"Go to the clearing and bring the stranger here. Be careful what you say to him," Lady Galadriel had told Seregwen.

It was hardly Lady Galadriel's place to call other Elves strangers, Seregwen thought, even if she spent almost as much time here as in Eregion--typical Noldorin arrogance. But here the visitor was, standing in the shadow of one of the mellyrn and watching the sun begin to set.

"My lord?" Seregwen said. "The council is ready for you."

The man turned, and her eyes widened—he had to be the most beautiful Elf she had seen. "The council?" he said. "I am honored." There was an odd, almost mocking tone in his voice.

"Yes, my lord," she said, looking at him uncertainly. "They sent me here to bring you."

He smiled at her and she felt herself smile in return. "Then let us not keep them waiting," he said. Seregwen blushed and started walking; the man strode easily beside her. "They called a council just to welcome one person to Nan Laur."

"They do not meet that rarely—we have no leader, so they meet whenever something needs to be decided."

"Then they think I am a less important visitor than I had imagined they did."

Seregwen cringed at her misstep—she certainly didn't want him to feel slighted—and said hurriedly, "Oh, no, my lord, I meant only that—" She looked up at him and saw that he was smiling again.

"Put it out of your mind," he said. He looked at her thoughtfully for a moment, and then added, "A council to decide everything—that sounds inefficient. Would a single, strong leader not be more effective?"

"Not to decide everything—just important matters." Seregwen looked away quickly, not wanting to argue with an important guest, and she noticed that they were passing a fork in the path. "That leads to the river," she said, hoping he would accept the change of subject. "We take boats on it. Lady Galadriel says that—"

"Galadriel?" he said sharply. "Is she here?" Seregwen looked at him, startled—any amusement had left his face, and he was looking intently at her.

"She came here earlier—some matter about the Naugrim," Seregwen said slowly. "When she heard you were in Nan Laur, she wanted to hear what you would say. Is there a problem?"

He looked away, and when he turned back, the anger had been replaced with sadness. "Do you know why I am here?" Seregwen shook her head, and he continued, "I have—gifts, you could call them, gifts that could help Endor heal. But there are some who mistrust me; they fear the thought of a changed Endor, an Endor grown as beautiful as Valinor. Seregwen—" He sighed and put his hand gently on her shoulder. "--I am afraid that Lady Galadriel, wise as she may be, is one of them, so I hope you will forgive my—harshness regarding her."

Seregwen stared at him in amazement. "Who are you?" she breathed. "A Vanya, from across the Sundering Seas? Or even," she added, her mind jumping from possibility to possibility, "one of the Maiar?"

The stranger laughed softly. "For now, you may call me Annatar."