22. Chapter Twenty One
This close to Dol Guldur it was so dark and stifling that there was little difference between day and night, but by Haldir's instinct it was somewhere near dawn when he woke. His side ached where Gwirith had struck him, but his mind was clear and he groaned inwardly as he remembered how he had taken out his anger on him the day before. He got up, careful not to disturb Legolas who was stretched out beside him, and glanced over at Aiglin who was on watch. Aiglin nodded to show that all was well, and Haldir went over to Gwirith who still lay face down, his dark hair fallen across his cheek.
Haldir laid a hand on his shoulder and said his name and when he didn't respond, shook him gently.
'Celinn, I've told you, I can't come home with you,' muttered Gwirith.
'It's Haldir, not Celinn, though I'll fetch him if you wish it,' said Haldir.
Gwirith raised his head. His eyes were bloodshot and there was an ugly bruise below his eye.
'So it's you,' he said. 'Haven't you had your fill of beating me? Are you here for a second turn?'
'I am not,' said Haldir calmly. 'I regret the way I treated you, Gwirith, but you left me very little choice.'
Gwirith let his head drop back on to the black earth.
'Nor did I have any choice,' he mumbled. 'Are we leaving now? The sooner we finish here, the sooner I can go.'
'Gwirith…' said Haldir, but Gwirith's hair had covered his face again, and Haldir knew it was wasting his breath to speak to him.
Soon the others were awake but it became clear that it would be impossible to go anywhere for at least another day, now that everyone but Cerveth was wounded.
'We should rest until tomorrow,' said Legolas. 'If we meet the enemy in this condition our chances of survival would be slim.'
Haldir agreed and, subdued and silent, they passed that day and night trying to rest and gather their strength. The next morning they moved on and by nightfall, difficult though it was to distinguish the hour in the gloom, they reached the edge of the woods at the foot of Amon Lanc. They halted, taking care to remain hidden and, crouching between the trees, looked out on to the bare brown slope which stretched out before them. It was crowned by a broad ugly tower of crumbling black stone, maybe eighty feet tall, that was covered in a slimy ooze, as if the building itself were a festering sore sending out disease into the air around it. There was a terrible bleakness in the air, making it hard to breathe. The discord which Celinn had felt as soon as they crossed the Old Forest Road, and which affected him now like a band of metal tightening around his brow, was evident to them all, as a noise just beyond the edge of hearing which grated deep in their bones.
'In my experience, we can endure for two days, maybe three,' said Legolas. 'After that the effects of the shadow will be too great for us to be of any use.'
'Set the watch,' said Haldir. 'I want to know everything that is happening. And I scarcely need to remind you that whatever grievances we have with one another, we must put them aside until this is over.'
They took up positions at the edge of the woods around Amon Lanc, Aiglin and Celinn furthest from the entrance to the tower on the south side, then Gwirith, with Cerveth and Luinil, on the east and finally Legolas and Haldir opposite on the north incline of the hill, nearest the tower.
Despite the pernicious effects of the shadow and the injuries they carried, the company watched for hour after long hour, noting everything they saw, heard and smelt. The tower itself was blank-faced, with arrow-slits at intervals but no windows until about twenty feet from the top. Many times they watched patrols of surprisingly well-schooled orcs making their way out of the tower by a low wooden door on the north side which was guarded by a chained troll, and returning some hours later with braces of snarling wargs. Other foul creatures dwelt nearby and more than once they felt the chilling touch of disembodied spirits, and heard the howl of werewolves in the woods to the west.
When half the night had passed Haldir left his post and moved stealthily to each of the other positions, spending some time watching at each one. After debriefing them he dismissed Gwirith and Luinil and sent them to make camp a short distance away, taking their place for an hour or two with Cerveth.
'What think you?' said Haldir, low-voiced, after they had watched for a long time in silence. 'Who occupies the tower?'
At first Cerveth didn't answer and Haldir had to shake him gently. Cerveth turned to him with a frowning dull-eyed look.
'I don't know,' he said, 'but the orcs are too well-drilled to be acting alone.' He shivered suddenly, pulling his cloak more tightly around him.
'What ails you, Cerveth?' said Haldir. 'Has the shadow touched you at last?'
Cerveth shook his head. 'I'm closer to home than I have been for nearly two years, but still I must stay in exile. It pains me more than the nearness of that infernal place.' He jerked his head at the building that loomed over them.
Haldir laid a hand on his shoulder. 'The time will pass, and you'll be home with us again,' he said.
'Yes, Guardian,' said Cerveth, but he turned away quickly so that Haldir would not see his face.
'Go round to Celinn and tell him he's relieved of duty,' said Haldir. 'You can go with him, Cerveth, and send Gwirith and Luinil back. That will leave five of us on watch, and in an hour we will change again.'
Cerveth did as he said, and so Haldir was alone when he felt a sudden vibration in the air around him. Moments later the air was rent by bestial screams and the ground shook with the pounding of hooves. Haldir crouched low at his post in the shuddering darkness: he saw before him a pair of horsemen, mounted on beasts who tossed tangled black manes that writhed like snakes. Their shrieks resounded so chillingly in the dank air that Haldir covered his ears with his hands, shutting his eyes tightly. Straight away he opened them again, and saw that the pair were dismounting, their heavy robes swinging around their incorporeal frames. Deep in the black hoods strange unreal eyes glowed, and again Haldir looked away.
'Elbereth protect us,' he whispered, then forced himself to look back.
One of the terrible figures was taller than the other, and Haldir thought knew who he was: Khamul the Easterling, the shadow of the East, lieutenant to the Witch-King. Khamul was one of the Kings of Men who had willingly taken the nine rings of power given to them by Sauron in his guise of Annatar, Lord of Gifts. That was long ago in the Second Age, and now they had been consumed by them and lived as wraiths, spirits neither living nor dead under the power of Sauron himself.
One of the figures shrieked again and Haldir felt a chill of fear creep along his skin. It was nearly a thousand years since he had been this close to the dark tower, and this time Mithrandir was not here to help. Now seven or eight orcs were leading away the horses who stamped their hooves and plunged their mighty heads so hard that two of the orcs were thrown to the ground. The one who Haldir thought was Khamul spoke, in a language so terrible that for a moment Haldir saw only darkness before his eyes.
'The Black speech,' he thought to himself as he watched the orcs, cringing and shuddering, taking the horses out of sight. The two Nazgûl swept across the blighted earth and had to bow their heads to enter the tower through the door guarded by the troll, who trembled and groaned as they passed.
And then they were gone. The night was silent but the tower seemed charged with a dangerous shimmering power as if a storm were brewing deep within it. Haldir let out a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding and peered into the darkness to where Legolas was hidden. Of course he couldn't see him: that was as it should be. But suddenly he longed to have him close and safe, and he glanced back to see if his relief was on his way.
It was Celinn who appeared a few minutes later, frowning a little from the pain of his broken ribs and the discord the tower was inflicting on him.
'So it's as we thought,' he whispered. 'The Nazgûl have returned. But from what I remember from the last time I was here, neither of those we saw was the Witch-King himself. And I venture the dark lord himself is not here either?'
Haldir nodded. 'I agree,' he said. 'Nothing we've seen hints at the dark lord's power. I venture he's in Mordor still, building up his forces as the Lady said. Surely she is right, Celinn. The Ring is still active, for otherwise how could his strength be rising again?' He glanced out worriedly towards the other watch position.
'Go to Legolas,' said Celinn. 'I will watch here.'
Haldir smiled at him, then disappeared into the darkness.
They took turns to watch during what was left of the night, but nothing of import took place after the arrival of the Nazgûl. After they had watched for twelve hours Haldir stood them all down and spoke to them.
'By my guess it's early morning,' he said. 'Now we've understood a part of what's happening here, but there might be more yet to know. We wish to leave as soon as we can, so we will take it in turns to rest for short periods only. We must watch for a full day, maybe two, before going home.'
Cerveth stifled a sound of pain and the others glanced at him briefly.
'How are we going to get past that troll?' said Gwirith.
'We're not,' said Haldir. 'You know we're too few to enter the tower. We're here only to watch.'
'But it might be empty, now that they have left,' insisted Gwirith. 'The orcs are better organised than usual, but we could get past them without any trouble at all.'
'We don't know what's in there, and I don't intend that any of us should die finding out,' said Haldir.
'But someone must know,' insisted Gwirith. 'Legolas, how many times have you been here before? Has no-one but Mithrandir ever tried to enter?'
Legolas sighed heavily before replying. 'Of course. My father has tried, and I myself have watched many times at the foot of Amon Lanc. Even with a strong force and Mithrandir to help us, many died last time we came here, the year of the battle of the Five Armies. Celinn was with me. Ask him.'
'But we have the benefit of stealth,' said Gwirith, not even glancing at Celinn.
'Stealth will get you to the door: but if you get through it you will meet defences and traps within that could prove fatal to you, even if you come back alive from the tower. There are forces surrounding it and within it which we can sense, but don't understand, except to say that they flow from the discord of the dark lord.'
'Is it possible that the defences might be easier to breach if the dark lord himself is absent?' said Cerveth. 'We've seen no signs of his power so far.'
'It's possible,' conceded Legolas. 'But I wouldn't risk any of your lives to find out, and neither would Haldir, I'm sure. Entering the tower is a task for an army supported by all the magic at our disposal, not a small force like ours.'
'Haldir,' said Cerveth, suddenly. 'Let me go into the tower.'
Haldir swung round, annoyed. 'Have you heard a word Legolas has said, Cerveth? No, you will not go into the tower. No-one is to do so. You will watch, as I've ordered you, and that is all.'
'But, Sir, perhaps this way I could repay my debt to Thranduil…'
'Cerveth, did you fail to understand my orders?' said Haldir coldly.
There was a long silence, and then Cerveth said, 'I understand your orders, Guardian.'
'Very well,' said Haldir, getting to his feet. 'For the last time, this is a reconnaissance, and what we discover we do so by watching. Rest now, brothers. No fire or lights, or we might be detected. Aiglin, Celinn, come with me: we will take the next watch.' He stooped quickly and kissed Legolas, then was gone with the others.
Legolas took a blanket out of his pack and was about to stretch out when Cerveth said,
'Sir, is there any other service I might do for you which could settle my debt to your father? Now that I'm so close to home…' He swallowed audibly. 'Maybe it's the shadow, but the longing I have for Lorien is so strong…' His voice tailed off, and he gazed pleadingly at Legolas.
The prince looked at him for a long time before replying.
'It isn't the custom for anyone to be released before time,' he said at last. 'A debt of honour must be repaid as originally agreed. Even if I were to let you go, my father could call you back whenever he chose.'
Cerveth turned away without a word and, pulling his cloak tightly around him, lay down on the ground. Legolas gazed at him sadly, then lay down himself a little way off.
'He could let you go, if he wanted to,' whispered Gwirith, who was already stretched out alongside the place Cerveth had chosen, but Cerveth shook his head.
'He's right. A debt of honour must be repaid in full,' he said heavily. 'He has no choice.'
Gwirith gave a gusty sigh and tugged his blanket roughly up to his chin. 'Well, I don't know why we're wasting our time sleeping when we could be doing something useful,' he said. 'Every minute we spend here is dangerous.' He shivered suddenly.
'Do you have a fever?' whispered Cerveth.
'Of course I have. What would you expect, with the wounds Haldir has given me?' said Gwirith, shivering again. 'In this foul place nothing heals. We were mad to come here.'
Even in the dimness Cerveth saw the strange light in Gwirith's eyes, and knew he was still in the grip of the shadow.
'Sleep now,' he said. 'In a few days we will all be gone from here.'
Gwirith mumbled something inaudible and turned his back on him. Cerveth stretched out, looking up at the blighted trees, wondering how long it would be before he saw sunlight again. His longing for Lorien grew in him like pain and he didn't know how to endure it. Turning on to his face, he bunched his hand into a fist and pressed it hard against his mouth to stop himself from making any sound.
It seemed no time at all before Haldir was shaking his shoulder to wake him. He got to his feet and walked as if in a dream to the position nearest the tower, on the north side, relieving Aiglin of his duty. He watched for his allotted time, then slept fitfully, and then was back at his post, this time on the east side, for his second stint of duty.
All that long day Haldir's company watched but although the sense of danger that emanated from the tower did not change and the orc patrols came and went, nothing of import took place. Haldir made his way stealthily from one guard post to another, watching at each in turn, forgoing his rest to allow the others to stand down more often.
Sometime in the afternoon he came to the north post opposite the tower door, where Legolas and Cerveth were watching.
'Still nothing?' he whispered. The two watchers shook their heads, and Haldir left them.
They settled down to watch again, and at what would have been dusk, a short time before their relief arrived, they saw the two Nazgûl emerge from the tower. Experienced warriors though they were, both Legolas and Cerveth felt tremors of fear and horror pass through them as the faceless creatures stood in silence at the foot of the tower, turning blindly to sniff the air around them. There was a lot of shouting among the orcs, and then the horses were brought, and with terrible cries the two decayed lords of men mounted and rode off towards the west, the same direction from which they had arrived at dawn.
Legolas reported what he and Cerveth had seen to Haldir, and for the whole night they continued in the same way, resting for a short time, then watching, still unheeded by their enemies. The Nazgûl returned at dawn or what passed for it in this unchanging light, and this time a cohort of orcs was despatched westwards, to return empty-handed and dejected some hours later. They entered the tower fearfully and afterwards terrible screams were heard, and after an hour several bodies were hurtled from the very pinnacle of the tower to land in a shattered pile on the ground below. Probably because of their proximity to the building they began to decay almost immediately, adding to the already foul odour of the place.
'They come and go with a purpose,' said Haldir, when he called them together on the second day. 'I venture they will leave again at dusk. Perhaps they search for something west of here, along Anduin, as the Lady suggested.'
'Then let us break into the tower while they are away and find out more!' said Gwirith. 'The sooner we know, the sooner we can leave.'
'No, Gwirith,' said Haldir, irritated. 'I've already told you, it isn't safe.'
'Of course it isn't safe!' said Gwirith. 'Do you think we're safe now?'
'Gwirith,' said Legolas gently. 'Tomorrow we'll leave. We'll watch for one more night, and that's all.'
Gwirith scowled at him then turned away, muttering to himself. His eyes were bright with fever and from time to time he shuddered with cold but he would take neither water nor herbs, nor allow anyone to come near him. Celinn watched him in anguished silence.
'Hold fast,' said Legolas to Celinn gently. 'You're almost home.'
Haldir set the watch again and it fell to him and Legolas to rest together. They waited for the others to leave then stretched out their bedding on the ground and lay close together, hands joined.
'Haldir, keep an eye on Cerveth,' said Legolas. 'He is hale, but his nearness to Lorien begins to work at him.'
'I know it,' said Haldir. 'Legolas, has your father ever released anyone from a debt of honour like Cerveth's?'
But instead of answering, Legolas sat up suddenly, fully alert.
'Someone is near,' he said, looking around in the murky darkness. In seconds he and Haldir were on their feet, and for several minutes they stood motionless and silent.
'I was mistaken, I think,' said Legolas at last. 'My senses are not at their sharpest.'
Haldir sighed and lay down again. Legolas stretched himself out beside him, and so in their weariness neither of them noticed that someone was indeed near: Cerveth had come back to fetch his water flask and hearing their words, had stopped, transfixed, a little way off.
'What was it you asked me?' said Legolas. 'Ah, I remember now, it was about my father. In all my years, I can think of only one case when he released someone from a debt of honour. It was when one of our people risked his life to protect my mother from an attack by Wild Men from the East. Never at any other time has he shortened any of his judgments by a single day.'
'Your father has a will of iron,' said Haldir.
'Fortunately for you, who are equally stubborn, I admire this quality,' said Legolas.
Haldir grinned at him, then put an arm round his shoulder and drew him close. 'So even if we took the risk of allowing Cerveth to enter the tower, your father wouldn't cancel the debt?'
'It's most unlikely,' said Legolas, 'although I suppose it depends what's in there. If there were a way to destroy this pestilential place once and for all…'
'Elbereth grant that there may be,' said Haldir. 'But despite everything, it would be pure recklessness. I'm sure in all the years you've been coming to this foul place, you've never ordered a single one of your warriors to take that risk.'
'Correct, but I would be willing to take it myself,' said Legolas.
Haldir shook his head. 'Out of the question,' he said. 'Even if I were prepared to gamble on your safety, something might go wrong and then we'd have to come and get you out. We're too few, Legolas. One wrong move and we might all die here.'
Legolas looked at him.
'Somehow I feel less ready to die than I used to,' he said. 'I can't imagine why.'
They smiled at each other, forgetting for a moment the horror of Dol Guldur. After that they lay down and fell silent, resting with their eyes open.
Cerveth waited a few minutes, then gave the signal and walked out from his hiding-place.
'Forgot my flask,' he said casually, going over to his pack and rummaging in it for a few moments before taking it out.
Haldir and Legolas watched him in silence, then returned his salute as he walked away towards his watch position on the east side of the tower. Once he was out of sight Cerveth stopped for a drink of water, but his hands were shaking too much to undo the top of his flask. What had Legolas meant? Could he go home to Lorien if he found out something about the tower? But Legolas had said it would need an army supported by magic to get in. With a muffled curse he thrust his flask into the pocket of his tunic and made his way to his post.
Gwirith was watching already, motionless and alert, despite the constant tremors of fever which passed through him.
'Anything?' whispered Cerveth, kneeling down beside him and looking out at the blank east wall of the tower.
Gwirith shook his head. 'Now would be the best time,' he said.
'The best time for what?'
'To get into the tower.'
Gwirith turned to him and Cerveth was shocked by the wildness of his eyes.
'I'm going to attempt it,' he said, with a terrible smile.
'No, you're not,' said Cerveth, seizing him by the arm. 'Legolas knows more about this place than any of us, and he said anyone who has tried has died in the attempt. Is it death you want, Gwirith? Because if it is, I'll oblige you myself.'
He reached down and drew his long knife a little way out of its sheath at his belt.
'You will not put everyone at risk with your madness, Gwirith. I'll make sure of that,' said Cerveth.
Gwirith laughed softly. 'You amuse me, Cerveth,' he said. 'Do you think I believe for a moment that you would use that knife on me? You've played the jester since we left the Elvenking's halls. You don't have it in you to kill me.'
'Have I not?' said Cerveth, soft and menacing, but before he could say another word Gwirith was on his feet and running towards the hill on which the tower stood.
Cerveth cursed under his breath then leapt up and followed him. By great good fortune they struggled up the side of the hill and reached the foot of the tower without being seen.
'What in the name of the Valar are you doing, Gwirith?' hissed Cerveth as they crouched in the shadow of the wall.
'It's for Celinn,' said Gwirith, looking at the wall to see if there was any weakness in it, and finding none. 'We need to get away from here, the sooner the better. I can't wait for Haldir and Legolas with their endless patience.'
'And if Celinn has seen you from where he is watching, and decides to put himself in danger to come after you?'
'No-one has seen us,' said Gwirith stubbornly, beginning to feel his way round the wall towards the north side. 'Go away, Cerveth. I will do much better without you.'
'I'm going nowhere,' said Cerveth. 'It's you who are going back to where Haldir has commanded you to watch.'
But Gwirith had drawn his sword and was moving faster now, his left hand still on the black oozing stone as he approached the edge of the east face of the tower.
'Gwirith,' whispered Cerveth angrily, seizing his sword arm. Gwirith made a sound which was very like a snarl, lashing out at Cerveth with his sword. Cerveth leapt back, just avoiding the edge of the blade, but before he could make another attempt to restrain Gwirith they heard a snuffling, groaning noise followed by an angry roar, only feet away around the other face of the tower.
Forgetting their conflict, both froze into stillness.
'It's the troll,' whispered Cerveth. 'Any clever ideas, Gwirith?'
But Gwirith was leaning against the wall, a look of exhaustion on his face. Cerveth took his arm.
'Come on, we've finished here,' he said, making to lead him away, but then the troll growled again and they heard orcish voices approaching. They flattened themselves against the wall, glad for once of the misty gloom and the foul smell which would hide them from the orcs.
As usual there was a commotion as the orcs snarled and shouted at one another, and from the howls of pain they could hear, it sounded as if they were beating the troll. Gwirith seemed to have recovered a little because he moved to the very edge of the wall and peered round.
'What can you see?' whispered Cerveth. 'And take your hands off that wall: it's covered in some filthy stuff.' Gwirith ignored him, watching intently. At last the noise died down and Cerveth heard Gwirith mutter something to himself.
'What's happening, Gwirith?' he asked.
But instead of answering, Gwirith stepped out of the shelter of the tower and began to walk down the north face towards the door.
Cerveth seized his arm and dragged him back.
'Are you mad?' he demanded.
'They've forgotten to lock the door,' said Gwirith casually. 'Orcs are always careless, Cerveth.'
And shaking himself free, he turned the corner again and began to walk towards the door. Cerveth followed him.
'Gwirith, our comrades will see us,' he said desperately. 'I've told you, they will put themselves in danger to help us. Is that what you want?'
But Gwirith went on walking, his left hand against the wall of the tower as before. The troll was crouched down, moaning to himself, nursing his wounds, but as they approached he began to sniff the air and hoisted himself on to his feet, his chain jangling. He spotted them almost at once and gave a fearful bellow which halted them in their tracks.
'You know we can't get past him, Gwirith,' said Cerveth, pulling him by the arm. 'Turn back, now!'
But Gwirith stayed where he was, back pressed against the wall, eyes on the troll.
'We wait,' said Gwirith. 'In a while he'll forget we're here.'
And indeed after several minutes, the troll turned away from them and stumbled down on to his side, whimpering and groaning to himself.
Gwirith waited a little longer, then pushed himself away from the wall and began to walk towards the door.
'Gwirith,' said Cerveth desperately, following close behind him. 'This is madness.'
But all at once, so close to the door of the tower, he too was seized by madness, and a voice whispered in his mind that he and Gwirith could succeed where others had failed; that they could penetrate the tower and reveal its secrets, and that Thranduil would release him from his years of service so that he could go home to Lorien.
And so he no longer tried to dissuade Gwirith from his plan, but followed him gladly.
They came to the door. It was small, of solid wood with a metal bar which could be secured by a complicated padlock. But as Gwirith had said, the orcs had been careless, and the padlock hung open from the bar. Gwirith reached out and put his hand on the metal bar to slide it out of the way. Immediately he stepped back.
'What is it?' asked Cerveth.
'I don't know. The metal feels…strange.'
'There will be spells on everything here. Don't touch it.'
Gwirith wrapped up his hand in his cloak and eased the bar out of its sleeve, removing the padlock and throwing it down on to the ground.
'There,' he said, breathlessly.
'Let me open the door,' said Cerveth. Covering his hand as Gwirith had, he reached for the heavy brass handle and turned it. Even through the cloth he felt the weird energy of the metal.
'It's almost as if it isn't real,' he said. 'It's changing somehow, all the time.'
They looked at each other, but even this did not dissuade them.
'Hurry,' said Gwirith, and pushed open the door.
Inside it was completely dark. The chamber into which the door opened had no windows, and Gwirith began to kindle his travelling light.
'No,' whispered Cerveth. 'Not here.'
His words echoed eerily in the room: it must be large and spacious. Slowly, feeling along the walls, they made their way blindly into the tower. It was completely silent, and the further in they went, the greater the sense of pressure they felt on them, as if the air itself was heavier and more malignant here.
'Wait!' said Cerveth suddenly.
He fumbled with something on the wall, and then suddenly they were blinking in a strong light which came through the door he had just opened. They pressed themselves back against the wall and waited until their eyes had got used to the brightness, then stepped into the second room. It was a plain wide chamber, high-ceilinged and completely empty. Floor, walls and ceiling were whitewashed, and torches giving off a harsh white light were placed in sconces all around the room. The impression was of space and clarity, and yet there was something else in the room, something which filled it to the very corners.
Cerveth and Gwirith staggered against the wall.
'What is it?' gasped Cerveth, passing his hand across his face.
'I don't know for certain,' said Gwirith, 'but it feels very like the last days of Eregion, when we fought against the dark lord. It's the energy of evil.'
'It hurts,' said Cerveth weakly.
'Yes,' said Gwirith, a sheen of sweat breaking out on his face. 'Maybe this is what Legolas was talking about.'
'What shall we do?'
'Keep going,' said Gwirith. He pushed himself away from the wall and they both stumbled across the chamber to a plain white door in the opposite wall. This opened on to darkness and they had to wait again for their eyes to become adjusted before crossing to a spiral staircase which wound so far upwards that they could not see the top. It was in the middle of a small stone-paved hallway off which opened many doors and passages, some dimly lit with flickering torches in sconces on the walls. Off one of the passages they could see another staircase leading downwards, and it was from this direction that they could hear strange sounds.
Gwirith put his foot on the bottom step of the spiral staircase but Cerveth had crossed to the other one and was leaning over the stone rail.
'Gwirith, there's someone down there,' he said. 'Shouldn't we go and see?'
His sword held out in front of him, Gwirith crossed the hallway and stood listening for a moment.
'It sounds like animals,' he said. 'Wargs, probably.'
But just then a cry rang out, harsh and tormented, and Cerveth seized his arm.
'That wasn't an animal, Gwirith. If there are elves or other speaking beings in this place, we should free them.'
'And I thought you said I was mad,' said Gwirith quietly, turning back towards the spiral staircase.
But Cerveth kept hold of his arm, trying to pull him back.
'We can't just leave them…'
'Two of us, against all the defences of Dol Guldur, Cerveth? Were you truly captain of this company before Celinn?' said Gwirith contemptuously.
This time Cerveth let him go and followed him up the spiral staircase.
'We'll never get out of here alive,' he said.
'Come on,' said Gwirith, as if he hadn't spoken. 'The creatures may be back soon. We don't have very long.'
They began to climb the staircase, and almost at once became aware that they were struggling against something other than gravity. One moment the staircase seemed solid: stone steps with iron railings; then it was swaying, their feet melting into the treads. Strange visions floated into their consciousness, then as quickly left them, and it was as if disembodied hands touched them as they made their way, step by painful step, higher into the dark tower.
'Gwirith,' gasped Cerveth. 'We must turn back…'
But Gwirith climbed on, until they came to a small landing opposite an arched doorway.
'This way,' he said, and opened the door.
Cerveth followed him into the small decaying room lined with ancient books and scrolls. There was a strange hum and a terrible bitter smell in the air, which made them retch and gasp. It seemed as if these were coming from the books themselves. Gwirith put out his hand and touched the edge of a rolled-up parchment, and at once it turned to dust and fell hissing to the floor. The other books and scrolls twitched and rustled, and the two elves leapt back, away from them. The room ended in a balcony which looked down onto another wide chamber, but this time the walls and floors were black. The ceiling was so high above them that it was lost in shadow. In the very centre of the room was a circular well, and stooping down beside it, staring into its depths, was the Witch King himself. He was throwing something down into the well, and in the strange disorientated state he was in, Gwirith found himself counting how long it took to hear the faint splash as it hit the water: thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen seconds. And his next thought was that maybe there could be a way to mine underneath the tower and enter it that way.
If the intelligence were to be of any use, first they would have to get out alive, but it seemed impossible to move. Cerveth and Gwirith stood transfixed with horror, staring at the Witch-King, crouched bat-like and fearsome in the room below. The terrible figure continued to reach into a plain white bowl which stood on the floor beside him, containing a pile of small objects which he cast carelessly one by one into the well. And now Gwirith saw with disgust what they were: gouts of flesh and bone, no longer recognisable as anything more than parts of what used to be a body or several bodies, of what creatures it was impossible to say. He felt his throat clench and bitter bile rise into his mouth. Carefully he reached out and laid his fingers on Cerveth's arm, indicating with a light pressure that they should move backwards. Cerveth responded at once and with utmost stealth they began to make their silent way back to the small book room.
It was then that the Witch King raised his head and began to smell the air. Cerveth came to a sudden halt, but Gwirith caught hold of his sleeve and pulled him back with him. Slowly the terrible creature turned towards them, and they increased their steps, desperate to escape from the faceless, eyeless gaze that was about to fix them to the spot like moths pinned to a sheet of parchment.
By the greatest good fortune they had just gained the small book room when the creature reared up with a terrible scream, staring at the balcony which they had just vacated. At once they heard the noise of orcs outside the Witch King's chamber, gabbling and squealing among themselves and straight away breaking into shouting and fighting. Several of them came boiling into the room, stooping down fearfully before the Nazgûl.
Cerveth and Gwirith didn't wait to see what would happen next. Silently they made their way down the spiral staircase, which swung and melted under their feet, but as they entered the white chamber a door on the other side of it burst open and a crowd of orcs came screaming in, their ugly swords held aloft. Cerveth and Gwirith drew their own weapons and fought side by side, surrounded by enemies, until they reached the door into the windowless room.
Cerveth got out first and dragged Gwirith with him, slamming the door on the remaining orcs. Straight away it was flung open as the creatures flooded out, but in the semi-darkness they could not find the two elves who stood in trembling silence, their backs pressed against the wall, edging towards the door to the outside.
Gwirith felt the wood under his hands and reached out for Cerveth who was just behind him.
'Now,' Gwirith whispered, and they pulled open the door and fled, slamming it shut and forcing the metal bar across it.
'The padlock,' shouted Cerveth, and Gwirith attached it, cursing at the strange pain as he touched the metal.
They turned to go back the way they had come but before they could take another step, there came a shriek so terrible that they both fell to their knees. Behind them the troll bellowed, and when at last they were able to look up, they found themselves facing the Witch King, ghostly and pitiless.
'How did he get out here?' gasped Gwirith.
'Gwirith, move!' urged Cerveth, but Gwirith had suddenly come to the end of his strength, and could not rise from his knees. Cerveth seized hold of his arm and began to drag him backwards, his eyes still on the empty hood. The creature hadn't moved, nor made any attempt to touch them, but Cerveth could feel the waves of bitter cold rolling off it like huge billows, and as they reached him he could feel himself weakening.
'Gwirith, get up!' he shouted, but Gwirith was unable to do so.
The strange dark glow that came out from underneath the black hood had caught Cerveth's eyes and he couldn't look away. His legs could not carry him any more and he felt himself falling to his knees again.
'Gwirith…' he called out desperately, because now the Witch King was drawing a long knife out of his ghostly clothing, and advancing on them. Cerveth felt his consciousness beginning to slip, so that the ground was swaying and melting as it had done on the steps inside the tower. The terrible creature was only feet away now, and there was nothing he could do.
'Elbereth, forgive my recklessness…' he whispered, and closed his eyes.
The blow did not fall. There was another terrible shriek and Cerveth opened his eyes to see the troll with his club raised to strike the Nazgûl who for the moment had forgotten them. For a second or two he watched, unable to move, then he struggled to his feet, dragging Gwirith up with him.
'Quickly,' he said, hoping to escape while there was the chance but a horde of orcs came hurtling into view, and he had to leave Gwirith leaning against the wall of the tower and, standing in front of him, draw his sword again.
He knew there was no hope of either of them surviving, but he was determined to sell their lives dearly, so he fought with all his strength, crying out the name of Lorien into the foul air of Amon Lanc. He was filled with a berserker fury, so that he no longer knew whom he struck or whether he had received a blow in return. In his desperate last stand he even fought with the troll, who was wielding a long spear with an ugly black iron head. And then suddenly there were other voices saying the name of Lorien, and he was no longer alone. He fought on, charging ahead into the melée, but someone had a hand on his arm and was dragging him away. He resisted strongly, cursing and struggling, but then a voice shouted,
'Peace, Cerveth, we're on the same side,' and he turned to see that it was Celinn's hand on him, and after that he didn't resist any more.
'Where is Gwirith?' he asked, hoarse with shouting. 'I left him over by the wall.'
'I don't know,' said Celinn, low and anguished.
Then they heard Haldir shouting at them to retreat and they set themselves to obey him, fighting every step of the way. Cerveth had no idea how long the battle lasted but it seemed much later that they were running through the woods, pursued by howling orcs. He tried and failed to count whether Haldir's company were all present, and when finally they outran the orcs Haldir called a halt, and he fell to the ground, winded and exhausted.
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.