THE ROAD BACK
July 15, 3020 - September 3, 3020
Written by Angmar
Frodo had been waiting, propped up on cushions in his chair of honor in his great hall since nine o'clock that morning. Breakfast, as usual, had been served promptly at 7 o'clock and after finishing his meal, Frodo had been herded by Guntha to finish any last packing that he had to do. Shakh Guntha had waited in his room, lounging in one of Frodo's comfortable chairs, while Frodo's manservant assisted him in being dressed. There was very little yet that Frodo had not already packed and soon he watched as other servants of his hall sorted his things and took them out to the waiting wain in the courtyard of his hall. Frodo looked around the room where he had stayed for many months. He would never see it again.
"Come now, shakh, you must hurry and you would not want a late start for your departure home."
Shakh Guntha escorted Frodo to the great hall where the fireplaces were cold and unburning, for it was July 15 and save for an occasional cooler evening, there was seldom need to set afire logs in the great fireplace. The hall was strangely quiet this morning and few servants were present. Frodo's body servant assisted him into his tall chair, which was far too high for Frodo's short stature. The addition of several purple cushions, though, helped gain Frodo the height so he could reach the table. A servant bought him a goblet of wine and Shakh Guntha excused himself with a patronizing smile.
"Just a few more details, shakh, trivial matters really," Guntha said with an accent that gave him away as being a man of Rhûn. Lord Guntha today looked quite resplendid in his black mail of iron, a surcoat of black; black breeches, black leather riding boots going up to his knee, and a crimson cloak. A long sword was at his belt.
It was back in May when Frodo found out that the hated Vartang and his brother Varyon had disappeared from the city of Minas Tirith, now called Minas Artano by the Easterling and Southron invaders. Frodo had gone to the Citadel to plead for the release of Lilandra, who was being held captive by Vartang, and Aldir, who was being forced to labor in a chain gang. To his dismay, however, Frodo found that Vartang and Varyon had left, and little explanation was he given. "I regret to inform you that Varyon, King of Forogondor, the Northern Province of West Mordor, and Lord High Governor of Minas Artano, left last night with his household and his escort to go to his summer home on the sea. The date of his return is not known. The King's Steward Vartang was called to the north... to inspect the troops. Shakh, I am sure he will return.... sometime, someday," the chamberlain had said.
One of the servants who was often sent to Newburg to buy fresh vegetables and other items for the table had heard a rumor in the marketplace that young Master Randir, his sister Sirana, and their father, Lord Lorthang, had disappeared shortly before Lord Vartang and his brother had vacated the city. Thus they had escaped the massive purge of Easterling traitors that the forces of the Dark Lands had so ruthlessly slaughtered, cutting down every last lord and all his family if any treachery was suspected. The servant girl told Frodo this in low tones, being careful that no he had heard. She had heard that somehow, through surreptitious means, Master Randir had been informed of the upcoming bloodletting, probably through warnings by his brothers in the army. In any event, she had told him Master Randir, Lady Sirana and Lord Lorthang were thought to be safe somewhere in the mountains.
Time wore on and still Frodo sat. Even though Frodo's house had thick walls, it was often chilly beyond comfort. The day had grown hotter, and Frodo found himself becoming uncomfortably warm in his hairshirt and wool. He felt an urge to itch and he looked around, darting his eyes here and there furtively to see if any servants were present. At this time, no one was there except his body servant, whom he had dismissed to go fetch him another goblet of wine and was at a sideboard pouring the goblet at that moment. Thinking it was safe enough, Frodo scratched and he scratched again, but still that brought no relief.
The manservant, Aradol, had just poured the wine and was just returning to bring Frodo's goblet and his own. Frodo stopped scratching. "Here is your wine, shakh," he said, placing it on the table beside Frodo's right hand and his own wine on the other side of the table. "Shakh, all your things are packed and loaded in your wain. You seem restless. Would you like for me to go to the library and get you a book you could read so you could pass the time?"
"Not another volume on the 'Wars of the Nomadic Tribes of Rhûn!' I cannot bear another one. As it is, I think I have had to read every last one in this library. My tutor would let me read no others."
"I understand, sir," Aradol said in an impersonal "I am a servant; whatever you say is correct" voice, saying nothing, revealing nothing of himself. Aradol was a Gondorian who had willingly given his services to the Dark Lands and the Dark Lord long ago, one who would be called "Traitor" in the eyes of the West, all hidden under the guise of an appeasing servant. Handsome, tall, noble in looks and bearing, his voice articulate and well modulated, his appearance belied the heart and mind of an adder.
The chime on the water clock in the great hall sounded the hour of 11 in the morning. Two hours already he had been waiting and still no sign of departure, and where were Rian and Finduilas, Anborn and Targon, Haleth and Firiel, Lilandra, Aldir and their son Daeron? None of them were here; no, there was only Aradol with his cold, impersonal stare.
Frodo was perspiring under that hairshirt and itching again, and whyever, he thought, had Aradol given him a woolen tunic to wear? Could it not have been made of linen, some cooler material? "Wool!" he thought. "Wool in July!" But there was to be no remedy. Everything else was packed and he had been put under the most dire injunctions to wear the hairshirt every single hour of the day except when he bathed.
At last the great doors of the hall opened. Eighteen feet high they were and made of solid golden oak. The massive doors were carved with images of the Two Trees of Valinor on both the fronts and backs, a memento of the days when the descendants of the Sea-kings had ruled in Minas Tirith. A wit somewhere high in the towers of Lugbûrz, no doubt, had thought it a jest to leave the doors intact.
The water clock heralded the passage of fifteen more minutes, and still there was no summons that the departure was nigh. Aradol looked straight ahead with his cool, impersonal fish eyed stare and sipped his wine while Frodo scratched whenever Aradol's head was turned.
At the chime of half past eleven, the doors opened by two servants in attendance and in walked Guntha, followed by his constant orc bodyguards. Guntha was carrying a long box in his arms. Frodo turned his head to watch him as he crossed the stone floor. Aradol stood to his feet and bowed low from the waist, then took his position at the back of Frodo's chair.
"Shakh, the day of transition has dawned! Now you are to return in glory to your people," Guntha smirked with no attempt to hide the derision in his voice. "Now, my fine little halfling, step down and I will bestow upon you your badges of worth."
Aradol pulled the chair out for Frodo and Frodo slid to the floor, then walked to face Guntha. One orc walked from behind Guntha and stood beside Guntha, holding out his hands as Guntha placed the box in his. Guntha opened the box slowly as though he were making a ceremony of it. Then he pulled out the coat of mithril and aided Frodo in putting it on. Guntha stepped back. "How splendid you look! What a magnificent impression you will make everywhere you go. You will fairly gleam," he laughed.
Guntha turned back to the box and extracted a short sword, sheath and belt, and bending down strapped it around Frodo's waist. "Be careful with that," he said, as though regarding some repulsive beetle. "You could cut yourself if you are careless. You already have been given your little box of dirt by other Hands far more holy than mine." Guntha accentuated the word "little" in his heavily accented Easterling voice.
"Why," Frodo thought, "does he constantly refer to everything about me as small, trifling, as though I am some diminutive tin soldier on the shelf of a toymaker?"
He drew out the Elvish cloak next and held it as though it were an unclean thing and debased his hands even to touch. He drew it around Frodo's shoulders and after reaching into the box and drawing out an object, he fastened the Elven brooch at the neck.
Guntha stood there, looking down at Frodo. "Ah, little fellow, did you think I had forgotten something?" he said as he patted Frodo on the head and ruffled his hair indulgently as a father or older brother. "You look like quite the great warrior now, but you are lacking in one thing, something to give you light. No, it will not be the phial of the witch that you will carry with you. That will remain safely with me, as will the rest of your gear, the sordid clothing you wore when you came spying to the Land of Light. You might drop it and break it," he said and a vast grin spread upon his face, his mouth opening up like a cavern of enameled pearls. Good teeth seemed to be a feature of all Easterlings and every one of them seemed proud to display their gleaming teeth, like a people whose ancestors were mixed with werewolves.
Frodo wondered, "Are they truly with werewolves?" and quickly shook the thought off because no such tale as that had ever been recorded in any lore west of the Anduin.
"Shakh, you already have been given your lantern, candle, flint and steel. You are to keep your lantern lit through every mile of the journey so that you may spread light wherever you may go. When you mount up for the journey, make sure your lamp is lit." He flashed Frodo another leering mouthful of teeth.
"Shakh, is time to leave. All of your possessions, clothing and books have been packed in your own storage wagon which will follow to the rear, along with the rest of the baggage and supply wagons. You have been allowed to take your three slave women, Rian, Finduilas and Haleth and their three children and your manservant Aradol with you. Your provender, food and drink, will be supplied by the troops who cook for the officers' mess, so you will have the same food that my officers and I will be served.
"You will be quite happy, I am sure, to learn that your former slaves, the man Aldir, his wife Lilandra and their son Daeron have been granted their freedom. So that we will not be detained unnecessarily and save possibly unpleasant experiences, I have deemed it proper that you will not say goodbye to any of them but will go your way without long farewells."
Guntha paused and then began to speak again. "Your beloved former slaves, Elfhild, Elffled and Arnasa, much grieved and revered consorts of the Nine, have been honored with stone tombs carved into the mountains around Minas Morgul. They lie there enshrined, sweet in peaceful death, their unbreathing bodies incorruptible. Forever are they enspelled with the bloom of spring, forever protected, the gift of the Lord of the City."
Frodo heard the water clock chiming as he followed Master Guntha and his bodyguards through the great doors of the hall. Outside, grooms held a buckskin colored pony, saddled and bridled, arrayed in black and red. The Gondorian asked, "Do you need help in getting on your pony, master?"
"No," Frodo said as he mounted the pony, "I am quite able to do it myself."
By this time, Guntha had mounted a fine, prancing black charger, two other Easterling riders on either side of him. Ahead of them in the column was a company of Easterling cavalrymen on gallant warhorses and far above at the head of the line rode a standard bearer and herald and behind them marched orcs with drums tied about their necks by long leather cords, their drumsticks hanging down at their sides. Guntha motioned for Frodo to ride forward to the head of the line. The advance riders and scouts had already ridden ahead. Guarding the wains and wagons bearing Frodo's gold and jewels were fifty cavalrymen.
"But I don't know where I am going!" he exclaimed. "How will I find my way?"
"There is a map packed in the saddlebag to your right. Take it out and set the course. You are the pathfinder, O great Shakh, beloved Friend of the Master." Guntha thought to himself, "Stupid fool, mismatched mistake of a foul ancestry, you look the perfect ass that you are. Would that my Master had had you burnt alive, I would have watched most gladly!"
"As you ride down the hill," he said out loud, "behold Minas Artano for the last time. Soon this city will be relieved of its living population. It has been ordained that it shall be another abode of the Gods Who Walk Among Us, the Undying, the Immortals, the Ones Known as the Nazgûl!"
Alwan, Frodo's personal trainer, and his assistant, Dirar, trotted up on their horses. Bowing to Frodo, Alwan sneered, "Pardon, master, that we were somewhat tardy." He looked at Dirar who sat upon his horse, looking pale and holding his head with one hand. "The ale was particularly good last night, but here we are, your trusted bodyguards. We will help protect you throughout the journey," he said caustically.
When Frodo had taken his position at the head of the column and had taken his map from the saddlebag, Aradol rode up to him, carrying the lighted lantern. "Here, master, did you forget this?" he said ingratiatingly. "I took the liberty of doing that for you," he said as he placed the lighted lantern into Frodo's hand. "Lead us, Great One." His voice was filled with caustic sarcasm. "Lead us through the darkness or we will get lost and not find our way." When Aradol reined his horse to the left, away from Frodo's sight, cruel malice was alight in his eyes.
The trumpeter glanced back at Frodo and after Frodo had nodded, he sounded one clear note and the column was in motion. Inside the hall where Frodo had lived for so many months, the water clock chimed the hour of high noon.
The company rode forth from Minas Tirith down the hill, passing by houses that stood stark and empty along their way. Only a few of Frodo's servants went with him, the vast majority staying behind. Later, he had been told, when the new city to the south of Minas Artano had been completed, they would be given to new masters there. Frodo felt pity for Orodor, the little boy whose feet had been burned by a hot iron when he was interrogated by Vartang. The cruel Variag wanted to know how Ceolwulf and Vardamir had escaped and would use any means at his disposal to ferret out this information. Frodo prayed the boy would find a kind master in the new city, but he knew that possibility was slim.
Soon the company reached the first level and then passed through the Great Gates of iron held by posts of steel. Over the field of Pelennor they went, the afternoon sun shining down upon them. The dark shadow of the Temple loomed to the north and the sight caused a shudder to go down Frodo's spine and he trembled at the memories of the Temple ceremonies that he had been forced to attend. However, Frodo did not go that way for he followed a path marked already upon the map in red ink.
Towards the haunted ruins of Osgiliath they went, through empty green fields devoid of life, save for grass and a few beasts. Frodo looked towards south, where a new city, vast and white, was being built. The shantytown of Newburg had been destroyed during the spring riots in March, the Month of Blood. Many of the Gondorians who lived there had been dragged from their homes and tormented cruelly before they died. The town was burnt to the ground in the bloody revelry. Nothing marked its place now but charred ruins, a few crude huts and tents.
Gone was the Blushing Maiden Inn, where Ceolwulf and Vardamir had taken Frodo for one night of freedom. Gone now were the innkeeper Tobir, the barmaids and the entertainers who had played and sang there. No one knew what had befallen them, whether they had been slain in the riots or had somehow fled to the south to Lassanach.
Gone also were Ceolwulf and Vardamir, their promise to come back in March unkept. Now it was July, and Frodo had heard nothing of what had befallen them. "May they were killed," he thought, sorrow filling his heart.
They camped the first night halfway between Minas Tirith and Osgiliath, and the next night in Osgiliath amid the ruins. That morning, it was over the towered bridge at Osgiliath and towards Ithilien. The next day, the company camped at the Crossroads, and Frodo looked once more at the statue of the fallen king which he had seen so often on his travels. He remembered the first time had seen it, on the Ring Quest with Sam and Gollum, and his eyes welled up with tears of sorrow.
The next morning, the company turned at the crossroads and began to travel the north road that led to the Black Gate. The days passed as they traveled upon the road, the green forest of Ithilien to the west and the black Mountains of Shadow and blood-red skies of Mordor to the east. The further they journeyed to the north the fewer the trees became until at last there were no more trees, only the dismal No-man's Lands, gray, bleak, filled with slag piles and pits. It was the second day of August when Frodo and the company came at last to the Black Gate, where the Hobbit had first hoped to enter into Mordor to destroy the Ring.
A vast empty silence, shrill in its nothingness, met their approach. Guntha broke the silence by commanding "Halt!" and the order was passed down the lines until it seemed that the very walls began echoing the word. The column sat silent, rigid at attention, eyes straight ahead before the mighty gate. Then a sound somewhere from high atop the wall, a great horn sounded clearly. And then it was joined by others along the walls, until the silence was broken asunder and hurled apart. Then the silence returned and seemed to stretch out an interminable length of time until at last Guntha ordered, "Forward!"
On they marched past the Black Gate, day after weary day of travel. The terrain was filled with scattered woodlands, endless culpses of trees, meadows, large patches of untouched woods and forests, with not another living man in sight. To the south were the Dead Marshes and then the Emyn Muil, but Frodo saw neither of these familiar sights traveling this far north. The neverending woods and meadows were replaced by a barren, lifeless desert in the Brown Lands, but after the company passed this wasteland, there were yet more trees and meadows with not another living soul in sight.
Mirkwood loomed ahead, dark and foreboding, the fortress of Dol Guldur in its midst. The forest of Lorien lay to the northwest across the River Anduin, but there were no longer great thriving trees there. The mallorns, those that were not destroyed in the fighting of 3019, had begun to wither and die, and neither ellon or elleth now moved among their somber boles.
Frodo and the company camped the night of September 2nd fourty miles directly south of Dol Guldur, the forest to the north a looming shadow of fir and dark evergreens. The morning of September 3rd, all eyes were trained behind them when first it was noticed that there was a great cloud of dust somewhere on the trail to the southeast.
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