It might not have been what Sauron had expected from the new Age, but the Burning Eye has become a beacon of hope for fugitives searching for shelter. Shelter from the hunting parties of the Lady of the Golden Wood. It began with the river Anduin, but soon water, earth and air carried something with them and the world …changed. From the Grey Mountains to the Bay of Belfalas, from the Golf of Lhûn to the Lonely Mountain, the trees have taken on a golden sheen. A new power has woken, in the very heart of the world, and while the wizards fought out their petty feuds at the sidelines and all other eyes were fixed to the east, it had risen unnoticed – until it was too late. Only one has known from the beginning – and feared. Armies, summoned to conquer a world, found themselves deployed as lines of defence. So when a tide not of darkness but of cold and pitiless light swept over Middle-earth, mountain-ringed Mordor alone had stemmed it – so far. Survivors of all races soon added their numbers to the legions within. They literally chose the lesser evil. At least the Dark One isn't opposed to not-Elven life in principle. He accepts every race, as long as they bow to him. The common foe – and the common overlord – have forged hereditary enemies not into friends but at least comrades-in-arms. Most of them concentrated close to the Black Gate and Minas Morgul, the obvious entrances to the land, but this war is not fought in battles alone. The enemy might use water, wind and anything that lives as a weapon, so the entire periphery has to be watched. The mountain ranges north, south and west swarm with patrols.
They are the Mountain Guards.
oo oo oo oo oo
Old Fiery surely makes one damn good landmark. It's like your own built-in compass. The direction that feels worst points straight to Barad-dûr. Not that orientation is a problem anyway, every patrol sticks to the same routes, alternating one over the mountain tops, one in the middle, one along the foothills, and we all know each rock, each patch of lichen along the path. That's the trick. We are to spot everything that has changed since the last trip. And make sure it gets back to normal. Not much to do this time. Seldom is on the middle road. Makes it my favourite, easier going than the scramble over the peaks and there's less invading stuff to weed out than on the low grounds. Unless a giant eagle comes to stir up trouble, the midroute is a week of moderate mountaineering and some decent rests in-between.
Like now. Midday on the second day out. The starting camp is out of sight, the path broadens to a ledge some fifty feet across and there's even a pale sun overhead. Perfect for lunch break. The whole squad has found a corner of not-too-sharp rock to lean against, have a bite and rest their feet.
Gwhâs, on an outcrop as far out as possible, is stargazing again, or treegazing, rather. Eyes fixed on the same spot as always, staring at what's far beyond sight even on a good day – and today isn't – seeing… who knows. The small guy doesn't talk about it. Truth be spoken, he hasn't said more than a handful of words since he arrived. As long as he does his job, nobody cares. He climbs like a squirrel, and that's all a climber should do.
Next in, on a slate of black basalt, Khûral gives his best impression of a lizard a hundred times overgrown basking in the sun. That's something they always do, even if there isn't much sun to speak of. I guess, it's because they can and the Orcs don't, but who can tell what's going through the thick skull of an Uruk-hai. A normal human can not even pronounce their names without choking – if you want a really sore throat, call Khûral 'Coral'. He'll make you say his name till he's satisfied, meaning you are too hoarse to say another word for the next week or so. Makes your grasp of languages improve fantastically. Otherwise, the big black is one of our rootbreakers. And second archer. Best stalker, too. A creature that big shouldn't be able to move completely without a sound. And he's not even trying to be silent. His gear makes as much noise as it likes but you never hear his steps. Like a giant cat. Talking of cats, he certainly behaves like a tom when Grey is around.
Grey. The other archer. Keeps to himself. Tall, not the seven-feet-when-deciding-to-stand-straight stature Khûral has, but a good deal over six feet. Tough as old leather. And, hence the name, grey. Grey hair, grey beard, grey eyes, grey cloak. Even the pony-sized hound always at his heels is grey. In general, the rest of us is dignified with an air of indifference and Khûral with slightly disgusted distrust. Were they both humans, I'd say he and Khûral are hot for each other though we'll all go sledging down Mount Doom ere they'd admit it; but Khûral being hot for anyone doubtlessly would have the person in question bent over the moment he realizes he does, so probably they aren't.
Tovel, the other rootbreaker, is more socially inclined. Not too tall, but squat, almost square. Former woodcutter, he handles an axe even more impressively than Khûral, which is quite a feat. He's droning about the 'Ring' again. About it being the main source of the Lady's might and the best weapon against her, because whenever power is drawn from it, the Dark One gets a share of it. So time is working for us, and if we survive long enough, we'll win no matter what, blah blah blah… Since he talked to one of the few exile Elves, he's spilling enough words on the topic to make up ample conversations for all of us. Not that anyone listens. Least of all Geru, the one he's talking to at the moment.
Geru, the other climber. My little brother, what else is there to say? Used to dream of Elves all his life. Wished with heart and soul to see some real ones. First ones he saw were busily torching our home. If I wouldn't hate them for that, I'd hate them for the empty look in Geru's eyes ever since. He's a burned-out shell. He breathes, eats and moves around but deep inside – he is already dead.
Finally me, the mole. Usually crawling headfirst into suspicious holes, to make sure there's nothing inside that's big enough to do real harm, is an Orc's job and the last one was, but Khûral ate him. Somehow the job went to me. Bets are still running when he'll eat me, though they got a little bit less enthusiastic over the months.
oo oo oo oo oo
Rest is over and we're marching on. Khûral's in the lead because no one feels comfortable with an Uruk-hai at one's back while there's no need for the big black to fear for a stab from behind. Not while he has the patrol's supply of hellfire strapped on his pack. Dragon spit, Mount Doom's Finest, whatever you call the stuff, it's a dark sticky oil bursting into flame after a short time of contact with air. Once ignited, it goes up in a blaze that makes a Balrog burn green with envy. Very effective against obstinate roots or other buried things – among other uses. It might not be the wisest choice to put a few gallons of fiery destructions into the hands of an Uruk-hai, but who else would care to carry instant incineration in a thin skin on his body. After him come Gwhâs, Geru, Tovel, me and Grey brings up the rear.
Afternoon passes by in a steady up and down along the cliffs. For all his agility, Khûral isn't much of a climber, so whenever the trail comes to a sheer precipice, the two climbers take the lead and fix a rope for the rest of us. Grey's nameless dog is heaved along by a stout harness it wears all the time. A few hapless saplings get torn off the ground with a good handful of acrid salt for the roots. They'll provide the campfire tonight, the golden-tinted twigs burn surprisingly well, almost like hardwood. Something between a rat and a marmot shows its head for a moment between the rocks to get casually squashed by a stone from Khûral's hand. Tiny claws scratch futily over his thick leather tunic as he stores the half-pulped creature at his belt for a late afternoon snack. Pity the big'un has so fast reflexes, the small rodents taste rather good. Better than the dried leather strips of unknown origin that go by the name of 'meat' in our rations.
I bet Khûral heard it coming, but of course he wouldn't warn us that a fell beast is about to swoop down on us. They always fly attack-style till you get identified as friendly, and the downdraft of the giant wings almost sweeps me, Gwhâs and Geru off the ridge. Khûral salutes the rider as it circles round. With his bulk and the bright red eye painted on his arms, chest and forehead he's easiest to recognize. The winged monster passes on; it'll carry its rider in a few hours where it takes us five days to get. Probably covers most of the Ashen Mountains today. We will go no further than to the White Lady's Chamber.
We reach the crevice at dusk. It's not much of a shelter where the rocks form a roof; barely enough for the whole group, but safe against night-time attacks, right in the middle of a spider colony. Small critters, none of them much bigger than a grown man's hand, so they won't attack a group, but any intruder provokes a hundred angrily clicking jaws. Better than dogs for a warning. Plus, the place's a good source for spider silk, especially the lady. She's a skeleton at the very back of the fissure and gets a new white wrapping every time you filch the old one. Some of the Haradrim women in the main camp pay handsomely for the silk, and a mole has its own use for the stuff, too. Fresh webs around your forearms keep spiders and other small creatures away when you plunge into their burrows.
Khûral and Grey share the first watch as none would sleep while the other's awake, then it's me and my brother and the last one goes to Gwhâs and Tovel. The noise of all the spiders scuttling around peacefully makes a wonderful lullaby. Habit wakes me at midnight to find two pairs of glowing eyes at opposing ends of the overhang, guarding each other as well as the darkness outside. Grey and his dog form the dark bulk with eyes at middle height, Khûral's the other one. Simple. Geru has risen too, so the other two stretch themselves out where they are. It's a fine night, not too cold, a few stars visible to the north, the spiders patrol as they should. Watch is over in no time. The only problem is to get Tovel awake without rousing the rest as well.
oo oo oo oo oo
The darkest hour is the one before dawn. Seldom get to see it, but now everyone is awake. The spiders are silent. The hound growls deep in its throat and Khûral follows suit, but judging by how they scan the dark slopes outside, they haven't spotted the threat yet. With a night vision like theirs that's no good. A breathless eternity later, Grey whispers "Fireball". Khûral grunts, but a moment later the pungent smell of hellfire fills the cave as he dribbles a few drops very carefully onto a ball of oakum on a long string. Then a silhouette, blacker than the night sky, appears as he hurls it high into the air. In mid-flight it catches flame, throwing the rocks beneath into stark relief. They are empty but for the shadows cast by the blinding light. The fireball hits the ground and rolls downhill, trailing a wake of burning shreds and chasing off shadows as it goes. All but one. At the very end of the trail, just before the flames fizzle out, a huge lump of shadow barely moves. A bow stave groans as Grey pulls back the string. Khûral throws another fireball, this one directly at the suspicious shadow. It's gone. In the short moment between the last embers dying and the new light igniting it disappeared absolutely noiselessly over a coverless field of scree. It might have been a trick of light – if not for the silenced spiders. I've never heard of anything managing that. No one goes back to sleep for the remainder of the night.
Sunrise never came so slow, lately, but finally the black of night changes into the black and greys of the Ashen Mountains at day. Gwhâs sets a rope and Khûral and Grey warily climb down to the spot where the strange shadow lay last night. They find no tracks. It puzzles Khûral for the rest of the day. Normally an Uruk-hai deep in thought would be given a wide berth, in case confusion gives rise to rage, but today things aren't normal. Every patch of shadow along the way is given the evil eye. None tries to move but tension grows nevertheless. After lunch Tovel is edgy to the point of trying to calm his nerves by snatching a bit of baghûd when he thinks Grey isn't watching. Doesn't work, obviously. And Grey would hinder him to kill himself with another bite of the poisonous moss. Furthermore, the patrols below and above us usually march more or less parallel and come into view every now and then. The one on the summit route is visible once or twice, but no one catches a glimpse of the low one today. Nobody comments on that, but the whole group stays together as closely as possible. At the same time, everyone is eager as never before to find creepers and shrubs for a good fire at night and to cover as much distance as feasible. The most inaccessible place to stay the night at is a little bit over a normal day's march away from the Lady's Chamber.
The Wailing Turret is a ragged spire of black basalt with mostly perpendicular walls. At about two thirds of its height there's a little platform, the rest is splintered rock that makes the spiky heights of the Dark Tower itself look smooth as glass. It takes Gwhâs and Geru all the rest of light and twilight to get a line of ropes up to the ledge. By the time the rest of us has scrambled up, they have fallen asleep from exhaustion. Everyone else is pretty much knocked out as well, but this night sleep won't come easily. And that's not due to the constant howling and shrieking of the wind between the cliffs. In the meagre shelter of the rocks rising to the peaks of the turret there's hardly enough space to sleep, backed against the wall, all huddled together. Further to the front most of our wood is wedged into a crack, just in case. In this wind the only way to get a fire burning is spilling hellfire, but then we'll have a beacon that can be seen in either of the camps before and behind us. Just in case.
oo oo oo oo oo
It feels like I haven't slept at all, when Grey makes me jump by touching my shoulder to wake me for my watch. The relieved guards retreat to the back, but if the yellow lights are any indication they won't be sleeping anytime soon. If only the moon would give off some light, but the thin crescent is only a pale smudge in the clouds that constantly hug the mountain tops all over Mordor. I can distinguish the blackness of the basalt from that of the abyss, but that's all. And in the din of the raging winds I bet not even Khûral can hear anything short of Mount Doom exploding. Far to the north stars twinkle mockingly. Funny thing is, we chose this sleeping place because nothing should be able to follow us up here. Why then is everyone listening anxiously whenever the howling wind changes cadence?
Times drags on. Nothing happens. Maybe we are afraid of a trick of light; the spiders all went underground for their very own reasons and the patrol below is a lazy bunch that saunters along somewhere behind us. I take a look at the distant stars to estimate the hour. Most of them are gone. Great, even the weather tries to obscure things. One blinking later they are back. Must be more tired than I feel. The thought hasn't quite formed when they disappear again.
"Flyer!" The recognition and a fierce hiss are one. The thing has to be huge, judging by the portion of the sky it conceals. Two bows groan under tension. Then an all-too-familiar shriek makes me feel really stupid. With the roar of rushing air the fell beast wheels over the spire and alights on the end of the platform.
"Something strange is here, something alive."
Not very comforting to hear one of the Nine address you at the best of times, but to have the Iron-Crowned confirm your worst fears really makes your day.
"Where is it?" For a man standing right beneath the jaws of a fell beast, Grey sounds enviably unfazed.
Great, not even a wraith can locate the thing precisely. For the rest of the night, uncanny mount and rider stay where they are. I never felt as safe in the company of these creatures before. In the first light of dawn they are gone.
oo oo oo oo oo
Climbing down is far easier than scaling the rocks, but it takes time. Still, we could make the rest of the way in normal time. The fell beast patrols above. Every now and then it passes overhead to disappear again in the distance. By mid-afternoon without a trace of anything out of the ordinary, things are trying to get back to normal. Then all of a sudden the hound starts growling. To be precise, it growls at the opening of some kind of burrow. Not unusual. It's our best indicator which of the countless holes riddling the stony ground are worth a closer investigation. Nevertheless I never felt as nervous since the first time I crawled underground. It's not a big deal, usually. A pair of stout gauntlets, a bracelet, solid enough to withstand the jaws of a badger gone mad with golden light in its eyes, on one arm, a keen blade in the other hand. One of these sickly green, not-burning phosphorus lights fixed at one shoulder – for practical reasons on a piece of armour and not around your neck or forehead, some critters go straight for the light. Some moles wear helmets, but I prefer to have my ears and eyes free. Otherwise, just take care not to get stuck, and call loud enough if you want to get pulled out. Oh, and make sure someone trustworthy takes care of the security line, but that's all.
The routine of checking the walls for side tunnels, or slime that might stand for something poisonous living in here, or other traces to identify the inmate of this den dispels the anxiety soon enough. There's no predator smell in the air nor the acid odour of a large reptile. Nothing in fact but fresh earth. Whoever dug this lair did so recently. A few sharp turns, but no side tunnels, just spacious enough for me to crawl through. Might be a wolf's den or something of that size. Another sharp turn, and I stare straight into the huge and frightened eyes of a fawn. It looks so helpless and afraid that I start making soothing noises without really noticing. It's trembling hard; whatever drove it into this hole scared it terribly. Even a human seems less scary by comparison since it's slowly edging towards me. The pupils are so large that the eyes don't reflect my light. The eyes.…
I scream. Never screamed as loud in my life and I never got hauled from a hole as fast as this time but the … thing is gaining. It flows forward, the impostor fawn quickly loosing shape. Just before it reaches me, I cover my face with my arms. I never feel its … bite, if that would be the right word, instead I find myself a moment later scratched, bruised and breathless but whole out in the daylight. When I choke on the drink Grey forces into my mouth, I notice I'm still screaming. I stop long enough to swallow some of the stuff, raw spirit mainly distilled from lichens and baghûd and only slightly less combustible than hellfire, but it helps blunting the memory of those horrible non-eyes, those holes into a thing that must not be alive and bugger the Iron-Crowned.
oo oo oo oo oo
Speaking of whom, the grey swath of cloth, I notice in front of me when I stop coughing, is his cloak. I make sure not to look up. To no avail.
"Bring it to me!"
For an instant I actually consider telling the undead bastard to get it himself. I catch myself in time. The thing probably will do no worse than devouring me while a displeased ringwraith… has more in store than a nasty death. Shaking like a leaf, I crawl back to the hole and inside. Only to find it blocked after less than ten feet. I never felt so happy to meet a dead end. The earth looks undisturbed, not like a collapsed tunnel but like untouched ground.
"The tunnel is blocked." I call.
I hear no reply but obviously someone made a decision because I get pulled out. Outside Tovel and Khûral have their pickaxes ready, and with my directions and under the unsettling stare of the Iron-Crowned they start digging. The tunnel has disappeared, within a ten feet radius of the blocked entrance it can't be found again. The two rootbreakers excavate the meagre soil down to the bedrock without hitting as much as a mousehole.
For no apparent reason the wraith suddenly hisses, "It is gone," and strides off to his mount to set off into the setting sun.
We don't go much further this day. I feel like sleepwalking and probably look like Geru's twin. No one speaks to me. I'm glad about it.
Late in the evening Khûral asks, "What did you see?" but, unlike his usual self, he doesn't seem to be bent on tormenting a weak target, but merely interested in what to look for in the dark.
"A shape-shifter," I say, "darkness cast into a mould."
Without any comment Tovel hands me his flask of spirit. I drink myself senseless that night.
oo oo oo oo oo
With the grandmother of all hangovers I trudge through the next day without perceiving much, let alone thinking anything. Same goes for the one after it. I don't miss much. Maybe the thing got scared by the Iron-Crowned. Suits me well. The day after that, the sixth day on patrol finds me a bit frazzled but functional again.
Nobody senses the thing until it strikes. I'll never know why it hasn't waited for all of us to walk into its trap. Maybe it couldn't stretch any wider and feared the first would escape its clutches before the last ones strayed in. On the march, there's always a few steps distance between each member of the squad. Anyway, Khûral turns round for some reason and out of the blue the shadows besides the path fold up silently. In the blink of an eye everyone in front of me is swallowed by a solid piece of darkness. Only Khûral, being much taller than the rest and further on at the edge, is engulfed only to the shoulders. For a moment he looks surprised, then his head whips back and a black fountain rises high above his head to rain down on the thing; its eagerness to squash the prey sealing its doom.
The last time I see the Uruk-hai, he's grinning wildly, liquid fire running from his fangs where he slashed through the skin holding the hellfire. A bowstring sings next to my ear as Grey puts an arrow through our comrade's skull, a heartbeat before the inferno ignites. The fireball hurls me back against Grey and both of us some twenty feet along the path. Luckily it's broad and uphill here. The patch of darkness has become a lump of living fire; flickering heads and half-formed bodies of all kind of creatures you can imagine, appear on its surface and melt away again, and it screams. It shrieks, it screeches, it squeals, it howls… as if all the beasts it tries to change into really suffer the pain of immolation. I'm glad there are no human voices in this agonized chorus. It's terrible enough as it is. And no well-aimed arrow can put it out of its misery.
Fuelled by about three gallons of hellfire the flames are still roaring high when the fell beast arrives. It perches on a boulder nearby to give its rider a good view of the twisting pyre.
When the fire finally has burned itself out, the Iron-Crowned orders us to search the ashes. We find no human bones, no metal, no slag, but charred remains of deer's antlers and horns and hooves and fragile, feathery bones that might have been small birds and fishes or the like. Like all the victims of a devastating forest fire congregated in one spot. It seems the Lady has forged a part of all her animal subjects into one twisted creature and sent it here to haunt the land.
oo oo oo oo oo
The lowland patrol disappeared the day before we first met the thing at the White Lady's Chamber. Probably they fell for the shadow much like the rest of our squad. And when the Iron-Crowned drove it from that hole on our path, the thing went uphill. The summit patrol hasn't been seen since day five. We were lucky. Lucky as hell. But it doesn't feel like that.
A/N: Second chapter anyone? It would work as a stand-alone, but if anyone's interested…