The next day the beech trees were replaced by oaks, and still the path wandered down. During our lunch stop I suggested that I might perhaps climb up one of the trees and see if I could make out the edge of the forest from where we were. With the strength the Ring gave me, it would be no great trial, and if the way ahead was not too far to go it would serve well to lift all our hearts. Thus Dwalin and Thorin hiked me up into the lowest boughs of a particularly massive oak, and up I went.
It was very pleasant up there above the leaf cover. I felt the breeze against my cheeks for the first time in too long. There was wildlife as well, great black butterflies that flapped their languid way around like dark floating clouds above a sea of green. What I could not see however, was any way out of the forest. Had I been thinking correctly I would have realised that we had not been coming down from high lands into lowland, but down the slopes of a valley whose walls rose around us and quite fouled all perspective. It was not so very far at all to the borders of the forest, yet from here it looked endless.
We were all in very foul moods when I came back down and told the others my bad news. We were parched and starving, and there was not one of us who was not thinking longingly of Beorn's halls, or of Rivendell's tables, or even, I dare say, of the purloined feast they had enjoyed at my expense in my own home – although I really only begrudged them it out of habit, for I should not have minded it all of that happened again.
It was in this sort of mind that we began to think about making camp that evening, and in such a mind that we glimpsed the sight of lights off in the distance between the trees. Everyone in the Company was wary, for it was some way off from the road, and even in our current states we remembered the warnings we had been given. Still, these were not the lights of any animal. Torches and fires meant people, and people would of necessity have food, and drink besides. Surely they would take pity on poor travellers who had lost their own provisions through nothing more than ill luck? I suspect Thorin would have had us wait and watch a while longer, but Bombur was muttering about dream-feasts under his breath and so our caution was soon flung to the non-existent winds.
Admittedly I hung back a little. I did not fear for my own safety, but I was beginning to perceive the strains of such song as echoed that we'd heard the day before, and I did not have hunger and thirst driving me to distraction. The Company crept closer, as silent as was possible for heavy-booted dwarven feet. We came to the edge of a clearing and saw a great gathering there, elven-folk dressed for hunting, seated on mossy stumps or on beautiful woven mats laid out on the leaf-litter, food and wine set out before them on the sward. Above the others, lying on soft cushions that padded a dead and hollowed-out tree like some natural throne, there was one elf with a crown of flowering branches, clad in a most impractical-seeming robe of silver, with dark brows and snow-blonde hair.
Thorin made a startled noise of utter disgust.
"We shall not go begging here," he said, and his words bore the most profound loathing that I had ever heard from him. Given that he had already told me the tale of his escape from Erebor on the day of the dragon's attack, this really ought to have been a clue for me.
There was a murmur of agreement from the older dwarves. "Still..." Balin said though, after a moment. "We will starve if we do not find something soon, and water is of more concern even than that."
"I will not debase myself before him," Thorin snarled. "But that does not mean we should not take a little something in payback for the debts we are owed."
I began to realise there was going to be trouble. Before I could make up my mind if I ought to try doing something about it, the dwarves were springing into action. Weapons drawn and held ready, they charged en mass into the clearing, and with nothing better to do I followed them.
There was a great flash of light, and I felt something come rushing over me. I had familiarised myself with the curse that had ensnared Bombur to a sufficient degree that I knew witch-craft when I felt it. Some spell had struck the others into place, and they stood like painted statues. I was unaffected, but I froze before my movement could betray me, and then very slowly reached for the Ring. The prince, or king, or whomever he was, rose to his feet with the sort of elegant motion that made him look like a tree moving in the wind. He approached the stricken Company, his court at his back. The hint of a smile graced his lips.
Gesturing to Thorin, he said something in Sindarin that elicited a round of laughter, and I felt hot anger stir in my breast. My questing fingers found my target, and the Ring practically leapt onto my hand. I was lucky enough that the shadows still concealed me sufficiently that my disappearance went unnoticed.
"But what are the Stunted Folk and their wandering princeling doing in the Greenwood?" the Elf-King said, and his lilting, scornful words were translated perfectly into my understanding. More of the Ring's powers, and a most useful one. "Come seeking to stir up trouble, we have no doubt. If the Shadow were not enough, now we have to put up with their dirty, ill-made selves befouling our Kingdom."
"You are right, my Lord Thranduil," one of the others said, and my rage grew to new heights. You can be sure I remembered being told of that name! This was the very elf who had abandoned Thorin's people to their fate, who had not even been willing to help evacuate the wounded from the area of Smaug's desolation. Thorin had made sure I knew how many had died in those first days who might else have lived with the aid of elvish medicine. And now he had the temerity to laugh at the returning King, to mock him and all his kin.
"Do you wish us to take them prisoner?" another of the court asked. My hand flew to the hilt of my sword. Let them try! But then of course, my better sense caught up with me. Even passing unseen, did I really think I could best a dozen or more elven warriors, all of whom had thousands of years experience to draw on? I wished I had not sent Angmar away. I could have used his blade now.
"Not yet," Thranduil replied. His haughty eyes raked over the still forms of the Company. The corner of his mouth quirked in amusement. "If they insist on blundering around in the dark, let them find what dangers await them there. It is not so far to the lair of a brood of Ungoliant's spawn, after all."
One of the elves near the back of the group was frowning. His clothes were as practical as most of the others but more finely appointed with delicate embroidery, and a light circlet graced with carved jade leaves was sitting at a slight angle upon his brow. "That seems... overly harsh," he said. "Should we not merely escort them under guard to the edge of the forest and send them on their way?"
"Thankfully my son, you have never had the unfortunate experience of meeting one of the Stunted Ones yet in all your years," Thranduil said. "There is no purpose in being merciful to them. They do not understand it. They will repay it with treachery." My gaze immediately flew between the pair of them, matching up the similarities. Yes, they both had the same odd mismatch of dark brows and snow-blonde hair, the same fineness of features. Yet it seemed this Prince had not quite the same hate in his heart as his father.
"Let no more be said upon the matter," the Elf-King said. "We have commanded it, and thus it shall be so. If by some chance or the will of fate they survive, then by all means shall they become our prisoners. Yet we do not think that will happen." His small smile was now quite ghoulish, and I hated him. Surely it would be possible for me to creep close enough to slip my sword up through his silky robe, under his ribs and into his heart. I could see the way to make the strike – the Ring was showing it to me, the sure culmination of Thorin's lessons.
I did not have time to put my plan into action. The elves split the air with whistles like the call of birds, and at their summons many tall, sleek horses came out from between the trees. The dwarves were heaved up and strapped onto their backs, their stone stillness become loose and limp, though they did not wake. Thranduil mounted a massive stag with huge spreading antlers like outstretched hands, and they headed off into the forest too fast for me to follow.
All was not yet lost, for I had the Ring. It might not be able to speed my feet as fast as a horse, but it made me strong and fast nevertheless, and by means of the more than natural senses it afforded me, I was able to track the elves passing by the melody and scent of the binding magic they had laid on my friends. As I ran I worried. I did not know quite what Ungoliant's spawn were, save that they were not good, and I had some faint memory of Radagast mentioning them at our meeting many weeks ago.
Spiders, the Ring told me. Giant spiders. The countless young of Ungoliant the Great, She who is called Gloomweaver, She who ever hungers, She who wounded the bright trees of Valinor, She who had such might that She even once imprisoned Melkor the Black, from whom my Mairon learned the ways of greatness and power, and whom he cherished above all else that exists.
I confess my heart grew cold with this. Spawn they might be only, but with such a mother that the Ring spoke of her in awed whispers... I feared for my friends, and for Thorin most of all. The thought that he might be going into such danger put my heart in my throat and cold iron in my belly. As I sped on, leaping over roots of trees and under low boughs with the ease of a running fawn, I called out to Angmar with the Ring's own song, a cry in the dark to him and all others who were kin to him and thus whom the melody would resonate within. I called to them, and only hoped they were near enough to heed me.
I learned later that the dwarves had known none of what happened between being stunned by that great blast of light and waking once again in darkness. They had stumbled about for some time, finding each other and then searching for me. Thorin had insisted they keep at it even after the first lights – trap lights, lights leading them on towards danger – appeared again in the distance. Oin and Bombur and Dori had convinced him that the best chance they had of finding me was to go towards those lights, and so go towards them they did, to similar end as the first time. Once more this happened, and – I am told, for he would not admit to it himself – Thorin's rage and fury grew ever more. He was quite out of his mind with worry for me, with was really rather flattering, and made me feel quite warm all over when I heard of it.
In any case, after the darkness fell over them again, they struggled on in the black for as long as they could before eventually admitting defeat. Even Thorin in all his Kingly majesty could not force them on any further. They settled down to sleep, and it was not long after that the first of the spiders must have come upon them.
By my reckoning it was about this point that the first of the Nazgûl reached me. I heard the patter of heavy paws coming up alongside me, and glanced over to see a ghostly figure astride a racing warg. It was clad in black robes woven with some kind of charm that made them visible where he was not, but the hood was thrown back to let me see his insubstantial face, long hair floating as though underwater quite at odds with the speed of our passage. It was not Angmar, but another of his brothers; Khamûl his lieutenant, as the Ring was swift to inform me.
"Master," he said, inclining his head to me with more respect than Angmar had. It was not at all difficult to hear his voice, even over the panting of his warg. "What is of such great import that you summon us with such urgency?"
"Elves have tricked the others of my Company into the lair of Ungoliant's spawn," I said, a little surprised that I was not breathing overly hard considering the fast pace of my chase. "I need your help to rescue them."
"I welcome the chance to kill elves," the Nazgûl said, baring his teeth in a skull-like grimace that I realised was as close as his gaunt and bony face could get to a smile. "And spiders would not dare challenge the Nine or any who are under the Ring-Bearer's power."
"Perhaps they will not know my friends are under my protection," I growled.
"Friends...?" Khamûl shook his head. "It matters not. Come join me on my mount; we will go the faster for it."
We slowed long enough for him to pull me up to sit before him. His hand was more bone than flesh, stretched over with a macabre patchwork of skin, and what little I could feel of him at my back was like an animated skeleton. To be honest, it made me feel sorry for him rather than disturbed by him. I was more sure now than ever that he was dead, or something very much like it, and one could not eat when they were dead. It must be terrible to go without that pleasure that is so essential to every hobbit. I might not need to eat anymore, with the Ring's strength, but that didn't mean I was not going to.
With a swift warg for our steed, it was indeed not long before we came into the spider's territory. Thick webs were strung everywhere, but I drew my blade, and Khamûl drew his, and we had little difficulty in clearing a way. It was at that point that we were joined by Angmar and another wraith – Hoarmurath, the Ring whispered.
Khamûl was quick to fill the others in on our mission, and thus we four rode into the spider's lair on the trail of the Company. Several times I saw the glitter of insect eyes between the trees, but none challenged us, and indeed they skittered off faster even than our wargs in the direction we were headed. The Ring was hissing and whispering in the back of my head, half to me and half to itself, full of excitement at the prospect of bloodshed, and particularly at the prospect of taking revenge on elves. It did not seem to like elves very much.
Before long we came upon a great clearing all strewn with webbing like some great silken dome, with bits of bones and dried up leathery scraps littering the floor. Spiders covered the trees all around, clustered thick upon the ground, hung from high above. Drooping from the heavy boughs of the old and massive oak at the centre of the clearing were thirteen wrapped bundles; the dwarves. Khamûl and I led the way in, the wargs padding along at walking speed now. Tension made the air thick, and the spiders muttered to each other with a chitinous susurrus.
One particularly large spider was waiting for us, crouched before the tree. It skittered closer, mouthparts waving with a languid curiosity. "What comes to our web-lair, kin-folk?" it asked. Its voice was higher than I was expecting. "Smells of the Dark One, but is not him. Has his slave-things though. What does it want, the thing that hides in the shadows yet still makes a shape in the air?"
"You have taken something of mine," I said, sitting up straight as I could upon the warg's back. "Or rather, thirteen somethings. I would like them back." I just managed to stop myself from saying please. I had the feeling it would have the opposite effect to the one I wanted, considering those I was addressing.
"Comes to steal prey?" the spider said. "No. Rightfully ours. Our hunting grounds, our prey, ours. The Dark One promised."
"And we always keep our promises to spiders?" Hoarmurath said, and got a great chittering and many other angry noises for his trouble.
"Sauron's dogs!" the spider said, "Curses on your petty god Morgoth! Ungoliant is our mother, and we need not take such words from you!"
With a deafening and piercing wail of anger Hoarmurath spurred his mount forwards, his ghost-blade flashing out. Angmar was not far behind him, and Khamûl too. I grabbed for a handful of the warg's fur to keep my balance, and laid about my with my elven blade. In the Ring-sight it gave off that same blue glow that meant orc-kind, and when it touched spider-flesh it burned white. The chaos of battle was all around, and I lost track of the other Nazgûl entirely despite the Ring whispering details at the back of my head. I was too busy; I could not parse the information.
Soon the spiders were running before us. Dark, curled-up corpses lay scattered everywhere. One of the wargs was dying though, shuddering and moaning with spider-poison, frothing at the mouth. Angmar put it out of its misery with a swift stab of his sword.
"What now, master?" he asked, still with that contempt dripping off my title.
"Cut them down," I said, gesturing to the dwarves with my blade. Black ichor was dripping off it, thick as mud. I was a little curious to see if they would climb up to do it – I could not imagine them doing something so undignified. I was a little disappointed, then, when Angmar used witch-craft to snip the dangling threads and lower them to the ground on a cushion of air.
"Right then," I said, and we started the sticky work of freeing the rest of the Company. It was only when we had got everyone up on their wobbly feet that I realised I had miscounted. There were not thirteen dwarves here, but twelve. Thorin was missing, and I knew only one place where he could be. In Thranduil's power.
The spider's poison was a strong one, and so it took some time before the dwarves had gathered their senses enough to realise that they were free of the cloying strictures of the webs, or indeed to take any stock of their surroundings at all. Dwalin was the first on account of his size and hardy constitution, so it was he who raised a shout when he saw just what was surrounding them.
"Wargs!" he cried, and immediately began casting round for a weapon, as did all the others save Fili, Kili and Ori, who were still slumped on the ground looking woozy.
"Wait," I yelled, forgetting that I was wearing the Ring and thus invisible. Indeed so were Angmar and Hoarmurath, so my friends could easily be forgiven for assuming that some small warg pack had chased off their spider guards and now meant to devour them. It was dark enough that I doubted they could even make out Khamûl's dark robes, or the faint half-visible shapes of the Wraith's swords.
"Bilbo, is that you?" Bofur called, searching for me in the murk. "Stay where you are, they seem to be focused on us for now."
"Oh confound all this," I said to myself, and went to take off the Ring.
Hold, it told me. I've had enough of this back and forth. You need not put me aside to move back into the world that mortals perceive. This is magic just like any other, and something you must learn to master in turn. I hold power in both realms, spirit and material, and so you and I must walk through them equally. Here.
It showed me the feeling-shape of a door, or perhaps a curtain, as though wreathed with a ghostly light and smelling strongly of lilies. It was a simple enough effort of will to slip through it into the visible world. "Here I am," I said to astonished faces. "And you need not have any fear. The wargs are well trained I am sure, and will not attack without their masters' command."
"And where are their masters?" Dwalin asked, his eyes glowering with suspicion. He had scooped up two long animal bones from the carrion-pile, and I did not doubt they would be more dangerous than they looked in his hands.
"That is harder to explain," I said with a sigh. I supposed that the truth of this matter would have to come out eventually, and at least I could say that the Ring and the powers it held were under my control, which was more than I could have claimed a few days ago. I motioned to Khamûl and the others to come forward, hoping that at least the blade-light would be enough to show that something was there. "These are some... allies of mine, although I am afraid they are quite invisible to your eyes, save for the swords they bear, and the spell Khamûl has on those robes of his. The tale of how I came to find them is a long one, and not fit for uncomfortable conditions such as these, particularly since Thorin is still missing and I would very much like to go find him."
"I trust nothing I cannot see," Gloin said, glaring, and Dori, Nori and Oin all nodded in agreement.
"You must admit that it all seems very suspicious lad," Balin said, although he did relax a little. "Wargs are vicious creatures, and can be tamed only by equally vicious means." He lowered his voice. "Are you sure these friends of yours can be trusted?"
The honest answer to that was no, but I did not think the Nazgûl were capable of taking any action against me however much they might want to. I prevaricated, saying, "Oh, I think they can be trusted to help us for the moment. You see, that enchantment that froze you all up when we burst into the clearing was the elves work, as well as being what allowed you to be led into this mess with the spider. These three have no liking for elves."
"Then we have that much in common," Dwalin said, lowering his bone clubs. "Alright, I'll take your word for it burglar, since you have gotten us out of a sticky mess. But I'll be keeping my eye on them."
There was a general murmur of agreement, and Fili who was just pulling his pale brother to his feet, said quite fiercely, "If they're going to help us get Thorin back, then I don't care who or what they are!" The effect was somewhat spoiled by the way he was swaying on his feet. Hoarmurath's warg, standing but a few feet away, whined at him and panted, massive pink tongue lolling out. Fili glared at it, and Kili waved an arm at it in some half-drunk gesture.
"If the elves are the ones responsible for our capture by the spiders," Balin said, "would I be right in assuming that they have Thorin as well?"
I nodded. "I am afraid so. Thranduil must have taken him somewhere – perhaps he has some stronghold or such near here."
"Then we must be off immediately," Kili said, trying to stride off in some direction picked surely at random, and nearly falling over.
Angmar spoke then. "It is clear that these... dwarves of yours... are in no shape to join our strike against the Elf-King and his court. I advise that we wait for the rest of my kin to arrive, and in the meantime, send out a scouting party to gather the lay of the land."
It was sound enough advice, although I could see that it rankled with the Company. They could not deny however that they were weak on their feet, and the poison's effects were not passing from them with any great speed.
"Aye, 'tis for the best that you go," Dwalin finally said, "and take your foul beasts with you." Indeed, the wargs were still somewhat excitable after their recent battle, and one was nosing around young Ori, who was edging further and further behind Fili and Kili.
"Nice doggie," he said nervously, pushing its nose aside with a trembling hand.
"Are you sure you will all be safe here?" I asked. "After all, your weapons are missing."
"They must be around here somewhere," Nori said. He had been trying to get his hairstyle back into some semblance of order for most of this time, but now seemed to have given it up as futile. It was thick with sticky webbing and quite mussed. I suspected he might have to cut some of it off, which would no doubt be a blow to his pride. "I don't recall much, but I do remember the spiders pulling my knives away, and it was not long after that that they strung us up."
I spent a little while longer getting assurances that everyone was satisfied with the plan, such as it was, and that they had given some thought to what to do if the spiders came back – although I did not think it likely that they would – and so I pulled myself back onto the back of Khamûl's warg, with Angmar and Hoarmurath taking the other, and we set off back into the forest.
It was something of a stroke of luck that we encountered an elvish patrol just on the edge of spider territory. I suppose they were waiting to see if any of the dwarves managed to escape and come out this way. It was rather less lucky for them that they instead ran into us.
After everything that had happened, seeing my friends about to be eaten by spiders and with Thorin still missing, I was in no mood to be pleasant. I had grown accustomed to anger after all my practise using it against the Ring, and it burned within me now, a hatred of these sculpture-pretty people, arrogantly thinking themselves better than the other races of Middle-Earth, selfishly keeping the secrets of their knowledge amongst themselves, keeping themselves apart and refusing to offer aid. They were not Thranduil but they were his soldiers, and so I had no compunction about ordering us to attack.
There were not many of them, half a dozen mounted on fine-boned horses, clad in leather armour and armed with slender, bannered spears and light, curved sabres. Angmar slipped from his mount and circled round to guard their rear, and then with an unearthly shriek from the Nazgûl we had the wargs in amongst them, their fierce teeth closing over equine legs and shattering them, snapping and snarling and causing such confusion that those steeds left uninjured reared and panicked, throwing their riders and fleeing into the path of Angmar's razor-edged blade.
Taken by surprise, the elves still reacted with swiftness. We were in too close for spear-work, but their sabres were quick to flash out. Khamûl whirled our warg round, the snake-quick strike of his sword turned aside by equally quick reflexes. I drew on the strength of the Ring, knowing I would never be able to keep up with the speed of the battle without it. My own blade was out, though it felt a little inadequate compared to all the others.
The elves attacked, some drawing blood from the wargs, although not from the Wraiths, for they had no blood to give. Nazgûl-blades lashed out, and an elf was on the ground and groaning, his chest split and his innards spilling out in a wet mess of blood and viscera. My stomach turned and I looked away. This was not the relatively clean fight against spiders, whose alien bodies did not offer up such sights. It was worse than killing the creature Gollum.
Look! Look! The Ring cried to me, joyous in this shedding of blood. Take your revenge and exult in it! Slaughter Illuvatar's haughty children!
I had little chance to indulge my squeamishness; the battle was far from over. An elf darted in, dodging the snap of the warg's jaws, and thrust at me. My sword rose out of an automatic reaction schooled into me by Thorin's lessons and turned it aside, sliding down 'til I jinked it past the guard and plunged it beneath his arm. Blood came when I pulled it free, and a gusting wheeze of air. From the Ring came the knowledge that I had punctured a lung and given a slow, unpleasant death.
I straightened up upon my mount, which was now circling with its pair around the two elves left alive, standing back to back, wide-eyed with surprise and fear. Angmar appeared out of the tree-shadows at the edge of the clearing, blood dripping down his blade. He was grim-faced, but some part of me felt his satisfaction.
"You dare come here?" one of the elves shouted, and I saw that he was in fact a she. "The White Council drove your foul master from his fortress, and they will come after you next!"
I was in no mood for the sort of silly posturing that we could easily fall into, the kind where I declared that no, I was the master now, and their surprise and scorn, and insults bandied back and forth and so on and so on. It was not my experience I was drawing on at that moment, I knew that much, but I recognised the truth of it anyway. I nodded to Hoarmurath, and he darted in, warg and sword striking such that it was only possible to deflect one. The male elf blocked the Wraith-blade and tried to dodge the teeth, but he did not quite manage it. He screamed as the beast latched onto his arm and tore into him. I turned my attention to the last warrior, who had rapidly backed away from the carnage.
"Where is Thranduil's fortress?" I demanded. "Where did he take Thorin Oakenshield?"
"I should have known those treacherous stillbirths-of-the-earth were in league with Sauron's evil," she said, raising her sword and leaping towards us. Our warg snapped at her heels and missed, but Khamûl's blade clashed against hers, ghost-sparks flying. She cursed us in Sindarin and fell back, narrowly missing Hoarmurath coming for her. Then Angmar was there, turning her sabre aside with a flick of his blade, catching it in some complicated twist and sending it flying. All three Nazgûl were radiating some kind of ambient magic-song. It washed over me like a cool breeze, but its effect on the elf was much more marked. She was pale and trembling with fear, yet still she held her ground.
"Surrender and tell us the path to Thranduil's fortress, and it shall go well with you," I said, as sternly and commandingly as I knew how.
"I shall never submit to evil," she replied, and I saw by her face how determined she was. We would get nowhere be asking nicely.
"Do you know where we ought to be heading after this?" I asked Khamûl quietly, twisting slightly in my seat.
"Perhaps my lord, but it would be easier if we force her to tell us."
I had a good enough idea of what that meant, but it was one thing torturing a sort-of inanimate object – I was honest enough with myself at that point to call it what it had been – but doing it to a living being was another thing entirely. A quick and honest death was one thing, but long and protracted and agonising? No. At that point in my life my stomach was not strong enough to do what needed to be done unless there was no hope of finding any other way.
"No," I said. "There is little time in any case." Not entirely a lie, but said more as an excuse than as a real reason. I motioned to Angmar, extending my will out in silent communication. He nodded, and ghost-steel flashed. Blood soaked brown locks. A head fell on the sward. I looked away, disquieted. I hoped I had made the right decision.
We rode north under the late afternoon sun. Angmar and Hoarmurath were more insubstantial than ever, since I was still keeping myself in the physical world. There was light enough filtering down between the branches to make out faint shadow-forms, but a casual glance would have revealed only a speeding warg.
I spend the while casting my mind out, listening for the vague sense of elf-song, or something like it that might mean their kind of magic was nearby. Even if I had not encountered it already, the Ring knew what to look for, was eager in searching it out. Its hate was strong. It seemed, from the vague impressions that I was getting, that there was a long history of conflict between Mairon and the elves, which did not much surprise me considering that he seemed to be some sort of evil overlord. That other name for him, Sauron, which the Wraiths disliked so much, also sounded familiar from some book or other.
Thranduil's stronghold was not too far away, and in the end we did not have too much trouble finding it. I felt more sure in my decision to give that last elf a quick death. We had not needed her information after all.
The fortress was – to my surprise – built underground. A wide and fair bridge spanned a dark river ahead of us; no doubt a tributary of that same black and enchanted flow coming down from the mountains. Two massive beech trees guarded the path on the other side, leading up to a set of massive stone doors inscribed with many words of protection in both Tengwar and Cirth runes leading into the side of some tall and steep hill. It put me somewhat in mind of a great smial of the Shire, if on a rather different scale. I could not imagine it ran as deep as dwarven halls, though the Ring recognised dwarven work in the doors' shaping. Not too proud to pay for their workmanship then, merely too proud to offer them help when it was needed!
"What now?" I wondered aloud. "We shall have some trouble getting through those doors, surely."
"We wait for the others," Angmar replied, "and we wait for darkness when our powers will be stronger. I shall prepare a spell to break open those gates." Something in his dry, cold, voice sounded pleased.
Again he spoke wisely, and we dismounted and settled in for nightfall. It was not too far off at this point, and I did not feel confident at taking on who knew how many elves without the rest of the Nine. I knew instinctively that they would be stronger when they were all together. Apart, they were like the individual instruments in a composition, and the song would not come together until all the strains flowed as one.
The Ring gave me names as their owners arrived. First was Akhorahil, of the same people as Angmar, and Uvatha, who had once been a Lord of a nomadic people that had settled in the lands north of Gondor in years long after his un-death. Their wargs were burdened with baggage as Angmar's had been when we first met, and I wondered where he had hidden whatever it was he had been carrying. After that were Dwar and Ji Indur, also called Dawndeath, both from lands to the far east, past the Lonely Mountain, past even the Iron Hills, not even on any map I had ever seen. They greeted the others with respectful nods of their head, bowing to Angmar and watching me warily.
Finally came Ren, and Adûnaphel the Quiet, who turned out to be a Queen rather than a King, a fact that Angmar had neglected to mention. Not that it would have been possible for me to tell without the Ring's knowledge, for she was clad in the same ghostly, tattered robes as the others, and un-death had left her features as gaunt as a skull.
"That is all of you then," I said, counting them. Twilight was settling over the forest. "You who have just joined our number may be surprised at me, but I assure you that I am master of Mairon's Ring. I have called you to me to attack this elven stronghold and rescue Thorin Oakenshield, my friend and ally, who is rightful King-Under-The-Mountain. I understand that you have a certain interest in killing elves."
Uvatha and Ren both laughed, a guttering exhale like the wind battering tree branches against a hard surface. Eager gazes were fixed upon me, hands wound tight in their wargs' fur, heels ready to spur the sides of their steeds and leap on to the attack.
"Angmar, are you ready?" I asked.
The Witch-King nodded. Indeed, I could feel the melody of his spell wound around him, a harsh drum-beat sound that pulsed with the smell of something acrid and burning with each loud thump. A heat that was not heat radiated out from his clenched fists.
I did not need to voice the command to ride out. I mounted Khamûl's warg; they perceived my will and we sprung forth, Angmar at our head. He was calling more power to him with harsh words of Ancient Numenor, pulling it from the rings borne by his kin and from my Ring, a little siphon that I barely noticed. He did not need too much of the One's strength.
As we reached the crest of the bridge's gentle rise he let the spell loose with a great cry like a hawk in the stoop. Green witch-light burst forth, and a vast explosion shattered the stone doors like glass, trembling through the earth and air. I felt its rumble in my chest. The fearsome Nazgûl shriek filled the air to herald our coming.
There had been guards on the gate, but not many, not when they seemed so strong and secure. They had been much hurt by the blast that split the doors apart, torn by flying shards of rock, and they lay moaning with their blood soaking the ground. We left them to die or not as fate willed it.
Past the gates was a large hall and many corridors splitting off from it, going back into the hill. A small party of elves in fine robes had been sitting talking at the far end, and now they were on their feet and looking about them in alarm. They did not seem to know what to do. We were upon them before they had a chance to decide. Nazgûl-blades dealt deadly wounds. Some of them turned to flee.
"Hold," I ordered. "Let them go if they run. We are here for a reason, and aside from Thranduil, whom I would see dead, I care not if his subjects live or die. If they are soldiers, or they attack us, then by all means we shall kill them, but if they surrender let them be."
There were some murmurs of discontent, but the Nine seemed willing enough to abide by my wishes. We split into three groups, each taking a different route out of the hall. With the awareness of the Ring I was able to keep track of where each of us were in this unfamiliar territory. We could cover more ground this way, and I would know if one of us came across the dungeons where Thorin was no doubt being held.
The paths and curving hallways of the elf-fortress were high and wide enough for the wargs to pass freely, and lit with bright-burning torches. Angmar and Akhorahil cast faint, rippling shadows on the floor as we went, and Khamûl was a comfortingly solid weight at my back. Unseen to the eye the wraiths may have been, but they could be touched and felt much like any other being.
We were attacked no few times. Elves in bright armour wielding halberds were waiting for us as we turned one corner, archers behind them. Arrows whined, and I threw up my hand with a flash of instinctive power. The spell-song of the Ring rose, deep, melodious, glorious. The deadly missiles splintered, missed their mark and wasted themselves on stone and rich tapestries. My sword glowed with new light, white and harsh. The wargs snarled, and we charged.
These were the some of the best of Thranduil's guard, ancient warriors and deadly; they had been practising their art for centuries. But so had the Nazgûl, and they could not be killed by simple steel. It would be a powerfully enchanted blade that wounded any of them, a Glamdring or an Orcrist, and for all their lithe speed and silken grace, the elves were no match for them. The wargs however were not so lucky. They were but mortal beasts, and easily felled.
The dying howls of our steeds filling my ears, and the strength of the Ring surging through my veins, I fought as well as I was able. I might have only had a few lessons with Thorin, but they had stuck in the memory of both mind and body, and I was a small target. The Ring made me fast, and seemed to give me a knack for dodging the great sweeps of the halberds with hairs-breadths to spare. Whatever witch-power the Ring had put on my elven blade, it cleaved through armour as easily as it did flesh. Blood and bodies littered the floor.
In that chaos of battle, the Nazgûl fighting beside me in a whirl of dark swords and half-seen shapes, I do not know how long it took us to slay that first group. Not long enough for more reinforcements to come to their aid, at any rate. When it was over I was left panting, adrenaline and Ring-power pushing all my senses to their limits. Blood spray had quite ruined my waistcoat, painted my face and hair, was sizzling from the white glow of my sword.
"Letter opener indeed," I said to myself. "It has opened up these elves easily enough, though they are made of something rather tougher than paper."
Eldanqualë you should call it, the Ring told me. Elf's Death.
"Eldanqualë," I repeated. "Yes. It is a fine name."
"We should continue on," Angmar said, wiping gore from his blade on an elven cloak. I nodded, and we headed on down the passageway. The others of the Nine had run into similar resistance, with similar results. I was sure that there would be more coming once they organised themselves, but for the moment we still had some of the element of surprise. It would be well to take advantage of that.
As I said, that was not the last attack the elves mounted upon us before we reached our goal. Many times we went past trap-halls where elves rained arrows upon us from hidden walkways, heedless of the fact that they could not hurt the Wraiths, and the Ring turned them easily aside from me. They came at us from side rooms and hidden ways also, but none had weapons forged with the strength to kill the Nine. They fought valiantly but they could not help but die, and I felt no guilt for it. Their king had brought this upon them with his evil, and back in the Shire, any Thain or Mayor who acted so abominably would have been driven out of his office. They had not done so in all the years since Erebor's fall, so they were just as to blame as Thranduil.
I do not pretend that the violence of it all did not affect me, but that was to come afterwards, when the Ring's strength waned from me and I no longer felt its bloodlust in the back of my head, protecting me from what I was doing. It was necessary and certainly better than letting them keep Thorin unjustly, or faltering during battle and letting them kill me. That did not change the fact that it was much closer work than any I had yet done, and to a much greater degree in the numbers slain. By the time we came upon the throne-room I stank with the rankness of spilled viscera and my own sweat.
"The Elven-King is within," Akhorahil said, gesturing with his sword at the door that now barred our way. It had been guarded by the greatest concentration of elves yet, and killing them had been trying work, made worse by the fact that injuries did not seem to be enough to stop them. So great was their determination that they would pull themselves back into the attack until they passed out from loss of blood or we struck them down more finally.
"Good," I said, grim-faced. I was glad at least that the elves who were not soldiers had fled to other parts of the citadel. I did not mean to lay waste to their home and make myself a hypocrite, only take back what was rightfully mine. (In the heat of those moments, I was not aware how possessively I was thinking of Thorin. I had not quite yet realised how much he meant to me.)
Angmar burst this door as he had the other, and we strode into the great room beyond that was high ceilinged and arrayed with beautiful things. The three Nazgûl fanned out behind me. Their kin were still enmeshed in fighting elsewhere in the mess of hallways. We would be doing this without their strength to add to our own, but I had no fear. I knew we would prevail. How could we not? The Ring was puissant indeed.
Thranduil had dressed himself in fine armour, and bore a long sword waiting in his right hand. Although his stance seemed relaxed, the blade's tip just brushing the ground, the knowledge granted me by the Ring let me know he was ready to strike at any moment. His guard were arrayed around him.
"Has Sauron the Foul taken on some new form?" the Elf-King asked. "Have you come to take revenge for the White Council driving you from Dol Guldur?" He sounded haughty, defiant, but there was a hint of fear lurking under the surface. He had seen the destruction we had wrought.
"No," I said, holding up my hand, showing the Ring for all to see. "I am not the Necromancer, but I have something that once was his. I am sure you know of it. I am the Master of the One Ring now."
He paled, and a fearful susurrus rose amongst his guards. "Who are you?" he demanded. "Why have you come here?"
"I have come for Thorin Oakenshield," I said, and watched the emotions play across his face that he could not quite hide. Surprise, and rage, and the kind of half-satisfied disgust that comes when one is proven right about some undesirable person whom you have long suspected ill of. It curdled my stomach and ignited my rage.
"I have heard of your ill deeds before Erebor's walls!" I cried, and if I could have seen myself in that moment I would not have recognised myself. "I pass judgement on you, for it seems none else will! Face me and die, King Thranduil!"
It was as clear a challenge to a duel as I knew how. Eldanqualë was glowing in my hand, pulsing in time to the beat of my angered heart. I wore no armour, but I was not afraid. I was sure in the knowledge of my own supremacy, the Ring's gift to me.
He stepped forward, regal and as elegant as ever. "So be it, you arrogant and evil creature. I know not what you are, but as Isildur laid Sauron low, so shall I you."
I was the first to attack. My short stature meant I had none of his reach, and my footwork had to be unnaturally fast to even have a hope of matching his. Still, he was obviously not expecting me to be as swift as I was, and his move to block me came late. I scored his forearm, slicing clean through his vambraces, and his eyes narrowed with pain. He didn't let it hinder him though, and he retaliated with a flurry of blows like the pounding of a smith's hammer against metal, using gravity against me.
I put my trust in the Ring's senses and instincts after that; I had to in order to survive. I dodged, I turned his blade aside with the delicate application of force at the right time and place, I eeled past his guard when he had to overextend himself down to my level. I focused on injuring him for the moment. I could not score a blow above his waist without leaving myself open, so I had to hope to hurt him enough to force him to his knees.
We were very evenly matched. It was clear he had not become King merely for his beauty – although I confess I was not overly sure how elves did choose their leaders. That it might be whomever was the most fine of features was not entirely outside the realm of possibility. Thranduil was a very fine warrior as well though. His sword was a thing to be wary of also. It was very old, and wrought with spells in the making of it. Were this one of my Wraiths in the fight, they would need to fear it. For myself, I had whatever protection against it that the Ring gave me, and that was nothing to sneer at.
It was luck, as with so many things, that gave me the opening I needed, although one of us would have eventually tired enough to create a similar opportunity in the end. His armour was crafted to fight someone of his own height or a little less, and so it did not protect from the angle of my blows as well as it might. Even as unnaturally sharp as Eldanqualë was, it might not have sunk deep enough if circumstances had been different.
I ducked under a swipe intended to take off my head. Hungry and seeking for blood, my blade thrust forward towards the place where his leg met his body, where the shared Ring-knowledge told me ran one of the great blood vessels. It found its mark, cut in, through, pierced the life-place. Blood came, a heavy, rich rain, spurting with his elf-slow heartbeats. I leapt back as he staggered, dropping his sword as both hands went to stem the flow, his eyes wide with disbelief.
Elves heal fast, and they are much tougher than their slight frames would ever indicate. It took Thranduil a long time to die. Several of his guards made motions to come forward and help him, but the Nazgûl were still there, and the threat of death when they raised their blades in warning returned the elves to their places. I felt their fear as though it were a piece of spell-craft, dirtying the air.
"The dragon..." Thranduil said, as fresh red blood streamed past the barrier of his fingers. "The dragon will kill you and your curséd dwarvish servants, even if the might of the elves cannot."
"We shall see," I replied. That was in the future, and I would deal with that when it came.
"Sauron has been cast down before." Thranduil's voice was growing weaker. "And whatever you are, you are not of the Maiar. The Istari will come for you, or they will raise the armies of men and elves. Erebor may be a fortress, but it will not stand against that weapon hunger. Gold and gems cannot be eaten."
"We shall see," I repeated. In all honesty, I had not yet considered what I might do if we did manage to retake Erebor. I certainly did not have any wish to return home at this point. I was too changed; I could not imagine going back to the life I had had. On the other hand Gandalf would probably show up again at some point, and although I felt entirely justified in my own actions, I could not be sure he would see it that way. I did not believe myself to be evil merely because I had learned how to use the tools of the evil Necromancer Mairon. They were just that; tools. I hoped I could convince him of the same. Certainly I had no intentions at that point of ruling over the kingdoms of Middle-Earth. That came much later.
Finally Thranduil passed out of consciousness, and eventually out of life itself. The flow of blood from his leg grew sluggish, seeping rather than pulsing, and his paleness became the paleness of death. Choked cries rose up from many amongst his guard. I glared at them. I did not think they had a right to mourn, considering what he had done. He had not been a very pleasant person.
Still, I had what I had mostly wanted. I had taken the dwarves' revenge. I could be merciful. "Take me to Thorin Oakenshield, and we shall leave here without further slaughter," I announced to the crowd of them.
I could see how much it rankled with them. How much they would have preferred to try once more to kill us. But they had seen how easily we had slain those who stood in our way before we got here, and that I had managed to kill their King without much more than a few negligible scratches on me. This was not the time to attack us. This was the time to regroup, to wait for a better moment.
"Very well," one of them said, stepping forward. His helmet bore a crest of feathers. "I shall take you to the dungeons."
I motioned for him to lead the way. Now that my focus was not on the battle, I became aware once more of the others of the Nine. They had sensed the fight and were moving towards us. We would no doubt meet them as we walked. As we left the hall, the elf in front of me and the three Nazgûl behind, I noticed the elf prince who had spoken in the dwarves' favour in the forest. He was slumped against a pillar, his eyes wet with unshed tears. He did not look at me.
I felt sorrow then, not for Thranduil, but for his son. He had no part in his father's ill acts, and he was bound to him by the bonds of blood. It was a pity, but I had done what I had to do. I did not think on him any further, which in the fullness of time did not go very well for either of us. But that is a story that comes much later.
The dungeons were not far, but deeper in the earth, down circling stairs to where things started to look more like real caves, rather than carved rooms. I wondered if this was meant to be some meagre kindness, or whether this seemed unpleasant enough to the elves that they would assume Thorin would also find it so. The other Nazgûl fell into step behind us as we went, and before long we came to a heavy, thick, metal door, slatted to allow the passage of food. The elf unlocked it, and pulled the door aside with effort. I went in.
Thorin was looking very bedraggled indeed, chained to the wall, stripped of his armour, but the fire was still in his eyes. He looked up as I entered, and gazed at me in astonishment. I smiled.
"Bilbo, what on earth..? How did you get the key?" He had not yet seen the soldier outside, or the shadow-forms of the Wraiths.
I could not help the happiness that rose in my heart, the gladness that he was unharmed, the joy of seeing him safe. I grabbed him into an embrace such as the one he had given me atop the Carrock, and he returned it gladly. We broke apart eventually, and then, quite surprising both him and myself, for it was an act of sheer impulse, I pulled him in once again to press my lips to his.
Finally I made sense of my feelings. I was in love with Thorin Oakenshield. And I would not have it any other way.