moment the old man quickened his pace and came with surprising speed to
the foot of the rock-wall. Then suddenly he looked up, while they stood
motionless looking down. There was no sound. They could not see his
face; he was hooded, and above the hood he wore a wide-brimmed hat, so
that all his features were overshadowed, except for the end of his nose
and his grey beard." (From 'The White Rider')
It was no wonder that his beard was grey, considering the soot and ash that sprinkled his attire and the haze of smoke that lifted from the edges of his robes that seemed to be smoldering. His hat was filled with tiny burn holes, like an old swiss cheese sliced thin and seared on a barbeque. Though the tiny holes the forest sunlight filtered down, dotting what they could see of his nose with bits of light so that his otherwise healthy schnozz appeared mottled and diseased. It was no wonder that they were speechless. What could be said to such an apparition when met in the middle of nowhere within a dark and dry forest?
"Fire!" cried Legolas with sudden alarm as the old man began to move forward, leaving a trail of smoldering cinders and sparks that drifted down into the dry mould of fallen leaves from countless seasons past. It was well that it was Legolas, the archer, that cried thus for his companions were not armed with bow, but axe and sword and the order confused them greatly. Gimli hefted his axe and balanced its midpoint as if considering how to send it aloft and thence down upon the old man's head in attempted obedience, Aragorn's noble brow furrowed. He lowered his sword to his side in doubt, not wanting to strike thus at an unprotected old man, however odd and smoky.
"Fire?" asked the old man as he climbed up towards them. His voice was strangely familiar, as was his nose though the rest of the picture left them confused. "Very well, though I must note that you failed in your courtesy. I should think a commonplace "please" would not be failing in one of the Elves."
With this odd comment, he raised the arm that was not at the time clinging to the rocks he was scaling and gave a brief command. Flames burst around them. Gimli yelped as the wooden handle of his axe suddenly became a flaming brand and the metal head fell to the earth with a thud. Aragorn gave a most unkingly high-pitched shriek like a little girl who has had a worm put down the back of her dress. Anduril clanged down upon the rocks, but not before it had neatly branded a mirror-image of its inscription upon the side of his leggings. The dry grasses and sticks all about them blazed up like a dozen campfires gone mad, even the lichen upon the rocks smouldered grey and ashen in a trice. Legolas danced about madly in an insane bout of hotfoot, cussing something in Elvish, all of his arrows bursting into flame simultaneously within his quiver.
Showers of cinders came down upon them until they were nigh on as speckled and dotted as the old man. He had reached the top of the ridge by now, pulling himself the rest of the way up and straightening his back with an grunt as if there were nothing untoward about the events occurring all around him. He fished around in a partially charred pocket and extracted a large pipe, which he inserted into his mouth already lit. A large puff of tobacco smoke wafted around the brim of his hat and he grinned at them with apparent delight.
"Mithrandir!" cried Legolas, still hopping about. "Drat you, stop it! What are you doing alive? I thought you were dead!"
"Gandalf?" said Gimli, looking up from where he was methodically going around stamping out small blazes. "I should have guessed!"
"Gandalf?" said the old man. "Ah yes…Gandalf. I was Gandalf."
Aragorn swatted at cinders that were still burning holes in his tunic and jerkin. "And you haven't changed a bit, have you?"
Gandalf, for it was he, smiled at them again and puffed his pipe complacently as the alarmed and disgusted companions ran about trying to beat out the flames that, yet again, threatened to follow them wherever they went.
"Can't you save your fireworks for more open places? Like the middle of the sea, for instance?" Legolas grumbled. "What would happen if this forest caught fire? These trees are old, very old, and full of memories."
Gandalf shrugged and absently set a clinging bush ablaze. "Trees, schmees. I've seen them come, grow and go. So have you. They haven't the memory of a field mouse and you know it. What would they remember within that wood and bark anyway? Whether it rained last week? How many bugs the woodpeckers got last night? Pshaw. Highly overrated, trees. Never were good conversationalists." He blew another puff on his pipe.
"You fell," Aragorn stated pointedly.
"I saw it too," said Legolas, accusingly.
"And I'm back! Long I fell, and the Balrog fell with me…"
"Seems you two should have gotten along famously," muttered Gimli. "Two pyromaniacs like roast peas in a pod."
The wizard pulled out his pipe and tapped it on Gimli's helm, sending sparks and hot bits of tobacco down into the Dwarf's beard.
"I defeated him!" the wizard said dramatically, waving his arms so that traceries of fire flitted from his fingers in the shape of a B. "I have returned! Don't you want to know the story? It's a pretty good one, if I say so myself."
"No, I don't," said Gimli smacking at the cinders in his beard. "We're looking for missing hobbits, we have no desire to spend several hours listening to your self-puffery."
"Missing hobbits?" said Gandalf. "Oh, don't worry about them. They are safe with Treebeard. I tried to speak with them, but he sent me away, seemed to be terribly hurried for an Ent too, as if he wanted me out of the forest posthaste, can you imagine? I have no notion why." He stuck his hot pipe back in his pocket.
They all looked at him, momentarily speechless.
"They're with what?" asked Gimli, befuddled.
"All is well, and you will join me now as we go to Edoras!" stated Gandalf, ignoring him.
"What the heck? Edoras?" asked Aragorn.
"I thought they might like to know…"
"Know what?" asked Legolas, who was now acting a bit distracted, shading his eyes as he peered back toward the plains they had left behind.
"That there's a large prairie grass-fire headed their way."
They all stared at him. "You didn't," said Legolas.
"Now you've done it! How will we cover up for this one? First you roast all the horses Elrond had and leave us walking with one scraggly pony, then you about fry our hair off our heads blasting the local wildlife in Hollin, and I won't even mention all the perfectly good meals gone to ash, biscuits like briquettes…" Aragorn ranted. "I'm running out of excuses here!"
"Let's blame Saruman. He likes burning things too, doesn't he?" suggested Gimli with resignation. "Old 'burn the snow' is back, and it looks like we're in for another round of hot water."
Legolas nodded, trying to wipe soot from his hands and face with little success. "There is a chance they might still let us in the door that way."
The billows of smoke in the distance were now obvious to everyone, not just the Elf. "Come!" Aragorn said. "Time presses! And if we wait much longer, the entire forest will be joining the fields in their flames."
Thus it was, a time of legend, a meeting of old friends, before they departed that place in their blaze of glory.