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Goldberry had locked me out of the tower, my alliance with the wraiths driving her beyond the possibility of trust. Gimli, ever faithful, allowed me to enter, and the river woman relented when she beheld my disfigurement. I was learning that Goldberry was many things, but a woman who would leave a wound untended she was not.

The burn was clean, at least, and required minimal scouring. Near constant agony had settled itself into the meat under newly forming skin, and remained even after Goldberry applied her healing craft, which was greater than mine.

"It isn't your body that burns," she said. "The damage is deeper and more fell."

"Will it heal?"

"In truth, I do not know." Goldberry had a shy radiance to her features that would grow and fade with her mood, hiding when she delivered bad news as if it were embarrassed to be bright when all else was dim.

"The women here will get better, most of them, but they will always be different for what they suffered. Your hand will heal, but not the hand behind your hand, because of your sickness."

"What sickness?"

She inclined her head toward my rings, refusing to acknowledge them more directly.

"You mean my spirit cannot heal as long as I carry them."

She finished wrapping my bandage, and would say nothing more.

Sam, at least, was happy to receive me, though heartbroken to see I had not returned with his dearest friend in tow. He'd come into his own as a host, and knew all the women by name, which I did not even attempt. There were scores of them, and it was the best I could do to endure their gratitude when it came.

"You have proven yourself a master and a gentlemen," I told Sam, and he blushed.

"Thank you, my Lady, but may I ask, what became of my master?"

"I met the company on the road," I said, "and we came to a disagreement on the way forward. They are bound still for Minis Tirith, and likely Mordor beyond."

"Then shall we go with them?" His face was hopeful, but also afraid.

"You are needed here," I touched his shoulder, kneeling to bring us level, "what would Goldberry do without you?"

"Frodo needs me," he said, making the argument for himself as much as for me.

"He does, I think, but he has Aragorn and Legolas and more, Mithrandir has returned."

"Mithran..."

"Gandalf."

"Gandalf!" Sam's eyes bulged. "He's back? I knew he could do it!"

Do what, I wondered, return from the dead?

"Yes," I tried to smile, but managed barely a twitch. "He is with us again, so Frodo is as safe as he can be. I have been wondering, however, what you think of all this, the Fellowship and the Council of the Wise. Do you think the course they chose is just?"

"I'm just a little fellow," he said, "my thoughts on such big matters aren't much."

"But I would have them nonetheless."

"Well, it doesn't scare me to think he has to go to Mordor, that's a dreadful place as I've ever heard one, but if Gandalf says it's right, I suppose it must be."

"Because Gandalf is wise?"

"Wise, yes." He chewed it over. "But also kind and good."

"And what of me? Am I not all those things?"

Sam shifted uncomfortably, like a child caught being dishonest. "Yes, Lady, of course that's so. It's just that... just so..."

"You cannot hurt my feelings, Samwise. Please, I have asked for your opinion."

"Alright, well, my mind is, you seem...different, Lady. Since your return, I mean."

I flexed my bandaged hand so he could see it, pain flared. "I was hurt, that is all."

"How'd it happen?"

"I played with fire," I said, "and you're right, I am different. You've seen the wraiths, haven't you?"

"It's terrible," he said, "they're awful, awful."

"I know, and I tricked them. I made them give me their rings, as you see, so they can't hurt us anymore. They can't hurt anyone as long as I hold them. But the price was great, and I still have more to do.

If the Dark Lord finds the One Ring, if he finds Frodo, then the wraiths will be his again and I will be ruined. You don't want that to happen, do you?"

"No, I..."

"Then you will help me bring Frodo back, won't you? Bring him here, and keep him safe? The two of you will have the run of the tower to yourself. Two little masters of Orthanc."

"But...Gandalf..."

"Let me worry about the wizard," I said, too sharply. My will flowed out unconsciously and wrapped around the Hobbit. He shivered, then was still.

"I'll do whatever you ask, I just want to see Frodo again."

"For now, keep doing as you have done. Help the women. But maybe soon I will take you to see Frodo."

Gimli was in good spirits. I needed him continue managing things in Isengard while I went away, and he enjoyed the role insofar as he could ignore the Uruk-Hai and the wraiths. He had Tark and the mercenary leader, Gimlees, to act as his aides and liaisons for any task outside the physical tower, and he plainly enjoyed being in a role of authority.

To Gimli I gave three strands of my hair to be worked into a locket. He was overjoyed, and likely would have traipsed into Mordor after Frodo himself if I asked it of him.

"Their darkness is a light to me," he said, "and I will cherish them."

That left housekeeping duties, managing the Uruk-Hai, who were quickly growing restless, especially now that I had brought another group to swell their number.

I decided to let the Orcs live, they would do no more harm to the women, and the half-men would keep them in line. Kurkar taking their shape made things more natural, as he quickly established himself as a leader, even besting Grummpsh in a manner that did not cost the brutish warrior too much face.

It was understood that Kurkar was not an ordinary Uruk-Hai, and he soon donnned the black cloak of the wraiths to set himself apart, as if Aeglos did not do so already.

I thought of taking the weapon from him. It was mine, after all, and there was something akin to sacrilege in his bearing the spear that had been born against him in ages past. If I needed it, I would take it up again, but for the nonce it was beyond my ability to hold.

Both my arms were crippled, and both by my own choices. The cut I had made with Khamul's blade had been sewn and rewrapped by Goldberry's expert hand, but the curse of the Nazgul lingered nonetheless. No amount of herb craft seemed sufficient to purge it completely, though my sickness had been beaten back into a still malignancy.

Even Athelas, Kingsfoil , had failed to rid me of the Shadow's taint. Saruman, with his foresight and fear, had built up a stock of every medicinal plant in the West of Middle Earth. Knowing the terror of the wraiths firsthand, he had gathered great quantities of Athelas.

It was less effective dried, and had no use outside of it's influence on those touched by darkness, but was invaluable nevertheless. I had crushed the fragrant leaves and stewed them in a bowl of steaming water, inhaling the vapors, and it had done done good. The curse had been blunted, though not removed. I needed time to heal.

I gave myself three days to recover. Maedhros, Maglor, and Celegorn each had Hell-Hawks, and I put them to good use herding the roving bands of Orcs and Uruk-Hai back to Isengard, making the region safer for humans and giving me an opportunity to consolidate power.

Not all of the bands had belonged to Saruman, for many bore the mark of the Red Eye instead of his White Hand, but those were accustomed to being ordered about by wraiths and gave no trouble.

Kurkar suggested I take up a sign of my own, one that could be worn as a standard by those who served me, and many possibilities presented themselves, but all of them were too complex for this purpose. It needed to be something Orcs could be expected to paint on a pauldron, so we settled on a circle in white, which some of the women took it on themselves to prepare on a sable banner.

Then he went out among the half-men promoting the change, and cowing those who resisted. Orcs were inherently malleable creatures, easy to bully into a rabble, nearly impossible to be molded into a true army, but if one could do it, it would be the Witch King of Angmar in his guise of flesh.

Amras was reforming, I had begun to sense him on the first night of my return. But his destruction at the hands of Aragorn, wielding Narsil, was not easily overcome. The wraiths could not be permanently killed as long as the rings remained, and Mortal weapons could do them no real harm, being ruined at the touch of their invisible essences.

But Narsil, a blade that had bitten the very substance of their Dark Lord, was another matter. Like Aeglos, it was an object of sufficient art to resist their curse, but its power against their particular evil was superior even to that of the spear.

When they died, which had happened on occasion over the centuries, especially in the years when the weapons of Numenoreans were more common, they lost pieces of themselves that they did not regain. It was possible Amras was too damaged now to serve me, but we would see.

Caranthir, Curufin, and Amrod had been relegated to a subbasement of Orthanc where they could not cause undue disturbance. Without their rings and without a bearer they were little more than shadows, spaces of deeper darkness beyond the lantern light when I visited them.

They lacked even the strength to hate me for not fulfilling my promise to wear them myself. From them and the others I surmised much of Sauron's plans, the great force that assembled in Minis Morgul with the intent of overthrowing Gondor's capital. The absence of the Witch King had delayed his plans, but not defeated them.

There was a general there now called Gothmog who had taken command, and who had already been accustomed to acting command when the wraiths were about on the business of the Dark Lord. I no longer used the Palantir, for I feared what Sauron would glean from me if I did so, but the knowledge of the wraiths was sufficient to give me an understanding of what was to come.

As for Khamul, the one whose knife I still carried at my hip, I had a different arrangement. I had sensed no hint of his presence since Aeglos pierced his mask, but I knew he was stronger than the others and would likely make some attempt to regain his ring whether I carried it or no. He was biding his time, but I would make an example of him for the others.

In the foul pits of the Uruk-Hai there were many forges. With the craft and tools of Celebrimor at our disposal, it was possible a Ring of Men could have been unmade, but we had neither. The ironworks of the pits were clumsy, inelegant solutions for the needs of a growing army.

Saruman had shared with the Uruk-Hai all his knowledge of metals and fire, and they had faced the limitations of both teacher and pupils. His learning had been from books, with no true experience of creation, and his students lacked the imagination to take advantage of all he could share with them. They could make steel ingots and shape them, however, which was all that was necessary for their purposes and mine.

The smiths were happy to oblige the Nightstar, as they called me, a foolish name from foolish creatures, and they quickly filled a mold with molten iron, into which I dropped Khamul's ring. They took the resulting ingot to a second mold, and made it the heart of a larger, misshapen ball of metal, too large for me to lift on my own, too solid for any wraith to manipulate.

When Khamul's ingot was safely locked in a storeroom I ventured to the crown of Orthanc, a slow ascent, for I was not wholly recovered and the rings weighed heavier each morning I arose, but I did reach it. There, in cloudless sunlight and amid the spikes of obsidian that formed the crown, Beren lay in repose.

He was wrapped in cotton sheets, his head exposed, and one arm crossed against his chest. He looked better than he had when Kurkar inhabited him, and he would decay no further. Narya was on his finger, ruby glimmering, and I had decided I would give them both to Cirdan when the time came.

The ring had made it plain that I could no longer be her bearer, and that I understood. What I had done was done from weakness, and I did not deserve her mercy.

From the apex of the tower I could see the full extent of the damage Saruman had wreaked on the landscape, scraping and burning, seemingly without reason. The Uruk-Hai were wasteful of wood in their forges and cookfires and much had been used in the construction of the great dam that kept Isengard dry.

(Bring me a Hawk.)

I commanded Celegorn, who was the nearest, and in a few minutes I could see a black winged creature wheeling across the vault of heaven to come perch between two spines of the crown. Its great beak clacked at me, and I smelled its reek as Celegorn tugged the reins to chasten it.

They were ugly animals, but useful, and I had so often dreamed of flying. The wraith occupied an Uruk-Hai, apart from Amras, all the wraiths I carried on my hand had taken bodies and I had not quibbled over their choices. One half-man was much the same as another to me, though some were more biddable than others, and they had all chosen excellent physical specimens.

Celegorn was easy to recognize because he had abandoned his black cloak in favor of a gold mantle.

"In honor of my Mistress," he had said to me. Riding behind him, he felt as cold as a slab of ice, his house of flesh barely containing the deadly chill of a wraith.

On the back of a winged horror I flew to the edge of Fangorn, where the forest had been cut back as harshly as if by a single stroke of some giant many bladed machine, and dismounted.

(Away. Your presence will do no good here.)

(As you wish.)

Into the forest I went, ancient and grand as any cathedral, it made me long for home. Aimlessly I walked, singing of loss and sorrow, songs the Elves had sung since the ending of Beleriand. It was hard too imagine, for it had been long before my birth, that once the West of Middle Earth had been home to Elves as numerous as men were today.

They had dreamed new dreams, and built cities of wonder and delight, not yet resigned to dwindle into twilight.

For hours I walked, until the day fell into warm descent, and yet I was not weary, for being in the deep and precious wood revived me as the air of Athelas could not. At last my song faltered, for I saw what I had meant to see, two soft recesses in a broad trunk that appeared as eyes.

The tree shivered, and a voice rose out of the hollows of its crooked body, echoing in all directions.

"Elf? An Elf? Who is singing? Ho-hum. Would that be you?" His words crawled like caterpillars already upon the leaf.

"It was, master Ent. My name is Arwen Evenstar, and I came in search of you."

"Of me? An Elf you say? Ho-hum." The tree shivered again, more forcefully this time, and its roots rose from the soil in great clumps like legs with clubbed feet.

"Let me look at you." It leaned forward with a rattling of twigs and leaves, intelligence sparking in the depressions of its face. "You are an Elf, but who was singing?"

"That was I, master Ent, and I am sorry to disturb your meditations, but I thought that we should speak."

"You and I...speak? Well I suppose we are, but it has been many a season and sapling since an Elf came to these woods. I'm not sure I remember how, though I suppose I'm going along nicely now that I've started. An Elf? Speak? Ho-hum. Whatever for?"

"Master Ent, how much do you know of what has gone on in the valley of Isengard?"

"Master Ent? Enough of that. My name is..." What followed was several minutes in Entish that I could barely follow. The gist of it I could summarize.

"Treebeard then?" I said.

"What? That's not at all...well...a certain brevity may be understandable, though for an Elf you are a busy one, I think... Yes, Treebeard will do."

"Thank you, and do you know what has happened in the valley?"

"I haven't been to look, but now that you say so, the saplings have been murmuring of late. Yes, I can taste it now, the river has moved, quite a foolish thing for a river to do I think...well. What has happened? What has happened to the trees?"

"Saruman built many forges in the valley, and other things, and he took your trees to do it."

"What...what? How dare he!" Treebeard, swished his arms and stomped about, and I held still until his tantrum was finished.

"But now Saruman is dead." I said.

Treebeard snapped to attention. "Dead? But I haven't done anything to him yet."

"And you don't need to, nor any of your brothers. I have killed Saruman, and I will make sure that Fangorn is not marred again."

"Well that's.... " the Ent was still caught in his anger, and it took him several minutes of quiet for the heat to die again, so I waited. "That is alright then. You are not so bad an Elf after all, a little hasty, perhaps..."

"I request a boon."

"A boon? Well...I suppose if it is within my power...though I may have to discuss it with the others...maybe a moot, after all these seasons, is in order...or maybe not. I'm still drowsing. What boon, little Elf, would you have of me?"

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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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