70. Durin's Tower
"Ohh, there're some people," Aica giggled, pointing down at a line of travelers.
"Are those children?" Ringe asked, leaning over the side of the beast. Aica pulled him back firmly.
"Don't do that, you idiot," she snapped.
"Why not? I think we should go back. Those people looked suspicious."
"Don't be an idiot. They didn't look suspicious at all. They looked completely harmless."
"There sure were a lot of them. And they had horses."
Aica rolled her eyes and slapped the Fell Beast's reins. It snarled and squirmed but went higher and faster.
She liked this a lot better than horses. They were faster, for one thing, and for another, no one else traveled like this. Besides, they flew. Flew!
After several disastrous attempts, Ringe's Fell Beast flat out refused to fly him anywhere, so Aica was forced to drag him along while the disobedient creature returned to Mordor. Not that she minded. Too much. It was rather lonely without anyone to talk to. Still, she wouldn't be telling Ringe that.
"Where're we going?" he asked.
"We're just going to circle around Arda," Aica said. "Should take a few days." A few days. Formerly, a few months. Maybe even a year. This was the life.
There it was, shimmering in the distance. Snow coated the sides of Caradhras, hiding most of the bloody rock beneath, but it was not completely gone. Here and there where jagged rocks jutted out and no snow could collect, the red rock was visible.
"Bet you've missed me," Khamul muttered. She slowed her horse as she rode up to the mountain. The opposite side this time. There was a thrill, coming to the mountain from the Mirkwood side.
Lorien side, rather, and Khamul had to watch her step around here. There were bound to be hundreds of elves watching from the golden forest.
The East Gate of Moria was much less elaborate than the West Gate. Just a hole in the rock, really. Caradhras looked far less imposing as well.
"Going to stop me from crossing still?" Khamul asked. She wondered if she should ride up on the pass to try and attract its attention.
"It has been a long time, ringbearer," the unearthly voice of the mountain called.
"So it has. I seem to recall that you once had a great scheme in mind. A scheme that would destroy the balrog forever. That hasn't happened, has it?"
"I see many things, ringbearer. Above and below and around."
"So it's gone?"
"The balrog dwells still in its quiet halls, meditating upon the silence and solitude it enjoys. For now."
"What'd you mean, for now?" Khamul shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts. "I mean, that's what I thought. However, I seem to find myself in need of an army. An army that will only become available if the balrog is dead. Therefore –"
The mountain laughed. "You could not slay Lungorthin. Not even Glorfindel would stand a chance against him. Ecthelion would fall as well, except perhaps for if he had his helmet."
"All right, well, then what're you going to do about it?"
"I am not going to do a thing."
"And you're fine with having a balrog living there for all eternity?"
"I would not say that. Climb my pass, ringbearer. There is a cave with an excellent view of Zirak-zigil."
"That's another mountain, right?"
"Indeed. Durin's Tower is atop it."
"So I think you will enjoy the view."
Khamul sighed and turned her horse toward the pass. Prophetic, cryptic, sentient mountains, she thought. I wish I'd never come here.
There was fresh snow covering Caradhras like a thick blanket. Khamul's horse set back its ears but continued through the drifts. Some were so high they engulfed the horse and nearly Khamul as well.
"Were you trying to kill someone recently?" she asked.
"I told him quite clearly that he would be allowed passage once and once only," Caradhras said. "One does not cross twice and call it once."
Khamul considered that. "You told me that, and you told Aragorn as well. Is he here?"
"What's he want to cross you for? What's on the other side?" Lorien and Mirkwood, homes of the elves. But the High Pass near Rivendell was…no, it was overrun by goblins.
Khamul found the cave easily enough; it was the same one she'd taken shelter in with Firin all those years ago.
"This had better be good," she warned, leaving the horse inside while she sat down on a large rock outside.
From her seat near the top of the mountain, Khamul could see for miles and miles in every direction. There was the peak of Zirak-zigil, Durin's Tower poking out, proudly standing a few feet taller than the peak of the mountain itself. And there, the forgotten relation of the family, Fanuidhol, standing guard over the east of the range. Nothing special there.
To the west was Eregion, with Enedwaith and Dunland just barely visible in the distance. In the east, Lorien, with Mirkwood far beyond it, across the Anduin.
If she looked hard enough, Khamul fancied she could see the Ash Mountains, right on the edge of the southern horizon. And a little smear of red there, glowing and crackling. The fires of Mount Doom.
Caradhras was quiet for the rest of the day. Snow didn't even fall. Nothing dared to disturb the mountain. Even Khamul moved as little as possible and tried not to move the snow. It might cause an avalanche, for one thing.
The sun set over what Khamul fancied might be the sea. Maybe. Perhaps. Probably not. It rose again the next day over the rich green of Mirkwood.
"This is quite boring," Khamul said, stifling a yawn. "There's nothing going on."
Caradhras was silent. Perhaps it had forgotten that she was here.
Looking east, Khamul watched the East Gate of Moria. So plain, so ugly compared to the fabulous West Gate. Apparently the dwarves had wanted to make an impression on the Eregion elves, but hadn't cared about the Lorien ones.
There was a slight tremble in the mountain and Khamul hurriedly looked around, wondering if an avalanche was coming. When nothing happened, she relaxed.
And then, she saw something. Frowning, Khamul leaned forward and watched the East Gate. A curl of smoke issued forth, followed by several figures.
"Is the balrog coming?" Khamul muttered, her heart skipping a beat. That smoke was nothing if not ominous.
The figures, there were eight, paused and looked back at the gate. One elf, Khamul could see that from here. Two Men, and five…other things. The big, thick one looked like a dwarf, but what about the others?
"Halflings!" Khamul hissed, leaping to her feet. The Halflings with the Ring! They were there! But where were they going and why wasn't Gandalf leading them?
Still, it didn't matter. It was all the better that Gandalf wasn't here. Khamul could easily take them this way.
Khamul started down the mountain, but she hadn't got more than a few yards when she found her way blocked with snowdrifts and rocks.
They hadn't been there before.
"What game are you playing?" Khamul snapped.
"Sit and watch," Caradhras commanded.
"The Ring is getting away!"
"You once, I believe, questioned my neutrality. You demanded why I could not act. Why I must always wait and let others do my work."
"I didn't mean for you to use that against me!"
Khamul cursed and kicked at the snowdrift. She hit a rock and cursed louder, hopping away.
"Return to the rock and keep a watch on Durin's Tower."
"Can I leave then?"
"You may do more than leave. You may leave with an army at your back. Under your command, of course."
"You think the balrog's going to die?" Khamul asked.
"I once gave the Maia, Sauron, a choice. He could let Lungorthin live, in which case he would gain greatly, but also lose. Or he could kill him then and there, to great benefit as well as loss. He chose to let him live. It is time to reap the consequences of that bargain."
"Made the wrong one, huh?"
"The will of the Valar, their speed, fate, luck. Many things."
"What's going to happen?"
"Something that has never happened before."
Always exciting, Khamul thought, sitting back. She cast the eight figures another glance. They were starting to move, eager to be away from the caverns of Moria by dark. Aragorn was probably with them, hurrying them away before they got killed by goblins. Smart man.
Khamul watched for the rest of the day and into the night. The sun rose again the next day, and Khamul kept watching. She was starting to get tired of this business.
Just as she was thinking of leaving, a flash of light exploded on Durin's Tower. Light flared, and so did fire. Dark scarlet flames and black smoke writhed with brilliant light, the light of the stars.
"What's happening?" Khamul whispered.
Caradhras was too entranced to respond. It was watching the battle with great interest. Despite its apparent foreknowledge, it seemed as nervous as Khamul as to the outcome. But who exactly was fighting? The balrog, certainly, but who in Arda could possibly fight a balrog?
"It's Gandalf!" Khamul exclaimed. "What's he doing, fighting a balrog?"
"He fights so that his friends may live," the mountain replied. "One foolishly awoke the beast, which tracked them down within my halls."
"He's going to die!"
"No! That can't happen!" Without Gandalf, it would just be Sauron and Saruman. There would be no chance for elven or Gondorian victory. The sole choice would be between which Dark Lord would win.
Khamul stood up, feeling like she wanted to pace. Nervous energy built up in her as she watched the light and smoke battle. Gandalf had to win. He had to.
There was a flare of light like the death of a star. Smoke exploded, spiraling up into the air.
"What was that?" Khamul asked, but in a moment she didn't have to. She could feel it. A power had gone out of the world.
The balrog was dead.
"He won," Khamul whispered. "Oh Valar, Gandalf won." She never thought she'd be so happy to say those words.
And then the world trembled again as another power left it.
Khamul's jaw dropped. She couldn't speak, couldn't make a sound. She had been so sure, so happy. There had been hope. And now it was snuffed out like a candle.