It is so easy for them to sit and talk about taking the ring into Mordor. They have no idea, none, of how powerful the enemy is. Our men and women have dealt with him and his armies for long years. The unprovoked raids onto our territory. The cruel bloodthirsty orcs tearing our comrades apart limb from limb, or digging teeth into their flesh. The sudden appearance of an nazgul in the sky, with harsh screams that strike fear into the hearts of the bravest among us. And afterward, afterward... Having to tell a mother that her son wasn't coming home, though you did. Having another soldier step up to fill the place of the one who was lost. Making strategies for how we could hold our ground in the next battle, knowing full well that it is only a matter of time, as the enemy grows stronger and we grow weaker. Wishing we had the strength to storm their fortress, to stop them once and for all.
Do they think we wouldn't have gone into Mordor if we could?
One does not simply walk into Mordor, I say aloud. They have not heard the tales I have, of men who have wandered past the borders. They have not heard of the rocks that are so difficult to cross, of the bogs where strange things hide in the mist, of the dead who call to you. And worse, unnameable things that lie beyond. Orcs, even nazgul, are not the worst travelers to Mordor have to deal with.
I see the contempt in his eyes, the Ranger from the north. He dwells in the forests and fraternizes with the Elves -- what does he know of the horrors with which we deal?
He is the heir of Isildur, they say, this Ranger. How do we know that’s true? And what if it be true? He hasn't visited Gondor, at least not since I was a child, or I would have known. He has spent all his life up in the North, as far away from us as he could get, as safe a distance from Mordor as you like. He has never cared to find out how we survive, there in the shadow of the tower.
Gondor has no king. Gondor needs no king.
We have kept Gondor safe, my father and my brother, who even now fights off marauding orcs, my men who have fought so bravely alongside us, and I. All of us inside the city have leapt to its defense, have rebuilt walls and healed the wounded and carried the dead on our shoulders.
These men and elves, this wizard and dwarf, these hobbits, they have not cared about the evil of Mordor as long as we were containing it. No one sent aid or thanks, arms or medicine. But now that the evil is growing and their corners of the world are not safe, they want to fight it. They do not even want to listen to me, who lives closest to the enemy and knows most about fighting him, who knows most about the ways into Mordor.
Give the ring to me, I say. They clearly have no idea what to do with it. These fools who cower so far away and do nothing but talk. We have guarded the borders of Mordor for so long, have stopped the evil from spilling out and claiming all the land. And we can't do this much longer. If this Ring makes the enemy powerful, do we not have the right to use it against them?
But no, of course they won’t. It doesn't matter that I know more about this than anyone else. I am too strong, and I am not one of them. I am not an Elf, or a King. I am but a leader of soldiers, a general who can fight. I am but the son of a Steward.
But these four halflings are brave. Or stupid. But in Gondor, we do not suffer the stupid to die. I will go with them and show them the way, and protect them as far as I might. And if death comes, I can ease their way, make it swift and painless.
I will go with the Hobbits, and the Elf, and the Dwarf, and the Wizard, and the Ranger. I will follow if I cannot lead.
The Wizard speaks in riddles. The Dwarf is surly and suspicious. The Ranger is lofty and aloof. The Elf also. The Hobbit who carries the ring seems weighed down by his burden. He looks so sad and alone even though we are constantly around him. The other Hobbit, Sam, tries to cheer him up, but looks worried when Frodo isn't looking.
The last two Hobbits are full of fun and laughter. I have taken to walking with them -- it seems more like I’m among my own men. In this grim company, we are the only ones who seek refuge in jokes. Just as I suspect sometimes no one wanted me on this quest, I suspect no one wanted them either. But if they know it, they don't let it bother them. I laugh at their antics, at their tales of the Shire, which seems far removed from any reality I have ever lived. When all this is over, I tell them, I’d like to visit. After a lifetime of war, it seems that a month or two of feasting and gardening and smoking pipe weed would be a fitting holiday.
It strikes me that I am closest in age to the hobbits. The Wizard is old and he has lived a great many lifetimes. The Dwarf, I know not how old he is, but he is not young. The Elf of course is near immortal, and though his skin is smooth and golden, he might be older than the Wizard. Aragorn looks not much older than me, but from some things he’s let slip and from a little I overheard when he was talking to Gandalf this morning, he was in great battles over fifty years ago.
The Hobbits too, are not so young as they look and act -- except for Frodo, whose gravity bears the mark of more than mere years. Merry and Pippin have lived nearly as long as I. They are like brothers, those two. They remind me of Faramir and I, when we are at our games -- which has been rare in recent years. Maybe it was this -- this and the thought that we might soon encounter battle -- that prompted me to offer them a few fencing lessons. They took to it with pleasure. They are not strong, but they are fast, and they work together without need for words. Quickly, they tripped up first me, then Aragorn, and overpowered us. They would not do badly in a fight. If only they didn't have to go up against beings much bigger and more numerous than they.
As I spend more days with our little company, I begin to like them more. Aragorn, I realize I misjudged. He is brave and has seen battle, and is a good leader. I would trust him to have my back in a fight. I see a wisdom in him that I have not yet learned, and fear my father never had. Maybe it would not be such a bad thing to have him as my king. If both of us live that long.
The Wizard is wise, except that he treats me with little respect. This rankles at me, I who am beloved by my people. But in the company of a King and an Elf and a ring-bearer, what rank does a mere son of a Steward have? Being around Gandalf and Aragorn and Legolas reminds me of the moment I first found out that my father was Steward, not King. That while most of Gondor respected him, some longed for the Kings to return. I remembered what my childhood friend, older and bigger than I, had spat at me when I first ousted him in a fight -- “have you built up your strength by cleaning up Gondor’s filth, son of Stewards?”
I never told my father, and we remained friends, that boy and I. He wasn't higher-born than me, but his family believed that the King would return. That my father and my brother and I were but caretakers, inadequate placeholders. I forgave him -- he was a child, after all -- but since then, I trained harder than ever. I couldn't change my birth, but I would not lose a fight.
It wasn't just personal, my anger at this mythical godlike King who would return and make things right again. I overheard whispers sometimes when I was out in the city. “Things will be better when we have a king again.” “Orcs wouldn't dare touch us if we had a king.” “What is the point in making plans? Gondor will only return to glory when the King returns to us.”
“No!” I wanted to shout. “We will bring back Gondor’s glory! We will protect our city! Stop waiting for a dead tree to bloom!”
Most of the time, I didn't believe there was a king. The line must have died out long ago. Sometimes I believed, and it made me angry. If we had a King who could fix all this, who could lead us to victory, could keep our people from dying, why wasn't he here? If he cared at all, wouldn't he come?
And here is Aragorn, strong and wise and with such sadness in his eyes. But I am trying to hold on to my anger, because if I let go, I’m afraid of what I will find in its stead.
I think of my father, old, proud, unreasonable, and so unfair to my brother with his open face and true heart. Yet I do not blame my father for his exaggerated fears, for I find a shadow of them in myself. I think of Faramir, and wish my father had allowed him to come in my stead. He would have been better at this than me -- at diplomacy and patience and planning. I have always solved my problems with my fists -- or my sword.
We lose the Wizard in the caves. He dies a hero’s death, giving the rest of us the chance we needed to escape. We pull the Hobbits away as they stand frozen or actively resist. Gandalf was the most powerful and wise of us all: it is hard to believe that he fell.
Aragorn urges us on. “Give them a moment to grieve,” I say in anger that hides my sorrow, pointing at the Hobbits though my own eyes are wet. But Aragorn is right, we have no time. We have to move on to safety.
There are no more jokes, no stories. We look away from each other and wipe our tears quickly. We move on, a sad, weary company. If the task seemed fearsome before, it seems impossible now. But we go on, for what else can we do? The Uruk-hai follow close at our heels.
We stop for food, and I go for firewood. I see Frodo, and walk over to try and comfort him. I have seen how he is mourning the death of his friend. I reach out clumsily, but my words change. The power of the Ring has me in thrall. I picture the triumph on my father’s face as he wields it. I see Gondor strong and whole again, our people safe.
“Give me the Ring,” I say.
It is when Frodo disappears that the spell breaks, and I am left with the memory of the horror on his face.
What have I done? I have chased Frodo away, perhaps towards danger. His sword glowed blue, signalling that orcs are around.
I have to find him before they do.
I soon find Merry and Pippin, beset by orcs. I reach for my sword and cut a path to my friends. I stand before them as more orcs come.
I lift my horn and blow for help. We need Legolas’ bow, Gimli’s axe, Aragorn’s sword. My blade is sharp and I am quick, and the boys use their daggers well on the few orcs who get past me. But the more we cut down, the more keep coming at us. If they overpower me, they will have my friends.
My shoulder stings. An arrow. I cannot let it slow the swing of my arm. Another arrow, and then quickly, a blow to my leg. There are too many orcs, too many swords, too many arrows. I look around and see the boys carried up on orc shoulders. I slash harder, willing myself to fight through to their side. But there are too many, and now I am too weak. My whole body burns with pain.
When I look around again, I cannot see them anymore. My friends are taken. I slash viciously again, but my strength fails, and I fall to my knees. Still no sign of Aragorn or Legolas. My Hobbits are gone, then, to painful deaths. I hope Frodo had time to escape. I hope Middle-earth isn't lost.
And Gondor. I kneel there looking up at the trees and the sky, with orcs surrounding me, and I think of home.