Chapter 13: And Then There Were Nine
When I was human, my running coach once jokingly boasted that I could have outrun a Mongol horde if I was motivated enough. I'd laughingly replied that he only said that because he was the one who'd trained me.
But it ain't boasting if it's true.
I'd been fast as a human.
But as an elf, I reckon I could have given an Olympic sprinter a run for their money, literally. Especially with an army of howling blood-thirsty goblins snapping at our heels.
Like there were right now. There were hundreds of them. Maybe thousands. It was impossible to tell in the near pitch darkness. Where there was enough light to see them coming up through holes in the floor, and crawling out of cracks high in the ceiling like spiders. Spiders with swords, knives, spears, and other various implements of nastiness.
We ran fast. We just weren't fast enough.
Gandalf's staff light shone on the path through the Dwarrodelf halls ahead of us. They were already there, waiting for us.
I'd been flying ahead of the others in a sprint just behind Gandalf when Aragorn suddenly seized me by the wrist, jerking me back behind him and Boromir. One of the goblins made a snarling grab for my hair, but Gimli clobbered it in the face with the pommel of his axe, snarling back just as viciously. They were everywhere now, forming a hissing, snarling circle around us like wolves boxing in wounded cattle. The hobbits had been pushed back behind us into the centre of our little cluster. They were trembling almost more than me as they held their short swords, ready to fight their way free if they had to. Not that that looked like a viable option. With how many there were now, and with how hungry they looked, I estimated we might make it fifty feet before something hideous and screeching cut us into sashimi.
Something deep and booming, so low pitched it was almost inaudible, rumbled through the cracked stone floor. The cavern went abruptly, eerily silent. All the shrieking and howling of the goblins stopped, and I saw a couple of them look suddenly and very nervously at each other over Boromir's shoulder.
The sound came again. Louder this time.
'Ok, I take it back.' I murmured quietly inside my head. 'That was definitely not a good sound.'
Another low rumble rattled stones on the floor near our feet. A huge shadow moved somewhere in the darkness, followed by a dim glowing orange light appearing not far off through the forest of pillars.
'We need to run, boss!' Tink's voice suddenly rang franticly through my mind. 'We can't handle this! Not yet!'
I'd almost started adjusting to the feeling of the fear pulsing through me. But the panicked sound in Tink's voice redoubled the feeling until I had to fight the urge to literally run for my life.
'… What is that thing?'
'Pray we don't get to find out.' Her voice was very near panic, whispering at me as if she was afraid it might hear her if she spoke too loud within vaults of my mind. 'For sod sake, Eleanor, we need to run! Now!'
The goblins clearly thought that was a splendid idea, because they all gave collective shrieks of terror and began falling back, scurrying back down the cracks and holes in the stone from whence they'd come. Gimli gave a deep rumbling growl of satisfaction next to me, but icy dread had started pooling in my belly again. Whatever it was that had scared the goblins away, I didn't think it was anything we should be pleased about.
I tried to think back to what I'd read at this part of the book, to what could possibly have frightened Tink so much.
Tink — my personified primal instinct — who'd told me to use my fear as a tool. Tink, who hadn't been impressed with a bunch of orcs that nearly butchering us five minutes ago. Tink who I was beginning to realise knew a hell of a lot more about what was going on here than she was telling me…
But my brain had short circuited, too tired and too scared to think anything other than: Run! Run fast!
"What is this new devilry?" Boromir's voice came almost soundlessly from inches behind me. Before us, Gandalf had his eyes shut in concentration, listening to the rumbling sounds of whatever was coming for us through the Mines. The fiery orange glow far off in the darkened hall was getting brighter, closer, casting eerie shadows onto the floor as it passed the pillars of the ruined city.
"A balrog." Gandalf answered darkly, and the name hit home something buried deep in my memory of Tolkien's stories.
My mind conjured up memories of illustrated monsters, towering tall and formed entirely of inky blackness and flames, horns curling out of their heads like a caricature of a stereotypical demon. The mental image seemed ridiculous. Somehow I doubted the real thing would be anything as tame as that, and I didn't want to stick around long enough to find out.
"It is a demon of the ancient world. This foe is beyond any of you! Run!"
Now that was an idea I could get on board with.
We ran like your tails were on fire. And for all I knew, given the amount of roaring and rumbling coming from behind us, burned backsides could have become a legitimate concern.
It was like running through a nightmare, that long stretch of the mines we followed Gandalf though, dodging rubble and cracks in the floor until the glow of light appeared through a stone doorway just ahead. Gandalf herded us all in ahead of him, practically throwing Merry through when he stumbled and almost fell down.
I shot through and down the stairs behind Boromir. I almost slammed straight into the back of him as he screeched to a sudden halt. He stumbled and very nearly went straight over the edge into the fire-lit gorge that had appeared right ahead of us. Legolas appeared out of nowhere and seized him by the back of his cloak, yanking him back onto the stairs before he could do a swan-dive off the edge.
"Lead them on, Aragorn! The bridge is near!" Gandalf ordered behind us, pushing the ranger ahead of him. When Aragorn didn't react fast enough, Gandalf almost threw him bodily off his feet.
"Do as I say! Swords are no more use here!" He thundered.
Another boom rumbled through the stone stairs, followed by another menacingly echoing growl from a thundering throat. Like any of us needed a bigger incentive to keep running.
Down the stairs we went, fast as possible without tripping and falling into the bottomless pit yawning beneath the narrow walkways. Every so often the staircases would suddenly change direction, leading us further and further down until I wasn't sure if I was dizzy from vertigo, or literally running in endless circles. Halfway down, we hit yet another problem. A huge jagged gap in the walkway. It was a frustratingly ambiguous size — not far enough to keep you from thinking about jumping, but just far enough to make one little miss-step absolutely fatal.
Of course, that meant Legolas jumped it in one graceful leap like it was nothing at all. Even in a fiery pit of doom, I couldn't stop myself from hating him just a little bit for it.
Seriously, could he not be irritatingly perfect for just five minutes?
Another ground shaking boom rattled the walls of the cavern and stairs under us. Dust, stone and large pieces of shale started to break loose, tumbling down from the ceiling high above us. The balrog monster thing, was obviously getting closer, because it felt as if the air in the cave had started rising.
Gandalf went next. For a wizened old man, he was pretty light on his feet. He leaped the gap in one go, landing heavily but safely on the other side, with Legolas there to steady him when he stumbled on the crumbling stairs. I was about to take the leap too, when something shot past my cheek, flicking up a loose stand of hair as it passed. I flinched, feeling where it left a shallow cut across my cheek. Another almost caught Merry in the leg, and I saw it was an arrow as it bounced off the stone by his foot.
A look up showed us all that the bloody goblins who'd surrounded us earlier and then run away had grown their balls back. Only now they weren't coming after us with crude machetes and spears. They'd opted for just shooting at us from the platforms above with crossbows. Lovely.
Legolas drew and aimed his bow in a blur, and started returning fire while Boromir followed the jump next. Scooping both Merry and Pippin under each arm, he hurled himself over the gap from a running start.
"Sam! You next!" Aragorn yelled, barely giving any warning before picking the terrified hobbit up by the scruff of his coat and flinging him straight into Gandalf's arms. He turned to face me and Gimli. The dwarf gave him a severe look with a shake of his fist.
"No one tosses a dwarf!"
And with that wonderful mental image, he hurled himself over the edge. For someone so short and weighed down with so much muscle, he was shockingly good at jumping long distances. Not quite good enough to reach the other side unaided though. His boots landed firmly, but his body decided to stay behind, teetering backwards with his arms pinwheeling.
Legolas, in a moment of quick but unwise thinking, grabbed Gimli by the end of his huge red beard. Gimli howled in furious protest, but the blond elf ignored him, pulling him to safety.
The only left Frodo, Aragorn and me on the other side.
Another thundering boom shook loose even more debris from overhead. Frodo yelled a warning just in time for the three of us to jump back away from the edge as a stone the size of my head slammed down onto the spot Aragorn had been seconds before. It shattered the fragile edge of the crack in the stairs, making the gap even wider as we stumbled back to keep from falling.
If it had been a difficult jump before, it was verging on suicidal now.
As if it wasn't perilous enough already, another stone dropped and smashed through our retreat back up the stairs behind us. We were essentially left standing on a broken pillar, balanced precariously only by our own evenly distributed weight. And the goblins were still shooting at us.
"Shite, shite, shite!" Was my eloquent response to this development, trying to stay upright as the ground under our feet began to sway drunkenly. Aragorn's hand seized my wrist, steadying me, and I grasped his forearm in a white-knuckled flood grip. He grasped Frodo by the shoulder and leaned us against the roll of the stairs, trying to keep us balanced.
"Hang on! Keep your feet planted!" He shouted at us both, and again, I didn't feel any burning desire to disobey. The stairs tipped at a heart-stopping angle to the left before Aragorn manoeuvred us to counterbalance the weight, tipping us back to the right. I thought my heart was going to crawl up into my throat.
"Lean forward!" He commanded over the howls and shrieks of the goblins overhead. "When you're close enough, jump!"
He pushed both of us forward until we were all but leaning out over the edge. The platform began to tilt, falling forwards towards the over side of the broken stair case, where the others were there waiting to catch us.
Stone smashed against stone, and I jumped.
For once, I was grateful that Legolas was as inhumanly strong as he was. If he hadn't been, I'd have died right there.
The edge of the stairs crumbled and gave out from under my feet, and I felt myself dropping backwards. I screamed, and Legolas seized my wrist, pulling me hard towards him. My arm all but came out of its socket with the force. Something went whiz-thunk right behind me, and a dull pain suddenly appeared in my side. Then my face smacked hard against Legolas's chest as he pulled me back away from the edge. My head spun, my cheekbone throbbed where it had slammed into his collarbone, and I suddenly had the scent of cut grass and pine needles filling my nose…
How the hell did he smell so good? We'd been stuck underground for three days, yet he smelled like a bloody alpine forest after a summer storm. How?
It took a chaos filled second to realise he'd yelled a question at me over the noise, and I spluttered out a response before I could run it past my brain.
"I'll be fine… once I've thrown up."
One last deafening boom shook the entire cavern like the shock of an earthquake, and a crack the size of a city bus appeared in the wall where the door we'd come through was.
"We need to get out of here." Legolas for once sounded truly afraid, and he started pulling me none too gently down the walkway after the others.
"Best idea you've had yet." I wheezed out, all but falling down the stairs after him. He kept a firm hold of my hand as we ran down into the tunnels, the heat becoming almost unbearable. Finally we reached one final hallway, with a long narrow causeway at the end. Beyond that there was yet another stone archway.
But this one had daylight streaming through it. The way out.
Legolas turned and thrust me out ahead of him, forcing me to run with him and Gimli in step right behind me.
"Don't slow down." He somehow managed to keep his voice calm even though I knew he was running on just as much adrenaline as me. I probably had enough to power a small country by this point. I was very near pain with breathlessness and smoke inhalation, the heat in the tunnel building to something like the inside of a kiln. Just ahead through the heat haze, Gandalf was ushering the hobbits hurriedly across the narrow walkway after Aragorn and Boromir.
I flew after them across the bridge, forcing myself not to look down.
"Sodding dwarves! Who builds bridges this narrow and thinks its a good idea?!" I panted out through my scorched throat, trying to keep my balance while sprinting along the narrow causeway. Clearly the fear had at last fried what was left of my brain by then, because I started cackling hysterically at my own joke.
"Less laughing, more running, lass!" Gimli shouted from right behind me. I ran faster, but couldn't make myself stop shrieking with maniacal terrified laughs. The others had already started scrambling up the stairs towards the exit on the other side. But just as Gimli, Legolas and I reached the other side, I saw Frodo whirl to look back. The horrified look that appeared on his face made me look too. Gandalf had stopped right in the middle of the bridge. He's turned his back to us, facing straight towards the…
I'd been right.
The illustrations I'd seen of the balrog didn't even come close.
It was huge, well over 15 feet tall, but bizarrely that was the least imposing thing about it. It had taken on the shape of a minotaur, heavy and broad across human-like shoulders, but snarling furiously through the face of a savage bull. Thick curling horns protruded from either side of it's head, and where it's body wasn't entirely formed of thick smoke or wreaths of flame, there was nothing but utter blackness. It was like looking at the unholy offspring of a blackhole and a nuclear disaster.
And it had all it's wrath aimed squarely down at the comparatively tiny grey wizard.
Gandalf stared up at it with a look of grim but exhausted determination, staff in one hand and sword in the other.
"You will not pass." He told the huge fiery monster adamantly, as if he was shouting a fact of the universe, and not an obvious challenge. The balrog drew itself up to it's full height, it's shadowy wings spreading and the fire forming it's body surging in fury.
I heard Frodo call Gandalf's name in fear for him, but the sounds was almost completely drowned out.
Gandalf murmured something too quite for me to hear over the roar of the flames, and held up his staff as the tip began to glow, brighter and sharper than any star, forming a sphere of light around him. The light seemed to enrage the balrog beyond all sense, because it formed a flaming sword as big as a small bridge in it's hand and swung it down at the wizard. Somehow, Gandalf managed to deflect the blow with a combination of his sword and the light I know realised was acting like a shield.
He was keeping it from following us across the bridge — though it wasn't without it's cost. I could see the exhaustion on his face from where I stood frozen to the spot.
'He'll be ok…' I told myself, but I couldn't quite make myself believe my own words.
The balrog roared, and the heat of it's breath was something straight from the inside of a volcano. I lifted my hand to shield my face, seeing Frodo and Boromir do the same just behind me.
"Go back to the shadows!" Gandalf growled, his voice taking on the same furious thunder it had when he'd shielded us from Saruman on Caradhras. As if just to prove it could, the balrog took one thumping step onto the narrow bridge, another fiery weapon forming in it's hand. A whip this time.
A bull whip. Oh irony.
The balrog swung the whip in a horizontal swipe, just over Gandalf's head, the tip making a exploding crack and a shower of sparks against the cavern wall.
"You shall not pass!" Gandalf thundered — no metaphor intended — and slammed the end of his staff down on the bridge. A flash of light, and the protective sphere around him winked out, sinking into the stone bridge beneath their feet. A tag dramatic maybe, but one way or another I believed those words.
The balrog wasn't going to cross that bridge. Of that I was certain.
'He'll be ok. He was there later on, I'm sure…'
Tink didn't say anything. I couldn't even focus enough to feel if she was there.
The balrog gave another blast-furnace roar, and I felt the scorching heat hit my face from all the way across the chasm. My hands flew to protect my face, my eyes clenched shut, and the world spun like I'd stuck my head inside a washing machine on spin-cycle. The feeling was all too familiar…
"No, no, not now!" I heard my own voice cry as my stomach lurched. I already knew what was happening before there was another snap from inside my head, and the world came into focus behind my still closed eyes.
I could feel my cheeks were wet. My chest ached with the remnants of agonised sobs.
A cut crystal vial was clutched in my trembling hands. I was shaking so badly I could barely unstopper it. More tears spilled down my cheeks. The sharp scent of magic touched my senses.
I hesitated, the glass a hair's breadth from my lips.
I didn't want to. Eru save me, I wanted so badly not to. But what I wanted didn't matter anymore.
"They'll be safe." I heard myself whisper almost silently. I couldn't tell if I was speaking to someone else, or only to myself. Another pained sob wracked my body, but I felt grim determination bubble up inside me as my hand clenched on the vial.
"You can have me, rabê.* But you'll never have them."
I touched the vial to my lips, and drank.
A crash and a howl brought me back with a start.
I was slumped against the stone wall behind me, sweaty, trembling, and gasping for breath. I looked up just in time to see the balrog lunge over the causeway, straight towards Gandalf. Then half of the bridge cracked and crumbled under the balrog feet, and it fell straight down into the gloom of the chasm below with a screeching howl of fury. Gandalf dropped his sword arm to his side, his chest heaving with a heavy exhale of relief…
Then the flaming whip of the balrog flew up in one last slash, and caught around the wizard's ankle.
His foot was pulled out from under him, and he slipped over the edge, catching the broken side of the bridge with his weakened fingers. My breath caught in a tiny choked gasp.
"Gandalf!" Frodo yelled, trying to race back down the stairs to help him. Boromir caught him just in time and held him back, shouting something I couldn't hear clearly.
Gandalf pulled himself up just enough to see us all there.
His kind blue eyes met mine for a fraction of a second, and I was sure when he looked at me, he was really looking at us all.
"Fly you fools."
Then he was gone, following the balrog down into the dark.
Somewhere outside my own haze of shock, I heard Frodo scream.
I felt numb as we fled Moria.
I knew consciously that I hurt all over as we run and stumbled out and back into daylight, but I couldn't feel anything. It felt like years I'd been longing to see the sky again. But when the morning sunlight finally fell on all our faces, it did nothing but illuminate exactly what had just happened.
We'd lost Gandalf.
It didn't seem real. Like we were in some over dramatised scene in a play, and any second the short tempered but kindly old wizard was going to appear from the wings for an encore.
I collapsed onto boulder once we were outside and onto the foothills of the mountains, torn between gasping for fresh air and just throwing up everything I'd eaten in the past day. Sensation had finally start to come back through the shock. My throat was bone dry, my chest and side hurt like hell with a runner's stitch, but I couldn't make a sound. I didn't even realised I was already crying until the cool breeze turned the tears cold against the warm skin on my cheeks.
The others were no better. I could hear the heart wrenching sounds of the hobbit's sobbing, mostly Merry and Pippin. Sam, who was closest to me, had his face buried quietly in his hands, but his shoulders were trembling. Gimli was roaring with fury, trying to force his way back towards the tunnels, with only Boromir there to keep him from charging back to avenge our fallen guide. I couldn't see or hear Aragorn, Legolas or Frodo. I didn't even try and look for them — doing a headcount like I'd done whenever I was scared in the dark under the mountain…
I didn't want to count the heads of our company, only to count nine, when there should have been ten.
I just sat there, hunched over myself, crying silently for what felt like ages. I couldn't claim to mourn Gandalf like the hobbits did. In all respects, I barely knew the man. But he'd gone. The kindly old wizard, our guide, the only man who's supported my joining the Fellowship in the first place… the only one of our company who knew the truth about me. And he was suddenly just gone.
I didn't understand how that was possible. Every foggy memory I had of the trilogy told me that Gandalf had a larger role to play, beyond saving the Fellowship from Moria. He couldn't really be dead. He appeared later on in the story! I was sure of it! Or had I remembered it wrong all this time? Was he truly gone, and if I'd only remembered sooner I could have done something to stop it?
I was so tired and confused, I couldn't make myself think straight. My side was still burning with a stitch from running so hard, and probably inhaling so much smoke. Cursing through my silent tears, I touched a hand to my ribs, and froze at what I felt there…
It wasn't a runner's stitch in my side.
I pulled aside the outer layer of my tunic, and looked down to see the end of a black crossbow bolt about the size and length of pencil jutting out of the right side of my torso. It hadn't gone deep enough to hit anything major — thank God — or come out the other side, but it was still lodge in deep just under my floating rib. The wound was oozing a steady trickle of dark red blood down my side.
I just stared at it in shock, the realisation slowly sinking in.
I'd been shot.
"H-how…?" I breathed, looking vacantly down at it, "I barely even felt it…"
Then the actual shock finally hit me. My entire body went almost painfully cold, like I'd been suddenly dunked in ice water. My vision started going fuzzy around the edges and I had to fight to keep breathing steadily. It didn't hurt as much as you'd expect, I was still too jumped up on adrenaline for that. But the clammy feel of my skin and twisting feeling in my stomach was enough to reason that the wound was bad. Goblin arrows were often poisoned, I remembered reading that somewhere…
'Pull it out.' Tink ordered me — don't miss the innuendo there, all yee faithful perverts.
'No,' I answered silently feeling myself going pale, 'The head is probably barbed. If I try and take it out myself, I'll just bleed out.'
'And if you don't, the poison will spread to your heart.'
'Or it might not be poisoned at all!' I insisted, though I knew I wasn't fooling anyone, least of all myself. 'I can't slow them down now. Gandalf said that Lothlórien is less than a day from Moria's east gate. If I can hang on that long we can get help there.'
I looked over at the others, keeping my body turned away to hide my injury.
Gimli had given up his outraged struggling in favour or slumping over in exhausted defeat. Aragorn had told Legolas to help get the others moving again, and he was reluctantly trying to help a still weeping Merry back onto his feet.
Keeping my wounded side facing away from them all, I took the arrow shaft in my left hand, and placed my other against my side to hold it steady. It hurt. I took a few deep breaths, held the last, and snapped the shaft an inch from my side. Pain fired up through the entire left half of my torso, and I had to bite hard on my cheek to keep from crying out. I hunched over myself, breathing deeply until the pain receded, pretending that I was doubled over with shock rather than side-splitting agony.
"Give them a moment, for pity's sake!" Boromir's loud voice suddenly came out sorrowful and angry at the same time, but I heard Aragorn meet his outrage with cold reason. He hid it well, but I could hear the sadness in his own voice too. He was just a lot better at masking his grief over Gandalf's loss than the other man of Gondor.
"By dark these hills will be swarming with orcs!" He replied quietly, sheathing his sword which was now clean of orc blood. "We must reach the woods of Lothlórien by nightfall."
Footsteps came towards me. I uncurled myself and looked up to find Legolas standing before me. A confused and pained look was etched on his features. The expression looked alien on his normally calm and self-assured face. He looked like a lost puppy. I guess death wasn't something he'd ever had to deal with this close up before…
Silently, he offered out his hand to me, and I took it.
I stood up, my legs a little wobbly, and my side still throbbing dully under my tunic. While Boromir and Aragorn had argued, I'd pulled the sash from around my waist, and subtly used it to bind around the broken arrow shaft, keeping it still, but also keeping it hidden.
'Don't be an idiot, boss!' Tink's voice came quiet and faintly pleading in my head again.'This is insane, even for you!'
Legolas led me to follow the others, his fingers only slipping from around mine when we'd fallen into step behind the still distraught hobbits. When no one was looking, I dug in my medical satchel and pulled out three small bottles from the bag. I gulped down the gritty substance that would help fight any poison already in my system, along with the last of my miruvor and the pain relief draught, hoping that it would be enough.
I said nothing, not in my head and not aloud.
Tink was right. This was insane, even for me. But all I could think about was the look on Gandalf's face.
Right before he'd fallen into dark after the monster he'd saved us from.
* "bitch" (Adûnaic)