The pale Orc laughed as he danced, and it was a Dance, I could see it in his every flourish. Impossible to consider, for though this was not the Water Dance of Imladris, or the Lothlorien Waltz, it was an art akin to those I knew, as if Graz'zt was joined to some long lost branch of Elven nobility. Aragorn did not see it. He was a swordsman of the highest caliber, but seeing what I saw in those first moments would have required more than swordsmanship.
Their blades kissed, no more than that, and Graz'zt was on the move again. His minions had all retreated to the relative safety of the hall, and our company had moved behind the sarcophagus to give them space to duel. Aragorn tried to conserve his own motion, standing and pivoting rather than marching in a circle. He swung Narsil in two hands, accustomed to overpowering weaker foes in a few decisive strokes. But this foe was not the weaker, nor less skilled. Fear clawed at my gut, the thought that Aragorn could lose. There was no certainty that the pale Orc would spare his life or keep his promise, rather this all seemed a game to him. He did not value the lives of his subordinates, so he could not value ours any higher.
Graz'zt thrust, and Aragorn parried, so the thrust was transformed into a slash that forced the King of Men back a step. Back and forth, they exchanged blows, Aragorn abandoning his initial confidence and adopting a more cautious, probing approach. But Graz'zt would not be tested. His Dance was unlike any I had seen, unpredictable and as dangerous for himself as for his opponent. Many times I thought he left himself open, and Aragorn would strike at the weakness only to discover it was not a weakness at all but a deeper ruse that set him on the back foot. I had retrieved Aeglos, and part of me wished to cry out and demand I fight in the place of my love. But Aragorn would have never accepted it, and his opponent would have likely only laughed.
At times they seemed equally matched, but the duel dragged on into minutes and I was certain that even if no other could see it, Graz'zt was still playing a game. When Aragorn had the advantage, to my eye it was only a natural ebb in the Dance. Finally, there was a shift in stance by the pale Orc, and he swung down overhand with a tremendous blow. The scimitar was heavy, and the attack was meant to sunder whatever crossed its edge, but Aragorn brought up Narsil with a great cry and there was a white flash where they connected. The scimitar snapped in two pieces, and in the next moment Narsil was resting against Graz'zt's jaw.
The pale Orc scowled, but dropped his broken blade.
"You will lead us safely from this place," Aragorn intoned, "I hold you thus against your life."
"My men not kill. I not kill." Graz'zt released the tension from his face and body with an effort, pretending to be friendly again. "I lead, yes? I lead."
"Send them all away," Aragorn nodded to the orcs cowering in the archway, and a few words of the Black Speech had them scurrying out of sight. They would be close, though. Frodo's long dagger still glowed in warning.
"You want out? I take you."
"We want the East Gate."
"You can't be serious," Boromir said, his blonde hair dark with blood and sweat. "Kill the beast while it's wounded and we go on. We've beaten them already."
Graz'zt made a sharp sound in his throat that might have passed for a laugh among his kind. "Beaten nothing. Hundreds fight for King Under Mountain. Cut me, you die."
"It does not matter," Aragorn said. "Beaten or not, I will not execute a warrior who has surrendered to me, and this one has proved himself a warrior by meeting me in single combat. He will lead us out into the light."
Gimli muttered in Dwarvish, but gave no open protest. Mithrandir had recovered from his attack, whatever it had been, but he still appeared dazed and willing to follow along wherever he was led.
"Help me with Legolas," I said to no one in particular. Initially, it was the Hobbits who came to my aid, but this gave Boromir the opportunity he needed to assert himself as a dominant man, so he took Legolas from me himself and settled the unconscious Elf over a shoulder.
"Thank you," I said, sincerely. Boromir nodded, and when I looked into his cool grey eyes all I saw therein was fear.
We set off again, and for an hour or more trekked in what was certainly the wrong direction. Then we came to an open section of the mine, an area that had been thoroughly delved and then crisscrossed with thin walkways. There were Orcs in many of the open tunnels that watched us go by, but Graz'zt called out to them with the voice of Mordor and they did not stir against us. It seemed that he would keep his promise, for after more marching we came to a hall of true grandeur. Much of the glory of Rivendell could have been stored in this single, vast vault, stalked down both sides by a double line of towering pillars carved in the likeness of mighty trees whose boughs upheld the roof.
"I know of this room," Gimli said. "We are on the right path." But there was a fell light here, for along one wall a fissure had opened in the floor, and red heat and hunger outpoured from it.
"What's that?" Sam asked.
"Do not go near it!" Mithrandir's alarm was sudden and strained. We hurried on.
There were figures among the boughs of the sculpted columns, Orcs by the score, hooting and chattering as we fled beneath them. But there was one shape that was so familiar to me I stopped in my tracks, failing even to call out an alarm as it drew back on an orcish recurved bow. A grey feathered arrow dove at a straight angle down to strike Frodo in the chest.
"Oof," the Hobbit said, suddenly on his back.
In the lurid shadows of the ruptured floor I saw Beren duck into hiding among stone branches. In the same moment, Aragorn had been distracted by the attack on Frodo, and Graz'zt sprang away from Narsil. Naked and weaponless he tucked and rolled, then came up again and sprinted toward the burning, broken floor, cackling. None of us attempted to pursue.
"I'm all right," Frodo said. "It took my wind."
"There's an arrow in your chest!" Sam screamed.
Frodo plucked it out, and his companion nearly fainted. Whatever the source of this miracle, we had no luxury to ponder, for the Orcs above were lowering ropes, and others were readying bows. I spun Aeglos and knocked another missile from the air. Frodo was upright once more, and we began to run.
"I know this hall," Mithrandir said, "I know the way from here." There was something in his face that told of dread.
The company charged forward down the massive hall, watching helplessly as the Orcs at the far end agilely scaled the columns. They reached the ground almost as we reached them, and it was only by the swinging of Narsil and Boromir's sounding of the Horn of Gondor that we burst through. The horn echoed and rebounded among the grand arches and columns, and the Orcs hesitated as if they were faced with a real cavalry instead of our beleaguered fellowship.
Into the tunnels we went again, but this time with purpose, as Mithrandir all but sprinted ahead of us calling "This way! This way!" There was no sense in stealth, we were in full flight, and we would either be caught or be free. The Hobbits were soon flagging from the headlong run, but I was at the end of the line and I urged them on. Gimli's breathing was labored and it whistled through his broken nose, but he was practically dragging Sam along behind him. Just as it seemed their legs would give out from under them the tunnel debouched onto an enormous concourse where many roads and shafts met. It ended on defense works, bastions and bulwarks and redoubts stacked one on top the other beneath a cavern roof that soared hundreds of feet above. This plenitude of wartime engineering all faced a single point, the Bridge of Khazad-Dum, an impossible thread of stone that extended from one end of an abyss to the other. Beyond it was the East Gate, so that if the Gate were ever taken by Mordor they would be forced to cross the chasm in single file and surely fall. The Bridge of Khazad-Dum was a wonder of a previous age, as no art in these days was sufficient to replicate it. It was plain enough, barely a meter thick strand of gravity-defying granite, and before it stood the Balrog.
Our party came to a halt in the concourse before the bulwarks, gaping at the demon that stretched ten paces in height. It had the rudimentary shape of a man, but was made ambiguous by the play of orange and red and black over its skin, and the two billowing clouds of smoke that trailed behind it like wings. In one hand it held a burning sword, and in the other a whip that crackled like tame lightning. This was a thing out of the Elder Days, as old and as awful as Sauron himself.
Mithrandir appeared in front of me, so mesmerized had I been by the creature of flame and shadow that I had not seen him move. He was pressing something small, a silken pouch, into my hand.
"...sorry about your friend," he was saying. "You do not have to forgive me, for I am a man of many flaws, but what you must do is take up this burden for me. You have held the One Ring and set it down again, so I trust you as much as I can trust anyone with so great a treasure, for now I must go another way." Blue eyes beneath bushy white eyebrows met mine, needing to know that I was listening.
"Keep it secret, keep it safe."
With that he strode away, dropping his wide-brimmed hat on Frodo's head as he went, then calling out to the demon.
"Ancient coward! Hider from Judgement! How long have you quivered in these caves, awaiting the day you would be found? Do not think for a moment your treachery has been forgotten in the far shores of the West! I am the servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor! You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udun! Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass!"
All the world seemed a part of this fearsome ritual, for we stood entranced while orcs quaked in the tunnels behind us, unwilling to come out.
The Balrog was blocking the Bridge, and when he raised his burning brand Mithrandir drew his own long blade, Glamdring, which had been won during his journey with Bilbo so many years ago, and yet so few. When they came together, it was as if all the air was suddenly drawn into that single space, and then rushed back out again. There was a boom that made the drums of Orcs seem mere finger tapping, and the weapon of the Balrog shattered. I realized that the wizard and this demon had been doing battle all the while as we traversed Moria, and what we were witnessing was just the closing chapter of their struggle.
The titan of Elder Days took a step back on the bridge, his feet almost too broad to balance on it, and Mithrandir pursued him. With blade and with staff and ageless words I cannot repeat, for they left my mind soon as they were heard, he pushed the Balrog back until they were both standing over the abyss.
A mighty claw swung down and was impaled, but it took Glamdring with it when it was raised again. The Balrog rumbled in what it saw as triumph, raising its crackling whip to strike. Mithrindir brought down his staff and there was a second boom, followed by the complaints of impossibly stressed stone. Once the bridge began to break, it did so all at once, and everything ahead of Mithrandir simply vanished, leaving only the abyss Then he turned back to us, surprise writ large on his features for his own survival. He did not see the frayed end of the lightning whip snake up and wrap around his ankle. It jerked him down.
"Gandalf!" Frodo's voice cracked like the bridge, and the old man held on to the edge of the sheered ledge for an endless moment.
"Fly, you fools." Then he was gone.
My ears popped, and the world returned to me only slowly. Many of the orcs had fled into the tunnels, but others were debating whether to attack. The Gap of Khazad-Dum stretched out before us, insurmountable.
"We have to turn back," I said. The pouch was still in my hand, something hard and small was hid with it. "Moria is closed to us."
"Death behind," Boromir said, sagging under Legolas. "Death ahead. I knew this way was madness."
Back into the tunnels, we could not go the way we had come, for the great hall would be fillled with enemies, and we were all drained to nothing. We cut through a few scouts and stragglers to come to a dead end, the voices growing louder behind us.
"This is our doom," Boromir said, "the folly of wizards."
Aragorn took a position by the door, sword at the ready.
"Let me see your wound," I told Frodo. "It needs tending."
He showed me the rip in his tunic, and the flash of silver beneath.
"Mithril..." Gimli spotted it from across the chamber. "Where did you get such a marvel?"
"Bilbo gave it to me," Frodo said, "it was a gift to him from Thorin."
"A kingly present," Gimli sniffed, then seemed to fill with a renewed vigor. He searched about the moldings of the chamber, and soon came across a hidden artifice.
"See here," he said, digging in with his hands.
A chunking sound followed a series of clicks, and part of the wall turned open on a stile. Samwise had lit a lantern, for all other light had been left behind us in the Gap, and he brought it forward to reveal what was beyond.
A small, empty room, and a staircase besides. We squeezed ourselves inside and shut the door behind us as the hoots and calls came nearer. Boromir laid out Legolas, who was still unconscious, and the rest of us sat or sprawled as best we could. I took the steps, hearing nothing down them, and took the silk pouch in my hand. The others were discussing our next move, and I turned my back to them to empty the pouch into my palm. A ring set with a ruby. My heart dropped out of my stomach.
Narya, the Ring of Fire.
How had Mithrandir come to possess one of the three treasures of the Elves? I knew of Vilya only because I had seen it on my father's hand. It wasn't something we discussed or made light of. The three rings of Elves were the power that warded our realms against the assaults of time and Shadow. Who had given up their birthright to Mithrandir? What realm suffered in its absence?
Those three alone had been forged outside the influence of Sauron. He could still seize control of them if he held the One, but the One was mere feet behind me. Sauron could not lay his claws on it without my knowing. Mithrandir had forborn wearing Narya, and that was only right. He was not an Elf.
Maybe it was that other ring against my arm that affected my judgment in this, but I put Narya on my finger without a qualm.
If the Ring of Angmar had felt like being dipped in ice water, Narya felt like walking out of darkness and into the open sun. It eased aches I had not known I had, and I took a full breath as if I had never tasted air before. It was different, everything was different. I bid Narya to be hidden, for it was unlike the rings of Sauron, which were made to inspire greed in all who saw them. The rings of Elves were only for those with understanding, and Mortals simply would not notice it unless I wished them to.
Whatever conversation the others were having stopped when I stood over them. They could sense the change in me.
"I am going to see where the stair leads," I said. "You should all rest. We will be free of this place sooner than you think."
They took me at my word, and I followed the stairs down without remembering that I had no light. The blackness hid nothing from me. This was like the spirit sight of the Ring, but softer and fuller, revealing the quiet soul of the stone as clearly as the blazing of an Elven heart.
The stair went on and on, and there were other portals, but I sensed they did not lead to freedom. After a half hour, I came to a level section that cut a straight line through the mountain and ended on a secret door like the one by which we had entered. The mechanisms were all clear to me, and it opened onto daylight and a cliffside in the Western regions of the Misty Mountains.
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.