The Chronicles and Legacies of the Last Alliance
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Part III: The Culling
The shadows stretched themselves long across the ground as the sun began its daily journey through the heavens. Beneath those heavens, too, journeys were being undertaken.
Isonduil now drove his sable steed to its limits, for his quest was not one to be taken lightly. For many hours he had pressed Duskmane mercilessly toward the motionless horizon, and still his destination of Imladris seemed no nearer. Sweat slid and clung to his brow, and his dark hair flapped in the howling wind.
Only now beginning to think, shedding the encumbering carapace of distress, Isonduil considered his situation. Nikerym Elrond had dispatched him to caution Imladris, and Haelith particularly. Pondering, even in the whipping wind, Isonduil’s mind spun dark tales and possibilities, and after a time he banished them from his mind.
Celebrían, too, was an elf of Imladris. Isonduil had met her only once, but he remembered her to be a lady of exquisite beauty. Her involvement with Elrond was widely known, as was her pain at his departure. Celebrían was also a poet of no small repute, and her works quickly spread from Imladris to all corners of the world.
Thinking of the golden domes and arches of Imladris, Isonduil began to recite a set of Celebrían’s lyrics. It was not a song of joy or veneration, as most of her compositions were, but Isonduil’s mind was not set to such tasks.
“Night bears not the darkest black,
Nor winter the bleakest chill,
For what nature’s perils lack
Is held by those with blood to spill.”
Vorion shivered. Still unconscious, his lips jerked apart reflexively to allow a wraith of blue-black fume to escape them. It curled and dispersed before his closed eyes.
Wakefulness came slowly, for the effects of the Black Breath do not quickly dissipate. Vorion stirred and twitched; eventually one lid opened.
The single pupil roved across its field of vision, for little could be seen without movement. Vorion gradually shifted his head, letting his eye touch and examine all that it came across.
The walls were black and lustrous, but also uneven, as if wrought of some metallic stone. A black torch flickered with unnatural intensity inside of an ironforged holder.
Vorion’s eye moved in circles, but no useful clue to his location presented itself. To move more than a little would be to risk discovery of his wakefulness. Straining, the voiceless knight could see a groove cut into the floor, intersecting another of lesser depth. It seemed to him that the grooves were meant as ornamentation, for he could imagine no other purpose for them.
As a shadow cast itself vaguely against the wall, Vorion tensed and let his lids draw together until they formed only a slit. There was a shape approaching him from behind, but he could make out no footsteps, only a faint, coarse rasp of metal on stone.
Without warning, the knight was lifted bodily into the air, and placed roughly upon his feet. Facing Vorion was a form taller than himself, but bent and twisted, as if it had been broken and then reconstructed with shattering inaccuracy.
Hunched within a filthy gray cloak, the formless creature regarded him through a mask carved to resemble a crude death’s-head. From behind the mask several metal spines were thrust upward, for the creature had donned also a hideous crown behind its mask.
Circling Vorion, the Nazgûl spread spidery fingers over both of his shoulders, and seemed to cling to the knight’s back as it urged him forward.
Ignoring the hoarse muttering behind him, Vorion saw that he was being ushered through a narrow and twisting passageway, illuminated only by torchlight. The walls were all black, and his distorted reflection gaped back at him from all angles.
“For hearts who revel in their torment,
Who have forfeited to lust and sin,
Shall care not when their souls are rent,
Nor if their slain foe is kin.”
The Council Chamber was jaggedly rounded, the walls jutting at odd angles. Ten seats there were, eight of which were now occupied. Vorion felt the grasping hands on his shoulders loosen as the Nazgûl deserted him and drifted away to the ninth of the dark cathedras.
A sudden fear thrilled through Vorion’s body as he realized that all of the Nine were now assembled. At the far side of the room was the tenth chair.
The tenth chair was a throne, carven of some arcane beetle-black stone, with ferocious and intricate forms covering it. Approaching the monolithic seat, Vorion squinted, for it now seemed that a shape was resolving out of the air and into the throne: at first a shadow, and then a shadowy form.
Vorion was a man of discipline, and he now exercised it. As the figure materialized, he did not waver. Suddenly, the torches flared, and all was bathed in ruby light.
Sitting even in a stately manner before Vorion was an elf. Glossy brown locks cascaded in free flows and braided webs over his patrician head. He was clad in dark crimson robes, and a scarlet rose emblazoned his chest. Twelve rings were upon his fingers.
A laugh of incredulity escaped Vorion’s lips, and he stepped closer to the black throne. The dark elf shifted slightly.
Pointing a finger, the nail crusted with dried blood, Vorion blew breath through his lips to form words. “You are Sauron!”
“Those who once stood far above
Such wanton infidelity
Shall fall on those who once they loved
And cast them into Fate’s dark sea.”
Smiling grimly, the seated figure shook his head. “I am not Sauron. Not now, in any case. Now, I am Annatar. Sauron…you would not wish to meet.”
Vorion’s mind buzzed audibly. He now stood mere feet away from Sauron the Deceiver, the greatest threat that Middle-earth had ever faced. His hand mechanically sprang for the hilt of his sword, which had earlier been removed by the Nazgûl.
Forcing his thoughts into clarity, Vorion spoke before Sauron could. “To what end have you brought me here?” he demanded.
Without responding, Sauron drew a perfect hand through the air, and slipped a ring from his forefinger. Adorning the finger next to it, Vorion glimpsed a simple gold band. The One Ring.
Sauron cast the ring upon the polished floor, where it rolled to a stop. Uncomprehendingly, Vorion looked down upon it. It was so very small there, dwarfed by his shadow. It was made of steel, and a wine-dark cornelian was centered upon it.
“Put it on,” instructed Sauron.
Vorion, now quivering as his situation gradually became clearer, hawked and spat on the ring. Looking to the Dark Lord’s face, Vorion found only the metallic glint of confidence.
As if responding to some unheard command, a Nazgûl silently departed the Council Chamber. Within moments, it reemerged, pitilessly dragging the bound form of a human female.
Her eyes shone glassily from a bruised face, and Vorion turned back to Sauron.
“Put the ring on, or I will kill her.”
“For no flower is too white, no heart too pure
To be touched in darkness and in pain.
And those who once could long endure
Shall soon succumb to death’s dark stain.”
The metal was cold and slick with saliva. The woman continued to stare out toward him, but Vorion sensed some difference, as if the world had shifted imperceptibly.
Grinning in a parody of affability, Sauron drew a viciously curved bodkin-style anlace from the silken folds of his robe. Leaning forward, he offered it to Vorion.
Vorion’s stomach sank within him. His vision focused upon the anlace, its serrations coruscating in the scarlet glow. The Elvish symbol “naur”, was etched into the rigid handle. It was of the Tengwar script, and he was unable to read it.
“Kill her,” the Dark Lord commanded. Vorion would not accept the blade.
“It is a mercy,” Sauron added. “Kill her.”
Only as Vorion took up the anlace did the Nazgûl return to its seat. Approaching the woman, Vorion saw that the Nazgûl had also stripped her of her gag and all of her clothes, and that she was younger in years than he had guessed; no more than one score by his judgment. He held these trivialities in his mind as he approached. Still she showed no comprehension of his intentions, or of his very existence.
As he raised the anlace above her pale body, he was struck by a fit of nausea. Knowing that she would face torment beyond death if he did not strike, Vorion swung his arm.
The blade pierced the supple flesh of her stomach, and red smoke poured from the wound, for the blade was imbued with the power of fire. The woman, screamed in agony, and jerked in her bonds as blood spurted from the gash.
Vorion stared in shock at the smoldering dagger, and at the steel ring. The ring, it seemed, caused his muscles to twitch and move. Sauron spoke to him through the shining band.
The next few minutes were a smear in Vorion’s memory, a patchwork of flailing limbs and flashing blades. All he knew was himself, slick with hot blood, crouched by the mutilated corpse of the woman, turning the fire blade over and over in his hands.
The ring consumed him and made him whole. Approaching the Dark Lord, he handed the anlace back, noting with amusement the gore that dripped onto the hem of Sauron‘s robe.
Sick exhilaration and giddiness still rushed through him, and he felt another thrill as he glanced back at the body with a slashed crater in it. Blood dripped silently down a prostrate arm and pooled in the grooves on the floor.
Sauron rose and placed a hand on Vorion’s shoulder. Vorion hated him, hated him and loved him. He did not know what he felt, nor how much of it was attributable to the ring.
“Excellent,” whispered Sauron. “Excellent.”
“Noblest man is soon made weak,
And elves did even forge the Nine,
For the fairest facets one may seek
Are often part of hate’s design.”
Isonduil’s mind closed around the final stanza of Celebrían’s poem and swallowed it whole. While Celebrimbor’s smiths had indeed forged the nineteen Rings of Power, it was their intention to bestow all of them to fellow elves, but Sauron, then in fair guise, had formulated other plans.
Isonduil did not stop to rest, and Duskmane did not begrudge his rider for pushing him to his boundaries of ability, for he was of rare breed and most intelligent. In lieu of a hearty campfire meal, Isonduil crammed a slice of lembas into his mouth, and then gulped down a mouthful of miruvor, the cordial of Imladris.
Minutes melted into hours, and the hours had totaled nearly a score by the time Isonduil had neared the river Bruinen, marking the boundary of Elrond’s domain.
Duskmane crossed a shallow ford and before long the gilded chambers and walkways of Imladris were apparent, and Isonduil did doubt even Captain Elrond’s assertion that any force could imperil such a place.
“Isonduil!” exclaimed Celebrían, embracing him briefly. “What news?”
Isonduil recognized the longing in her eyes, and regretted that he had no news with which to comfort her.
“Elrond sends warning. You may even now be infiltrated by one in fair guise. Beware of visitors, especially those who come to bestow an honor. The lady Haelith, particularly, should be guarded. You must match the direness of these prophecies with heedfulness and caution.”
Celebrían’s spirits sank, and she turned away from Isonduil, pacing around the cascading fountain of crystal water. “Dark tidings indeed. But is there no more? No messages did he compose to Celebrían of Lórien?”
Isonduil shook his head, though she did not face him. “He was hurried, milady. He shall return to you in time, perhaps within the year.”
Spinning, Celebrían cried, “Or perhaps not at all!” Her eyes were swollen with pent-up tears.
“Milady, Nikerym Elrond and Haran Gil-galad command the finest fighting force as has ever been. The ragtag bands of orcs shall be no match. He shall return to you.”
Weeping, Celebrían shook her golden head. “There shall be no rest for me. Have elves, in their immortality, taken to postponing the deeds that are dearest and most needful? Oh, that I should be born to inherit such times! Now, I fear, it shall be too late for me, though I may linger in Imladris for an age to come.”
Celebrían turned once again from Isonduil, and he patiently waited for her to gather her emotions. Once her quivering of grief had subsided, Isonduil gently inquired, “Do you wish me to deliver some message to Nikerym Elrond?”
The lady Celebrían beckoned that he follow, and she was once again the embodiment of self-will. The sky was soft indigo as the pair entered Elrond’s sanctum. Lighting a candle set atop the elf-lord’s desk, Isonduil saw by the dim light the maps, manuscripts, and volumes of history and lore that abounded. They were not packed away for storage. Elrond certainly planned to return.
Producing a sealed scroll from one of the cabinets, Celebrían handed it to Isonduil. “Deliver this to Elrond personally,” the lady of Imladris commanded, and Isonduil nodded in compliance.
Retrieving several wafers of lembas from a cupboard, along with a full flask of rosy miruvor, Celebrían adroitly folded the items in a swath of heavy, coarse traveling cloth, bound it with a leather thong, and handed the parcel to Isonduil. “For the journey,” she said.
As Isonduil prepared to bid her and Imladris farewell, she interjected with, “Oh, and one more thing to bring with you…”
Leading him into an adjacent room, Isonduil came across a silver-haired elf who was thoughtfully poring over one of Elrond’s tomes.
Rising, the stranger clasped Isonduil by the hand. “Greetings, Isonduil of the Greenwood Kingdoms. I am Círdan, son of Círigorm.”
Isonduil looked down to Círdan’s hand, agape. Upon it was a golden ring bearing a double-faceted ruby of fiery scarlet. It was Narya, the Ring of Flame.
“Isonduil shall travel along with you to Gorthulad, where he will join with Gil-galad’s army,” explained Celebrían. The word “Gorthulad” sounded strangely inside the meticulously patterned walls.
The two warriors mounted their stallions, and bid Celebrían a last farewell.
Drawing Isonduil close, she murmured to him, “Do not let Elrond fall into danger for the sake of others. Stand by him with your life. Do you understand me?”
“No. Do you understand?”
She paused. “Namarië.”
Isonduil and Círdan made their way out of Imladris at a good pace. The scroll weighed heavily upon Isonduil. He knew that, ludicrous as it might sound, Elrond was now his responsibility. Thinking thus, he felt in his pack for the reassuring bulge of the scroll, and then leant forward, gazing pensively into the speeding river of grass flowing below him.
Isildur rocked groggily in his saddle, despite trying to give the appearance of rested alertness. The mead had taken its toll, and a near-sleepless night had been anything but helpful. Aware of his father’s stare, Isildur straightened and let his eyes scout the terrain of northern Mordor.
“Isildur,” called Elendil. The young prince turned his head, as if in distraction from his feigned vigilance. “Yes, father?”
“You recall the vow I made before you brandished Narsil against the wraith?”
Isildur was at once wide awake and keen to accept the reward. “Yes, indeed I do.”
“Now I will make good upon it. Valandil directed twenty units of troops. You are now their commandant.”
Isildur swelled. Finally, he was being given an opportunity to prove himself. No longer would Anárion constantly best him, thanks only to unfair chance and opportunity.
“You shall serve alongside Aratar at the assault of the Morannon. I suggest that you discuss the situation with him.”
Isildur noted the lack of any pride in Elendil’s bequeathal; only stern resignation was there to be found in his words. Elendil fell back momentarily to allow Aratar passage to his place beside Isildur. Aratar had been Isildur’s mentor in youth, and though Isildur had long outgrown childhood, he sometimes felt that old Aratar still regarded him as nothing more than an overgrown whelp.
Aratar’s mount was gray, as was the veteran’s weathered armor. Two familiar, gray-black orbs regarded the young prince from within a battered iron greathelm.
“So, now your remuneration for Valandil’s avengeance becomes clear.”
Chortling at Aratar’s condescension, Isildur responded. “Valandil’s demise leaves a critical gap. Have you a better candidate?”
Aratar’s voice, aged to a steely rasp, echoed from within the cavernous helmet. “One of the elves would have done well enough. Isonduil might have sufficed, though Valandil had considerable expertise.”
“Elves? Elves are fine strategists in their own right, but they know nothing of the nature of men. To ask an elf to command men would be like to asking a man to instruct a dwarf in metallurgy.”
Aratar’s scarred head pivoted inside the greathelm so that the light caught a few of the lank strands of hair that hung across his face. Isildur was quickly wishing that his former mentor had possessed the courtesy to go into retirement at a more typical age.
“Are humans so clever, Isildur?”
The prince’s reply to this was stifled by a commotion near the flank of the procession. In seconds, Isildur saw Elendil approaching the head of the army with a pair of elves. One was Isonduil, and the other was far older, with a head of wispy silver hair.
The army slowly ground down, and the leaders and their lieutenants moved forward to hear the stranger’s introduction.
Isildur’s steed was jostled aside by Elrond, who seemed not to notice him.
Elendil projected his voice, as he had done during the rallying of the troops. To Isildur’s infuriation, he began in a typically obtuse Elvish tongue.
“Sina Círdan, mellon en mellonamin, goth en gothamin…” Elendil paused, apparently to let what he had just said sink in. Looking about him, the prince saw that the elves were now unusually animated. Elrond’s eyes were narrowed in scrutiny.
Elendil shouted, “Ar’ kolindo en’ Narya, Tel’Korma en’ Naur!”
The elves smiled and glanced at one another, exchanging encouraging words. Isildur mused that perhaps open jubilation was too undignified by their standards. Elendil then began to repeat himself in Adûnaic, and the Númenoreans harkened in anticipation.
“Sons of Númenor, today we have a new ally in the battle against Sauron. This is Círdan, friend of us all. And with him comes Narya, the Ring of Fire.”
Gasps and exclamations circulated throughout the crowd. Isildur stared breathlessly at Círdan, though he did not catch the old elf’s eye.
Narya. The second of the Three, sister ring to Vilya, the Ring of Air. The Ringbearers were gathering. The power of the One was driving them into this Alliance of brotherhood. Their fates were unified as the shadows encroached.
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
Minutes after his foray with the girl, Vorion became aware once more, as if awaking from a waking dream. His thoughts were jumbled and random, and he shook his head in confusion and looked around him. He was in the Council Chamber, but it was indeed far different from what it had been. As the chilling memories surfaced within him, Vorion scrambled from the center of the room and shielded his eyes, not wanting to see what he had done in his madness.
But as the knight’s sight brushed against the dreaded thing, he paused. Lying supine on the floor was the girl, but she was made whole once more. Indeed, she seemed more healthful than when she had first been hauled into the room, and her bruises had disappeared. Wishing to preserve her modesty as best he could, Vorion averted his eyes.
His gaze left the center of the room, which was now carpeted lavishly, and scanned the walls, had become covered with savagely beautiful and intricate tapestries. The nine chairs spread around the room were now occupied by benign old men, who did nothing but stare vacantly from beneath their bright golden circlets.
Sauron and his cathedra alone were unchanged in the newfound splendor of the Council Chamber, and the Dark Lord looked on, rays of satisfaction beaming from his sharp eyes.
Vorion stood, and felt that his own body, too, was revitalized. The torpor of the Black Breath had faded beyond recall, and the fatigue that had so recently plagued the Númenorean had dispersed.
Vorion became furious at himself, for he realized that for a brief moment he had felt comfort in the very lair of Sauron! In the dungeons of the infernal aerie of Barad-dûr, surrounded by the perversions of the Lidless Eye, Vorion had found solace! Even now the ring was drawing him inexorably into its thrall. The knight tugged frantically at the steel band, and though it clung insectlike to his finger, it finally wrenched free and was sent skittering and clinking across the floor.
Vorion watched the ring circle to a stop on the ground, from which the plush red carpet was peeling, surrounded by tapestries that fell and curled into husks, and finally disintegrated. Once again, Sauron endured untouched. The Dark Lord was studying the knight, his twisted thoughts and imaginings flickering behind eyes of fire.
Foreboding filled Vorion as he remembered his dream, recalled his dream deeds. His hands were once again bloodstained, and he feared what lay behind him, what form was splayed pitifully across the central tiles of the Council Chamber.
Turn, commanded Sauron. Vorion heard him through the lying ring and obeyed. Around swung the head and the shoulder, and Vorion dreaded his own impulses, implanted by the Dark Power, as his sight swiveled to face her.
As the demonic slaughter that Vorion had brought upon the maiden touched him, his will returned. Shrieking silently, the knight dove into the pool of congealing blood and groped for the slick ring. Grasping it at last it in his shuddering hands, he squeezed his eyes shut and forced it onto his finger, up to and past the second knuckle, so that it would not slip off by some chance.
Vorion turned, again surrounded by kindly kings and opulent furnishings, and stood to face Sauron. Wet-eyed, he trembled and searched for words as the Dark Lord waited with inexorable patience.
Finally, the knight cast his hand toward the girl, curled peacefully in the center of the Chamber, and shouted, “She is not real!”
Sauron grinned in a grotesque travesty of joviality and slowly drew himself into speaking posture. “Don’t worry, friend. You’ve done no wrong. She’s not dead.”
Filled with rage at Sauron for his countless atrocities and at himself for his craven weakness, Vorion exclaimed, “She is a lie! Her life is an illusion, and nothing more!”
Sauron smiled again and extended his palm. “She is real. Her death is insubstantial. It holds no more weight that this flower.”
The two waited until Vorion was forced to ashamedly reply.
“There is no flower,” the once-proud Númenorean whispered.
Sauron nodded. “Good.”
Abruptly, a floating rose budded in the air above his palm, blooming into a blossom of striking hue. It rotated there, delicate and as real as any other flower in the world.
Sauron closed his hand, reducing the rose to a cinder, and looked up at Vorion.
“You were right, friend. She is a lie.”
Vorion listened to every word, knowing that each syllable spoken was a twisting of the truth, a deliberate attempt to deceive and subvert him from the path that he had been set upon so many years ago.
“Friend, friend, friend,” continued the Dark Lord, his tone growing rueful. “You don’t seem to understand. This,” his hand swept the room, “is just as real as this.” They were dealt a quick glimpse of the bleak reality, the girl’s mangled cadaver.
“You have to see, Vorion of the West, that lies can be just as substantial as the truth. Tell me, knight, and tell me truly, is this room not more vibrant, not more lush and flourishing with love as you have ever known? Don’t you feel that you’re among friends, here? Don’t you like her?” he asked, pointing at the girl. When Vorion did not answer, the Dark Lord sighed in mock disappointment.
“She is a lie. She is hollow.”
“Oh,” replied Sauron, in a serious tone. “So, you hate lies, my good knight? Free yourself of them. Remove my ring.”
Vorion did not touch the cold band.
“See, my friend?” responded Sauron, now injecting warmth into his speech. “You refuse to remove my ring because my lie is beautiful. I am not evil for my creation of lies, just as you are not evil for the creation of certain, admittedly less attractive, truths.” Chuckling, the Dark Lord rose from his throne and circled the trembling knight.
“Am I not kind? I not only give you beauty, I give you the option between beauty and your ‘truth’, which you so prize. I also lend you one of my prized creations: the ring, whose name is Gnarkh. You may also have this female until I desire to reclaim her.”
Vorion shook his head in a fog of grief, confusion, and blind rage. “I hate you,” he hissed.
“I know,” smiled Sauron, and disappeared.
“’Tis wondrous good fortune that I was dispatched to Imladris this day,” mused Isonduil. Isildur rode near him, reveling inwardly in his new command.
“Oh,” remarked Isildur, “Were you not sent to Rivendell as an escort to Círdan?”
“No,” replied Isonduil, “My charge was to bring caution to them, that they might be wary of infiltration by the enemy’s spies.”
Isildur was suddenly quite concerned for Haelith, and he did not attempt to conceal it. “For what reason do you fear assault on Rivendell? Surely Mordor’s net cannot stretch from Osgiliath to Gorthulad, and yet threaten to cover to the home of Elrond Halfelven.”
Trying to assess the young prince’s capacity for overreaction, Isonduil paused. “No, I said nothing of military action. I rather believe that infiltration is the greatest hazard. If not a covert intruder, then perhaps even the subversion of an insider is a possibility.”
Isildur’s eyes narrowed, and behind them Isonduil’s words were judged.
“Who dispatched you to Rivendell?” he asked. “Who sent this warning?”
The captain’s turned to see Isildur, mounted, approaching him.
Nodding in compliance, the elf allowed the prince to ride aside his steed.
“Our men are honored by Círdan’s presence,” said Isildur. “I just wanted to thank you personally for sending Isonduil to escort him. It was a timely maneuver.”
Elrond was clearly unmoved, and he regarded Isildur with a steely eye, already suspicious of his motives.
“Yes, Círdan may yet decide many a battle. Gil-Galad and your father have every confidence in him.”
Unsatisfied, the prince probed more deeply. “Of course, his powers might have proved critical in defending Rivendell from any attack, had he stayed there.”
“I think, Lord Isildur, that if Sauron’s sword pierces the Misty Mountains, the loss of Imladris will be of comparatively little concern.”
The elf’s frustrating obstinacy was quickly corroding Isildur’s patience, and the prince decided that soon open confrontation would be the only option.
“Oh, you know well that the Dark Lord does not always favor combat…he has also a love of insidious means. Or has this already passed through your mind, master elf?”
Elrond swiveled so that his eyes bored into Isildur.
“I’ll thank you to keep your veiled accusations to yourself. We have no secrets here. If you want to know of my concern for Haelith, ask.”
Isildur‘s eyes widened, and he bent near to the elf and muttered in a low but vicious tone.
“You listen to me, you won’t keep knowledge of some plot involving Haelith secret for long. I’m not so easily fooled, you arrogant, conniving, half-breed bastard--”
A firm but calculated impact silenced the prince’s words. Seas of nausea foamed around a rising pinnacle of pain inside him: a jab to the kidneys, well-delivered by Elrond in his calm fury.
Wheezing and retching, Isildur crumpled into a moving forest of hooves, courteously parting to allow him ample room to writhe. The elves, serene in their hypocrisy, were yet so vicious in their retribution. There was something more than concern in Elrond’s deeds, that was plainly to be seen. Isildur would peel the layers of the elf’s treacherous words and expose the heart of the matter. Doubled up and grunting among his passing inferiors, Isildur vowed investigation. Then, he rose quickly and ran to catch his mount.
Elrond had disappeared into the shifting mass of the army, his movements cloaked in the tramping of feet.
Isildur could feel the eyes of his subordinates on the back of his neck; his hair prickled. It was of no matter, he reminded himself. Elrond had intentionally avoided obvious assault, and so Isildur might have been the unfortunate victim of nothing more than a slip from the saddle. In years to come, when he sat on the throne of Gondor, men would not speak of some obscure riding accident. The Siege of the Morannon was drawing near. Men would tell of it, and of Isildur’s heroism after its fall. Sauron would be talked of openly and without fear, a tyrant whose dusty bones bleached under Mordor’s red sun.
The corner of Isildur’s mouth tweaked upwards into a slightly crooked grin. As the Black Gates darkened the eastern sky, his time of his weighing drew near.
The sun climbed in the sky, but it weakened in luminosity, like the last flickering of a smothered candle. The rocky ground was no longer parched by drought but leeched by a presence, by the very existence of Sauron himself. It was as if the Dark Lord possessed a corona of decay a thousand miles wide.
Cracks grew into ravines, and then stretched into chasms that swallowed the horizon. Where the sky gingerly touched the ravaged land, a dull gray-pink light hovered. Beyond it was a faint silhouette of jutting peaks: the great mountain-ranges of Ephel Dúath and Ered Lithui.
Gil-galad raised his hand, and a ripple passed through his army, each soldier quickly halting and standing at attention.
Círdan, Elrond, and Isonduil gathered around the elven-king, awaiting his order.
“Elrond,” commanded Gil-galad, “This shall be the site of our primary relief camp. See that it is constructed within the hour.”
Elrond nodded and was off.
“Isonduil,” continued Gil-galad, “Our secondary relief camp will be established one league to the north. See to it that the ballistae are readied.”
Gil-galad bowed courteously to Círdan before speaking. The Númenoreans continued to march past the stationary elvish legions. Occasionally one of the human’s heads would flick inquisitively toward the unflinching ranks of gathered elves, but none questioned this division of the Last Alliance’s army.
Speaking in a near-whisper, Gil-galad addressed his comrade. “Círdan, old friend, you know not how badly you are needed.”
Círdan’s brow furrowed. Though of ageless elvendom, tiny lines creased the warrior’s face.
“What needs may I serve, brother?” offered Círdan.
“Lend me your service in battle and I shall ask no more.”
Gil-galad drew his naked right hand up beside his face.
“Vilya is mine no longer.”
Círdan’s eyes widened for a moment, and then returned to their normal state.
“I have lent it to Elrond, for I felt Sauron reach at me through it not more than a few nights ago.”
Círdan’s gray face balked in disbelief, for though he had noted Vilya’s absence, he had hardly conceived the reason behind it.
“Celebrimbor’s concealment failed?”
“It would seem so, brother, but since Elrond received it, the influence has yet to return.”
“But why do you say that the ring is no longer yours?” asked Círdan. “Do you not intend to retrieve it from Elrond when this threat is passed?”
Pain passed like a shadow over Gil-galad’s face as he spoke. “True, it would seem so, but something in my heart tells me that the ring is gone now, and perhaps for the best.”
Círdan glanced at the retreating form of Isonduil’s detachment, and the foul wind plastered his long, pale hair to his head.
“These matters are not mine to resolve,” declared the ringbearer. “Come, for I have a gift for the king of the Noldor.”
Gil-galad’s spirits raised somewhat, and he followed Círdan to a waiting horse, the one that Círdan had ridden upon during the journey from Imladris.
Gil-galad stroked the horse’s muzzle. “He is a fine beast, Círdan. I should be proud to ride him into battle.”
“His name is Rodaen, but the pride of his ownership shall remain mine. See,” said the pale elf, gesturing to Rodaen’s saddle. Drawing near, Gil-galad saw that three urns were strapped to each side of the saddle. Each vessel was clamped tightly closed. They were clearly not crafts of Imladris.
Opening one of the urns, Círdan turned his head from the pungent fumes that wafted from its open mouth. The oily stench was just as potent where Gil-galad stood, and he held his sleeve to his mouth to deaden the smell.
“This substance is anathore,” explained Círdan. “The men of the South are adept in its making, and I have learned this practice from them.”
Círdan set the lid of the vessel shut, and sealed it with the clamp. The smell quickly subsided.
“Friend, have you an ample supply of water?” Círdan asked.
“Yes, we have more than enough, even anticipating light casualties,” replied Gil-galad.
“Excellent. I shall require that one tenth of it be diverted to the dilution of my anathore.”
Gil-galad knew that Círdan did not ask such things of his allies in jest. “To what use shall this substance be turned, once it has been infused with water? Is it some revitalizing spirit, perhaps?”
Círdan smiled and shook his head. “Far better, my friend. Tell me, do you not wish to bring light to the Land of Shadow? I bring a lantern for the battlefield. Southron anathore is powerfully flammable, even in its unrefined state. If one cup of it is mixed with ten of water, it still emits a flame so bright that night shall be made day. Even the night of Mordor.”
Gil-galad was confounded by this new development. “What then do you propose, Círdan? A beacon before the Morannon?”
“Nay, brother. When your archers wet their arrows in this anathore, they shall blaze unlike any war-arrows that you have yet seen.”
Gil-galad scoffed at this improbable scheme. “What means have of kindling tens of thousands of arrows upon a battlefield of Mordor? We have no light for such a thing!”
Círdan raised an eyebrow and drew his hand up. There was Narya, the double-faceted ruby winking fiercely in the hazy dimness that surrounded it.
Gil-galad saw his own smile reflected brightly in the jewel of the Ring of Fire.
Gnarkh was not as terrible as he had first imagined. Vorion was reminded of the fact that it was the elves of Eregion who forged it, not the Dark Lord himself. The designs were not mannish, nor completely elvish…as if wrought by the latter in emulation of the former.
The ring was of steel, but not a cheap clattering steel. Rather, it was formed of rich, hardy steel, steel that warmed to the touch and rang with the wholesome resonance of a bell sounding at noon…
Vorion feared, but the fear was faint and blurred. He feared that Sauron was poisoning his thoughts, and so his change of heart over Gnarkh’s appearance was not of his own deciding. But, he realized, it was inconsequential. He merely saw that this thing, conceived in Celebrimbor’s goodwill, was not ugly. Sauron, he still hated, Sauron’s lies, his twisting of words, and his corruption of purity.
Like this ring. Gnarkh never could have been its name, for it was clearly a word of the Black Speech of Mordor. Vorion pondered what the original title given to such an exquisite artifact might have been.
It was actually quite beautiful when you put Sauron’s perversions aside. Intricate designs dominated its band, all culminating in the cornelian, the light falling into it as if it were a fathom deep. The jewel was recessed, and four small points of metal extended over it, perhaps to keep it in place.
Vorion held it closer to his eyes, so that he might see it more clearly. It was so sturdy…it had outlasted kings and empires, and it would do so many times more. It was constructed to last, and it was fully deserving of its allotted time.
Constructed was wrong…buildings were constructed…were statues constructed, or paintings? No, this ring was not a statue or a painting…it was far more apt to ask, are seas constructed, or forests?
Vorion brushed the steel against his cheek, and found that his hand and the fire of the torches had warmed it to a comfortable temperature. He suspected that he was imprisoned in the dread fortress of Mordor, but at least he had this, one precious shard of beauty to accompany him. Closing his eyes, he dwelt on these few comforts. Sauron had given this to him, and he did not suspect its worth to him. For a moment, Vorion felt whole.
Hearing a stirring, Vorion rose to find a kindly-faced Nazgûl lifting the girl from the floor. Vorion stared incuriously for a moment, knowing all the while that the girl was illusory, and in reality nothing more than a shell. Presently, a second Nazgûl shuffled into the Council Room, and stood facing the knight.
It then dawned on Vorion that this Nazgûl, while bearing no dramatic difference in stature or adornment to his eight brethren, was in some way the greatest of the Nine. His movements were deft and confident, and his eyes spoke of a cunning intellect. Careful not to appear too vulnerable to the Nazgûl, Vorion cleared his throat and asked his purpose in coming to the Council Chamber.
“I am Mabûs Ironking,” replied the Ringwraith, “and I have been sent by our Lord Sauron to retrieve you. He has another gift to bestow.”
Following Mabûs’s lead, Vorion exited the Council Chamber of Barad-dûr and began to ascend a gently winding set of stairs. Soft torchlight played off the elegant tapestries and murals that festooned the walls. Oddly, Vorion felt no foreboding, even in the presence of this creature seduced by one of the Nine Rings, possibly even the one he now wore. Only one question was in his mind, and he freed it.
“What gift is Sauron now to give me?” he asked.
“A sight through thought and time,” responded Mabûs, not turning his head. “A view across land and sea, from the peaks and vales and into the burning mouth of our ringwrought athanasia.”
Vorion cocked his head, deeply unsatisfied with this ambiguity. Before he could object, Mabûs continued.
“The ring now with you, its name is Gnarkh and it is the Ring of Seeing.” The wraith paused. “It was once mine.”
With that, the staircase terminated and Vorion was led into another room of Barad-dûr, this one far greater in area than the Council Chamber.
Sauron appeared to him, still in elvish form, and Mabûs submissively receded into the shadow of the commodious chamber.
“What have you for me?” demanded Vorion.
Much to the knight’s surprise, the Dark Lord was unperturbed by his deliberate insolence. In fact, a gleam of approval registered briefly in the depths of his auburn eyes.
“You now know a little of Gnarkh, the Ring of Seeing,” said the Dark Lord. “Do you accept my gift of knowledge of its use?”
Vorion nodded without thought. He could not decline.
Seizing the Númenorean by his wrist, Sauron brought the ring upward, and thrust it into Vorion’s face.
“The solitaire is sculpted from a shard of Eldamar crystal. It is not just a pretty thing. Watch.”
Sauron clasped Vorion’s hand and held the ring in his own.
The three dropped into another reality, a cavernous expanse of soft blues and golds. Vorion’s back was pressed against a frescoed wall, and he looked about him in stark amazement.
It was a workplace, and the golden-haired sons of Elvenkind bustled about him in merry toil. Drawn forward in his curiosity, Vorion forsook Sauron and Mabûs to explore this new realm.
The elves milling about him seemed unaware of his presence, and he slipped through them and toward the sound of ringing hammers that came from the eastern side of the great room.
Descending a shallow flight of stairs, Vorion was confronted by the sight of six forges, each manned by a lone elf, sweat pouring down their bronze backs as they hammered their crafts.
An elven-smith close to the knight lifted a tiny thing from his anvil with a pair of curved, graceful tongs, and plunged it into a tub of water.
Steam poured from the tub, and when the craft had cooled, the elf drew it out and inspected it. It was a simple ring, silver and glinting in the ruddy light of the forges.
A form was striding toward Vorion down the middle of the aisle of forges, and the knight feared for a moment that he had been discovered, but it was not so. Patrolling the furnaces was a tall elf with flowing black hair, his slender hands clasped behind his back. His hands were adorned with many rings, his waist with an intricate metallic belt, and his stately head with a glittering diadem of numerous jewels.
Picking up his gait, the tall elf advanced toward Vorion and passed right through him in his approach to the steps that the knight had descended. Now walking down the steps was Sauron himself, his hair elegantly braided, the red rose stamped across his chest. Vorion knew, however, that this was not the Sauron that had captured him, but the Sauron that inhabited memories of events many years past.
“Aaye, Telperinquar!” cried Sauron, a grin spreading across his handsome face. Vorion was stunned, for he realized that Sauron had addressed the smith as Celebrimbor. The tall elf, apparently Celebrimbor himself, embraced Sauron unflinchingly, and replied, “Aaye, Annatar! Nae saian luume’!”
Surveying the half-dozen elves at their seething furnaces, the two strolled side-by-side.
“Creoso a’baramin!” quipped Celebrimbor with a chuckle. Sauron smiled politely and took a seat by one of the glowing glede-pits. “Tula, hama neva i’naur,” he said, inviting Celebrimbor to pull up a stool.
Sitting, Celebrimbor asked, “Mankoi, naa lle sinome, mellonamin?”
As if in earnest, Sauron simply responded, “Amin caela noa,” and pulled a scroll from a fold of his scarlet robe. The scroll was short but not thin, and it unrolled to reveal several feet of parchment. Bending closer, Vorion saw elaborate designs inscribed onto both sides of the paper, and many lines of graceful elvish characters flowing across the remaining space. Celebrimbor looked over the scroll, inch by inch, and finally turned to Sauron with a look of disbelief.
Sauron shook his head, his eyes studying the elven-smith with ferocious intensity. “N’uma, mellonamin.”
Rolling the scroll back around its post, Celebrimbor slipped it into his pocket and rose from the stool. The elf already appeared torn by inner conflict, and Vorion, knowing of Celebrimbor’s eventual fate, found this amusing.
“Manka lle merna,” conceded the elf, and Sauron circled him to shake hands once again.
“Diola lle, Telperinquar,” said Sauron warmly.
“Lle creoso, Annatar,” murmured Celebrimbor, still of somber mood. Bidding the smith farewell, Sauron departed, and the elf was hunched in thought.
A dark, enclosed chamber. Vorion looked around him, and found there to be many architectural patterns and decorative icons familiar. He was now revisiting ancient Númenor. A small rectangular window admitted enough light to see by, and Vorion explored the dimness with outstretched hands.
Presently, the knight realized that there was a man sitting behind him, hands clasped before a desktop piled high with papers: maps, scrolls, ultimatums.
There was a soft knock on the door, and the man rose, his gray beard reaching almost to the ground. When the door opened, Vorion was once more confronted by Sauron, this time in traveling garb, the red rose stenciled upon his cloak.
“Annatar!” exclaimed the old man, through a thick Adûnaic accent.
“I bid conference with you, Lord Ar-Straszinor,” greeted Sauron, bowing humbly.
Nodding briskly, Ar-Straszinor escorted Sauron into one of the less murky corners of the chamber. They sat, and the Númenorean brought out some humble grain cakes, which the two divided.
“To what do I owe the unexpected pleasure of this visit, Annatar?” asked Ar-Straszinor.
Chuckling graciously, Sauron brushed the almost sycophantic praise of the Númenorean lord aside. “I have heard much of you, Ar-Straszinor the Cunning. You are a wise ruler, without peer in the courts of Armenelos. I come simply to wish you well in your career, for I see that it shall be long and prosperous.”
“Oh,” said Ar-Straszinor, realizing that Sauron had not come to impart anything more substantial than empty commendations. As the lord was tucking away the remaining cakes, Sauron extended a clenched hand toward him.
Ar-Straszinor paused, trying to remain calm. His imagination raced as he envisaged what precious bauble the Lord of Gifts had come to impart. Sauron’s hand slowly unfolded to reveal a metallic band, simple and golden, set with a solitary emerald.
“This is Erdamir, the Ring of Desire,” explained Sauron. With as little as that to bait him, Ar-Straszinor grasped for the metal morsel, but the Dark Lord drew Erdamir back and into the shadow.
The Númenorean stared at Sauron questioningly, his eyes already shining with lust for the Great Ring.
Waggling a finger, Sauron admonished, “No, my good friend, you shall first learn of this ring’s working, for the uneducated man cannot wield such a thing. This ring shall aid you in tasks of great thinking, for it clarifies within the mind of the wearer what he truly desires, unclouded by conscience or delusions of morality.”
Ar-Straszinor nodded and grasped again for the shining ring, but again it was withdrawn.
“This ring shall lengthen your reign,” continued Sauron, “for none shall bear a Ring of Annatar’s design and perish so quickly. I have seen and heard of your wisdom, and I deem you worthy. You may now receive Erdamir.”
Ar-Straszinor grabbed for the bright band once more, but it receded further into darkness.
“Oh, I had almost neglected one thing,” amended Sauron, taunting the desirous lord. “Watch carefully…”
Sauron brought Erdamir up and into the narrow stream of sunlight. Swiftly and with meticulous precision, he slipped the ring onto his finger.
Gaping in astonishment, Ar-Straszinor rose from his seat to find himself facing nothing but air.
“While you hold this ring, your enemies cannot hide,” rang out Sauron’s voice from the nothingness. “Erdamir grants you leave from mortal sight, and also allows you to see and hear what others cannot.”
Slipping back into reality, Sauron finally tossed the ring into Ar-Straszinor’s waiting hand.
Running Erdamir between his fingers, inspecting every facet of the thing, the Númenorean trembled with gratitude. “How may I repay thee, Lord Annatar?” he asked.
Sauron waved his hand. “No payment is necessary, good Ar-Straszinor, but the continuation of your wise and bountiful reign. I bid you farewell.”
Shouting extravagant thanks through the closing door, Ar-Straszinor gripped Erdamir, and asked the bejeweled artifact to enlighten him, to tell him what he desired most.
Night. Ar-Straszinor slipping from his wife’s bedchamber and donning the ring. Cloaked in Sauron’s magic, he floated invisible but omnipresent, like a chord of music drifting down the hall.
Raethiel the chambermaid, asleep in her quarters. The door creaks open, but no one is there.
Nine months. Raethiel’s agony as the son of Ar-Straszinor is born. His name is Ethir-barad.
Twenty years. Raethiel is dead, and her son sets out on a voyage far from home.
Ethir-barad, bastard son of Raethiel and Ar-Straszinor the Cunning, sets down upon the shores of Middle-earth. He is known among the other renegade Númenoreans for his strength and intelligence. None know of his lineage.
Later, Ethir-barad founds Minas Ethir, the first town of the Black Númenorean renegades. In its center is a great tower, constructed of gray-green stone.
A lifetime. Ethir-barad slips peacefully from his tormented world, and leaves his city to Ethir-khand, his only heir.
Many years. Ethir-khand is trapped within the tower of Minas Ethir, his city now under siege. His men are submitting, surrendering to the mighty Gondorians in droves. In the end, Ethir-khand takes his own life, upon his father’s sword.
He leaves a son, Ethir-rhûn , alive and cooing in his cot. Gondorians storm the tower of Minas Ethir, and take Ethir-rhûn . Vorion sees a familiar face, the face of the Gondorian gathering up the Black Númenorean infant.
The fantasy dissolves, and Vorion falls to the ground, Gnarkh tingling his finger and overpowering him. Sauron stands over the wretch, who is trembling in terror.
Vorion knew the Gondorian, the man who took the infant Ethir-rhûn. His name was Vorimir.
The squalling infant was now an adult.
Thousands of faces and voices tickle Vorion’s mind as the past flows back into the empty vessel of his memory.
The infant was there, stamped into his skull. The son of the Black Númenorean traitors, who forsook their homeland at Sauron’s behest.
That infant is still alive, but his name isn’t Ethir-rhûn anymore.
The winds of Mordor had died, and a stifling silence now choked the barren wastes. Isonduil and Elrond had established two outposts, and Elendil had constructed a tertiary camp to the east.
Gil-galad looked with stanch resolution at the proceedings. The ballistae were still being inspected, for it was crucial that they not fail. Círdan, with the help of an impermeable tent lining, was distributing a dilution of anathore among the troops, of Númenor and Elvenkind alike.
Strangely enough, no skirmishing groups or scouts had been spotted, and even Elrond and Aratar had no luck formulating a plausible explanation.
Within the hour, the troops would mass and march forth to break the silence. Gil-galad’s heart was packed tight with worry, hope, and foreboding. Drawing Aeglos through the air, he listened to the reassuring hum of the cutting edge.
For many years, blades had been drawn together along this unseen path, allies were made of enemies, and differences were abandoned in the name of unity. Now, the fate of that Alliance rested upon those few here, Círdan dispensing his concoction with hushed pride, Elrond efficiently examining the ballistae, Isonduil standing in thought.
Gil-galad approached Elrond, who was meticulously inspecting the mithril-lined sinews of one ballista. “Aaye, Nikerym Elrond,” greeted Gil-galad.
Elrond quickly abandoned the examination and stood facing his king. Saluting stiffly, he replied, “Aaye, Haran Gil-galad.”
“Does this ballista appear to be functional?”
The drops of sweat pasted Elrond’s dark hair to his brow, and his posture was as tense and formal as Gil-galad had ever seen it.
“Yes, my lord, both ballistae appear to be battleworthy. Shall I assemble the ballista teams?”
“Make it so,” commanded Gil-galad, and Elrond sprang from his place to hunt out the dozen elves that were to man the ballistae.
The sky darkened, though there were many hours of day yet to pass, and the troops slowly gathered into their positions.
In a cadent step, Isildur’s regiment marched into place alongside Aratar’s waiting troops. Isildur, clad in heavy golden plate armor, stood quivering at the front of his new infantrymen.
Aratar cast a disdainful glance from his scarred gray armor. Isildur refused to notice.
Now there was no speechmaking, no rallying, no sounding of horns in anticipation of victory. The two great kings took their places at the helm. The Last Alliance stretched out before them like a curtain of gold and bronze upon the landscape. Gil-galad raised his hand, bidding them all to follow him into fire and death.
A great footstep rang out, and Gil-galad and Elendil turned and led their fighters toward the Black Gates. The Shadow had challenged them, and they were now accepting.
The Morannon jutted from the greasy Mordor dust like a great tooth of Sauron’s mouth. Even as Gil-galad approached, he could hear the shrieks of the orcs upon the parapets of the great structure, and on the crown of Narchost, the stone guard-tower of the Black Gate.
The ashen stretches of Gorthulad were now consumed by Ered Lithui and the Slag Hills, and in the distance Orodruin’s plume rent the sky like a black banner.
Ever calm, the elven-king continued his stately march toward the monolithic edifice before him. Within minutes the first waves of Númenorean infantrymen would reach the base of Narchost.
Arrows now flew sporadically from Narchost’s crown, but they fell far short. In the cup of the dark mountains, the sound of marching feet and the wails of gathering orcs echoed from the slopes.
“Fix shields!” howled Aratar, and his troops drew their armored plates up to their chests and heads, protecting themselves from Narchost’s arrows.
Soon the bolts rained from Narchost like water from a spigot, yet the demeanor of the troops was calm, even those who felt the shafts snap as they glanced off their shields.
Soon the primary elven ranged squadron had the squat stone tower in its scope. Elrond readied his bow and shouted, “Tangado haid!” ordering the legions to halt.
At his back were three hundred elves. Now each of them obeyed his command, and notched their arrows, each arrowhead imbued with anathore.
Elrond drew a deep breath of the foul air about him. Clutching his saber, he thrust it into the air, aiming its point at the tower’s dull walls. He paused. Around him, armored and shielded troops marched. The battle had yet to truly begin. Now, upon Elrond’s very command, the carnage would commence.
Elrond nodded across the barren vale to Círdan, who spied his signal and waved his bejeweled hand, directing the bodkin-points of the arrows to burst into blue-green fire.
“Leithio i phillin!”
The first row of archers loosed their arrows, swiftly cutting down the orcs swarming at Narchost’s peak. The crude weaponry of the Enemy was no match in range; they were defenseless.
The first row knelt and a well-timed second volley pierced the filthy air, some of the arrows sailing not feet from Elrond’s sleek head. The barrage mowed Narchost’s reinforcements to the ground before they could attack.
Across the Desolation of the Morannon, the orcs atop the Gate were now joining in the slaughter. In dark torrents fell the black-plumed arrows, and though Aratar’s soldiers were well armored, many fell to well-placed shots.
Gil-galad was so near to the great dark structure of the Morannon that he could see the spines running up and down its sides, bristles wrought only to skewer unlucky invaders. His ranged infantry brought out their arrows, and at Narya’s command the bolts blazed like torches in the blighted field.
“Fire!” commanded Gil-galad, and the arrows arced up and over, illuminating the scudding clouds like green rolling thunder, and finally streaking down to deal impalement and immolation to the wretches atop the wall.
His troops finally passing the conquered spire of Narchost, Isildur paused and gaped at the spectacle, for neither he nor any other mortal living had seen such a battle. The fog and smoke of Mordor blew through his hair and stained him, and still he advanced, four hundred Númenorean swordsmen at his call.
The young prince slowed but for a moment, gritted his teeth, and plunged into the fray.
Vorion the Speechless, knight of the royal Númenorean guard, and close friend to Elendil the Tall, squirmed on the greasy stone floor of the Dark Tower Barad-dûr. He wriggled and gasped like a fish, and the Great Ring named Gnarkh shone almost mirthfully upon his finger.
He had been in Sauron’s captivity for little more than a day, and already the Dark Lord had broken him. His lies had softened the knight, but his truths had smashed him. He was now kneaded into the form of the perfect tool.
“There, there,” said Sauron, stroking the wretch’s filthy hair. “It’s all over now, like a bad dream.”
Much to Sauron’s surprise, the Númenorean rejected this. With a squalling cry, he lashed out at the comforting arm and threw it aside. Vorion crawled frantically away from the Dark Lord, only to find himself at Mabûs’s steel-clad feet.
He babbled incoherent threats at the robe sweeping along the floor toward him.
Through burning eyes, the knight looked up, and his random curses stopped.
Sauron waited for Vorion to calm. It took perhaps a minute.
Finally, he spoke. “Ethir-rhûn , son of Ethir-khand! Do you heed my call?”
As he answered, Vorion knew that his core had split and crumbled. He knew that he could never return to Minas Anor, or walk the halls of Osgiliath. He would never again sit at Elendil’s side and advise him. He would never again fret over young Isildur. He was no longer a knight. He was Sauron’s minion.
“Yes, master?” he croaked.
“I have a task for you, Ethir-rhûn . Do you accept?”
Sauron smiled. He was impressed. “Here is your tool,” he declared, slipping a fluted anlace from his robe. It was a lusterless gray-blue, and it reflected the torchlight only dully. “Khelek”, was chiseled into the handle.
“Elendil, son of Amandil, shall die by my hand,” Sauron vowed, “as shall Isildur and Anárion, his damnable spawn. But, in the realm of Karningul lies the last seed, in a place that my powers cannot so easily reach.”
Vorion accepted the anlace and crouched in silent groveling, obedient before his lord.
“You must travel to Karningul and slay the scions of Isildur! Smite them and all who stand against you! Breed fear in the haven of Elrond Halfelven!”
“Now, give me Gnarkh.”
“Give me the ring!” roared the Dark Lord, and Vorion pulled Gnarkh from his hand and thrust it upward toward Sauron’s outstretched palm.
“Why must I part with it, master?” question Vorion.
“Fool!” admonished Sauron. “You must never bring this ring past Bruinen, for the agents of Elvenkin shall seize upon its presence and slay you! I shall not tolerate the loss of an asset such as Gnarkh. It is to stay here, in my keep. Now…”
Sauron paused, and for the first time in many years, doubt passed across his face.
“Wait a minute.”
His attention was elsewhere. Vorion stayed hunched at his feet.
“Wait a minute.”
Bellowing in a fit of rage, Sauron’s very skin seemed to seethe with lordly wrath. Spinning to Mabûs, he commanded in a voice like flame: “Summon the Caradhras steeds to bear him away! Go!”
Throwing a final glance at his Nazgûl lieutenant, the Lord of the Rings receded into the blackness, and away to the battlefront.
The Siege of the Morannon had lasted for hours, and yet no end was in sight. The Alliance forces were now partially surrounded within the depression; orkish sentinels had come to the aid of the defenders of the Black Gates.
Isildur’s forces were isolated in the center of the valley, neither exposed to the orcs at the fringes nor within range of the archers upon the Morannon.
Isildur looked out upon the screaming chaos, upon the men, elves, and orcs pummeling and crushing their enemies into gushing pulps of bone and armor.
Círdan’s fire made his eyes flash and ache, and he closed them for a fleeting moment. When they opened once more, Isildur found Aratar approaching him through the parting sea of edgy troops, atop his gray steed.
“Isildur!” cried Aratar. “By mandate of King Elendil, you are to stay alongside Elrond’s regiment, and defend his troops at all costs!”
Shaking his head in an effort to dislodge the accumulation of thousands of screams from his ears, Isildur shouted above the din, “Yes, I comply!”
Then, as Aratar turned to leave, the prince’s sight caught upon something moving upon the battlefield, and he called Aratar back. The sounds of shattering bones and blades drained from his world, for his attention had fixed on the hefty metallic thing that appeared to glide through the Alliance ranks.
“Aratar, do my eyes deceive me?” he asked, gesturing to the object.
“No,” replied Aratar. “With the battering-ram we shall break the Black Gate and allow our forces passage into Udûn.”
“Are you mad?” shrieked Isildur. “That ram is manned by six unshielded men! They shall be cut down like wheat under the scythe! Has the battle destroyed your brain, old knight?”
Aratar did not reply, looking down on Isildur for a moment. “I know not what Elendil intends, but I have faith, and you might too, as his son and heir.”
Another curtain of blue fire skimmed the sky and slammed into the orkish archers, some of them tumbling from the Gate and landing upon its spines.
Isildur’s eyes followed the light and found that the ram with its crew of six had reached the gate, and were proceeding to batter it with all of their strength.
“By Eru…” muttered Aratar, but presently Isildur realized that it was not at the massacre of the men working the ram, and of their subsequent replacements, that Aratar so exclaimed.
He was staring away from the Morannon, out into Gorthulad. A single ribbon of red smoke seamed Mordor’s bleak firmament. Aratar knew the sign.
“What is this red band that marks the sky?” asked Isildur, his stomach congealing into ice.
“Easterling war-lantern…” murmured Aratar, and he prepared for a flight across the Desolation to inform Elendil.
“Wait!” cried Isildur, and Aratar turned impatiently. “Those Easterlings are advancing upon our tertiary outpost!”
“I saw as much!” shouted Aratar in frustration.
“But we cannot abandon them! They have little defense!”
Aratar halted and approached Isildur, with the grim knowledge of what was about to proceed. “Men!” called Isildur to his troops, “I now charge you with the protection of our tertiary outpost! We must leave this place and--”
Aratar’s gauntlet clamped down on the prince’s shoulder, and Isildur spun to confront the old knight.
“You cannot order this. You must reinforce Elrond’s archers. You are countermanded.”
Raging, Isildur pulled Aratar’s gauntlet from his shoulder, and looked up at him, his eyes gleaming with malice.
“You cannot countermand me! As your future king, I hereby order you to return to your post!”
A slow smile formed on Aratar’s scarred and wrinkled lips; it was a rare sight, and even more rarely the herald of good tidings.
“It is not by my authority that you are countermanded,” explained Aratar, enunciating flawless Adûnaic, “but by your father’s.”
“Damn it!” cursed Isildur, throwing up his hands. “If we do not divert my regiment, they will be destroyed!”
“But,” reasoned Aratar, “if we do divert your regiment, Elrond’s archers will be decimated when the Black Gate falls.”
Isildur glanced back for confirmation at the mounting pile of corpses surrounding the ram.
“That paltry cudgel will never fell the Morannon! Age has twisted you both!”
Aratar sat silently upon his gray steed. Isildur did his best to think, for his actions in the next few minutes would decide the fate of hundreds. No, the prince had to be honest with himself. More importantly, his actions would determine the fate of Valourië, who was even now ensconced in the tertiary camp. Isildur cleared his consciousness and let possibilities blossom. A smile crept across his lips as an idea formed, and he wasted no time implementing it.
“Aratar,” proclaimed Isildur, “as your future sovereign, I hereby demote you to the rank of infantryman, and I do also commandeer your mount.”
Aratar dismounted and took Isildur by his collar.
“You accursed boy,” he fumed, “you cannot order these troops against Elendil’s will! They shall never obey the word of an ennobled rogue over a true leader who brought them across the Sundering Seas.”
“I do not doubt your intentions, good sir knight,” replied Isildur. “Now unhand me and get to the front lines.”
When he looked at Mabûs’s ethereal visage, Vorion was sure that the Nazgûl had become clearer than before. Without the ring to transport him into the world permanently occupied by the wraiths, the Black Númenorean could detect little more than a flicker of being occupying the Morgul armor, but it seemed that since his arrival at Barad-dûr, that flicker had intensified. Had his brief possession of Gnarkh triggered this change, or perhaps the pledging of his loyalty to Sauron? Of course, it was also quite likely that his newfound perception was merely a delusion of wishful thinking.
The Ringwraith led Vorion through a series of labyrinthine corridors, and finally to a great double-door, arched and ridged in the Dark Lord’s preferred architectural style.
“What is this Caradhras steed, of which Sauron speaks?” he asked, and found to his vague surprise that his voice had been returned.
The rippling face and the crown turned to deal him an unreadable glance, and Mabûs replied, “A beast of the Eye. The steeds of Caradhras were bred by Melkor Worldeater, and though eventually forsaken, they found refuge in the deepest cleft of cruel Barazinbar, where they multiplied beyond count. Now few in this world survive, and even fewer outside the service of the Eye.”
Stooping goblins finally parted the gates for the pair, and they descended from the steps of Barad-dûr to the charred Plateau of Gorgoroth. Gorgoroth was strewn with many boulders, and pocked with twice as many craters. Vorion, though under new allegiance, was fearful of this dreaded place and of the creatures within it. Following Mabûs around the perimeter of Barad-dûr’s base, shielding his eyes from Orodruin’s flares, Vorion was led toward a series of gray, jagged hills. A deep fissure split them, and the Black Númenorean followed his companion into the crevice, until the sloping faces of the hills closed up around him, and the fires of Orodruin were vanquished from all sight. The world was ash and dust blown by the strides of four walking feet.
Just as Vorion began to tire of his course, a shallow cup in the hills opened, and he saw there the Caradhras steed tethered to a stake set into a flat stone. Vorion faltered, but was sure to keep pace with Mabûs.
The great steed snorted and raised its immense head, set with many thousands of glittering blue scales. Scales covered it, except for its soft underbelly, which was plated with thick sheets of black steel.
Vorion approached the hulking steed with trepidation, and Mabûs hung back, several feet from the talons of the ferocious-looking creature. Throwing a questioning glance at the Nazgûl, Vorion only received more justification of his festering self-doubt.
“Take the dagger,” rasped the Ringwraith. “Slay with it the Isildurspawn. Do not look back or within. I once was so tasked, as were others.”
Mabûs paused, as if in thought. “If you fail,” he added, “never return to this land.”
Vorion nodded, and went to mount the beast of Caradhras.
Isildur rocketed across Gorthulad, pitilessly impelling Aratar’s steed toward the ever-nearing tents of the tertiary outpost. The red smoke of the Easterling war-lantern gave the prince no idea of his foe‘s numbers, but he could judge that they were no more than a quarter-league from their quarry.
As Isildur pulled into the camp, he saw that the Númenoreans had spied the advancing threat and were gathering to flee. Dismounting, he approached the nearest military officer, who was rousing clerics and other civilians from their quarters.
“Excuse me,” interrupted Isildur. The man, short and wiry, turned in a near-panic. Recognizing the signs of Númenorean royalty, he halted his work and saluted the prince.
“What is your name?” inquired Isildur.
“Thaodwyn, lord,” replied the officer. “Easterlings approach. We are preparing for flight--”
Isildur raising an interjecting hand to the soldier, and he returned to wild-eyed silence. “Thaodwyn,” Isildur asked, “have you enough horses to mount everyone for this flight, as you say?”
Thaodwyn diverted a rivulet of perspiration from his eye, his hand shaking violently. “No, lord, some will have to go on foot.”
“If any go on foot, they will be butchered as beasts. You are now under new orders. All those able to fight shall relinquish their mounts to the civilians. The unarmed shall escape while we meet the Easterlings.”
Thaodwyn’s chest heaved as his mind scrabbled in desperation. In moments, he had conceded. “Yes, lord.”
Isildur checked the blade of Trithalos, his sword. It was, as always, perfect and battleworthy. Now, he knew that Valourië and the others could retreat to safety. Resheathing the sword, he began to call to any nearby troops, commanding them to group into a spearhead formation.
The war-lantern had been extinguished, and the Easterlings were now a widening smear on the blurred horizon. Isildur had heard of their ways many times, not so feral as orcs, but nevertheless easily drawn into Sauron’s thrall.
“The troops are assembled!” called a shivering Thaodwyn. Behind him were four rows of ten soldiers each. Isildur did not need to look again to the horizon to know that they were outnumbered three-to-one.
Taking his place in the vanguard, the noble stood tall. Trithalos hissed against its encasing sheathmetal as the young prince drew it and held it against his golden breastplate. “Are the civilians away?” he asked Thaodwyn, who nodded in reply.
Isildur was turning back to face the Easterlings when something caught his eye.
There, two rows behind him, clad in plate-steel armor of Gondorian design, was Valourië. Poised at her hip was Valandil’s sword.
“Valourië!” cried Isildur in astonishment and horror. “You must be off! I cannot permit you to fight this battle!”
Her violet eyes blazed, and her locks of dark hair flapped in the wind, plastering themselves against her shining mail.
“No,” she declared, “This battle is for all who can fight. I shall not flee, nor shall I falter in the moments of truth.”
Aghast, Isildur shook his head. Leaving his place at the face of the line, he confronted Valourië. The prince straightened his back as much as he could, in an attempt to tower over the woman’s slender form.
“As your future lord and sovereign, I command you to leave this place! Now, fly!”
Once again, Isildur was confounded by the ineffectuality of his authority over her.
Unruffled, she locked him within her lucid gaze and defied him. “No.”
Isildur conceded and returned to his place at the helm of the spearhead.
The Easterlings were now quite apparent in form, but as Isildur squinted into the distance, he could see that they were splitting into thirds, to assault all three outposts in one sweep. With a silent rush of joy, Isildur realized that the field was now evened, that victory was more than a shadow of possibility.
Thaodwyn had seen this too, and was more calm. “Shall we stand and defend,” he asked, “or shall we meet them?”
Isildur sliced his sword through the dank Mordor air, and imagined it to be an Easterling stomach.
“Thaodwyn,” he replied, “begin the charge.”
“Galohar!” called Caromyr. Galohar turned his dark head, his eyes shining brown rings reflected from within his tangled nest of black hair, all topped with a crude, serpentine headdress.
“Aye, Caromyr,” he replied.
“What do you see of the betrayers? Are they to be dying in battle or in running?” asked the chieftain.
Galohar squinted. His eyes were bright and far-seeing by the standards of all men, and Easterlings particularly.
“Ah, Caromyr!” he called. “They have a force! I say…perhaps thirty.”
Caromyr chortled, sliding the blade of one of his sabers against the other, as if to whet it.
“There is one,” continued Galohar, “one in gold armor…perhaps a great commander?”
Resheathing his sabers, Caromyr clapped his hands together. “Most great news!” Turning, he addressed his men: fifty Easterlings in all, forty pikemen, ten crossbowmen.
“Listen to me, men!” he shouted. “There is a great commander in waiting for us. A special promotion goes to the one to bring me his head.”
“Oh!” called a rowdy crossbowman named Gwaniver, “And who gets specially promoted when the Great Eye finds out about our winnings? You, I suppose!”
Pushing the pikemen aside, Caromyr stomped his way back to Gwaniver and punched him in the face. So much for that.
“Oh, oh, oh!” cried Galohar. “Look, chieftain! They are coming to us!”
Nonchalantly wiping a spot of blood from his copper gauntlet, Caromyr returned to Galohar’s side and peered at the now-advancing force.
“Oh, most good!” exclaimed Caromyr. “Let them come! And you, up on your feet, Gwaniver!” he added. “You shall be first to meet them!”
Isildur and Thaodwyn navigated the rough terrain of Gorthulad easily. Once, Isildur sneaked a glance back at Valourië, who was having no more trouble than him. As the warriors descended into a shallow depression, they briefly lost sight of their Easterling opponents, lying in wait for their approach.
Just as Isildur was cresting a stony ridge, a bolt whistled past his ear, glancing off the hard-packed earth at his feet. The prince caught a glimpse of a hastily retreating form, presumably that of an Easterling. Pulling himself up onto the ridge, Isildur hurled Trithalos at the fleeing man, the blade sailing swiftly through the air and finally thumping into Gwaniver’s leg.
Gwaniver howled in pain and tried to crawl away, Trithalos’s golden hilt still sticking from the flesh of his thigh. Before he could scramble any further, Isildur was upon him, holding the agonized and bleeding form up by his copper breastplate and peering into the brown eyes.
Gwaniver gulped and panted, awaiting a fate that he did not dare to guess at.
“Where are the others?” asked Isildur in Adûnaic, shaking Gwaniver violently, until he was nearly throttled. “Where…are…the…others?” the prince repeated, realizing that the Easterling likely had little knowledge of the tongues of the West.
“There are not as many of us.”
Isildur was on the verge of throttling the Easterling again when Thaodwyn decided to turn the miscommunication to his advantage.
“How many of you are there?” asked Thaodwyn.
Writhing in Isildur’s grip, Gwaniver paused and then replied, “One group coming, with bow-men an--”
The flow of Gwaniver’s words ended in a gurgling scream as the bolt of an Easterling crossbow pierced his throat and jutted from his treacherous mouth.
As if from nowhere, some fifty Easterlings now stood before the Gondorians, a mix of pikemen and crossbowmen. In front was Caromyr, his twin sabers flashing in the dull Mordor dusk.
Caromyr began to say something in his Easterling tongue, but it was cut short by Isildur’s ferocious cry of “Númenor!” and the ensuing skirmish.
Isildur waded into the Easterling ranks and took on Galohar, who held a sickle-curved shortsword, but cowered fearfully behind his broad copper shield, emblazoned with the emblem of a rampant viper.
Isildur, forsaking safety, put both hands on Trithalos’s bloodstained hilt and swung the sword against the serpent. The first blow rebounded like a steel echo, but with the second swing Isildur snapped the shield and split Galohar’s head as one might crack the shell of a succulent mollusk.
The prince swiftly hefted a chunk of the cloven shield from the ground, and drawing back his arm, launched it into the chest of a nearby warrior.
Atop the crest of the ridge, Valourië wielded Valandil’s nameless sword with uncanny grace, and though she showed more talent than skill, she quickly proved to be a formidable foe. Isildur moved alongside her, as if to protect her, and together they slew all but a few of the crossbowmen.
Isildur whirled at the sound of a bolt being loaded behind him, and an Easterling arrow stung his cheek. Feeling the tickle of blood on his face, the prince swept forward across the landscape and dispatched the bowman quickly.
Looking toward the lip of the ridge, he heard a scuttling movement and approached with trepidation. Valourië followed, the thin blade glittering red in her grasp. Presently, Caromyr’s head, mounted on broad shoulders, peeked up above the gap. Thaodwyn’s head appeared, too. The fact that it was, instead, mounted on the tip of a pike, made no little impression on the prince.
Valourië winced, and Isildur quickly became sick to his stomach. As Thaodwyn’s head disappeared and running feet were heard, Valourië called out to the prince. It was, however, far too late.
Within moments two pike-wielding Easterlings, followed by the tenacious Caromyr, had crested the ridge and confronted the nauseous prince. Though Valourië brandished the Nameless Blade with a woman’s ferocity, the two pikemen easily held her at bay.
Caromyr approached Isildur and swept a salvaged pike in a wide arc, catching the prince’s shins and toppling him. Drawing a saber, the disgruntled Easterling chieftain poised it in the air for a moment. The prince went to parry, but both Isildur and Caromyr knew it was far too late.
The last that Isildur knew was Valourië’s scream of dismay, and a candescent explosion of concussive pain inside his skull. His last thought, before that too drained away, was the hope that Valourië would somehow escape. If so, he knew that he had not been wasted.
Gil-galad looked down at the foot of the Black Gates, pained to see so many heroic men die. The battering ram was now surrounded by scores of bodies, and despite this grim omen, each replacement squad headed into the sights of the orkish archers, grim-faced and ready to die for Elendil’s cause.
Elrond appeared, and began to report on the progress of securing Narchost, but it was clear that Gil-galad’s thoughts were elsewhere, and the elvish captain turned to see what so occupied his king’s mind.
Two groups of elves, hefting broad, rectangular shields, were advancing across the battlefield. They were grouped closely, and the shields obscured the warriors underneath completely. In utter synchronization, the two patrols halted, not far outside the reach of the Morannon archers.
Another group of Númenoreans went to man the battering ram, and though they took two valiant swings at the monolithic gate, they were slain. The goblins on the wall hunched and watched for more vulnerable humans, completely oblivious to the shielded elves to their left and right. No replacements came.
In a single deft motion, the broad rectangular shields were cast aside to reveal not only a dozen elves, but a brace of sturdy ballistae. With a single thunderous crack, the ballistae launched a pair of pronged shafts, each hooking over the parapet of the Morannon.
Elrond looked to Gil-galad, a rare smile upon his face, as the elves at the ballistae began to rotate the cranks, straining the tethers between the machines and their projectiles.
Scrambling to spread themselves from the midpoint of the wall to both sides, the orcs created a deadly gridlock in the center of the gate. Meanwhile, several orcs tried futilely to pry the silver claws of the projectiles from the top of the gate, and were instantly run through with burning silver arrow-shafts.
As the cranking of the mighty ballistae intensified, the hinges of the Black Gate began to groan under strain. A ragged cheer came from the more optimistic soldiers of the Alliance, with a particularly boisterous cry of, “Death to the craven orclings!” erupting from Círdan. Still, Elrond’s steely gaze was riveted upon the Morannon. The battle was far from over, and perhaps far from even its turning point. A crack of rending metal came from the left side of the Gate, and another cheer swept the valley, but still Elrond stayed focused. Something was wrong.
The orcs were moving to the sides, ducking anathore-impregnated arrows, but they were not firing upon the ballistae. They were draining away, and off of the Morannon.
In a shock of realization, Elrond turned to shout a warning to Gil-galad, but it came too late.
There was a grunt of wood and steel from the far side of the Gate, and a ball of flame ascended into the sky.
The valley was deadly silent, save for the shuffle of the horrified soldiers, and the hiss of the nebulous mass of lava that barely cleared the wall and sailed into the west-side ballista.
With a squeal of heated metal, the weapon of war disintegrated into a bizarre spectacle of twisted wood and metal, ringed with burning elves. The line of the double-pronged projectile singed into many pieces, and went limp. The claws stuck over the gate, but they and the ballista were as useless as a severed hand.
“Forward, everyone!” cried Elrond. “Shield the ballista!”
In a rush of gray armor on the other side of the battlefield, Aratar’s grizzled face showed itself to Elrond, and he rescinded the order, realizing that his troops could do nothing to supplement Aratar and the Númenoreans. Not now.
Even as the crank rotated with desperate speed, Elrond recognized its futility. Even now the catapult on the other side of the Morannon was doubtlessly being reloaded with its burning ammunition, possibly brought from the floes of Orodruin itself.
Círdan and his men were scurrying frantically about the molten wreckage of the west-side ballista, and the Ringbearer was using Narya’s power to deaden the flames, as if he could yet aid the immolated elves entombed inside the chrysalis of rock.
Elrond, for all his resourcefulness, was now at a loss, as useless as a coddling infant in this dire situation. Then, as he looked upon Círdan’s despair as he snuffed out the last of the flames through Narya, an idea came to him.
He gripped Vilya, the Ring of Air, close to his body and concentrated with the easy and simple flow of thought that he had utilized when healing Rumìl and Vorion. The elf’s eyes and ears closed, and his mind opened to a universe of inconceivable possibilities.
“Nikerym!” commanded Gil-galad. “Bring word to Isonduil that his unit is to be set in a cupping formation for…”
The king’s voice dropped as he saw that Elrond’s eyes were closed. His lips worked soundlessly, as if he were in a trance.
“Elrond!” shouted the elven-king, but his captain did not respond. He called once more, but even an attentive elf would not have heard him through the cutting howl of this wind that suddenly begun to blow across the valley.
Valourië reeled, her eyes burning as if they had been set alight. The Nameless Blade flew from her grasp, and her first thought was of retrieving it, despite Isildur’s death.
Stenciled in vivid hues against her eyelids was the image of Caromyr preparing to deal Isildur his death blow. Her mind contorted and fought with itself, for what she had seen was an act of sorcery that neither duplicitous Easterling nor royal Númenorean could have conjured.
Caromyr’s saber was raised, and as the chieftain did so, the clouds grumbled and a splinter of lightning slipped from the sky. She prodded the memory with tenderness as her sight returned, but she could make nothing new of it.
Valourië’s slender fingers close around the grip of the Nameless Blade, and she opened her eyes to a stinging yellow Mordor dusk, and to yet another peculiar sight.
The Númenoreans, all except herself, had been slaughtered. So, too, had the Easterlings, with the exception of a single pikeman. He now circled, wary of some invisible foe, fingering his pike nervously.
Suddenly, a voice came as if from nowhere, bellowing “Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!” The Easterling’s copper codpiece detonated in a spray of gore and miscellaneous organs.
Appalled, Valourië limply grasped the Nameless Blade, fully expecting to be next. Instead, a squat form materialized before her, that of a dwarf, spattered with blood and shards of armor and bone. A broad two-handed axe hung at his side. He gave her a friendly nod, and proceeded to thread a slim silver chain through a thick ring of rich reddish-gold. Centered on the ring was a large black pearl of surpassing smoothness and perfection. Clasping the chain about his neck, the dwarf bowed deeply and proclaimed, “Durin at your service.”
Elrond’s mind burned and his thoughts crystallized, for his will was a pinnacle within him. On the outside, in the corporeal world, that pinnacle was no less awesome.
A vast cloud was gathering on the far side of the Morannon, a cloud of ashen waste, of dust and shattered stone. As the cloud solidified into a cyclonic funnel, the shrieks of many orcs were heard as they were lifted from the ground and torn apart in the wind, their severed limbs circling ever higher until they were flung into the air by the raging current of the storm.
Elrond extended his hands into the air, and though he felt the winds within him and understood the ebb and flow of every current, the scouring chips of dust did not bother him.
The cyclonic windstorm grew tall and stout, impregnated with dozens of squalling goblins, who were quickly forsaking their weapons and fleeing the might of Vilya’s wrath.
Then, with a grinding crunch, the soldiers of the Last Alliance witnessed a goblin-engine, a catapult of great size, lifted slowly into the storm and crushed within its depths. Burning in the core of the tempest was the engine’s payload of molten stone, spinning and raining igneous pebbles down upon the intrepid fighters.
Forgetting their awe, the elves manning the last ballista began to work the crank, and the gate howled with the metallic agony of a wounded beast.
Gil-galad stared at Vilya, at the sapphire glowing with a feral beauty that he had not beheld in his many years, and at Elrond, his face blank and expressionless against the searing winds.
A figure darted by Gil-galad, cackling maniacally as it bore a full urn of anathore down to the gate. Watching the dust swirl in Círdan’s wake, Gil-galad shook his head and speculated on the Ringbearer’s purpose.
Círdan leapt nimbly over a jagged boulder, cradling the jug of anathore against a shoulder. Throwing a wink at the incredulous onlookers, he approached the Black Gate. Having no time for awestruck staring, the elf halted for a moment near the foot of the Morannon, and heaved the heavy urn into the wind. Narya glinted as he brought his hands back down, and ran for his very life. The vessel never once touched the ground, but was instantly picked up by the tempestuous winds and drawn into the cyclone, where it was nothing more than a flyspeck.
Círdan’s silvery hair blew across his eyes as he threw himself behind a boulder, just as the fireworks started.
Touching the snaking coil of dull red lava, the urn exploded into a nova of green flame, and soon the blazing anathore was being drawn within and without the great storm, like pumping blood within the body of a mighty demon.
The heat made the air howl and the rocks shatter, and the army receded from the infernal storm, even the crew of the last ballista.
The funnel of the storm slipped onto the surface of the Morannon, and instantly the iron was melted and torn, sucking like boiling wax into the belly of Elrond’s beast. A great howl escaped the gate as it felt its mortal wound, and the spiked slab toppled and twisted forwards across the vale. The southern Númenoreans were knocked to the reverberating ground by the great impact of the gate, and even Gil-galad, to the north, stumbled and grasped for a boulder to hold to.
No one, neither elf, nor man, marked the appearance of a new force at the flank of the army. That is, not until Durin’s lighting made Elrond’s storm complete.
The blue-green glow of the anathore-laced wind pierced Elrond’s eyelids and drove him from his trance. It was all that the elf could do to stay standing, buffeted by the chaos of the dying storm, and sapped by his own exhaustion.
Gil-galad stared at him, the elven-king caught vividly in his regenerating sight.
“Do not tarry, good king!” cried Elrond. “Lead them on!”
Gil-galad turned away and was swept along with the current of his charging troops. The Alliance soldiers were tramping over the once mighty edifice, and pouring into the vast, flat valley of Udûn. Ahead, Gil-galad could see Isonduil trying to restore order to some of the troops as they approached a new force of orcs, a blending of many goblin tribes. Before them were all breeds of goblinkin, from the orcs of the Misty Mountains to the black uruks of Gorgoroth.
Isonduil’s troops fanned out, and moved in as if to swallow the orcs, who were receding back across Udûn, yet not in true flight, despite the superior Alliance forces.
Suddenly, Isonduil’s elven-eyes detected a disturbance on the horizon: dozens of red plumes crisscrossed through the filthy air. Countless Easterlings were making their way through the pass of Isenmouthe and into the depression of Udûn, no doubt alongside many Southrons, allies of the Easterlings of the Eye.
“Greetings, master elf!” came a gruff voice, and Isonduil looked left, right, and then down to find a diminutive form scampering alongside him.
“What is this?” exclaimed Isonduil in astonishment. “Do the dwarves of Khazad-dûm now send their folk into the very mouth of Sauron?”
Durin looked up earnestly at the towering elf, and replied, “Aye, for though some of our kinfolk have taken to begrudging the elves, those of my regiment see otherwise.”
Durin bowed quickly, and then resumed his pace aside the elf. Isonduil, though somewhat flustered by this development, introduced himself.
“I am Isonduil of the Greenwood Kingdoms. And by what name are you called, master dwarf?”
“I am Durin III!” exclaimed the dwarf, bursting with pride at the opportunity to display his heritage. “I am the lord of Khazad-dûm and the realm of Dwarrowdelf, and have been for many years. Aye, since the reign of Celebrimbor himself!”
Isonduil turned to him, hopeful suspicion gleaming in his eyes. “A dwarf-lord of Celebrimbor’s day? Then, would you not be…”
Durin nodded enthusiastically, and raised the golden ring toward Isonduil.
“I’d like you to meet my friend, master elf!” he cried. “This is Kórgur, the Ring of Thunder!”
Still hesitant to share in the dwarf’s enthusiasm, Isonduil asked, “And this ring, Kórgur, holds sway over the very elements?”
“When the elements permit me to do so, yes,” responded Durin. “But, lord elf, I‘ve yet to see a war won with such a sparkly gimmick! Come!”
Isonduil nodded. “You have brought warriors of Khazad-dûm, then?”
“Aye, yes I have,” replied the dwarf. “But, follow! Time is wasting, and there are orcs aplenty for the slaying!”
The dwarf-lord brandished his axe and stared fearlessly into the orcs, a mass of dark and fiendish countenances, spears waving in the foul air, scattering crude orkish jeers across Udûn’s barren vale.
Behind the unlikely companions, dwarf and elf, lay Gil-galad’s force. Hardly touched by the arrival of Durin’s axe-men, the elven-king gripped Aeglos coldly and realigned his forces into a lethal spearhead formation, in order to open a wedge in the ranks of orcs, Easterlings, and Southrons.
Abruptly, the king felt an impulse compelling him, a force of will that he could not deny. “Círdan!” he called, and the Ringbearer attended.
“Círdan,” commanded Gil-galad, “I want you to lead the charge.”
Círdan appeared puzzled at first, and then apprehensive. “And where shall you be, sire?”
“I shall go in first,” replied Gil-galad.
“What?” exclaimed Círdan. “But that’s suicide!”
Gil-galad shook his head. “I shall not die today, friend. Not today.”
“Lunacy!” Círdan spat, as Gil-galad poised his spear and departed the formation. Drawing his serrated sword from its scabbard, Círdan faced his newfound legion of warriors. It had been many years since he had commanded a force of any bulk, but he did not fear.
Ahead, Gil-galad charged relentlessly across the unvarying terrain of Udûn, shifting occasionally to dodge a whistling orkish bolt. The uruks snarled and jeered at their attacker, his allies still many yards behind him. Clenching his teeth and clutching Aeglos’s sweat-slick grips, he thrust his body into the unyielding mass of orcs.
The goblins prodded him with their lances, and the elven-king parried them and snapped their brittle shafts with the Aeglos’s blade. He felt the familiar thrum of the moving razor edge, and took heart in it as he felled orc upon orc, hardly pausing to check himself. As fast as the fiends poured around him, he whirled and with a singular arcing cut, marked all of them with his blade. They fell, twitched, and were still.
Gil-galad was dimly aware of a lusty cry of, “Khazâd ai-mênu!”, which was taken up by hundreds of gruff voices. Unpausing, he sliced a nearby orc’s spear short, and drove the point of his weapon into the unarmed brute’s chest. As he raised Aeglos towards the heavens, it seemed as if its clarion ringing was amplified and refined, and sang out like a voice from old, back to the very time of the forging of Aeglos. Gil-galad caught snatches of song, and though the orcs around him did not know a word of elvish, they sank back from the mighty king, and were silent.
Lowering Aeglos, Gil-galad charged once more, and though he was direly outnumbered, no goblin wished to be the first to fall to his spear. Retreating from him, he barreled across the plane, impaling uruk after uruk, and staining the blue-white iceblade black with blood.
The savage war-cries of Durin’s dwarves came close to him, and the elf fought his way back towards them, in hope of aid. Seeing Isonduil, valiantly battling a Mordor orc, the elven-king joined his side and finished the beast.
“You’re in too deep, sir!” cried Isonduil. “Control yourself!”
“These things are necessary,” replied Gil-galad. “Is not Fingolfin still remembered for such deeds?”
Gil-galad was forced to pause while he gutted an orc who strayed too close, giving Isonduil time to ponder his statement.
When the orc was slain, Isonduil replied, “Aye, Fingolfin is remembered, but is not also Ar-Pharazôn?”
Gil-galad’s noble brow furrowed, for he did not quite understand the meaning of Isonduil’s assertion.
“Isildur, they say, has deserted,” he explained. “He has cast Aratar orcslayer from his post in his wrath. A man named Maglaur has up his reins.”
Shaking his head in vexation, Gil-galad replied, “Shall such things never cease?”
As the sounds of Southron and Easterling cries reached his ears, Isonduil said, “We best return to battle.”
“Aye,” replied the king, and they were off.
Elendil pressed his hand to the desolate ground before the twisted Morannon, drawing it up, he crumbled the packed earth in his hand, and looked out over the deserted wasteland of bodies piled upon bodies. In some places, the mat of limbs was so thick that the ground could not be seen. Carrion birds were already gathering, some perching atop Narchost, biding their time until the fury of war had abated.
“Hail, King Elendil!”
Elendil wiped his hands free of the dust. His plan to pry open the Morannon with the double-pronged ballistae projectiles had failed miserably, and at the cost of many lives. He forced himself to look again to the spot where the ram still stood, where the bodies were thickest.
“Hail, King Elendil!”
He brought his gray head up, a lone figure in this war-torn landscape. Alone, he thought.
“Hail, King Elendil!”
Not quite. Elendil rose from his kneeling stance, and faced the newcomer.
“Hail, King Elendil!”
The newcomer was, curiously enough, unarmored, wearing a dirt-soiled robe. The Tree of Gondor was rendered upon the breast of the robe, and four and three stars were tattooed upon the man’s palms: the Seven Stars of Gondor. Elendil studied the man’s face, the moist, beady eyes, and the coal-black goatee, ever surer that he had never seen him before.
The man cleared his throat and brought out a hefty scroll, unrolling it and beginning to recite.
“O most illustrious Elendil, monarch of Gondor, slayer of the orc-fiends and conqueror of the Sundering seas, I am Emissary, and I bring great tidings to you--”
Halting the bombastic flow, Elendil asked, “Where do you hail from, good Emissary?”
Emissary grimaced in irritation, and resumed his recitation.
“I am Emissary, and I bring great tidings to you from your loyal cities. I have traveled many days and nights along the fringe of the Land of Terror, from--”
He cleared his throat loudly.
“From noble Osgiliath--”
Emissary paused for a few moments, to let this fact sink in. Elendil was somewhat bemused at the man’s blatant disrespect, but he found this incongruity to be more interesting than angering.
“From noble Osgiliath, and the court of Anárion the Radiant. For much time, our city has been besieged by the dread servants of Sauron, enemy of Mankind and Elvenkin, servant of Morgoth the Devourer, slayer of--”
“I know all this,” interrupted Elendil once more, to Emissary’s increasing irritation. “What news is there?” As Emissary went to read further from the lengthy scroll, Elendil snatched it from his grip and repeated his question. Defeated, Emissary answered with diminished pomposity.
“Fine. The orcs have retreated from Osgiliath, and show no signs of returning. Anárion plans to drive an army forward along the Path of Morgulduin, and recapture Minas Ithil. If you wish to stay him from this path, I must return immediately.”
“No,” said Elendil, “that shall not be necessary.”
The king paused for a moment more, staring wistfully across the ruinous valley.
“Fine, sir,” said Emissary. “Shall we move on to the front?”
Elendil shook his head in reply. “For now, we shall stay at this place, and honor the dead.”
“Ah,” responded Emissary, with faint distaste. “But,” he queried, “would your battle-skill not be more useful on the front of Udûn?”
“The wheel of war has been set rolling,” said the king, “and now none can stop or sway its motion.”
Emissary was clearly dubious, but he did not challenge Elendil’s judgment.
“Tell me, sir,” asked the Gondorian, “Gorthulad…‘Sauron’s Plain’… since this place is no longer his, shall it still be called such?”
Elendil looked thoughtfully at the younger Gondorian, surprised by this insight.
“You are quite right, Emissary. No longer shall this place be Gorthulad.”
“Perhaps, ‘Elendilad’, ‘Elendil’s Plain’?” suggested Emissary, and Elendil could not discern just how much of this suggestion sprung from sarcastic or sycophantic tendencies.
Looking around at the pale, withered foliage and the shattered boulders, and the strewn, mangled corpses, Elendil said, “This plain is not mine, and I would not accept it were it offered to me. No, this barren land shall become a cemetery for the men and elves who fought and died upon it. Here, beyond Mordor’s borders, they shall not be despoiled by the spiteful wretches that live within. Here,” he said, stretching his hand across the horizon, “here we shall honor them. This land is now ‘Dagorlad’, the Battle Plain, and let the name of Gorthulad be stricken from all record. Sauron’s dominion in this place shall not merely be canceled, it shall be erased.”
Emissary nodded thoughtfully, and then turned sharply, to find a dark figure crouching before him, many feet distant, but still easily discernible from the landscape.
“What is this thing?” asked Emissary, as the blackened being let out a wheezing cough. Elendil drew nearer and with a pained expression turned away.
“Let us leave this place,” said the king. “Perhaps I am needed on the front after all.”
Emissary nodded assent, and the two hurriedly set off across the Desolation of the Morannon, and to Udûn.
In their wake was left the charred creature. Isildur’s armor had protected him from the explosive bolt of electric fire, and aside from the shallow slash of an Easterling arrow upon his cheek, he was unwounded, at least physically.
“Father,” he murmured, as he dragged himself up, forcing strength into his drained bones, tormenting himself with hopeful visions of Valourië.
He had searched each body. She was not one of them.
Isildur had succeeded in his initial task, but it was a hollow comfort. His father had finally and willfully abandoned him. From what he had heard the messenger say, Anárion was to once again stand at the hero’s helm, to once again draw Tritharon, sister-blade of Trithalos, and write another chapter for himself in the annals of history.
Isildur despaired, he despaired as he had not in his flight from Minas Ithil, as he had not when Ar-Pharazôn’s guard had run him through. Those many times had been fearful and terrible occasions, but this was different…not just of greater intensity, but different in its basic nature, he felt his resolution hardening beneath the hurt of these many unfortunate circumstances.
He did not crumple and cry upon the site of his abandonment. Instead, he rose and gripped Trithalos with bitter determination, and took the first step of one thousand, the first step into Mordor and to Udûn.
Celebrían paced through the recesses of Elrond’s sanctum, basking in the warmth of the sunlight, yet never allowing herself more than a moment’s pause. The beginnings of a new poem were forming in her mind, and to let them stagnate would be terrible. Struck by a sudden clarity, she went to Elrond’s desk, found an unmarked scrap of paper, hastily dipped her quill in the waiting inkpot, and set the nib to the paper. She wrote:
“Gil-galad is an elven-king.
Of him the harpers gladly sing:
The last whose realm is fair and free
Between the Mountains and the Sea.”
Celebrían paused, absentmindedly running the feather of the quill between her fingers, and reviewing what she had written. It was good, that was true, but it also came along a short and direct route from the heart. Its words were attractive, and also quite true. Good. She wet the nib, and once more went to writing.
“His sword is long, his lance is keen,
His shining helm afar is seen;
The countless stars of heaven’s field
Are mirrored in his silver shield.”
The elf-maiden smiled, for her talent had not failed her. Though only two stanzas had she yet set to paper, dozens more were bubbling through the mire of her subconscious. Finding a scroll, she unrolled it and copied the stanzas to it, titling it, “The Lay of Gil-galad”.
A shadow fell across the page, for a figure blocked the doorway. Celebrían turned, and the elf, realizing his error, moved from the shaft of light. Now not so harshly backlit, the elf-maiden could make out the lean features of Silwaën, an elf of Imladris, and Elrond’s aide. He had been left in Imladris as a safeguard, in the remote possibility of an attack by the agents of Sauron or some wild force. For a time he had spoken of creating a more organized force, known as the Imladhrim, to defend the elvish keep, but he had eventually dropped the issue. Though an officer, he was gentle in nature, and like all elves, held a love for living things.
“Milady?” inquired Silwaën.
Celebrían pushed the scrap, scroll, and utensils aside, replying, “I am unoccupied. What matter brings you to Lord Elrond’s sanctum?”
“There is a visitor,” replied Silwaën, his voice tinged with uneasiness. “He is a friend of Elendil, so he claims.”
Celebrían remembered Elrond’s warning, and wondered how to handle this. She had shared Isonduil’s message with no one, though she had no notion of deliberately concealing it.
“Milady?” asked Silwaën, at the elf-maiden’s hesitation.
“Bring him here,” replied Celebrían. But, as Silwaën went to retrieve the visitor, Celebrían called him back. “Show him here,” she admonished, “but fetch also your bow. Recede into the shadows as best you can, and keep him ever in your scope.”
Puzzled but obedient, Silwaën nodded and left the sanctum.
In the interim time Celebrían, pondered over the next stanza of her poem. The interruption had disturbed her concentration considerably.
Presently, Silwaën returned, and at his side was the caller. He was tall and dark, his skin burnt and leathery, as if roughened by flame. His eyes were bright, burning with an unhealthy inner shine. His hair was soot-gray and matted, his body clad in many iridescent-black plates, interlocking like an insect carapace. A lump of apprehension rose in Celebrían’s throat, but it diminished somewhat as she saw Silwaën back silently into a darkened corner, and draw his bow with the silent glint of a steel arrowhead.
“What business have you here, in Imladris?” asked Celebrían of the stranger. His eyes stilled in their roving and focused on her with an unnerving intensity.
“I have come for the sons of Isildur,” he replied, in a voice of a false and strangely inhuman timbre. From the corner, Silwaën looked to Celebrían for guidance, and she offered a slight shake of her head. This man was no knight of Elendil, but there might be valuable information that the patient mind could yet glean from him.
“I see,” the elf-maiden responded. “And what business have you with Isildur’s heirs, pray tell?”
“I have come for them,” repeated the man.
“We cannot admit a wanderer into their chambers. I am sorry, but you shall now be escorted from our borders--”
“But I am no mere wanderer!” roared the man, his face lit with fury. “I am Elendil’s knight! I go with him, and advise him! You must obey!”
Shifting her eyes a degree from the raging man’s tortured countenance, Celebrían nodded to Silwaën. The huddled elf drew back, and loosed a bolt of steel fury.
“To our victory!” cried Círdan, raising his chalice of miruvor. Elendil nodded and raised his cup to Círdan’s.
“Victory is not ours yet,” Elrond pointed out.
“Then, to the victories of this day, to the clearing of Udûn, and the sealing of Isenmouthe pass!”
Elrond smiled politely and raised his cup, too.
“To the undying friendship between elves and men!” added Gil-galad, with a jovial grin. The three clinked their chalices and reseated themselves at the long table.
Brushing a stray drop of miruvor from his lips, Elrond declared, “Now, to business…”
“The business I’d like to know about,” interjected Durin, “is what’s going to be done with Mordor once Sauron has been cast out of it.”
This issue had occurred to none of the elves or men sitting at the table. It had caught them all off-guard, and Durin turned that to his advantage.
“You know, there’s bound to be some mighty ores hiding in such a land. I say that part of it should be given over to the dwarves of Khazad-dûm.”
“No,” said Gil-galad. “We shall cleanse this realm the orc and troll. Once it is empty, we shall leave it so. This place is unfit even for mining.”
Elendil considered this, and spoke carefully. “Gil-galad, son of Fingon, the men of Númenor shall assist you as best we can in your cleansing of this wretched realm. I also agree that the Mordor should not be exploited, whatever resources it may hold. But, I do not believe that these plains should be deserted, to fester in our absence. We should set a guard in this land, erect fortresses amid the boulders to monitor the orcs and make certain that the power of this place is never again turned to foul purposes.”
“Bah!” cried Durin. “You’ve gotten superstitious, good king! This land is savage, but when evil no longer calls Mordor its home, we shall find it no more ominous than the halls of Khazad-dûm! My home is shadowy, but not sinister, master Elendil!” “Calm yourself, Durin!” exclaimed Elrond. “This is a matter worthy of discussion, but not here, and not now. I wish to know of Vorion first.”
“What is there to know?” asked Elendil, bitterness filling his voice. “The Nazgûl took him away. He is no doubt slain.”
Círdan looked aghast, for he knew not of this tale.
Elrond courteously acknowledged Elendil’s statement, but was forced to counterpoint it.
“King Elendil, you dispatched scouts to comb the area after the Úlairi came upon us?”
“Yes, lieutenant, under Ar--under one of my captains.”
“I see. Then, if Vorion’s body was not recovered, why do you think him dead?”
Elendil paused. “I think so out of hope, perhaps. But, to what would they bring him but torment and death?”
Elrond considered the king’s words, and cupped his chin in the rough palm of his hand, considering the implications of Vorion’s disappearance.
“So it would seem,” the elf said. “But, somehow, it does not ring true. Vorion, son of Vorimir, was not taken for simple interrogation.”
“Elrond,” interrupted Gil-galad, “I have not been accustomed to such reliance upon intuition from you. Tell us, what brings you to this conclusion?”
Elrond shook his head in frustration, for he could not answer.
Hearing a whisper-soft scuffling at the side of the tent, Elrond sprang from his seat and peered into the Mordor night, black as pitch. Torches dotted the ashen wilderness, and it seemed as if the encroaching darkness was doing its best to squeeze them from existence.
Returning to his seat, the elf remarked, “There was nothing.”
Concealed behind the corner of the meeting tent, Isildur hunched in solitude. When he heard Elrond return to the table, he noiselessly made his way off into the night.
His tent was cold and dark, his provisions arranged randomly around the austere dwelling. As the flaps fell closed behind him, he slumped onto his cot, half-expecting Valourië to materialize once more from the darkness. She did not come to him.
His saliva tasted bitter in his mouth, and he unpacked a ration of cooking spice from his supply chest, chewing a mouthful and finally spitting it into the dirt on his floor. The prince covered his face in his hands, trying to sort through the nebulous mass of thoughts stored inside his head.
The tent flaps opened once more, and Isildur did not uncover his eyes; he merely prayed for the gentle rustle of Valourië’s robe.
“Isildur,” came her voice. His prayers were answered.
“Valourië,” he replied. “Why have you come?”
“You were within a hair’s width of death today,” said the maiden, swimming in the murky shadows. “It was your first time.”
It was not a question, but he answered it anyway. “Yes.”
“What did you think of when the blow came?”
The unreality of the conversation consumed him. He was no longer surprised by her audacity.
“I thought of my life,” said Isildur. “I thought of my greatest accomplishments.” He sighed and blinked fitfully, clearing the film from his eyes.
“And…” prompted Valourië.
“I am a royal Dúnedain of Númenor, High Prince of Gondor, and successor of my father, Elendil the Tall. This is my accomplishment in life.”
“You have been Elendil’s heir from the moment of your birth,” Valourië pointed out.
“Precisely,” the prince replied. “Since then I have founded the city of Minas Ithil, which has been conquered by Sauron, demoted one of my father’s commanding generals to the rank of footman, deserted my given post, and endangered the lives of countless Númenoreans.” Isildur paused. “Well, at least I can right Aratar’s demotion. I shall recommission him when next I can.”
“No,” whispered Valourië. “You shall not.”
“What do you mean?” he demanded, the authority of his voice all but sapped.
“Aratar is dead,” explained Valourië. “He fell before the Gate of Mordor. A orc-marksman scored a hit upon him.”
A moan of despair escaped the young prince’s lips. “Oh, curse the fate that brought me to this! Since my entrance into this world, I have visited nothing but disgrace upon my friends and allies! All goodwill I have squandered in my arrogance! Thank you, good maiden, for showing me my errors.”
Isildur reached for his helmet, and put it on. Trithalos was drawn.
“What are you doing?” Valourië inquired.
“I go now to repay my debt,” declared the prince. “I go now to death upon the battlefield, as Aratar and many others have before me.”
“No!” cried Valourië, seizing him. “You will not! Do you dare to take the weakling’s course, the path of the fool? To go to an inglorious suicide? Have you learned nothing?”
“It is best to let Anárion rule in my stead,” retorted Isildur. “For, as all know, he surpasses me tenfold in wisdom and skill. I shall tarry no more, for come morn the worms of war shall have eaten me through! Let the battle-maggots tear me beneath their cruel blades! I am ready!”
“Isildur!” shouted the girl. “Speak sense! Wasting your own life will not repay your debt for Aratar’s, but compound it!”
Shaking his metal-skinned head in despair, Isildur murmured, “I can find no redemption in my lifetime, though I may plague this earth for an age.”
“Are you yet damned, Isildur?” asked Valourië.
The prince did not answer.
“Then, you may yet be redeemed! Now, desert this craven foolishness.”
She gently grasped Trithalos’ blade, and brought the sword away from him and into her calm grip. “Peace, young prince,” she intoned, “for the road to wisdom is not walked with urgency. Find peace.”
Isildur silently resheathed Trithalos and laid his helm aside.
“You warn against haste, but I feel that action is needed, good lady,” Isildur stated, calming his quavering voice.
“I cannot decide for you,” she replied.
As she spoke, the faint cry of many horns blew across the camp, and Valourië rose hurriedly. “For now, other matters call upon me with greater importunity. I bid you farewell.” And, with that, she departed.
“No!” cried Isildur after her. “Tarry for but a moment longer!”
The swiftly receding figure gave no heed to his words, and he called more loudly, no doubt alerting many of his Númenorean underlings. He did not care.
Finally, he resorted to force. “I command you to return!” he bellowed, and he saw that Valourië was at last observing his authority. As she returned, she shot him a fiery look.
“You command me?” she asked.
Isildur rolled his eyes and amended his bid. “I request that you return for a minute longer.”
“Better,” she said, “but I still refuse.”
Fighting back his imperial rage, Isildur returned to his tent and paced up and down, considering his next decision. In the end, it was obvious, and he set out to consummate it.
“Bah!” shouted Durin. “What do you know of mining, elf?”
Gil-galad slammed his fist down, and replied, “I know enough of Sauron’s works to realize that Orodruin cannot be safely tapped! You have been in Mordor for less than a day, so do not speak as if it is your birthplace, dwarf!”
“You’d be quick enough to change your mind if I suggested that we plant a forest here!” the dwarf retorted, Kórgur bouncing wildly against his chest as he waved his stubby hands in the air.
“The dwarves have no right to decide the fate of this land!” replied Gil-galad. “You’d do well to remember that your warriors have been little more than a supplement to our own forces!”
At this, Durin jumped up and pointed an accusing finger at Gil-galad, but before the dwarf could utter another word, he found himself facing the mediating form of Elrond.
“Enough!” cried the lieutenant, waving Durin back to his seat. “None of us can decide this matter,” he declared. “When Sauron is at last vanquished, we must hold a council to bring a just verdict. Until then, it would be best to forget it. What say you, good king?”
Gil-galad considered this. “I agree. All realms who have entered themselves into the roster of the Last Alliance must be fairly represented in this affair.” The elven-king looked to Elendil for approval.
“The marshals of Gondor and Arnor shall be summoned,” proclaimed Elendil. “And so too shall we enforce the decree of the council, whatever it may be.”
“Very well,” said Gil-galad. “So, the races of elves, men, and dwarves shall elect the fate of the Dark Land, but until this council is convened, let us speak no more of it.”
As Gil-galad’s announcement came, so did the braying of many horns across the campgrounds. Elendil was first upon his feet, and Elrond looked to him.
“The sounding horns are those of Gondor,” explained Elendil.
“I recognize their voices,” replied Elrond. “It is their direction that confounds me, for do they not ring from the south?”
“You are right!” cried Elendil. “Quickly, all! We must be off to meet them!”
Gil-galad, Durin, and Elendil departed the meeting tent, mounting their swift steeds and setting off to the south. Elrond, meanwhile, went to fetch Círdan, who had retired from the meeting earlier.
As the two elves were returning to their mounts, they came across Isildur.
“Hail, lieutenant Elrond!” called Isildur to Elrond.
“I have no time for talk, Isildur,” he responded, brushing the prince’s appeal aside.
“Then I shall travel with you,” replied Isildur. “After all, it would be most grievous for me to hinder you.”
“Most grievous,” replied Elrond, in a rare moment of sarcasm. Círdan, beside him, chortled, but hushed under Elrond’s stern look.
“Travel with us, then,” said Elrond, “but do not try to steer us from our path.”
Isildur nodded and mounted his steed, breaking into a gallop alongside Elrond.
“I wished merely to apologize,” he explained.
Elrond sighed. “If you wish something of me, ask it. We are all allies here, and there is no place for grudge-holding.”
“I desire nothing of you, master elf, save your forgiveness,” exclaimed Isildur. “Truly. I wish only to offer my humblest apologies.”
Elrond looked suspiciously at the prince, but finally relented.
“I forgive you,” the elf said. At this, the young prince grinned, but he received only Elrond’s typically severe expression in return. Turning his steed away, Isildur reminded himself that he had done all that he could for now.
“What do you suppose that was all about?” asked Círdan, when Isildur was suitably out of earshot.
“I do not know,” Elrond responded. “But I doubt that it shall prove important.”
Buffeting Elrond’s cocoon of indifference with his sardonic grin, Círdan shrugged and turned back to the horizon.
The horns’ clarion call once again sounded, closer and clearer. Ahead of them was, indeed, a host of Gondor, and from it emerged Emissary, now mounted, and beside him a countenance that none needed to guess at.
Elendil approached the second rider, who had shucked off his helmet to reveal a proud and handsome face, crowned with a head of light-blond hair.
“Anárion!” called Elendil. “Your messenger told of a plan to besiege Minas Ithil. Has it been aborted?”
“Not so!” replied Anárion, brimming with his impassioned love of battle. “We ride from the conquered South! Minas Ithil has fallen to our blades! Isildur’s city is ours once more!”
“Excellent!” said Elendil. “What area have you yet to route, if any?”
His brilliant blue eyes glittering with fervency, the prince replied, “Orcs still swarm about the Barad-dûr, and some groups are yet scattered across Gorgoroth. My scouts tell me that Nurn is in tatters. We must deal with them after the Barad-dûr topples.”
“What would you suggest?” interjected Elrond. “An assault upon the fortalice at sunrise, after a regrouping of troops?”
“Sunrise?” chuckled Anárion. “Would you like to hold a few meetings and discuss strategy over mead, too?”
“Ai! Don’t forget the lembas, eh?” called Círdan.
Irritated by his comrade’s frivolity, Elrond interrupted with, “So, you suggest a more immediate assault? How long shall it take you to coordinate your troops?”
“My troops coordinate themselves,” retorted Anárion. “We shall strike out for the Barad-dûr with all speed. You and your elves may come at your leisure.”
“We shall bring our full force down upon the Dark Tower,” Gil-galad assured him. “Isonduil’s unit shall be recalled from the Crevice of Gorgoroth. So, too, shall Elrond’s standing legions be raised from the camp.”
“Many thanks, Gil-galad,” replied the prince, with a wink. Turning toward Barad-dûr in the east, though, Anárion paused, and for the first time seemed visibly uncertain.
Reapproaching his father, he indicated one of the riders and asked, “Do my eyes cheat me, or is that a dwarf?”
Under Udûn’s contaminated sky, Isildur sparred with an imaginary opponent, thrusting Trithalos to and fro in the oft-rehearsed maneuvers that he had learned in childhood. He had learned them from Aratar.
Feeling the biting guilt of the old man’s death, Isildur choked it back down and parried an imaginary blow. His feet danced automatically, along premeditated tracks, retreating a little and then pressing forward against his foe.
Elrond had been unreceptive to his apology, and though the prince’s first reaction was to feel bitter and rejected, once again, he stemmed that self-destructive train of thought. As hard as it was to force himself to see, Elrond’s skepticism was fully justified. Each thought stung him like a slash from his own sword, but he bore the wounds, knowing that it was what Valourië would have expected from him.
He had, through his arrogance, sent Aratar to an undue death. He had, through his insolence, shamed his father in the eyes of Gil-galad. There were too many transgressions to list.
As he swung his sword in an arc around his body, he caught a glimpse of his own face in the reflection of the blade. Rough and unshaven, bright green eyes, matted dark-blond hair. The visage of a prince.
That night, battling with unseen foes within and without, Isildur vowed to find redemption for each and every sin that stained him, to lift clean each mark of condemnation, to one day see himself white as snow and as blameless as the most honest of men. He would have set things even, with no deeds of ill or noble nature to his name.
After then, he could begin his true accomplishments. Slowly, he would win back favor in the eyes of the elves and of his fellow men. Gradually, but surely, he would bring himself closer to Aratar’s avengeance.
Isildur smiled wryly as he realized that the old man had never inspired him as fully in life. It was an irony that the aged knight would have appreciated.
With an onrushing and a clattering flurry of hooves, an elvish runner sped by the prince, covering him in soot and gravel. Though he called after the rider, his words went either unheard or unheeded. Isildur squinted into the elf’s murky wake for a moment, and then returned to practice.
“Secondary vanguard, ho!” Anárion called. “Fall back to the rear of the echelon!”
The Númenorean shieldsmen complied, retreating to the corner of the formation. Bringing out Tritharon, Anárion brandished the weapon regally, drawing a cheer from his loyal troops. Tritharon was forged in the same furnace as Trithalos, and was much similar in design. Its handle was cast in the shape of the White Tree, but it was silver rather than gold. Likewise, the blade was gold rather than silver.
Thrusting Tritharon fiercely back into its burnished scabbard, the prince donned his helm and set out for the fanglike pinnacle rising from the dust. Distant masses of orcs swarmed about the base of the Barad-dûr, and already their braying voices could be heard shouting raucous battle-chants. Anárion flashed a snow-white grin through the steel grill of his helmet. It would be a day to remember.
“Lord Elrond! Pause for a while?”
“I’ve no time,” replied Elrond. “You’d best await my return from the battle.”
“But, sir!” protested the runner. “I bear grave news from Imladris!”
“Halt,” commanded Elrond. “Very well,” the elf-lord conceded, “tell of these events, and quickly!” “There has been an attack upon the city,” announced the elf, and the fidgeting troops fell still and silent.
“An attack?” Elrond prompted. “By whom?”
“A spy of Sauron,” the runner responded. “A man who claimed to be a friend of Elendil, Amandil-son, to gain entrance to the keep. He felled Silwaën of the Rangers, as well as Haelith, lady of Gondor.”
“The lady Haelith is slain?” exclaimed one of Elrond’s archers.
“Also, my lord,” continued the elf, hesitantly, “the maiden Celebrían was injured during the incident.”
“Injured…” murmured Elrond. A light of regret danced in his eyes and was gone.
“Of what nature are her injuries?” he inquired.
“The intruder used a magically imbued bodkin as his weapon,” explained the runner. “As it pierced Silwaën’s heart, his blood was frosted and life was pulled from him. The intruder fell upon Celebrían and cut her throat, but as her flesh froze, so was the blood frozen, and she did not bleed. Our clerics attended to her needs, and she is expected to survive her wound with nothing more than a scar.”
“It is a wound that she should never have had to feel,” remarked Elrond. Turning abruptly, he began to move toward the east, his troops trailing. “There are things to be done, good elf,” he called back. “I thank you for your felicitous passage from Imladris to my camp, and of the delivery of this news.”
“Many times are you welcome, Elrond, Eärendil-son! I will await your return at the Udûn-outposts!”
Saluting the lieutenant, the elven-runner wheeled his stallion around toward Isenmouthe pass.
Maglaur crept stealthily along the edge of the trench, and finally peered up. Ahead of him was a black stake thrust deep into the stale Mordor earth. At his side was Ohtar.
Squinting, Maglaur murmured, “Anárion’s going in.”
“Yes,” Ohtar replied. “But don’t expect anything less than a challenge, even if we are second-in-line.”
Maglaur stared back at the troops which were once Isildur’s.
“I hope I can out-perform a prince,” the commandant muttered.
Ohtar scoffed loudly. “Isildur was an idiot.”
Maglaur looked at his friend with a fusion of shock and amusement. “That’s treason!” he exclaimed.
“So is deserting your troops and disregarding the sovereign’s mandate,” Ohtar pointed out. Maglaur’s expression indicated his tacit agreement.
“Well,” he said. “I concur. Our prince and future regius is an idiot.”
Ohtar grinned. “What do you say? Traitors forever?”
On Maglaur’s right hand was a scar. In fact, it was more of a welt, broad, jagged, and pale. It terminated at the end of his palm.
As the two men executed the hand-clasp of the Alliance, one might see that Ohtar bore a similar scar. As their palms met, the scars aligned perfectly.
Together they recited an oath forged in childhood, the only time of unclouded simplicity.
“When I triumph,” intoned Mauglar, “you shall exceed me.”
The echoing recitation came. “Where I falter, you shall succeed me.”
Mauglar uttered the line of momentous finality. “When I am slain, you shall avenge me.”
The ceremony completed, Ohtar glanced once again over the ridge and exclaimed, “By Seraglioth‘s ashes! Anárion’s gone off without us!”
Mauglar lowered the visor of his sallet and charged from the ravine, whipping a tail of Númenoreans behind him. In his wake followed Ohtar, who muttered under his breath, “Long live the traitors.”