AUTHOR NOTES: This is an AU story based in book-verse, but bits of movie-verse may be interwoven at the author's discretion. I've altered the timeline slightly to bring Aragorn back to Rivendell earlier than canon infers. Thank you to SurgicalSteel for the beta-help.

DISCLAIMER: The Professor's wonderful characters don't belong to me; I just get to think about them day and night


Chapter 1: The Sorcerer Prepares

Those who used the Nine Rings became mighty in their day, kings, sorcerers, and warriors of old. They obtained glory and great wealth, yet it turned to their undoing. 'Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age', The Silmarillion

Although he rarely measured time as he had when mortal, the Moon's appearance revealed that nearly a month had passed since he and his undying brethren had been scattered in the unnatural flood. He had been washed to the eastern side of the river many miles south, cloak and sword gone, but had not heeded their Captain's call to retreat. Stubbornly, he made his way back alone, keeping to the east, searching along the towering cliffs for a way to penetrate the hidden valley of the Elves.

He felt nothing but contempt for this so-called 'refuge', founded, he supposed, as a pitiful northern imitation of unassailable Mordor. Still, the weathers moved differently here; the stars burned brighter; and there was something else. He was kept from attempting to climb the cliffs by the same strange force that had caused hesitation at the river's edge. The Elvish vale was ringed by a watchful barrier that reminded him of the quiet power pulsing within the stone sentinels at the tower of Cirith Ungol. Here, he could sense a palpable presence that slept; but it would awaken instantly – as the river had awakened – if challenged.

The events of the past weeks still confused him. Baggins should not have been able to withstand the enspelled blade fragment for so long. He should have succumbed mere days after being wounded, and, drawn by the combined will of the Nine, sought them out.

It was a concept most difficult to grasp. How had they failed to win back the Master Ring, carried by such a frail creature?

It is I who failed, the wraith reminded himself bitterly. Whatever splinter pierced the Halfling should have been impossible to resist, or even locate. The only explanation is that the shadow-spell I wove into our Captain's blade was not strong enough. The Master wished Baggins brought before him alive, but we did not find him in the tavern house, or on the Road. Bringing him into the shadow-realm—where he would be at first weak, confused, and easily controlled – was a plan wrought in haste, and badly executed. I was not there when our Captain struck the blow; I was chasing the Maia. But I am still to blame: I, the most powerful sorcerer of my people in the days when I yet walked enfleshed beneath the Sun, learning the powers of the ring I so eagerly accepted and bent to my will. It serves me still, yet to the Master Ring it is forever bound.

For a moment, the wraith exulted. It was I who enspelled the blade used by our Captain. It was I who lent my power to the assault on the Maia at the ancient hilltop, causing him to falter and flee. But then he shuddered with memory. At the river, the Elf-lord seared our eyes with his light. The Man was fearless. The flames burned us, the small ones confused us. And when the river attacked without warning, the unthinkable occurred: we were unhorsed and separated. Baggins resisted until consciousness fled from him; my spell upon the blade was not strong enough. I failed.

He shook with fury and shame. He dared not attempt to enter the valley without revealing himself to those who dwelt within, but could still, with subtlety and care, probe its secrets; he might learn something that would redeem himself in the Master's Eye. And so he lingered, carefully reaching out in thought to the hidden land on the other side of the hills.

He sensed a troubling gathering of peoples from many lands, but could not discern their purpose. Soon the valley began to empty, but the patrols that passed him were easy enough to evade.

They search for news of us, but my brothers are long gone, and I hide in silence.

Baggins was recovering his strength. Even with the protective magic that surrounded the Elves' refuge, he could sense the small one through the Master Ring, which even now called to his own. Through this tenuous connection, he knew when the Halflings began to roam freely and without fear throughout the valley, exploring it in all directions.

And at last, his mental probings brought a glimmer of hope.

Amidst the solid rock of the hills lay a vast, empty space carved from waters falling within the earth over the millenia - a cavern, wide and deep, laced with crystals and precious metals. The entrance could only be reached from the Elves' valley, and the passage burrowed deeply before ending abruptly. He could not reach the cave save in thought, but... Might not the Halfling children discover it, and venture within? They are too trusting, and their remaining guardians overly confident.

Imladris was closed to him; nor could he disturb its waters or air – they answered to another. Fire he loathed. But the metals… why not use them? He had embedded the Captain's iron knife with spells and power to enslave; why could he not speak as easily to the iron flowing through the earth?

I have discovered how this refuge may be breached; it is vulnerable from a direction the arrogant Elf-lords and Maia have overlooked. Although my chance of success is slim at best, a weakness in their defenses exists; and I will exploit it.

He pressed his withered hand upon the cliff-face, and channeled power through the ring on his finger... carefully, slowly, so as not to awaken the defenses. In his mind, he travelled along the veins of ore until he reached jagged teeth of rock that hung like blades from the roof of the cavern. Stalactites they were named. These were iron-rich, and vulnerable to his craft. Day after day he concentrated upon the earth-metals, murmuring in the Black Speech. Even when all was done, certain that his spells were firmly set, he remained still, silent and waiting. He gave no heed to the cold, and needed neither sleep nor nourishment.

If Baggins entered the cavern he would know it, and act; he would push with all his force against the magical barrier keeping the valley whole and protected. The sudden and violent clash of powers might be enough to shake the very foundations of the valley; surely it would be more than enough to shatter one of the now-enspelled daggers of iron and send it plummeting toward the Halfling below.

It is all I can do from out here, using only my ring and my thoughts. Perhaps the Halflings will not find the cavern. Perhaps I will not be able to splinter the rock, or Baggins will not be fully in its path if it does fall. But perhaps, this time, a Morgul shard will find its mark and cast him into shadow. He would flee that valley, and I would find him with ease.

But even if Baggins is not harmed, the Elf-lords and Maia will know I was here. They will be reminded that there is no safety for this Halfling anywhere in Middle-earth. The message will be clear: He will be ours, along with the Ring he bears. Sooner or later, he will be ours.

And when the Master takes back what is his, he has promised that the Nine will know power as never before. Middle-earth will fall on its knees before us, conquered at last.

My brothers have fled far south, on such wolves or Wargs that would bear them, as I will do, when my task here is done; but when I am once more before the Master I will face his Eye, and tell him that I stayed longest and risked the most. Perhaps, then, he will look upon me with favor, and the Nine will have a new Captain. Perhaps.

** TBC **