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Our exit opened onto a ledge a hundred feet above the ground. If there had been a stair leading to it once, there was not now, and the door was a seamless piece within the mountainside when it was shut. Lowering the company was a physically demanding task, but we had rope and necessity on our side, so by that evening we were all on solid footing again.

Legolas stirred, and he took some water, but he wasn't sensible. Boromir strutted around our camp full of righteousness and vindication, for now we had no choice but to travel South to the Gap of Rohan, we had tried all other roads.

Our food was all but gone, but we were at least able to replenish our water skins at a thin mountain rill. Since we would be going overland, a few days living on gathered roots and small game would not be disastrous. The Hobbits' stomachs were already rumbling, but we had not yet missed a meal.

"What is it that you fear from Isengard?" I asked Aragorn when we had a moment alone.

"Gandalf believed Saruman had turned to Shadow," he said, "and I'm inclined to agree. There have been changes in the region in years past, mercenaries, and maybe worse. He seeks the Ring."

"I thought as much, and I don't think we will pass him unmolested. I've had an idea of how to protect Frodo, but I will need you to promise me to do as I ask."

"What else would you ask of me?"

"Promise me, and trust."

Aragorn closed his eyes for a moment, and I imagined that I could feel his mind’s resistance, then I imagined it giving way. "It is too late now for me to lose faith in you,” he said. “Tell me what you need and I will give my word it will be done."

"Take Frodo and the others south, to Gondor. It is what Boromir wants. Travel to Minis Tirith, which is planted on the edge of Shadow whatever we decide. Keep them safe, and if things go well I will meet you again before you reach the White City."

"Meet us again?"

"I am going to Isengard with Sam. Saruman has been watching us from afar, and when he spies me bringing a Hobbit to his door he will think it is all his dreams being realized."

"You cannot do this."

"You gave me your word."

"I know that! But I did not promise you that I would hold my tongue. As I regard you and trust your wisdom, you should also trust in mine. I tell you now, should you walk within the circle of Orthanc you will not walk out again, not as you are."

"You may be right, but our duty is more important, is it not? Without this distraction, you won't pass through to Gondor with this company intact."

Duty was one thing Aragorn could not question, even when he hated it. We debated a little longer, but he could not turn me from my quest or turn back upon his word. I felt Narya working through me as well, bending not just Aragorn, but the very fates to my will. The others were looking to me as a leader, because we had lost Mithrandir, yes, but more since I had taken up the ring.

"I can't leave him," Sam cried.

"Not even to protect him?" I asked, and he wouldn't meet my eyes. Moments later, he agreed.

Gimli volunteered to accompany me, which I had not expected, and I welcomed him. Saruman would not consider the Dwarf a threat, and as he had some knowledge of our party already it was better if he believed I brought him everyone that had survived Moria who could possibly bear the Ring.

In the morning we said our goodbyes, and Aragorn and I shared an embrace. It was over too quickly, but that was the nature of mortality. Boromir carried Legolas, and Aragorn wrapped Frodo like a pack of provisions and carried him on his back. Even if the roving eye of Saruman found them before it found me, he would think them but two faithless men.

On the road Gimli asked Sam to share some stories of the Shire, more to keep his spirits up than anything. I heard little of what was said. Again and again my mind returned to the seconds when I had seen Beren in the great hall of Khazad-Dum.

It was impossible that he was alive, and if he was, he would not have abandoned me. But I had seen his face clearly. What I had not seen since the hour I last wore the Ring of Angmar was the wraith who had accompanied it.

We had some ways to travel, being that we were without mounts, and we did not make as far a distance as I would have liked on that first day of the split company. Gimli would not speak on his discomfort, but he had taken more than a crushed nose from the battle of Balin's tomb.

When we set camp for the evening I let Sam busy himself with making a fire and cooking us as close to a proper stew as he could with the herbs and roots we had gathered during the day. I was not anxious that our presence would be noticed, I had a sense that we had left the Orcs and Wargs behind us for the nonce, and in any case, I wanted us to be observed by the agents of Saruman as we came closer to Isengard.

"Let me look at you," I said to Gimli, and after some grumbling, the Dwarf agreed. It was not as bad as I thought, bruised ribs rather than broken. His people were durable, if nothing else. Narya gave me insight into his health and condition at the barest touch, but I went through a show of examining him.

With a pulse of my will, I took some of his pain away, though I did not have the skill or knowledge to use the ring to heal him outright, if that was even possible.

I felt my ignorance as a millstone. To think, I was in possession of two Rings of Power, an occurrence so rare it might have been only the Ring Lord himself to have ever done so before, and I was too ignorant to use them.

Narya was safe to wear as long as Sauron did not have the One. My father had worn Vilya for a millennia or more without ill effects. It enhanced my perceptions in every facet, broadening, deepening, and I felt as if my awareness could sink into the very earth.

The rings were not meant to grant original powers, but to make of you a perfected version of whatever you already were. I assured the others that I would take the first watch, I doubted sleep would have come to me in any case, and I intended to explore my relationship with the Red Ring of Fire.

Elves have a natural affinity with the elements of Arda, that is why our rings were linked to those elements when the rings of Men and Dwarves had not been, though arguably, all seven Dwarven rings were affianced to earth. I meditated for a time on my own being, experiencing myself with an inner sense.

Once I felt as if I had been limned in my own mind in every detail, I attempted to stretch that perception toward the fire. At first, this was an utter failure. But after a few trials I began to notice the flames around the edges of our dying cooking mound were bent toward me as if by a breeze. I relaxed, and they returned to their natural shape.

On instinct, I placed a hand over the flames. It felt warm, not painful, so I thrust my fingers down into the logs and drew out a coal. I moved so swiftly I might not have been harmed in any case, but the coal in my palm was as much orange as black, and though it felt hot, it did not burn.

I sang to the coal, a quiet morning song, the kind that birds might sing. The orange ember glowed brighter, smoked, and birthed a puff of flame. It made me smile. Soon the puff was gone and the ember cooled, but I knew then that I could speak to fire.

So engrossed had I been in my study that I had not noticed the nightmare approaching our camp. Yellow eyes peered out of a stand of stunted trees. I was on my feet, Aeglos in my hands, when I recognized the horse.

"Glower?"

It cantered out of the trees and dropped a rabbit that had been in its teeth at my feet. The mounts of the Nazgul were raised on meat as well as grain, but it seemed to mean this as an offering.

"No, thank you." I said, though I couldn't claim to be vegetarian anymore. The nightmare merely watched me, so I picked up the rabbit to be polite.

"How did you get here?" Of course, it could not answer, so I turned back to the fire and began prepping the rabbit. The others could have it for breakfast. Seeing as I had accepted its gift, Glower came to loom over me and snuffle my hair in an obnoxious manner.

At least we had a horse.

I woke Gimli an hour before dawn for his watch, and he nearly went after Glower with his axe. But I assured them both that we were all friends and took a quick nap before sunrise.

That day we took turns riding, and came to a hamlet outside of the valley of Isen. The river was within sight, though the hamlet did not abut it directly, and it flowed into a large artificial lake. We went to the hamlet, and hailed a man who was out tending to a solitary cow.

He didn't know what to make of us, and made a sign of warding evil when we approached.

"Pardon our trespass," I said, "but we are travelers bound for Isengard and I wondered if you couldn't answer a few questions."

It certainly seemed he would have rather not answered me at all, but a farmer can hardly refuse an Elf maiden atop a fierce black horse, accompanied by a dwarf with a battleaxe and a battle marked face.

"Can tell you what I know," he allowed.

"That's all I ask," I said. "Please, how long has this river been dammed?"

"Few years now since it started," the man said. "The master that way does as he wants."

"And did you help the work?"

"Hah. Naw. Men brought in from all over, far off. Didn't like the looks of them. The master of the tower didn't want any locals to do the work."

"The master, have you met him?"

"Not met him, seen him. He had all the farmers move out of the valley when he started the dam. That's all I know."

"You haven't seen anything strange in the valley?"

"Don't know no more," the man said cagily.

Gimli had some coin, so we traded for food enough to last a few days. It was plain fare, but my companions were famished, so we stopped for lunch before beginning our descent into the valley. The farmer's family, and the other families who shared the hamlet and its field with him, all stayed inside while we were present. He had one more piece of advice for me before we left.

"It's no place for one like you, no place at all."

He was probably right. This region was sparsely populated, moreso even than it might have been before Saruman began his change, but when we came to the dam we saw that the valley and its environs were quite busy with industry.

Guardhouses were placed on either end of the dam, and deeper in I saw smoke rising from rifts in the ground behind the walls of Isengard. The forest had been cleared for leagues to construct I did not know what, scaffolding that led down into the rifts for one.

"You there, halt!" A man in oil stained leathers and a cheap helmet shouted us down. "Who are you, what do you want here?"

I saw no reason to delay, so I brought Glower to a stop and looked superciliously down at the man.

"My name is Arwen Evenstar, daughter of Lord Elrond of Rivendell, of the line of Earendil the Mariner, and I have come here with a message for Saruman. Tell him that I have brought him what he seeks."

"Brought him what he seeks..." the man mouthed.

"Exactly as I say," I fixed him with a royal stare, and the man blinked, taking in the unnaturally sharp teeth of my horse, and the gleaming tip of my spear. He nodded, going so far as to sketch a bow, and then called a few words of explanation to his partner in the guardhouse as to where he was going.

The second man watched the first mount a light horse and set off at a canter down into the valley, but did not make any move to approach us. I took all this to mean that we were to await a response from Orthanc, which from this distance would probably take the better part of an hour.

Not desiring to hang on the whim of a guardsman to act as a courier, I got down off of Glower, set Sam in the saddle, and began to walk. His partner did not try to stop us.

While I had never visited Isengard, I knew that the valley spread out before me was deeply wrong. It looked like it had been scraped over by crude tools, almost tilled, but not for the purpose of cultivation. The earth of the rifts had been used to buttress the walls that ringed Orthanc and its inner structures.

There had been a sizable town in the valley once, but it was now abandoned and largely demolished, the wood likely burned, judging by the layer of ash that coated all within sight. A vast forest touched the region, and wherever the two environments touched, the green had been hacked and harvested. The sight of this destruction filled me with dismay.

When we came to the walls themselves we were halted again, this time by men who were covered from head to toe in armor and stood atop the ramparts. The guardsman had already gone ahead of us by means of a small door inset into the main gate.

The taint of Mordor was everywhere, I could taste it on the back of my tongue. Whatever dark arts Saruman engaged in, he wished to hide them from the world.

The tower of Orthanc was a soaring spire of black glass constructed at the height of the power of Numenor. It was said to be indestructible, and certainly, the means of its creation had been lost to history. Elves built beautiful things, lasting things, but not like this.

The tower was like a sword blade set against all the world, exactly mirroring the arrogance of Men, who though they died so young, behaved as if they would live forever. Atop that darksome tower I knew the River's Daughter, wife of Bombadil, was held captive.

My desire to free her was half the reason I had come here. Goldberry. Exactly what Saruman wanted of her was still a mystery, perhaps it was enough to keep her as a trophy if she would not give into his exhortations and be his wife.

The small door opened, and a new man met us. He looked like a citizen of Gondor, fair, and with an aquiline nose, but there was a disquieting emptiness to his gaze.

"Saruman, Lord of All, bids you enter."

We were allowed to pass the gate, and then the wide stretch of harrowed land within the curtain of stone and earth. All the activity took place in the rifts, which billowed smoke and rang with the sounds of hammers and anvils, but we were not allowed to approach them or look down.

Aside from our guide and the soldiers on the walls, there was scarcely a soul above ground. The road was wide and well paved, and in the jumble of buildings and pits I perceived a deeper order in the apparent chaos. The mind behind this place was filled with wheels and gears, whirring and clicking down to an appointed purpose known only to itself.

"Lord of All?" I said.

"Saruman the Wise," the man spoke without looking back, "and the White is gone. In his place is Saruman the Bold, the King of Many Colors. His domain is bounded only by his vision, and his vision is boundless."

"Durin's beard," Gimli muttered.

When we reached the tower Sam had to dismount. A filthy stable boy with wild eyes tried to take Glower's reins and the nightmare nearly took his fingers in return.

"She will wait for us," I told the boy. "She is very clever."

The boy looked to the man for confirmation; he did not care, and we were shortly ushered within the belly of Orthanc. The interior was nothing like the scarred landscape without, all things here were in perfect order and geometric harmony.

The Numenorians had fostered a penchant for mathematical intricacy, and the entire structure was underwritten by the Golden Ratio. The staircase was arranged like the petals of a flower, spiraling unsupported and without a balustrade. The tiles of the floor, gleaming after millennia of wear, were an endless loop of nautilus curls.

We ascended. Many levels and sealed doors later we were allowed to sit around a marble table set with silver and gold. The dead eyed man offered us a bowl of lilac water to rinse our hands in before dinner was served.

"The Lord of the House will be with you shortly," he assured us, but long minutes stretched in silence while we waited. He poured us wine in ornate goblets, and brought out plates of chilled salad and hot quail. As soon as I smelled them I knew they were not poisoned, and the others took my leave to eat while the man waited on us from a shadowed alcove.

We had finished eating, and the dishes were taken away, when strains of music could he heard coming from above. Doors opened and shut, it was a harp, I was sure of it, and then Saruman arrived.

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About the author

WilliamMyrl

Bio: 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.

Eat Fresh.

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