January 29, TA 3019/AD 1200
Brand, King of Dale, was worried. In the three days since the earthquake, most (if not all) of those that still lived within the lower halls of the Mountain had been found and spirited to the upper halls to be cared for. The dwarves still did all they could to remove the rockfalls that blocked their paths into the deepest chambers, hoping against hope to find more survivors, but as the hours and days passed fewer and fewer of the wounded and maimed were carried away from the worksites, replaced more and more by the broken corpses of the dead. Although none said as much, it was an unspoken truth among the dwarves of Erebor that they were no longer searching for survivors, but rather working to recover the bodies of their friends and kin.
Dain, son of Nain and King Under the Mountain, worked with them. He had not slept and barely eaten since the storm had come. Every muscle in his body ached in protest as he continued to chip away at the massive stones, moving rubble out of the barred passages and doing all in his power to reopen the lowest caverns in the desperate hope that he might still find those unaccounted for merely trapped, not crushed, in the depths. Ever did that hope fade, but still the Dwarf King worked, doing all in his power to move those parts of the mountain that had fallen.
With Dain continuing to lead those that worked in the depths, it thus fell to Brand to command those that remained in the upper levels of the Mountain, both the wounded and maimed and those that worked to heal them. He had arrived mere hours after the Lord of Erebor had summoned him to give aid, bringing with him desperately needed manpower and medicines, and since then had acted much like his counterpart among the Dwarves, rarely resting or taking sustenance as he did all he could to care for those that could no longer care for themselves.
From what his men told him, there was little chance of him getting his rest any time soon. The changes to the horizon that he had so easily dismissed all those days before were apparently not so dismissive of him, and now there were reports of an armed camp being established upon the shores of the Long Lake, near the ruins of Laketown. Rather distressingly, its inhabitants were apparently picking around the lake itself, and doing so dangerously close to the corpse of Smaug.
His own scouts had dared not pass to close to the fortifications, but there were those among them that were keen-eyed enough to see the glint of gold and the shine of gemstones as they were hauled up from the depths and spilled onto the decks of the small boats that now dotted the surface of the lake. Brand knew the tales, of how that cursed horde had driven great men and dwarves (and even, if you believed certain accounts, a few elves), to utter madness and total destruction. He didn’t know much stock he put in such legends, but he would be a fool if he didn’t have a plan if they were true.
Growling, the King of Dale began to plan. Whoever they were, those that now camped along the shore of the Lake could not be ignored. Optimistically, they had been motivated by simple curiosity and nothing more, simply seeking to find out the nature of the new landscapes around them. In such a case, the King would be more than happy to give them counsel, and to listen to their so as to learn of the new world that Erebor and Dale had found themselves in.
At the other end of the spectrum, there was the chance that the loot that they were robbing from the body of the Great Worm was already starting to turn them to madness, as it had done to the Master of Laketown and so many others, up to and including Thorin Oakenshield himself. It would be foolish to simply assume that the better possibility was the one that would come true.
Brand was no fool. His father had taught him well and raised him better. ‘Hope for the best,’ Bain, son of Bard, had always told him, ‘but prepare for the worst.’ He wished that his father were here, that the man that had given him so much could take away some of the weight on his shoulders, as he had done so many times when Brand was a child. When Bain, the mighty King of Dale, could banish away his fears with no more than a few clever words. But alas, no. It was Brand’s weight alone to bear now. The King of Dale stood, feeling for the first time, truly, all of his 61 years. Heavy was the head that wore the crown.
But he would have to bear the weight. This moment had the potential to either bring his Kingdom crashing down around him or to help protect it against whatever calamity had caused the world in all directions to so drastically change. Either these men would be able to tell him about this new world and would make invaluable allies or the curse of Smaug would consume them all and he would soon have an army at his gates. No matter which of those scenarios was true, he could not simply sit around and wait for his fate to be decided.
He would march out and meet it.
On the shores of the Long Lake, Rurik, Grand Prince of Kiev, was growing impatient. It had been three days. Three entire, blasted days since coming to this place, and still there was little project made. He was encamped (stuck, really, if you wanted to be more to the point) besides the mysterious lake, he and his company having decided against moving further into the mysterious new lands to Kiev's north and choosing instead to create an outpost on the southwestern shore of the waters.
Since then, what had once been a small scouting force had been more than tripled in size, swelling ever more in both number and equipment. More soldiers had arrived, of course, along with the cooks, animal-handlers and miscellaneous other support staff needed to maintain a small army, but far more important to the Grand Prince were the others, the fishermen and sailors and river-dredgers, the ones that were taking far too long in arriving and accomplishing far too little.
The reason for Rurik's impatience sat tantalizingly close, taunting him from beneath the clear blue waters of the lake. It was the reason that they hadn’t advanced further towards the mysterious mountain on the northern horizon in the first place, the reason that a rather large force of men now sat around on the shores of the lake. There, just sitting there right in the water, almost close enough to reach out and touch, was the the faint shine of what could only be silver, the sparkles of what must have been precious gems and jewels, the bright gleam of what had to be gold.
There must have been more treasure just sitting there at the bottom of the lake, ripe for the taking, than all the wealth that passed through the markets Kiev in a full year. Some of it was shallow enough that the men could simply strip off their armor and clothes and dive down to retrieve it. They surfaced with hands and pockets full of gleaming coins and flawless jewels, and soon it seemed that the whole of the army had been diving into the lake after the treasure.
Rurik had done nothing to stop them, instead simply laughing and smiling along with them as they came up from the depths, singing the praises of God Almighty as he did so. Truly, the Lord was a great and merciful one to simply hand him such a gift. The fears that had been eating at the Grand Prince’s heart since the mountain had first appeared began to slowly fade away, the treasure of the Lord instead filling him with a surprising amount of hope and optimism for the future.
Soon afterwards, he had summoned fishers, dredgers, sailors, anyone and everyone with experience in salvaging things from bodies of water, ordered them to recover the wealth that sat there, just waiting to be claimed. The method of simply swimming down to collect the god and carrying it back up proceeded at an absolute snail's pace when it was going quickly, which it rarely did, but it soon proved that other techniques had just as many flaws to them.
The fishermen cast nets into the waters, but their nets were designed for fish, and most of the gold and jewels and precious metals simply slipped through the many holes in the netting, bringing up only pittances of what they should have. The dredgers brought up more of the wealth, and did so at a faster rate, but still only a fraction of should have been pulled out of the depths had been, and did so along with large piles of muck and mud and weeds that had have the treasure filtered out of it and then had to be dumped back down into the lake. The sailors had promised him a series of great cranes, that they assured Rurik would have every single coin and jewel pulled out of the water in a matter of mere hours, but the assembly of the devices never seemed to move at a reasonable pace.
And on top of the slowness of the work there was another problem: what to do with all the wealth. Rurik had ordered that a great many chests and carts to be brought up from Kiev, to transport the treasure safely back to the city, where it would be entered into the treasury for the betterment of the whole State. The Grand Prince, although by no means a cruel or otherwise uncaring men, very much doubted that the rabble that had marched here with him could be entrusted with so much wealth.
Of course, there those that stole away gold and silver and jewelry that they thought wouldn't be missed, having the gall to steal from what rightfully belonged in the treasury of Kiev. Oh, the bastards claimed that they were only taking payment for their assigned tasks, that the so-called 'small' portions that they slid into their own damn pockets was a rightful reward for their labor. Rurik had payed them, all right, with lashings and beatings and other torments. If more damn fools decided that they were going to steal away from the Princedom (and by extension, from the Grand Prince himself), it may be that some of them may quickly find themselves with their heads on pikes.
It hadn't quite come to that yet. Most of his men seemed to realize and accept the truth: every last coin would be going into the treasury, and the majority of those that refused to acknowledge that fact were cowed by the punishments meted out against those thieves that had so far been caught. Still, Rurik was suspicious. The men of Kiev were by no means soft, and there would be a great many that would have enough daring to attempt to steal from the coffers. As Grand Prince, it would then be his duty to protect the trove from those that would take from it. For the good of Kiev, of course.
Lost in such thoughts, Rurik barely noticed the arrival of one of his sentries, a picket that had been sent to watch for anything coming out of the unfamiliar north. The man was dirty and sweating, with a ragged and fearful look in his eyes. It was not so much his appearance that alerted the Grand Prince to his presence so much as his heavy breathing, a rapid and shallow panting that one would have to be nearly deaf to ignore. The man slouched over, hands on his knees, working to slow his breathing. Watching the man, and more to the point watching him simply stand there and pant like a dog, Rurik felt a bubbling irritation rise within him. What did this man have to report that was so important as to disturb his peace?
“Well?” The Lord of Kiev snapped, a certain amount of venom behind the word. The man abruptly stood up to his full height, eyes wide with fear at the implied threat, before throwing his torso and head forward once more and entering into a deep bow. Taking a deep breath, he finally began to relay his report.
“Muh-my-huh-Lord,” the man spoke around his breaths, an annoyance that Rurik grit his teeth and bared, “Thuh-there’s-an-ah-army-huh-coming.”
The man took another long and deep breath, and Rurik’s molars could have ground stone as he waited for the messenger to continue.
“From the north, my Lord,” the man said, finally able to carry a normal conversation. “We’ve spotted columns moving towards us along the river, from the direction of the mountain. They seem to have stopped for the moment and are just...watching us. Like they’re waiting for something.”
Under his breath, Rurik cursed. Always with the damnable complications. First the delays in the salvage process, then the thieves, and now this. Oh, what he wouldn’t give for all his problems to simply disappear! To have them consumed in the storm that had blown through! But of course, he would have to make his own solutions. God had given him this gift, and he would not be parted with it lightly.
Rurik turned to the messenger, sparing one last brief glance at the gold and gems piled on his table. It was only the smallest portion of even the meager amount that all of his scavengers and fishers and sailors had managed to bring up. Even stained as they were from the muck and sand at the bottom of the lake, their beauty was undeniable. They seemed to almost sing to him, promising wealth beyond measure once the rest of the horde had been brought to the surface, of unending prosperity for himself and his lands. Truly, this was a work of God, a gift given unto him to make his Kingdom the greatest of all the Rus states, no, all of Europe, if not the world. If only he could hold onto it.
“Gather the troops.”
The so-called 'spies' had easily been captured. Their clothing and complexions were similar to those that one would expect from Rohan, enough that someone unobservant could potentially confuse them for being one and the same, but their tongue was completely unfamiliar and their strange mannerisms, especially those of kneeling with clasped hands and chanting when confronted by the Orcs or Uruks, were similarly alien. Saruman, Lord of Orthanc, was well familiar with grovelling for mercy, but this form of begging, involving staring at the sky and heavy repetition of the same phrases over and over again, was something different.
No matter how these intruders begged, the Wizard of Many Colors was not feeling particularly merciful. The Palantir of Orthanc was powerful and long sighted, but it lacked the ability to show fine details. Landmarks were easy to discover, as were the sizes of given armies or cities. But names, diplomatic relations and other such particulars were much harder to find. The Eye could show such things (there was little that it could not see), but the effort of will involved was rarely worth the effort to learn such simple things, especially when much simpler methods were available. After all, why use an ancient and great power such as the Palantir when he could simply extract the necessary information from these natives?
Very, very few men could have resisted the tortures that Saruman employed, and those that could were mainly found among the high-born of Gondor or the Dunedain. The men of Savoy, mainly low-born peasants that had seeked out higher employ in the service of the Count, did not fall into this category. The language barrier was a minor annoyance, but not such an obstacle that a Maia of Aule could not overcome. Within a matter of hours, he had the information he needed.
He was now bordered by a land known as Savoy, ruled over by a man named Thomas. It was just one of many dozens, if not hundreds, of small states that were strewn over what the captives called 'Europe.' There were only men in this world, with the likes of Elves, Dwarves and even Orcs relegated to places in legend and song. The powers of Sauron and even the Valar were similarly unknown to them, the only such strength to bend the world to their will apparently falling to a singular being known by half-a-dozen variations of the name God. Or maybe it was three of these gods, a Father, a Ghost and a man named Jesus. As far as Saruman could tell, these men believed in a system where there was a One who was also a Three at the same time, a system that struck the Wizard as rather odd.
Whatever these men believed, the fact was that his current situation was far more hopeful than he had first believed. Those petty kingdoms that surrounded him were weak and divided, constantly squabbling over tiny scraps of land and worthless titles, populated by weak-willed and uneducated rabble that were easily swayed to whatever cause their so-called 'Lords' assigned to them. Their only unifying factor seemed to be their shared faith in their One-in-Three/Three-in-One God.
Said faith seemed to everything to these peasants. Whenever they spoke of it, they did so with reverence and awe, in a way similar to how the uneducated of Middle-earth would speak of the old tales of long-gone ages or of the realms of the elves, as something beyond the reach of mortal men, something to be overawed by. A certain 'Pope' was mentioned several times, apparently the head of these beliefs, spoken of in tones of wonder. Saruman tucked away the knowledge of such a position, certain that such things would become useful to him eventually.
In the meantime, he started making his plans. His power over Rohan was lost to him, his connection to his puppet Theoden severed (the feeling of which was not dissimilar to that of a sailor cutting off the end to a too-long rope). His own forces were currently committed to repairing the damage to his holdings; while he had more than adequate numbers to mount a defense if it came to that, his ability to project power was sorely lacking. If he wanted to come out ahead in this situation, he would need to increase his influence in this new world, a way to wield power over these pathetic excuses for men.
And he knew just how to do it.
Thomas, the Count of Savoy, was anxious, despite the number of armed men that he marched with. Scores of spies had he sent into these mountains, to scout out the new terrain that seemed to have fallen out of the sky into his lands. Only a handful had managed to return, most speaking of an impossibly tall black tower surrounded by apparently bottomless pits filled with hundreds of blazing forges and manned by what the men described as demons. Thomas might have dismissed such reports out of hand, but every surviving scout told nearly the same stories, and those that did not had reportedly been chased away the demons before they had reached where the tower stood.
So now Thomas marched out in force. Already the stories and tales swirled around his lands, telling of the monsters that were hidden away in the new peaks, waiting to strike. In such times, the people turned either to the Lord, praying for His help, or to their lord, demanding that he take up action. There had been an unspoken threat of riots, rape and looting if he did nothing against such things, and in response Thomas had ordered his army assembled, calling on every brave and willing man in his realm to march with him into the unknown lands, a show of force that would both reassure his own people that he was answering their calls and (hopefully) deter any attempt by the monsters to attack his people.
They went north towards Lake Geneva, the reported location of the Tower and its demonic hordes. Archers, men-at-arms, knights...the assembled army numbered into the thousands, a stronger force than would have been necessary for anything short of a full-scale war in normal times. But these were strange times, stranger than any in living memory, and even with all his knights and foot soldiers and bowmen marching with him, Thomas felt uneasy at best. What would he find on the shores of the lake? Had his scouts been accurate in their reports? Was he marching headlong into a legion from the depths of Hell itself? What had been dropped from the heavens upon him?
He found answers to the first question soon enough, and the unease in his heart began to grow into outright fear. Yes, there was the black tower, reaching towards the heavens like the Tower of Babel. Yes, there were the deep pits, spewing fire and smoke into the sky like the breath of dragons. And yes, there were the monsters, the demons, manning the outer wall of the fortress, armored and armed and staring back at him and his men, to all appearances daring them to come forwards.
His first instinct was to immediately turn tail, return to his keep and build up his army, followed summoning the forces of every ally available to him. He was in no mood to challenge an army of demons, and a quick glance over his men showed him that neither were they. He had the information he needed. The task he had assigned for himself had been completed; logically, there was no further reason to stay here.
But something caused him to pause. Looking out over the tower, he could see that he and his men had been spotted, but no challenge had been sent out. No arrows were loosed against him, no riders sent out to scatter his men, no stakes or barricades laid about the grounds. In fact, the main gate of the ring sat wide open, the road leading to it flanked by what appeared to be some kind of an honor guard, the soldiers their easily being the most finely armed and armored, as well as being the tallest and strongest. All of them were adorned with a white hand. Standing in the gate itself was a man, wearing only what at this distance appeared to be an old cloak and leaning heavily forwards on an old cloak. Apparently, rather than with fearsome resistance, he was being met with a welcoming committee.
Cautiously, he gave the signal to advance. He saw no reason to approach what could very well be a trap at anything less than full strength. His men creeped forwards, cavalry at the flanks ready to sweep in and meet any challenge, ranks of spearmen prepared to break up any assault his center, files of archers behind. Every step they took was slow and deliberate, every eye looking warily for the first arrow to come soaring towards them, every ear turned for the first horn to sound.
But the sound that they heard was no call to battle, but rather the most beautiful voice that many of them had ever heard, calling out from the gate. It was low and melodious, calling to the hearts of the men to calm, sounding wise and reasonable.
“Welcome, Count Thomas, son of Humbert and Lord of Savoy. I am Saruman of Many Colours, Head of the White Council and Holder of the Keys of Orthanc. I welcome you and your men to my humble abode.”
The fear in the Count’s melted like frost under a summer sun. Around him, the soldiers loosened their grip on bowstrings and sword handles. Even the horses seemed to calm. A creeping sense of shame seemed to filter through the assembled ranks at the size of the force arrayed against the tower. There was no hostility here, obviously. How dare they march out as if to arrest a simple and kind old man! Doubtless, this Saruman was just as confused as they were to suddenly find his surroundings changed.
“I apologize for coming before you so armed, Lord Saruman.” Thomas felt like a small child trying to explain themselves to a disappointed parent. “I simply feared the worse of you, given the suddenness and method of your arrival. I see now that I could not have been more wrong about your nature. Please, excuse any trouble that my scouts caused by intruding on your lands, and let us start again, without suspicion and fear ruling our hearts.”
“I find no offense in the actions that you have taken, Count Thomas. If I were to wear your shoes, no doubt I would have acted much the same. A good ruler must have no shortage of caution, especially in times such as these. In fact, I am quite pleased that you marched out here to meet with me. I had desired to meet the Master of the Lands that I find myself bordering, and I do hope that you would hear my council as I would hear yours.”
The Count smiled. The wizened old man had taken no insult from him then, and they could go forwards as friends. He briefly looked back over his men. Where once there was only fear and uncertainty, he now saw barely withheld hope. The old man who wore a cloak woven from every color, changing hue and tone with every passing moment, had soothed all their fears with but a handful of words. Without a single shadow of a doubt, he could only be a friend to the land of Savoy.
“Lord Saruman, I humbly accept your council, if only you would have mine.”
Saruman smiled then, his face showing only kindness and compassion as he looked out over the army before him. Internally, though, his smile was much more of an arrogant smirk. Yes, these men were weak. He had barely even needed the power of his Voice to sway them against taking up arms against him. Maintaining the face of a wise old man, all the while cackling to himself about the pathetic weakness of these men, he beckoned towards the Count.
“Then come, Lord Thomas. We have much to discuss.”
Madril, Lieutenant of Gondor, had been lost. Those first hours, those first days, had been torment, to both him and his men. He had been left in command of the Rangers that had remained at the refuge of Henneth-Annun while Faramir, his Captain, had gone south with slightly less than half of the men to pester any orcs, Southrons or Easterlings moving towards Minas Morgul while Madril kept watch for anything coming or going through the Black Gate. It was a simple assignment, one much similar to others that the Ithilien Rangers had been carrying out since the fall or Minas Ithil and the desertion of Ithilien and contentment of Osgiliath. There was nothing to suggest that this time would be any different.
But it had been. The earth had shaken. The sky had screamed. The whole refuge had nearly collapsed in on itself, loose rocks falling from the ceilings and the walls cracking and threatening to fall. The Rangers had had the presence of mind to escape the hidden cave before the earthquake had brought it down, but the sights that greeted them upon exiting may have had them wishing, in the deepest and darkest parts of their hearts, that they had simply died in the storm.
Mordor stood seemingly untouched, that dark land apparently immune to whatever fell magics had come down upon them. But Gondor, but home...home was gone, swept away in by the trembling earth and howling winds and endless hail, replaced with unfamiliar flatlands nearly as far as the eye could see, a dark and unfamiliar range of mountains just visible on the far horizon.
The courage of the men had failed at such a sight. The White Mountains, the Great River, the Tower of Ecthelion; such things had always given them the strength to continue the battle against the forces of Sauron, had always reminded them of what they were fighting for, of all that they would lose if they failed. Now the storm had seemingly blown it all away. With Mordor itself apparently unaffected, the minds of the men turned to dark thoughts, that Sauron may have called down some power beyond that of mortal men and remade the world to his vision, that they were now left alone in a world ruled by the Shadow.
Such ideas had ruled the men's hearts for most of those first few days, the ominous sense that the Dark Lord stood victorious weighing heavily down upon them. There seemed no point to anything anymore, with home gone and the Enemy unmoved; all hope for victory seemed to have died. The men went through the motions of treating their wounded, burying their dead and doing their best to repair their fortifications, but the unspoken word among all of them was that it was all meaningless, that whatever they did they were all doomed anyways.
But then the refugees had started to appear. They moved in obvious fear, looking all around them in terror of an attack, moving quickly and without the slightest rest, so that anything or anyone that became separated from the main group was abandoned to the side of the road. It was readily apparent that they had been forced to flee wherever they came from quickly; they were dressed in ragged and worn clothing, and carrying with them few provisions and even fewer personal possessions. They stumbled towards the north, and soon afterwards it became clear what they fled from: bands of orcs and wargs, those forces that the Enemy used to occupy Ithilien, pounded after them, hungry for blood.
Among the Rangers, there was never any question of what to do next. The orcs very suddenly found themselves shot full of arrows, utterly surprised when a hunt for largely unarmed refugees turned into an ambush performed by their hated enemies. The refugees themselves were similarly shocked at their unexpected salvation, some throwing themselves to their knees and shouting to the sky in some alien tongue, others embracing the Rangers, giving them universal signs of thanks and relief.
To Madril, the way forwards finally began to clear. Yes, home was gone. Whoever these people were, they were clearly not of Gondor. Their tongue and customs were completely alien to him, the two parties just barely managing to communicate with hand gestures and facial expressions. But they were men, and men being assaulted by the servants of the Enemy no less. Whoever they were, whatever lands they came from, he had a duty to defend them from the Shadow.
Here before him lay a new purpose, a new task to live his life for, and he took it up without hesitation. He gave his orders quickly. The Rangers would march south, to turn those thralls of Sauron that hunted for those fleeing before them into the hunted themselves. With any luck, they would also be able to link up with Captain Faramir and the rest of their forces, who had hopefully not been swallowed up by the storm.
Admittedly, there was much that had been set against the men of Gondor. Their homes had disappeared. Many of their number were wounded, much of their equipment lost. When they did march, they would be slowed further by the refugees, who seemed loath to be separated from their saviors. But despite all of this, the spirits of the men were lifting, for the first time since they had looked out over the aftermath of the storm to see everything that they had stood for vanished into thin air. Once more, they had a purpose to fulfill, a task to complete. The Enemy was here, bringing with them their wares of death and enslavement, hungry for battle.
And the Rangers of Ithilien would march out to meet them.