A Bit of Rope: 19. Crossroads

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19. Crossroads

    The sky was dull and dim on their third morning as the travelers came through widely spaced, ancient trees. With no warning they found themselves looking down upon a broad paved road that lay directly across their southward path. It was bordered by low walls of stone, and on its far side was a deep defile, draped with shadows. In that narrow ravine a noisy stream rushed westward. The voice of the waters was somehow unpleasant on their ears, and a dark mist seemed to hang above it. The odor that rose from the waters was nauseating, all too similar to the cloying scent of decay.

    "The East Road," Gandalf muttered. "And the Morgulduin: the fetid stream that flows from Imlad Morgul."

    He turned to his left and hurried up the broken slope. The hobbits followed a few yards behind him. Though day had come, he showed no sign of planning to stop and hide; and indeed, the light was grey and somber, hardly growing past the glimmer of dawn. The clouds hung ever more thickly, and the air was stifling and sharp with a scent of smoke. The hobbits found it difficult to breathe. On they pressed, ever upward and east, keeping the road to their right.

    They had been moving for an hour when they noticed a dark band of great trees rising before them and to the right, their broken tops reaching toward the gloomy sky.

    "We are approaching the Crossroads," the wizard said softly. "That circle of ancient trees marks it. The South Road is before us. We will cross it and find somewhere to lay low for a while."

     The South Road lay on a shelf of land. A low wall of stone marked its west edge, and on the east it sliced into the far slope. The wizard stepped up and over the wall and gazed north and south; nothing moved in either direction. He waved the hobbits before him.

     Frodo sped across the smooth, paved surface and quickly began climbing up the slope on the eastern side. He dove behind a low screen of tangled bushes and looked back. Sam was right behind him, his eyes wide as he joined him on the ground. The wizard seemed to tarry, walking rather than running across, glancing back and forth and pausing at the east edge of the road to gaze south toward the Crossroads. Finally he stepped forward and scrambled up the slope to where the hobbits were waiting.

    "This is too close," he whispered as he crouched down but did not join them on the ground. "We must go on."

     Without a moment's hesitation he sped onward, searching urgently, it seemed, for a sheltered place for them to hide. But the trees grew widely apart, and the land was dry and stony, and everywhere they felt exposed. Finally they came upon a gully overgrown with tangled bushes and thick with last season's dead vines. Gandalf thrust a way through, holding the branches open for his companions as they clambered down. The wizard let the vegetation drop behind him like a heavy curtain, and the hobbits felt as though they had entered a cave.

     Not a moment too soon, for the sounds they had all been dreading began at almost the same instant. The marching of heavy booted feet and harsh shouts came down the road from the east, and second later they heard brazen horns and marching answering from the north. The armies of Sauron were on the move. They dared not look out from their hiding place to watch, but sat on the ground with bowed heads, wrapped in their cloaks, and waited. Frodo felt his heart pounding within his breast. He glanced up. Sam's eyes were wide. Over an hour passed before the sounds died down and silence fell.

     Finally the wizard raised his head and looked at Frodo. He gestured for them to come near. He leaned forward onto his knees, and as he had on the shore of Nen Hithoel, he cleared a square of earth, brushing aside the fallen branches and leaves and smoothing a patch on which to draw. The hobbits knelt beside him and watched.

     "First, the mountains," he said. Drawing swiftly he indicated their current position in relation to the intersection of the roads, which he placed in the bottom and middle of his map. "We will continue on the north side of the East Road until we can go no farther." He drew a winding path up between rounded hills that changed into sharp pointed peaks, and beside it he traced a series of curving lines running just south of the road. The curving lines then veered northeast and intersected the road at an angle. "We must cross the river by using the road. The waters of that stream come from deep in the Vale and are deadly to drink or even to touch. There is only one bridge over the Morgulduin east of the Crossroads."

     He next drew a set of concentric circles, nestled above and to the left of the bridge within the sharp peaks. "The bridge across the Morgul Stream lies at the base of the valley of Imlad Morgul, and is within sight of the walls of Minas Morgul. On the far side of the Morgulduin the road splits, one way veering northeast to the gate of the City, and the other continuing east and a bit south. But one can leave the road and climb into the hills on the south side of the pass. That is the route I believe will afford the safest and most secret entry into Mordor." He looked up. "No doubt you have questions."

     Sam spoke first. "That bridge, you say it can be seen from the walls of the City; will it be guarded?"

     "I have not seen it in centuries, Sam, but yes, I imagine it is guarded," the wizard answered. "My most recent experience with a stronghold of the Enemy was in the north, at Dol Guldur. In that fell place such a structure as a bridge, or a causeway, would appear to be unguarded; no living thing would be standing on patrol. Yet a sentinel of stone with false life trapped within it would be set nearby, to raise an alarm if a stranger tried to pass. I expect we shall find something similar here."

     "But how will we get by without raising the alarm?" Frodo said.

    The wizard's lip curled slightly. "Leave that to me. I will deal with the Watchers. We will, of course, make the attempt at night, not that darkness will be much of a shield from the sleepless eyes of Minas Morgul. But the bridge is quite short, and we must use the road for less than a mile. If all goes well, no one will notice a few grey-cloaked travelers fleeing into the grey stones of the surrounding hills."

    Frodo frowned. "Well, that's the other thing. The mountains above the valley will be patrolled, won't they?"

    "I am not sure," Gandalf said. "If by that you mean patrolled by troops of Orcs, I suspect not, for the Enemy and his chief servants who dwell beneath those mountains very likely believe that the dread of the name Imlad Morgul is guard enough. North of the main road is a smaller, higher pass. But it is no better than the main way. It is named Cirith Ungol: Spider's Pass. Not only does an Orc outpost sit at the crest, but of old the loremasters of Gondor said that a great spider lived there, very like those that Beren fought in the Mountains of Terror in the First Age, and much larger and fiercer than the spiders Bilbo encountered in Mirkwood. Whether or not such a creature still exists I do not know; but at least no such fearsome legends linger over the southern peaks."

    "I still don't quite understand how we will get through the mountains if we cannot take the pass," Frodo said.

    "Remember that a pass is simply the easiest route through a range of mountains," the wizard said. "It is never the only way. But do not mistake me: it will be difficult to come through without using the road. The way will be steeper, more circuitous and with many false starts. It will likely involve much scrambling and climbing. That rope of yours will certainly come in handy again, Sam," he nodded. He paused for a moment, waiting for more questions. But the hobbits said nothing.

    "Very well," Gandalf said as he rubbed out his drawing. "Now we come to what lies on the other side of the Ephel Dúath." His hand moved swiftly and a second map emerged. He pointed with the end of the stick.

    "An inner ring of much lower mountains sits within the Ephel Dúath--the Morgai--and between is a trench where a few rugged green things and very hardy creatures still survive. There will be water there, and it would be wise to fill every container to the brim in that dreary valley. Scaling the Morgai peaks will be easy in comparison to the Ephel Dúath, though caution must be used, of course. Once at the base, one is upon the very plain of Mordor, and enemies will be on the move in every direction. But we must hope that no one--least of all Sauron--expects that any would desire to purposefully come to that arid, forbidding plain." He went on, describing what he could recall of the system of roads that interlinked Minas Morgul, the fortresses in the interior, the Vale of Udûn in the north, behind the Black Gate, and Barad-dûr itself.

     "The lay of the land is such that the Mountain sits west of the Dark Lord's Tower. It is perhaps fifty miles from the base of the Morgai to Orodruin; not far, if the way were anything but treacherous. There is a road to it, of course, but as with the East Road before us, it would be wise to avoid using it as much as possible, and creep through the surrounding desolation, where one can hide amid the many broken stones and pits. One reason to venture onto the road would be to find a well. Such things are kept at intervals for the use of his servants. Even Orcs must drink, and though such water may not be sweet on the tongue, it will support life."

    Frodo's heart was hammering in his chest as he watched the wizard indicate the Mountain.

    "I spoke at length to Elrond, before we left Rivendell, and asked him to recall many unpleasant memories. He alone, save for Isildur--and Sauron himself--has stood within the chamber known as the Sammath Naur, the Chamber of Fire. He told me that at the end of the Battle of the Last Alliance, it faced east, toward the Tower of Barad-dûr, and the opening was halfway up the slope of Orodruin. A road paved with crushed stones wound around the base of the Mountain, leading to the entrance." He looked up and gazed solemnly at Frodo. "We can only assume that things will be similar today."

    Frodo stared at the wizard. "I have two more questions, Gandalf."

    "Only two?" he said lightly, with a faint smile.

    The Ring-bearer's chin lifted as he looked sternly at Gandalf. "I have two I expect you can answer." The wizard's smile vanished. "One: when you went to Mordor, years ago, why didn't you go into the Chamber of Fire?"

    "I attempted it," Gandalf replied. "But the road and the entrance was choked with twisted, molten stone that Orodruin had disgorged in its fury. I could not find the doorway."

     Frodo nodded. His voice shook slightly as he went on. "My second question is this: why are you telling us all of this, now, when we have yet to successfully cross over the Ephel Dúath? More to the point, what aren't you telling us, Gandalf?"

     Sam looked up in surprise. His Master and the wizard were staring intently at one another. His gaze flicked back and forth between their faces as he frowned. I don't understand, he thought. Mr. Frodo looks right angry... And Gandalf seems...well, sad. What's it about?

     "I had intended to tell you in the final minutes, when I had no other choice," the wizard muttered. "But I see there is no getting past it now..."

     "There is not," Frodo said emphatically; Sam heard a hint of fear in his voice. "Tell me now."

     Gandalf paused briefly before answering in a solemn voice. "I am not going with you into Mordor."

     Frodo's eyes closed and a look of pain came over his face. But in his confusion and fear, Sam lashed out.

    "Not going! Not going?" he cried. "But…but you can't just bring us to the brink of the worst danger imaginable and then abandon us! What sort of trickery is this? You promised you'd go with us!"

     The wizard winced at Sam's heated outburst, and he looked away before drawing in breath to reply. But Frodo spoke first.

     "He only promised to go with us to Mordor, Sam," he said, as he stared at Gandalf. "He never said anything about entering Mordor." One of the wizard's brows rose, and he nodded almost imperceptibly.

     Sam gazed at Frodo, open-mouthed. "If he's not coming with us, where is he going?"

     "He is going to Minas Morgul," Frodo said quietly; he did not take his eyes off Gandalf's face.

     Sam blinked. "Minas Morgul... But why?"

     "To draw their attention, so that we can get across what would otherwise be an impossibly dangerous bridge, and then through the mountains without being noticed," Frodo said hoarsely. "He will place himself between us and all the enemies who dwell within Minas Morgul, as a diversion. Am I right, Gandalf? Is that your plan?"

     "Yes," the wizard said. "That is my intention." He paused while he studied the hobbit's face. "Have you known long, Frodo?"

     Frodo sighed. "I think that in some sense I have known since Lothlorien. When you told us you were coming with us to Mordor, suddenly it all seemed easy...too easy. You had never said anything about coming all the way with us; why would you have waited to make that clear, if you had thought of it before? And then I began to notice how carefully you chose your words, always leaving yourself out of it, beyond a certain point,..  You said that nothing else mattered but us getting through... And when you spoke to Faramir, I was all but certain." 

    Gandalf was nodding slowly, his eyes now downcast. "Perhaps I should have been more open with you earlier. I did not intend to deceive you..."

    "No, you were right, to have waited. I don't think I would have been able to accept it, not until now… And even now…" Frodo looked up. "Tell me one other thing: does Aragorn know?"

    The wizard's eyes glinted. "He suspected. He tried to dissuade me, and failing that, to allow him to join us..."

    "That wouldn't have been right. He has so much ahead of him. His destiny, everything he's prepared and hoped for, for so long... I am glad he isn't here with us."

    Sam listened in astonished silence as his companions spoke so calmly, it seemed, about such a horrific thing. He could stand it no longer.

    "But Gandalf, I don't understand!" he cried. "You're going there alone? It doesn't make sense! You can't attack an entire fortress by yourself! If you've a mind to kill yourself, throw yourself off a cliff--it would be easier!"

    The wizard smiled grimly. "Yes, if ending my mortal life was all I had in mind, I could certainly find an easier method." His smile faded. "But I hope to accomplish far more than that, Sam. Frodo is correct; the Bridge of Imlad Morgul cannot be crossed by any foe of those who dwell within the Tower without breaking the Watcher's will, and that will raise the alarm. There will only be a space of minutes until the forces of Minas Morgul, already readied for war, come streaming out of the Gate. That will be your opportunity to escape. And I hope to give you much more than a few minutes. I intend to hold out against them for many hours—as long as I can. And that will have another benefit, for if by my actions I can delay the Morgul Host's march toward Minas Tirith, or lessen its strength, I will have achieved much in aiding our other friends."

    "But how? How can you do that all by yourself, Gandalf?" Sam said, his voice breaking as his throat tightened.   

    "How?" The wizard's voice grew hard, and his eyes flashed. "Think on this, Samwise Gamgee. Remember the Balrog of Moria? Can you imagine what such a creature could do, with all his power, even facing an army? What soldiers, however fierce or mightily armed, could withstand him?" Sam quailed at the image; his heart was in his throat as the memories of the Bridge of Khazad-dûm came flooding back.

     "Well, Sam," Gandalf went on, his voice softer now, "I am precisely the same sort of being, different from the Balrog of Moria only in the choices I have made." He paused, it seemed to Frodo, to allow his words to sink in for Sam, who appeared stunned. "I agreed, when I came here, to take on this weak form, and to restrain from using such powers, save in a time of dire need. But the powers remain; and the time of direst need, it seems clear to me, has come. We stand at the crossroads of hope and despair. No task in the service of the quest is too perilous. Nothing else matters now."

    They sat in silence for a while, pondering what was to come. Finally Frodo gave a great sigh.

    "You've known all along, haven't you?" he whispered.

    "No, truly I have not," Gandalf said, his voice tinged with grief. "Indeed, the way forward after the Misty Mountains was all in darkness to me. My foresight had failed, and I knew not how your quest would be accomplished, though deep in my heart I have always believed that you would succeed. But when we passed through Moria, I began to see the choice before me more clearly, and then, in the Lady's Mirror..." He frowned. "Much was revealed to me...  Too much, I fear. But I have always known, in one respect, that I could not cross the plain of Gorgoroth with you and guide you to the Sammath Naur. For once within the boundaries of the Enemy's land, my presence at your side would imperil you far more than any aid I could give on that final journey."

    Frodo saw a strange gleam in the wizard's eye as he continued, and a shadow of dread. "You see, Sauron has known me since before Arda was made. He reserves for me the special hatred that one bears for another who was once a friend. That friendship was shattered long, long ago. Yet he knows and hates me still, and once I entered his realm, his Eye would be drawn to me as to a flaming beacon."

    Again, the three companions fell into silent waiting. There is nothing more to say that would not ring hollow now, Frodo thought. All that remains is to steel ourselves for what is to come.

     The hobbits watched as Gandalf shrugged off his pack and opened it. From within, he withdrew what remained of his food--one of the parcels from Faramir, the leftovers of what Boromir and Pippin had given them, and four packets of leaf-wrapped lembas--and placed them on the ground. He brought out the empty flask of miruvor, and slid his water skin from where it hung from one shoulder.

    Frodo glanced inside the wizard's bag; it was all but empty. Only the silver scarf and an empty pouch of pipeweed lay in the bottom. His pipe must be in his pocket, he thought. And I still have his folding knife.

    "Here," Gandalf said. "Pack these provisions. I will no longer need them. At the next stream we cross that flows into, and not out, of Imlad Morgul, we should fill all three skins, and this flask as well. On the road you must take, you will need every drop of water you can carry."

    The hobbits did not make a move to repack the parcels, but simply stared at them as they lay on the ground, dismayed by the grim finality of his gesture. The wizard watched for a moment; then he reached around them, opened their packs and placed the parcels and flask within. After a moment's hesitation, he placed the folded silver scarf into Sam's bag and his empty pipeweed pouch into Frodo's. He folded his now completely empty pack and laid it aside beneath a thick bush. Reaching forward, he slung the strap of his half-full water skin over Sam's neck. The gardener of Bag End turned his face away and covered his eyes.

    The wizard leaned back and pulled his cloak about his shoulders. "We should all try to get some rest, for a few hours, at least. Sam, will you take the first watch? Two hours each, no more. The darkness comes early. We should leave before sunset."

    With that he flung his hood forward and closed his eyes. In just a few minutes it seemed he was asleep. Neither Frodo nor Sam could bring themselves to close their eyes. They sat in the gloom of the hushed, dark day, listening to the throbbing of drums in the distance, and studying the sleeping wizard's face.

    At an hour before sunset he opened his eyes; the hobbits were waiting for him. He nodded once, and finding no words to say that seemed proper, they rose in silence and set out on the final stretch of their journey as three together.

This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: Aiwendiel

Status: General

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - Ring War

Genre: Drama

Rating: General

Last Updated: 01/06/12

Original Post: 02/25/09

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