The creature gave its ugly cough, and I knew him by description. To think, so wretched a body as this one had been the subject of lengthy discussions in the councils of the Wise. What was he waiting for? I put Aeglos against his neck.
"Don't run," I told him.
He cringed, and his huge eyes darted from edge to edge. Then, seeing no enemy, he came to a conclusion, and his face contorted with fury.
"My precious!" He hissed, preparing to lunge. I flipped Aeglos about and struck him with the butt end. He flopped over, covering his head with his too large hands and whistling through his tooth.
"No," I said, "the One Ring is not here. I bear others less powerful. Now remain still, or I will strike you again."
Gollum moaned, but I sensed this was mere theater. In his heart he schemed for an avenue to flee, or failing that, to attack me.
"Have you seen a hobbit and an Elf come this way?" I asked.
"What it asks?" Gollum spoke less to me than to a third person apparently not present. "Its asks us has we seen it? Yes, yes, there is the hobbit down below. And the Elf it is who has my precious. Stinking, thieving Elves!"
I became visible, any precaution of that nature against this miserable lump became ridiculous. "Look at my hand." His huge, lantern eyes focused instantly on my rings."They are not your precious, are they?"
He looked for a long time, then rolled back up into a crouch, and shook his head.
"Now tell me, have you seen another hobbit? Not the one who travels with me."
His blink was long and slow. "Why does she asks us? She has so many ringses...why does she ask?"
"Because the other hobbit is in danger. The Dark Lord searches for him. The Dark Lord wants what he carries. Do you understand what that means?"
"The Eye!" Gollum covered his own. "He cannot havses, no! He cannot havses my precious."
"Have you seen him? Has he come this way already?"
A sly look crossed his odious features. "What she wants, maybe she pays for it. What she has, has she to gives us?"
"Your life is not enough?"
Gollum made his choking sound, and it was somewhat jovial. "She threatens us. Stupid Elf. She has nothing to threatens us with."
"I can give you my protection. Come with me, and no Orc or spider will harm you again."
Gollum licked his lips. His tongue was improbably wide, like a frog's. "Maybe, maybe Gollum thought they come this way, but they did not. Maybe they did not come, but Gollum saw why they did not."
"Tell me what you saw."
"Maybe Gollum saw, but Elf has to make promises to us. Has to promises, yes. If I tell you the way, you take us with you."
"Fine. If not the Spider's Pass, then where, where did they go?"
Gollum pointed up. "Eagles."
My heart fell free of my center, my breath was caught as if by Shelob's web. All the Ring Wraiths were aligned with me. No one guarded the air over Mordor. Hell-Hawks were rare, and true dragons had gone the way of the last age.
Why had I not considered it? Frodo didn't need to travel through the Mountains of Shadow, or the Black Gates, or Minas Morgul, he could simply fly over them, relying on Mithrandir's long friendship with the race of Eagles.
"How long?" I demanded. "When did you see an eagle?"
"Before you came," Gollum pointed north, "it was more that way. We saw it. Yes. Great big stinky bird."
Not so long then, but if they had flown through the night, they might be at Orodruin already. Obviously, the Ring had not been cast into the Crack of Doom yet, or else the world would have changed, but we could not have much time.
My mind stretched to contact Maglor, Maedhros, and Kurkar, my only servants with flying mounts, and I knew instantly that Kurkar was still the nearest. I felt his annoyance at being called again after so recently being used as a courier, but when I explained the need, he knew an urgency as great as my own. If we did nothing, then either the Ring would be destroyed or Sauron would take it up again. That would mean slavery or oblivion for both of us.
Aeglos spun again, this time the blade tip passed effortlessly through Gollum's throat. The sounds he made as he died resembled his name less and less. Those massive eyes accused me as they dimmed.
"Your blood is on my spear," I said. "That much of you I will take with me into Mordor."
His life had been far longer than it needed to be; hardly a life at all. Death was a mercy to the truly wretched.
I woke Sam. He was groggy, but he perked up when I told him we wouldn't have to face Shelob after all.
"We are going over the mountain instead of under it," I said, "and then to meet your master."
Sam was more reticent than I expected at this news.
"What is it?" I asked. "You know you can speak freely with me."
"You aren't going to hurt him, are you?" He wouldn't look at me.
"No, of course I won't hurt your friend, Sam." Not as long as I wasn't forced to. "You're going to help convince him to come back with us, aren't you? That would be the safest thing for Frodo now."
It was nearly dawn when Kurkar came winging into the defile where we waited. He'd brought a second Hell-Hawk from the Morgul nursery so his own would not be overburdened. It did not deign to be ridden by an Elf and a Hobbit, but I spat words in the Black Speech to cow it, and in moments we were all three wheeling for the skies.
The crossing was simple to imagine, more daunting to accomplish. The height alone was intimidating, but the gloom-fed clouds hung so low as to suckle at the peaks of the Mountains of Shadow. Even the Hell-Hawks, born to this inhospitable region, resisted our desire to surpass the barrier and rise so close to the storm.
A Song of Pain was necessary to motivate them. Sam was affected by the song as well, though it was not meant for him, and he wept into my vest as he clung to me. At the high point of our climb we were forced to enter a space of blind fog, tenebrous and charged with menace. For a moment it was as if we had been swallowed by some leviathon of the Elder Days, and I doubted we would see the light again. The will of Sauron was made plain.
An arc of terrible radiance cracked into existence, and broke upon an unseen wall. Kurkar was chanting in his sonorous voice, the wards and ways of Sauron were known to him from long association, and so we passed back out of darkness into a new and hungry light. How had an Eagle survived such a passage?
Mordor unrolled before us in a blasted ruin, and the Hell-Hawks shrieked our victory. There was no need for us to hide our presence, for we were too high to be seen individually by those on the ground, and this was the one region of the world where our Hawks were welcome.
We urged our mounts forward, and the servants of Mordor were so many dull motes of light below us. It was morning, but the sun did not penetrate here. It was Orodruin itself whose luciferian influence was the sole mitigation of the darkness beneath the storm, which stretched as far as an eye could see.
My own sight flickered between the natural and spiritual realms, and in both Mount Doom presented a force of indomitable maleficence. Red tongues of light flared from its shattered mouth, and an endless vomit of thick smoke.
For an hour we rode, avoiding stray lightning strokes and the ever lowering clouds. Mount Doom was not a high peak, its height had been blasted off over the millenia, and with the column of smoke choking the sky it seemed as if the thunderheads above stretched down to meet it, as if there were two mountains, one of rock and the other of black vapor, inverted atop of one another. To fly into the mouth of Orodruin would be to go headlong into choking fumes and devouring plumes of flame. Is that what the Eagle had attempted?
Even had they been delayed, they should have arrived long before us and the outcome decided. But I felt nothing from my rings.
Then I spotted it, a once golden profile now soot stained and disjointed, the Eagle looked like it had been caught in a giant's fist, crushed and spiked to earth at the base of Orodruin. We descended, and Kurkar dismounted to hunt for signs of the hobbits. Sam moaned.
"They not here," I said; the appearance of the great bird had unsettled me. They were an intelligent race, majestic beyond measure, and some distant part of my soul shared Sam's horror, though I did not have the luxury to examine the feeling. Barely visible in the distant gloom was Barad-dur, the Eye at its peak a candle compared to the open furnace of Orodruin.
My gaze was drawn to that candle, and I felt what I had felt looking into the Palantir, both the sensation of falling forward with my perception and being perceived in turn. At the last instant, when I thought the Eye would surely rise before me like a living sun, I tore myself away. Why was there no guard set upon this mountain? What had happened to the Eagle?
Kurkar could learn nothing, so we rose again to view the road. There was a straight path connecting Barad-Dur to Orodruin, not paved atop the land so much as cut out of it, and meticulously maintained. It wound around the mountain like the coils of a snake, ending at a tunnel set into the igneous cone that ran at a steep angle toward that spuming mouth.
Just within the tunnel there was a heavy iron door that ended the Dark Lord's road. Images suddenly flooded my mind of a history where I had never touched the Ring. What if Mithrandir's plan had been a success, and though the sky was guarded, Frodo and Sam alone had managed to creep into Mordor, outsmart the Orc patrols, and sneak across the blasted plain beneath the mountain.
At the end of their strength, they would have ascended the unmanned incline until they reached the road and followed it at last to this very tunnel. Frodo would be worn down by the Ring, barely able to stand, and Sam would have had to carry him some of the way, always the stalwart companion. Then they would has come to a door, a single iron barrier, more symbolic than anything of the unholy sanctity of Sauron's infernal forge. Why wouldn't there be a door?
There the tale of Frodo and Sam would have come to an end, while the world burned around them, outdone by a single lock.
The door was ajar.
Frodo had not come with Sam, but with Legolas, I could sense the traces of his spirit he had left behind, and a Wood Elf would have then ingenuity to finagle a simple lock.
My heart beat fast in my throat. They were here, they were already here. Why had the story not ended? With the butt of my spear I pulled open the door, ready for whatever might be lurking on the other side, an ambush or a trap. Whatever the Dark Lord had prepared within had surely caught or stymied the Ringbearer and his companion, that was the only explanation.
Darkness was all that waited for me in the tunnel beyond, thick and heavy as a fog, spilling out of the portal in curling leaves of shadow. Neither Mortal sight nor ethereal sense could pierce this veil. I spoke a few old names in the High Tongue, but they had no effect.
"There is a password," Kurkar said. "Shibboleth."
I repeated the phrase, and the tacky smog receeded sufficiently to allow a narrow passage between two walls of black, like a road that had been opened by the parting of a sea. I steeled myself to proceed, but something caught my eye. A faintly glowing orb like a will-o-wisp was bobbing down the passage, and when it reached the threshold it sprouted limbs and faces, dividing in two.
Alike in bearing, tall and proud, Elrond and Galadriel faced me with united purpose. Projections of the mind, they were like ghosts themselves, but each wore a gem of solid light, one blue and the other white. My father spoke first. "I have been attempting to reach you," he said, "but circumstance has delayed our conference until this moment. It is only with Galadriel's will wedded to mine that I am able to penetrate the field of gloom that surrounds you."
"Father," I said, "I know you will not agree with what I have done, but now is not the moment for debate. The Ringbearer has vanished into Mount Doom, and I know not his fate."
My father made a gesture as if in blessing. "He has passed under a canopy we cannot part, and now his doom is truly his own. All that can be done has been, and he will succeed or fail, you must not interfere."
"I think he is trapped," I said, "or else he struggles with the Ring, and cannot gve it up. He is not strong enough to do what you want."
"Maybe he is not, but you have already set your heart against your own fate, against ours. You would take the Ring for yourself. The proof hangs heavy from your hands." Beside him, Galadriel's dulcet voice swelled with regret. "I too sought power once, granddaughter, and will not fault you for your rash youth. You must not hold this course. Simply wait, and allow Frodo to do what he must. It is more than the Ring that is at stake here, but your very soul."
"It is true," I said, "I won't deny it. I want the Ring. I want to use it to repair all the damage he has done, and more. I want Elves to live again, to thrive, no more to dwindle. Father, before we lost Celebrian, didn't you also think this way?"
Elrond stiffened. "Your mother's choice is not the only reason I look to the West, but yes, I long to be reunited with her. You are wrong, however, if you think that our wants are what guides us here. It is duty that draws us out of this world."
"Duty to what? When did you last speak to the Valar on matters of duty?" "Not the Valar, my daughter. We obey the will of Iluvatar." "It is as he says," Galadriel agreed. "When I left the Undying Lands, it was against the wishes of the Valar, and we rival them at our own peril, but I have since learned to watch the patterns woven into the fabric of this earth, and I too have seen our end is called for. The Fourth Age will belong to humanity, and Sauron and Elves will be no more than a memory to the coming generations. In order for the war to end, and Shadow vanquished at last, we must cede this world to the Mortals. That is the price." She shone more brightly as she spoke, her hair a mixed river of silver and gold, so like the Trees of old that tears formed in my eyes.
I had never seen those famed Trees, not like Galadriel, who being Noldor was truly one of the First Children. "What will Iluvatar do if his pattern is not followed?" I asked. "Will he change the world again, as he did to spite Numenor?"
"I think not," Elrond sighed. "More likely he would leave us to the Shadow of our choosing, and there would be no more ships to the West, no more promise of the Halls of Mandos for those that lingered in this bemired existence. There would be war and endless war until no more Elves remained, or else those that did would be so changed as to be unrecognizable. No true victory is possible using the tools of the Shadow, as you should already comprehend, given what you have done and felt since taking up your burdens."
Were they right? Was the only choice now to put my faith in a Hobbit and the designs of the Creator above all? It was tempting, not to fight anymore, or to command, to carry the weight of my choices. What had I accomplished in my headstrong flight from Rivendell so many weeks ago?
Death and shades and regret. Friends hurt and killed. Consorting with wraiths and Orcs, and the betrayal of the man I loved, or claimed to love. Given all that I had done, what claim had I to love? I wavered at the threshold, unwilling to turn back or to go on. But Sam, seeing something very different in the shadowed hall than I, ran forward and dispersed Elrond and Galadriel like the phantasms they were.
"I'm coming, master!" He called, and was immediately swallowed by the gloom.
"Who were you speaking to?" Kurkar asked. "They veiled themselves to me." "The Elven Ringbearers," I said, staring after where Sam had disappeared. "They want me to hold back."
"They think the Shadow is evil," Kurkar said, "and maybe they are right. I was called evil long before I became a tool of Sauron. But the world does not care about light or shadow. The world just is, and if you don't want to travel wherever Elves travel when they die, or wherever Mortals do, then you must have the Ring."
I paused a moment longer, and stepped into the dark.
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.