The sky was a bright whirl of stars, though the sun still shone, its supremacy was a dessicated branch in need of pruning. The moon as well had risen, and between all of these was an unending river of souls.
The sight gave me pause, almost so that I forgot the reason for my climb, but a harp was playing a doleful tune, and the music brought me back into the moment. I leaped to the lip of the opening and kicked off again, sending me to one side as his staff swung at where my head should have been.
Saruman grunted in frustration, then sent his will at me like a ballista bolt. The peak of Orthanc had been designed like a royal crown, surmounted by huge spears of black glass. I slapped his spell aside and sent it harmlessly between two of those spears.
He gaped at me, staring at my hands.
"This cannot be." He said.
Behind him was a half harp playing itself, a winding toy of old artifice, meant here to succor a prisoner. Goldberry was chained to the roof, her dress torn, and her face bruised. She was as lovely and breathtaking as any natural wonder, as the Loudwater rapids and all they contained. I knew immediately that she was pregnant.
"Saruman..." the menace in my voice was enough to give the wizard pause. I kicked shut the trap and advanced on him. "You were the foremost among the Istari, wisest of the wise. And now you are nothing more than a common thief and ravisher."
"You don't understand," the wizard swung his staff again, but this time I caught it and twisted it out of his grasp in the manner of the Water Dance. Continuing the motion, I cast it against one of the unbreakable tines of Orthanc's crown and the wood gave way. The staff cracked in two, and Saruman's power went out of it in a flood.
"No!" He rushed at me with his hands curled into claws, and I rolled him over my shoulder, slamming him onto his back at my feet.
"Oof," he said. "Wait..."
I stomped his face. It wasn't exactly part of the Dance, I just wanted to do it. Then I lifted him up bodily, as if I had the strength of Boromir and Aragorn together, and I flung him from the peak of Orthanc.
The moment his weight left me a new weight settled, and I felt a kind of terror at what I had done, but there was no recalling it. His expression as he fell was one of comical surprise.
Far below, a force of guardsmen had gathered around the barred entrance of Orthanc. Gimli had locked them out, and they were in a position to witness the Master of All strike the ground with a wet thump. The condition of the body did not matter, I watched his spirit leave him.
Strange, how Mithrandir's true self had appeared to me as a giant, but the soul of Saruman was a paltry thing.
Goldberry watched me with wide and red-rimmed eyes. I reached for her, and she shrank away.
"No," I said, "I am here to help you," I commanded her fetters be opened, and with the wizard gone, the chains were happy to obey. But Goldberry only used her newfound freedom to retreat from me. Then I saw myself reflected in the glass.
The Rings of Men have many qualities of the One Ring albeit in a diluted form. They can make the bearer invisible, for example, and this one had tried to do so. Narya, however, had the effect of makings its bearer more visible, not less.
So though my physical form had become ethereal, a part of that ethereal appearance was the rich essence of the Red Ring of Fire. In the black glass of Orthanc's pinnacle, I saw the reflection of a demon, as if I were a small, distinctly feminine Balrog.
My will moved through both the rings, demanding an accord, and I soon regained my natural appearance.
"What are you?" Goldberry asked.
"I am Arwen Evenstar, daughter of Elrond," I said, and then, trying to soften myself, "I'm a friend of your Tom."
"No." She shook her head. "No."
"Lady Arwen!" The trap door popped up, and the sweating face of stout Sam Gamgee greeted me. "You're alright!"
"Yes, Sam," I said, glad at least that he did not fear me. "What's happened?"
"Gimli had to block the door..." he caught sight of Goldberry. "Oh...hello?"
The naiad laughed, the sound was pleasure itself. "Hobbits! I love Hobbits. Will you sing me a song?"
"Uh, alright then." Somewhat abashed, Sam climbed up to join us and cleared his throat.
"Wait," I said, "maybe you could take Goldberry and entertain her in one of the rooms below. I need to see how things are with the master gone, and she could use your looking after."
Sam swelled with pride at my trust and was more than eager to oblige. Goldberry clung to him as if he was the only thing in the world that could protect her from me. With the trauma she had endured, and the way I had appeared to her, I could understand her distress. The part of me that was irritated by her lack of gratitude, I put aside.
Running up and down the stairwell of Orthanc was enough to put one off towers altogether. Certainly, if one was the master here, one would have others come up the stairs to treat with them instead of going down to treat with visitors. Gimli was sitting with axe on his lap and his back against the barred entrance. He looked tired.
"Solid," he said, "they won't break through." There was a hint of disappointment in his voice.
I looked around for a dais or a throne, but seeing as there wasn't one, I went to stand at the center of the spiral patterns of the floor and crossed my arms.
"Let them in," I said, "and come stand with me."
"Whassat?" Gimli wheezed, he was less a fan of stairs than I was and hadn't altogether recovered.
"Saruman is dead. Let them in, and we will learn what we can of what he was doing in this place, then I can decide what follows."
He looked prepared to argue, but when his eyes settled on me his resolve melted. I realized I had a true servant in him. Dwarves were not usually wont to be taken with Elves, but this one was young, and it was likely Narya that had ensnared him rather than my own charms.
He unbarred the door and untwisted the locking mechanisms, the Numenoreans had apparently evolved beyond the use of keys and keyholes and replaced them all with a kind of blacksmith puzzle.
There was a small host of mercenaries outside, but only three entered. Two of them were flunkies dressed in identical grey and brown motley, while the leader wore the same colors on a tabard over a grimy breastplate. He removed his helmet, revealing a scarred face and about half as many teeth as he would have liked.
"So who're you?" He asked.
"Lady Evenstar, " I said, "the master of this tower."
"Yeah? We uh, saw the other master outside."
"You are sellswords, are you not?"
"S'pose," he said.
"Then what is your name, and your company. What were you doing here for Saruman?"
"Name's Gimlees," at this the dwarf growled, "and my company's the Silver Bantams. We watched the wall for the old master. Kept people out who weren't his friends. Seems he should've picked his friends better."
"We were not friends," I said. "This tower is the birthright of my betrothed, and Saruman had no claim on it."
"Whatever you say."
Gimli growled again. "You will address the Lady with respect."
The man shrugged. "Lady Evenstar," he said, then approximated a curtsy, pretending he was holding out his skirts. Gimli nearly threw his axe again, but I soothed him with a pulse from Narya.
"Were you paid well for your services?" I asked.
"Not well enough."
"That may change in the future, for better or for worse, depending on how you answer me."
"What do you know about the pits? Do your men work them?"
Gimlees grimaced. "No, Lady. We stay clear. Them's where the monsters be, toiling in soot and fire. It'd cost our lives to go down there."
"I don't know what else to calls 'em."
"What do they look like?"
"Ugly freaks. Like men, but not."
I knew them already, the half-men Saruman had shown me in visions.
"Enough," I said. "For now, your choice is to leave with whatever you have on your backs or to accept further employment from me. Master Gimli will handle payments, he is my quartermaster and in charge of the stores here." The Dwarf straightened up.
"S'pose we don't want to work for you? S'way I see it the door's open, we've got all the swords. What if I want to be master of the tower?"
Before Gimli could take him out at the knees, I met his eyes and pressed all my will into a single word.
The mercenary went down as if someone had struck his hamstrings with a stone club. He looked up at me in confusion. Such a wretched thing to call a man, I was tempted to break his neck and ask for the next in the chain of command. But it would have been my doom that they did not have a chain of command.
I could not trust him if his will was free, and if I was going to leave this tower to find the Fellowship again I couldn't leave enemies behind me to make of it a fastness for evil again. I had no choice but to establish my mastery here.
"Pledge yourself to my service." Narya rebelled at such a use of its art, but the Ring of Angmar rejoiced.
"I...I don't..." the man stuttered.
"Pledge yourself to Undomiel, to Evenstar, that you will remain in my service as long as you have days."
I felt his spirit bending, giving way to a new and more agreeable shape. "I...I swear on... swear on my life to the service of Lady Evenstar." Where at first the words were drawn out of him as if by rough rope, the end came as naturally as if it was his own desire.
"Good." I touched his forehead. "Now return to your posts, all of you."
His flunkies saluted, and hurried out of the tower even before their leader had found his feet.
When Gimli closed the door behind them, he coughed into his hand.
"Quartermaster, you say?"
I smiled with genuine fondness, and the Dwarf veritably swooned.
We spent the remainder of the day exploring Orthanc, no small task, as its foundations extended nearly as far into the earth as its pinnacle did the sky. The locks and seals all responded to me as the proper authority of the place, and we discovered tremendous stores of food and supplies, enough to carry an army through a siege.
More than that, there was gold and silver sufficient to found a small kingdom, Saruman had been hoarding wealth like a fire drake for a thousand years, or at least since his corruption began. It all meant little to an Elf, but Gimli assured me that he would care for that wealth as if it was his own, and that meant something coming from a Dwarf of Erebor.
There was bad blood there, as after the Battle of Five Armies and the death of Thorin Oakenshield the Lonely Mountain had become the seat of one of the Dwarves of the Iron Hills. Thorin's promise of one-fourteenth the treasure of his fathers for each of his companions after the death of Smaug had been madness from the start.
After the dust settled, Gloin and the other sainted companions of Thorin had each been awarded comfortable stipends by the new King Under the Mountain, in addition to what it was understood they'd stuffed in their pockets before he got there. So rather than being the son of Gloin, Duke of Erebor; Gimli was the son of Gloin, Reasonably Well Heeled Dwarf. It was a sore point for all the original companions and especially their relatives, who multiplied in times of promised plenty.
Now Gimli had a position he could be proud of. What I had said of my claim on Orthanc was true. As the last heir of the Kings of Numenor, Aragorn could rightfully assert that Orthanc, amongst much else, was his to command, and I was his betrothed.
As for the gold and silver, it struck me as fair to assert they were the spoils of war. If others appeared to vie for what we found here, we would deal with them as merited by their claims.
Many artifacts of the Second Age were there for us to marvel at in that glass tower, the harp which played itself being only one example. However, there was really only one item of value to me.
The Seeing Stone, Eye of Wizards, Looking Glass of Numenor; there had been seven of them once and now it was hard to guess which of them remained and in whose hands. They allowed their masters to view their own realms and even the realms of others from a distance, observing and unobserved. I had read of them, seen sketches, but never beheld one myself.
The Seeing Stone of Orthanc was not the most impressive of its kind, the largest and greatest had been lost at sea in centuries past. This one was an orb no larger than my head, blown onyx, like the tower itself, and just as unbreakable. It was set in a metal framework that kept it aligned with the directions and with correspondences particular to the stone. While Gimli was off counting coins and Sam continued to keep Goldberry company, I experimented with the Palantir.
It was simple to use, or simple at least for one who bore Rings of Power. I had to stand opposite the direction I wished to look in as if the stone were a spyglass that could see through walls, and the images I received were at first jumbled and blurry.
It required a nuanced direction of the mind, and after much of the evening spent in difficulty, I was able to direct my sight over the Gap of Rohan. I could view the land from above, as I had in my dreams, or focus in and in and in until a single figure appeared, or even a face. I did not find Frodo or Aragorn, but I was confident that I could given time.
I pulled away from the Palantir, a knot of pain building at the center of my forehead from the sudden withdrawal.
The voice shocked me. It hadn't been a wraith, rather something from within the stone itself. Something unknown. I reminded myself that dabbling in the rituals of the past had likely been the beginning of the end for Saruman, and resolved to be more careful in the future.
Saruman's manservant was called Tark, and he did not seem overly distraught to learn of his erstwhile Lord's demise. He offered to serve me in the same capacity, but I was reluctant to keep him in the tower.
His eyes were empty like a snake's, and whether that was due to ill treatment at the hands of a wizard or some natural affliction, keeping him close did not appeal to me.
I was preparing to force him out the front door when he dug in his heels. "Have you found his journal?"
"The wizard's journal, all his secrets, I can give it to you."
"I could force you," I said, but my stomach wasn't in it. This man had served evil, but it was unlikely he'd had much choice in the matter, and I had abused my powers too far already that day.
"Allow me to serve you," he wheedled. "Tark is very useful and skilled."
"Fine, if the journal has information I deem important, I will consider you as being in my employ. But you will answer directly to Gimli, he could use an assistant."
Tark's mouth twisted at that, but he knew he had bargained as far as he was able.
Saruman's journal was kept in a black satchel hanging on the outside of the tower, achievable only through a secret panel. It was all that Tark had promised and more.
Saruman did not idly record the business of each day, if he had, there would have been dozens of volumes brimming with minutia for me to study. Instead, he kept a record only of his most significant thoughts and dealings, worries and desires.
It was in some places difficult to parse what had actually happened from what he had merely wished to happen, for the whole body of text seemed a means for him to try and enforce his own will on fate by writing it down.
The journal went all the way back to his arrival in Middle Earth, and his immediate rivalry with Mithrandir. Perhaps not a rivalry, for everyone had accepted, or so it seemed from Saruman's perspective, that he was the first among the Istari.
Cirdan, of the Grey Shores, had seen something in Mithrandir that no one else had, and given him Narya to hold in keeping. That had been the original source of Saruman's spite for the Grey Wanderer.
The accounts were sporadic, skipping decades or hundreds of years, then delving into details on particular topics. The rise and fall of the Shadow was like the ebb and flow of the tides. Dol-Guldur and Angmar came and went as strongholds of evil, and Saruman resisted it always, and proudly.
Too proudly. He alone of the Istari desired a kingdom of his own, and he found what he wanted in Isengard and Orthanc. Respected by all men, known as the Wisest of the Wise, he came to see Sauron not as a great adversary of all the world, but as a personal rival. It was a natural extension to see the Ring as a means of challenging him directly.
Then I learned of what he had done with Orcs.
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.