It was hard to imagine this as a city where once Men had dwelled.
The plan of the city was all too familiar - Faramir could see it in his head. Like Minas Tirith, Minas Ithil - or Minas Morgul, as it had been called for centuries - had been built of six concentric circles, each sitting higher on the mount than the last, connected one to the next by a gate, and topped by a tower and citadel. The white of the stone from which the city had been crafted, as had its sister, was obvious - but over a millennium of rule by the Witch King of Angmar had turned what had been a pristine white into something that looked dead and decomposed.
And now two years of determined demolition had turned everything into rubble and chaos.
Faramir wrinkled his nose in disgust as he urged his mount up the filthy cobblestone thoroughfare that took him past tumbled blocks that used to be buildings toward the only gate still standing, the one that would bring him to the Seventh Circle, where Damrung no doubt awaited him. He didn't want to be here, at the pinnacle of this dead and ruined city - he doubted any reasonable man would. The very air around him left him feeling like he needed to take a very long, very hot bath.
The message that had brought him, despite his wishes to the contrary, had said that the men charged with the deconstruction of the city had made an important find - one that required him to come personally. And as loath as he was to venture far from Éowyn while she carried their first child, he was Prince of the realm involved. His was the responsibility to oversee the purging of Middle-earth of the obscenity that had become Minas Morgul - and thus it was also his responsibility to see just what it was that had been found and order its disposition.
"They're waiting for you, my lord," exclaimed the worker who hurried forth from what, in Minas Anor, would have been the Citadel. His pointing finger indicated where a small party that included Damrung himself stood in the gaping space that had once held a fine, mithril door - if legend could be believed.
Faramir nodded and stepped quickly. "What is it that your men have found that required me to come all this way?" he demanded of the man he'd put in charge of this immense project for the King.
"This way." Damrung's face was grim. "The men have left things as they found them."
"What things?" Faramir was getting tired of his questions not getting direct answers.
"You really need to see it for yourself, my lord. I doubt my words could convey the scene properly." The former Ranger at least had the good grace to look apologetic. "This place defies description, you have to admit - and this place is the worst of the lot." He let his lord lead the way into the building.
Faramir's eyes quickly adjusted to the dimness of the only hall in the Seventh Circle that still had its ceiling, a ceiling as high and vaulted as the Great Hall of Kings in Minas Anor. And the moment he found his way in the dimness, he wished himself half-blinded again. The obscenities that stood in the separate alcoves that would have been reserved for statues of Kings before Mordor's tenancy twisted at his stomach. His eyes wandered from alcove to alcove, wondering if those loyal to Angmar had truly been so depraved, or had the intent of these... depictions... been to shock and incapacitate those forced to look up on them?
He looked down, in order to look away, and then wished he hadn't done that either. There was no telling what manner of filth had covered the fine, white marble floors that he knew had to be beneath what he was walking on, but he could make a guess based on the overwhelming stench. Swallowing hard, he strode forward toward what was left of the lofty dais that would have held the throne. The marble and whatever else might have been its foundation had been ripped up, leaving a gaping hole in the floor at the end of the hall. Damrung led him right up to the very edge of the pit. "Down there?" he asked. At the grim nod, Faramir looked down, where two torches held by two men illuminated the sight.
Stunned, he bent forward. "Are those human bones?"
"Very old ones," Damrung confirmed. "And, from the looks of them, they were gnawed. Whoever it was that died, chances are that they were eaten before they were buried."
Again Faramir swallowed hard against the bile in the back of his throat. "How many do you estimate?"
"There is no question. There are six skulls," was the quiet answer.
"Only six?" Faramir straightened and gazed into Damrung's face. "Certainly there were more remains discovered than just these. Mordor has been taking prisoners and slaves for generations."
"Yes, my lord. The city, when we arrived, was one large charnel house. There is no possibility of knowing how many served and died, were tortured and died, or just died here."
"Then what is so special about these bones, from among so many?"
"This." Damrung held out a closed fist.
Faramir hesitated, but then put out an open palm to receive whatever it was that his foreman had for him. Damrung opened his fist, and the ring dropped into the open palm below it with a plop. Faramir picked up the ring and stepped closer to the nearest torch for a better look - and then gasped.
He'd seen drawings of this ring in the archives in Minas Tirith as a boy, when he'd been learning his history. The E glyph carved into the onyx, and the eagle's heads that curled over and below the stone were as familiar to him as was the A glyph with seven stars about it that would appear on all official communications from Elessar. This ring, however, also bore signs of the fate of its owner - the band was no longer round, and it looked as though those that had eaten the flesh around the ring had tried to break teeth on the jewel as well.
"Do you have any idea what this is?" he asked Damrung in a soft and respectful voice.
"I have a pretty good idea," Damrung answered. "It's the answer to a mystery almost a thousand years old. I don't know many who haven't heard the stories of the King and the five brave warriors who rode out to meet the challenge and were never seen again." He gazed at his Prince with a clear conscience. "It was why I knew you had to be summoned."
Faramir looked around him with narrowed eyes. "And the Witch-King sat here for a thousand years, gloating over them in their grave at his very feet and ever watching to usurp their city and peoples as well." The strength of the insult was staggering - and he appreciated all the more the favor his Lady-wife had done all of Middle-earth by ridding it of the one who had perpetrated this... this... He shook his head. "If only..."
If only Eärnur had chosen to ignore the challenge, then history would not have handed control of Gondor over to his ancestors - at least, not at that moment in time, and not in such an ignoble manner. In his hand was the symbol of the turning point that had taking Gondor from the line of Isildur and Elendil and handed it to the line of Húrin - a symbol of yet another of a long line of missteps and tragedies that was the history of this land.
"What would you have me do, my lord?" Damrung's voice broke through his musings. "Surely you wouldn't have them remain here?"
"Of course not!" The very idea was unthinkable. "Bring them out - and bring out everything that might still be there that belonged to them in life. They have rested in darkness and sorrow long enough. It is time they all came home." He cast a last, sad gaze into the depths of the pit, where the blackened bones lay in total disarray. Ribs and leg-bones had been had been cast down separately as a fiend of Mordor finished tearing the last of the flesh away - defiled and then thrown away as garbage; and the blackened skulls peered up in eternal horror.
Faramir shuddered. "Their revenge will be in having the oppressor's throne over them utterly cast down until nothing is left to remind those who come after that a city once stood here." He tucked the ancient ring into his coin pouch with great care. He turned away at last and, keeping his eye fixed on the square of light at the other end of the hall, he started toward the doorway - and escape from the overwhelming sense of evil and despair.
"Aye, my lord." Damrung leaned over the edge of the pit and gave a signal to the men who had been waiting. It was obvious the foreman had anticipated this decision, and some of the arrangements had already been made. All that was needed now was the effort to see them carried through. He then hurried to rejoin his Prince as Faramir strode purposefully from the dank and hideous travesty of a hall, determined not to remain in there any longer than necessary either.
"Will you be able to succeed in leaving no sign that this place ever existed?" Faramir demanded after pulling in a deep breath of only slightly less offensive air the moment he was out in the sunlight again. He shook himself, as if bodily movement could dislodge the horror of what he'd seen. "That was Elessar's intent, you know."
Damrung nodded. "The tunnels within the mountain above us are deep and many, my lord. They should hold the debris, easily - both from the city and from the tower of Cirith Ungol - and when we're finished, the mountain will offer no further sanctuary to even the least of Ungoliant's spawn, if any are left." He looked about. "In three years, you will not recognize this place."
"Good." Somehow, the idea of using the defiled stone of Minas Morgul to fill in the defiled depths of the tunnel that had housed Shelob felt like poetic justice. "I shall order a wain sent up to bring the King home to the White City. Arrange to have the bones housed honorably somewhere beyond the gates of this foul place to await its arrival. Let them spend no more time here than they already have. And have them washed; let the filth from Mordor and Angmar despoil them no longer."
"Very good, my lord." Damrung gazed at his lord in concern. Faramir's face was pale. "Are you all right? Can I offer you some refreshments?"
"I'm fine, thank you," Faramir located the man holding his horse and aimed his strides in that direction. "And I will be better yet once I'm away from this place." The moment he was close enough, he sprang up into the saddle and whirled his mount around. "See that you bring those men up from their prison with all haste and honor, Captain."
"Aye, my lord."
Faramir touched his stallion's flank with a gentle heel, and the horse sprang forward, away from this city of unholy death and obscene depravity. He would give the ring to Aragorn gladly, and help with the arrangements for a royal funeral long overdue.
With a gentle hand at the reins, he turned his mount back toward the green forests and fresh flowers of a living Ithilien, leaving the dead city and its secrets and shadows behind.