24. The Pieces Fall
"I do not know these woods well. I fear I only walked in them in the brighter days."
"Ah, that is well then, Grey Pilgrim. For I walk in them now in these dark times."
Gandalf smiled. A very polite elf, this young Legolas was. Still, there was something strange about him that was a bit...off.
"You can guide me to Dol Guldor?" the Istari asked.
Legolas paled slightly. "Yes," he said, nodding. "I can do that."
"Good. There is something there I must seek."
"What is it?"
"Ah, I fear I cannot tell you, young elf. Not yet anyway. Soon though, soon I think you will see it for yourself."
Legolas raised an eyebrow at these cryptic words, but nodded. "You are wise, Grey Pilgrim. You trust in no one but yourself."
"That is not true, young Legolas. I trust in the head of my order, in Master Elrond, in your father…"
"But you keep your own council."
Gandalf chuckled. "In some cases. I must admit though, I am curious as to what dwells in the shadowed fortress of Dol Guldor. Who, or what, is the Necromancer truly?"
"They say he is the Witch-King of Angmar."
"Ah, but I know for a fact that the Witch-King dwells in Minas Morgul."
"Another Nazgul then?"
"But the power here is so strong, so powerful. I do not think it is one of the Nine."
"Then who could it be?" Legolas asked, apparently puzzled.
There was something in the elf's eye that disturbed Gandalf. There was something about Legolas in general that disturbed him. He looked like a Sindar brought up as a wood elf, but there was an elegance to him, an almost…almost Noldorian trace in him. Yet both his parents had been full-blooded Sindar. The more Gandalf looked, the more he saw age written across young Legolas's face. There was more to this elf than met the eye.
"We are close," the elf said. The forest had become thick and twisted, the ground soft and marshy. There were noxious fumes in the air.
"I can see it." Out of the treetops loomed the black crags of Dol Guldor.
Legolas hesitated. "There is a sewage grate on the western side of the fortress. It looks rusted, so you should be able to get in that way."
"How do you know this?" Gandalf had refrained from asking that question. He had been to grateful that the elf knew the way to Dol Guldor. He hadn't relished the idea of getting lost in the murky, evil-haunted forest.
"I know all of the forest," Legolas said simply.
Gandalf would save the rest of his questions for later. He had to get inside. He needed to know if it was Sauron.
"A sewage grate, you say?" he asked.
Legolas smirked. "The great Istari is afraid of getting his robes soiled?"
"I merely want to confirm the place."
"Yes, grate by the western wall."
Gandalf nodded. "Thank you for your help."
Clutching his staff tightly in his hand, Gandalf continued toward the black fortress. The castle was perched on jagged, bare rock. It commanded an excellent view of the surrounding area, but since most of that area was thick forest, Gandalf didn't expect anyone to notice him.
The foliage had grown up over the years, and it came to the base of the rock. There, just ten feet away, was the grate. It was badly rusted, Gandalf could see. It was almost like an invitation. 'Break in here!' it seemed to cry.
But there was no better option. Frowning, Gandalf crept forward, looking every which way for goblins, orcs, or wolves.
There was nothing.
Perhaps the Necromancer had abandoned his fortress.
Reaching the grate, Gandalf glanced around, then struck it with his staff. There was a crack and a clatter, and the gate caved in.
Still no guards, no noise, no nothing.
Gandalf hurried into the tunnel. It looked like it hadn't been in use for a long time. There was a lingering foul odor, but the sides of the tunnel were dry, and the ceiling was covered with moss.
Gandalf's heart beat faster. What was this? Had he walked straight into a trap? Obviously, but what kind was it? Did Sauron anticipate his coming?
The tunnel branched into several larger tunnels. Gandalf knew vaguely where he needed to go, but he wasn't sure exactly. One could get turned around very easily in tunnels.
He turned into one tunnel and came to an abrupt stop. There, not five feet away, was a beam of light. He glanced up and saw it came from a grate in a floor.
This was too easy.
Again, the grate was rusted. Though it was not large enough for Gandalf to crawl though, a few jabs with his staff knocked enough stone around it away for him to enter.
He saw in an instant that he was in the dungeons of Dol Guldor. Exactly where he wanted to be, as who in their right mind would break in here? There was something wrong about this.
All around him were iron bars, sealing off prisoners from the corridor in which he walked. There were scraps of bone and cloth in some, dried blood on the walls, but they were all empty.
Except for one.
"Thrain!" Gandalf gasped, recognizing the prisoner in an instant and hurrying to where the battered dwarf lay. He looked pale enough to be dead. The blood all over his face gave him a nightmarish quality.
"Th-Tharkun?" Thrain whispered, opening one eye. The other was swollen shut.
"Yes, it is I," Gandalf said. He had many names, and his one among the dwarves was Tharkun.
"You have come too late. I-I am dying."
"I know, my friend. I regret my tardiness."
"M-my son. You m-must give these to him." Thrain fumbled with something in his pocket. Gandalf could not believe the Necromancer would have missed anything of value.
"What is it, my friend?"
Thrain pulled out a folded square of parchment and a key. "T-take these," he gasped.
"What are they for?"
"The k-key to E-Erebor. And the m-map."
The map and key to the Lonely Mountain! Never in all his wonderings did Gandalf think he might find these here!
"Thank you," Gandalf said. "I will make sure your son gets them. What is his name?"
Thrain smiled weakly. "H-He will be a good d-dwarf."
"Thrain? Your son? What is his name?"
Thrain smiled slightly and Gandalf sighed. The dwarf would not answer him. Perhaps another question. "Who rules here? What is the Necromancer?"
A shadow of fear and pain crossed Thrain's face. "T-The N-Necromancer?"
"Yes. Who is he?"
"H-He is…he is…"
"Sauron the Great!"
Gandalf jumped to his feet and spun around to face the voice.
Khamul walked down the hall, swinging her sword lazily.
"I thought as much," Gandalf said.
"Sauron thought someone would break in."
"He made it far too easy."
Something crossed Khamul's face. She hadn't been surprised to see him, which Gandalf had expected, this being a trap and all. She had looked rather…happy though. Pleased that he had arrived. And now she looked a little nervous.
"You!" Gandalf exclaimed in sudden realization. "You weakened the grates!"
"So what if I did?" Khamul snapped.
"How did you know I would come that way?"
"There's a lot about that elf you don't know," Khamul said.
Was Legolas under Sauron's sway? No, Gandalf didn't think so, strange though he was. Perhaps someone here had seen him sneaking around.
"So it is Sauron who rules here?" Gandalf asked, wanting to confirm his findings before he made a desperate escape.
Khamul nodded. "Sauron's the Necromancer. He's just biding his time until he returns to Mordor."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Because you'll never leave here alive."
Khamul charged and lunged at him with what Gandalf deduced was a half-hearted attempt to kill him.
"You wanted me to come here and you want me to escape," Gandalf said.
"Do you think Sauron left that map and key with him?" Khamul growled. "No! He didn't give a damn about them, but the dwarf kept mumbling about them. I figured they were important and gave 'em back."
"Why have you betrayed your master?" Gandalf asked, easily side-stepping a slash of Khamul's sword.
"I haven't betrayed him," Khamul growled. "I don't want him to win, but I sure don't want you to either. This two thousand year stalemate has been just fine with me. I don't want to see it go away."
"It has all been building up to these last few years," Gandalf said. "All things must end. It will end with victory for one side and one side only. You must choose a side, Khamul." He stretched out his hand. "Let us leave this place together. Join the Valar."
If she left Sauron, if she really left him, the ring would probably leave as well. Khamul didn't know what would happen then, but it would end one way or another with her mortal death. She wasn't about to let that happen.
"Get out," Khamul snapped. "You've got your map and your key, now clear off! Or maybe I'll just kill you." She raised her sword.
"Farewell, Thrain!" Gandalf called. The dwarf didn't respond; he was already dead.
Khamul watched as the Istari jumped back into the hole in the floor. The noise of his footsteps faded as he hurried from the place.
What would he do with the map and mysterious key? Khamul had already spent long hours puzzling over the map but couldn't find anything stranger than a road to the Lonely Mountain. Smaug lived there now, but the dwarves wanted it back.
Maybe the key and map were a way to do that?
Khamul sighed and sat down on a nearby barrel. She slowly counted to five hundred before raising the alarm.