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“I do not think the wood feels evil, whatever tales may say,” said Celeborn. He stood under the eaves of the forest as dawn began to break on the eastern horizon, stooping forward, as if he were listening, and peering with wide eyes into the shadows. “No, it is not evil; or what evil is in it is far away. I catch only the faintest echoes of dark places where the hearts of the trees are black. There is no malice near us; but there is watchfulness, and anger. It is old, very old. So old that almost I feel young again. It is old and full of memory. I could have been happy here, if I had come in days of peace.”
“I daresay you could,” said Glorfindel. “And perhaps one day we may return to this place once all this has passed. But I will not discount the tales we have heard tell of this place in Rivendell. Evil there may not be, but I too can feel the anger and hurt. We ought to be cautious for we have not heard what has become of the shepherds of the trees in many centuries. But we have no time to waste, for it ever slips from our fingers. Let us go!”
And with that the two elves plunged into the eaves of Fangorn, initially following a small stream that ran by where they entered the trees. They came at length to a rock-wall before them, the fragment of some long root thrust out by the distant mountains. No trees grew on it, and the sun was falling full on its stony face. The twigs of the trees at its foot were stretched out stiff and still, as if reaching out to the warmth. Where all had looked dark before, the wood now gleamed with rich browns, and with the smooth black-greys of bark like polished leather. The boles of the trees glowed with a soft green like young grass: early spring or a fleeting vision of it was about them.
In the face of the stony wall there was something like a stair: natural perhaps, and made by the weathering and splitting of the rock, for it was rough and uneven. High up, almost level with the tops of forest-trees, there was a shelf under a cliff. Nothing grew there but a few grasses and weeds at its edge, and one old stump of a tree with only two bent branches left: it looked almost like the figure of some gnarled old man, standing there, blinking in the morning-light.
“Let us go up and look about us!” said Glorfindel. “I will feel my breath short. I should like to taste a freer air for a while.” The pair climbed up. Celeborn came last, moving slowly: he was scanning the surrounding trees closely.
On reaching the summit, he turned to Glorfindel, “I cannot see any signs of the enemy, we should be safe to talk here.” Before the elf-lord could respond, Celeborn faced the gnarled old tree and bowed with his heart on his chest. “Greetings Fangorn Eldest, it has been too long since last we spoke. And though the cause for our meeting may be evil, I am glad off it that it comes before the end.”
Glorfindel looked and saw that the gnarled old tree was moving, slowly and ponderously, as though stirring from a deep slumber.
“Hoom, hoom,” came a voice, low and melodious as a deep woodwind instrument. “It is long, long since we met by stock or by stone, A vanimar, vanimálion nostari! Much has happened since then, haroom. The world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost, and soon much more shall be also I fear. There is a storm coming, but I fear there is naught an old Ent can do, except weather it or crack.”
“That is why we have come to you,” said Celeborn to the great figure standing over them. “Unless something is done, a darkness will fall on the land, one even the Ents will not endure.”
“Hoom barroom,” said Fangorn. “Those are hasty words, young master Celeborn. We have endured much and more, and may endure many things yet after even the great Laurelindorenan passes into twilight.”
“May it be ever so,” Celeborn replied. “But I cannot foretell if that will be, and neither can you. As you have said, the world is changing. Sauron has reemerged and the Nine Riders have been sent abroad. Saruman the White, he whom we long held our ally, has set himself up as a power seeking dominion in this land. We know not whether Gandalf still lives, but it is thought he is held captive by Saruman in the dungeons of Orthanc.”
“Hm, hoom! Well, well! That is a bundle of news and no mistake” said Fangorn. “You have not told me all, no indeed, not by a long way. But I do not doubt that you are doing as you see fit. There is something very big going on, that I can see, and what it is maybe I shall learn in good time, or in bad time. By root and twig, but it is a strange business: two Lords of the Eldar coming to Fangorn. It has been a long time indeed since any of your folk openly stepped beyond the borders of Lothlorien, as you now call it. Events must be pressing for you indeed.”
Glorfindel made as though to speak, but Fangorn lifted his great hand in the air. “But even so, the Great Wars are the affairs of the Wizards and Elves and Men. I do not like worrying about the future. But Saruman, well, Saruman is a neighbour: I cannot overlook him. I must do something, I suppose. I have often wondered lately what I should do about Saruman. There was a time you know, a time when he was always walking about my woods. He was polite in those days, always asking my leave; and always eager to listen. I told him many things that he would never have found out by himself; but he never repaid me in like kind. I cannot remember that he ever told me anything. And he got more and more like that; his face, as I remember it – I have not seen it for many a day – became like windows in a stone wall: windows with shutters inside.
“And now you say he is plotting to become a Power. I think you may be right. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment. And now it is clear that he is a black traitor. He has taken up with foul folk, with the Orcs. Brm, hoom! Worse than that: he has been doing something to them; something dangerous. For these Isengarders are more like wicked Men. It is a mark of evil things that came in the Great Darkness that they cannot abide the Sun; but Saruman’s Orcs can endure it, even if they hate it. I wonder what he has done? Are they Men he has ruined, or has he blended the races of Orcs and Men? That would be a black evil!”
Fangorn rumbled for a moment, as if he were pronouncing some deep, subterranean Entish malediction. Celeborn and Glorfindel exchanged a glance, waiting for the old Ent to regard them again as he pondered almost half to himself and half to himself. “Some time ago I began to wonder how Orcs dared to pass through my woods so freely,” he went on. “Only lately did I guess that Saruman was to blame, and that long ago he had been spying out all the ways, and discovering my secrets. He and his foul folk are making havoc now. Down on the borders they are felling trees-good trees. Some of the trees they just cut down and leave to rot – orc-mischief that; but most are hewn up and carried off to feed the fires of Orthanc. There is always a smoke rising from Isengard these days.
“Curse him, root and branch! Many of those trees were my friends creatures I had known from nut and acorn; many had voices of their own that are lost forever now. And there are wastes of stump and bramble where once there were singing groves. I have been idle. I have let things slip. It must stop!” Fangorn’s voice had swollen into a thundering, and the trees nearby began to sway and shudder, almost in sympathy and agreement with it.
“I will stop it!” he boomed. “And you shall come with me. You may be able to help me. You will be helping your own friends that way, too; for if Saruman is not checked Rohan and Gondor and even the great Laurelindorenan will have an enemy behind as well as in front. Our roads go together – to Isengard!”
So it was that in the light of a fair morning King Eomer and Aragorn met again upon the green grass beside the Deeping-stream. There was also Meriadoc son of Saradoc, Legolas the Elf, Elfhelm, Marshall of the Mark, and Erkenbrand of Westfold, and the lords of the Golden House. About them were gathered the Rohirrim, the Riders of the Mark: sorrow overcame their joy in victory, and their eyes turned toward the Hornburg where Theoden had been safely borne.
Suddenly there was a great shout, and down from the Dike came those on foot who had been driven back into the Deep. There came Gamling the Old and the sons of Elrond comparing tallies of those they had slain. On seeing them approach, Eomer hailed them and Gamling hastened up to the company.
“Welcome Gamling,” called Eomer. “I am gladdened to see you alive still.”
“Hail, Lord of the Mark!” said Gamling. “The dark night has passed and day has come again. But the day has brought sad tidings. For I have seen the Knights of Theoden pass by in mourning going up to the Hornburg; and the King laid upon his shield, his golden breastplate rent and torn. Bitter is this victory, for it has cost Rohan all too dearly.”
“Bitter indeed, my friend,” said Eomer. “And there will be a time to grieve and to mourn our losses, and the passing of our greatest King since the Hammerhand, but we have not been afforded such luxury at this time. For we must now turn our attention to the viper behind this treachery, to lift up the stone from under which it has hidden itself and seek out retribution for its crimes.”
“The men are weary with battle,” said the Elfhelm; “and I am weary also. For we have ridden far and slept little and this night has been long and dark. And there are not men enough in the Mark, not if they were all gathered together and healed of wounds and weariness, to assault the stronghold of Saruman.”
“Then we must wait for him to gather his strength again,” said Eomer. “And then renew his assault on us tenfold. No my friend, we shall never have enough men. But Saruman shall never be weaker.”
“I will ride with you,” said Aragorn. “I should like to speak with Saruman if nothing else. And bear in your mind that Saruman expects us not, and is awaiting the return of his host triumphant. No, there would be no better time to deal with the traitor than now.”
“Your pardon my king.” Grima knelt before Eomer, holding the hilt of his sword toward the young lord. “My own treason has led us to this place. My failings and folly has caused you and Rohan much sorrow. I offer my life to you to begin to satisfy that debt. If you would allow me however, as your uncle did, I should strive to continue to undo my evil works.”
The men about them looked at Eomer, and it seemed to them as though Eorl the Young had been reborn and stood now before them, so great was his splendour and sternness. For on his face he wore wrath and compassion mingled together, as a benevolent father might have with a child that has gravely erred. Closing his eyes, Eomer King drew breath and extended his hand to the proffered sword, grasping it by the hilt.
“Your treason has indeed been grave, Grima son of Galmod. You know yourself I counselled our Lord Theoden for your execution, but he was wise and saw some means of redemption for you. Your efforts have proven invaluable in the survival of Rohan, and indeed even earlier on the eaves of Fangorn. Therefore I shall endeavour to prove as wise as our Lord did.”
Grima turned his eyes up to his king. “My life and sword is yours. Speak lord, and command me!”
“Your life is not required of you yet, though one day it may be. For I only forestall judgement, and do not pardon you of it. You were deep in Saruman’s counsel, and know Orthanc better than any of us here, is that not so?”
The son of Galmod nodded his assent. “I believe so my king. Many passages and hidden ways I do not know, but there are a few I can lead to. Ones that can bring us into the heart of Orthanc.”
Eomer nodded and drew himself up to his full height. “Then let all who hear beat witness. The treason of Grima son of Galmod is not forgotten, nor forgiven. But until such a time as I command it is to be set to one side. Consider him from this day until his judgement as a true-hearted man of Rohan, and treat his as such. And this is my command, join us in the assault on Orthanc, and any aid you lend us will not be forgotten on your day of judgement.”
Grima bowed his head. “I humbly thank you for your lordship’s generosity. I shall endeavour to see it not misplaced.”
Turning from the kneeling figure before him, Eomer turned to the captains assembled before him. “Let all able to ride with me rest now. We shall journey under shadow of this evening.”
The King then chose men that were unhurt and had swift horses, and he sent them forth with tidings of the victory into every vale of the Mark; and they bore his summons also, bidding all men, young and old, to come in haste to Edoras. There the Lord of the Mark would hold an assembly of all that could bear arms, on the second day after the full moon.
It took six of their strides to match one of Fangron’s, but Celeborn and Glorfindel did not flag as they followed the venerable Ent deeper into the forest.
Fangorn did not talk to them. He hummed to himself deeply and thoughtfully, but the elves caught no words they could understand: it sounded like boom, boom, rumboom, boorar, boom, boom, dahrar boom boom, dahrar boom, and so on with a constant change of note and rhythm. Now and again they thought they heard an answer, a hum or a quiver of sound, that seemed to come out of the earth, or from boughs above their heads, or perhaps from the boles of the trees; but Fangorn did not stop or turn his head to either side.
They had been going for a long while – Glorfindel had tried to keep count of the ‘ent-strides’ but had failed, getting lost at about six thousand – when Fangorn began to slacken his pace. Suddenly he stopped and raised his curled hands to his mouth so that they made a hollow tube; then he blew or called through them. A great hoom, hom rang out like a deep-throated horn in the woods, and seemed to echo from the trees. Far off there came from several directions a similar hoom, hom, hoom that was not an echo but an answer.
Fangorn strode on again, every now and then sending out another horn-call, and each time the answers came louder and nearer. In this way they came at last to what looked like an impenetrable wall of dark evergreen trees, trees of a kind that the hobbits had never seen before: they branched out right from the roots, and were densely clad in dark glossy leaves like thornless holly, and they bore many stiff upright flower-spikes with large shining olive-coloured buds.
Turning to the left and skirting this huge hedge Fangorn came in a few strides to a narrow entrance. Through it a worn path passed and dived suddenly down a long steep slope. The elves saw that they were descending into a great dingle, almost as round as a bowl, very wide and deep, crowned at the rim with the high dark evergreen hedge. It was smooth and grassclad inside, and there were no trees except three very tall and beautiful silver-birches that stood at the bottom of the bowl. Two other paths led down into the dingle: from the west and from the east.
Several Ents had already arrived. More were coming in down the other paths, and some were now following Fangorn. As they drew near the elves gazed at them in awe and wonder, for Glorfindel had never before seen any Ent other than Fangorn, and Celeborn had not met any this age. The Ents were as different from one another as trees from trees: some as different as one tree is from another of the same name but quite different growth and history; and some as different as one tree-kind from another, as birch from beech; oak from fir. There were a few older Ents, bearded and gnarled like hale but ancient trees (though none looked as ancient as Fangorn); and there were tall strong Ents, clean-limbed and smooth-skinned like forest-trees in their prime; but there were no young Ents, no saplings. Altogether there were about two dozen standing on the wide grassy floor of the dingle, and as many more were marching in.
At first Glorfindel and Celeborn were struck chiefly by the variety that they saw: the many shapes, and colours, the differences in girth; and height, and length of leg and arm; and in the number of toes and fingers (anything from three to nine). A few seemed more or less related to Fangorn, and reminded them of beech-trees or oaks. But there were other kinds. Some recalled the chestnut: brown-skinned Ents with large splayfingered hands, and short thick legs. Some recalled the ash: tall straight grey Ents with many-fingered hands and long legs; some the fir (the tallest Ents), and others the birch, the rowan, and the linden. But when the Ents all gathered round Fangorn, bowing their heads slightly, murmuring in their slow musical voices, and looking long and intently at the strangers, then Glorfindel saw that they were all of the same kindred, and all had the same eyes: not all so old or so deep as Fangorn, but all with the same slow, steady, thoughtful expression, and the same green flicker.
As soon as the whole company was assembled, standing in a wide circle round Fangorn, a curious and unintelligible conversation began. The Ents began to murmur slowly: first one joined and then another, until they were all chanting together in a long rising and falling rhythm, now louder on one side of the ring, now dying away there and rising to a great boom on the other side.
At last there came a pause in the Ent-voices; and looking up the elves saw Fangorn coming towards them. with another Ent at his side.
“Hm, hoom, here I am again,” said Fangorn. “Are you getting weary, or feeling impatient, hmm, eh? Well, I am afraid that you must not get impatient yet. We have finished the first stage now; but I have still got to explain things again to those that live a long way off, far from Isengard, and after that we shall have to decide what to do. However, deciding what to do does not take Ents so long as going over all the facts and events that they have to make up their minds about. Still, it is no use denying, we shall be here a long time yet: a couple of days very likely. So I have brought you a companion. He has an ent-house nearby. Bregalad is his Elvish name. He says he has already made up his mind and does not need to remain at the Moot. Hm, hm, he is the nearest thing among us to a hasty Ent. You ought to get on together. Good-bye!” Fangorn turned and left them.
Bregalad stood for some time surveying the elves solemnly; and they looked at him, seeing when he would show any signs of ‘hastiness’. He was tall, and seemed to be one of the younger Ents; he had smooth shining skin on his arms and legs; his lips were ruddy, and his hair was grey-green. He could bend and sway like a slender tree in the wind. At last he spoke, and his voice though resonant was higher and clearer than Fangorn’s.
“Ha, hmm, my friends, let us go for a walk!” he said. “I am pleased to have at last met two of the kin of those who taught us our speech. I am Bregalad, but it is only a nickname, of course. They have called me that ever since I said yes to an elder Ent before he had finished his question. Also I drink quickly, and go out while some are still wetting their beards. Come with me!”
All that day they walked about in the woods with him, singing, for they had more songs in common than even Celeborn had realised, and talking and laughing; for Bregalad often laughed. He laughed if the sun came out from behind a cloud, he laughed if they came upon a stream or spring: then he stooped and splashed his feet and head with water; he laughed sometimes at some sound or whisper in the trees. Whenever he saw a rowan-tree he halted a while with his arms stretched out, and sang, and swayed as he sang.
At nightfall he brought them to his ent-house: nothing more than a mossy stone set upon turves under a green bank. Rowan-trees grew in a circle about it, and there was water (as in all ent-houses), a spring bubbling out from the bank. They talked for a while as darkness fell on the forest. Not far away the voices of the Entmoot could be heard still going on; but now they seemed deeper and less leisurely, and every now and again one great voice would rise in a high and quickening music, while all the others died away. But beside them Bregalad spoke gently in their own tongue, almost whispering; and they learned that he belonged to the country where the rowan trees that had lived had been ravaged. That seemed to the hobbits quite enough to explain his ‘hastiness’, at least in the matter of Orcs.
“There were rowan-trees in my home,” said Bregalad, softly and sadly, “rowan-trees that took root when I was an Enting, many many years ago in the quiet of the world. The oldest were planted by the Ents to try and please the Entwives; but they looked at them and smiled and said that they knew where whiter blossom and richer fruit were growing. Yet there are no trees of all that race, the people of the Rose, that are so beautiful to me. And these trees grew and grew, till the shadow of each was like a green hall, and their red berries in the autumn were a burden, and a beauty and a wonder. Birds used to flock there. I like birds, even when they chatter; and the rowan has enough and to spare. But the birds became unfriendly and greedy and tore at the trees, and threw the fruit down and did not eat it. Then Orcs came with axes and cut down my trees. I came and called them by their long names, but they did not quiver, they did not hear or answer: they lay dead.”
The next day they spent also in his company, but they did not go far from his ‘house’. Most of the time they sat silent under the shelter of the bank; for the wind was colder, and the clouds closer and greyer; there was little sunshine, and in the distance the voices of the Ents at the Moot still rose and fell, sometimes loud and strong, sometimes low and sad, sometimes quickening, sometimes slow and solemn as a dirge. A second night came and still the Ents held conclave under hurrying clouds and fitful stars.
The third day broke, bleak and windy. At sunrise the Ents’ voices rose to a great clamour and then died down again. As the morning wore on the wind fell and the air grew heavy with expectancy. The hobbits could see that Bregalad was now listening intently, although to them, down in the dell of his ent-house, the sound of the Moot was faint.
The afternoon came, and the sun, going west towards the mountains, sent out long yellow beams between the cracks and fissures of the clouds. Suddenly they were aware that everything was very quiet; the whole forest stood in listening silence. Of course, the Ent-voices had stopped. What did that mean? Bregalad was standing up erect and tense, looking back northwards towards Derndingle.
Then with a crash came a great ringing shout: ra-hoom-rah! The trees quivered and bent as if a gust had struck them. There was another pause, and then a marching music began like solemn drums, and above the rolling beats and booms there welled voices singing high and strong.
We come, we come with roll of drum: ta-runda runda runda rom!
The Ents were coming: ever nearer and louder rose their song:
We come, we come with horn and drum: ta-rûna rûna rûna rom!
Bregalad went with the elves and strode down from his house.
Before long they saw the marching line approaching: the Ents were swinging along with great strides down the slope towards them. Fangorn was at their head, and some fifty followers were behind him, two abreast, keeping step with their feet and beating time with their hands upon their flanks. As they drew near the flash and flicker of their eyes could be seen.
“Hoom, hom! Here we come with a boom, here we come at last!” called Fangorn when he caught sight of Bregalad and the elves. “Come, join the Moot! We are off. We are off to Isengard!”
“To Isengard!” the Ents cried in many voices.
To Isengard! Though Isengard be ringed and barred with doors of stone;
Though Isengard be strong and hard, as cold as stone and bare as bone,
We go, we go, we go to war, to hew the stone and break the door;
For bole and bough are burning now, the furnace roars – we go to war!
To land of gloom with tramp of doom, with roll of drum, we come, we come;
To Isengard with doom we come!
With doom we come, with doom we come!
So they sang as they marched southwards.
Bregalad, his eyes shining, swung into the line beside Fangorn. The old Ent now took the elves back into his comapany, and so they strode proudly at the head of the singing company with beating hearts and heads held high. Though they had expected something to happen eventually, they were amazed at the change that had come over the Ents. It seemed now as sudden as the bursting of a flood that had long been held back by a dike.
“It would appear that your kin made up their minds rather quickly, after all, didn’t they?” Glorfindel ventured to say after some time, when for a moment the singing paused, and only the beating of hands and feet was heard.
“Quickly?” said Fangorn. “Hoom! Yes, indeed. Quicker than I expected. Indeed I have not seen them roused like this for many an age. We Ents do not like being roused; and we never are roused unless it is clear to us that our trees and our lives are in great danger. That has not happened in this Forest since the wars of Sauron and the Men of the Sea. It is the orc-work, the wanton hewing – rárum – without even the bad excuse of feeding the fires, that has so angered us; and the treachery of a neighbour, who should have helped us. Wizards ought to know better: they do know better. There is no curse in Elvish, Entish, or the tongues of Men bad enough for such treachery. Down with Saruman! But as for he himself, well, I have not forgotten his power. Indeed I have thought long about it. But, you see, many of the Ents are younger than I am, by many lives of trees. They are all roused now, and their mind is all on one thing: breaking Isengard.”
Fangorn marched on, singing with the others for a while. But after a time his voice died to a murmur and fell silent again. Celeborn could see that his old brow was wrinkled and knotted. At last he looked up, and Celeborn could see a sad look in his eyes, sad but not unhappy. There was a light in them, as if the green flame had sunk deeper into the dark wells of his thought.
“Of course, it is likely enough,” he said slowly, “likely enough that we are going to our doom: the last march of the Ents. But if we stayed at home and did nothing, doom would find us anyway, sooner or later. That thought has long been growing in our hearts; and that is why we are marching now. It was not a hasty resolve. Now at least the last march of the Ents may be worth a song. Aye,” he sighed, “we may help the other peoples before we pass away.”
The Ents went striding on at a great pace. They had descended into a long fold of the land that fell away southward; now they began to climb up, and up, on to the high western ridge. The woods fell away and they came to scattered groups of birch, and then to bare slopes where only a few gaunt pine-trees grew. The sun sank behind the dark hill-back in front. Night fell, and there was silence: nothing was to be heard save a faint quiver of the earth beneath the feet of the Ents, and a rustle, the shade of a whisper as of many drifting leaves. At last they stood upon the summit, and looked down into a dark pit: the great cleft at the end of the mountains: Nan Curunír, the Valley of Saruman.
“Night lies over Isengard,” said Fangorn.
Merry awoke with a start. He was lying next to a small dwindling fire by the banks of the River Isen, just a short way up from the Fords. The host of Rohan had halted there yesterday to rest one last time before they laid siege to Isengard, and, Merry suspected more importantly, to lay to rest the bodies fallen there during the Second Battle of the Fords. The wounds of the fallen had been washed, and a great cairn was set in the eyot of the Fords, with a ring of spears round about it. Eomer himself had laid the last stone, and declared: “Here lie all the Men of the Mark that fell near this place. Let them rest now. And when their spears have rotted and rusted, long still may their mound stand and guard the Fords of Isen!”
That night, sleep did not come easy to Merry. Too often did thoughts of Theoden’s fallen form creep unbidden into his mind. And when the golden king let him be, the faces of Frodo and Sam appeared to him, and he thought of how much worse danger they must be in, though it scarce seemed possible. When Merry finally did slip into a fitful slumber, his dreams were filled with fire and smoke and the piercing scream of the Black Riders. But it was not until a great howling filled the growing dawn that Merry awoke from his troubled sleep. He had heard that cry before in the foothills of the Misty Mountains.
All about him men were running to and fro bearing torches, leading horses and organising themselves into their eoreds. Merry looked to Aragorn opposite him, who smiled as he buckled Anduril to his waist. “Fear not Master Brandybuck. The howls of Hollin were hunting, whereas these wolves are in distress and seek aid one from another.”
“But what could be causing them to howl so,” asked Merry as he pulled himself to his feet and shook the dew from his cloak. “Has Eomer begun the assault?”
“If he has,” joined Elrohir, who approached with his brother by his side, “then he has kept it secret from us, which is unforgivable.”
“But he has not,” said Elladan, “so we can forgive him. It seems these howls have been heard across the camp and scouts report they come from the Vale of Isengard. Eomer King has called the eoreds to formation that we may come upon Orthanc before the sun.”
Once they had made ready to go, the host set out. A light came pale and grey in the eastern sky as they passed into Nan Curunír, the Wizard’s Vale. That was a sheltered valley, open only to the South. Once it had been fair and green, and through it the Isen flowed, already deep and strong before it found the plains; for it was fed by many springs and lesser streams among the rain-washed hills. and all about it there had lain a pleasant, fertile land.
It was not so now. Beneath the walls of Isengard there still were acres tilled by the slaves of Saruman; but most of the valley had become a wilderness of weeds and thorns. Brambles trailed upon the ground, or clambering over bush and bank, made shaggy caves where small beasts housed. No trees grew there; but among the rank grasses could still be seen the burned and axe-hewn stumps of ancient groves. It was a sad country, silent now but for the stony noise of quick waters. Smokes and steams drifted in sullen clouds and lurked in the hollows. The riders did not speak. Many doubted in their hearts, wondering to what dismal end their journey led.
After they had ridden for some miles, the highway became a wide street, paved with great flat stones, squared and laid with skill; no blade of grass was seen in any joint. Deep gutters, filled with trickling water. ran down on either side. Suddenly a tall pillar loomed up before them. It was black; and set upon it was a great stone, carved and painted in the likeness of a long White Hand. Its finger pointed north. Not far now they knew that the gates of Isengard must stand, and their hearts were heavy; but their eyes could not pierce the darkness of the dawn ahead and even Legolas could not see more than a hundred paces before him. “This darkness is unnatural,” he whispered to Aragorn. “It is as though the very shadow of the mountains wishes to conceal Orthanc from us.” Aragorn said nothing but Merry, who sat before him on Hasufel, tightened his grip on his blade’s hilt.
Now Aragorn with Merry rode alongside Eomer past the great pillar of the Hand: and as they did so, Merry saw to his wonder that the Hand appeared no longer white. It was stained as with dried blood; and looking closer he perceived that its nails were red. Unheeding, they rode on into the darkness, and Grima and then the host of Rohan followed.
Almost without warning the darkness gave way, as one might draw back a curtain Merry thought. And the sight before them gave pause to the eoreds of the Mark. For not three hundred paces before them lay the great doors of Isengard. Lay, not stood, for the doors were hurled and twisted on the ground. And all about, stone, cracked and splintered into countless jagged shards, was scattered far and wide, or piled in ruinous heaps. The great arch still stood, but it opened now upon a roofless chasm: the tunnel through the ring-wall was laid bare. and through the cliff-like walls on either side great rents and breaches had been torn; their towers were beaten into dust, though Orcs still scurried about on top.
And yet this was not the sight that brought the host of Rohan to a halt, for it seemed to them as a great forest was sweeping round Isengard from the north and east, as the tide round a castle of sand, and were now but two leagues from them to their right in the east.. The forest seemed to be receding toward that direction for he gates before them, that were at one time caught in the flow were now left adrift by the forest’s ebb. Within the great ring-wall the Rohirrim could see towering figures, like trees given life, who were coming in through great gaps in the north of the wall and laying waste to all before them, and the forest crowded in behind them. Merry sat agape as structures and buildings toppled before them as anthills before an angry child and wondered as what creatures these may be. Before he could turn and ask Aragorn, Legolas called out behind him in laughter: “See how the traitor has brought about his own doom! Fangorn itself has arisen against him!”
Eomer wheeled his horse around. “We must dismount, I fear. Our horses will not serve us within the ring-wall. Save for you Dunhere, take your eored and the rest of the horses and set a watch in the mouth of the vale. Let none who is not with us, be they orc, hound or man, pass you and still draw breath. Erkenbrand, lead your men west once we are through the gate. Elfhelm, you are to lead your eored east, but do not engage these tree-men. The enemy of Saruman is our friend, and we have no quarrel with them. Deorwine, take your knights with me, for we shall take Orthanc itself. Now let us go forth and fear no darkness! This day ends the tyranny of Saruman! Forth Eorlingas!”
Erkenbrand raised his black horn to his lips, and the sounding of it was met with a hundred behind him, and the Vale of the Wizard rang with the song of them. Eomer raised Guthwine and the host of Rohan surged forward down to Isengard. Raising their shields, they caught the arrows of those few Orcs left upon the wall and swept through the gatehouse and poured through the breaches in the wall. Rohan had arrived and the storm had come to Isengard.
The men of Rohan carried all before them as a river of steel. Their arrival was not unnoticed however, and hordes of Orcs issued forth from great pits in the ground to meet them. But the wrath and resolution of the Rohirrim was great. Passing through the gates, they formed a shield-wall and met the charge of the Orcs within head-on. Aragorn and Eomer fought together in the foremost rank, leading a wedge of soldiers forward as step by step the Orcs gave ground.
They had not gone far when a rumbling could be felt in the ground beneath them. Bursting forth from the ground came great geysers of steam, scalding man and Orc alike. “Saruman is turning his machines against us,” said Aragorn. “I fear this battle may prove costly.”
“There is always pain in removing the tick from one’s arm,” replied Eomer. “And yet it needs must be done. We shall see this matter concluded today, one way or another.”
Behind the forefront of the shieldwall, Orcs still shot at them from atop the ring-wall. Nudging his brother, Elladan motioned to the Orcs and the two made their way to the wall, clambering up the broken down sides with so great and graceful a speed the Orcs there were taken off guard and did not note their arrival. What neither the Orcs or the sons of Elrond saw was coming behind them, Merry sought to escape the press of men below.
Pulling himself atop the ramparts, Merry afforded himself a view of the battlefield before him. He saw Aragorn and Eomer at the tip of the wedge driving into the host of Isengard and heard them call encouragements out to those around them. Still pouring through the gateway came more Rohirrim, some circling round the flanks following Erkenbrand and Elfhelm, some clambering onto the walls to combat the archers there, and most followed their king pressing forward to Orthanc. A soldier called up to Merry, who bent down and helped him summit the walls. The man was not tall but broad and douty, with a short beard and keen eyes. He turned to face Isengard and survey the battle with Merry.
“The plain of Isengard,” he said. “I have seen it but once before, escorting Grima here on an errand. We had just survived an ambush on the Fords of Isen, though our fate would have been much less certain were it not for some unexpected allies. After coming so close to death, I thought nothing was so wonderful as these plains. And now, now even the memory of this has been tarnished beyond hope of recovery.”
“But see,” said Merry, pointing toward the tree-men on the far side of Isengard, “it is as though the forest itself is grieved also, and seeks vengeance.” Even as they looked, two of the tree-men set about the ring-wall in the northwest, tearing through it within moments, sending rubble flying into the air. As they worked, Orcs round about them peppered them with arrows, but the tree-men did not flinch. Rather they seemed only to be infuriated and plow through the wall all the faster. Within moments, a new hole gaped in the ring-wall and the tide of trees was lapping though into Isengard, led by a tree-man taller than any other yet within the ring-wall.
A harsh cry sounded near to Merry and his newfound companion. A fresh group of Orcs screamed and hollered as they charged the sons of Elrond, pushing the pair back along the wall. “Come my friend. It seems our blades are needed,” the man of Rohan said, and he turned from the broiling plains before them and ran to join the battle on the wall. Tearing his eyes away from the tree-men rampaging on the far side of Isengard, Merry drew his sword and followed.
Aragorn leaned on his sword as he allowed the front rank of the shield wall to push forward past him. The fighting was slow, for although the Orcs were undisciplined and had no great skill, they were numerous and desperate, and seemed to be directed by a greater intelligence. For time and again, whenever a fresh wave of Orcs ascended out of their pits they were always directed against the weakest section of the Rohirrim’s shield wall. But it was not enough to stem the tide of men advancing onto the scorched plains. Arrows began to fall from the walls, not into the Rohirrim as before, but among the Orcs, thinning their ranks as they were being ground back.
Another geyser shot into the air nearby. Once the locations of the vents became known, it was simple enough to give them a wide berth, as both forces did. Neither man nor Orc wished to risk the burns of the vents. Every now and then a fresh vent would open and send bodies into the air, but they would never get a second chance to claim any victims.
As the men on the walls began to claim more and more ground, so too did the men in the shield wall advance below them, until they began to curve round the flanks of the Orcs on the right and on the left. Arrows loosed from above continued to pick off Orcs reinforcing their comrades holding back the Rohirrim and slowly they were giving more and more ground. Seeing what needed to be done, Aragorn gathered a few stalwart men and raised Anduril aloft crying “With me, men of Rohan!” Charging forward, the line of Orcs, made thin by the fighting along the shield wall and starved by the arrows from the ring wall, bent and finally buckled.
As the enemy gave way, their courage left them and all gave way before the onslaught of Rohan. Striking down all in their path, Aragorn and Eomer led them across the plain, pausing only to cast down ladders back into the pits from which the Orcs had issued, severing ropes holding together walkways and gantries. The men could see a similar fate for the Orcs on the far side of Isengard, as the tree-men hurled great boulders down into the underground armouries and pits, crushing all yet therein. The heir of Isildur looked and marvelled as a figure taller than the Orcs, a man clad in black armour and wielding a long sword, rallied a band of Orcs with spears and torches and seemed to hold back the tree-men for a moment. But a moment was all it lasted, for a large tree-men, bristling and enraged with the shafts of a score of arrows, swatted aside the Orcs’ spears and grasping the man about the waist, flung him headlong into the nearest chasm. With that, all spirit left the Orcs and they fled screaming and crying out one to another. Isengard had fallen, but Orthanc remained.
Aragorn and Eomer took stock and gazed at the plains about them. Everywhere they beheld the forces of Isengard retreating, either to Orthanc itself or to breaches made in the wall that had since been left unguarded by the tree-men, though the newly arrived forest still darkened those paths. Fires were being kindled of Saruman’s machines by the Rohirrim, while the tree-men tore down whatever they could lay hand upon “See how the folly of Saruman is already naught but dust,” said Eomer.
Before he could go on, a shrill laughter echoed across the plain, bringing pause to all who heard it. “Dust you say, son of Eomund. And what of your own folly? For I see that it has yielded naught but blood.” A bolt of fire landed from above at the feet of the two men, sending them flying backward several feet.
On hearing that voice a great howl went up from the tree-men, as a mighty gale sweeping off the mountains, and many of them threw themselves at the obsidian of Orthanc. “Tree killer!” many of them shouted as their bodies crashed against the tower, desperately seeking to make any mark on it. Iron posts and blocks of masonry went rocketing up hundreds of feet, and smashed against the windows of Orthanc. Many of the tree-men had suffered burns it seemed to Aragorn, whether from the great vents of steam or from the flaming darts of the Orcs, and they did not seem eager to stray too near to those structures set ablaze by the Rohirrim. Their wounds however served only to fuel their wrath, and as the frenzy of their strikes on Orthanc grew, so too did the pitch and fury of their howls. A maelstrom went up in Isengard, with the tower of obsidian at its centre. But Orthanc would not yield, for it was made of a far older craft than Saruman’s, smooth and seamless. The tree-men were beginning to injure themselves in their fever, bruising themselves on the wall. One blow was so forceful that when it connected a dreadful crack ripped across the plain, and for a moment Aragorn thought the stone gave way. But that hope faded as with a cry of anguish and frustration, the great arm of the tree-man fell to the ground, shattered about its forearm.
At that the tallest of the tree-men drew himself up and let out a great call, rising above the clamour and dim of the battle, and there was silence. Naught could be heard save the crackle of flame and the hissing of steam. And then came again that laughter from above. But this time the tree-men did not burst out in anger, instead they became still and hard and cold, but their fury was still palpable to all who looked on them.
Grima hurried over with Merry and Legolas to Eomer and Aragorn, pulling them into their feet. “We will not be able to gain access to Orthanc, not by this way.” The erstwhile traitor had blood on his sword and a long scratch across his forehead, but otherwise seemed to have been unharmed in the melee.
“And now it is time once again for you to prove your loyalty,” said Eomer. “If you can guide us safely into Orthanc, you will have earned my forgiveness.”
“I cannot speak for its safety,” replied the son of Galmod, “but I do know a way into the bowels of Orthanc, and from there into its heart. We shall have to descend into the depths of these pits to find it however. Come with me.”
Eomer followed him, and Aragorn went also with Legolas and Merry following. They came to the mouth of a great open pit and without hesitating, plunged down the walkway into the depths below.
Glorfindel set Glamdring against the fallen timber of a collapsed gantry, wiping from his blade the foul black blood that had stained it. The assault on Isengard had been costly, though not as much as it might have been. The arrival of the men of Rohan had not been foreseen, and the fortress would surely have fallen without them, but their joint efforts had sped its downfall. Many Ents had fallen however, whether by the foul machines of Saruman belching forth fire and steam, burning several of the tree-herders beyond their endurance and driving the others into a reckless fury. The flaming darts of the Orcs had brought low a number of others, and he saw one, Leaflock he was called, that had advanced too quickly pulled down with grappling hooks and swarmed by those foul creatures bearing axes and machetes. His screams had been great and terrible, but none could get to his rescue for the press of Orcs carrying torches and spears had kept back even the stoutest of Ents. In vain they watched as their fallen companion tried to swat them away, but for every Orc sent flying away in broken ruin, another leapt upon him bearing wicked blade. Once the first arm was hacked off, there was nothing to be done and within moments the swarm had reduced his once majestic form to splinters and fragments.
That had incensed the Ents beyond reckoning, and the cries of Leaflock echoed in their hearts as the forest took their full revenge. Driving the trees of Fangorn with them, the Ents laid waste to the structures of Isengard. Their fingers and toes froze on to rock and timber and they tore them up like bread-crust. It was like watching the work of great tree-roots in a hundred years accelerated into a few mere moments. Any Orc they laid hand on was crushed as tin, and the Hurons treated them no better, for they had a great hatred it seemed for the Orcs, pent up over centuries and now being unleashed as a hurricane. No Orc that passed beneath their boughs reemerged into the light of day, and Glorfindel did not wish to ponder what might have become of them.
Yet all this was as nothing to what followed. For when the voice of Saruman called down from on high, up went the shout “Tree killer!” and the Ents had gone about Orthanc as pack of hounds, calling and baying, sending up debris and rubble to assail the tower as high as they could cast them. But it was not enough, and it took the restraining call of Fangorn to reign them in. Now they withdrew and consulted with him, considering what their next move might be, the elf-lord supposed.
“Well met Elder One!” came a call from behind him. Glorfindel turned and saw two figures clad in stained mail picking their way through the rubble to him, one having a long knife in his hand with its mate sheathed, and the other bearing a long thin sword.
“And to you, sons of Elrond.” With an undisguised delight, Glorfindel clasped the twins’ forearm in turn. “When last we parted I wondered if I might have the good grace never to see you again. But alas, the Valar have not blessed me so.”
“As for us, we have become used to going about our business without having to stop every day or two for you to recover in the Halls of Mandos!” came Elrohir’s reply.
“Besides,” joined Elladan, “we were dreading having to explain to our father how we lost you after just letting you wander into Fangorn forest. I take it this is your doing?” He motioned to the tree-men standing around Fangorn and to the trees still ebbing onto the plain through the various breaches in the ring-wall.
“I cannot take credit for this I fear,” Glorfindel shook his head. “I had supposed the Shepherds of the Forest had all passed into slumber. It was Celeborn who reached out to their Elder, that is Fangorn himself in their centre. And even his contribution was as the falling of a small pebble compared to the avalanche that was waiting to fall.”
“An avalanche indeed.” Elladan surveyed the ruin that was now Isengard. “I do not think any creature or device of Saruman yet stands.”
“But what of the serpent himself?” asked Elrohir. “We have not seen nor heard sign of him since he called down in mocking. Perhaps the wrath of the tree-herders has cowed him into concealment.”
“Perhaps”, said Glorfindel. “Though I fear it more likely he merely bides his time, waiting for a moment when he can do us most ill. Where are the rest of our company? I see them not here. Have they been lain low or do they yet live?”
“Last we saw they were whole,” answered Elladan. “Grima led them down into a pit to seek out a hidden way into Orthanc, but that was some half-hour ago. We have not heard from them either since then.”
“Then may the Valar watch over them.” Glorfindel looked toward the obsidian tower looming over them. “Who knows what treacheries they may face within the bowels of Orthanc.”
Merry huffed as he clambered up the black stone staircase. Other than a few Orcs who fled at their coming, the company had met no resistance save a tall man in armour the colour of pitch. Broken and bleeding was he, and his left arm hung useless at his side, yet he still fearlessly opposes the coming of Aragorn and Eomer King atop a great wolf, the likes of which Merry had not seen since the wargs attacked on the tree-crowned hillock in Hollin. But for all his courage, the lieutenant of Orthanc could not stay the wrath of the two lords of men, and as Anduril lay low his lupine mount, Guthwine cleaved his head from his shoulders and man and beast together crashed down in ruin before a small wooden door Grima then led them through.
Merry thought the staircase would never end. They had been climbing for what felt like hours, and with no windows set in it there was no sense of time or place. Grima has led the way, bearing a torch to light their way. Then followed Eomer and Aragorn, bearing their noble swords, then Legolas with arrow nocked, and finally Merry followed, clutching his dagger. Round and round they went, up and up, not daring to even breath over loudly for fear some unseen ear might hear and unleash all manner of devilry against them. Gradually, as the hobbit’s endurance was tested, those ahead began to outstrip him, and soon Legolas was an extra step ahead of him, then two and three, until finally the elf had passed out of his sight. But still he climbed, fear of the darkness behind driving him near as much as devotion to those going on before.
The hobbit paused on the stairs, holding his breath to better hear, for ahead seemed to come a dreadful clamour and clashing of steel and shouts, and rising above it all was a deep and sonorous voice sounding in turn wrathful and hurt, as though the speaker was wounded at the prospect of intruders invading the sanctuary of his infirmity. Though Merry was sure the voice must be coming from just a little way ahead of him, so deep and resounding was the voice that it seemed to emanate from the walls of Orthanc itself, beseeching him that if he were only to turnabout and leave its tennant in peace no ill would be done to him. On the brink of doing just that, Merry heard the cry of Aragorn reach him from above, and steeling his courage Merry pressed onward and upward.
On rounding the staircase another couple of times, Merry came to an unobtrusive doorway, so innocuous that had it not been left ajar revealing the room beyond it, he would surely have pressed on by it. For in the room beyond was a sight Merry would never forget in all the years of his life hence. The room seemed to be some manner of study, with books and scrolls piled on desks and arranged on great shelves encompassing the chamber, stretching far into its vaulted heights that Merry could not perceive. It was lit by a great high window in its side that opened out onto a balcony overlooking the desolated plains below, though many candles were glowing all about the room, and a small dark orb sat on a pedestal in its centre. Yet it was not the grandness of the chamber, nor the magnificent collection of knowledge contained therein, nor even the orb in its centre that held captive the hobbit’s gze, but the figure of an old man drawn up to his full height, arms outstretched and chanting in some ancient tongue long forgotten by even the lore of Imladris. In his right hand was an obsidian staff pointed toward Legolas, held frozen in place by its power, so that even the shaft freshly loosed from his bow stayed motionless in the air between the Elf and Istari. Saruman’s left hand, for who else could it be Merry supposed, was held with its palm open toward Eomer, who was struggling mightily with some hidden strength slowly turning his own Guthwine toward his exposed throat. Blood ran from his hand where the king tried to hold the blade from piercing him, and he cried aloud as it bit ever deeper into his palm. And directly before the traitor on his knees was Aragorn himself, not two feet from the wizard with blood coming from his ears, eyes and nose as he strove in his mind to keep the voice of Saruman from taking a hold of his will. Merry saw all this and was struck dumb with awe and terror at the beautiful dread of Saruman, whose robes shimmered as a rainbow in the pale noon light from the great window. His blade slipped from his fingers and clattered against the cold stone floor.
Though it was not done by design, that noise seemed to distract Saruman for the briefest of moments as his eyes flickered in annoyance and disgust to the hobbit standing in the doorway. Yet that was all the lapse Aragorn needed, and as the traitorous grip loosened he fell forward, piercing the leg of Saruman with Anduril’s blade. Down crashed the wizard onto of Isildur’s heir, screaming curses as he went, his staff rolling away from him under a desk. Even as Eomer collapsed with exhaustion from Saruman’s grip, Legolas’s arrow shot over the Istari’s head and embedded itself in a great tome open on a lectern behind him. Blinking through the red streaming from his eyes, Aragorn grapsed Saruman’s wrist and held his blade to the traitors throat. “Yield!” he cried, spitting blood as his did so. “Yield or I shall put an end to your serpent’s tongue for good!”
Saruman merely laughed. “Do it then, O Son of Kings. Do it and announce your reign with cold-blooded murder! You have me unarmed, my staff is gone from me. I am but an old man, pinned under your boot. Let us not be foes, Aragorn son of Arathorn. Ever has my service to your forefathers been ernest and in good faith. Should it not be again as it once was. Together we might rebuild the Kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor, with its great shining towers in Annuminas and Minas Anor. I could help you in this, give you council and wisdom in all matters. Does this not sound reasonable to you? Shall we not have peace, you and I together? Only let me live and I shall be your servant henceforth.”
To Merry the idea of Saruman submitting and binding himself to Aragorn’s service seemed laughable, but to his dismay he saw Aragorn pause. But it was for only a moment, and the ranger shook his head. “We shall have peace, when you answer for the crimes you have commited, when you give reason for the burning of the Westfold and the sacking of Rohan. When you hang from a gibbet, for the sport of your own crows, we shall have peace!” With that Anduril was raised and began its descent to the exposed throat of Saruman, and was only halted from its mortal purpose by a near-forgotten voice reaching him through his anger.
“Aragorn! My friend!” All looked, and there standing in a doorway opened up behind Eomer stood Grima, and leaning heavily on him was a haggard figure whose voice belied the frailty of his form. “Aragorn. In all your long years you have known me, have I ever led you astray? Then trust me as you once did.”
“Mithrandir!” Legolas gasped. And indeed it was Gandalf supported by Grima, though the many months in Orthanc’s dungeons had taken their toll. He was thinner now than any of them had ever seen, and weaker too, and yet Merry could hear an inner strength in his voice that Saruman had been unable to break. On hearing it, Aragorn put back his sword and rose to greet him.
“Forgive me,” he said. “Darkness had overcome my thoughts. But your coming is as the spring that follows winter. We had thought you dead.” Aragorn kneeled before Gandalf, and then overcome, he rose and embraced him.
“There is nothing to forgive, my friend.” Gandalf reassured Aragorn. “His voice would have been nigh impossible to combat had you been rested and at your full strength, and you have ridden far and fought much. Pray tell me, how is you are here?”
Even as Merry looked, the sound of Gandalf’s voice seemed as a wave buffeting Saruman, and all strength and vigour that had been in his fled, as though with Gandalf’s release went the last vestiges of his power. But as Merry listened to Aragorn recount to Gandalf all that had happened since the latter’s ill-fated return to Isengard, his gaze was drawn to the globe sitting in the centre of the room, and it seemed to him as though somehow it was silently observing them, and that strangest of all it was focusing in particular on him. Merry looked again at it and took a pace forward. The globe seemed to be made of crystal, dark, but glowing with a heart of fire. Merry stepped forward again and raised his hand toward it. The air suddenly became cold and heavy about the hobbit, as there was a stir in the heart of of the orb, and it held his eyes, so that now he could not look away. Soon all the inside seemed on fire; the ball was spinning, or the lights within were revolving. A voice came to his, as though whispered through water as he placed his hands both on its smooth surface. Suddenly the lights went out. He gave a gasp and struggled; but he remained there, clasping the ball with both hands. Closer and closer he came to it, and then became rigid; his lips moved soundlessly for a while. Then with a strangled cry he fell back and lay still.