Elendil drove his heels into his charger's sides, urging him on to greater speed. The great horse, already covered with sweat from the long gallop in the stifling heat, grunted but responded, stretching his stride and pulling away from the horses around him. Soon he was a dozen lengths in front of the pounding column of cavalry. No one spoke, their faces masked against the heat and dust, their reddened eyes intent on a column of dust and smoke always a few leagues ahead of them.
The walls of the road crept monotonously by, and still they drew no nearer their foes. The heat, the dust, the lava walls blurring by on either hand, combined to give a nightmarish sense of futility, as if they were doomed to ride thus forever. The only indication of their speed was the fiery summit of Orodruin rising above the black pall. It grew steadily closer. Now and again it shuddered and belched forth new streams of lava and clouds of black flame-laced smoke. Near its summit shone a gleaming red light like a baleful eye watching them -- the door to the Sammath Naur, the Chambers of Fire.
Hours passed and they were forced to slow to a canter. The large heavy war horses were streaming with sweat, their great shining sides heaving as they gasped for air in the oppressive heat. Finally by unspoken consent they stopped and allowed the hostlers and grooms to catch up and water the horses from the leather sacks slung on their pack horses.
Elendil sat on the wall, breathing heavily and drinking from a water gourd, as Gil-galad turned from some of his captains and came over to him.
"We cannot keep up this pace much longer," said the Elf.
"We must," gasped Elendil. "Sauron is no more than a league or two before us."
"Aye. But his orcs are accustomed to this heat and short rations. And he has no compunctions about running them to death. If we exhaust our horses we can't hope to pursue him on foot."
"I suppose not. But it galls me to know he is so near and to be unable to bring him to bay."
"I know. But if we do catch him we must be ready to fight. Many of the people look ready to drop from their horses. This ride is destroying their fighting ability."
Elendil looked at his men slumped in the meager shade of the wall. Their faces were ashen and drawn, grey even under the dust. They did not speak, and ate and drank only mechanically.
"You are right. We must rest. But no more than an hour, or we may never catch him."
And so they rested, eyes closed against the blaze of the sun. It was high now, burning down like a copper coin through the smoky yellow haze. It bathed the barren landscape in a glare and heat that left the rocks too hot to comfortably touch and took all relief even from the few shadows. The Elves stood sentry duty, standing tall and dark against the orange sky, wrapped in their long grey cloaks that somehow sheltered them from the heat.
Elendil had thought to only rest his eyes for a moment, but then he was being shaken awake by Gil-galad.
"Elendil," said the Elf. "Elendil, rouse yourself."
Elendil rose from the ground with a groan. "Oh, my friend," he sighed. "My Númenórean blood has given me long life, but it has not padded these old bones for sleeping upon stones. What is it? Is it time to ride again?"
"I believe Sauron too has stopped. The black cloud reached the foot of Orodruin soon after we stopped, but it has not moved since. Come see for yourself."
They climbed over the low wall of black lava rocks and walked to the top of a mound of cinders a few hundred yards north of the road. Three Elvish sentries stood there, looking out to the west and pointing.
"There, Sire," said one. "You see? The cloud is over that low area just beyond the old lava flows at Orodruin's southern skirts. But it has not moved this last half hour."
"What could it mean?" mused Elendil, staring out at the dark pall like a motionless column of smoke.
"Perhaps even his horde needs rest," suggested Gil-galad.
"Or perhaps he lies in wait to ambush us," murmured one of the other Elves.
"He has no need to hide," said Elendil. "All he has to do is to wait for us to catch up."
"Then perhaps he is ready to make his stand."
"But then why lead us this chase halfway across Mordor first?"
"He may feel stronger in the shadow of Orodruin," said Gil-galad. "It is said that the source of his power is within the Mountain."
"If so, we have no choice but to fight him on the ground of his choosing. Rouse the army. Let us mount and ride at once."
Soon they were under way again, the men still groggy from their short sleep, the horses disgruntled at starting again so soon in the heat of the day. Elendil and Gil-galad rode side by side at the head of the column, watching that ominous dark cloud growing nearer every minute.
"It is an evil situation," said Elendil, keeping his voice low so the others wouldn't hear. "He is at the peak of his power, in his own territory, and he can arrange his troops as he pleases. He even chooses the time and place of the battle."
"Aye," said Gil-galad, "while we shall arrive exhausted from a long siege and chase, and we do not even know where our friends might be at this moment."
"Would they were with us now," said Elendil. "I would feel much easier if I had Isildur at my side."
"And his ten thousand warriors," agreed Gil-galad. "But if we must face Sauron as we are, let us do all that we can. Sauron alone must be our object."
"Aye, if he were slain the orcs alone would be no great danger. They can fight fiercely, but only with leadership. If their captains are slain, individually they are cowards."
"Then let us not spread out into a long battle line," suggested Gil-galad. "You and I shall ride straight for Sauron with all our greatest knights. All the rest shall follow at our backs, perhaps no more than ten abreast. We will make no attempt to engage along the entire front. It will be one glorious charge. Are we agreed?"
Elendil considered a moment. "If the charge is stopped, his orcs will be able to close in around us. We would have no defense on our flanks at all. We wouldn't have a chance."
"Yes. It is win or lose, all or nothing. We shall gamble all on one thrust straight at him."
"It is a desperate plan. There could be no retreat, no regrouping, no second attempt."
"For myself," said Gil-galad, "I am sick of this miserable land and all that is in it. I have no desire for other battles, other days. I would meet Sauron face to face and give him a taste of Aeglos in the ribs," he said grimly, holding the great spear upright at his side. "If I die in the attempt, so be it. But we will have done our utmost. Let it be finished today."
"Yes," said Elendil. "I too am ready for the war to be over today. I will ride beside you. And my Narsil too is thirsty for Sauron's blood."
"Then let the orders be passed, for methinks he is only beyond that ridge."
Isildur turned in his saddle and his voice boomed out over the pounding of hooves. "Form up in ten files, no more. When we see the enemy, keep together and draw up tight behind us; let no one straggle or they will left behind. Engage only those immediately before you. Do not turn aside to pursue. Let every warrior ride straight for Sauron, no matter what may come between. And he whose hand brings him down shall live forever in song. His name shall be sung in the halls of kingdoms yet unborn. Ride now, and do not stop until Sauron is dead!"
The pall loomed right above them now, blocking the sun and throwing the land into shadow. Smoke drifted among the pinnacles of broken rock on either hand. They pounded up a last slope, topped a rise, and looked down into a wide flat valley. On the right was a jagged black wall of lava, the toe of a massive flow coming down from Orodruin, now filling the entire northern sky. And there before them lay all the armies of Mordor.
They were spread along the floor of the valley, from the lava on the right until they disappeared in the murk to the south. Rank upon rank of armored orcs, their weapons bristling above and before them. Here and there among them were companies of Men: cruel Haradrim of the South and the savage Men of Rhûn and the Berserkers from the lands to the east.
On the far side of the valley, perhaps three miles away, a group of a few hundred black figures were formed up in a dense square behind the last ranks. There, where the darkness was deepest, flew the banners of ebony with the crimson Lidless Eye. Even at that distance, the Men and Elves could feel the malice and the terror that was Sauron's Shadow.
No orders were necessary. No maneuvering was required. Gil-galad and Elendil simply topped the rise and rode shoulder-to-shoulder, straight for that darkness. Behind them the long, long column continued to pour over the hill, riding at full speed. Deep-throated cries rang out, tearing the air: "Gondor! Gondor!" and "Elbereth. Elbereth for Lindon!"
The orc officers apparently assumed the leaders would pause at the foot of the hill to disperse their troops along the front, for they did nothing but watch silently. Closer and closer came Elendil and Gil-galad, their armor gleaming in the sun, their banners rippling above them. Their chief knights spread out into a tight wedge behind them so the column assumed the form of a giant spear, the point driving straight toward the center of Sauron's army.
The orcs in the center of the front rank watched with growing uneasiness. When the Kings were only a few hundred yards away their intent became clear and panic fell on the orcs in their path. Some few turned to flee, but they were instantly cut down by their officers in the second rank. The others were driven forward with many blows and cruel cuts from the officers' whips.
But none could withstand the onslaught of the Kings and their knights. The greatest fighters of many an age, all gathered together in one cause, driven in desperation to one final charge, were not to be turned aside by mere orcs. They struck with the impact of an avalanche, sweeping the terrified orcs aside, trampling them screaming under their hooves. The wedge of knights drove forward, each sweeping down with his sword as if mowing a field of wheat, and the orcs fell back before them.
Now the flanks of the orc horde understood at last the nature of the attack. They abandoned their formations and rushed toward the center, howling as they came. But the press was so great around the allied column that few could approach close enough to strike a blow. Those unfortunate enough to be near found themselves pushed forward by their fellows, right into the cruel slashing blades of the Men. The Elvish archers could fire at will into the close-packed throng of orcs, sure of a kill with every shaft.
At the head of the column, Elendil and Gil-galad chopped madly at the foes that attempted to strike at them or their mounts. They continued to drive forward so fast that each blow was against a new foe. Face after astonished face appeared before them, the horrible goblin features twisted in a grimace of terror, then they swept by or fell before their blades.
Looking up quickly, Elendil saw that they had forced their way through all but the last two ranks of orcs. On the rise above him he could see a solid phalanx of tall Men mounted on black horses watching his approach with what appeared to be calm interest. Then an axe glanced off his thigh armor and he brought Narsil viciously downward, hewing a fur-clad Man nearly in two. Beside him Gil-galad wielded his spear with a cold efficiency, rarely letting a foe close enough to even strike a blow. Elendil stole a glance over his shoulder and saw that the column was still together and still moving like a white snake through a field of black. He could see, though, that many of the horses were now riderless, though they still pushed forward in the eagerness of battle.
Slashing down at a pair of orcs that were thrusting at his horse's neck with their short knives, he spurred forward, riding down a knot of determined orcs. Then they were through. Before them was fifty yards of open ground, rising to the square of black-clad riders. The enemy knights had tightened up their formation, each rider stirrup-to-stirrup with his neighbor, all facing outwards, swords drawn and ready.
Gil-galad hacked his way free of the press and rode up beside Elendil. He too looked up. "These are neither orcs nor wild Men," he gasped.
"No," said Elendil. "They are Dúnedain. They must be knights of Umbar." He turned and looked back at the battle behind them. A few score of their knights were just fighting their way free, but most of the host was in a desperate battle, pressed from all sides. Many were now engaged in hand-to-hand combat with several determined foes on either side. Those that became separated from the main column were soon pulled from their horses and slain horribly. And yet the column could be seen to be visibly moving forward, still driving toward Sauron.
Then came a roar of many voices, and Elendil wheeled about to see the enemy riders spurring their mounts forward and lowering their lances. They pounded down the short slope toward the few allies free to engage them. "For Umbar!" they cried. "Remember Númenor!"
But Elendil's knights were not to be dismayed. "For Gondor!" they shouted. "Remember Númenor!" And so, with the same battle cry, the descendants of the Men of that long-lost island rode against each other, each blaming the others for its downfall.
Outnumbered, exhausted, in many cases wounded, and riding up a steep hill, the knights of Gondor met the knights of Umbar, and never has such a conflict of mounted Men been more bitterly fought, with many a cruel blow and valiant death on both sides. The advance of the Allies wavered, then stopped. The mad impetus of the wild charge was broken at last. Elendil's horse fell back a step, then another. Gil-galad's horse screamed and went down kicking. Gil-galad rolled free and was on his feet in seconds, but he was soon surrounded by three mounted Umbardrim.
Elendil rode back to help and slew one of the black knights with a sweep of Narsil. The other turned to engage him and they traded blow for blow. Gil-galad was in a fierce struggle with the third. The Corsair forced the Elf-lord back, but each mighty two-handed stroke of his sword was parried by Aeglos. One blow went wide and the force of it half-turned the knight. Before he could recover, Aeglos had pierced him through. His scream distracted Elendil's opponent, and in a second he lay stretched beside his companions.
The Kings looked around. The white-clad Gondorrim and the black-clad Umbardrim were engaged in deadly single combats all around them -- hundreds of individual battles between grunting, swearing, men with none to intervene or even see the desperate blows. But too few had fought clear of the orcs and those who had were cruelly outnumbered. Most of the Elves and Men were still trying to force their way through the orcs and could not get free to help. Everywhere the allies were being pressed back down the hill. The orcs swarmed forward to surround them. The Kings plunged back into the fight, each attacking the nearest enemy knight. They had neither time or breath for words, but both knew that the bold charge had failed. Now there was nothing more to do but to continue fighting, battling on and on until fatigue slowed their arms and their opponents found their chance.
Then, from somewhere beyond the top of the hill came the sound of a horn: high and clear, cutting through all the roar of battle. A black knight with a mace raised to strike at Elendil paused instead and looked back at the sound. It was his last motion, for Narsil swept against his neck and he toppled headless from his horse. Then came a mighty roar from many throats, for over the summit of the hill appeared a solid mass of mounted figures, banners streaming and swords waving over their heads. They plunged down the slope without a pause: hundreds, then thousands of them.
Gil-galad, standing by Elendil's stirrup, cried out in dismay. "More of these Númenóreans! It is over!"
But Elendil could not speak for a moment. He watched a tall knight riding straight toward him, his sword whirling above his head. Behind him pounded another rider carrying a standard. And from the standard rippled the Crownéd Tree of Gondor.
"Yes, it is over, old friend," said Elendil. "For there rides my son Isildur."
Isildur crested the ridge and a smoke-shrouded valley opened before him. There below lay two vast armies locked in mortal combat. It was like no battle he had ever seen. There were no lines, no front, no flanks. The floor of the valley was filled with a seething mass of black figures, all seemingly pressing inwards upon their fellows. In their midst was a thin white line of mounted warriors, laying about them on either side. He could see small parts of the white column cut off from the rest and rapidly shrinking, like a white floor being flooded with black ink.
On the slope before them, another battle was raging between two groups of mounted knights, the white again badly outnumbered. In the midst of this wheeling mass of armored men rose a white banner bearing the Crownéd Tree.
"There, Sire," shouted Ohtar. "Your father is there, by the banner."
"I see him," called Isildur. "But he is very hard-pressed, and I do not see Gil-galad. I pray we are not too late! Ride, my brothers. Forget your weariness and ride like the wind. Ride to your king's standard!"
"Elendil!" went up the cry. "Gondor for Elendil!"
The Umbardrim heard that cry and knew themselves lost. They drew off and tried to form a defensive formation, but then the knights of Gondor were upon them. Coming down the steep slope, the force of their impact was like a wave crashing on a shore. In an instant the hillside was a mass of shouting, hacking men and wheeling horses. Isildur and his companions drove straight for the king, slaying any who stood between them.
For the first time Elendil had no foe before him. He paused to catch his breath and saw his son and grandson riding toward him. It came to him that never had they looked more kingly. Isildur reined in beside him and leaped from his horse. They clasped arms, their eyes revealing more than words could ever say.
Isildur bowed his head. "My father and my king," he said. "We are come at last. I pray we are not too late."
Too overcome at first for words, Elendil looked at Isildur's companions. There was his grandson Elendur, his smile beaming through a smoke-stained face. And there also were the Elves, Elrond Halfelven and Cirdan Shipwright, and his old friend and aide Gildor Inglorion. He was overwhelmed with emotion at seeing their faces again after so long.
"No," he said. "No, I believe you may have come in time. Welcome, my Lords," he said to the Elves. Then Gil-galad, still on foot, came up to them. He gripped Cirdan's hands in his.
"Well met, my friends," he said. "We are most glad to see you. I believe you have turned the tide of the battle."
They stood there, a momentary island of calm in the midst of violent struggle, and looked out over the battle. All around them the knights of Umbar and Lindon and Arnor and Gondor were fighting fiercely, giving blow for blow, though it was the Umbardrim now being slowly driven back. Still, the balance was nearly even.
In the valley below, however, it was a different story. The orcs, seeing Isildur's army continuing to pour down upon them, broke and fled, many throwing down their weapons for greater speed. The Army of the Alliance, though terribly reduced, took heart and redoubled their efforts, beating their foes back and giving themselves room to breathe. Isildur's men galloped to their aid, sweeping all before them. The orcs fell into complete confusion, running about in terror. The Kings sat and watched as their warriors attacked the last pockets of organized resistance.
Yet even as their hearts soared with joy, a darkness fell upon them. Sounds became muted, the very light of the sun seemed to dim. Warriors looked about in confusion and dismay. Suddenly the battle, the whole war, seemed hopeless, all their sufferings futile. The light faded from their eyes, the smiles from their lips. Isildur felt his shoulders sag, as if all his weariness were overcoming him at last. He knew it at once, for he had felt it at the battle for the Morannon so many years ago.
"Do you feel it?" shouted Gil-galad. "It is Sauron. It is his Shadow. He is near."
"Fight on," called Isildur to his captains. "It is Sauron's Shadow. You must fight on. We shall deal with Sauron."
But even as he said it, he felt a wave of hopelessness sweep over him. Deal with Sauron? How could they possibly stand against someone so powerful that his mere presence sent fear knifing through the bravest heart?
"Now, my Lords," said Gil-galad, "we are come to the final conflict of all. This is the hour of reckoning. Now we must wield all the powers at our command." He looked at Elrond and Cirdan. "Have you brought the Three? Where is Galadriel?"
Cirdan shook his head. "We were unable to destroy the Ring-wraiths, my king. Galadriel and Celeborn remained at Minas Ithil to try to contain them there. She has Nenya with her."
The news seemed to crush Gil-galad's spirit. His face sagged and went ashen. "The Three are not here? We go to do battle with Sauron himself and the Three are not here? How can we hope to dispel his Shadow without them?" The others only looked at him, unable to reply.
Seeing his face, his friends were stricken with the sense that all hope had gone. Despair beat at them like black wings about their heads. Elrond struggled against it, knowing it for the fear he had felt near the Úlairi, only much, much stronger.
"Cirdan still has Narya," he said, "and I have brought Vilya for you, Sire." They seemed but small words, hollow and weightless against the crushing despair. The others stared at him hopelessly. But then he withdrew the great blue ring and held it up gleaming in the light. And somehow, seeing it shining there in the gloom gave them all hope. They looked at each other in wonder.
"Surely," said Gildor, "with such weapons we can defeat even Sauron."
But Gil-galad shook his head. "Remember, they are not weapons at all," he said. "They cannot be used to attack him. But the Three together might have been enough at least to dispel his Shadow and allow us to see him more clearly. But with two only..." His voice trailed off.
"Would that we knew what their effect will be," said Cirdan. "It is thought that he has some mystic link with them, that they will draw Sauron to them. But it is also possible that their use could give him some power over us. But we just don't know."
Gil-galad stood leaning on his spear, looking at Vilya in Elrond's hand. "Long have I loved that bright shining thing," he said, "And yet for some reason I feel reluctant to don it now." He stepped back as if with an effort.
"No, on reflection I believe I shall not bear Vilya into this conflict."
They all looked at him in surprise. "Is that wise, my king?" asked Elrond. "I bore it through great peril so you would have it here at the final conflict. You are its rightful master, and on your hand its strength is greatest."
Gil-galad patted the heavy ebony handle of his spear. "Aeglos here has always served me well. I will fight with the weapon I know."
"But it could at least help guard you, Sire," pleaded Elrond, holding out the ring to him. "My mind would be easier if I knew you had its strength with you."
"Hear him, Sire," said Gildor. "Let the Ring provide what protection it can."
The old Elf-king shook his head, his long grey hair swaying beneath his helm. "No. Throughout this war Elendil and I have fought side by side on equal terms, sharing the labors and dangers equally. But the Three were wrought for Elvish hands and they would not serve a Man. Since Elendil has no Ring to protect him, I too shall face Sauron with only what courage I can summon. And Elendil and I have our enchanted weapons, in which I place my greatest faith.
"Elrond, you and Cirdan do not have such weapons, but he will have his Narya. It is for you I fear, my old friend. Keep Vilya for me a little longer. Perhaps it will spare your life this day. For myself, I will trust to Aeglos here. It has never failed me yet."
"But Sire," protested Elrond. "Vilya is yours. If it may indeed spare its bearer's life, I would have it on your hand, not mine."
"Yes," agreed Cirdan. "Will you not reconsider, my King? You will need all the strength and courage you can muster to fight Sauron. Why will you not take Vilya?"
"Strength and courage I will indeed need," Gil-galad replied. "But Vilya does not provide either. Any of us Elves can wear it to help dispel the Shadow. But wearing it also reveals its bearer more clearly to Sauron. Perhaps if I face Sauron without it, he will find me more difficult to fight."
"But Sire," said Elrond. "Surely it..." But Gil-galad was already turning away, his eyes searching the battlefield.
"No, I will face him with Aeglos alone," he called over his shoulder. "Wear Narya yourself, Shipmaster, and let Elrond wear Vilya. Elendil and Isildur and I will do the fighting, if it is possible against this Shadow. You must use your Rings' strength against it. Gildor, I put you in charge of the Elvish forces."
"As you, Elendur," said Elendil, "shall command the armies of Men. Your father and I have duties that lie elsewhere. We have some debts to repay to Sauron."
"But before we can fight him," said Gil-galad, "we must find him. We must find the source of the Shadow."
He caught a riderless horse and swung onto its back. "Come," he called to the others. "This way. Do you feel it? He is this way."
He veered off to the right, toward the lava flow that blocked the northern end of the valley. The others lords followed, slanting up across the slope. Looking beyond Gil-galad, Isildur saw the advancing wave of Gondorrim troops falter. Horses screamed and reared, riders toppling from their backs. He realized he was having trouble seeing the men clearly, though whether it was due to the growing panic in his chest or to some disturbance in the air, he could not be sure. But the smoke and murk definitely seemed thicker in that direction.
His horse faltered, shied, and stopped, trembling. He urged it forward, but it was no use. Fleetfoot had a great heart and had never shirked a battle, but he could not abide the Shadow. Not far ahead, Gil-galad was also having trouble with his new mount. He threw his leg over and dropped to the ground, still carrying his Aeglos. "Leave your horses," he shouted, his voice strangely distant. "They feel the Shadow too. We must go on foot."
They dismounted and started up after Gil-galad. It felt as if they were walking through a pool of hot tar. It was all they could do to push their feet forward. And always there was that growing terror clutching at their hearts, the sense that this whole struggle was useless, that they could not hope to win. Still they could see Gil-galad above them, stumbling upward among the loose rocks.
Gil-galad climbed out of the valley and stood swaying, looking around him. Elendil struggled up beside him. Then they turned to the right and began walking unsteadily upwards, towards the Mountain. The others followed, forcing themselves forward as if against a wind.
When he reached the top of the ridge, Isildur paused to catch his breath. He was gasping for air. His chest felt tight, constricted, as if there were no air to breathe. And always there was that growing terror that threatened to turn into panic and send him screaming back down into the valley. Glancing back, he saw the battle continuing in the valley below. To his right, Elrond and Cirdan were starting up the long steep slope of cinders that formed the side of Orodruin. Their faces were drawn and white with the effort. Beyond them, the figures of Elendil and Gil-galad could be seen struggling upward, already partially obscured by drifting clouds of smoke. Gathering his strength and his courage, Isildur started after them.
How long they climbed like that, none of them could guess. The cinders slid away beneath their feet, raising choking clouds of ash and dust that swirled away in a growing wind -- a hot wind that swept down the slope into their faces. It became harder to breath or even see the way ahead. Every step was an effort of will, a denial of the despair that filled their hearts. What could they possibly hope to accomplish if they did catch Sauron? How did they dare to challenge him? Did they not know he was immortal -- a Maia, created by The One Himself when the world was new? What could mere foolish Children do against such as he?
Isildur at one point sank beneath the weight, falling to his knees in the cinders. His shoulders shook in a great sob. He could not take another step. It was madness to go on. Why didn't the others see it, too? The thought of the others made him look up. Elrond and Cirdan plodded heavily on. Then they disappeared, hidden in the thickening fumes that drifted and swirled about the Mountain's flanks. He was alone.
"Father!" he called. "Wait for me." But his voice seemed weak and frail, swept away by the wind. No answer came, and he struggled to his feet and went on. The sounds of the battle far below faded away. The swirling smoke obscured both the plain below and the summit above. All he could see was the grey slope of the volcano, broken here and there by piles of slag and streams of steaming lava. The air was like fire in his lungs. His lips were parched and his eyes burned from the fumes and heat. And above everything else was the unending sense of despair, of impending doom. He trudged upward, his mind blank, his eyes watching his feet sinking into the cinders and ash, sometimes nearly to his knees.
Then he stumbled onto a stony uneven road cut into the slope. He stopped and looked around. The road climbed up from the left and disappeared around the shoulder of the Mountain to his right. Preferring anything to this endless trudging up the cinder slope, he turned right and plodded off up the road, still climbing steeply.
He rounded the shoulder and climbed a short steep slope and there before him was a level platform of rough lava blocks. He stopped and looked up in surprise. The road disappeared into an arched tunnel that plunged straight in toward the heart of the Mountain. The tunnel's mouth pulsed with a lurid red glare, sending long black shadows back from four silhouetted figures. Gil-galad and Elendil stood there at the mouth of the tunnel, watched by Elrond and Cirdan a few yards further back. The black gloom they had been following was emanating from that red hole. Isildur came up behind Elrond.
"What is it?" he gasped, his voice barely a croak. "Where is Sauron?"
"It is the mouth of the Sammath Naur, and we believe he is within."
The Mountain shuddered beneath them and they staggered to keep their feet. The red glare brightened with a blast of hot air, and a tongue of flame flicked briefly from the top of the tunnel mouth.
"Are they... are they going in?"
"I do not know," answered Elrond, never taking his eyes from the Kings. "For myself, I do not think I could. Surely nothing could survive in that heat."
But just then something moved in the glare beyond. The flames swirled and roared, and then parted to reveal a dark figure, black against the pulsing red glow. Isildur started back in terror, throwing his sword up before his face. A tall thin figure stepped out onto the rough pavement and they could see it clearly at last.
"Malithôr!" cried Isildur.
"We meet again, Isildur Elendilspawn," sneered the Black Númenórean. "As you see, all your plans have come to naught in the end."
"We have destroyed the fleet of Umbar, retaken Minas Ithil, and defeated the army of Mordor," said Isildur. "Is this what you call naught, Mouth of Sauron?"
The thin lips pressed even tighter. "Your petty victories are meaningless while Sauron rules the Flame. These crimes against His Lordship shall be punished many times over. Though you shall all die here, your people will soon find He is not a forgiving Master. Your insolent pride shall be cut from the flesh of your families and subjects until no trace of it remains. They will come to curse your names."
"You shall have to slay us first," growled Isildur.
Malithôr actually laughed. "You cannot still hope to prevail, you fools. Do you not see where you are? You are come to the Flame of Udûn. Here is the seat of His power. Here He is supreme. If you have come here to attack Sauron, you are even greater fools than I thought."
"Fools we may be," said Gil-galad, "but we are not fools enough to heed your words. Stand aside, traitor. Our quarrel is with your master, not with his slaves."
"I am no slave, you meddling Elf. I am Malithôr, of the house of Ar-Pharazôn the Golden. I am Sauron's spokesman when he deigns to treat with fools such as yourselves. I am his treasured colleague, and it was through my efforts that your every move was thwarted."
"Why does a Man of Númenor," asked Elendil, "stoop to aid a thing of evil like Sauron? And against your own people. We are cousins, after all."
Malithôr wheeled furiously on Elendil. "Because you and your family caused the eclipse of the glory that was Númenor, you arrogant traitor! You Elf-lovers were ever in league with the Valar who destroyed our homeland. And now you think to set yourselves up as overlords in Middle-earth. We shall drive you and your meddling Elvish friends back into the sea. Middle-earth has belonged to the Men of Umbar for these long ages, and when Sauron has destroyed you all, I shall be Emperor of Umbar and lord of all the lands you now think to rule."
"You blind fool!" cried Elendil. "It was your master with his treacherous lies who brought about the downfall of Númenor. He pretended to advise King Pharazôn, but in the end he destroyed him and his whole kingdom. The Valar destroyed our island of Elenna only because Pharazôn violated their Ban. Sauron knew what would happen. He well knew that Men could not become immortal merely by sailing to Valinor. He used Pharazôn's pride to destroy the kingdom that had humbled him. He betrayed the king, and he will betray you as well. You will never be an emperor, Mouth of Sauron -- you will be his lackey!"
"Enough!" came a voice like thunder from deep within the tunnel. All fell back before it. Even Malithôr cowered before the hatred in that voice.
Then a second shape emerged from the glare, taller and broader and blacker. It stepped forward, but it was so wreathed in its own Shadow that they could not see it clearly. It seemed to be generally man-like in shape, but much larger, and it had great vast wings that loomed above it, so that it towered even taller. The head might have been that of a vulture, save that it was scaled like some hideous viper. The eyes glowed a baleful red from a flat reptilian face. It loomed over Gil-galad like a cobra over a mouse.
"Gil-galad," hissed that terrible voice. "You have come at last. For two ages of the world have we contended with each other. Too long have you meddled in my affairs, Ereinion. But now you are finished."
"It is you that has met your doom, Spawn of Melkor," replied Gil-galad. "Your allies are destroyed, your hordes are in flight. You have managed to creep back up here to your hole, but you will never go down the mountain again. You are trapped."
"You think you have me trapped?" sneered Sauron. "Do you think we are all here by accident? I planned this meeting a thousand years ago, and now my efforts have borne sweet fruit. Don't you see, old fool? You were brought here, every one of you, by me." He raised his hand, and on it they could see a plain golden band.
"Behold the One," he said. "It was forged here in the Sammath Naur, for one purpose only -- to bring all the Great Rings to me here. This it has now done. Now all my plans and labors of a thousand years are complete. I already hold the Nine and all of the Seven that survived. And now I have the Three. Once I slay you three Elves, I will take your rings and meld them together with the One. All the might of all the Great Rings of Power will be mine alone, and none shall ever dare to threaten me again."
"But first you must slay us, Unclean One," said Gil-galad. "And before you can do that you must first taste this!" And he stepped forward with his spear held before him, and its point gleamed white and pure, like moonlight on new-fallen snow. "Behold Aeglos Snowpoint, that was forged to be your doom."
"And this," said Elendil, stepping up beside his friend. He held up his sword, and red flame ran along its edge. "This is Narsil, and it is thirsty for your blood."
Sauron gave a harsh croaking laugh. "Do you think that I, who made the One and who bear it now, who can raise up mountains and cause the seas to boil -- do you think I fear such puny weapons as these? Behold now the inconceivable power of Udûn!" And he raised up his arms like the wings of some terrible bird of prey. The flame shone in his eyes.
"Behold, despair, and die!"
Isildur saw his father suddenly rush forward, sweeping Narsil above his head, then there was a blinding flash and a clap of thunder like the end of the world. He had a quick glimpse of his father rising into the air. Then he felt himself being lifted and thrown backwards. His limbs flailed helplessly. Then he was smashed down on the ground and his world went black.
Elendil was closest to Sauron when the blast came. He took the force of it full in his face, and he was crushed by it. His body was lifted into the air and thrown backwards like a discarded doll, every limb twisted and broken. Narsil flew spinning from his lifeless hands, and his body landed on it with such force that the tempered steel blade snapped beneath him.
The Ringbearers Cirdan and Elrond were further away, but they were knocked over backwards and tumbled along the ground by the force of the blast. Though burned and bruised, they were not seriously injured. But some sorcery of the One Ring seized on them and left them powerless. Their bodies would not respond. A great weight held them motionless. Strive as they might, they could only lie and watch in horror as Sauron slowly emerged from the tunnel. Massive and dark he was, with great long arms and thick legs like the trunks of old trees. Great leathery wings rose above his shoulders like those of some immense bat. His face was flat and scaled, with glowing red eyes that gloated now in triumph.
Gil-galad had been a few paces behind Elendil, but he too was flung high in the air and smashed brutally down on the lava. He lay stunned but conscious. He could feel the stabs of many broken bones and his breath gurgled deep in his chest. One leg lay twisted at an impossible angle, and he could taste blood rising in his throat. He knew he was mortally wounded, but he found Aeglos somehow still clutched in his hands. Then he looked up and saw Sauron stooping over him. That hideous face came down to his. He could smell sulphur and decay. The cold red eyes burned down at him in triumph. The lips curled back, showing long curving yellow teeth.
"You ignorant fool!" hissed Sauron. "Did you really think you could contend with me? I am one of the Ainur, older than the world. My kind made this world, and we made your kind as well. We made you, and we can unmake you. You have no concept of the power I wield. The One is master to the Three, you see, even as I am master to you. While you wear them it can hold you as helpless as a fly in a web. I can slay you all as easily as I would step on an insect." The horrible face cracked in a crooked smile. "So here ends the great Ereinion the Gil-galad -- not nobly, marching bravely forward against a foe, but lying helpless on his back like a grovelling dog. Long have you been an annoyance to me. Though you die here now, know also that after your deaths, all that you have worked and fought for will be destroyed. Now the Three are mine, and soon all the world will be mine. I will rule in Gondor, and Lindon, and in the Golden Wood as well. Farewell, old fool. But before I kill you I want you to watch how easily I take your beloved Vilya from you, and know that its power is mine forever."
He reached down toward Gil-galad's hands, but then the glow of self-satisfied triumph disappeared from his face. A flicker of doubt came to his eyes. "What? He does not have it? Then where..." But before he could straighten up, Gil-galad with the last of his strength thrust upward with Aeglos, driving the shining steel through Sauron's body. The spear point tore from his back and the shaft burst into flame. Gil-galad fell back dead.
With a piercing scream of pain and rage that echoed across all of Gorgoroth, Sauron rose to his full height, the burning spear protruding from his chest. He clutched at it, but the fire swirled up his arms and enveloped him. He stood there a moment more, a terrible shrieking, writhing figure of flame. Then he collapsed forward across Gil-galad's body. A long rending howl rose above the roaring flames, and for an instant something could be seen moving, rising with the oily black smoke. It drifted away and dissipated in the breeze, and the unearthly shriek faded slowly into a gurgling moan, then silence.
Isildur woke lying on his back, staring up at a sky streaked with smoke. He became aware of a crackling sound nearby. He rolled over with a groan and discovered that he was badly bruised and his face had been burned. He struggled unsteadily to his feet and looked around. A few yards away lay Elrond and Cirdan, both motionless, their eyes wide and staring. His heart sank at the sight. Two noble Elf-Lords, slain at one stroke. Then he turned and saw something burning fiercely near the mouth of the tunnel. He stumbled to it and saw to his horror that it was a body, perhaps two. Then he saw a blackened head wreathed in flames, and it bore the crown of Lindon.
"Gil-galad too? And Sauron escaped." Then he looked around wildly. "Father? Father?!" There was nothing else to see on the stone platform. Then he remembered that last glimpse of his father darting forward with Narsil before him. Fearfully, Isildur went to the mouth of the tunnel and, shading his hand against the glare, peered within. A figure lay sprawled in the tunnel. It was his father.
He stumbled in and fell to his knees beside the broken body. "Dead! They are all dead! Oh, this the end of all our hopes! Oh, my father, I would have died for you. I should have died for you." And he put his head down on his father's chest and wept, great racking sobs that shook his body.
When at last the sobs stopped, he sat back on his heels and looked at his father's body. He saw Narsil broken beneath him and he pulled the broken shards free. He looked at the beautiful blade, still as sharp as a razor. For a wild moment he considered throwing himself on the blade and ending his pain. But then he knew that he had to find Sauron. It was up to him now. He was alone, and he had no ring and no enchanted weapon.
He pushed himself to his feet. Still carrying the broken sword, he stumbled from the Sammath Naur. Gil-galad's body was still burning, but the flames had gone down enough for him to see that it was indeed two bodies entangled. But who could it be? The others were all dead. Was it Malithôr? He bent and looked more closely. And then he saw a blackened hand protruding stiffly from the fire, closed like a talon. And on one smoldering finger was a golden Ring, bright and unsullied by the flame.
He stared for a long moment before it made sense. This was the One Ring. Then the second corpse was that of Sauron. But even now his Shadow was unbroken.
Dumbly, still hardly comprehending, he was suddenly filled with a rage. He raised the broken blade of Narsil high above his head and slashed down, severing the finger. The Ring dropped to the ground with a musical clink. Immediately the thing that had been Sauron crumbled into dust, and the terrible fear and despair that was his Shadow fell away and was gone. The Mountain gave a convulsive tremor and a bright gout of flame gushed from the Sammath Naur. Freed of the Shadow at last, Isildur straightened up.
"Now Sauron is no more!" he hissed, kicking disdainfully at the heap of grey dust, already being scattered by the wind. Then he saw the Ring lying there on the stone. Suddenly it seemed to him the most beautiful and desirable object he had ever seen.
"This I will have," he said, "as weregild for my father's death, and my brother's! Was it not I that dealt the Enemy his death-blow?" But even as he bent to pick it up, a voice rang out behind him.
"Touch it not!"
He whirled around, and there was Cirdan standing before him. Just beyond, Elrond was struggling to his feet. Their faces were blackened, their hair and clothing singed, but they were alive.
"My Lords! I had thought you dead."
"Not dead, as you see," said Cirdan with an effort, "but held in thrall by the power of the One. When you cut the Ring from his hand, its power was broken and we were released."
"The others were not so fortunate. Gil-galad and my father are dead."
"We know," said Elrond. "We saw it all, but could do nothing to help. Sauron was too sure of himself. He thought Gil-galad was bound by Vilya and he bent close to gloat. Though Gil-galad was mortally wounded, still he struck upward with Aeglos and slew him, as was foretold so long ago. But Sauron fell across him and they were both consumed. I think the king died in the same stroke that slew Sauron. But even then I was still held bound by the One. I could do nothing but watch."
"I thought you and Elrond were dead," said Cirdan. "I was afraid that we would die up here, lying helpless as the Mountain destroys itself. Before you roused, I saw Malithôr creep out of the tunnel, take one horrified look at his master, and slink off as fast as he could go. I was most happy to see you stir." He stepped on Sauron's severed finger and ground it into black ash. "So passes Sauron the Enemy. May his like never be seen in this world again."
But Isildur could feel no joy with his father's body lying broken and lifeless before him. "And so pass the greatest heroes of our age, both Elf and Man," he said.
"Aye," said Cirdan, "and so too passes the One Ring, that should never have been made."
Isildur knelt there looking down at the shining thing in the dust, and again there came that strong urge to possess it. "No," he said at last. "Sauron was the source of the evil, not his Ring. It is still a Great Ring of Power, and the mightiest of them all. The Three survive and will continue to do good works. I will take this unto myself. With it I shall cleanse Minas Ithil and Osgiliath, too. I shall purge the evil from all of Ithilien."
"That would be a grave error, Isildur," said Cirdan firmly. "The One was made by Sauron and he imbued it with all his black arts. Whatever you wrought with it would be tainted and stained with his evil. It was forged here in the Sammath Naur. Let us cast it back into the Flame from whence it came." But Isildur's desire suddenly crystallized into resolve in his heart.
"No!" he said. "It is mine. It has cost me my home and my brother, and now my father. I claim it as his weregild, and as recompense for all the losses suffered by Gondor and its people."
"Isildur, pray think again," urged Elrond. "This was the focus of all of his evil. Let us destroy it now, while the flames are near at hand. Give it up. It can never be used for good, only for destruction."
"Then I will use it to destroy the Barad-dûr and all the works of Sauron. That alone would be a noble deed. It is mine, I tell you. It is precious to me!" And he snatched up the Ring.
Instantly he screamed and let it fall again. "Aieee! It is hot!" He clutched his wrist and looked at his hand in agony. The Ring had seared into his flesh, burning a bright red circle deep into his palm.
"It glows still with the heat of Sauron's body," said Cirdan. "Let it be destroyed, Isildur. It is not for mortal Men."
Isildur looked up sharply. "No more is it for Elves, Shipwright. You would not seek to take it from me?"
"I have no desire for it myself, save to see it destroyed."
"But you shall not take it from me," growled Isildur, his eyes wild. His hand strayed to the hilt of his sword.
"If you mean take it by force, no, of course not," said Cirdan soothingly, looking at him curiously.
"We do not wish it for ourselves, old friend," added Elrond. "But I agree with Cirdan. It is too dangerous for anyone."
"Well, it is not too dangerous for me. I will keep it and it shall become an heirloom of my house, like the seedling of the White Tree, and like these, the shards of my father's sword."
"Let us not argue amongst ourselves here at the end, my friend," said Cirdan. "Take it if you will. But I counsel you to wield it rarely, if at all, and let it never fall into lesser hands."
Isildur drew his dirk from his belt and used it to gingerly lift the glowing Ring. He stood admiring it, turning it this way and that. "It is beautiful, is it not?" he asked. "In spite of its maker, I mean. Look, there is some inscription running around inside it."
They peered closely, but none of them could read the letters of flowing fire. Isildur slashed a piece of leather from his harness and wrapped the Ring in that, then put the bundle against his breast.
"Come, let us go down," he said. "We will return later and bear their bodies down in glory."
Together the three companions turned and trudged back down the mountain.
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[Glossary]; Colophon (Still unavailable.)
This story was inspired by Tolkien's work.
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