting stare.
"But it wouldn't have mattered, really," Gandalf protested. "If only he had had a whole sword and a knife or two, he could have fought them off. Why in Middle-earth was he running around Eriador with only a broken sword?"
"Why indeed," agreed Manwë. "But since he's not around to tell us, we'll never know."
Arwen's muted snuffling rose to noisy wails of wild grief.
"And then," said Gandalf, warming to his story, "he tried to sneak into the hobbits' parlor and knocked himself out cold against the low ceiling."
"Well," said Manwë, trying not to laugh, "that was unfortunate."
"Yes," said Gandalf, and he raised his extraordinary eyebrows, hoping to recoup some grandeur. "He really should have been more careful."
Manwë let the silence endure for a rather long interval, while he stared unblinking at the wizard's eager face.
"I didn't mean to blame it all on him," said Gandalf sheepishly.
"Good," Manwë said. "What happened then?"
"After Saruman's men—ah—finished Aragorn off, they got the Ring."
"Of course!" Manwë agreed. "Since there was no one else around to help, due to your excellent foresight in warning the Rangers about the danger."
"And that's how Saruman got it."
The silence stretched on. Manwë glared at his fingernails.
Gandalf made one last attempt to save himself. "But at least he got rid of Sauron!"
"Humph," Manwë said. "At least one of my servants could carry out the mandate. Now, get the hell out of here."