The Vale of Minas Ithil
"Truly, Captain Bregolas, the tales of Minas Ithil and its fabled vale do not do justice to its beauty," said Curunir, a warm smile lighting his long, sable-bearded face, as he stared out an arched window of the fortress' Citadel Tower at the valley far below. The Tower itself, and the walls of Minas Ithil, were infused by some long-lost art of Numenor with the light of the Moon, and glowed softly under the stars, complementing the light flowing freely from the waxing Moon itself as it rose in the Eastern sky. The jagged peaks of the Mountains of Shadow were impenetrably black at this hour, and it was impossible to discern them clearly. But the pine-clad slopes of the valley rustled in the winds, and the mountain air was fragrant with their scent, mixed with that of the many fair flowers that carpeted the meadow of the Ithil Vale far below.
"So you say, my lord" replied Bregolas, a heavy-set man of medium height, with graying brown locks and hazel eyes, who had the resigned air of one who still fulfills his duties long after he has forgotten their purposes. He turned away from the window, and strode across the small marble-paneled room to his wooden seat by a fireplace that was cut into the wall of the chamber. Bregolas stoked the dying fires with an iron poker, to stir them back to life, and a warm glow suffused the room as he did so.
"And so say all who visit Minas Ithil for a brief time," Bregolas continued, returning the poker to its iron rack, and turning to face Curunir. "But I tell you, I would leave this place in a heartbeat if I could. In all the lands under the Crown of Gondor, only the watchtower of Cirith Ungol above the Nameless Pass to the East, and the towers of Carach Angren by the Haunted Pass to the North, are worse postings than this seemingly fair tower and its flowery vale."
"Seemingly fair?" enquired Curunir. He turned away from the window, and sat in another wooden chair by the fire that stood opposite the Captain, and by which he had left leaning against the wall his staff. "Why is it only seeming, my dear Bregolas?" His smile now seemed more cryptical than pleasant.
Bregolas frowned, and remained silent for a time, appearing reluctant to speak. "You have only been here for a day, Curunir," he said at length. "Even so, have you noticed how all the men of this fortress can always be found together? Clustering together during their watches on the walls; huddled together at the trestle tables when taking their meat in the Great Hall; playing together at the game boards, or resting together in their barracks. But never alone. No, never alone if they can help it." He shivered, though the early evening air was warm.
"And why never alone?" enquired Curunir conversationally.
"This is not a good place to be alone, my lord," said Bregolas. "Not a good place at all. Men have bad dreams here; foul nightmares, verily, and not a night passes without one of my men screaming in his sleep, awakening in a cold sweat. It is too quiet here, my lord, too silent. The walls themselves seem to be watching, listening, and it is unnerving to walk through the empty corridors or along the battlements by oneself. Laughter falls short here, as if it is unwelcome, and does not belong. Even yonder vale," he continued, gesturing towards the arched window, "is too silent and empty for my liking. If it is so fair, then where are the birds? For there is never any birdsong in the Ithil vale. And where are the beasts? You must pass west of this vale, to the Crossroads of Ithilien, before you'll find so much as a rabbit. Even the lesser creatures, the frogs for instance, where is their chorus, which would echo loudly throughout a spring night such as this anywhere else in Ithilien? Bees and other such bugs are the only moving things in this valley apart from my men and their steeds. Truly, this tower and its vale are oft as silent as a tomb. The only sound here is the accursed wind, which in the winter moans down the Nameless Pass from the Black Land to the East, and even that is a sound fit more for a graveyard than a dwelling-place of living Men."
He shuddered, and then his voice dropped to a whisper. "And that is not the worst. Despite the absence of birds and beasts, we are not alone in this valley. A dark terror dwells in the peaks of the Mountains of Shadow, between here and Cirith Ungol."
"A dark terror?" asked Curunir, frowning now. "Tell me more, Bregolas. I have read nothing of this in the records at Minas Anor. How long has it dwelt here?"
"Ever and anon, they say," replied Bregolas. "Even since the far-off days of Isildur. There are paths and stairs that scale the south wall of yon valley, and they lead to a cave that tunnel through the Mountains of Shadow, and so run by a shortcut to the guardtower at Cirith Ungol. To travel from here to Cirith Ungol otherwise requires a journey of many miles over the Nameless Pass, and then back again along the far slopes of the mountains. Yet that cave is a foul place. More than one man with an errand between Minas Ithil and Cirith Ungol has ventured in there, never to return. And even entire parties of men in the woods or rocks some distance beyond the cave have disappeared without trace. Ever since I took command here, some dozen years ago, I have forbidden the men of my garrison from climbing the stairs to the cave, or venturing into the pine forests in the southern half of the Ithil Vale at all. If they must bear a message to Cirith Ungol, then I require them to take the long way round."
"That is indeed sombre news," said Curunir gravely. "Yet you are sure this is not a recent portent?"
"A portent, my lord?" asked Bregolas, his hazel eyes flashing with surprise. "A portent of what? But no, this terror was feared even in Isildur's time, if old tales be true, and I daresay has been feared in all the years since then."
"Well," said Curunir, visibly relaxing, "a portent was perhaps not the best choice of words. And it appears whatever evil dwells above Cirith Ungol has done so for many long years, and may not be of relevance to my mission. Perhaps that pass is indeed haunted by one of the children of Ungoliant the Devourer, as the name suggests. But know that your King, as explained in the letter of marque that I presented to you, has renewed his vigilance against the return of evil creatures to the Black Land and its marches. It is my purpose to enter that land, over the Nameless Pass, and ensure that it still remains as empty it has since the defeat of the Enemy, a thousand years ago."
"May the Valar preserve you!" gasped Bregolas with shock, looking genuinely alarmed. "We keep watch on the Black Land, on the wastes of Gorgoroth, from the watchtower of Cirith Ungol, and from Carach Angren. I have seen Gorgoroth myself from afar, and the sight of that land of terror will be seared into my unhappy memory until my dying day. I pity the Men of Gondor who are posted to the garrisons of those grim towers, Cirith Ungol and Carach Angren, and must endure the sight of Gorgoroth from afar for weeks at a time. Here at Minas Ithil we draw lots to determine who is to be sent to the Ungol watch – sorrowful they are to be dispatched to that grim duty, and happy when they return, even to this haunted tower. Yet no living man has dared set foot upon the blasted soil of Gorgoroth itself for hundreds of years!"
"All the more reason that I do so now," said Curunir firmly. "For it appears to me that your vigilance has slipped, if you think that you could detect the return of the Enemy's servants to the Black Land merely by watching from afar. Patrols of mounted guards should be sent to scour Gorgoroth regularly."
"We've received no such orders," replied Beregond, his ire raised at receiving military advice from a civilian and a foreigner to boot, even one as high and mighty as this so-called Wizard. "And we shall not welcome them if we do. Not one man of my garrison, or of the watches on Cirith Ungol or Carach Angren would venture into the Black Land, except on pain of death. Even a flogging for disobedience would gladly be endured, before a setting foot in the wastes of Gorgoroth."
"Then be grateful that I do your work for you," replied Curunir curtly. "And now, Captain Bregolas," he continued, rising to his feet, and towering over the smaller Gondor-man, "I have seen and heard enough to satisfy my curiosity, as far as Minas Ithil is concerned. Tomorrow at dawn I will take your leave, and venture up the Nameless Pass to Cirith Ungol and the borders of the Black Land, just as I have said."
"Then on your own head be it," replied Bregolas, also standing to his feet. "Your chambers are waiting for you, my lord, and your saddlebag and hat were placed within by my guardsmen. But…in spite of your proud words I will allow you to bunk with me in this room instead, should you not wish to share the barracks where I spend the hours of sleep with my men. You may soon find that a night in a chamber of Minas Ithil by yourself is no laughing matter."
"Thank you, no, Captain," replied Curunir, his dark eyes glinting with strange mirth. "I do not fear your bogeys and night terrors. This place is not haunted, as you deem, though I acknowledge that a dark shadow lies upon it. But you will suffer no harm here - not unless the Enemy himself should return. Even then, you might be able to hold this strong tower against him for a time, if only you retained sufficient courage."
"Surely that black day will never come," replied Bregolas. "The Enemy met his doom long ago, they say. But follow me! I will show you to your quarters, and then bid you good night. My men upon the walls could doubtless use my company."
The Dawn had arrived grey and cloudy, threatening a spring rainfall, and the light of the rising Sun was trapped in the clouds. The sky was thus suffused with an angry red glow, and framed by the rocky walls of the narrow defile known as the Nameless Pass. Curunir journeyed up this pass, his horse plodding slowly and neighing uncertainly as a cold wind soared downwards, whistling and moaning, into the Ithil vale below. He turned his glance behind him, and for a few moments looked upon the distant green vale of Ithil and its pine clad hills, and the fair tower of Minas Ithil rising pale and slim from the meadow, its appearance as charming now as it had been at night, despite all the dark whispers of its garrison.
"Indeed the Ringwraiths did their work all too well," whispered Curunir. "I had thought some hex might have been left upon Minas Ithil that would in time harm the Men who dwell there directly. Yet more subtle were the wiles of the Witch King. For by his Black Art, a nameless fear shrouds that valley and its tower, and numbs the hearts of its garrison. Should the Enemy ever return, the Gondor-men will doubtless flee at his approach and that of his minions, rather than hold the tower until reinforcements arrive as they should. Truly is it said that fear has ever been one of Sauron's chief weapons." Sighing, he turned his gaze back up the pass, to the East, encouraging his reluctant mount to push forward to the crest of the road so that he could gaze down for the first time into Mordor, the Black Land of the Enemy.
At length, he reached the crest, and gasped as his horse reared back, foaming at the mouth with terror as the ruined land unfolded before his gaze. Beneath the ruddy clouds, and beyond the broken teeth of the Morgai, the eastern outlier of the Mountains of Shadow, there lay the barren ash and dust, the reeking pits, the stains of brimstone and muck vomited forth from the tortured earth, that had disfigured the plain of Gorgoroth since Sauron the Abhorred first took it as his own domain. The land was utterly dead and void, and not a sound could be heard but the cold East wind scouring the barren rock and dust.
Above all stood Orodruin, the Mountain of Fire, known to the Gondor-men as Mount Doom. Its gray bulk soared above the barren deserts of the plain; still and silent it had stood for many centuries, yet Curunir knew that that the fires of inner earth still burned within. Beyond Mount Doom, he could see a smooth platform beneath a spur of the Ash Mountains; the foundations of the Barad-dur, the Dark Tower of the Enemy. A thousand years ago had Isildur torn that tower to the ground, yet its foundations had proved impregnable to any assault. To find out why was one of the many tasks that faced Curunir as he delved into the mysteries of the Black Land.
"Such power and nobility was vested in the one known in this Middle Earth as Sauron," whispered Curunir, as he stroked the flanks of his steed, restoring its calm. "Such potential. It is a tragedy to think of all the good that he could have accomplished, and then see the uses to which he has put his power; only to burn and destroy, to blast and wither. Morgoth turned Sauron to evil, and twisted and corrupted his spirit beyond all recognition, as he twisted and corrupted all things that came under his dominion." He sighed, his dark eyes mournful. "We Istari can only hope that we never succumb to Sauron's fate."
Urging his reluctant mount forward, Curunir began his long descent from the Nameless Pass into the Black Land.