20. The Bridge of the Morgulduin
The slope rose ever more steeply as they hurried eastward. The ground was tumbled and stony, and soon all but the hardiest vegetation disappeared. Below and to their right, the East Road glowed with an eerie, wavering shimmer. Above them a massive shadow loomed, black against the slightly lighter sky. They were climbing up the back of a long ridge that came down from the mountain that guarded the northern half of Imlad Morgul.
They stopped, as the wizard advised, at the only stream they crossed that flowed from their left and into the deepening valley. Sam could feel the weight of the extra water skin and the flask in his pack. He had insisted on taking both, on top of his own full water skin and the bulk of the food.
"You've got enough to carry, Master," he whispered.
Near midnight, they could go no farther. A wall of stone rose before them. The ground fell off toward the right. A hundred feet down and less than a quarter-mile away, the East Road wound between huge, tumbled boulders.
"We must drop down now and chance the Road. The Vale opens to the southwest," Gandalf muttered. "Through that gap, the Road veers north for a short distance, then curves east again. We will see the Tower of Minas Morgul as soon as we pass between those stones. Do not look at it! It is an evil place, and one's eye is drawn to it. Keep your eyes down, and stay to the left until we come to the bridge."
He seemed ready to clamber down the rocky slope without another word. Frodo reached out, intending to stop him. No! This might well be the last chance we have to speak, he thought, to say goodbye… As if he heard the hobbit's thoughts, Gandalf halted and turned toward them
His face was hidden in the shadows of his hood. "We have come to it, my friends," he said quietly. "The Bridge over the Morgulduin is near--a half a mile, or less. Let me go first, but stay close behind me. Speed across the moment the Watchers' barrier is broken. Pay no attention to the alarm, and run as fast as you can. As soon as you see an opening of any sort, climb off the road and get into the hills on the other side. I implore you: do not look back."
"Gandalf..." Frodo whispered hoarsely.
"A moment, Frodo," the wizard said gently. "There is one more thing." He turned to Sam. "I wonder if you would do something for me, Sam."
Sam raised his bowed head. He could barely see for the tears that blurred his sight. Gandalf stood as a grey shadow against the cliff, the hood of his cloak drawn forward so that only the tip of his long nose and a few wisps of beard showed.
He nodded dully, supposing that Gandalf was about to make him promise once again to stay by Mr. Frodo's side, to be loyal to him—and to the quest. Doesn't he know me well enough yet to realize I'm not leaving Mr. Frodo, no matter what? Sam thought with a rush of sudden resentment. How many times do I have to prove that I'm faithful…always have been, always will be…
The wizard stepped forward and dropped to one knee before the hobbit.
"I want you to take something." Gandalf tugged at his right hand with his left. Sam watched, frowning. He couldn't see what the wizard was doing; he seemed to be drawing something off, but there was nothing there. Then, as the wizard reached the end of the third finger of his right hand, Sam gasped. A gold ring with a deep red jewel appeared, balanced in his fingertips.
The ring was heavy, and carved with deep curving lines, as flames shooting outward from the gem. In the dim light the stone seemed to glow, as if a faint ember lay at its heart. Gandalf reached out and took Sam's hand, turning it upward. He placed the ring into the hobbit's palm and closed his brown fingers about it. At once Sam felt its warmth. And he felt something else: a flicker of renewed courage within his heart. We can do this! We can make it to the Mountain. I know we can…
Frodo stood at Sam's shoulder, watching. "But Gandalf!" he whispered. "That…that can only be…"
"Hush," Gandalf said sternly. He gazed solemnly at Frodo. "Speak not its name. Not here. But yes, this is what you suspect…what you, in fact, might have seen, had you attempted to look for it…had you known to look for it." Gandalf turned again to Sam. "Sam, do you know what I mean?"
"N…no, sir, I don't…"
"The Lady Galadriel told me that Frodo had been able to see something on her hand in her Garden, that evening when she allowed the Company to peer into her Mirror. Do you remember?"
Sam nodded. He had asked about it, later, when he and Frodo were alone. His Master had seen no harm in explaining it to him, and it had made perfect sense; for, of course, the Lady Galadriel, as great and powerful an Elf-woman as she was, should be one of the Bearers of the Three Elven Rings of Power. He and Frodo had quietly speculated, as curious hobbits would, which other great Elvish Lords might bear the other two. They had both agreed it likely that Lord Elrond was one; and neither could guess the third. All at once it came to Sam. Gandalf is the third. And this… And he clenched his fingers more tightly around the ring… this is the Third. But Gandalf is not an Elf…
"Now that I think of it, I have seen it," Frodo muttered. "Or…or at least a reflection of it,"
"You have? When?" the wizard asked quietly.
"Before we entered Moria, when the Wargs attacked, and you set all those trees alight, I remember thinking a spark or an ember had fallen onto your hand… And on the Bridge, I thought I was seeing a fragment of the…the Balrog's sword…"
"And when you said farewell to the Lady… There was a light, a red light, intermingled with a sparkle of white, when you took her hand."
"You saw it truly, Frodo, more truly than any but two others in all of Middle Earth could have. It was given to me two thousand years ago by its previous Bearer, who felt it would be put to better use on my roaming finger than on his stationary one. And do you know why I have asked Sam to carry it now?"
Sam only half listened to Frodo and Gandalf as they spoke softly; his mind was focused on the still-warm object in his hand. It was utterly strange, for even though knew he was Sam Gamgee, just a hobbit of the Shire as he always had been, he felt an awareness of someone…something…different, standing so close to him that it might have been inside him. The thick soles of his wooly feet stood on solid ground. But he sensed the stone surface in an entirely new way. He frowned. Was the rock alive somehow? Was it vibrating? He could feel…or almost hear a deep humming that seemed to come from within the earth itself. And he felt oddly separate from that earth, as if he had arrived here, and had not been born of its substance. And beneath that sense of separation was an utter sureness of deep belonging…of being woven into every aspect of Arda, alive or not. Is this how Elves feel? he thought. So connected? Such a part of everything?
Frodo was speaking again. "You dare not carry it where you are going. You'll hold out as long as you can, but you can't hold out forever. They'd find it…one way or another, wouldn't they? And then it would come to the Enemy... I can see your logic, harsh though it is," he whispered. "But it must leave an awful hole in you, after all this time…"
Sam looked up. Frodo stood very near to the wizard, who still knelt on the ground. His Master had placed his hand on Gandalf's shoulder, in an oddly touching reversal of their usual roles; the wizard's head was bowed, and he seemed to allow his small friend to comfort him.
"You are correct, on both counts," Gandalf said. "I will not risk that something of such value come to Sauron's hand. He would pervert its power and use it for evil, and I believe there is yet more work for it to do. And yes," he said with a sigh. "I feel its absence, deeply."
"Do you really have to do this, Gandalf?" Frodo said in a choked whisper.
"I came here to do whatever I could to aid those who would stand up to the Enemy and see him fall; and in you, Frodo, I have found the greatest hope of accomplishing that in over two thousand years." He looked up. "You must believe that I do this willingly. I choose my own path. And there truly is no other choice for me. Not now."
"But why are you giving it to me?" Sam said hoarsely. "Why not Frodo?"
They turned toward him, and Sam choked back a startled cry. Both their faces had altered. Frodo's was filled with a clear light, as though his skin was as translucent as wax, and a candle glowed within him; but at the center of his chest a fiery wheel hung, and to Sam, it seemed to be burning into his Master's flesh. And where Gandalf knelt amid the stones, a blue-silver mist had gathered in his place. Sam blinked, and the wizard was there again, but the light from his aged face wavered, and the endless depths of his eyes were filled with anguish.
"Frodo cannot take it. He has burden enough, for one thing. And the conflict between what I long carried and what he must bear would be intolerable. The One would overwhelm it, in time, and in the process, your Master would be torn apart. And Sam, I believe that you are better suited to it. For what you now hold in your hand was forged as an instrument of hope. That is its power. And you, my dear hobbit, I long ago decided would have been better named Harthad Uluithiad. Hope Unquenchable."
Sam felt his face burn. Me? 'Hope Unquenchable?' That's a lot to ask of a simple gardener, my Gaffer would say...
"You need but carry it near you. It will kindle courage in you simply by its presence. But if you find yourself in need of strength beyond what you know yourself to possess, do not hesitate to put it on your finger...save in one circumstance only." Sam's ears pricked up at the change in the wizard's voice. "Do not place it upon your finger when you and Frodo reach your ultimate destination, however much you are tempted to do so," he whispered urgently. "Any suggestion that comes to you in that place, Sam, any voice you hear inside you, will not be an echo of my voice, or of the voice of the Elvish object you now hold in your hand. For remember the verse: One Ring to rule them all... In that place, where It was forged, the One will have supremacy. It will be the voice of the One you hear, and It will strive to deceive you and return Itself to Its Maker."
Sam clutched the Red Ring tightly in his fist and tried to master his fear. He had felt strong and hopeful, just moments ago. Now he felt the awesome power of what had been given to him, and the burden that came with it. He looked up.
"What will happen, sir, if I do...if I put it on?"
The wizard caught his gaze, and Sam felt himself pierced with an intense scrutiny. Then Gandalf's eyes softened with the hint of a smile. "As with all great rings, if a mortal as yourself places it on his hand, it may well cause you to vanish from sight. But beyond that, I don't really know, and if I have learned anything from my dealings with Hobbits, I would be foolish to try to predict. I hope that what part of my strength remains entangled within it will be made available for you to use, in whatever way that is most suited to you. In that fashion, perhaps, I can accompany you on the rest of your journey after all. But I am certain of this: I can think of no better Bearer for what was long entrusted to me, in all of Middle Earth, than you, Samwise Gamgee."
Leaning forward, Gandalf folded Sam in an embrace, and placed a kiss upon the hobbit's brow. He turned then toward Frodo. The Ring-bearer flung himself into the wizard's arms with a choked cry and squeezed him tightly.
"I believe you, Gandalf," Frodo whispered. "I know you do this willingly, as I go forward by my own choice… But that doesn't make it any easier, does it? Knowing what a dear friend will soon face, on your account…"
"No, it does not make it easier," the wizard muttered.
"If only there were some other way, for all of us..."
"I wish with all my heart that you and Sam could have been spared this task, Frodo… But as you cannot, neither can I avoid what is before me."
They released one another slowly, and each searched the other's face for a long moment before the wizard finally rose to his feet.
"You must ignore whatever happens, run across and climb off the road as fast as you can. Don't look back! Use the road as little as possible. Better to creep slowly through the tumbled rocks than risk the exposure of the paved way. Use your native hobbit craftiness to full advantage! You are quieter than any creature, save for Elves, and far less likely to draw attention to yourselves, in this place...for Orcs can smell the blood of Elves. But your scent they will not recognize, and it will not draw their interest as keenly. Remember that when you are motionless, your cloaks will conceal you from all but the most attentive eyes. And stay to the right while you are in Morgul Pass--always to the right!"
He reached down, picked up his staff, and turned toward them for the last time. Sam saw the silver mist floating about him, and his eyes gleaming in the darkness.
"There are no proper parting words, are there? We cannot say, 'fare-thee-well,' or 'good-bye,' for those words ring would false for the roads we three must take. Even the Elves greeting: 'May the stars light your path…'" He looked up at the bleak sky, thick with black smoke. "No stars seem able to penetrate the gloom above our heads. I can only say this: the knowledge that you two go on in your journey will give me the courage to do what I must. And perhaps the reverse will be the same for you." He looked into their eyes, and at last a faint smile played on his lips. "Until we are reunited once more, dear friends..."
He nodded once, and turned toward the Road. He began scrambling down the slope as quickly as he could. The hobbits followed close behind.
All too soon, it seemed, they dropped down off the rugged slope and onto the smooth paved way. As shades they appeared, had any eyes been there to see them. The great blocks of stone approached. The wizard hurried between them, and following the curve of the road, he veered northeast.
It was just as he had warned: Minas Morgul came into sudden view. Vast and tall, impregnable, her silvery walls smooth and sheer, her towers jutting skyward--the City of the Tower of the Moon might once have been a place of awesome beauty. But no longer. High windows leered like ravenous teeth, and the once shapely citadel had been altered, transformed somehow into something obscene. And from it came a sickly, greenish glow, wavering like ghostly candles blowing in the wind. Despite the wizard's warning, the hobbits could not help but stare at it in horror.
"Look down!" Gandalf said in a hushed voice. "Take your eyes off the Tower!"
They tore their eyes away and ran behind him, watching the surface of the Road, which had its own faint glimmer, and the flying hem of his cloak. A sudden gust of wind poured from the heights behind them, seeming to urge them onward. The pounding of their feet on the pavement echoed on the stones. The wizard stayed to the left, hugging the shoulder-high wall that bounded the path. He came to a gap in the barrier, and paused for a moment, looking up the steep and narrow way that led to the other pass he had warned them of: Cirith Ungol. To Frodo it seemed he hesitated, as if weighing, at the last, one terrible risk against another. Then he sped onward.
Imlad Morgul spread out before them. The waters of the Morgulduin hissed and grumbled; a dark, greenish mist curved upward from it. The hobbits gagged on the stench, and Frodo felt icy cold clutch at his left shoulder. A flat plain spread out beyond the stream, and upon it grew a carpet of white blossoms, faintly glowing and emitting the reek of rotting flesh as the hideous flowers tossed in the frigid wind.
The bridge was just a hundred feet away. The span was wide and short, and at the head of each rail stood a figure carved in black stone. The Watchers were made in the fashion of a huge beast of some fevered nightmare, with outstretched claws, leathery wings, and ghastly heads with gaping mouths and leering, hideous eyes. The hobbits knew those eyes were carved of rock, and yet they cowered to hide from the Watchers' glittering gaze, so full of evil intent they seemed.
Gandalf signaled to them to stop. They huddled against the left wall, ducking down and out of view of the Tower of Minas Morgul. They stared as he approached the Watchers, his hood thrown down and his grey hair and beard blowing forward as the wind tossed it. He stood between the figures and gazed up, first at one then the other. Frodo thought he heard a growling hiss of hatred come from those immobile stone faces.
Suddenly the wizard raised the staff Galadriel had given him. A flash of red came from the gem in his hand.
"Leryanyë ho húta ulca, ondo Áule!"** he cried, and twin spears of blue-green lightning shot out from the tip of the staff. The bolts struck the Watchers, and they shattered; but in the same instant, a howling shriek rose, and did not fade even as the statues crumbled into fragments.
"Now! Run!" Gandalf hissed as he twisted his face toward them for a brief moment. They began to sprint, but he turned to the bridge and sped onward before them. He did not look back again, but crossed the span and veered east, onto the Morgul Road. Harsh horns blared from the walls of the City as the alarm spread.
As he came to the end of the bridge, Frodo took one last look. The wizard's pace had slowed to a determined walk. He strode forward, the blade of Doriath glittering with blue fire in his right hand and the glow of the staff of Galadriel faintly red in his left. An icy wind from the peaks above whipped the cloak about his legs. In moments, the Gate opened with a clang and a stream of dark figures rushed out to meet him.
Frodo wrenched his eyes away and followed a step behind Sam. They came to the fork and swung to the right. The way immediately began to climb, and before them the East Road to the Nameless Pass wound up in great sweeping curves. Harsh shouts, the stomp of booted feet and clamoring horns filled the air behind and below them. Sam rushed along the far wall that lined the road to the Pass. He spotted a broken gap. He leapt through it. Frodo jumped behind him.
Crawling now, they moved forward and up a steep, crumbling slope. They reached the top of a ridge and flung themselves over it, into the shadow below, heedless of how sheer or long the drop might be. They slid and tumbled and came to a halt in a small ravine, hidden in the darkness and out of sight of Imlad Morgul. Light flashed in the sky, illuminating the bottom of the thick dark clouds, and the sounds of thunder, the rolling of drums and the roar of harsh voices came from below them.
They had crossed the uncrossable bridge. They had evaded the sleepless eyes of the City of the Ringwraiths. Gandalf had made his terrible choice—and gave them their chance to get through. Frodo and Sam lay in the shadows on the rocky ground, clinging to one another as they tried to stifle the sound of their weeping.
**"I release you from this evil curse, stone of Áule!" (my attempt to translate English into Quenya.)
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.