Elendil the Tall, High King of the Realms in Exile, paced restlessly over dun hills of ash and slag, his feet stirring up clouds of fine grey dust that filled the nostrils and caked the lips. Fetid vapors of some great corruption drifted across the poisoned desert and swirled about him in hot gusts. Instinctively he drew a fold of his cape up over his nose against the dust and fumes, but he had long since ceased to notice them. For seven long years he had lived in this place of death and decay, so long that the memory of gentle breezes and running water and green growing things was like a lost scent from a beautiful dream, but dimly recalled.
Elendil stalked on with head bowed, deep in thought, until a shadow fell across him, chilling the unclean air. He shivered then, stopped, and looked up. There, looming above him, blocking out the wan and sickly disk of the sun, stood a monstrous mountain of somber stone rising from a black chasm, as if the earth had vomited it up in some unimaginably violent paroxysm. And yet it was not a mountain but a made thing, built up over many centuries by the toil of hundreds of thousands of slaves. Walls and battlements and many steep-gabled roofs rose tier after tier into the dizzying misty heights. And above them all a blackened tower like an uncouth finger pointed toward the pallid and cheerless sky. Over all lay a darkness, even in the pale morning light, a shrouding of detail so that the immense whole confused the mind with its complexity. The eye could not follow its lines, but became lost among its countless angles and overhangs and impenetrable shadows. Such was the Barad-dûr, the Dark Tower. And somewhere within that impenetrable mass of stone brooded the evil that was Sauron.
Elendil gazed silently at the monstrous structure as he had so many times during the seven weary years the Army of the Alliance had laid siege to it. That vast army lay deployed as it had for the last few years, in a huge semi-circle a short distance back from the precipitous edge of the chasm, from which the foundations of the Barad-dûr sprang smooth and unbroken for hundreds of feet. Three roads converged on the western rim of the chasm. One led northwest toward the Morannon, the Black Gate of Mordor, long since broken and cast down. The second wound south and east across the slag heaps stretching away to the murky horizon, leading eventually to the bitter inland Sea of Nûrn. The third, paved with slabs of hewn stone, ran arrow-straight into the west, past the great volcano of Orodruin a few leagues away, and on to Minas Ithil in the Mountains of Shadow. This road leaped across the chasm to the tower on a massive iron bridge without rail or parapet, ending at the Gate of Adamant, through which nothing passed, save with Sauron's leave.
Many Men and Elves had died trying to cross that bridge and breach the gates, but none had ever succeeded. Now it stood silent and empty, for to set foot upon it was to invite a rain of huge rocks from the battlements above. Elendil thought bitterly of his younger son Anárion, who had fallen on the Iron Bridge, struck by a great stone as he stooped to help a wounded comrade. Then, as usual, his thoughts flew to his elder son Isildur, who had been constantly in his mind these long months since he had set out on his mission.
Elendil had feared much for him, well knowing how dangerous were the roads he must tread. He had been overjoyed to hear from him at last, when they had spoken through the palantíri three days ago. But Isildur's news was not good. It seemed that all their careful plans were coming unravelled, thwarted at every point by the will of the Enemy. They had thought to drive his forces out of Minas Ithil and reclaim all the kingdom of Gondor. But now Pelargir was under siege, and Osgiliath would be next. Their kingdom was under attack and he was not there to defend it. While his people fought and died, he languished out here on the burning plain of Gorgoroth, idle, useless.
Midyear's Day was now two days past, and if all their plans had gone well, Isildur should have attacked Minas Ithil the prior afternoon. Elendil stared off to the west, burning to know what was happening there. Would Isildur's daring dash across Ithilien succeed? What if they were delayed? What if the Ring-wraiths knew of the attack and had had time to prepare? They could have secretly built up their force in East Osgiliath. Then when the Arannon was thrown open for Isildur's attack, the orcs would have poured into Osgiliath instead. Could anything stand against the combined force of the Nine? He had encountered them himself at the battle of the Morannon, and he well remembered the shadow of fear and despair that had enveloped him, shutting out all light, all hope. He shuddered to think of the Úlairi striding into the Dome of Stars, sweeping all before them. And what then of the Three? Angry with himself for the doubts gnawing at his resolve, he turned abruptly and walked back to the camp. He made his way among the tents to a large pavilion set up on the highest mound of slag, commanding a view of the area.
Entering, he found a figure tall even for an Elf, bent over a map on a table. He was dressed in mail of mithril like the other officers, but his cloak was royal purple. His hair was the color of old ivory, once fair and golden, now streaked with silver. His face, save for his delicate Elvish features, could have been that of a Man in his late prime, an experienced warrior-king; perhaps sixty winters had cut their tracks in it. But Elendil knew full well that he had been Fëanor's lieutenant in the Sailing of the Noldor to Middle-earth over four thousand years ago. In his grey eyes dwelt the imperturbable wisdom that comes only of many centuries of the contemplative Elvish life. There shone also the light of pride and command, the confident strength of one long used to leadership and responsibility. Elendil was two hundred and twenty-seven years old, and had founded two mighty kingdoms, but he still felt like a child in the presence of Gil-galad, King of the Noldor.
Elendil stepped up the the table. The map, much yellowed and worn, was of Mordor. Gil-galad was peering closely at the depiction of Minas Ithil, and Elendil knew his thoughts too were on the events now occurring in the Ephel Dúath.
"Has aught been heard?" he asked. Gil-galad looked at Elendil's pale face, read the concern there.
"No, my friend, nothing yet. But we could hardly expect to hear so soon."
"Perhaps if we sent a small party to the mountains, on our swiftest horses. They might need our help."
Gil-galad shook his head. "No. They come to help us. Their task is perilous indeed, but ours is of the first importance. We must do all in our power to keep Sauron here until they have taken Minas Ithil and ridden to us here. We shall need every Man and Elf here with us. Now above all, we must marshall our greatest strength, for the end is drawing nigh. If Sauron has as we suspect some means of seeing that which occurs far away, he will soon know of the attack on Minas Ithil, if he does not already. And he will be filled with rage. Then the long stalemate will be broken and he will come forth to do battle. We have never fought against Sauron in open battle, army to army. The prospect is daunting in the extreme. I will not weaken our circle by sending more of our people against another foe."
Elendil bowed. "I know, but still my heart misgives me. So much can go amiss. So much already has."
Gil-galad nodded. "I know. And your son leads them. This is why you are so anxious. But that is exactly why I have every hope for their success. Your son is a wise and noble man. One day he will be a great king of Gondor and his name will be sung when the mountains have crumbled into dust.
"Even we Quendi look on Isildur with great hope, for we know that our stewardship of Middle-earth is coming to its end, that we shall wane even as the races of Men increase. One day Men alone will rule and protect the world. Great leaders will be needed, Men of courage and strength and wisdom. Isildur could be their Sire. He has given you four strong grandsons. If we do succeed in casting down Sauron, it may well be that you have founded a dynasty of kings, my old friend. Kings that will rule this land for ages to come."
Elendil smiled. "You flatter me, Sire, but your words bring comfort." His eyes went far away. "I had such great hopes for my sons. I had thought that upon my death Isildur would go to rule in Arnor and Anárion would become sole king of Gondor. The two lands would remain sister kingdoms, ruled by brothers, united in peace forever. That would be a legacy indeed for the dispossessed Last Lord of Andúnië to leave to his people. The glory that was Númenor might live again in the Realms in Exile."
His face was alight and he trembled with emotion as he remembered his dreams. But then he sagged.
"But such was not to be," he went on. "Just as the Realms were coming into good order and life was settling into a peaceful routine, Sauron fell upon us and wrested our lands from us. Minas Ithil fell and Isildur and his family fled to Arnor." Elendil's eyes turned from sad to cold.
"And then he stole from me my greatest treasure: Anárion, the brave, the gentle. How can a life so full of strength and vitality, so full of promise, so much future before it, be suddenly crushed beneath a stone? How can mere dumb rock erase such a life, create in an instant a father and a brother bereft, a widow and an orphan grieving? By all the Valar, I swear that deed will be avenged. If by dint of might or strength of arms or lore or magic I may come against Sauron, I shall slay him, though I die in the deed!"
Gil-galad said nothing for a few moments, seeing the father's pain swelling in his friend's eyes. Finally he spoke. "The fall of Anárion is a tragic loss that will ring in history. Thousands will weep at the tale. He was a Man like no other. He was always laughing, always smiling. The younger Elves, especially, were more than fond of him. Perhaps because he was so like them."
Elendil sighed. "He took great pleasure in life. That is why it is so unjust that it is denied him. He was the happy one, carefree, ready with a joke. Isildur was always the serious one. He loved his younger brother, but he thought him too... frivolous, Isildur would call it."
"Anárion was not frivolous," said Gil-galad confidently. "I had many talks with him and he thought deeply and took his responsibilities very seriously. It was his manner that was so different from Isildur's, not his character. He was a fine prince and would have been a great king."
"I know that, and Isildur does too, I'm sure. But Isildur was always so serious about everything. His face was ever grim."
"Your family has been through enough to turn anyone grim. The bitterness of the civil conflict in Númenor, where your own king exiled you to Andúnië. And then of course the Fall."
"But Anárion went through it all as well -- those terrifying last days, the towers toppling, the waves, the storm, the shipwreck." Elendil paused, remembering again those terrible times. "Of course, he was younger -- still in his tweens. The young are more resilient to misfortune, don't you think? But Isildur was serious even as a boy. He had to excel at everything, could not stand to be beaten. He took every competition as a challenge. He always had to be the strongest, fastest, most heroic."
"But he is hero. He may even be all those things. Many acknowledge him the greatest warrior in the army. And his character, too. He is noble as well as strong. His idealism and his resolve are almost frightening. Do you know he has pledged to throw the Barad-dûr stone by stone into the abyss?"
Elendil had to smile. "Aye. And I think he will do it, too. But not Sauron. Him I will throw down myself, with this blade." And he slapped at the hilt of the ornate sword hanging at his side.
Gil-galad nodded. "Aye, Narsil was forged for just such a task, though Sauron has outlived its maker by many a yén. Poor Telchar died in the the fall of Nargothrond and never knew that Morgoth the Enemy was even then in his death throes. Telchar would be well pleased if you slew Sauron with his blade."
"Such is my dearest wish," answered Elendil grimly, "for he has much to answer for." He eyes strayed to the map unrolled upon the table, to the multiple ridges that made up the range known as Ephel Dúath, the Mountains of Shadow.
"But for now," he continued, "I would be content with word of Isildur and his companions. Let no harm come to them, for if they fail there is but little hope for the rest of us."
Gil-galad nodded. "If the Three be taken from them, there will be no more hope forever."
"I know we had little choice," said Elendil, "but still I lie awake at night wondering if we have done the right thing. To send the Three against the Nine -- it seems such a desperate chance."
"It is indeed, and yet still I hope for success. The Great Rings of Power are not equals; each is unlike the others. The Nine and the Seven were always lesser than the Three, and they were made with Sauron's arts. His powers are mighty, but they are drawn from the well of evil, and it is my belief that evil can never finally triumph over good. The Three are unsullied; they derive their powers from that of the White Tree and The Golden, expressed through Celebrimbor's art."
"Such things surpass my understanding," said Elendil with a shake of his head. What is it like to wield the Rings?" he asked. "How do you activate its powers?"
Gil-galad considered. "It is difficult to describe, my friend. Long have I kept Vilya, and it is like no other object on Earth. I am always aware of it when it is near. Even after being away from it all these years, still it is often on my mind, wondering if it is safe. It preys on my thoughts, drawing them always to it. It is almost as if it were alive."
"Alive? But is it not only metal and stone after all?"
"It is metal and stone, to be sure. But it is more. I do not mean that it is truly alive, not as we know life. It is certainly not conscious. But it seems to have a will, a course that it would pursue if it can. What that will is, I do not know, save that it must be good. After a time, I believe, a Ring and its bearer come to share a bond. There is no doubt that we are changed by them. More so when we use them, but even by their mere possession. Each of the Three seems to have a will and a character all its own, so that over time the bearers themselves take on some of their nature.
"Narya is the Ring of Fire, and it has great strength both to build and to destroy. It excels in bold, physical changes. With it Cirdan has built a mighty city at Mithlond, and some say that the beauty and perfection of form of his swanships is due at least in part to Narya. Cirdan too is strong and bold, unafraid, eager to move forward. Perhaps this too is Narya's influence.
"Nenya, the Ring of Water, has long been Galadriel's charge. It promotes life and growth. Things touched by its power thrive and endure and do not fade. With its powers, the Lady has built Lothlórien, the Land of the Golden Wood, where the leaves never fall and winter never comes. Galadriel too, thrives and endures, for she yet looks very young and lovely, though she is nearly as old as I. She takes joy in living and growing things, in gardens and trees and fair bowers. But is it Nenya or Galadriel that changed to become so alike, or was it both? We do not know.
"Vilya, the Ring of Air, is acknowledged to be the mightiest of the Three, and yet its power is not revealed by great works of either the mason or the gardener. Like the air, it moves swiftly and powerfully, yet invisibly. It is said to give wisdom and judgement in leadership to its bearer, though if that be true, I wish I could be more certain of my decisions. Still, since I have possessed it I have risen from Fëanor's lieutenant to High King of all the Noldor. I do not believe I ever consciously wished to become king, yet here I am. Did I wish it without knowing it, or was it Vilya's wish? How could we ever distinguish?"
"It seems a perilous thing," said Elendil, "to bear an object that might be bearing you."
Gil-galad smiled. "It certainly makes one consider one's actions and motives, and even accomplishments. Still, I would not part with Vilya for my life. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, to leave it at home. It haunts my dreams every night."
"Will Elrond be able to wield Vilya to advantage?"
"I hope so. He too is wise and learned, and his heart is good to the core. If any other Eldar can bear Vilya safely, it is he. Still, I wish I were there."
"As do I, but we must be visible here, lest Sauron perceive our absence and suspect the attack on the Nine. And do you truly think the Three are stronger than the Nine?"
"No one knows. They have never been put to the test. But I believe so. If the Three are wielded in concert, they should be able to withstand the Nine, for each is complement to each, and their combined strength is more than their sum. Galadriel and Cirdan are both great mages and learned in the oldest arts. They have long borne their Rings and their knowledge and their courage will guide them all. At the very least, the Three will appear to Sauron as a threat to his power and a temptation to his greed. His sole motive is ever greater power, and the Three represent the greatest powers remaining in Middle-earth. Whatever the outcome of the battle at Minas Ithil, Sauron will come forth, I am sure of it."
Gil-galad crossed the tent and took a long spear with an ebony handle from a rack. Its head was in the shape of a leaf of the Golden Tree, with edges so razor sharp they shone blue in the light.
"And then he must reckon with this," he said grimly, running his hands over the shaft. "Aeglos was made to taste Sauron's blood, and it shall yet do so, I swear it. Well does he know this weapon and fear it, for it is doomed to be Sauron's Bane."
Elendil patted the hilt of the great sword at his side. "And if Snowpoint does not slay him, my Narsil will, for it too is charmed to bring him down."
Gil-galad looked to the open tent flap. "Is it morning yet, Elendil? It is still dark and grey without, and yet surely the sun must be up by now."
"She is up, Sire, but gives little light through the murk. The haze and fumes are much thicker than usual this morning, and a noxious bitter dust is sifting down from the low clouds. Orodruin is unquiet."
"And so too is its lord, I wager," replied Gil-galad, "for I notice that the volcano oft reflects Sauron's mood. It has many times trembled and smoked just before a major attack by his forces. He is linked to the subterranean powers of the earth ever since he forged the One in the Sammath Naur within the mountain itself. Perhaps he even controls Orodruin's eruptions, though how I cannot guess."
"Then perhaps this unrest indicates that he even now senses a disturbance in the west, a changing, a moving, in the borders of his realm."
"Perhaps. If so, let him fret a while. It will make him more rash in the end. I would have him come out in fear and anxiety, his troops all disordered and confused. I assume ours all stand at the highest readiness?"
"Aye. Every one is awake and watchful. The barricades and forces at the road to the west have been quadrupled."
"Good. Well, if the day is as fine as you say, Elendil, we should be out enjoying it. And we should be seen from the walls of the Dark Tower, so he knows we are still here. Let us ride to the road."
The two kings called for their housecarls and standard bearers, and soon were riding down the slope to the road below. Men and Elves in full armor were pacing slowly back and forth as they had every day for years. The perimeter of the siege had been established long ago by the catapults of the Barad-dûr, for it lay at the bottom of a barren slope strewn with the massive blocks of stone hurled from the walls.
They spoke briefly with the Elvish captain of this section of the perimeter, then turned south and rode slowly along the long line of grim-faced warriors: Elves and Men and here and there a few dwarves. The eyes of all were cold and weary, for they had lived with the threat of imminent death for many years. A siege is a terrible thing to endure on either side of the walls, for the tension and fear of battle are prolonged not for hours, but for years. It is one thing to ride into a battle knowing you may be killed before the day is out, quite another to face it day after day. It is the fear and uncertainty of war, the privations and discomfort of a military campaign, but with no glory, no homecoming, and no end in sight. It was difficult for everyone, but especially the Men. Many of the younger Men had spent a large portion of their lives here on this bleak plain, far from their wives and sweethearts and families. They felt their lives passing them by, their youth wasted in this idle watching and waiting for the Gate of Adamant to open. They stared at those immense doors day after day, hoping to see them creak open, and also dreading it.
The leaders of the host had always to contend with both the boredom and the frustrated eagerness to fight and have done with the waiting. There was much grumbling and complaining and all were thoroughly sick of the plains of Gorgoroth and the sight of the Dark Tower. But they all knew that there could be no going home until the issue was decided. At great cost had they driven Sauron into his fortress; they must not let him escape now.
Elendil and Gil-galad rode along the perimeter, offering occasional words of encouragement as they passed each group of warriors. They topped a low rise and looked out over a wide plain dotted with row after row of brightly colored tents, though now much stained and grimed by the volcanic ash like black flour that constantly sifted down from the clouds. Well-beaten paths ran among the rows of tents, and many figures, horses, and wagons moved about its dusty streets. Here was the main body of the Host of the Alliance, scores of thousands of warriors of every race, from nearly every land of the West.
Through the midst of the huge camp ran a broad and well-paved road with a low wall on either side to hold back the drifting ash that threatened to bury it. The Road of Sauron ran straight and level, slicing through hills of slag and broken rock and leaping over black chasms on massive arches of stone. It disappeared in the vapors and smokes of Orodruin, away to the west. As it drew near the bridge to the Barad-dûr, the Road passed between two rows of huge carven images of misshapen and bestial forms, though whether they represented actual creatures of Sauron's devise or were only figments of some mad nightmare, none could guess. The camp lay close to these beasts but not among them, for all sensed something unnatural and evil about them. Indeed, many of those closest to camp had been smashed or the faces chiseled away, for few could bear those stone eyes upon them for long.
Where the Road entered the Field of the Beasts, four stout barricades of heavy timbers and broken stones had been constructed across it and stretched far away to either side. Thousands of the strongest warriors were stationed at these barricades. Some stood or walked on the fortifications themselves, others marched in the lanes between. Everywhere spear points and lances gleamed red in the murky morning light, as if already running with blood. Ever they looked beyond the barricades, to the Iron Bridge and the towering Gate of Adamant. If Sauron did come forth, this is the way he would come, and these warriors would be the first to take the brunt of his attack.
The Tower itself stood silent. No guards paced the battlements, no archers could be seen at the occasional high windows. During an assault on the Tower, missles of all sorts would descend from those heights, but seldom would any enemy be seen. Between attacks, the Tower seemed as lifeless as a tombstone. None of them knew what forces Sauron had at his command, nor where they obtained their food and supplies. If they were suffering under the siege, there was no sign of it. As for Sauron himself, he had not been seen by Elf nor Man since the night he had slipped away from Celebrimbor's workshops in Eregion that is no more.
The kings' company rode to a large tent near the outermost barricade. Esquires took their horses and the lords went in to break their fast. It was the beginning of another day, just like hundreds before -- nothing to do but wait and watch.
The morning dragged on, the heat if not the light increasing steadily. The company in the mess tent speculated on the doings of their colleagues in the west. Were Isildur and the Elf-Lords victorious and even now riding hard toward them; or would the next riders to appear be black, bearing the Three triumphantly to their master? Hopeful guesses and terrifying possibilities were bandied back and forth, to no resolution. Tiring of the talk, Elendil went out and called again for his horse. He rode along the barricade, speaking with many of the commanders, Men he had known and fought beside for many years. Some indeed had sailed from Númenor with him in the terrible storm that destroyed their island home.
Then he turned south again and continued along the perimeter. He was fearful that if Sauron did come out he would see the strong force at the barricades and veer aside, probing for a weak spot along the perimeter. It was his job to see that there were none. All along the line Men and Elves called to him or waved or saluted if too far away to speak to him. His appearance always seemed to buoy them and give them strength and hope. He wondered at the source of the strength, for they seemed to draw more from him than he could possibly offer them, more even than he felt himself. But their eager loyal faces cheered him as he rode past, and his spirit too was lifted.
He rode but a few miles and could see ahead the jagged spur of the Ered Lithui where it tumbled into the chasm that surrounded the Barad-dûr, marking the end of the Allies' perimeter. Bitter experience had taught that the Mountains of Ash were unscalable by any means, even by the light-footed Elves. Elendil rode to the very edge of the abyss and peered down into blackness, for no bottom had ever been seen in that huge pit. He talked briefly with the captain of the southernmost company, telling him to be ready to move his men north if Sauron attacked the center of the line. He said farewell, then turned back toward the Road.
As his horse was picking his way down a steep slope of cinders, the ground shuddered violently beneath his feet and he went down on his knees with a cry of pain. Elendil leaped free and rolled down the slope. He was not injured, but before he could rise the air was rent by a deafening thunder of sound, striking him flat with its violence. All around men clapped their hands to their ears, striving in vain to keep out the blast. The ground heaved again. The plain buckled, and several crags toppled and slid with a roar into the abyss, some taking men with them. Steam and flames belched forth from a thousand cracks, scalding warriors and horses alike and setting whole sections of the camp aflame. Horses screamed in madness and broke free to run wildly through the crowded camps, adding to the confusion. To the west the entire sky turned to roiling black smoke laced with blood red flames, and a hail of fiery ash and glowing cinders rained down on the stunned host. Everywhere was tumult and destruction.
Elendil struggled shakily to his feet and gazed about him. All men turned to the west to watch in awe as Orodruin writhed and changed before their eyes. Lava gushed from a dozen vents at once. Elendil looked on the torment of the mountain and saw the mouth of the Sammath Naur, the great cave where Sauron had forged the One. It was glowing now with white heat, and he knew he was seeing the naked Flame of Udûn, created on the First Day by Melkor the Morgoth, source of all evil. What could he -- what could anyone do against forces like this?
But even as he thought this and his heart shrank within him, there came a new sound -- a shrieking and braying of many trumpets together, rising above even the groaning of the tortured earth. Now there was no time for fear; no time for doubt. Sauron was coming forth.
He found his horse standing shivering a few yards away, eyes wide with fear. He stroked its head a moment to calm it, then leaped to the saddle and rode hard back toward the Road. He passed groups of warriors standing dazed and confused.
"To the barricades!" he shouted. "He comes!" But his words were all but drowned out by fresh eruptions from the mountain. Fearing what he would find, he spurred his horse on to the top of the last ridge, beyond which lay the camp and the Road. Reaching the summit, he stopped in amazement.
The orderly camp he had ridden through only moments before was in shambles. Many of the tents were in flames as the glowing cinders continued to pour from the sky. Huge cracks had opened up where before was solid land, swallowing up whole sections of the camp. Groups of warriors either milled about aimlessly or dashed headlong through the press, on what errands he could not guess, for no orders could be heard in that noise. Then came an even greater tumult from the north, near the Road. A confused rabble was stumbling back south into the camp, throwing into disarray the few companies still under command.
Elendil swung his horse to the right, picking through to the first barricade, now tumbled into heaps. There the throng was less and he was able to make his way at better speed. Finally he reached the Road and his worst fears were realized. The siege had been broken. Sauron was gone.
The barricades were all scattered and thrown aside like a child's blocks amidst the sprawled and burned bodies of the fallen. Here and there a few crawled or moved weakly, but their eyes were blank and staring, their minds blasted by what they had seen. Some gibbered or howled, others shouted meaningless orders.
Elendil moved among them, scanning each face, each banner trampled and forgotten in the dust, seeking always the standard of Gil-galad, but in vain. He rode to the mess tent where he had left the others and found it thrown down and charred, as if blasted by a scorching wind. A group of figures were creeping from the wreckage, then turning to help others. Elendil dismounted and went to help.
"Gil-galad!" he called to them. "Have you seen Gil-galad?"
"He was up there on the hill," said an Elf.
Elendil picked his way among smoking wreckage to the top of a small hill where a dozen Elves stood laboring, pulling others from a collapsed tent. Already a row of bodies lay there. A few were struggling to rise, more only groaned feebly or writhed in pain, but most lay still. When Elendil reached them he saw to his relief that Gil-galad was among them, though his robes were torn and his face blackened and streaked.
"Sire," he cried, "are you hurt?"
Gil-galad turned and saw Elendil coming toward him.
"So you have survived as well. That is the only good news we have had. Did you see him?"
"Nay, Sire, I saw only the Flame of Udûn. I was well down on the southern perimeter. Would I had been here at your side!"
"It would have made no difference," answered Gil-galad with weariness and despair lining his face. "He was too great for us, too great by far. We had no idea how powerful he really was."
"Did you see him?"
"Not his form, but only a great darkness, and we felt the fear that goes before him."
"How did he come upon you?"
"The Mountain burst asunder and all turned and looked to the west. Then came the sound of thousands of trumpets and we turned, and lo, the Doors stood open. Then a great host poured forth onto the bridge, orcs and trolls and goblins and other creatures I have no name for. Just as they reached the land, the barricades suddenly burst asunder with a terrible roar. How he did it I do not know, but in a moment the barricades and the men on them were flying through the air. Nearly four hundred warriors, Man and Elf, destroyed at one blow, swept aside as you might sweep a table clear.
"Then their van was upon us, and with them came a great fear. All light and hope seemed to vanish from the world, and many quailed before the onslaught. It must have been some weapon of Sauron's, for in truth I believe their numbers were less than ours. But they did not stop to fight. They thundered past the shattered barricades, right through our camp, and on down the west road, not even pausing to slay our warriors, some of them just standing by the side of the road staring. I felt him coming nearer -- how I cannot say, but the center of the evil approached. I advanced with Aeglos before me, thinking to make a stand, but then came a blast of terrible heat and all faded from me. I came to myself but a moment ago."
"We found the king under this tent," said one of the Elves, looking up from his work. "He moved not at first and we feared for him. But he roused at last. It is more than can be said for many here."
"But there was no real battle," continued Gil-galad. "Only that strange blast, then they were past and away. Where has he gone? Did you see?"
"I know not, Sire," replied Elendil. "I have seen only our own people, and many of them are dead or mad. Of Sauron and his creatures there is no sign. They can only have gone west."
"Aye. And he can be bent on only one errand. He seeks the Three."
"Curse him!" cried Elendil. "He rides against Isildur and the others, and we were charged to contain him here. They will be crushed between Sauron and his Úlairi. Oh, alas, alas. We have failed."
Then one of the Elves came up to Gil-galad and handed him the long spear Aeglos. "This at least is unbroken, Sire," he said. Gil-galad took the spear and stood leaning upon it, gazing about at the ruin as far as he could see. But then he seemed to draw strength from the familiar feel of the great spear. He drew himself upright.
"Aye," he said. "My Aeglos is yet whole, and still capable of piercing Sauron's body. It is still capable of fighting." He touched the sword at Elendil's side. "And so is Narsil, and so indeed are we, my friend."
"Aye," said some of those standing nearby, slowly regaining their wits and their courage after the numbing blast. "Many have died, but most yet live. Away from the road, our host is untouched."
"But stay," said an Elf, holding one shattered arm against his side, "how can we hope to prevail against such a foe? Now we have seen his hideous might, would it not be vain and foolish to attempt to assail him again?"
Then Elendil cried out in a loud voice. "We must! While yet we have life and strength to fight, we must! For Sauron is once more loose upon the world. He flies west to Minas Ithil, where our colleagues strive against his minions, unaware of the doom approaching from the plains. They were the bait in this trap, and Sauron has taken it. Our task was to destroy him as he came forth. In that we have failed, and now he races to swallow the lure. If we falter now, our friends will be destroyed and Sauron will rule the world. We must ride, ride like the wind!"
"Yes!" shouted some. "That's right! He's right!" said others. "To the west!"
The kings called messengers to them and sent them riding along the perimeter. There was no longer any point in maintaining the siege. Every warrior capable of riding was to join them at the Road.
In less than an hour the riders were assembling. Over a thousand had died or were still missing, and nearly as many were to remain to care for the wounded and bury the dead. But all others, still over eighty thousand strong, were ready. The columns of horsemen dwindled into the distance on either hand.
Gil-galad signalled for quiet, then rose in his stirrups. "You have seen the strength of the enemy," he roared. "But all his will now is bent on reaching Minas Ithil, and the rear of his host may be unprotected. At the least they shall not surprise us again. Most of his host is on foot. If we ride hard, we should overtake them near Orodruin.
"All these years we have waited for Sauron to come out so we can fight him in the open, without the chasm and walls of Barad-dûr to protect him. At last we have that chance. The waiting is at an end. Now we have only one task. We must pursue Sauron and catch him and bring him to bay. Then everything depends on one final battle. Ride with me now down Sauron's Road, and know that death lies at the end of it, either ours, or Sauron's!"
"To death!" shouted thousands of voices. "Ride to death!" Then the kings wheeled their horses and plunged down the road, followed by their surviving knights and housecarls. Slowly at first, then with ever increasing speed, the Army of the Alliance swept out onto the road and followed their lords.
Those remaining in the ruined camp watched company after company thunder away to the west, banners flying bravely through the smoke and dust. For an hour and more they flowed by, until at last the final company of Men from the upper vales of Anduin pounded into the cloud of dust and were lost to sight.
"To death!" came the last cries, already muffled by the distance. Then there was only the sound of the wind. For the first time in many years, the plain of Gorgoroth was silent.
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[Glossary]; Colophon (Still unavailable.)
This story was inspired by Tolkien's work.
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