We stood in the hush of Balin's tomb, waiting for the tapping to subside. Mithrandir strode to Sam and dragged him away from the well where he had frozen in dismay.
"Fool of a Gamgee!"
His exclamation shattered the spell of our collective chagrin and Aragorn and Legolas broke away to scout all the linked passages for potential threats. They moved in the sure manner of long years of hunt craft, and in the moment I felt awkward and out of place. My training in the Water Dance made me an asset in battle, but I lacked the experience of those who had actually had to fend for their lives in inhospitable climes. Frodo comforted Sam, who cried into his chest and asked forgiveness of all of us, but it would have been better if he had been silent.
The tapping petered out, and our scouts returned with good news.
"We are alone," Aragorn said, "for now."
Legolas touched Mithrandir's elbow, trying to win his attention, for the old man was lost in thought. "Which is the way? We cannot stay here."
The wizard's voluminous eyebrows were at full tilt. "I don't know. I should know, but I don't. There is something of this place that clouds my memory, as if the halls and hills were changed from when I last wandered them."
"Think!" Boromir pressed close to him. "We need to know, old man!"
Aragorn darkened. "You do not speak to Mithrandir that way."
Boromir whirled on him. "I am the son of the steward of Gondor. I will speak as I please."
"Then you will treat him in a manner befitting the son of a steward." Aragorn's tone would brook no argument, and I almost thought it would come to blows, but Gimli cleared his throat like he had been gargling rock dust, and we all quieted.
"Drums," he said. "Drums in the deep."
They were faint, as if the pulsing rhythm only reached us after travelling through the heart of the mountain. But as we listened they grew perceptibly louder, more insistent.
"The central passage," Mithrandir said. "I am sure of it."
There was no one to gainsay his opinion, so of the three doors we chose the one in line with the head of Balin's tomb. It was the broadest hall, so it would have been the likeliest choice whatever his memory supplied. After a turn, it inclined hopefully upward, not steep enough to require a stair but taxing to the short legged among us, for we were moving swiftly. The drums were not audible after we left the watch room, so it seemed as if the danger might have gone by. Moria was vast and intricate, and even a sizeable party of orcs could not keep all of it under guard, especially when they were not expecting visitors.
We reached a dead end. The way had been barricaded, deliberately collapsed. There were signs of the fires that had weakened the stone, black scars of char smothered beneath tons of earth. Some of the mass seemed to have been intentionally built up, all the gaps and chinks stuffed with pebbles.
"There were other corridors we passed by," Aragorn said. "One of them must lead around."
"It isn't certain," Gimli said. "Side passages wouldn't be linked that way, else they might be used by invaders to subvert the main route. There will be other tunnels leading out, but all running from different directions."
"You chose wrongly," Boromir said, spinning on his heel and hot stepping back the way we'd come. We had no option but to follow, experiencing the decline of the passage as a gradual stretching of already taught nerves. Before we reached the watch room we could here the drums again. We had been gone a half hour, and wherever the orcs were, they were getting closer.
"Which way?" Boromir demanded.
Mithrandir pointed his staff to one of the two remaining doors. There was no way of knowing whether this was a guess. We went anyway.
Gimli fell behind in the next minutes, not because of his stubby legs, but because he was trying to read the journal his people had left behind. Dwarves have excellent low-light vision; he would have to, relying as he was on the swinging illumination of Mithrandir's staff.
"We cannot get out," he said, and stopped. "We cannot get out!"
The company halted with varying levels of impatience. "What is it?" I asked. "What have you found?"
"Ori's last words," Gimli said. "He left a shorthand scribbled in the margins going back for days. They were cataloguing damage to the mines, and when they came to be trapped in that room they knew they could not get out. All the tunnels from there had been blocked or damaged. We have to go farther back, taking another route entirely."
"The way is clear," Boromir gestured ahead of them. Tellingly, there was only darkness beyond the silvery incandescence of Mithrandir.
"It isn't," Gimli said.
Mithrandir leaned upon his staff. "If what you say is true, then my knowledge of these regions is woefully inadequate."
"But you can lead us, Gimli." Solemn Frodo, who spoke so seldom, had belief enough for all of us. "You can."
Gimli looked at the journal in his hands. "We can use it," he said, "but it is hardly a map."
"I trust you." At Frodo's assurance Gimli seemed to swell. He nodded, and we turned back once more. Legolas and I had both begun to hear drums farther down the other way. We shared a glance, each recognizing how close we had come to folly.
We did not tarry in Balin's tomb, but we had already been too long.
A black arrow whizzed by me and clattered on the floor tiles. A band of orcs was coming for us from the main passage, as if they had been following our scent from when we entered Moria.
"Shut the doors!" Aragorn shouted, moving himself to act. He and Boromir grunted and flung shut two iron banded slabs to seal the room, slamming them in the gaping faces of oncoming orcs. There was a bar laying nearby, and they managed to slide it into place just before the green wave crashed against the door. Gimli and I closed the other exits in the same way, hearing drums and goblinoid caterwauling from those directions as well. We were surrounded, or would shortly be.
Legolas leapt atop Balin's tomb and aimed his bow at the double doors that were already being pounded from the other side. We all readied weapons, even the hobbits, and Sting glowed bright azure in an unnecessary warning as to the proximity of orcs. They were hacking at the wood, and soon a small gap appeared through which Legolas sent an arrow and was rewarded with a shriek of pain. There was much scrabbling and coughing, abruptly followed by silence as the enemy cleared away from the entrance. The drums still played, disguising whatever they were planning; perhaps they were retrieving a battering ram. Another eye appeared in the ragged gaps and Legolas pegged it. Then there were no more eyes.
We waited with baited breath, powerless to escape, for there were rattlings now at the other exits though no full blooded attempts to break them down. A skylight filtered a bleak hint of sun from high above, too small to be of any use to escape. Maybe Gollum could have squeezed through. At least we would not have to rely on the lantern light of Mithrandir's staff while we fought.
A deep throated roar came from behind the double doors, like a bull lowing in the fields. I had never heard such a bellow, and it was Aragorn, closest to the barrier, who cried, "Troll!"
The bar cracked under its first assault, iron bands creaking. Rivets popped as a tremendous force crashed into the barrier a second time, and we all got clear of what would soon be undefendable. Legolas sent another arrow through the gaps, but it went unnoticed. There was a pause, as of something winding up, and I heard its footfalls this time as it charged. The bar shattered into splinters as the troll surged through the obstacle and fell onto its side, belligerent but dazed. The doors were rendered useless, hanging from their hinges, and orcs swarmed in around their champion.
Aragorn went quickly to stab at the exposed neck of the troll, but orcs were in his way, and the giant was already waving its arms to give itself room to stand.
In all my years, in many generations of Men, I had never slain an orc. They were said to descend from Elves stolen and tortured by the Dark Lord of the North in Elder Days, but whatever resemblance there might have once been was gone. They stood on two legs, it was true, but they had overlong arms and could well have surged forward on their knuckles. Their faces were crude like their weapons, malformed as if worked by an untrained smith. The sight of them seized my heart as wargs and even the benthic horror had not, and I hesitated. The first that reached me was taken by an arrow in its throat. Glancing back at Legolas with thanks, I saw him make a quick stabbing motion, miming the use of my spear. But Aeglos was heavy and dead in my hands, and I stood motionless. A vast sadness moved through me, and I wondered how I could ever kill these creatures, whose lives were surely torment. Curses of a cursed line. Was this the voice of pity of which Mithrandir had spoken?
Aragorn was untouchable, and bright Narsil caused our foes to shrink and squirm. But he, along with Boromir and Gimli, fought as individual heroes, not as a company, and orcs were getting by them even as the troll rose on its trunk legs and regained its bearings. Aragorn had not seen my weakness yet, for I had made no cry, but the hobbits came to my defense in a show of errant gallantry, taking positions at my sides.
The troll swept aside friend and foe alike, and Boromir was nearly broken by the back of its horny hand. This then, was a creature who shared no blood with Elves, however dilute.
I knew a few words in the Black Speech of Mordor which had been devised by Sauron in the second age. In our scrolls it was recorded phonetically, much as the Ring had an inscription in Elvish script that nevertheless read in that foul language.
"Snaga!" I called it slave. "Come face me!"
The troll jerked its slab-like head in my direction, and snarling, charged. Rather than allow it to macerate the hobbits, I cut to one side and drew it to as open a space as was available in the swiftly crowding room. It bore no weapon, but its hands were as tough as basalt, as I discovered when I turned to slash one reaching paw with my spear point. It left a bloodless scratch, as on a scuffed stone, and I was forced to corkscrew away from the troll's grasp.
The next few moments were spent entirely in my own defense, giving myself over the Water Dance and frustrating the troll's every advance. It was a facile task, outmaneuvering this lumbering ox, a novice could have accomplished the same, and yet one mistake would spell my doom.
Legolas peppered it with arrows that accomplished no more than bee stings, and Aragorn tried but was unable to come to my side. The hobbits together were barely equal to a single orc, and it was them his duty called him to defend.
When my chance came, I drove Aeglos up into the soft flesh where groin met thigh, and the troll trumpeted its displeasure. I felt my spear enter, and twisted to pull it roughly out, glimpsing as I dodged its next swipe the thick burgundy blood slipping free of the wound. Gimli won away from his own struggles to come chop at the ankle of the giant. His ax held no special arts, as did Aeglos and Narsil, but it was well fashioned regardless, and it hacked away scabrous skin like tree bark.
Gimli, however, was not a Water Dancer, and a reflexive kick from that wounded foot sent him tumbling end over end into a crowd of orcs without his axe. Legolas immediately trailed him with his bow, sending arrow after arrow to protect the Dwarf.
I didn't have the luxury of watching the outcome, for the troll once again turned its ire on me, pursuing me in a full circuit of the watch room. As I ducked around Balin's sarcophagus, it smashed the tomb with one gnarled fist, cracking stone. Legolas took the opportunity to climb up its ample shoulders and send arrows into the top of its skull from point blank range. It was perhaps the worst thing he could have done, for if the troll's skin was thick, but its skull was practically a solid igneous block. The arrows stuck up like a comic crown, and the troll snatched Legolas in one hand and dashed him against the nearest wall with an awful crunch. It was about to do so a second time, but I ascended the sarcophagus in a blink and leapt up with Aeglos angled for its bullish throat. Distracted and slow, the troll did not even move as the blue silver point of Aeglos punched into its esophagus and out the other side. I let go of the spear, which was thoroughly lodged, and rolled to the floor. The troll dropped Legolas and grasped at its own death. Blood bubbled from its mouth, and it patted futilely, without understanding, at the spear. To pull it out would be to remove half of its neck. It stumbled back, crushing a wayward orc, and sat in a corner making piteous sounds.
There was a lull in the fighting as the troll died and the Orcs lost heart. They still outnumbered us, but Gimli was able to struggle free of the crowd largely by using his own face as a cudgel. It was ugly business, but the Orcs fell away, and he was able to retrieve his axe at the price of the shape of his nose. Aragorn quickly carved a zone of safety for the hobbits, and Boromir continued to fight anything that looked at him. I had seen nothing of Mithrandir while I was engaged with the troll, but now I saw he was standing near the opposite door with one hand pressed against the side of his head. He was clearly in agony, but I had no time to spare for wizard problems.
Legolas was motionless, and it was clear that all was not well beneath his skin. I laid him out flat, and examined his injuries as quickly as I could. Ribs cracked, a fractured skull; superficial bleeding, unless his organs were punctured he would survive, though he would be a burden to the company until we reached Lothlorien. I spoke words of encouragement that he could not hear, and bound what I could bind.
Harsh syllables echoed from the hall, at first in the speech of Mordor, and then the common tongue.
"What fighters! What fighters! I am proud? Is proud is it?" The throat was guttural, but the words almost jovial. A pale orc stood under the arch, playfully pushing his confederates out of his path. They would not look at him, but acted as if they had moved of their own will, not so much as grunting in response.
He was an albino, tall as a human and thin like an Elf, naked as a beast. A broad scimitar was in his hand, and he bounced it against his side. He was ugly, surely, but not malformed like the others. If the Dark Power of the North had sought to create something more suitable to its purposes than Elves or men, then surely this was that creature.
"Welcome, welcome." He grinned broadly, revealing pointed teeth. "Moria my home, your home. We glad you stay."
Aragorn levelled Narsil, letting the blade speak for him.
"No, no," the stranger said. "Let us give names. Me, I am Graz'zt, King Under Mountain. Now you say."
"King Under the Mountain!" Gimli exclaimed. "Pretender! Thief! Let them know in the beyond that it was Gimli, son of Gloin that killed you!"
The dwarf rocketed at Graz'zt, head down and axe up. The naked Orc neatly sidestepped the charge and kicked him in the small of his back, sending him sprawling. He pointedly did not raise his weapon, and I took this as my cue to retrieve Aeglos from the troll, which had stopped mewling.
"Not do again, yes?" Still grinning, Graz'zt let Gimli get up behind him. He had eyes only for Aragorn.
"You want fight, we fight. I win, you all love me, yes? Me King Under Mountain. You stay."
Gimli circled around, holding his axe at the ready, breathing through his mouth.
"Can help him," the pale orc pointed at Legolas. "Make him strong, yes? Friend?"
"I will fight you," Aragorn said, "but I do not speak for any of my companions. If you win, I say you keep me, for I am valuable to your master. Let the others go."
"Oh? Oh?" That grin was too toothy to be believed. "Who you are? Valuable? That is gold, yes?"
"I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn, heir to Isildur and the thrones of Men. I bear the sword that struck the hand of the Dark Lord and cast him down."
Graz'zt's smile dropped like a curtain. "Yes. Okay. We fight then." His scimitar came up.
Okay, so I'm just going to go into the whole thing.
I dropped out of high school, and a couple of years later I was in prison for robbing banks. It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I was diagnosed as bipolar and started seeking and participating in treatment and taking medication. After nearly 13 years in prison, I was granted a conditional pardon by the Governor of Virginia, and my sentence was reduced to time served.
While I was incarcerated, I was published by REED Magazine, CURA, and the Carolinian. My work appeared in several PEN Anthologies, and I was awarded seven different prizes in various categories by the PEN Prison Writing and Justice Program.
I'm currently working with Shadow Alley Press to publish my Gamelit novels, and I one day hope to be able to support myself through my writing. Until then, I work at Subway.