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37
Evil in Ascendance

Evil in Ascendance


Denethor, once he came to the Black Chair as Ruling Steward of Gondor, had western Osgiliath rebuilt once more and its great main bridge reconstructed, but no longer did the nation’s Rangers patrol Ithilien and the great roads leading south toward Harad, Khand, and Umbar or east to Minas Morgul. Few chose to remain within Osgiliath, however, and many who had dwelt in Ithilien removed to Lebennin and Anórien, fleeing feared future incursions by the creatures of evil that seemed to breed in the Mountains of Shadow.

Gandalf went north to the Great Wood to confer with Thranduil. “More wagons have arrived at Dol Guldur, arriving this time from the south. They carry Men with black skins, tall and heavily muscled, but with eyes grey as those of the Dúnedain. With them are women as tall and bright eyed as their menfolk, but all were in heavy chains, their faces empty of hope.”

The news depressed the Wizard, and he went further north to speak with Radagast.

“There is darkness growing to the south,” Radagast reported. “I cannot begin to imagine what is happening there in the ruins of Oropher’s palace, but the few birds who have dared to fly near to it have come here in utter terror, refusing to tell what it is that they saw happen. I fear he does unspeakable things to those he holds as captives.”

Those of the Eótheód who had dwelt near the Gladden Fields had left their former lands, taking their horse herds up toward the headwaters of the Anduin, and those Men who dwelt now in that land spoke of their neighbor’s homes having been attacked and whole families disappearing in the night. None would walk abroad in the darkness, and many gathered far closer to one another than they’d ever done. Both Thranduil’s scouts and Radagast reported increases in the numbers of great spiders to be found in the darkest corners of the forest, and the Brown Wizard’s crows reported that wolves and wargs were gathering across the river upon the flanks of the mountains.

When he crossed the mountains into Eriador it was to learn that Araglas had passed out of this life, leaving his son Arahad as Chieftain of the Northern Dúnedain.

“We have had to abandon three of those villages we have maintained since the coming of our people to Middle Earth,” Arahad told Gandalf. “The Men of Angmar and the Brown Lands to the south constantly seek out our strongholds, and in the past few decades they have taken as prisoners many of our young men and women who have not yet married. Where they have taken them we know not as yet, but indications are that they were carried eastward over the mountains, and no offers to ransom them have been made. Several have been those most closely related to my own line, including my kinswoman Richeled, whom I’d once thought to marry. It is feared that they are wanted by unknown powers for fell purposes. And it is said that some of the Elves of Mithlond and Lindon have also gone missing as they have traveled eastward toward Imladris to consult with Elrond and Glorfindel. What is it that the Dark Powers want with our people or with Elves?”

Elrond spoke of similar disappearances, and the fears that somehow those missing had been taken eastward to the Necromancer. “Ever he appears to have gained strength from the deaths of others,” he said sadly. “As we have not been told of the losses until too long afterwards to recover them, all we can assume is that they have died to the purposes of that evil soul!”

“If they were not intended to live to even more evil purposes,” the Wizard muttered, and all present at that interview between Gandalf and the Lord of Imladris shuddered at the thoughts engendered by such a possibility.

*******


Elrond accompanied Gandalf southward to Lothlórien. Arwen and her brethren were to spend time with their grandparents, and he had no desire to see his children taken as had had happened recently to so many others. So far none from Imladris had been abducted, and he did not intend to see such losses begin with his own children.

Celeborn and Galadriel had already heard the rumors of Men, Elves, and even Dwarves disappearing from across Eriador and Rhovanion, and reported that those few of their people who had dwelt near the stream where the Lady Nimrodel had maintained her own flet had been driven eastwards toward the tongue of land between the Silverlode and Anduin the Great. Caras Galadhon was now the only city left within the boundaries of the Golden Wood, for Cerin Amroth had been abandoned by almost all save a very few who clung to their love for their lost Lord and his Lady and maintained a presence in the more traditional portions of their land.

“The orcs have not yet crossed our borders, but they are far too active near to them. None wish to dwell sufficiently close to the bounds that they might see those foul creatures perhaps underneath their very flets.”

Elrond nodded his recognition of the rightness of the observations his wife’s father had uttered. “Glorfindel and our patrols keep a careful watch on our borders as well, for the number of orcs in the High Pass has multiplied alarmingly. Our people do not willingly leave the valley at this time, and the Dúnedain find themselves under siege. Word from Mithlond is that at least five parties sent to us from there or Lindon have been assaulted and some Elves have been abducted and not seen again.”

Gandalf found himself twisting his staff between his hands. “And you have heard that Dwarves also have been attacked? They must be furious!”

“At least two trading parties from Erebor and the Iron Hills have been ambushed near the Gap of Calenhardorn, near the observatory tower built by Elendil’s people shortly after the founding of Gondor and Arnor,” Celeborn said. “Until now the Dwarves have been unmolested as they have passed through Dunland, but no longer. One of our patrols following a party of warg-riders southward found this particular troop attacking a Dwarf caravan that was heading eastward. It had turned back after having been assaulted by Dunlanders as they sought to cross the Isen. Two wagons had been cut off from the train by the Dunlanders, and what had become of those who traveled with them could not be determined. Those said to have led the attackers were not themselves Men of Dunland, however. They were taller, and wore masks over their faces, and they had an accent that the Dwarves swore was from lands far to the east.”

“The Dwarves already avoid the pass over Caradhras,” Galadriel added. “I fear that in the future the only pass they will use voluntarily will be the High Pass, there near Imladris.”

Elrond was shaking his head with frustration. “There, too, orcs are increasing again in number. In these days it appears there are no safe paths either over or around the Misty Mountains.”

Gandalf looked from Elrond to his wife’s mother and father. “Then I would advise that Arwen and her brothers be encouraged to remain here until the numbers of orcs in the passes should be reduced substantially. I do not like these reports that those abducted in Eriador tend to be from families descended from the lineage of Isildur, and that Dwarves of Dúrin’s line are being targeted. For were Erebor and the Iron Hills not founded by Dwarves descended from Dúrin the Deathless? Too much emphasis seems to have been given to acquiring individuals from the royalty amongst Men, Dwarves, and Elves. Remember—those who assaulted Nimrodel’s party hounded her to her death, seeking in especial to take her as prisoner!”

Elrond cocked an eyebrow. “And do you think that my sons, seasoned warriors that they are, will agree to be kept here within their grandparents’ realm as if they were treasures too precious to be risked? Nor will Arwen agree to avoid danger any more now than she ever has.”

Gandalf merely shook his head. “I like not the desire the Enemy, whomsoever he might prove to be, demonstrates to obtain specimens of those belonging to ruling families. There is some purpose I discern to these specific attacks and abductions. Among those taken from among the northern Dúnedain have been kinsmen and women to the Chieftains, and those Elves taken from Lindon and Mithlond have been those readily identified as closest advisors to Gildor Inglorion and Círdan himself.”

*******


The Wizard was still troubled as he headed southward toward Gondor once more. Dale had been attacked, and two of the nieces and one nephew of the King of Dale had been stolen away and their guards slain outright. A small kingdom just northeast of Gondor’s borders had been assaulted and almost all of its people slaughtered, but word was its leading families had again been abducted while yet alive.

Nor was the news any better within Gondor itself. One of the Prince of Dol Amroth’s sons had been abducted by slavers from Umbar, along with three of his cousins and a few other nobles who had been sailing off the coast of Belfalas in unarmed pleasure craft. Two nobles from Lebennin had known the loss of their sons and daughters, and none offered to return the missing for any sort of ransom. Several squadrons positioned between Osgiliath and Cair Andros had been attacked, and their captains had been taken alive. And most recently Denethor’s sister and her daughters had been visiting friends along the eastern bounds of the Pelennor, and had been attacked as they walked along the banks of Anduin; two daughters had gone missing.

Denethor’s son Boromir was now Captain General of Gondor’s forces, and he was determined to take back full control of Osgiliath both east and west, and to reestablish patrols within Ithilien. He had agreed with his father’s decision to see the main stone bridge within Osgiliath rebuilt, but had insisted that it be fitted with weak points that could allow it to be brought down swiftly should those from Mordor appear likely to cross over it to assail those upon the Pelennor or within Minas Tirith. However, he had put aside all other projects to lead forth a company to follow after those who had taken his cousins, hoping to retrieve the young women.

He returned to the Citadel while Gandalf was there in council with Denethor, and he and his son Cirion came together to the Steward’s chambers to give his report.

“We found five scouting parties from Mordor, two of them wearing the Moon and Skull of Minas Morgul, ranging about western Osgiliath and north along the river, and slew them to the last orc. We have found several groups searching near the eastern ending to the tunnels that lead down into the sewer system, and we have destroyed them all that no one report back to the Witch-king how he might send his people under the river. So far all we have found have clearly crossed the river using rough-hewn rafts and flat-bottomed boats intended to be poled right into the shallows. At least two such rafts were used by those who attacked our aunt and her daughters. We found both abandoned on the eastern banks of the river when we crossed after them. The attackers, however, appear to have headed immediately at speed toward Minas Morgul with their prizes.”

Gandalf felt his bowels twist within him. “Minas Morgul! The Powers be with them!” he murmured. “And your people were not able to retrieve them?”

Boromir shook his head. “We could not follow more than a half a league past the Cross-roads. They had at least five hundred orcs awaiting us.” The muscles of his jaw tightened. “I lost sixty Men. Eighteen of us returned to Osgiliath. Only eighteen, my Lord Father. Only eighteen. And we never saw any signs of my cousins. How can we answer the pain in my aunt’s eyes?”

A mark before sunset Gandalf left Denethor and the Citadel, intending to retire to the guesthouse where he and Saruman generally stayed during their visits to Minas Tirith, but he paused as he approached the head of the ramp down to the Sixth Circle at the sight of young Cirion, Boromir’s son, in conversation with one of the soldiers he’d seen by Boromir’s side earlier in the day. Cirion was not particularly tall, not as were his father and grandfather, but there was no question he was a most perceptive young Man, his mind quick to see connections others might ignore, and able to read the hearts of Men with both accuracy and generosity. Although at seventeen he was hopefully many years from following his grandfather on the Black Chair, the Grey Wizard had already determined that his career once he reached that state was likely to be particularly distinguished.

Right now his posture was stiff as he looked up into the soldier’s face and listened to what he had to say, although his expression was studiously calm. It was a most interesting contrast, and Gandalf paused just out of earshot, wondering just what disturbing news the soldier was sharing with the Steward’s grandson.

At last the soldier straightened to a formal salute, which the younger Man returned with a level of distraction, already turning away to consider what he’d been told. Gandalf carefully positioned himself to make certain that young Cirion would see him almost immediately, for his heart told him that this was information he needed to know, also. “Lord Cirion?” he said with a respectful bow worthy of the youth’s father or grandfather. “You are troubled?”

Cirion glanced over his shoulder toward the retreating form of the soldier as he headed back toward the offices of the Captain of the Guard of the Citadel, then returned his attention back to the Wizard. “Hirluin there is now my father’s primary aide, his former second having died along the road to the Morgul Vale,” he said. “He wished for me to learn what my father did not tell my Lord Grandfather earlier in the day—that when their troop was attacked as they followed after those who attacked my kinswomen and stole our cousins, that the orcs who guarded the way were seeking in particular to separate my father from the rest, apparently intent on taking him alive if at all possible. They had also targeted my father’s former aide, the son of Lord Mardon of Lossarnach, but when they could not properly lay hold of him they saw him stabbed with what all who saw it named a cold knife that sparkled as if it were overlaid with ice from the mountains. As it happened, an arrow aimed at the orc that stabbed the Man was deflected by the orc’s movement and hit Mardónion instead, slaying him instantly. Hirluin cannot say why, but he feels relief to know that whatever evil lay in that cold knife was denied its chance to work its mischief upon Mardónion, and he rejoices that they were able to bring my father home alive and yet whole.” He searched Gandalf’s eyes. “Why should they seek to take possession of members of our family and one such as the son of the Lord of Lossarnach, Mithrandir?”

The Wizard’s imagination could think of far too many reasons for such actions, all of them cruel and vile. But which was likely to be the right one?

*******


Saruman joined Gandalf in the guesthouse a few days afterward, and he brought troubling news from the south indicating that younger members of the ruling houses in Harad, Khand, and Umbar were known to have disappeared. Assaults from Far Harad had been aimed at distant tribes along the southwestern coasts of the southern continent, and trains of muscular slaves, men, women, and children, had been brought to Umbar and Khand, and were thought to have been taken from there into Mordor itself.

He’d not been into Rhûn this time, and so did not know what rumors there might be from those lands further east, from Catya or Hinya or Mundolië or other lands whose names were but a rumor of glamour and the exotic. But it was likely that those who held sway in Sauron’s former lands were undertaking fell experiments with those who’d been sufficiently unlucky as to fall into their hands.

Together the White and Grey Wizards offered what guidance and wisdom they could to the Steward, his son, and his grandson. Boromir continued working toward his goal to retake full control of Ithilien and eastern Osgiliath once more, but his father appeared more concerned regarding the welfare of his sister than he did for the state of Gondor. The Lady Míriel had been prostrated by the loss of her daughters, overwhelmed with the horrors her imagination saw being worked upon their persons. Considering what he had seen during his visit to Dol Guldur, Gandalf feared that far worse than the terrible treatments Míriel imagined was actually being perpetrated against them, but there seemed nothing that could be done. Small groups of volunteers had sought to enter the Morgul Vale to seek out news of those who’d been taken and possibly recover them, but they’d barely been able to come within sight of the bridge leading into the ruined city before they were laid upon by orcs and evil Men and had been forced to flee for their lives. Some six had not returned now, one of them Túrin son of Belgardamir, the current Lord of Pelargir. Gandalf now went with still another small company of scouts, this time coming close enough to look down on the ruined spectacle of the fouled meads and noisome river that guarded the Nazgûl’s stolen stronghold, but it was plain they would not be able to cross over to search out the missing or to discover their enemies’ secrets—a veritable army of orcs stood between them and the gates to Minas Morgul, patrolling on both sides of the poisoned stream. They returned with downcast hearts to make their sad reports to the Steward, who quietly dismissed them before returning to his sister’s side.

When messenger birds from Radagast arrived in Minas Tirith, Saruman agreed to travel to Thranduil’s home to meet with the Brown Wizard and the Elven King regarding his most recent tidings. The Elves of what had been Greenwood the Great were definitely under siege from Dol Guldur, and the numbers of the great spiders within the forest had multiplied alarmingly. Fighting against orcs and evil Men had become a daily occurrence, and three settlements south of the King’s Citadel had been emptied in recent attacks, all within them slain or taken prisoner and carried away. Two children only had they been able to recover, and one of those was fading. Neither spoke at all, while the child who was dying gibbered with fear if anyone touched the back of his head. Gandalf sent for Elrond, who had returned to his home in the north, and the Peredhel arrived a few days after the child’s death. Examining the body told little, however. Between them he and Gandalf were able to settle the remaining child into a deep healing sleep, and Gandalf carefully probed the elfling’s memories and dreams. What he gleaned from this examination he shared with their host, his fellow Wizards, and Elrond, grim with what he’d learned.

“They have been treated in a manner designed to waken in them carnal awareness,” he said. “Not that these two were of an age to be ready for such experiences, of course. They saw their mother and other females repeatedly violated, and all male children were treated as they themselves were. None were allowed to speak, and most were repeatedly struck on the back of the head. At least five had been blinded when these two were rescued. The two grown ellyn taken with them were forcibly blinded and their tongues cut from their heads, and both were kept bound and were abused in terrible ways each evening. The indications are that they are being prepared for forcible breeding.”

“But no one can force an Elf to conceive a child unwilling!” Thranduil objected.

“No, not under normal circumstances,” agreed Gandalf. “But these were being terribly abused and were being made to forget themselves, to lose touch with their very fëar. Remember, my friend, that Morgoth himself took Elves and twisted and corrupted them through unspeakable torture into becoming the first orcs.”

Radagast’s voice was hoarse with horror as he noted, “Then it would appear that the Necromancer seeks to—improve—his strains of orcs through infusion of new breeding stock.”

Gandalf nodded. “And it appears that similar practices are being pursued behind the walls of Mordor as well, perhaps overseen by the Witch-king himself. They have been doing their best to capture alive those of the nobility of all of the Children of Ilúvatar, as if in doing so they hope to twist them the further and breed in the leadership inherent in their lineages.”

All shuddered at the thought of such a terrible doom for those who had been captured.

*******


The three Wizards and Elrond joined with Thranduil’s captains and Council in strengthening the Elves’ protections, but although they were able to work some powerful magics, all agreed that this would undoubtedly prove in the end to have been too little too late.

“We must learn for certain just who it is that rules from Dol Guldur,” Gandalf grumbled quietly to Radagast and Thranduil’s dark-haired son Theron one day. Saruman was conveniently out of earshot, having gone out with Thranduil himself on a patrol intent on wiping out a recently discovered breeding ground for the spiders. The White Wizard had continued to maintain that the Necromancer could not be Sauron, and to caution all to remain distant from his stronghold in the ruins of what had been Oropher’s palace in the days before the Last Alliance. “Until we know for certain none will be safe.”

Radagast shrugged ruefully. “As if we would be any safer were we to be certain that it is Sauron returned,” he responded. “It does not matter whether we know for certain or not. Evil the Necromancer is, and he will not be any the less evil if we prove him to be the Deceiver wearing the Necromancer’s mask.”

Gandalf had to agree.

When they came away north, Gandalf and Saruman left behind one of the messenger birds that Radagast had sent for them so that they might be advised should any greater evil befall Gondor while they were away. They’d been nearly two years engaged upon their labors in Thranduil’s realm when one day the bird fluttered down upon Radagast’s shoulder, clearly at the end of its strength as it held out its leg to which a message carrier had been affixed.

Radagast removed the metal capsule and opened it, removing a tiny scroll. He opened and read the message, and his eyes went dark with impotent fury. “Here!” he said, handing the message on to Saruman. “I’ll see to it that steeds are readied for you to make as swift a journey to Minas Tirith as is possible,” he said to Gandalf, before he turned to Elrond. “I suggest you go with them. I think they will require your healing skills, my Lord Elrond.”

Saruman’s face had gone still with concern. He raised his eyes to meet those of the Grey Wizard and the Master of Imladris. “Boromir has retaken control of Ithilien, but all has since gone ill with him. In retaliation an army was sent from the Morgul Vale to Osgiliath. Boromir stood upon the bridge with his most valiant Men to hold off the attack long enough to see the bridge destroyed, and a terrible apparition came forward to face him. A wraith-like being struck at Boromir with his weapon, but did not slay him. The knife wielded by the apparition, said to have been perhaps Túrin of Pelargir, was a Morgul blade. It is said that the Steward’s son fights with all of his will to hold himself from the blade’s fell magic, and Denethor begs us to return with all speed.”

Gandalf, Saruman, and Elrond were riding southwest toward Gondor within an hour, and arrived at Cair Andros within record time. Two days later they thundered across the Pelennor, and the gates to the capitol were opened to them. All pulled aside as the three rode up through the city until they reached the stable at the foot of the ramp to the seventh level.

Boromir was in the Houses of Healing, where the Warden himself had been attending him. “The wound did not appear to be serious at first—merely a flesh wound to his upper right arm. The skin knit rapidly enough! When Lord Boromir told me he feared that a shard of the blade had remained within the wound, I did not believe him. Ah, but if only I had listened and sought to remove it then! There is definitely something within, and it seeks ever to work its way to his heart. And what will happen should it reach that destination I fear to think!”

Together Saruman, Elrond, and Gandalf worked to save the Steward’s son, and Denethor stood by them throughout most of their labors. At last Elrond brought out a crystal pendant intended for use in scrying from his gear, and held it over the stricken Gondorian’s body. Slowly he moved it across the Man’s chest, until he came to a position just to the right of the breast bone, at which point the crystal began circling rapidly over the skin, and the crystal went dark as if ink had been poured into it to mar its clarity.

“The shard rests here now,” he murmured. “We must remove it immediately if we are not to see him lost.”

Saruman and Gandalf stood by singing as the one known to be the greatest healer in all of Middle Earth chose his finest blades to open Boromir’s flesh in search of the shard. Three hours later, just as the Sun set behind Mindolluin, Elrond gave a cry of triumph and held up his fine tongs, a sliver of black metal held between the blades. “Yé! Utúvienyes!” he said. “Here is the terrible thing that has troubled Lord Boromir for so many days of torture!”

The shard was laid upon a wooden tray, wrapped in silk, and set aside under strict watch until Anor should be high in the sky on the following day, under whose light it could be destroyed utterly. But although they washed the wound with water in which athelas and other healing herbs had been steeped, Boromir never recovered fully. He was to know great pain for the remainder of his days, which did not last as long as a decade and a half, merely twelve years after he succeeded his father to the Black Chair and White Rod.

The reports of those who had stood by Boromir in defense of the way into western Osgiliath were distressing. Those who had led the assault upon the bridge had been orcs of a new sort, tall and black and utterly fearless. Uruk-hai, so they were called; warrior orcs of terrible strength and cunning. And accompanying them had been lesser wraiths whose features were familiar. One had appeared to be the missing son of the Prince of Dol Amroth, while the one who’d wielded the Morgul knife that had pierced Boromir’s arm had seemed to be Túrin son of Belgardamir of Pelargir. Two of Boromir’s companions upon the bridge had attacked the wraith who’d struck at their Captain, and one had managed to cut its head from its body, at which it appeared to lose the integrity of its form and fell to naught, its ragged clothing falling in upon itself. So shocked were they at this small victory they forgot about its fellow, and one more had almost fallen to a second stroke from a cursed knife ere they managed to destroy it, too. They’d borne the second knife away, wrapped in the tatters of Boromir’s cloak, but when they’d sought to show it to Denethor before the Citadel it had melted away as the Sun’s light struck it.

“It is an end to Osgiliath,” declared the Steward once the reports had been shared with the two Wizards. “I will not see more of my people lost to no good purpose there. We will keep outposts in the ruins of the city, but no longer will we allow any of our private citizens to dwell there. The great uruks have left it in utter ruins, and so it shall remain.”

Gandalf reluctantly agreed that it appeared that Denethor had the right of it.



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