7. Chapter 7
Isildur walked slowly in the near-dark, his steps careful and deliberate. The cinders and stones of Mount Doom had been trial enough in daylight, with Elrond dragging him relentlessly up the scree; in the darkness speed would be suicidal.
He had seen few of the soldiers on his path. He assumed, without giving the matter much thought, that their labours had been completed and most had retired to rest. He could have done with that himself. But not now. Not now.
He could feel all too clearly the weariness that lay heavy upon him.
On roads such as this he needed his wits about him, his senses clear then from the weariness that fogged them. Not even the brawl with Glorfindel had been able to lift that weariness totally, though it had been as a spray of cold water on him while it had lasted. Blind, witless Glorfindel, so blithely arrogant - he had deserved it every bit.
He stumbled, and slid, swearing wildly. <<Now look what you've done, dammit!>> he told Glorfindel silently and unjustly, and moved forward more cautiously, his eyes fixed on his feet.
He wondered how Elrond was faring, and the thought caused him a distant pang of pain. Whatever came of his errand, it would hurt Elrond beyond belief. <<Perhaps,>> whispered that part of his mind that was still his, <<perhaps beyond repair.>>
He could still remember how it felt, to love someone. He had loved so many people, so very much, all the days of his life, with a prodigal generosity of spirit that held nothing back. For most of his youth he had wooed men and maids indiscriminately, with neither qualms nor conscience. It had been his way, and who had there been to prevent him? He had loved them all, in a way, before he had found what love truly could be; but there had never been reason to restrict himself. It had not been cheating for he had never made vows of exclusion, and he had treated each with respect and affection.
But Elrond ... Elrond had been altogether different - a different world to all his lightly-taken previous loves. Never once had he been even tempted to take Elrond's love lightly - it had been worth too much for that. Elrond alone had been enough. Elrond had been everything to him.
<<Apart from Linneth, I suppose>> he thought, remembering his wife with a sudden pang of something not unlike guilt; <<but that was no more than duty.>> Linneth had been the suitable wife, found for him by his father; and they had treated each other in the approved manner, producing the required heirs between them, with neither trespassing on the other's separate lives. it was Linneth's serving-maid, Meril, who kept her mistress warm at night, as she had for many years; and Isildur had never been so small-hearted as to object. At least he knew, he thought wryly, that none of his sons were bastards.
He climbed on, finding the clag and cinders of the mountain's slopes slippery and treacherous under his feet. It was more wearisome, this road, than it had been the first time around, and he went but slowly, ever staring at his feet to keep them safe on the loose rocks.
<<How will they remember me in after years? Saviour? Tyrant? Coward?>>
But that depended on whether he had the strength to carry out his purpose, and of that he preferred not to think. He climbed on, concentrating on nothing but the rocky path before him, and the red glow of Oroduin above him.
* * *
He had stood here before, not six hours ago.
The same pool of lava burned and bubbled far below him, as he stared down into it from the spit of rock jutting deep into its heart. It seemed bigger now, and more terrible, and he felt the urge to flee.
But that would not do, and he cursed himself for a coward. Very slowly, he knelt down at the very edge of the chasm, and his hand went to the pocket of his tunic. The ring was heavy, but it did not seem to be fighting him. It sat quiet on his palm, large and beautiful, perfect in its way.
It would be so easy to destroy it. So easy it was almost impossible.
He tried reaching his hand out over the roiling lava below. Tried tipping his hand so that the thing could slide its way into the fire. Tried and could not, three times over.
"Damn you," he muttered, and then cried the words aloud. "Damn you, Sauron, and your accursed sorceries! Why do you do this to me?"
The echoes threw the words back at him unanswered, and he smirked grimly, climbing quickly to his feet. "A foolish question. Let us ruin as many lives as we can," he said mockingly, "and let us make *Isildur* our instrument. Give the Men a corrupt leader, destroy Elrond Peredhel with grief and drive a wedge a *mile* *wide* between the free peoples." The mocking tone fell away as quickly as it had come. "You base-born dog," he snarled. "Destroy me, would you? Petty vengeance, I suppose, for your own fall." He spat exaggeratedly into the lava below, though the saliva had become steam long before it reached the surface.
He reached out again over the flames and managed, this time, to tip his hand so that the Ring slid along its sweaty surface and teetered over the edge - when his other hand, with reflexes faster than he had known himself to possess, reached down and caught it, clutching it so tightly that the metal ring bit into his flesh.
He opened his hand and stared down at the Ring, and as it had before its beauty smote him like a war-hammer. Insanity, to destroy a thing of such beauty ...and such power.
It offered him power. He could feel the invitation beckoning in his brain.
"What am I thinking of? To throw it away-"
He shut his hand swiftly, shaking his head to clear it of its sudden fog.
"Cretin," he snarled at himself, pacing along the spar of rock that jutted into the volcano's heart. "Would you become again the dupe of Sauron and his childish traps?"
This time he did not look at the thing he held. He extended his closed hand over the sea of lava below him, and bade his fingers open and release it.
But not one muscle in his hand would move.
He tried to lift each finger individually, but once more they stayed motionless. He even brought his free left hand over to wrench away the weakest, smallest finger, an old technique that could force even the strongest to release their grip. Still nothing.
Why - why? - should it be so hard to destroy so small a thing?
"You know," he told himself defiantly, "that it would be folly to keep it."
<<It would be folly to throw it away.>>
Isildur tensed, cursing his own mind's treachery, and tried instinctively to hurl it wildly into the fire ahead of him. Once more, his hand would not let the thing go, and he staggered back from the edge.
He had a sudden vision of the Kingdoms of Men - of the towns of his people rebuilt and at peace, and ruled with wisdom by a great king.
"No," he muttered; but he could feel himself weakening. "No, no, no." No, he would not. Let the Ring show him images of power! They were lies. "You'd make me a king of corruption," he said derisively, "with a land full of usurers and charnel-houses. Yes ... you's bring it peace - but you'd work it through fear, not contentment. Is that greatness?" he hissed at the darkness. "Is that all you have to offer me?"
But his defences did not ring true. He could feel the Ring deepening its hold upon him with every second that passed.
Isildur gritted his teeth, glaring down into the lava.
He could not destroy it. He could not discard it. He had known that it might come to this; had only hoped that it might not be so. Why else, after all, had he left Elrond so cravenly behind him?
The thought of Elrond was almost too much for him, and he had to force himself upright - force his back straight and his chin high, force his heart hard and icy.
<<I still remember how it feels to love,>> he thought defiantly. <<Let me hold true to that - while it is still in my power to do so.>>
And he walked determinedly to the far end of the spit of rock. It ended not smoothely, like a jetty, but harsh and sharp like a needle, coming to a jagged point less than a foot wide. Isildur came right to its end, standing poised at its extreme tip, and looked down into the fire and lava that burned far below him, on three sides of where he stood. The Ring was held tightly in his hand.
"What will I be when I am gone?" he asked quietly. "Traitor? Coward? Weakling? It matters not what names they shall give me, after all. But I would have Elrond think well of me." He brought the ring up once more and held it before his eyes, and as he looked at it, he smiled, an angry, dangerous smile that made his teeth glint in the red light of the flames.
"What choice do you give me, hmmm?" he asked it softly. "Meek submission to your will? Or meek surrender of my life." He closed his hand with a snap, and lowered it to his side. "It's not my habit to do any thing in meekness." He raised his eyes to the rocks above him, and then looked down into the fires below. "I have three paths," he said, forcing his voice to ring clear above the bubbling of the lava. "I can destroy you freely. I can toss myself into this fire and destroy both you and I - or I can stand here ... forever, if need be. Nobody will come looking *here*, will they now?" He paused, and his voice lowered to a growl. "If I am too weak to make a choice ... well, my body will eventually fail me, and I will fall - and *you* will fall with me. A game of chance, if you will." He gave a half-laugh, glaring at the rock walls around him. "I've diced with fortune all my life. Why should my death be any different?"
He could see the livid red lava bubbling far below him, forming nameless, undulating images in the depths while orange-red flames flickered at the rim of the pool. He watched intently, trying, almost, to hypnotise himself with their action, trying to let himself forget the dreams of power and lust that the Ring was now burning incessantly into his head.
He paused ... and paused longer. The seconds flickered past and he stood still, unmoving, at the very edge of the fire.
Just a moment longer ... only a moment ... and he would summon the strength to make his choice.
Seconds became minutes became hours, and he did not move, silent and still as the hours passed. At one point he wept, and his tears rose from his eyes as steam. But he did not move and he did not speak, and not once did he look at the ring he held, though his heart nagged constantly at him to do so.
He did not have the strength, not yet, to make any choice - but he did at least have the pride not to move - not to retreat or to back down.
If he kept his pride long enough he would weaken and fall - and then the choice would have been taken from him. If he could not act, he could still wait - and sooner or later the Ring would be no more.
He stood. He watched. He waited ... and the lava ebbed and flowed below him like a sea of flame, and he let his mind ebb and flow with it.
And so he waited, all the livelong night, as, slowly and gently, the Ring sunk its claws deeper into the vulnerable places of his mind.
* * *
It was the dawn that saw his strength fail him.
He kept his position still, though his mind was vague from the relentless heat and mazed from the images the Ring had sent forth into it. His body felt weak and limp, his balance unsteady, and he felt he could almost exult at the immanence of his own death.
He swayed slightly on the spot, and closed his eyes into it. The loss of sight made his head spin, in slow, tilting circles, and the swaying became more marked.
<<But a few moments more...>> He did not open his eyes, and the loss of sight disoriented him further.
Five seconds he lingered ... and then felt himself drift and teeter and begin to fall.
His heart repented the moment he felt himself go, and without even being conscious of his choice, his body swerved and fought against the fall like an eel in a net, desperate to save both the Ring and himself. The Ring slipped from his hand and fell; and the tiny *clink* as it struck rock was the loudest sound he had ever heard.
And then he felt himself fall also, his head striking rock so hard that all the stars of the sky danced before his vision.
* * *
It could have been hours or seconds until his sight cleared again. He was lying on hard stone, on the long spit of rock from which he had wished to fall, and the ring lay before him mockingly, mere inches from the tip of his nose.
And all his dance with death had been for nought. At the last moment his strength had failed him.
He lay still for a long moment, trying to summon the will to move. All he could see was the Ring before him, beautiful and hateful, enchanting and ensorcelling.
He could see the writing again, running along the outer and inner surfaces. Suddenly he wanted to know what it meant. It promised power - power and dominion. He wanted to grab it and hold it and never let it go.
<<I should not want that. I should not desire it.>>
He rolled his head away from the Ring, trying to get away from its false promises. He would have to leave, somehow ... leave and admit himself defeated.
His head felt leaden heavy, and his eyes were reluctant to look away. He twisted his head to look up at the rocky roof above him, and his eyes were met by a blaze of yellow light.
A tall figure standing over him, the hair bright and golden about the angular Elven face.
"Glorfindel," he said. His voice came out cracked and hoarse, and he realised for the first time how dry his mouth was. "And how long have you been here?"
"I? Long enough to see many things."
Elves, of course, were past-masters of the unhelpful answer. "Oh yes? Could *you* destroy it, then?" It was meant as a challenge, but it came out as a plea, and when Glorfindel crouched down by him and reached for it Isildur felt a sudden desire to reach over and snatch the thing away from him. Only the weakness in his body prevented him.
Glorfindel stilled, his hand poised near it for many seconds, and then drew back from it, eyeing it with something approaching fear. "I do not dare touch it," he said.
Isildur looked and met the Elf's eyes. The gaze was returned evenly, though he sensed the reservation there, as though Glorfindel suspected mockery or anger was immanent.
"Do you know, Glorfindel," he said deliberately. "I do believe that was the only intelligent sentence I have ever heard you utter." He reached for the ring, and sat up, dusting the ash from his clothes and preparing to stand. "Would that I were so wise." He uttered the words bitterly and stood; and though his balance was still poor, Glorfindel made no move to assist him. "You would not care to help me?"
There were many kinds of help for which Isildur might have been asking. Glorfindel had no need to ask which he meant. "No," he said firmly. "I cannot take life so lightly."
"No. I supposed not ... but still-" He pocketed the Ring, and began to make his way towards the cleft through which he had come. Glorfindel stood aside to let him pass.
"What will you do?"
"Does it matter what I do now?" Isildur asked sharply. Glorfindel said nothing. "I shall return to the camp," he said at length. "You, of course, are quite welcome to stay here. Or come with me - I care not."
"What of the Ring?"
"What of it? I am bound to its fate now. Do you expect me to tell the world of my weakness?" He laughed harshly, and the laugh turned into a dry cough. Wordlessly, Glorfindel unhooked the water-bottle from his belt and handed it over, but Isildur waved it away. "No, I need nothing. I shall tell those who ask that I have taken it as weregild, for the deaths of my father and brother." Another laugh, less harsh than the first. "I shall probably come to believe it shortly, you know. I rather prefer it to the true version of events."
"Then I pity you."
"Orc's teeth! Do you think I want your pity?"
Glorfindel smiled grimly. "I doubt it greatly. But I offer it nonetheless." And then something made him add, "and my respect also."
Isildur grimaced, pausing for a moment at the tunnel's edge. "If you insist. Now, if you will let me depart, I ought to return to my Men."
He began to walk away, his steps slow and not quite even, picking his way with care through the treacherous cinders. As he walked he could feel Glorfindel staring after him, the silvery eyes fixed on the hand which held the Ring.
* * *
Círdan had been almost asleep, and the voice jolted him quickly to wakefulness. He took a moment only to remember where he was and why, and then looked up without haste or alarm, no expression crossing his unlined face.
It was Isildur who stood framed in the entrance to the tent - unsure, it seemed, as to whether he had the right to enter. He looked ... older, Círdan supposed, and weary, as if he had fought a great battle and met with defeat, or been tried in court and lost his plea. As if he waited only for his sentence to be pronounced.
Instinctively, Círdan glanced down at Elrond, cradled in his lap, his eyes in the glazed openness of Elven sleep. His own fingers were still enlaced in Elrond's hair. He made no attempt to remove them, merely looked up to meet Isildur's eyes, gaze for gaze.
"Good morrow, Isildur," he said softly. "I have been hoping to see you."
"Yes. Well-" Isildur walked quickly into the tent and towards them, stopping an arm's length away to gaze down at Elrond's sleeping figure. "Tell him I ... tell him I am sorry. Tell him I could not do it." There was bitterness in his voice.
"If you wait but a little, you may tell him yourself."
Isidur laughed jaggedly, as though the mirth was extorted from him by force. "Círdan ... I do not know how much longer I will be capable of saying such things."
Círdan looked up at him, meeting the changeable eyes without flinching, though what he read there was heartbreaking. <<It must be a terrible thing, to have such clear knowledge of your own doom.>>
"As you will. I will tell him."
Isildur looked down suddenly, at Cirdan's hand, still gently twined in Elrond's dark hair. He stared at it a long time, and then at Círdan's face, and then back at Elrond's.
"So ... I suppose you sought only to help him." Círdan had expected hatred, perhaps; mockery at the least - but he could hear neither in Isildur's voice. "He will never love you, you know. Not as he can truly love." There was no bitterness in the words ... only grief, and something which sounded a little like pity.
"I know that."
"Yes. Yes, you would. Blindness never was one of your failings, was it?"
"It is all our failing - Vala, Maia, Elf, Dwarf and Man. Perhaps ... I am inclined to think it is only our blindness that keeps us from despair."
Isildur said nothing; and after long moments of silence had crowded about them he knelt down, so that he could look into Elrond's sleeping face. Círdan wondered what he saw there; wondered for the first time how Elrond might look through human eyes.
"I have sworn a vow that I shall never use it," Isildur said slowly and deliberately. "My sons have borne me witness. I would die - rather than trample further on his love. I doubt very much that I have the power to keep my word - I can already feel my mind trying to forget it." He reached out to touch Elrond, but paused, and then withdrew his hand without making contact.
He stood up quickly, his face expressionless - and the moment was lost. "Tell him I said farewell," he said abruptly. He turned and strode away, leaving the door of the tent flapping in his wake.
Círdan gazed after him, watching him go.
Such courage, and such fire, in the face of inevitable destruction. It was a glorious thing to see in this dark time, a thing humbling to witness. Isildur had been named for the moon, as his brother had for the sun; and he was bright, like the moon, and dark like it also. Such pride, too - to take his leave in such a way, to acknowledge and accept his fate.
"Go well, Isildur," Círdan said softly. "And stay true - as long as it lies in you to do so."
He turned away from the doorway then, and looked down at Elrond, his head still cradled on Círdan's lap, his eyes asleep. It was a strange face, beautiful in its way, perhaps, but it was a cracked and fractured beauty, riven by pain and perhaps never again to be made whole. Once more he felt the stirring inside him, though whether of love or pity, or the two mixed together he could not tell.
<<A fool am I,>> he thought sadly, <<a poor, needy fool, thus to be content with Isildur's leavings.>>
He shook his head at his own folly, and sighed just once, softly in the darkness, and then once more began to stroke the dark, tangled hair.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.