"Of course I'm serious. Have you ever known me to not be serious?"
"No, and as a matter of fact, that's your whole problem."
"Yeah, well, you could do with some seriousness."
"Bah! I do fine just as I am."
"Maybe, but I'll tell you one thing. You need to put on some pants."
"Haha, you are just jealous of the freedom it allows."
"I am perfectly happy with the kilt, thank you. Don't you ever get embarrassed, or self-conscious?"
"Not through four Ages I haven't."
"Oh well, I get embarrassed just being beside you sometimes."
"Hahaha... That's because you are so serious all the time. You need to lighten up."
"Maybe. So, you didn't say what you thought of my idea."
"I think it's a great idea. I just don't think there is anything left to root out down there."
"Well, we never did go all the way into it. We just assumed that he had pulled all his servants into service. Besides, even if we find nothing, it will be good to be out and hunting again."
"That's true. It is getting fairly dull here. I haven't had a good fight in ages. Well, aside from a couple of scraps in a pub now and again. And those aren't exactly fair fights."
"You do have an advantage over most."
The sun was climbing over the mountains to the north by the time they crossed the river. The Rider stood up in his saddle and surveyed the land ahead. The terrain was smooth and free of obstacle for many leagues. The horse stirred anxiously beneath him. He had kept the pace to a walk till now, but his ride was ready to run.
"Nahar wants to go full out. You can still keep up with him, right? Not too many beers last night?" He asked with an evil grin.
"You just try to keep up, okay?"
The great white horse snorted at the man walking beside him. "Okay, I don't want to hear any whining when we reach the hills."
"Hahahaa...You are the one who will be whining when you finally catch up to me." The man burst suddenly forward at a blinding speed, leaping over tussocks of tall grass, laughing as he flew.
The Rider spoke a word to Nahar and the horse kicked up a great gout of dirt and grass as he leapt to the chase. It wasn't long before the Rider and the runner were side by side, Tulkas giggling and playfully tapping the horse on the nose beside him. Nahar would turn and snap at his fingers occassionally, but Oromë knew this was for what it was. The two had played this game many times. Nahar never caught so much as a fingertip, but Oromë suspected that he wasn't really trying.
They had crossed nearly thirty leagues by the time the sun was full in the sky. Their pace was less than either could have run, but they were in no hurry.
They had forded the Snowbourne at near an hour past noon and were well near Cair Andros by evening. The sun was setting behind them, burning the clouds in a riot of crimson and violet. The long shadows advanced before them, flying over the grasslike wraiths. They began to slow their pace.
"Shall we stop for the evening, or would you rather keep going through the night? Tulkas asked his mounted friend.
"No, let's stop here, this is a pleasant spot. We will cross Ithilien tomorrow and it would be good to see it in the morning light. Mordor will still be there, as will whatever waits below." Oromë climbed down from Nahar's back and removed the saddle and blanket from the horse. His coat steamed in the dim twilight. Nahar walked a short distance aaway and begn to crop the tender shoots that grew near a small rivulet.
Tulkas ran off a short distance to a stand of trees and came back in a few moments with a handful of dry branches. Oromë set about retrieving some provisions from his packs. Soon they had a cheerful fire going and enjoyed a frugal meal of cheese and dry sausage and strong red wine.
"You never did say what prompted this expedition." Tulkas remarked as they sat looking up at the stars.
"No, I didn't" Oromë replied.
"C'mon, don't be so closed. This is me, remember? I know you. You will brood and mope, until I pull it out of you, now spill it."
"You know as well as I do" the Hunter said, the words nearly a sigh.
"That still? You need to get over that. It is weighing your heart down far too much. Look at the trouble it caused the last time."
"What else could I have done? I would have done the same had I no feelings for her. Besides, Allatar had set it up that way on purpose, knowing my mind. There was no avoiding it. You can't pin it on my feelings for her." Tulkas could see his friend becoming impatient with the subject so he let it drop.
"Okay, well, I'm just glad to be out in the wild again, whatever your reasons. The stars are bright and the air is clean." Tulkas laughed out loud and stretched his arms. He lay back down in the grass with his fingers laced behind his head. "Tomorrow it will not be so. The land of Mordor has not quite healed itself as yet. We may not have this fine a night in many to come if your fears prove aright."
"You are right, my friend. Let's talk of something else then. So, when do you think you will adopt the custom of wearing breeches, or perhaps a kilt?" Oromë chuckled quietly.
Tulkas' laughter boomed across the fields. They talked long into the night. About ages long ago, about the Children, the Wars. Eventually they both fell silent, staring up at the stars while Nahar stood nearby, swishing his tail in his sleep, dreaming of flying over the fields of Valinor in the days before the world changed.
On the third day from their camp, they had crossed into Mordor. Or at least what was left of Mordor. The land was still scarred and pockmarked from Sauron's time here. It would take years for his influence to be removed, and even then, it might not wholly be erased. They had made good time and were close to reaching their intended destination. Evening was approaching quickly. They would continue on into the night.
Near midnight they heard noises ahead of them, but there was a clinging fog and they could not see the source. The sounds were definitely getting closer and they slowed their pace, cautiously peering ahead into the blind night. Oromë heard the sound before he realized what had happened. A thud and a few muffled, scurrying sounds, and then a strange gurgling noise.
Tulkas' voice came quietly through the haze.
"It's a good thing I check things before I kill them, boy. You almost had a nasty end."
Oromë dropped quietly out of the saddle and walked carefully towards the sounds. Tulkas had a young man in his fist, his fingers wrapped around his throat. He started to lower him back to the ground, his finger at his lips, warning him to be silent. The man, no, boy, nodded stiffly, his eyes wide.
"What are you doing in these lands boy?" asked Tulkas.
"Please" the boy whispered, "they are coming. Hide me. They are coming."
"Slowly, who's coming?" Asked Oromë.
"The...the Master and his men. Hide me!" His voice was a whisper, but the terror was in it, and in his eyes.
"How many men?" Asked Tulkas.
"Twe..twenty maybe...I didn't get a good look back...the fog..."
"Okay. You go stand by the horse. He'll guard you. We'll take care of the "master". Tulkas pointed towards Nahar, who was standing within view now.
The Rider and his companion strode calmly towards the sounds, Oromë quickly producing his long spear and a curved knife. Tulkas had only a single steel glove on his hand, as was usual.
"Sure you don't want a knife or something? I have plenty," asked the Rider smiling.
"I'll be fine, you just make sure none get behind us," he replied.
Soon the sound of heavy boots and grumbling voices could be heard clearly. "When I get my hands on him... That wench bit me... He'll pay for that too...."
A torch. The sound of a sword clanking on shield. A face. The men stopped suddenly. There were indeed about twenty. Haradrim by the look of them. With long curved blades in their hands. They stood there looking up at the tall Rider and the man with nothing on but his gauntlet. This seemed to have taken them quite by surprise and Oromë had to admit that it was an interesting tactic. If one could call it that.
"What's the holdup? Have you fou..."
A tall, dark-skinned man with half an ear came shoving through the shocked men to skid to a halt, staring dumbly up at the two standing in their path.
Regaining his tongue, he stammered, "Who in the blazing sands are you two?!" His eyes were locked on Tulkas. "and why ain't you got no clothes on?"
"I keep asking him that" said the taller barrier, smiling.
"Here, get out of our way, we have business to attend to," said Half-ear, but he didn't move forward.
"What is your business in these lands, they are not usually traveled and certainly not at night. There are evil things still abroad near the Old Ruins." Tulkas' voice was almost friendly, as if the man were a traveler in the north of the Shire, out for a stroll.
"Our business is our own, but if you must know, we're tracking a thief. He stole our horses and we mean to get 'em back."
Oromë saw the man drop his arm to his side, the fingers relaxed. Then he made a fist.
"We saw no one that way, I suggest you look elsewhere for your thief," said the Rider calmly, watching the man as he released his fingers once more and placed his palm flat against his thigh. Oromë could feel the group tense, waiting for the situation to get out of hand. Out of the corner of his vision, he saw a small movement and guessed that one of the group was attempting to flank them. Surely another was moving to the other side as well.
"No, we've followed the trail here and it goes on past this spot. He's up ahead and you're keeping us from 'im! Now move aside or we'll move through you!"
Tulkas laughed. Not his usual booming laugh, more a chuckle, as if watching a dog play with a stick. The man looked at him with a furious glare. He slapped his leg with his hand and the group surged forward around him. Tulkas reached out one long arm and smashed it into the man's face before he could bring his blade up and Half-ear crumpled to the ground. He swung his arm out to the side and took another on the side of the head, sending his sprawling across the rocky ground.
Oromë's spear was swinging wildly, slicing through leather and steel like it was paper. The screams and grunts of pain were swallowed quickly by the fog. Soon there were only six men holding their ground, cautiously avoiding the reach of the Rider and his distressingly unclad friend. Then, something whistled by his ear and as a group, the men rushed forward, seemingly on command. The two were hard pressed to hold them off. Then Oromë realized what had caused them to attack so swiftly. The Rider felt a sharp, searing pain in his left shoulder. Another arrow struck the man in front of him in his hip and Oromë finished him with a swipe of his long knife. The men who had responded to Half-ear's silent command had gone on around and were shooting arrows, blindly through the fog. He heard Tulkas curse loudly and then a strange gurgling sound. Followed by a thud. Oromë finished the last man in front of him and spun, rushing to Tulkas' side, thinking, from the sound, that he had been hit in the throat by an arrow.
Tulkas was there, an arrow in his right calf. He was swinging a man, already dead, by his leg. Oromë watched as another man crumpled under the blow, helmets crunching sickeningly as they collided. Tulkas dropped the dead man and swung around, ready to bury his gauntlet in Oromë's jawbone. He stopped a few inches from connecting and smiled hugely.
"'Bout time you put a hand in. Nearly took care of the lot alone."
"The two men who flanked us. Where did they go?" asked the Rider.
"I don't know. I saw them skirt around, figured they would show up eventually. You mean they're not in this mess?" he gestured to the scattered remains of the tracking party.
"No, I heard something, I thought you had taken an arrow."
"I did." Tulkas reached down and snapped the arrow off at skin level, grunting softly. "Maybe we should check on the lad."
Swiftly, they rushed back through the gloom to where they had left the boy with Nahar. They found him standing by the horse, wiping blood from a knife, which he then pushed back into his boot. He smiled shyly at them. "Figured you hadn't noticed those two."
"You killed them both?" Asked Tulkas, somewhat in shock.
"Oh no. The horse kicked the other one. Boy, you should have seen him go down. Not pretty."
Tulkas laughed aloud. His voice echoing oddly in the clinging fog. "I knew I did a good thing by not crushing your windpipe." To Oromë he said, "let's go back and talk to the guy with half an ear. Maybe he can explain some things. The boy looked surprised, but then a smile stretched across his lips.
"You have the Master?"
They walked back through the mist, passing the two bowmen. The one was lying face down in a pool of blood, but the other was in a painful looking heap. There wasn't any blood and Oromë thought Nahar must have gotten him in the torso, broke his back. He went to check that he was dead, but when he grabbed his shoulder to turn him over, the lower half did not turn with him. Oromë backed away and they walked back to the scene of the fight. Half-ear was just coming to, and was trying to get up on his knees. The boy ran over and kicked him hard in the ribs. Half-ear let out a painful sounding "whoof" and rolled up in a ball. The boy kicked him again in the back of the head.
"Okay lad, we need to talk to him, won't be much good if he's out cold again." Tulkas said, chuckling. "C'mere you..." he grabbed the man by his leather jerkin and yanked him to his feet. His knees buckled and Tulkas had to hold him up. His face was a wreck, his nose turned an odd direction.
"Let mbe go...I aid't dud dudin wrong. Dat boy'th a thief..." he said, his words bubbling past the bloody mess of his mouth.
"Okay, first you tell us what you're doing out here. There isn't a village or town for leagues."
"I aid't tellid you nuttin," he spat, blood spattering Tulkas' chest. He dropped him on the ground and the man fell in a heap. He tried to get up again, but his legs were still wobbly.
"You're not going to let him go?! He'll lead them right back to us," the boy was practically shrieking.
"He isn't going to tell us anything. Let him go," said Oromë.
"No!!" the boy yelled, and ran over and kicked him again in the back. Half-ear fell forward on his face, his hands scrabbling painfully in the gravel.
"Stop!" Roared Tulkas. "Come over here."
The boy kicked him one more time in the side and reluctantly walked back to the two, his sullen face turned down, but his eyes were on Tulkas. "Leave him be. We killed all his men, if he makes it back to wherever he came from, he'll be laughed at for losing his entire party to a couple of men and a boy." Nahar snorted softly behind them. "and a horse," he said, smiling.
"You have no idea what you're doing. He'll bring them all down on us. They won't stop looking for us till we're all dead. You can't let him go." The kid turned to look at Half-ear. The man had already gained his footing and was fading into the fog. "We have to get out of here. He'll have them on our trail by morning."
"No he won't," said Oromë softly.
"And how do you know that?" the boy asked.
"Because we're going to be tracking him back to his camp." The Rider's face was dead serious and the boy stepped back.
"You can't be serious," he said, shocked. "I just risked my neck to get out of there and you want to go there? You're mad!"
Tulkas smiled broadly. "Usually people say that to me, not him. But we are going there, and you are coming with us in case we lose his trail."
Oromë stiffened. "He is not coming with us, he'll slow us down. And what do you mean, lose his trail? Maybe you would, you're always..."
"I was joking. So sensitive..." Tulkas smirked. "We need to know more about this place before we go stumbling into a hornet's nest. He's been there. He knows the place. We need him."
"You may be right. Okay, but he's your responsibility. I won't be carrying him when the road gets hard."
After they had tended their wounds, the three set out, following the neandering path Half-ear had left for them. The fog lifted as the sun came up and revealed a scrabbly, broken land. The ground was pocked with pits and piles of dirt and rock littered the bleak plain. They set a fair pace, Oromë let the boy ride Nahar most of the night to recover his strength.
"I guess we can't keep calling you boy," Tulkas said after they had started out, "what's your name, lad?"
"Hake, but everyone calls me Weeze."
Oromë turned towards the kid and lifted an eyebrow.
"I used to have a bad cough. My father moved us to the south for the dryer weather and it cleared up. Unfortunately for me, the name stuck," the boy said nonchalantly.
"Well, Weeze. Tell us about the place you escaped from. What is it like? What can we expect as far as resistance?" Oromë asked.
"It's a work camp, the orcs dig all day and night and we cart the dirt and rock away from the site."
"Orcs? There are orcs there?" asked Tulkas quickly.
"Oh, hundreds. But they won't bother you much. They're mostly laborers, not fighters. Small and bowed from years of working in the mines. They can't come out in the light so they use us in the daytime to haul the stuff out," he continued. "Looks like they've been digging for a long time, but I've only been there for a couple of months. It's the Uruks you have to worry about. They're the overseers. Big and mean. You learn to stay away from them if at all possible. They tend to kill people and orcs as the whim strikes them."
"Maybe you were right." Tulkas said to Oromë, a serious look in his eyes. "Hopefully we are not too late to do something. What exactly are they mining there?"
"We dig for a white rock south of the main pits, and the other teams mine a yellow rock near the fissures. It accumulates near the vents. I don't know what they do with it, but the drive us hard. It's all carted off south."
"Are there troops there? Soldiers to protect the operations?" asked Tulkas.
"Some." He said. "Not too many I think. But more than the three of us can handle. They are armed with swords and bows, not much else. If I had to guess, I would say 500 at the most."
"Would the workers fight?" The Rider asked, shifting his armor to relieve the soreness in his shoulder. The arrow had come out fairly cleanly, but the wound was still very tender.
"The orcs might, if it were dark. They will do anything the Uruks tell them to do, so great is their fear of the them. The men and women? I don't know."
"Women?" Tulkas had stopped walking. "There are women there too?"
"And children," replied Weeze. "Everybody digs or hauls, no back is spared. I was taken in a raid of my village. My father was slain trying to protect my sister and me. I haven't seen her in at least a month. She was so small..." his eyes turned glassy and his chin shook as he tried to speak, "they sent her to work near the fissures."
Oromë and Tulkas exchanged looks. They hadn't quite expected this to be any sort of rescue, just a small rooting out of any creatures that might be lingering in the ruins of the old fortress.
By evening they could see the glow of fires well enough without having to worry about keeping the trail. They halted when they could begin to see structures. Tall towers with winches loomed over the mining pits. People like insects manning the great wheels and hauling the ropes. Watching from behind a great mound of rock and refuse, they watched as the orcs were herded out of the pits to work the surface under the moonlight, while the humans limped off to a group of rough tents and shacks. There were some children in the group as well and the three winced as the whip were directed at them. After the sad procession into the crude village subsided, a second group came into view from around a huge dune of discarded rock. These must have been working the fissures nearer to the destroyed mountain. They were dirtier and more worn looking than the first group. No whips cracked for this group. They moved as dreary machines into the remaining structures.
"What now?" asked Tulkas.
"I would like to get a closer look at the operations. We need to get into the pits and see what they are doing down there. Weeze is going to have to guide us into the place, we won't know where we are going." Oromë looked over at the boy, who suddenly seemed very small.
"How are we going to get in there? They will know we aren't one of them. I didn't see too many men down there, the humans must not be quartered here." Tulkas sat back against the rocky slope of the mound and tossed a pebble out of the shadows. It bounced into the bright moonlight.
"No, the soldiers are between here and the fissures. They don't leave there much. There are humans inside the mines, mostly to keep order. That was the Master's place, he is in charge of the men working the mine," Weeze explained.
"Well, I am sorry to say that you are going to have to put on some pants my old friend."
It was not an easy task to get clothing for Tulkas. They sat and watched patrols come and go for most of the night while Weeze snored. His lungs rattled softly as he lay in the cold shadow of the rock pile. In the end they stumbled upon a scout party of three on the far side of the large rock mound. The group was sitting and enjoying a game involving tossing chicken bones into a circle and it was an easy thing to quietly dispatch them. Among them was a large man who clearly had plenty of Uruk blood in him, as he was nearly Tulkas' size. His clothes and armor were a tight fit, and Tulkas complained about the smell and the itch of the fabric quite a bit, but it was good enough to get them in. Oromë took a helmet and a ratty cloak to cover his own leathers and they returned to wake the boy.
The platform that housed the lift down into the mines clung to the lip of the pit like a great thorny insect. Huge spines of wood poking up at odd angles attested to the poor craftsmanship of the builders. It looked like it would tumble into the hole at any moment. The men milling about the platform looked equally ramshackle. Odd bits of armor and fabric and leather filled out there attire. A gondorian helm here, an orc shield emblazoned with a faded white hand there. A rough table had been set up with a clay pitcher of ale and some foul looking meat.
They stopped their talk and walked cautiously forward as the three strangers approached. "Who's that? Tare? Koren? Speak up!"
There were two large men and a younger man in front. As they approached, one of the men pushed the younger lad forward and said, "I want to see the Master."
"E's not 'ere," said a greasy looking man with a rather crooked nose. "'e hasn't come back from patrol yet."
"I have what he was looking for. I am returning his property and in reward, I want a job. Not digging mind you, I have some experience fighting, as does my friend here," he said, pointing with his thumb over his soldier to the man behind him, who was busy scratching his own shoulder. He stopped and looked up at the group of men.
"E's not ere right now, but I expect 'e will be shortly. What's this then?" asked the greasy one.
"Well, I suspect this is the little notch he was trying to find. Found him wandering around the desert. He was blabbing about wanting us to hide him so we pretended to be willing till he spit out his pathetic tale, 'Oh, save me from the Master...' " Tulkas chuckled convincingly behind him.
"Well, give 'im to us and we'll be sure to put in a good word with the Master," said another quite hairy man behind Greasy.
"I don't think so. I'd rather wait for the Master to return and hand this one over to him myself." Oromë said calmly.
"Suit yourself then. Why don't you have a seat and wait for him here?" He motioned to the table. A couple of cracked benches lined on either side.
"What exactly do you mine for here?" asked Tulkas casually.
"'Ow should I know? I just keep the little piggies in their pens." said Greasy.
"It's called Orthanc Fire," said someone in the shadows near the lift.
Oromë stiffened. "What?"
"That's what they call it. This mine takes out the white rock, the other brings home the yellow rock, it all goes to that building over there," he said, pointing to a large brick structure, "and the old guy does his stuff. What comes out is Orthanc Fire. It's black and burns. Like coal, but faster."
"Shuddup you!" grumbled Greasy. "We don't know these two from Old Tom. Shouldn't be blabbing on about the workings here. We'll wait for the Master."
Oromë looked over at the brick building once more. Piled high along one side of the structure were large clay pots in row upon row. Some were being loaded onto a large cart that stood nearby. "So you keep the human workers in line...and the Uruks I saw keep the orcs in line, right? Do the men ever go into the pits?" he asked in a conversational tone.
"Nah, only if we had to send the orcs out to do some work elsewhere. The mining can't stop here. Orders from the Old Man," replied Greasy. "You fellas watch these two and keep yer mouths shut till I get back. I'm gonna go check the other platforms." Oromë looked around the pit. There were three other platforms around the huge hole in the ground. Greasy wouldn't be back for a while. He walked over to the edge of the pit and peered over. Far below glowed the heart of the ruined mountain. the molten rock flowed, much deeper here than at the fissures, but still connected underground.
"Do you ever have to work in that hellish place?" he asked the remaining men on the platform. Greasy had taken four with him and three remained here.
"Nah, I been down there once before and I didn't like it. That place is only for orcs, hot and dark." It was the man in the shadow of the lift. "I've only been here for a couple of months though. Maybe these guys have had more time down there," he said, motioning to the other two with his chin. He leaned forward, and Oromë thought he recognized him, a glimpse of something in his grey eyes as they moved into the shaft of light shining up through the floor in front of him.
"I ain't ever been down there meself," said one of the other two, "Too nasty for me. The smell alone is enough to keep me up here in the clear air."
They stood waiting for a few minutes, trying to decide what to do about their situation. They should have had a better plan than this, Oromë thought to himself, but he was only interested in information at the moment. When the time comes for action, he knew that he and Tulkas could handle the men here without much difficulty.
If they were making Orthanc Fire here, that means there is an Istari helping them, most likely running things as well. He doubted that a wizard would be working for someone else. He figured he must be in the brick building. They needed to get in there and find the head of this operation.
He looked over at Weeze. The boy was playing up his role well. He sat in a lump by the table, staring at the floor. Tulkas sat on the bench near him, scratching his ribs. The kid was brave, no doubt there. Would he be able to stand with them in a fight? He didn't relish the idea. The kid had clearly been through a lot.
How would they manange to get the workers from here to safety? He had no idea at the moment, his only thought on stopping operations and freeing them.
Oromë glanced to his left. The man by the lift was staring at him from the shadows. He looked into those grey eyes and once again felt the stab of recognition. In that moment, the man nodded slightly to his left, toward the two men. The two were arguing quietly over some duty they obviously had to perform, but that neither wished to do. Oromë glanced back to the lift, but the man had stood up quietly and was walking softly but casually towards the two. Before Oromë could blink, the two men were dead. The tall man with the grey eyes had slit their throats before they even knew enough to cry out. He began to drag them to a corner of the platform where some boxes and tarps were laid out. He covered the bodies with them and returned quickly to stand before Oromë.
"Lord Oromë, how have you come here?" he asked breathlessly, bowing slightly and touching his forehead.
"How do you know me? And how is it that you look familiar to me?" Oromë asked, still shocked at what he had just witnessed. Tulkas and the boy were on their feet, both their jaws hanging open.
"We've met just once before, at Elessar's assention to the throne. I am Elendir, once a Ranger, now a soldier for Gondor and Elessar. I infiltrated this place two months ago, trying to find it's purpose and a way to end it. I know now that they are producing the blasting rock that Saruman created. That substance that was used so effectively at Helm's Deep and during the Siege of Gondor. I also think I know now how to put an end to the operations. What I don't yet know is who the Istari behind all this is. I assume it's a wizard, as they would be the ones who would know how to create the Fire." He stopped, his eyes glancing from Oromë to Tulkas and the boy.
"We've got to get into that building," said Oromë, "but I am at a loss as to how."
"I have an idea," said the boy. Oromë looked at Weeze. The boy's eyes bright with mischief.
The man at the door was dark. His features spoke of more than a little Uruk blood. He looked down at the boy with disgust. "Get back to your pen, piggy, before I slice you up for bacon," he growled.
The boy spoke hesitantly. There was fear in his voice that was real. "This is my Uncle. He wishes to speak to the Old Man. He has a business proposal."
"I said get back..." "Let them in," a voice filled with kindness and command spoke from the room behind the door. The Uruk-man backed away, pulling the door wider as he did. The four entered the room sowly. Oromë took in the furnishings quickly. Not exactly opulent, but comfortable for the middle of the desert. Rugs of clever design covered the floor and braziers of alabaster burned on either side of a table at the far end of the long room. A man sat behind the table, flanked by men in armor and bearing curved swords. His face was lined with age, but his eyes were bright in the light of the torches. He motioned for them to come forward. He was smiling pleasantly and seemed to poses no threat. Oromë knew that the truth was otherwise. An Istar knows the ways of speech and can use his voice to persuade and bend to his will. He knew this all to well.
"Come, sit down." He motioned to chairs set near the table.
"Thank you, I don't wish to take much of your time, sir." Oromë replied courteously. "I have a proposal for you. I know of a caravan of travellers that will be coming through near here. There are many men and women which you could..."hire" for your operations here, as well as many provisions and goods that you could use to aid your efforts. I would be willing to give you the time and place in exchange for the freedom of my nephew and his sister."
The Old Man sat quietly watching the large man before him, his eyes, framed by those many wrinkles, peering intently into Oromë's. After a few long minutes, he spoke, "that is a very generous offer for such a small child. You would give up that many people for his freedom?"
"And his sister's, my niece. They are family, sir. It is my duty to protect them."
"And who are your friends here? Is it there duty as well?" Asked the Old Man calmly, the smile still spread across his mouth.
"They are servants of mine. This one here is how I found your operations." he indicated Elendir. "He had told me before he left, of this place and the opportunity for work. Hard to find in the area as of late." Oromë watched the Old Man's eyes himself, seeking a clue to what was going through his mind.
The Old Man motioned for one of the men beside him, who bent close. The Old Man whispered a few words and the other left the room. Oromë watched with some concern as he passed through a door in the side of the room. "I think I will take you up on your offer. You seem honorable to me. Your loyalty to family has touched me. Please, tell me more about this caravan."
Oromë spoke slowly. He was concerned as to what the man who left the room was up to. He didn't have to wait long. He returned with a couple of men and a small girl, who imediately ran to Weeze and leapt into his arms, crying. The boy held her for a long moment. Oromë watched the Old Man. His expression never changed, the same benevolent look on his face.
The Old Man stood up. "Come, you might find this interesting," he said. "This is where I make the magic happen," he indicated the door at the back of the room. "I must warn you though, what you are about to see will change the world forever." The four men walked over to the door with him and one pulled it open for him to enter. Oromë was immediately struck by the heat. He stepped into the room, Tulkas and the others close behind. The room was rather large. The building backed up to a large hill and a chamber had been carved from the side of it. Some 50 yards ahead a great crack opened in the floor and a bright red glow emanated from it. Along either side of the cavern were long troughs filled with ore. Yellow on the right and white on the left.
"As you can see, the mountain is still alive, despite the best efforts to destroy it. The heat she gives is used for many things here. Most importantly, I use it to complete the alchemical process to create the product of these operations. It is a dangerous process and the product must be moved from this room, or the heat from the cracks may disturb it's...delicate nature." He walked on as he spoke, nearing the fissure. His men moved off to give him room and as he neared the lip of the chasm, he turned with a slight flourish of his robes.
"You may have heard of our product before, it is gaining a rapid reputation just from it's few uses in recent events. Blasting Rock, Ghâsh-Burz, Gonnaur, Orthanc Fire, Nárondo Mornë. By combining these two elements, I create power unimaginable. By controlling that power, I become powerful myself. A force to be considered in all events in Middle Earth. You are here at the culmination of these efforts, to witness the beginnings. Sadly, you will not be a part of them yourselves." He nodded slowly and a door opened in the wall beside the troughs to the right. A group of armed men entered. Oromë counted twenty. As they approached, they parted ranks and half marched quickly around to the other side, surrounding the group. Tulkas clenched his fists, the steel of his gauntlet creaking menacingly. Weeze pulled his sister closer, his eyes seeking an escape. He had been so close. Now he had his sister back. His mind flew back to days when they would play in the fields of tall grass. Oh, for that to be the reality and this a dream. He wanted so much to wake up. For the day his life was shattered in the raid to have never happened. He should have been able to fight beside his father. Maybe he would have made a difference, maybe his father would still be alive. Wake up, said to himself through his tightly shut eyes. But when he opened them again, he was still in the hot chamber, surrounded by armed men.
As the goups of soldiers came to a halt, swords drawn, another smaller group came through the doorway. "Thought you were rid of me, eh boy?" Panic took hold of Weeze and he held his sister closer. Oromë had known the risks of letting this one go, but had felt it was an acceptable one. He would regret it for a long time. The Old Man snapped his fingers and four of the men cam and took Weeze and his sister by the arms, pulling them forcably apart. The girl wailed for her brother, but Weeze allowed himself to be dragged to the Old Man's side. He was stood up on one side of him, his sister on the other.
Half Ear walked over to the boy and stooped down in front of him. "It's too bad we won't have the chance to play," he hissed. "But maybe your sister and I can become better acquainted."
The boy lashed out with his hand and Half Ear staggered back a few steps, apparently stunned that he would dare strike out at him in his current predicament. He reached up the his chin and touched it. A stinging made him pull his hand back and look at it. It was red. He made to say something wicked to the boy, promising him pain or something, but neither his mind, nor his voice seemed to be working very well. Oromë could hear a liquid sound and Half Ear fell on his side on the ground, a ragged tear in his throat, blood bubbling through it as his last breath escaped it. The boy leapt away from the Old Man, a small knife in his hand. The same he had dispatched the soldier in the desert with. He held it before him. "Give me my sister," he demanded. The Old Man just smiled at him. He raised his hand and the knife flew from Weeze's into his. He drew his arm across his body and placed it against the girl's throat. Weeze yelled and rushed forward. Before he could reach her, the knife was in his ribs, cutting his scream short. Weeze fell to his knees, the blade pulling free. He toppled and slid over the lip of the chasm and was gone.
The girl stood in shock, whimpering. The Old Man leaned forward and looked over the edge of the fissure, seemingly in amusement as he watched the boy's body fall into the molten rock far below. Oromë tensed. He could feel the power of Tulkas beside him as well. It was perceptible, like a hum in the air below the level of hearing. The Old Man must have felt it too, because he turned and looked at the two of them with awareness in his eyes. Awareness and fear. He knew he had miscalculated. "So," he said slowly. "You are more than you appear. Perhaps you would like to reveal your true nature before I have my men kill you as well." He gripped the girl by the shoulder and she cried out in pain.
"You will find that out soon enough, let go of the girl first." Tulkas' voice was thick with power and menace. Oromë had not heard this edge in his voice before.
"I think not, she will come with me till I decide what to do with you." He walked quickly towards the doorway the men had entered from. The girl's eyes wide with terror as she looked back to Tulkas and Oromë. The door shut softly.
Three men had fallen before they even realized they had been slain. Oromë's hand was empty one moment, the next a huge spear with a bright silver blade was dividing them across their midsections. Tulkas grabbed the nearest soldier by the throat and hurled him into his companions, scattering them like sticks, sending some screaming over the edge into the flames below. Oromë knife was through another man's chest, his fist crushing the ribs from the force of the blow. The air in his lung exploded from his lips as his chest collapsed, blood spraying Oromë's leathers.
Elendir, nearly forgotten in the rear, and in shock at the speed and ferocity of the attack, now leapt forward, his knife carving one man's throat as his boot smashed another in the knee, toppling him with a crunch. The knife was though his neck before he hit the ground. Elendir looked around but the fight was over. Oromë and Tulkas stood near each other, almost shoulder to shoulder, Oromë facing the chasm, Tulkas, facing Elendir. For a long moment they stood there. Elendir didn't know what to do.
Oromë breathed in, calming his thoughts. His rage had taken him, but his mind must be clear to face the Istar. Weakness would be felt and exploited. Elendir stood holding his breath. The two Valar seemed to be frozen in thought.
Elendir jumped as they both moved at once for the door. He leapt after them, trying to keep up. They were through the door before he could move two paces.
The room was lit dimly by only two guttering braziers. There was an acrid smell in the air. there were crates and clay pots stack everywhere, creating a maze of passages in the smallish room. The two Valar were nowhere to be seen. He walked quickly into the room and soon he heard voices. He realized it was Oromë and Tulkas and hurried towards the sound of their voices. Rounding a turn he came upon them at a large door which seemed to lead outside.
"What do you mean? Just break it down."
"You don't suppose he is waiting for us on the other side of this door do you?" Oromë asked Tulkas sarcastically.
"So what? We have to go through it sooner or later anyway. Let's just get it over with," the other Vala replied.
"Okay, but don't say I didn't warn you."
"Tell you what. I'll go first. If he blasts me back into the room, you just be sure and catch me," Tulkas said with a grin.
"Okay, deal. Elendir, you had best stand back." Oromë said to the Ranger. Elendir backed to the side and behind some sturdy looking crates.
"Okay, I'll count to three and go through the door." Tulkas said as he took off the ragged shirt and scratched himself.
"Alright, just stay low."
The force of the blast threw Tulkas up and over the first row of crates and into a pile of clay pots. As he flew back, Oromë was flattened and thrown to the side, crashing into a stack of wood planks and beams. Elendir was knocked back into the next row of crates and was buried in debris and soot. By the time the room was clear enough to see in front of them, they were up on their feet again and facing what was left of the doorway. There wasn't much. Nearly the entire wall had been blown in and the bricks littered the floor. Peering through the dust swirling in the aftermath of the blast, they could first hear, then see a large cart, the one they seen earlier being loaded, driving off at a tremendous pace.
Tulkas burst to near full speed immediately. Oromë whistled once and in a moment Nahar was there. The Vala leapt into the saddle and was off after the wagon. Elendir stood dazed in the midst of the ruin.
Oromë soon caught up with Tulkas. They were gaining on the wagon. In a few strides they were beside it. The Istar turned to look, hatred and desparation in his eyes. He lashed the horses harder, but Tulkas had already pulled himself onto the cart. The wizard pulled the reins to the side, both attempting to throw Tulkas off his balance and off the cart and to ride Oromë down. Tulkas did lose his balance, but merely landed on his backside amid the clay jars. The steed of Oromë, well trained in battle, nimbly leapt aside. The wizard took that opportunity to yank the reins the other direction and began to turn the wagon hard. The cart listed to one side, the jars rocking drunkenly against each other. Tulkas stood up quickly and grabbed at the Istar. A blur of gold sped past the bridge of his nose as he narrowly missed having a gash carved across his face. The Wizard tossed the reins aside to face the Vala.
Nahar drew nearer the wagon as it arced back toward the mining camp. Oromë brought his right foot up onto the saddle and kicked off. He grabbed for the top of the wagon's side walls which were high and sturdy. Catching them and pulling himself quickly over, he landed facing the horse team. And caught a clay jar on the side of his head. Rolling with the blow, he crunched up against a row of larger jars, lashed to the sides of the wagon. Blinking against the powder burning his eyes, he ducked another clay jar as it smashed near his shoulder. Leaping forward, he landed hard into the mid-section of the Maia and they crashed against the front of the cart, the air exploding loudly from the Wizard's lungs. Grabbing him by his robes, Oromë yanked him to his feet. Searing pain cuts through his side. Looking down, he saw the gold handle protruding from his ribs. The pain sears his vision.
"It hurts!" It wasn't a question. "Not the same dagger that killed the brat!" The Maia laughed.
Oromë saw the smile. Saw the knife flash before it was buried in his stomach. He saw him fall to his knees, the image flickering by his eyes so slowly. Saw him slip over the edge. The boy had to have been all of 13.
"This knife," The wizard continued. "This knife was made just for you. This knife took a year and a half to make!" He yelled over the riot of sound. "This knife was meant to be a part of you. It longed for you. Now you are together." He wasn't yelling now. There was an odd expression in his eyes. Like apathy. Or sadness.
The Huntsman of the Valar swayed against the jars. His hands reached up and grasped numbly at the golden hilts of the dagger. They seemed to be someone else's hands. He could not pull it out. He saw the intricate carvings upon the handle. Saw the words scored into the hilt. Saw names graven into the golden blade that lay in his flesh, draining him of strength. Like a faucet attached to him, pouring him out onto the floor of the wagon. It seemed as though he should recognize the names upon the blade, but his mind would not focus. The cart tilted. The sky tilted. He saw Tulkas, far off as he tried to reach the wagon again. Nahar was trying to halt the horses in their mad rush, but they seemed to be compelled to continue forward, as though obeying their master's last command. The boards of the cart's floor rushed up to meet him.
"Yes...it hurts..." The voice was cruel. It grated on his bones. He tried to rise, but the dagger had been driven the last inch into his ribs in his fall. With great effort he turned his head and saw the hem of a robe. "I have another knife. For your friend. His didn't take as long as yours, but it took more out of me. Soon it will be home as well. Soon you will be dead. Oh, the knife would do the job, but I prefer to send you off as a Vala deserves. In a blaze of glory. Doesn't that suit the great Oromë better than dying upon a Leechblade? Ah, the pit is just ahead."
The robe before him grew a dark violet. The picture seemed bent, like he was viewing his life through a Seeing Stone. Slowly the picture drew farther and farther away, until the foot of the Wizard seemed to be on the other side of a great gulf. Closing his eyes, focusing his mind's eye across that gulf, he gathered his breath, the searing fire filling his lungs, the white hot metal setting the air ablaze in them. He pulled together his last crumb of will, the last conscious thought, the final spark between brain and muscle and reached across that expanse. In his mind's eye he saw his hand reach across the gulf and grab the Wizard's ankle. His entire being pulled to that one spot in the image before his eye. The foot pulled violently against it's captor. The grip did not break.
From across the gulf he saw the pinhole vision of the world. Numbly aware of the cart pitching roughly. Then it seemed to lift from the ground. To fly up, towards the sun. But it wasn't the sun he was seeing in his shrinking view.
Tulkas raced ahead to catch the wagon. He was weak from the chase already and the cut in his side slowed him. Nahar was far faster, but he wasn't able to stop the horse team's flight. He could see Oromë fall forward. He shouted, "Nooo!" The Maia looked over the railing and smiled at him. He burst forward, determined to see his gauntlet protruding from the back of the Wizard. The cart seemed to lift off the ground for a second. Tulkas leapt forward, his fingers slapping the tail-gate of the cart. He hit the ground hard and rolled. Then he was floating as well. His hands lashed out and caught something. The wooden railing of a construction platform. He hung there for a second, the platform swaying, protesting the sudden weight upon it. He looked out into the pit to see the cart falling. The Wizard was hurling fire at his feet, screaming madly. He could not see his friend.
When the wagon hit the molten rock in the depths of the pit the jars of Orthanc Fire ignited. Tulkas had not had time to count them, but later he would guess that there were at least 30 large pots. It took two to destroy the Deeping Wall. Two to render to rubble what had stood against armies near uncounted.
When the wagon hit the molten core of the pit, Tulkas was glad to be almost off of the platform and out of the pit. The shock wave blasted him out the rest of the way. He didn't remember much after that. He knows he must have landed at some point because he remembered being on Nahar's back with Elendir behind him and the girl in front, and the distinct feeling that they were flying. Boulders the size of small towers were crashing around them. The rumbling he heard more than felt, but it lasted long. The ground then seemed to bend beneath them. Later, when they had figured it was safe to venture back in, they would see why. The igniting of the jars caused an explosion so vast that the pit was utterly destroyed. A million tons of molten and shattered rock were blasted out of the cracks with such force that it was shot into the sky as if Orodruin herself had erupted. The very air at the center of that blast was seared away, creating a hungry vacuum that sucked everything back into it. The walls of the pit caved in upon itself creating yet another sympathetic explosion of rock and magma. The resulting sinkhole lay steaming in the reddish haze a dozen leagues across. The initial explosion also destroyed the warehouse where the powder was made and stored. That building must have gone up in the first blast. There were no buildings left. In fact, there was nothing left but a sloping hole in the earth. The camps were obliterated. The mining facility gone. The miners and their keepers, gone. The Hunter of the Valar and the Istar. Gone.
Tulkas didn't see Nahar for a long time after that. Sometimes he thought he caught a flash of silver running across the Gap in the starlight. But he could never be sure. He knew that he shouldn't mourn for his friend. That he was with Mandos and that it was only a matter of time before Manwë gave him leave to return to Middle Earth and clothe himself again as the Lord of Forests, the Huntsman of the Valar. But the will of Eru is beyond the ken of even the Valar. He knew it might be long before he returned. In the meantime, he would wait. And look out into the starlight for a glimpse of silver.