37. The Battle of Minas Morgul
Author's note: I've been holding this chapter "in reserve" and realized at the end of ch 36, "Sons of the House of Hurin," that it fits perfectly right here. For those who have been waiting for months for this cliffhanger to resolve, so sorry to keep you in suspense! For those who can't recall how we got to this point, I refer you to chapter 20, "The Bridge of the Morgulduin."
The Battle of Minas Morgul
The wizard steadily approached the looming Gate. He had last walked beneath the walls of this gleaming City many centuries ago, when it was still a place of beauty and artistry: before Gondor's Kin-Strife, before her population was decimated by sickness and murder, before Minas Ithil had been lost and corrupted into the tormented monstrosity it now was.
A cold wind seemed to urge him forward. He turned his head to catch the scent of it. As clean and fresh as the first Spring of Arda… No such purified air flowed from the sullen peaks of the Ephel Dúath, teeming with Orc-caverns and other foul crevices. Did this Wind then come from far away, from Mountains taller and whiter than any on these shores? Did Powers far mightier than he watch from afar? Once he might have read such signs with ease. But he had dwelt for so many years on these far shores, and had carried this aged body for too long. His senses were not as keen as they once had been.
He turned his head forward. There was no looking back. It matters not whether They approve, whether They witness. I am here, now, and the part I must play is clear enough: the Grey Fool, who has stuck his nose where it does not belong one too many times… the gadfly of the West… He sniffed. Well, then, I shall teach them just how hard this fly can sting!
He strode onward, his pace quickening. His staff rang on the stones, his eyes on the fortress walls, but his thoughts inward. There is no more need for concealment. I must re-awaken what lives within this shell of mortal flesh, become who and what I have always been. To reveal even that attenuated portion of his hidden nature that remained to him went against habits carefully honed over twenty centuries. Yet he must unlearn those habits, and quickly. Only then could he provide a chance for his two small friends now scrambling, he fervently hoped, in the rocks above the Road.
The first test came swiftly. A platoon of Orcs wearing the emblem of Morgul--a leering skull defacing the Moon's white surface--trotted out to meet him. He had already tested the staff Galadriel had given him on the Watchers and found it suited his needs. He raised it, and a dozen forks of light streamed from it. A second flash and the entire platoon lay sprawled. He walked onward, threading his way between the smoldering bodies.
A brief pause before the next onslaught. Make a plan... Hold out for as long as possible... He searched the Vale. It was rockier and much narrower than the fertile plains before Minas Tirith. The circles of this City climbed up more steeply into the surrounding peaks, and the northwest side of the valley rose up again a mile away. A cliff rose up directly across from the Gate, and before it was a small ledge of rock. He veered off the road and made for the place, turning as he strode forward to set the putrescent flowers alight behind him. The stench of their burning was exactly that of a pyre. It recalled to his memory the years of Sauron's plagues, when Gondor and Rhovanion were filled with that fell odor--at his urging, in an attempt to contain the contagion that spread from the dead.
The brazen claxons of the City sounded again, and the next wave came, ten-fold stronger than the first. As soon as they came within a hundred feet of him, lightning struck them down. He saw a figure on black wings leave the topmost ramparts, swing away and fly east, and another spring from the tower and fly west. He grunted with grim amusement. Messengers... They call back their fellows for reinforcements… All the better for Gondor—the fewer of those dark wings that harry them, the better… And they don't quite know what to make of me--they need advice from their Master... The third onslaught began, driven forward by a Ringwraith mounted on a black horse. But by then he had placed himself on the rocky shelf, his back to the cliff. It was defensible. For a while.
The Wind turned and swept down from behind him, streaming into the faces of the Orcs. They feared this Grey Sorcerer who controlled the skies, for the Wind seemed allied with him, he could call down the lightning and he fought with unassailable flames. The Wraith screamed at the faltering troops, driving them forward again and again into the thicket of flashing fire and lightning that barricaded the wizard.
Slowly, minutes turned to hours; the hours crawled by and the bodies of his foes piled up, forming smoking, tumbled heaps around him. More Nazgûl came from the west, riding on the winged beasts and whirling above. He aimed into the sky, and the nearest winged creature shrieked and crumpled, plummeting downward and crushing four Orcs beneath it as it smashed onto the valley floor. A shadowy shape rose from the wreckage and fled toward the Tower.
The blade of Doriath had yet to be tested, for none had dared come within reach of it. But he held it up in his still weaker right hand, brandishing its blue fire into his enemies' eyes. He saw terror and confusion written there as they surged forward. He drove them back as he lashed out again with the staff.
The first arrow caught him in his upper left arm. A burst of his fire roared outward, driving them back for the seconds needed for him to reach around, pluck the thing out and toss it down. He glanced at it; the tip was broken. A loosened stone skittered down the rock face behind him. He released another wall of flame toward the fields and spun back and around, sweeping the sword before him. A pair of Orcs fell howling, and the shining blade was stained. More came clambering down. He swung the sword twice more, and blood spattered the stones. The rest fled, wailing, only to die by lightning with their backs turned.
The winged messenger returned from Barad-dûr. The Nazgûl sped toward the City to hear its report. The Host fell back, for a while--to regroup? To plan a new strategy? He did not care to guess. All that is left is to wait. He stood warily as the main battalion retreated out of range of his fire.
He felt other, far distant eyes upon him, even as the Wind diminished to a gentle touch on his back and shoulders. Three watchers waited with him as the hidden light of morning shone above the smoky reek that blocked the sky above his head. So, not all the Stones were lost. A friend gazed on him, one who had stumbled upon this frightful scene by accident. From him, he felt anguish mingled with steadfast support, and resolve to carry on in his own perilous errand. Another had sought an explanation for the strange storm that had raged all night about the City opposite his. He felt that seeker's skeptical doubt slowly turn to awe, and a whisper of his remorse. But the third watcher, hidden in the darkness east of him, mocked and snarled, gloating in anticipation. He turned his head and silently asked the Wind to rise again. It whirled about and whistled in his ears, blocking out the sound of that fell voice.
When they returned they attacked from three sides. The full army of the Morgul City was engaged now. Arrows fell as thick as hailstones. Most sizzled and burned in the air. Only one dart in a hundred penetrated his encircling flames, and fewer than one in a hundred of those found a mark. But every Orc of Minas Morgul equipped with a bow emptied their quivers in his direction. Soon, more arrows were imbedded in his flesh. In the whirlwind of battle he had no time to tear them out; instead he sheared the shafts off with his sword to get them out of his way.
The machines they had prepared for the siege of Minas Tirith were dragged across the smoking field. Catapults designed for high walls were foreshortened and aimed low, pelting him with stones. Great flaming missiles soaked with oil flew toward him. Fighting fire with fire, he burst them into pieces before they could land. But molten fragments showered down, singeing his hair and leaving scorched holes in his cloak; a few larger clumps burned through to his skin.
Weariness set in, and his ability to release enough fire to drive them back began to dwindle. His enemies crept closer. Nets forged of heavy chain were shot from complex catapults; the rings clattered and sang as they flew toward him. The first four of these he sliced through with the ancient Elvish blade. But when a dart pierced his right wrist, his grip on the sword loosened. The next net bore down, dragging him to his knees. He hacked at the chains with what strength remained in his right hand. It was not enough.
The chains rattled as he raised his head and watched the horde of Orcs divide and fall back. Dark shapes in black robes approached. The chains sounded again as a grim chuckle shook him. No small feat… I've held them off through the night and for the better part of a day... The delayed Host that would now march from Morgul Vale would be less than half its former strength, and those that remained had seen thousands of their arrows burn. Was there yet more he might accomplish?
The eight Ringwraiths of Morgul City* stepped closer. They hissed with hatred and with anticipation of revenge.
He was not entirely immune to their deadly breath; he felt the weight of frigid cold bear down on him. His sight dimmed and he felt his strength leaking out like many small trickles of blood. But he would not relent. I will not yield… Chains could not block his fire. Proving that Wraiths of Men could yet die, he released two from their enslavement with his most powerful bolts yet.
But even as he struck down their dark brethren, the other six lunged toward him, their Morgul knives drawn and ready. Though the curse on those blades had no power to enslave an embodied Maia, their edges were still keen. Six knives reached through the net of chains to stab or slash, leaving icy splinters within him.
He summoned his final strength. With a great shout he reared up and flung the heavy net away. Caught in the chains, their daggers shattered, the blades flying off in fragments. One last burst of fire drove them back for a moment; but as his now weaker flames died away they rushed forward. They turn their broken knives, hilts outward, he noted. So must be their Master's bidding… The road he had embarked upon just yesterday, at the Crossroads—nay, in truth it had been weeks earlier—was approaching its last fork. Now it was clear. It is to be the darker, longer route…. He swallowed the dread that had suddenly filled his throat. This path was mine to choose… Manwë… Varda… A tiro nin…
The wraiths crowded abut him and used the hilts of their shattered daggers as steel clubs. They followed the Dark Lord's command: subdue, but do not kill. Again and again they struck, and still the old Fool refused to give in. Finally, the Witch King's fearsome blow to his temple brought him down.
The Nazgûl Chieftain gazed down at the senseless figure lying in a heap. This Greybeard had annoyed and hindered them over the centuries. He had eluded them twice in less than a year, flying from the pinnacle of Isengard, and thwarting them upon Amon Sûl. The Witch King smiled coldly. His own appearance on the fields of the Pelennor would have to wait. First he must deliver his prize. He shouted commands, standing by as his servants came with shackles, chains and a cart.
The cold Wind returned, chasing the smoke and ash from the burning fields. Their torches sputtered and went out. All was abruptly dark—but suddenly, a narrow beam of light shone down on the crumpled wizard. The Witch King glared up into the western sky. The thick black clouds had torn apart, and the slanting red Sun fell upon the scene for a moment. Then the clouds shifted, and the light faded. The perpetual darkness that dwelt beneath the fumes of the Enemy returned.
The Witch King snarled as his servants dragged his adversary onto the cart. How he hated this Old Fool! It was all he could do to control his desire to direct them to take this one to the places of horror beneath his own Tower. But the message from Barad-dûr had been utterly clear—this prisoner was for the Dark Lord, and for the Dark Lord alone.
* Khamûl is "posted" to Dol Guldur at the time of this battle. The Witch King sent one east to Barad-dur, and one west to retrieve the five who had been harassing the troops of Gondor.