The Ride to Doom
Throughout Minas Ithil, the roar of battle gradually subsided. Here and there knots of combat continued to rage furiously: small bands of orcs fighting desperately against now overwhelming odds but with no thought of surrender. From far beyond the plaza came the sounds of clashing arms and the shouts and cries of combat. The allies were pressing their foes back street by street and resistance was rapidly fading.
Looking out over the vast plaza from the steps of the Citadel, Isildur could see groups of his men leaning on their swords, resting from the fight, looking about for any further enemies. Leeches and litter-bearers were already moving about the square, tending to the wounded. The quartermasters' wagons had rolled in through the gate and men were gathering around them eagerly for food. Clearly the city was theirs.
But when Isildur turned and looked up at the walls of the Citadel above him, his heart sank. The towering walls stood silent, surrounded only by the dead. Bodies sprawled grotesquely upon the broad stairs, their blood running down the elegant white marble he had imported at such great cost from the Ered Nimrais. And everywhere he looked in the beautiful city he had designed and built, he was sickened by the filth, the stench, the ruined mansions and monuments. The statues of his ancestors that lined the porticoes of the buildings around the square had all been defiled: some toppled from their perches to lie broken on the pavement below, others with heads and limbs broken off, others splashed with paint or worse, in malicious mockery of his heritage. Looking up above the gate of the Citadel, he saw the statue of Elros, the founder of Númenor and his line. The face had been chiselled off and a grinning orc face rudely painted in its place. Isildur's face burned with shame as he thought of all that noble Elros Halfelven had borne and done, the immortality that he had voluntarily given up for Men. What would the hero say if he could see his image so desecrated? Isildur gave a guilty jump when he suddenly heard the voice of Elros's own brother quiet in his ear.
"It is but an image, my friend; a thing of stone," said Elrond. Isildur looked and saw with him also Cirdan and Galadriel. Their faces all were drawn and tired, as if from a great effort, long sustained. Celeborn came to join them, his long silver hair flecked with blood. He looked anxiously at his wife.
"I am glad to see you all again on this side," said Isildur.
"It is good to be back in the world of light and warmth," said Galadriel, and Isildur thought that never before had her many years shown so clearly on her face. "But it is an evil chance that the Úlairi reached the Citadel. It may prove difficult to drive them from this fortress."
"Difficult indeed," replied Isildur, "for it is very stoutly built. This is the only gate, and the portcullis is forged of the best iron. Beyond is a low vaulted tunnel with a massive oaken gate at the far end. In the ceiling are narrow slits through which arrows and hot oil or tar can be cast down upon those within."
Cirdan shook his head grimly. "You gave great thought to your defenses, Isildur. Did you also think to build a secret entrance?"
"Nay. I did not think I would be attacking it myself one day."
"You are a cunning architect, Isildur," said Celeborn, "though I am coming to regret it. I wish you had erred somewhere."
Isildur pounded his mailed fist on the wall. "I erred in my tactics today. We should have struck for the Citadel at once, not the Úlairi. With their retreat cut off, we could have pursued the Ringwraiths to their destruction, wheresoever they fled. "We might have sent a party through the side streets to attack the Citadel, but when the Fear came..." He drew his hand over his face, as if to wipe away the horror still before his eyes.
"I know," said Elrond. "Their evil flowed from them as blood gushes from a wound. They are an affront to all that is good in the world. When I felt them coming toward us, I knew that I had to destroy them or die in the attempt."
"I had the same feeling," said Cirdan. "They are unnatural abominations. They do not belong in this world, and it is stained and tainted while they walk in it. They are the antithesis to us Firstborn."
"Do not fault yourself, Isildur," said Galadriel. "No one could have withstood their Shadow. Even the Three together were only just enough to drive them back."
"But if..." began Isildur, but he was interrupted by the sound of shouting from the direction of the gate. Turning, he saw Elendur striding toward him, his face shining. The warriors in the plaza cheered him as they caught sight of him. He ascended the stairs and fell to his knee at Isildur's feet.
"Welcome home, father," he said.
Isildur drew him up and looked upon him, fatherly pride and gratitude struggling to express themselves, but in vain.
"Elendur!" shouted many of the men nearby, and the cry was taken up across the entire plaza: "Elendur! Elendur and Isildur!"
"Minas Ithil is ours once more," said Elendur. "Long have we waited for this victory!"
Isildur shook his head. "It is less than half a victory as yet, my son, for the Úlairi still hold the Citadel."
Elendur's face fell. "But we saw them falling back before you. We thought them defeated at last."
"Alas, it was not to be." He gestured at the many bodies all around them. "As you see, many a brave warrior died in the attempt to stop them, but in vain. They are safe within."
"Then they are our prisoners."
"Perhaps. But it could take months to force them out. Our duty was to destroy them, to take away Sauron's most powerful allies. In this we have failed." And he hung his head in despair.
"Perhaps all is not lost," said Galadriel. "Our task was to prevent the Ringwraiths from joining with Sauron. We have retaken the city, destroyed their legions, and driven them back to their last refuge. We know now that they cannot stand against the Three. We can keep them penned up here in the Citadel. They will give no aid to Sauron now."
"Yes, but our work is not done. Now we are to cross the mountains and join forces with Gil-galad and Elendil in Gorgoroth. They will need us there when Sauron at last issues forth. We cannot leave the Ringwraiths unguarded at our backs. It is the situation in Mordor all over again: we cannot get in, the enemy will not come out, and we dare not leave or relax our guard. We are now trapped here as much as they."
The Lords paused to watch in silence as a group of dusty, blood-stained knights bore past them the body of Barathor on his shield. Just behind, four more knights bore the small body of Barathor's herald, wrapped in the blood-stained banner. Of all the host there assembled, these two alone had actually landed blows on the Úlairi. All who saw this sad cortege hung their heads.
"So passes Barathor, the Eagle of the Blue Tower," said Isildur. "May his strength and wisdom flow in the veins of the Pelargrim forever."
"Aye," said Celeborn. "Many a brave Elf and Man died today, but there passes the bravest among them. We will want his courage and wisdom in the days to come, for I fear our cause nows goes ill."
"It may be so," agreed Elrond sadly. "I fear Isildur is right. We dare not leave the Ringwraiths behind us, especially now we know more fully the power they wield. Even the bravest and most trusted guardians could not stand against their Shadow."
Galadriel stood gazing thoughtfully at the bier of Barathor as it was born from the plaza. At length she turned to her companions.
"Ringbearers, think you that one Ring alone could stand against the Nine?"
Elrond looked at her in surprise. "My lady," he said, "I know not how it was with you, but for my part I was drained and weakened by the conflict. Even now I am trembling and my limbs feel as water."
Cirdan nodded. "Their power nearly overmatched us all. I doubt that two Rings would have been enough. For one Ringbearer to stand alone against all Nine -- no, it is unthinkable."
"But if the Three remain here," Galadriel persisted, "there is little hope for the war in Mordor. The Rings must go over the mountains to serve as the lure for Sauron's greed, and to help the Kings in the final conflict. I will remain here with Nenya and some of the Galadrim and attempt to keep the Ringwraiths within. The rest of you should proceed with the plan and ride to Gorgoroth."
"My Lady, no," said Isildur and Elrond together, but Celeborn raised his hand to silence their protests.
"Galadriel is correct," he said. "The risk is indeed great, but it must be borne. Any other path leads to stalemate, which will only mean defeat in the end."
"But one Ring against all Nine?" protested Cirdan. "It is impossible."
"Perhaps the Úlairi will bide their time," said Galadriel, "thinking all Three are still here. Perhaps I will not be tested. But whatever happens to me, it is clear that the other Rings and the host must hurry at once to Mordor."
"You would remain here while we go on?" exclaimed Elrond. "But the Three are most powerful when they are wielded in concert. Isn't that why even Gil-galad's Vilya was brought here? The Three must remain together."
"That was the plan, but that can no longer be," said Galadriel. "Our task was twofold: to prevent the Ringwraiths from joining with Sauron; and to aid the Kings in Gorgoroth. Since we have been unable to complete the first, we must divide our forces to accomplish both goals. Both forces have need of Rings, and therefore the Rings too must be divided. Sauron is the greater foe, so two Rings should go east. But the one that remains should be the strongest, for the other two can help each other. Vilya is supreme only if worn by its master, Gil-galad. Of the other two, Nenya is the stronger and I have been its mistress since it was given to me by Celebrimbor that dark day in Eregion. Therefore Nenya and I must remain here to guard this door, while the rest of you fly at once to Mordor."
The lords looked on her in silence, but there was no more argument.
"The Lady is right," said Celeborn. "We shall remain here."
Galadriel put a white hand on his shoulder. "No, my husband. You must lead the Galadrim against their ancient enemy. I will remain with but a small company."
"That I will not permit, my Lady," said Celeborn. "It is not just the Ringwraiths. The city is not yet secured and Ithilien is still crawling with enemies. You will need a strong force to protect you. And besides," he added with a warm smile. "Neither I nor the rest of our people would leave you alone at such a time, my beloved Altariel." Galadriel looked on him in silence, then bowed her head.
"Let it be so then," she said. "The Galadrim will remain to guard Minas Ithil."
Isildur looked on them sadly. "Sorely will we miss the strength and the courage of you and your fair people, my Lord and Lady. And thus again does Sauron thwart our plans and weaken us for the final conflict."
"But now," said Cirdan, "if we are to be present for that conflict, we must ride with all speed. We must not delay another moment."
"Yes, father," said Elendur. "We have done all we can accomplish here. Now my grandsire has urgent need of us."
"It is so," said Isildur. He turned to Celeborn. "Lord, the infantry of Gondor will be here in but a few hours. They will secure the city and scour the countryside round about. Perhaps the Ringwraiths will not dare to attack against so many."
Galadriel smiled grimly. "Be not fooled, Isildur. It is not the armed warriors that daunt the Black Ones, but the Rings. But your people will be welcome indeed. At least we will be safe from marauding orcs at our backs. As for the Galadrim, we shall watch at this door and await your victorious return. Then shall the Wraiths be banished forever from the circles of the world.
"Now you must go. We know not how Sauron communicates with his Úlairi. Perhaps even now he knows the city is taken."
"Father!" cried Elendur. "The Lady reminds me of something I saw from the gate tower when the army was pouring in through the gate. I marked it little at the time, but it may be of import."
"What was it?"
"A rider. A lone rider, riding hard up the road to the high pass. He must have gone out the eastern sally port before the Galadrim reached it."
"An orc or a Man?"
"A Man, certainly. Tall and thin, in black armor, with a long cape flying behind him like a wing."
Isildur caught Ohtar's eye. Ohtar nodded.
"Most likely our old friend Malithôr of Umbar," he said. "Would we had cut off his sneering head when we had the chance at Erech."
"Is this the same Man we chased at Pelargir?" asked Cirdan.
"Most likely," said Isildur. "He warned the Ring-wraiths of our coming, and now he rides to Mordor to warn his master."
"He will have a rough welcome when he meets Gil-galad and Elendil," said Elendur with a grim smile.
"But he may know secret ways into the Barad-dûr," said Celeborn. "And now he knows the Three are here. If he can get into the Tower, he will bear the tale to Sauron. If so, Sauron will not delay long before coming forth. You must make all possible haste."
Isildur, Elendur, and Elrond departed to issue their orders, but Cirdan yet lingered. Leaning close to Galadriel, he spoke in a low voice so that he should not be overheard.
"But do you truly think you can hold this door with Nenya alone?"
She met his eyes. "I think we three Noldor all know it is most unlikely, noble shipmaster. If the Úlairi knew your Rings were leaving the city, they would be at our throats before you were out of sight. Our only hope is that they are unsure and hesitate until it is too late. If they do come forth, we shall delay them as long as possible. It is your task to deal with Sauron. With their master gone, their power will be broken. May Elbereth be with you. Namarië."
"May she be with you as well. Namarië, Lady. I must ride."
The plaza was again a bustle of activity, with companies forming up, men moving about, exchanging damaged gear with those who no longer needed theirs. Commands were shouted, horsemen moved through the press. Bands of fighters poured in from the side streets where they had been going from house to house, searching out the last orcs.
The Lords rode to the head of the column. Isildur sent a messenger to carry news of the battle back to Osgiliath. With him went a courier of Pelargir, and a long black riband floated from his arm. Isildur and Elendur sat their mounts and watched him ride away.
"A long road he faces, and a sad homecoming," said Elendur.
"Aye," said Isildur. "I grieve for the Lady Heleth. She was so filled with fear for her husband."
Elendur squinted up at the sun. "It is two hours past midday. It has been but eight hours since we rode from Osgiliath. It seems a long day already."
Isildur nodded. "Many a warrior who rode into the dawn with us this morning shall never see another. And we do not even have time to mourn them. But if we are ever to have the victory in this war, I fear there will be more widows wailing in Gondor."
"Will they wail for us, I wonder?" mused Elendur. "I fear not for myself, but it pains me to think of mother and my brothers."
"If we fall," said Isildur, "I fear our mourners will not long survive us."
Looking up to the walls, he saw the battlements lined with green-clad Elves. The Lord and Lady stood on the steps of the Citadel with the greater part of their knights, looking on solemnly. Isildur raised his sword to them, then turned and led his army through the gate. Ohtar rode before him with his banner, and his son Elendur was at his side. Just behind them rode Elrond and Cirdan and his Sea-Elves of Lindon. It was much like the ride from Osgiliath that morning. The flags were as bright in the sun and the cheers as loud, but now the swords were notched and the lances stained. The column was also much shorter, missing the Galadrim and the many fallen or wounded. The horses as well as the riders were weary now, and the column slowed to a canter as soon as the last riders left the gate and the great doors swung closed behind them with a heavy thud.
They turned east at once, the towering crags of the rocky Ephel Dúath looming above them. The road wound through grasslands dotted with occasional trees, the River Sirlos tumbling below in its rocky bed. Soon both the stream and the road crowded into a narrow defile. The road narrowed as it entered the twisting canyon, but it lay between low stone walls and the paving stones were smooth and well laid.
Soon the way grew steeper. Sirlos became a series of frothing waterfalls, and the road had been hewn into the living rock of the canyon walls. Low steps appeared across the road more and more frequently, until in places they were actually riding up broad stairs, the horses' hooves clattering on the smooth stones. There was an oppressive, suffocating air to the place. The host labored upward in silence, with only the stream's thunder echoing in the hollow barren place.
At one point they rounded a turn and saw the Sirlos, reduced to little more than a freshet, falling free for some two hundred feet. The road, now so narrow that the riders had to pass in single file, slashed back and forth across a nearly vertical rock wall beside the fall. The pavement became mossy and slippery. They dismounted and led their horses upward. In two places the path went behind the fall and the riders looked down toward the mouth of the canyon through a shimmering silver curtain of water.
"This road must have been built by mountain goats," grumbled Elrond, leading his horse up an especially steep switchback. The rocks were green and mossy from the constant mist from the falls, and the horses were skittish and uneasy.
"My people built this road many years ago," said Isildur, "but it follows an even older path that may indeed have been made by the goats. They abounded here of old, but I have seen neither track nor spoor of them today. No doubt the orcs killed them as well."
"Perhaps they merely removed to another place," suggested Cirdan. "Oftimes wild things can sense evil in a place and shirk it thenceforth."
"If so," replied Elrond, "they must have left the Ephel Dúath completely. These mountains reek of evil and a watching malice."
"Aye, 'tis true," said Isildur. "It has a most unwholesome air to it. Yet it was not always so. When first I saw this canyon it was green and hung with ferns. Pines and firs leaned from the cliffs, and the light of the Sirlos danced on the mossy walls."
"I remember," said Elendur. "Aratan and I often rode up here. Once we brought Ciryon, when he was old enough to sit a horse. We climbed on the rocks and threw stones into the stream. I always loved the clean smell of the place and the merry sound of the falls. Now even the voice of Sirlos sounds sad and lonely."
They looked around sadly at the barren walls, the occasional leaning tree, dead and white and broken. No sign of green could be seen anywhere.
"I know not what has made the change," Elendur went on. "Surely the orcs did not scale every precipice and cut or kill the trees, pull out the ferns? To what end?"
"Some of the trees they cut for firewood for their furnaces and factories, no doubt," said Gildor. "Others they wantonly destroy -- they seem to take some sort of perverse pleasure in destroying what they cannot use. And wherever they live and build, they poison the land around them. Growing things wither and die; animals sicken or wander away."
The leaders had reached the top of the cliff now and stood catching their breaths, watching the long, long line of soldiers winding up behind them like ants climbing a rock wall.
"Do you think the land will ever recover?" asked Elendur sadly, snapping off a dead branch from the snag of a fir tree beside the path.
"A wound may heal," replied Cirdan, "and a warrior ride again as proud as before, but he bears the mark of it forever. If we can force Sauron to loose his grip on this land then life will eventually return, given enough time. But that which is once touched by Sauron can never be wholly clean again. Eregion was once one of the fairest of lands, and it is barren and deserted still. Mordor will remain a poisoned desert as long as the world lasts."
"Is all of Ithilien despoiled forever then?" asked Elendur with a knot of despair around his heart. Ithilien was the land of his birth and he loved it dearly.
"The extent of the taint will depend on how long he ruled the land and how extensively he despoiled it. He has not long occupied Ithilien, nor has he built great factories and forges here as in Gorgoroth. There is hope yet that the land will recover, though I fear a shadow will always lie on this valley and the city where the Ringwraiths ruled."
"Where they still rule," growled Isildur. "I swear, when we have dealt with Sauron I will return here and destroy every one of them. I will expunge their evil, root and branch, and cleanse this land of their poisons. Ithilien will be a garden again, and the people will return to their homes and farms. This I swear."
Cirdan looked at him sadly but said no more. They mounted and continued on their way, the road now winding through a rolling stony land, ever up toward the jagged ridge line high above them. Elendur rode up beside Cirdan and Elrond.
"Shipmaster," he said. "You mentioned the land of Eregion, but I do not know where it lies. Was it one of the Drowned Lands, like Beleriand?"
"No," replied Cirdan. "Beleriand and Nantasarion were drowned in the last struggles of Morgoth at the end of the Elder Days. Eregion was founded much later, though many of its people had come from Beleriand. Celebrimbor was its lord, and it lay west of the Hithaiglin, which Men call the Misty Mountains. It is now called Hollin by Men, I believe."
"I know Hollin," said Elendur. "I rode there with grandfather once. A grey and empty land, I thought it."
"Aye, so it is," said Elrond. "But once it was a place of great beauty and good works, for Celebrimbor was a master builder and smith. Green were its fields and bright its cities. Brightest of all was Ost-in-Edhil, where dwelt the craft-Elves known as the Gwaith-i-Mírdain, the Jewel-Smiths. Never were there greater foundries and workshops than those of the Jewel-Smiths. Led by Celebrimbor, they learned to make jewels such as never grew in the earth. They developed new alloys of metals that had marvelous new properties. Some even glowed in the dark by their own light, it was said. With these new materials, the Jewel-Smiths made jewelry and ornaments and tools and weapons, unequalled anywhere before or since. And then they forged the rings of power, great and small. Few now honor them for the deed, for Sauron learned the art from them and so began the Great War."
"But Celebrimbor did many other great works," added Cirdan. "The Floating Gardens at Ost-in-Edhil enchanted all who beheld them. And the Crimson Palace, and the Ice Caves, his hand made them, though few remember it today."
"Eregion was wide and green," said Elrond, "and the Elves tilled their fields and traded their produce with their friends the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm."
"The Elves and Dwarves were friends?" asked Elendur in surprise. "Forgive me, but I have never heard of any great love between your races."
"It is true, sad to say," replied Elrond. "We have little contact now, nor indeed much desire for it these days. The Khazad are a proud people -- some might say stiff-necked -- and they love gold and forged things above all else, even their former friends. They cannot be blamed for it. They were made ahead of their time by Aulë the smith of the Valar, and they alone of all the Children are not of the making of Ilúvatar the Father. Still, that is no fault of theirs, and many great deeds have they done in the struggle against evil. As you see, a handful have joined our host. A few companies are even with the kings in Gorgoroth, and they have fought long and hard in our common cause."
"In Eregion of old," added Cirdan, "the Little People could often be seen walking and laughing with Elves. But all that is gone now. Sauron's hordes swept across Eregion, destroying all before them. They pulled down the lovely towers and gardens of Ost-in-Edhil and slew its people. Many Dwarves too were slain, and the gates of Khazad-dûm were closed and have never yet been opened to our people. Celebrimbor was slain and his Jewel-Smiths were driven in fear from Eregion."
Elrond shook his head sadly. "It was a dark time. Many thought the realm of peace was doomed in Middle-earth. Gil-galad sent me with an army from Lindon to defend Eregion. Fierce were the battles with Sauron's hordes."
Elendur looked at Elrond in wonder. "You fought Sauron before?" he asked. "What was the end of it?"
Elrond shrugged sadly. "This is the end of it," he replied. "The battle tomorrow should determine who will rule in the end."
"What I meant was: What happened in that earlier war?" asked Elendur.
Elrond smiled. "You Men cut time into too many small slices," he said. "It is still the same war. It was the same war when we Noldor first returned to the Mortal Shore to do battle with Morgoth the Enemy. It was the same war when we fought in the plains of Eregion. This present conflict is the same war. And it may even be that tomorrow's struggle will be but another battle, and that in future ages Men and Elves will continue to serve in the same war."
"But what happened in Eregion?" Elendur persisted.
"We arrived too late to save Eregion. Ost-in-Edhil's last defenses were overrun and we found only scattered bands of the people hiding in caves and hidden valleys. We strove against Sauron, but he was too strong for us and we fell back to the north. I led one band, the remnant of my best division. We found a deep-cleft valley and built a refuge there. Others joined us later."
"Was that valley Imladris, where my mother and brother now wait?"
"Even so. Men often call it Rivendell. We took refuge there, and soon Sauron came to rule all of Eriador and threatened even fair Lindon, last and greatest of the lands of the Eldar in Middle-earth. But his victories were short-lived, for aid unlooked-for came to us out of the western seas. Your own ancestor Tar-Minastir, King of Númenor, came with a great fleet of many hundreds of ships to the Havens at Mithlond. Together we drove Sauron's armies out of the west lands, back across the Misty Mountains and the Great River Anduin. But Eregion was destroyed and Celebrimbor went through the Curtain before his time, and his wonderful skills were lost to us forever."
"Was Eregion never settled again?" asked Elendur, thinking always of the fate of Ithilien.
"A few Elves went back, but they soon returned to Imladris. The land was changed, they said. There was a sadness and a sense of loss in all the land. Where once cool forests grew, now only dead grasses whispered and muttered in the dry winds from the east. The flowers and gardens were gone, the grass withered and brown. Even the water does not taste right, for the sweet springs are now bitter and burn the tongue. It is not a foul place, a place of evil, but it is a spoiled land. It is not truly ugly, but it has none of its old beauty. To those who knew it of old, it is a place of great sadness and infinite regret."
"Would that Ithilien does not become so," said Elendur. "It was once the fairest in all of Gondor."
"It shall be again," swore Isildur with a cold look in his eye. "I did not build Minas Ithil to be a haunt of ghouls and undead things, nor its houses the warrens of orcs. The city has been befouled, the glens of Ithilien poisoned, and the shining white walls of Osgiliath blackened. But we shall renew them. We were driven from our homes twice by Sauron -- once from Númenor and once from Minas Ithil -- but we shall not be again."
Cirdan shook his head, his grey hair swaying. "I wish you well, Isildur, but it takes great power of good to cleanse a place where once the Morgul spells were spoken. Ithilien perhaps, but I fear for Minas Ithil. Perhaps it would be best to pull it down and begin anew in some other valley."
"No!" hissed Isildur. "No. Minas Ithil is my city and my home. If Sauron found the power to defile it, then somewhere there must be the power to cleanse it. I shall seize that power and use it to make all of Gondor clean and whole again." Cirdan looked at Isildur's determined face and said no more, and the company moved now in melancholy silence, save for the creaking of leather saddles and the occasional clank of metal.
The road continued to ascend, winding across the floor of a bowl-shaped valley at the head of Ithil Vale. Elrond let his horse choose his own footing among the rocks littering the trail. He sat back in his saddle and eyed the precipices of the final sawtooth ridge, still high above them.
"This road is bad enough," he said at last to Ohtar riding nearby, "but I think I see a worse. See? There, high on the northern wall."
Ohtar followed his pointing arm and could just make out a thin line etched across the wall, above a sheer drop of many hundreds of feet to the streambed below.
"You have keen eyes, my lord," he said. "I have been in this valley many times and I had never marked it. If it is a trail, it could be a path I have heard of in old tales. A road of evil memory."
Elrond shaded his eyes with his hand as he peered up at it. "I should not remember it kindly either if I had to travel it. Look at that drop!"
"It is not just the way itself, my lord, but there are legends of a fearsome creature, a she-monster, that lurks there and snares hapless travellers."
"What a pleasant road! Has it a name?"
"It is called Cirith Ungol, my lord."
"The Pass of the Spider," said Elrond. "A lovely name. I wonder that anyone ever ventures upon it. Is it ever used?"
Elendur joined their conversation. "Not by Men that I know of, my lord. I climbed up there once with some friends, but we did not venture far, not having wings. It is little more than a goat track in most places, but someone or something had long ago widened it."
"We guessed that the orcs came that way when they attacked Minas Ithil," said Isildur, "for this main road was well guarded. I wonder what grisly toll they paid to she who guards the pass?"
Elrond sighed. "This ride seems doomed to cheerless conversation. How far to the top?"
Isildur glanced at the sun, just starting her descent into the west behind them. "Another hour, perhaps two," he said.
"It will be growing dark by then," said Cirdan. "Do you believe the pass will be guarded?"
"I would be surprised if it is not. There is a watchtower there that we built to defend Ithilien. If the orcs have not pulled it down, they no doubt will have occupied it."
"Then again we must strike swiftly, for the night is their friend, not ours. They can see in the dark like cats."
"Yes," agreed Isildur. "I think we must win the pass tonight before the light is fully gone, for I have no wish to spend the night here while Sauron may be hurrying reinforcements to the pass. If we can cross tonight, we can rest on the ride down the far side of the mountains. It is less steep on that side and the road is good. But we must make as many leagues as we can. We must be at the Barad-dûr before he comes forth, and that could happen at any time."
"It is a hundred weary miles from here to the Barad-dûr," said Gildor. "We cannot hope to come there tomorrow if we ride all night and day. Both Men and horses must sleep, or they will be of no use when they reach the Tower. And the Elves must seek their rest. Everyone is nearly exhausted already."
"Perhaps we can find a sheltered valley on the eastern side in which to lie and rest for a few hours," said Isildur. "But we must win the pass tonight if ever we can."
And so they pressed on, toiling ever upward. The Sirlos was no longer below them, its source lost somewhere among the jumble of boulders at the foot of the wall. The trail high above them was no longer visible either, apparently climbing out of the valley through some secret way or tunnel. The sun had now sunk so that it no longer shone down into the valley and they rode now in purple shadow, though above them the high ridges were orange and yellow against the darkening sky.
The road wound up a long steep slope strewn with huge tumbled and leaning rocks, some taller than the highest towers of Osgiliath. The air grew chill, then cold; and men and horses shivered as their sweat dried in the thin wind. At last, just as the highest peaks were fading to a dull red, the slope decreased and they saw the pass just above them. Isildur gave the order to halt the column in the shelter of a heap of huge boulders. The leaders left their horses with Ohtar and crept forward, keeping in the shadows of the rocks. In a few moments they reached a tall pinnacle that marked the last cover before the pass. Silently they climbed the jagged crag until they could see the summit of the pass before them.
"I see neither guards nor tower," said Gildor.
"The watchtower is just beyond the pass," answered Isildur, "for it was built to face east, not west. For once my own defenses are not turned against us. If fortune is with us Malithôr did not stop to warn them. Orcs make poor and unreliable sentries, especially in a remote and lonely outpost such as this. Like as not they will get in out of the cold wind and fall to gaming and quarreling, their favorite pursuits."
"I also see no barricade at the summit."
"No. There was not one of old, for the tower was built as a watchtower only. I had feared the orcs might have built a wall, but surely they would have built it there on the right, where the road goes through that narrow passage. Apparently they did not expect an assault from the west."
"Why should they?" said Elrond. "They know the armies of Gondor and Lindon are both already in Gorgoroth. They have no reason to suspect the existence of our host."
"Unless our friend Malithôr has reached them," growled Isildur.
"Let us then form up in battle order before they discover us," said Cirdan, "and ride hard over the summit in a body. When they see our numbers they will be none too eager to fight. Orcs like a fight only when their foes are weak and few. With any luck we can drive right through them and be on our way down the other side before they can collect their wits."
"Very well," agreed Isildur. "But let one company assail the tower while the rest of the host crosses the pass. I would not have the entire column ride by the foot of the tower under fire."
"Agreed. Pass the word to form up the divisions. And be as silent as possible." They climbed down and crept back to the others. The quartermasters were moving along the column, handing up waybread to the riders. The hostlers went about placing feedbags on the horses and brought skins of water for all.
Elendur approached Isildur. "Father, I would lead the attack on the tower if I might. This is the last outpost of Ithilien, and it would give me great pleasure to drive the orcs out of it."
"Very well," said Isildur. "But take care. Remember we do not have to take the tower. The important thing is to keep the orc archers pinned down until the column is past. Once we are past, the orcs may keep the tower until we return for all I care. And do not chase any that escape. They will be no threat to us. So take no unnecessary risks. I want you at my side in Gorgoroth."
"I will be there, father. And thank you. I will take the First Forithilien company if I may. They are familiar with the pass and the tower."
"May Elbereth protect you, my son." Isildur watched his son ride off back down the column with a mixture of pride and anxiety. Elrond saw the look on his face.
"It is hard to send your son into battle, is it not?"
"Aye. I want him to be a brave warrior, a strong leader. He will be king one day, and there is nothing to teach responsibility and leadership like leading men into war. But as a father I would rather have him walk in peace and safety and live to a ripe old age to dandle his grandchildren on his knee." Isildur smiled at the thought. Cirdan nodded, but said no more, his face grave. Whatever Elves saw of the fortunes to come, they seldom spoke of it to Men.
The column was broken into combat formation: many tight blocks of riders, four abreast, pikemen on the outer files, archers in the center. Each company rode under its own flag and was commanded by its own captain so it could operate independently if need be. The horses snorted and stamped, for they could sense the tension and excitement of their riders.
Isildur rode back down the companies, greeting friends and acknowledging salutes, speaking words of encouragement. The men looked weary, as well they might after a long ride, a fierce battle, and a hard climb to the heights of the mountains. They were caked with dirt, the fine dust of the road clinging to their sweating faces and arms. They looked uneasily toward the low rise of land ahead, for they knew that beyond lay Mordor, that land of ancient terror that had darkened their world all their lives. Few among them had ever seen it but its very name bore a dread. There was fear there, certainly, but a grim determination looked out of their eyes as well. They were ready, even eager, to face what lay beyond. For too many years they had waited fearfully behind walls as Sauron's hordes wandered at will through Ithilien. Now Gondor was bringing the war into Sauron's homeland, and the men were eager to settle old scores and repay old griefs.
Isildur reached the rear of the column. The quartermasters and healers were in their wagons, teams of oxen ready for the whip. He saluted them gravely, for they shared all the dangers and discomforts of a campaign, but precious little of the glory. But well he knew, and often told them, that without them they would not be an army.
As he rode back to the van, he met Elendur and two of his captains carrying unlit torches. They hailed him and he stopped.
"I thought that we raiders would be both more threatening and more visible if we carried torches," explained Elendur. "The orcs will see us and perhaps have more difficulty seeing the rest of the host."
"A good thought," said Isildur. "Though a torch will make a good target for arrows as well."
"I had thought to throw them down when we reach the tower. Perhaps they will waste some arrows shooting at the torches before they realize what we have done."
"Good! Good, I like that. Let it be so."
"Are all ready?"
"Aye. Your company will ride first and make straight for the tower. We will keep to the road. When the last company is safely past, fall back and follow us. We shall wait for you."
"Take care, my son."
"I shall, father."
"Then let us ride."
Elendur signalled to his men, the woodsmen and hunters of northern Ithilien, and they rode after him in single file, each carrying an unlighted torch dipped in pitch. Some men had been stationed just behind the last rocks by a great pile of dead wood, and as they saw Elendur approaching they set it alight. It blazed up with a roar, and as Elendur rode past, he swung his torch through the flames and galloped off toward the high pass, the torch's flames streaming behind him. His men followed his example, and soon a long line of lights could be seen streaming over the rise and disappearing into the darkness beyond.
"Now ride!" shouted Isildur. "Ride into Mordor!" He spurred Fleetfoot forward, Ohtar beside him with the white standard of Gondor flickering in the wind of their passage. Behind him he could hear the growing thunder as thousands of hooves started pounding up the road. It was a long steep slope, and he could feel Fleetfoot's shoulders bunching and pulling, bunching and pulling, as he clawed his way up, his mighty rear legs thrusting them forward.
When he reached the top he saw before him a world of blood. The setting sun turned every stone crimson. The road dropped away into darkness. In the far distance a great mountain spewed forth dark roiling clouds of smoke, laced with red flames beneath. Red streams crept down its sides, and a pulsing sullen glow lit all the wide land below.
Immediately below them a round stone tower loomed, its top still lit by the dying sun, orange against the blood-red land beyond. Near its foot, a line of horsemen with guttering torches, pale and wan in the ruddy glow of the mountain, dashed headlong into a dark rabble of orcs. Cries and screams rose to his ears as he started down the road toward the tower.
Isildur had to mind his path in the wavering, uncertain light, but he stole quick glances at the battle below. He saw the orcs break and scatter in all directions. Some riders left the column to deal with them, but most maintained their speed and rode straight for the tower. The gate was open, and he saw the lead riders disappear without a pause into the gaping dark maw. He had not expected the gate to be open, nor intended the raiders to enter it. But he knew that Elendur was like him -- if he saw an opportunity, he would seize it instantly.
His heart in his throat, he urged Fleetfoot forward. They plunged headlong down the steep road, the thunder of their hooves drowning any sounds of combat from the tower. He looked back over his shoulder as he drove past the turning to the tower but could see nothing but some dark forms lying still before the gate. Forcing his mind to the business at hand, he led the column down a long series of wide sweeping turns as the road worked its way down the eastern face of the ridge.
They rode half an hour more, the horses' hooves throwing up sparks in the darkness as they wheeled around each turn, only to see yet another before them. Isildur's eyes swept the slope below, looking for a place where the host could dismount and wait for the others. Then he stiffened. A turn or two below them he could see a high stone bridge arching across a chasm to a lower ridge beyond. Lights moved on the bridge.
"Cirdan," he called over his shoulder. "What do you see on yonder bridge?"
"Orcs -- perhaps threescore. I don't think they are guards; they carry heavy packs. Perhaps they were bringing supplies up to the tower. But they have seen or heard us -- they are throwing down their packs and forming a line at this end of the bridge."
"No doubt they haven't seen our numbers yet. Ride them down!"
In three more minutes they had descended the last switchback and were driving across level ground toward the bridge. Now the orcs could see them clearly, row after row of armed men riding hard, the column winding down the whole mountainside, the end not yet in sight. They broke in terror and ran shrieking for the bridge. Isildur swept out his sword and drove after them. He caught the stragglers just as they reached the near end of the bridge and turned to make a desperate stand. He swept his blade down on one that was poised to loose an arrow at him, then grunted as the shaft bounced from his breastplate.
Elrond drew and shot as he rode, his horse needing no guidance. Ohtar rode up alongside Isildur, as he often did in the heat of battle. He held the standard aloft in his left hand and waved his sword in the right, cutting down any foes that tried to attack his master.
The orcs broke ranks and fled across the bridge. A particularly large one with orange-green scales leaped up onto the right parapet and drew back his scimitar for a stroke at Isildur as he passed. Isildur was turned to his left, slashing down at two orcs trying to grab his reins. Ohtar saw the scimitar start to sweep down, but he was too far back now to intervene in time. Then Cirdan sent a shaft straight and true that went through the orc's thigh. He screamed and dropped his blade, toppling onto the bridge just as Isildur pounded onto the span. Isildur saw his contorted face for one instant before it disappeared beneath Fleetfoot's hooves. The orcs fleeing across the bridge looked back and saw that they were about to be overtaken. They panicked: some falling to be trampled where they lay, others scrambling wildly over the parapet to launch themselves into the abyss. Cirdan and Ohtar ran down the last two. The bridge ended on a sharp lower ridge of the mountains. Where the road crossed the ridge a wide area had been levelled off before plunging down again beyond. Isildur raised his hand. "My Lords," he cried. "Let us halt here to rest and wait for the others."
The order was passed back over and over until it faded into the dark. The rear of the army was still descending the many switchbacks and had only seen the action at the bridge from above. The Elves dismounted and walked over to the eastern parapet, talking together and pointing out over the red heart of Mordor. Isildur walked off by himself, watching the rest of the column spread out over the level area and thankfully dismount. Clearly the men were exhausted. They gulped water from their canteens and looked about for the wagons, but these had been left far behind in the rush over the pass. Ohtar hobbled their horses, then walked over to join Isildur.
"Don't be too anxious, Sire," he said. "Elendur will be here soon."
"He didn't need to try to take the tower; only divert them."
"You know how eager he is to rid Gondor of every last orc. But he is not foolish -- he will not risk his men's lives needlessly."
"Aye, I know that, but even if he survives the fight up there, he will be spared only to face that which waits for us out there in Gorgoroth. There is no safety anywhere in these terrible days. If I valued his safety above all else I would have left him in Annúminas with his brother Aratan, or in Rivendell with his mother."
"Your sons are all serving their country and their king, Sire. Even Valandil serves by remaining to comfort his mother in Imladris."
"Aye. She was grieved enough when we left. She could not have borne having me and all her sons away at the war."
"You need not fear for any of them."
"Easy enough for you to say, Ohtar. You have no family."
"No woman would have me, you mean. But we have a loyal and capable host, Sire, and we ride now to join the mightiest army ever assembled in this age of the world. Even Sauron must quake at the thought of meeting us."
Isildur laughed and clapped Ohtar's shoulder. "Isn't that a thought, now? The mighty Sauron peering from his window in the Dark Tower and biting his nails."
Ohtar smiled in relief to see Isildur laugh again. "Perhaps these tremors we feel in the ground are not the volcano's rumblings at all, but only old Sauron's knees knocking together." Isildur laughed again.
"Ohtar, your nonsense makes me laugh even in this foul place. Thank you. Your loyalty and concern for me counters the gloomy spells and forebodings that hang over me."
At last the wagons arrived and food was hastily prepared and passed out. The men slumped against their packs or sprawled on the ground, taking advantage of the brief respite. Servants carried food to the leaders where they sat on the parapet gazing out into the ruddy glow to the east.
"This ridge is called the Morgai," said Isildur. "From here the road will be less steep."
"The Black Fence," said Elrond around a mouthful of waybread. "A fitting name. Look at that tortured land. You would think nothing could live in that waste, and yet somewhere out there are Gil-galad and Elendil and all the Army of the Alliance. They must be anxious indeed for news of us."
"Aye," said Isildur. "Their part has not been easy either. It is hard to sit and wait while your fate is decided by what others do elsewhere. For myself it is nearly unbearable to not be acting."
Elrond glanced at him. "I think of Elendil," he said. "It must be hard for a father to send a son into battle alone for the first time."
Isildur smiled. "Your subtlety is not lost on me, old friend. Ohtar too tried to reassure me. I am sure Elendur will be well."
After their meal, Isildur and Ohtar walked around the camp. Some were tending their horses or seeing to their gear, but most were deeply asleep, lulled by the constant slow tread of the sentries around the camp. An hour passed, another. Isildur tried to sleep but could not.
Then a clatter of hooves from the road above. Men leaped up, shaking the sleep from their heads and reaching for their weapons.
"Hold," called one of the sentries. "It's our lads."
Isildur hurried to the foot of the road and could dimly make out a line of horsemen descending the slope. Then he saw the rear of the line and realized the column was much shorter than that which had ridden into the tower. His eyes strained to see the figure at their head, but he could not be sure of him until they came around the last turn and rode slowly into the camp. It was indeed Elendur, but his head hung down and his white armor was splattered with blood, black in the dim light. Isildur's heart caught in his throat. He hurried to take the horse's bridle.
"Elendur! Are you wounded?"
Elendur's head snapped up. He looked about in confusion, then smiled down at Isildur.
"No, father. I believe I had fallen asleep. I was rather tired."
"But the blood..."
Elendur looked down at his gory raiment. "Not mine, but that of a number of orcs. The action was hand-to-hand."
"And how went the fight? Did you lose many men?"
"Over a score, I'm afraid, father. You should have seen them. They were so eager to fight that many rode alone into large companies of orcs. The orcs thought them mad. They thought we were some sort of demons, I do believe. They stood their ground, though, I'll say that for them."
"Orcs will fight fiercely if they are cornered. You know what they do to the poor devils they capture. I suppose they think the same thing would happen to them if they surrendered. So they usually fight to the last, asking no quarter."
"So they did," said Elendur. "I know you said to just hold them off until you had passed, but the fighting was fierce from the start. It would have been more dangerous to turn our backs and try to withdraw. So we fought on. The last of them we drove back up the tower, step by step, fighting fiercely all the way. It was terrible, bloody work on those stairs in the dark, everybody shouting and swearing and slipping and falling over one another. At the end only three of them reached the roof, and when we fought our way out the door they threw themselves from the parapet."
"Then the tower is ours?"
"Aye, Sire," said Elendur with a weary grin. "The banner of Gondor once more flies from the tower of Cirith Ungol."
"Well done! Well done indeed," beamed Isildur. "Rest now. We will not ride before dawn."
The raiding party slipped from their horses, took some quick bites, and rolled themselves in their blankets to grab a few hours sleep. Soon the whole camp was quiet again, save for snoring and the soft tread of the oft-relieved sentries.
The Elf-Lords sat apart from the rest and looked silently out over the vast plains of Gorgoroth. The violent eruptions had died down and the lowering clouds were but dimly seen in the dim orange glow from the gouts of lava still creeping down the mountain's slopes. Here and there steam and fumes drifted from cracks in the tortured earth. The Elves' eyes were turned upon that grim scene, but saw it not. They rested their minds in other realms -- far worlds no mortal Man had ever seen. Of these the Firstborn do not speak even among themselves, save only, it is said, in old songs in the high Quenya tongue, which few even of the Elves of Middle-earth now remember.
Dawn came early on the exposed eastern flanks of the mountains. The sun crept up out of brown smoke and haze, dimming at last even the sullen glow of Orodruin. The men awoke and stood wrapped in their blankets against the morning chill, looking out over the plain far below that they must somehow cross. Orodruin itself was wreathed in sulphurous fumes and it loomed only as a dark shadow piercing the sullen roof of grey clouds. Nothing could be seen of what lay beyond the Mountain.
Elendur woke to find his father already about, ordering the preparations for the day's march. He rose, stretching and bending to work the kinks out of his back after the night on the hard ground, then went to the eastern parapet and looked out over Gorgoroth. His father joined him there a few minutes later.
"Whence comes this perpetual low gray cloud, father? Is it the fumes of the Mountain, or is it some devise of Sauron's?" They watched a spurt of flame suddenly shoot from a fissure in the plain, sending up a plume of black smoke.
"Sauron's forges and foundries lie beneath the surface, in a vast warren of tunnels and caverns, tended by slaves who work endlessly in the dark and heat. Many of the tunnels are natural, formed when the lava flowed out from beneath its cooling skin. These were connected and expanded by many passages hewn out of the rock by his slaves. We suspect that there are secret underground entrances to the Barad-dûr through which they receive their supplies, for even orcs must eat. We have searched for them, but it is dangerous and bloody work to try to fight our way through the underground passages where the orcs have every advantage.
"But the plain is also rent in many places by fumaroles and other vents for the fiery violence beneath. And it seems that Sauron even has some control over the volcano, for it is most active as his power waxes, and it is said it bursts forth in fury when he is angered. His power is great indeed."
Even as he spoke the ground trembled beneath their feet. The Mountain grumbled and roared. Flame gushed from a red-lipped wound in its side. Elendur looked out over the ravaged, blasted plain, wavering in the heat and steam of the fumaroles. "He must be in a foul mood this day," he observed. "Why would even Sauron choose such a place in which to live?"
"Sauron does not love life and light. He seeks only ever greater power. The natural furnaces of the Mountain power his machinery. He delights in bending the land to his will, forcing it to yield up weapons and engines of destruction. He would rather see flames and slag heaps than green growing things. He goes always in shadow and cloud.
"But Orodruin is yet more to him. He is linked to the Mountain in some manner we do not understand. Celebrimbor, in his vision that revealed Sauron's treachery, saw that Sauron used the flames of the Sammath Naur, the great chambers of fire high on Orodruin's slopes, to forge the One Ring, the lens that focuses all his malice and power. Celebrimbor suspected that the Mountain was the earthly gate to the dread Flame of Udûn, and that this was the source of Sauron's power."
Elendur looked upon the Mountain with loathing. "Must we go right to the Mountain, father? My heart quails at the sight of it."
"No, even the mighty arts of Sauron cannot build on the heaving flanks of Orodruin itself. The Barad-dûr is beyond it to the east, upon a jagged southern spur of the Ered Lithui. It must be forty miles, I would guess, from the Mountain to the Tower, but Sauron has built a road from his gate to the foot of the Mountain, and from there it winds up to the mouth of the Sammath Naur itself. There he has built a door that faces directly toward the Barad-dûr, so that he might look out from his abode and see directly into the Flame of Udûn. Our road will pass close under its flanks before striking Sauron's Road, but we need go no closer."
Ohtar joined them to report that the men were fed and ready.
"Then let us ride," said Isildur, and they turned and joined the Elf-Lords. Cirdan and Elrond were already mounted. "To horse," cried Cirdan. "We have many leagues still before us. Tonight we shall sleep in the camp of Gil-galad and Elendil."
They rode then, down from the heights of the Morgai ridge into a shallow ravine that gradually widened as they descended until it opened out onto the plain in a wide fan of broken rock. The road at last ceased its tiresome twisting and stretched away toward the east, turning only to avoid slag heaps and the steaming fumaroles.
Once they spied of group of dark figures on the road ahead, but they fled from the road at sight of the host, leaving something dark lying in the road. When they reached the spot, they saw that it was the body of a great black stallion. It was gaunt and covered with streaks of foam.
"A magnificent animal," said Elendur sadly. "From the looks of him, someone rode him to the death."
"I know this horse," said Ohtar. "Remember, Sire? We last saw him at Erech."
"Aye. You may be right, Ohtar. He is much like, and I never knew you to be wrong about a horse."
"What a sad end for such a noble beast," said Elrond. "A curse on him who destroyed it."
"Many curses has he already had," said Isildur, "for his master was Malithôr of Umbar, the Mouth of Sauron."
"And no sign of him or the orcs we saw either," said Elendur, looking about at the trackless wastes all around them.
"Gone down their rat holes," grumbled Ohtar.
"But he was alone when he left Minas Ithil," said Elendur. "Has he gathered a body of orcs to him, do you think?"
"No," said Isildur. "He is a proud Númenórean. He will not deign to associate with orcs. He is long gone by now."
"But the orcs that fled at our approach?" asked Elrond.
"I fear they admired Malithôr's horse only as dinner," said Isildur, pointing to a short crude knife dropped by the horse's head. "Let us ride on. Perhaps we can overtake him."
The sun was climbing high when the road descended the last slopes and entered the blackened lava fields of Gorgoroth. The temperature rose to a suffocating heat. Ribbons of grey wind-blown dust writhed across the half-buried road, whipped here and there into twisting dust-devils that moved slowly across the landscape like ghosts. Foul-smelling fumes that burned the eyes erupted from cracks in the lava, and many riders tied cloths across their faces against the stench. They rode on in silence, each enduring the miseries alone, lost in his own thoughts. Gradually the Mountain crept nearer, looming ever higher before them.
Then, just as the leaders topped a low rise and could see the whole Mountain rising before them, the plains groaned and heaved and the air shuddered with a mighty, deep-throated roar. The horses reared and screamed in their fright, and several fell. The ground shook so violently that many crags and slag heaps nearby crumbled and fell, and new fissures and cracks split the ground. Steam and smoke issued from every vent.
When they had their mounts under control, they looked up at Orodruin and saw that it was in full eruption. The topmost crags burst asunder and fell tumbling and rolling down its steep sides. A great fountain of flame burst from its summit. The face of the Mountain was slashed and scored by searing rivers of thick clotted lava. Choking clouds of fiery ash boiled from a dozen new vents. The column halted in awe.
Elrond looked to Gildor. "What means this, Lord? Think you it is but another eruption? Never have I seen one more violent."
Gildor looked upon the Mountain's torment as yet another gout of flame shot up. "I know not, my friend, but I fear that Sauron is roused to anger. Mayhap he has learned somehow of the taking of Minas Ithil. Perhaps he even senses the approach of the Rings, so closely are they linked to his own."
Isildur rose in his stirrups, peering into the roiling clouds of smoke wreathing the Mountain. "Orodruin and its fumes prevent any glimpse of the Barad-dûr beyond. Would we had some news of the Kings."
Cirdan's face was grim and set. "My heart misgives me," he said. "I fear our plans have gone awry. Sauron may even now be coming out of his tower, and we have many leagues still to ride. We must make great haste."
So the riders moved out again, at a trot. Hour after hour they rode across the steaming wastes. Ever the Mountain rumbled and belched forth streams of lava, but none toward the road. It seemed that the Mountain came no closer, but only grew taller and taller. Then at last they came to the lip of a broad and shallow valley and could see the road stretching out like a thin white line etched upon the blackened southern skirts of the Mountain.
Cirdan peered under a shading hand. "Elrond, do you mark an odd dark cloud above the road in the distance, beyond the Mountain's shoulder?"
"There is a blackness that seems almost solid, directly above the road."
Isildur squinted into the distance, but his eyes were not equal to the Elves'. "Could it be the pall which hangs always above the Barad-dûr?" he asked.
"It is very like," said Gildor. "But surely it is too near. The Tower is yet fifteen leagues beyond."
"I like it not," said Cirdan uneasily. "It has an evil look. Methinks I would not willingly ride under it."
"Is there no other way, father?" asked Elendur.
"No. This is the only road, and we dare not leave it, for the land is a maze of pits and vents masked by drifting ash. But perhaps the cloud is but smoke from the eruption. It may dissipate as we approach. Let us ride on."
"Hold!" said Elrond. "Look there!" They followed his pointing arm toward a line of smoking cinder cones off to their left.
First Cirdan, then the others, noticed a tiny dark figure struggling slowly along the side of the easternmost of the small volcanic vents. Clouds of dust rose as the steep cinder slope slid away from its feet.
"It is a Man, alone and on foot," said Elrond, squinting at the tiny black dot in the distance. "If it is our old friend Malithôr, he has chosen a difficult path," he added, watching the hurrying figure stumble and fall, then rise and struggle on.
"He no doubt wished to avoid the road, and us," said Isildur. "He is most determined to reach Sauron before we do. But it is hopeless on foot. If he continues on that course we should catch him somewhere near the southern foot of the Mountain. He cannot hope to reach the Barad-dûr before we do."
The column advanced down into the valley of black lava, blocking out the sight of the distant figure. Another hour passed, and still the Mountain quaked and still the ominous cloud hovered before them. All could see it now, and the men murmured uneasily, wondering what evil it might hold. They rode up across the southern skirts of the Mountain and several times had to pick their way across more recent lava flows that had buried the road. Then the road dropped away into a steep-sided ravine and they halted once more to pass around food and to water the horses.
"Surely, my lords," said Cirdan. "Yonder cloud is moving. When first we spied it, it was clearly above the plains east of the Mountain. Now it is further south and nearly before us. It is as if it were moving along the road we are on, coming toward us."
They watched a few moments, and soon there could be no doubt. The dark pall crept across the landscape like a living thing, following a weaving pattern that must mark the path of the road below.
"This is the work of Sauron," said Cirdan darkly. "It may be some weapon or pestilence of his making."
"Must we just sit here and wait for it to engulf us?" asked Elendur. "I believe I can smell it, or some change in the air -- some reek of putrescence, of death." He shivered, even in the oppressive heat.
"But surely," said Isildur, "it seems to have just now stopped. See, it hovers but a league or two away."
"But hark ye," said Cirdan, bidding them to silence. Elrond sat unmoving a moment, then turned to Cirdan. "The sounds of battle: the clash of steel and the voices of many warriors."
The men strained their ears, but could hear nothing but the wind. Isildur shook his head. "Your Elvish ears are keen indeed. I hear nothing."
"Nevertheless, a great battle rages beneath that cloud," said Cirdan.
"Then it can only be the Kings!" said Elendur.
"Aye," said Cirdan, "and Sauron. The final battle is upon us."
"Men of Gondor and the Southlands!" shouted Isildur, rising in his stirrups and facing his men. "This is the final hour. The enemy is before us. Strike now, and strike well, or the West shall never strike again! The world rides on your shoulders. Forward now, for Gil-galad and Elendil!"
The thousands of riders gave a hoarse and ragged cheer, uncovering their shields and drawing their weapons. Then the column moved forward, down the slope into the ravine, and into the shadow of that black cloud. Ohtar drew forth the great horn of the Eredrim and gave wind to it in mighty blast after blast. High and clear the horn rang. Then the Host of the West was swallowed by the Night of Sauron and the horn became muted and faint. Soon no living thing could be seen moving in all that tortured plain, and only the cloud of darkness remained.
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[Glossary]; Colophon (Still unavailable.)
This story was inspired by Tolkien's work.
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