Authors: Kirill Yeskov
The Last Ringbearer
© 1999 Kirill Yeskov, [email protected]
© 2010 Yisroel Markov (English translation), [email protected]
© 2011 Yisroel Markov (updated English translation)
The translator gratefully acknowledges the extensive assistance of the author in preparation of the first translation, and that of several readers in the preparation of the second one.
For non-commercial distribution only
The Tenseg Press
No indeed! We are not strong,
But we know Peoples that are.
Yes, and we'll guide them along
To smash and destroy you in War!
We shall be slaves just the same?
Yes, we have always been slaves,
But you – you will die of the shame,
And then we shall dance on your graves!
Never in the field of human conflict
was so much owed by so many
to so few.
“Gold is for the mistress –
silver for the maid –
Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade.”
“Good!” said the Baron, sitting in his hall,
“But Iron – Cold Iron – is master of them all.”
Mordor, Hutel-Hara sands
April 6, 3019 of the Third Age
s there a sight more beautiful than a desert sunset, when the sun, as if ashamed of its whitish daytime fierceness, lavishes a bounty of unimaginably pure soft colors on its guests? Especially good are countless shades of purple, which turn the dunes into a charmed sea – don’t miss those couple of minutes, they will never happen that way again … Or the last moment before sunrise, when the first light of dawn interrupts in mid-movement the staid minuet of moon shadows on the lacquered hardtops – for those dances are forever hidden from the uninitiated, those who prefer day to night … Or the never-ending tragedy of the hour when the power of darkness begins to wane and the fuzzy clusters of the evening constellations suddenly turn into prickly icy crumbs, which by morning will rime the bronzed gravel of the
It was at such a midnight hour that two men glided like gray shadows along the gravelly inner edge of a sickle-shaped gap between two low dunes, and the distance between them was exactly that prescribed by the Field Manual for such occasions. However, contrary to the rules, the one bearing the largest load was not the rear ‘main force’ private, but rather the ‘forward guard’ one, but there were good reasons for that. The one in the rear limped noticeably and was nearly out of strength; his face – narrow and beak-nosed, clearly showing a generous serving of Umbar blood – was covered with a sheen of sticky sweat. The one in the lead was a typical Orocuen by his looks, short and wide-faced – in other words, the very ‘Orc’ that mothers of Westernesse use to scare unruly children; this one advanced in a fast zigzagging pattern, his every movement noiseless, precise and spare, like those of a predator that has sniffed prey. He had given his cloak of bactrian wool, which always keeps the same temperature – whether in the heat of midday or the pre-dawn chill – to his partner, leaving himself with a captured Elvish cloak, priceless in a forest but utterly useless here in the desert.
But it was not the cold that bothered the Orocuen right now: listening keenly to the silence of the night, he cringed as if with toothache every time he heard the crunch of gravel under the unsteady feet of his companion. Sure, to run into an Elvish patrol here, in the middle of the desert, would be almost impossible, and besides, for the Elves starlight is not light at all, they need the moon … Nevertheless, Sergeant Tzerlag, leader of a recon squad of the Cirith Ungol Rangers, never relied on chance in his work, and had always tirelessly repeated to new recruits: “Remember this, lads: the Field Manual is a book where every jot and tittle is written with the blood of smartasses who tried to do it their way.” This must have been how he managed to lose only two men during the entire three years of the war, and in his own estimation he was prouder of that than of the Medal of the Eye, which he received last spring from the Commander of the South Army. Even now, home in Mordor, he behaved as if he was still on an extended raid on the Plains of Rohan; although what kind of home was it now, really? …
A new sound came from behind – something between a moan and a sigh. Tzerlag looked back, estimated the distance, and, dropping his sack in a flash (but so that not a buckle clanged), made it to his companion just in time. The man was slowly sagging, fighting unconsciousness, and passed out the moment that sergeant grabbed him under the arms. Silently cussing, the scout returned to his sack to get the flask. Some partner, dammit … useful like a doorstop …
“Here, drink some, mister. Feeling worse again?”
The moment the prone man got a couple of swigs down, his whole body convulsed with tortuous gagging.
“Sorry, Sergeant,” he muttered guiltily. “Just wasted water.”
“Don't worry about it, the underground collector is really close now. What did you call that water then, Field Medic, sir? Some funny word.”
“You live, you learn. Anyhow, water’s not our worry. Leg giving out again?”
“Afraid so. Listen, Sergeant … leave me here and make for that nomadic camp of yours – you said it was close, like fifteen miles. Then come back. If we run into Elves, we're both done for. I'm not good for much now …”
Tzerlag thought for a while, absently drawing signs of the Eye in the sand. Then he smoothed out the sand and rose decisively.
“We'll camp under the yonder dune, looks like the ground should be firmer over there. Will you make it there yourself, or will it be easier to carry you?”
“Listen, Sergeant …”
“Silence, doctor! Sorry, but right now you're like a little kid, safer under supervision. Should the Elves catch you, in fifteen minutes they'll know everything: how many in the group, where headed and all that. I value my skin too much for that … So – can you walk a hundred fifty paces?”
He trudged where he was told, molten lead rising up his leg with every step. Right under the dune he faded out again, and did not see how the scout first painstakingly masked the vomit, foot- and body prints, and then dug out a day hideout, quickly as a mole. He regained awareness as the sergeant was carefully leading him to the fabric-lined hole. “Think you’ll be better in a couple of days, mister?”
Meanwhile, a disgusting pus-and-blood-colored moon rose over the desert. Now there was enough light to examine the leg. The wound itself was superficial, but it refused to scab over and bled at the slightest touch – the Elvish arrow had been poisoned, as usual. On that terrible day he had used up his entire stock of antidotes on the seriously wounded, hoping for a break. There was none. Tzerlag dug him a hideout under a fallen oak in a forest a few miles north-east of Osgiliath Crossing, and for five days he lay there, clutching with his fingernails to the icy windowsill of life. On the sixth day he managed to surface from the purple maelstrom of unbearable pain and listened to the sergeant's tales, drinking bitter Imlad Morgul water, which stank with some unknown chemical (there was no other water in safe reach). The remnants of the South Army, bottled up in Morgul Gorge, had laid down their arms, and the Elves and the Gondorians drove them somewhere beyond the Anduin; a crazed
from the defeated Harad battalion had trampled his field hospital, wounded and all, into bloody pulp; it looked like there was nothing else to save there and it was time to head home, to Mordor.
They got started on the ninth night, as soon as he could walk. The scout chose to use the Cirith Ungol pass, figuring that not even a mouse could make it by the Ithilien highway now. The worst part was that he hadn't figured out his poisoning (some poison expert!): by the symptoms it looked to have been something new, from the most recent Elvish developments. His medicine box was almost empty anyway. On the fourth day the sickness came back at the most inopportune time, right when they were slipping by the freshly built military camp of the Western allies at the foot of Minas Morgul. For three days they had to hide out in the ominous ruins there, and on the third evening the sergeant whispered to him in surprise: “Your hair's going white, mister!” The most likely culprit here was not the mythical undead keepers of the ruins, but the quite real gallows erected by the victors on the side of the road some twenty yards from their hideout. The six corpses in tattered Mordorian uniforms (a large sign informed in fine Elvish runes that these were “war criminals”) had attracted the entire raven population of the Mountains of Shadow to a feast, and this sight will probably haunt his dreams to the end of his days.
Tonight's bout was the third. Shaking with fever, he crawled into the fabric-lined hole, and once again thought: how must Tzerlag be doing, in his Elvish rag? Some time later the scout slipped into the hideout; water gurgled quietly, once, in one of his flasks, then sand dribbled down from the ceiling – the Orocuen was masking the entry hole from the inside. The moment he rested, like a child, against that reliable back, cold, pain and fear began to slip away, and a calm certainty that the crisis was over came from somewhere. Now I only need to get some sleep, and I'll stop being a burden to Tzerlag … just some sleep …
“Haladdin! Hey, Haladdin!”
Who is that calling me? And how did I come to be in Barad-dúr? All right, let it be Barad-dúr …
ifty miles east from the Orodruin volcano, where the light-minded babbling brooks originating from the snows of the Ash Mountains turn into staid, respectable canals and then subside quietly into the pulsing heat of the Mordor plain, lies the oasis of Gorgoroth. For ages they would gather two annual crops of cotton, rice, dates and grapes here, while the handiwork of local weavers and weapon-makers was prized throughout Middle Earth. Of course, the nomadic Orocuens have always looked with scorn on their tribesmen who chose the life of a farmer or a craftsman: everybody knows that the only occupation worthy of a man is cattle-breeding; that is, if you don't count robbing caravans. This attitude, however, had never prevented them from regularly driving their flocks to the markets of Gorgoroth, where the sweet-talking Umbarian merchants who quickly came to dominate all local trade would invariably fleece them. Those crafty fellows, ever ready to risk their heads for a handful of silver, drove their caravans throughout the East, not spurning either slave trade or smuggling, or even plain robbery, when convenient. However, their main source of income had always been the export of rare metals, mined in abundance from the Ash Mountains by the stocky unsmiling Trolls – unrivaled miners and smelters, who later monopolized all stonemasonry in the Oasis, too. Life side by side had long trained the sons of all three peoples to eye the neighbors' daughters with more interest than their own, to make fun of each other (“An Orocuen, an Umbarian, and a Troll walk into a bar …”), and to defend the Ash Mountain passes and the Morannon against the Western barbarians together.
This, then, was the yeast on which Barad-dúr rose six centuries ago, that amazing city of alchemists and poets, mechanics and astronomers, philosophers and physicians, the heart of the only civilization in Middle Earth to bet on rational knowledge and bravely pitch its barely adolescent technology against ancient magic. The shining tower of the Barad-dúr citadel rose over the plains of Mordor almost as high as Orodruin like a monument to Man – free Man who had politely but firmly declined the guardianship of the Dwellers on High and started living by his own reason. It was a challenge to the bone-headed aggressive West, which was still picking lice in its log ‘castles’ to the monotonous chanting of scalds extolling the wonders of never-existing Númenor. It was a challenge to the East, buckling under the load of its own wisdom, where Yin and Yang had long ago consumed each other, producing only the refined static beauty of the Garden of Thirteen Stones. It was also a challenge to certain others, for the wry intellectuals of the Mordor Academy, unbeknownst to them, had come right up to the line beyond which the growth of their power promised to become both irreversible and uncontrollable.
… And Haladdin was walking the streets he had known since childhood – from the three worn stone steps of his parents' house in the cul-de-sac behind the Old Observatory, past the plane trees of the King’s Boulevard, which ends at the ziggurat with its Hanging Gardens – towards the squat building of the University. It was there that his work had several times granted him a moment of the highest happiness known to man: when you hold like a hatchling in the palm of your hand a Truth so far revealed only to you, and it makes you richer and more magnanimous than all the rulers of the world … And a bottle of fizzy Núrnen wine was making rounds to the din of many voices, foam sliding down the sides of mismatched mugs and glasses to the merry oaths of the drinkers, and the entire April night was still ahead, with its unending arguments over science, poetry, cosmology, and science again … And Sonya was looking at him with those enormous dry eyes – only the Trollish girls’ eyes sometimes have this fleeting shade of color – dark gray? transparent brown? – and making a valiant effort to smile: “Halik, dear, I don’t want to be a burden” – and he wanted to cry from the tenderness overflowing his soul.