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To Rule Them All: A Tale of Middle-earth and the Middle Ages.

Chapter Text

February 7, TA 3019/AD 1200

 

Hungary

Kulin, Ban of Bosnia, was an unhappy man. A certain kind of anger burned in his heart, a simmering rage that was directed against the his current lot in life in general. In large part, it was aimed at his nominal overlord, the self-proclaimed King Andrew of Hungary. The 'King' had ordered him to march out to his aid in 're-establishing order' in his own lands, demanding that his nominal vassal raise his forces and join him. In full truth, the Ban of Bosnia had no true interest aiding the younger son of Bela III in claiming the Throne of Hungary, and did so only under the threat of Hungarian invasion hanging over his head. Kulin had little desire to throw his lot in with the loser of the previous succession crisis, and even with the Hungarians breathing down his neck he had tarried and dawdled in raising his levies, and was lethargic in marching the forces he did eventually assemble over the border into Hungary. The Ban of Bosnia had been in no hurry to aid his 'overlord,' promised rewards be damned.

Of course, his damnable luck could not allow his life to be so simple as to allow him to simply ignore the call outright, and since his last meeting with the self-proclaimed King the situation had changed enough that he doubted that he could ignore it at all. His agents in the east reported that the armies of Bulgaria and Serbia, much like 'King' Andrew, were seeking to exploit the chaos unfolding in Hungary, and a combined army of Serbs and Bulgars was now marching northwest into Hungarian lands, their path bringing them dangerously close to the Bosnian border.

This was not enough for Kulin to massively change his opinion of his new Hungarian master, certainly, but it was definitely enough to bring about a change in the speed at which he mobilized his forces in the aid of said master. As much as he did not enjoy being brought under the thumb of Hungary, it would be a better alternative than being subjected by either of his eastern neighbors. Hungary, at least, was apathetic towards his self-rule, Andrew being more worried about securing his own rule and Emeric seeing him as a useful buffer against the Serbs and especially the Bulgars. Stefan, and especially Kaloyan, on the other hand, was actively expansionist, the former trying to establish themselves as more than a pawn of larger and stronger nations and the later seeking to turn the breakaway state that he had inherited from his brothers into a true Empire, and not caring who's corpse he had to march over to do so. If the Tsar of the Bulgars seized control of the region, the Ban of Bosnia had no illusions about how much sovereignty he would retain under his reign.

And so Kulin swallowed his pride and marched out his army, bound for Esztergom. He did not have the strength to challenge the combined might of Serbia and Bulgaria alone, and he would be alone if Hungary was to fall. Despite his personal feelings towards the self-proclaimed King of Hungary, the Ban of Bosnia had not retained his independence in the ever-chaotic Balkans by ignoring his wisdom. If he could not stand alone, then he would have to stand with 'King' Andrew. His pride could not be allowed to doom his people to the subjugation of the Bulgars.

If, for the moment, that meant aiding the self-proclaimed King of Hungary, than so be it.

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There were many reason that Grand Prince Stefan of Serbia marched into Hungary at the head of his army, Tsar Kaloyan of Bulgaria by his side. In his heart, he told himself that he marched to bring to peace to a land that had exploded into chaos, to give security and leadership to a people whose King had apparently vanished, to restore order to a realm in turmoil. In his mind, he acknowledged that his motives were to stop the flood of refugees that came without ceasing from the northwest, to secure lands that were historically more Serbian than Hungarian, to show his strength to the court of Serbia, so as to secure his grasp on the throne of Serbia against the machinations of his elder brother Vukan.

Whatever his motive, the Grand Prince of Serbia was here now, and a creeping sense of worry had slowly worked its way into his heart. He had seen for himself the Black Mountains that had sprung out of the earth, dark and foreboding, and had heard without end the tales that came from those fleeing towards his lands, of monsters and demons that slaughtered and burned all that they could reach. And the more he saw and heard, the more he came to believe that such tales contained some amount of truth.

Such tales terrified him. He came from a house of Pious men, both his father (also named Stefan) and his younger brother Ratko renouncing all their titles and holdings and entering the monastic life. He had been tempted to do so himself, but his father had willed that he, his second son, should rule, and the responsibilities of the throne had precluded within the younger Stefan any desire to abdicate. Now, as Grand Prince of Hungary, he wondered whether or not his father and brother had had the right idea in renouncing all of their titles and becoming monks, and if he should have done the same. Certainly, it would have have made his own life easier, and perhaps Vukan would have made a better leader for the people, especially in a time such as this.

But no. It was he that was here, not his father or either of his brothers. It was upon his shoulders that this weight now fell. It was his mind that filled with dread when he thought of the Legions of Hell that might lurk in these lands. For the moment, at least, he could turn his mind from such thoughts: there was a much more immediate issue. Their agents to the south and west reported that the younger brother of the King of Hungary had managed to raise an army out of Slavonia and Croatia, and that the Ban of Bosnia was now racing northwards to join forces with him. They, too, marched into what remained of the Kingdom of Hungary, eager to secure a foothold in the chaotic region.

While the Grand Prince of Serbia's motives for marching into Hungary were more clouded, and possible more benevolent, those of the Tsar of Bulgaria were plain conquest, and Kaloyan did not take this perceived threat lightly to his gains lightly. Stefan advocated for consolidating their gains and preparing defenses; Kaloyan desired to march west and engage the Hungarians and Bosnians before they could pose a threat. The Tsar saw opportunity here: if the armies of Kulin and Andrew could be broken, perhaps all of Hungary would become ripe for the taking, and the western borders of the Bulgarian Empire could be forever secured.

His argument for a generation's security and peace against their foes to the west was rather compelling, as was the fact that the Tsar of Bulgaria provided the majority of the troops that composed their combined army. It was Kaloyan's plan that would be followed Hesitantly, with dread clawing at the edges of his heart, Stefan had followed, loathe to separate from the Bulgarians, afraid of what may lay in these lands.

He tried to keep his mind away from darker thoughts, focusing instead on how he would face the Hungarians and Bosnians when he encountered them. He wished to simply dig in in the lands that they had claimed, and wait for the Catholics to come to them. But he also heard the talks of the men, who spoke of smashing the Hungarians to pieces and conquering all lands that were rightfully Serbian or Bulgar. Now, moving deeper into the depths of a foreign country, the Grand Prince of Serbia realized that he could not simply back down. The men would sneer at him. Vukan would have him slandered as a coward, Kaloyan as too weak of an ally to be left without 'aid.' Despite his fears, he would have to march. With the eyes of his nation and his allies upon them, he could not be found cowering.

No, when the battle came, he would have to fight it.

-----------------------------------

Khamul, second among the Nazgul, pushed southwards, destroying all in his path. His orders had been altered. Originally, he was to simply subjugate this land, destroying any that might resist and putting the rest in chains. There was to be no great battle here, not yet at least. He was to take whatever he could hold in his hands, and no more. The Dark Lord's orders were explicit: under no circumstances was he to overextend his lines.

But now Sauron's long gaze foresaw and opportunity. The Burning Eye had seen that the nations of men that called these lands home were already mustering their forces, and preparing for war and now four armies of men were marching into the realm that they called Hungary. They were a pitiful assembly, led by petty men that were more likely to tear each other apart than pose any serious challenge to the might of Mordor, but the memory of Sauron was long. Although they currently marched against each other, it would not be the first time that armies opposed to each other had suddenly banded together against a greater threat. As one force, as the men and elves and dwarves had become at the Lonely Mountain all those decades before, they might prove...problematic.

Khamul, therefore, was to remove such problems. The second of the Nine was more than happy to follow his new orders. He would let these so-called 'Kings' bleed each other white, allowing them to spill their best blood for him. And once they had broken against each other, spending their strength, he would strike, breaking the spine of any potential resistance to his Master's might in this region. The 'Kings' that might dare stand against the Dark Lord would be destroyed, in one fell swoop.

And then there would be none to stand against the Shadow.

Andrew, the Self-Proclaimed King of Hungary, had been in a good mood. His march into the Hungarian heartland had come unopposed, all that he came across practically throwing themselves at his feet, thanking the Lord for his arrival. These people, many of whom had marched under his brother's banners five years before, now cheered for him, heaping praise and blessings upon him. With said brother missing, generally presumed dead, they turned now to him to be their lord, their protector, their leader. Their King. His heart had filled with joy and pride as he had marched through his lands, eager to claim his birthright.

But gradually, his mood was beginning to sour. It had began when his men had encountered a column of refugees coming from the direction of Esztergom, led by the Archbishop Job. While most of the column had been more than happy to see him, taking joy from the sense of security that he offered them with his arrival, much of the Royal Court...was not so joyful. The feeling was mutual: his brother had filled his court with those that had helped forced him into exile, and half a decade had not been nearly enough time for the feelings of ill-will to dispel.

At the moment, his beloved sister-in-law, Constance of Aragon, was being quite open with her dislike. Her first action upon seeing him walk through the temporary camp that had had sprung up where the army had met the refugees, her first action had been to slap him across the face. As Andrew massaged his stinging cheek, the Queen of Hungary fixed a burning gaze upon him, and soon she began to speak.

"How...dare...you," she seethed. "How dare you…"

"Save you?" Andrew interrupted. "Give you protection? Restore order? What possible fault can you find with such things, my dearest Constance? How can you deny the good that I have done?"

"I deny not the good you have done, Prince Andrew," she retorted, her eyes shooting daggers, "I deny the reward you claim for it!"

"You mean my birthright?"

"IT IS NOT YOURS!" Constance practically exploded, her veins bulging. "IT IS MY HUSBANDS'! THE THRONE IS HIS, SO LONG AS HE STILL LIVES!" She paused a moment, catching her breath.

"And he does still live." She practically whispered. Andrew noted that she had gone from about to attack him to practically about to cry. She looked him in the eye, her expression shifting back into one of anger. "I know it. And as long as he does, it is treason for you to have your heralds go out announcing you as King, Prince Andrew. Remember that."

With that, the Queen of Hungary turned and walked away, back towards the nobles of Esztergom. Andrew caught a glimpse of what he thought were tears as she did so.

"She is troubled enough. For God's sake, I ask that you do not add to them further.""

Andrew turned, and saw Job, the Archbishop of Esztergom coming towards him. Andrew nodded to the man, a small smirk on his lips. "I would give her such favor, Father, if she gave the same to me."

A dark look crossed the Holy Man's face, and he began to speak. "There are far darker things in motion than more machinations of the court, Andrew. The End Times have begun, and before the Lord passes Judgement on you, you would do well to prioritize your list of enemies. Queen Constance should not be on that list. Nor should any of your own people."

Andrew snorted. "And next you will tell me that I should allow the Bulgars and the Serbs to march through the Kingdom unchecked, or that I should allow the land to fall into utter chaos without a King!"

He laughed, and the Archbishop's frown grew deeper. Grunting, Andrew spoke again. "But perhaps you are right in some capacity. The Heretics should be put in their place first. They cannot be allowed to undermine my authority anymore than I would allow the vipers in the court to do so."

He turned to leave, planning to tell his commanders to ready to march eastwards, but Job caught his shoulder, and fixed a cold stare upon him. "Have you heard no new in the south of what has been unleashed?" He asked, his voice like steel, "Do you somehow not know of the evil that now rises?"

"Do not tell me…"

"That the Legions of Hell have been unleashed upon the earth? That the very world is at an end? I have seen the with my own eyes, Andrew, as have near all that I brought with me from Esztergom. They harried our whole march here, almost without ceasing. I swear before God that it is true, as would any man here."

Andrew paused, staring at the man. Job sighed in exasperation, then clutched Andrew's shoulders, looking into his eyes.

"It matters not that the Serbs and Bulgars have marched. In fact, all the better: if they join with you, you would stand a better chance. There are hordes of Demons marching south behind us. Their scouts cannot be more than a day behind us, and the body of their horde not more than three. This is not the time to allow your eyes to be clouded. Your mission must be clear."

Andrew grunted. "It is clear."

"Is it?," the Archbishop practically sneered, nearly spitting as he spoke. "What, pray tell, is your mission?"

"To restore order to the Kingdom. To protect its people."

"You claim that it is so, but you think that to do so you must seize the crown. Am I wrong?"

When Andrew didn't respond, Job sighed, taking a deep breath before speaking again. "You cannot worry about grasping the throne, not now. Within your reach or not, its reward is small against the reward of heaven, and if you insist on pursuing the throne like a wild beast pursues its prey than I assure you that heaven will be held beyond your reach. If you are here to protect the people of Hungary, than you cannot act in greed. You cannot act for yourself alone. You must act for the people that you claim to serve."

"And how, Archbishop," Andrew snapped, "would you have me act, that is not how I have already acted? Would you have me let let chaos reign here, as the court bickers and squabbles over who the true authority should be? Would you have me let the Bulgars and Serbs take what belongs by right to Hungary? Or would you let me restore the peace?"

"I would have you act like a King," Job replied simply, "for is that not what you wish to be? I say to you this: A King protects his people from the greatest threats before all else, no matter the cost to himself. It is his duty to do so. You yourself have stated what the mission of the Crown is: I implore only that you act upon it. It would be easiest to act if your heart was in the right place: if you fear more for your people than your throne, you will do more to act for the people than for yourself. But I do warn you: I would dare say that the Lord will cast out a King that ignores his duties and replace him with another, as he did to Saul and Ahab. You are no more special than they, and perhaps even less so."

Andrew fixed his on stare on Job now. "Was that a threat, Archbishop?"

"It was a warning. Here is another: the hearts of men are fickle. They turn easily to those that offer them protection, and easily away from those that abandon them. I ask you: do your people want protection from Serbs and Bulgars? Or from the Legions of Hell? The people will not appreciate you shielding them from one side while the scream for you to protect them from the other."

And with that, the Job turned and left, returning to his flock and leaving the self-proclaimed King of Hungary alone with his thoughts.

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Emeric, the Crowned King of Hungary, was...uneasy. There were few other words that describe his situation so well. The Legions of Hell dominated the lands all around him, and his company had continued to dwindle, whittled down by small skirmishes and hunger and simple exhaustion. Now they were barely half-a-hundred in number, and with enough weapons to keep only two thirds of them in arms. What little food they had managed to scavenge was on the verge of running out, even after their mounts had been slaughtered for meat, and ever did the monsters hunt them.

The reason that the Crowned King of Hungary was only uneasy, and not terrified, was that he and those that remained with him had found respite. Or rather, respite had found them: a small army of strange men had stumbled across them some days before, saving them from a patrol of demons. They had ambushed the monsters, putting them down with ruthless efficiency, and no sooner had the last of the demons fallen then they came forwards with bandages and food for the men of Hungary. Their language was utterly alien, and their dress was not of any land that Emeric knew of, but they sheltered the King and his remaining company all the same. With them were also a slowly growing following of refugees, citizens of Hungary that assured Emeric that these men had protected them from the monsters, managing to drive away the demons and buy at least some safety for their charges.

The King of Hungary saw little choice but to trust these men: the alternative would be to continue stumbling blindly through the foothills, simply waiting for the demons to finish them off. No, this was better. What little communication could be passed between the people of Hungary and their mysterious saviors at least told them that the men would continue to protect them, and that they were looking for others to protect. The one that Emeric thought was their leader, for the strange men looked to him more than any other, had come to the King, and the King had thought that he had asked where they could go for supplies and reinforcements. And, Emeric hoped, he had asked where his people were, offering his aid to them in this time of desperate need.

And so Emeric, the King of Hungary, now led the strange company southwest, in the general direction of Slavonia and Croatia, where he hoped to find some form of sanctuary. He hoped, he prayed, that some of his realm remained yet beyond the reach of the Devil's hordes, and that seemed like the most likely spot. Idly, he realized that his best chance for survival may well have been his exiled brother, and a mirthless and bitter smile crossed his face at the thought of Andrew marching into Hungary at the head of an army, his greatest fear for much of the past half-decade suddenly becoming his greatest hope.

They marched on in silence, ever wary of the threats all around them, slowly making their way through the burned countryside of Hungary. As they did so, Emeric looked to his saviors, these strange men who bore the mark of a white tree under seven stars. He wondered who they were, why they were so quick to aid his people. He wondered where they had come from, and of the strange language they spoke. Were they simply a tribe of barbarians that he had never known of before? Were they natives of the black land, a resistance against the might of Satan? Or had God sent them, as a light against the darkness?

And if so, for what purpose?

 

Kiev

Brand, King of Dale, was not a man unfamiliar with war. Even the peaceful and prosperous times that he had inherited from his father and grandfather were not easily maintained, a lesson that the late King Bain had worked hard to instill in his son. Orcs and Goblins from the north raided constantly at the fringes of his lands, as did Wild Men from the east. The Dwarves of Erebor were friendly to his people, but still cared little for what happened outside of their Mountain, and it was much the same tale with the Elves of Mirkwood, so it fell mainly upon the Men of Dale to drive off the marauders whenever they appeared.

In his 61 years of life, the King of Dale had ridden out to battle more times than he could remember. It was not a task that he relished in, or that any sane man would relish in, but it was his duty, and he had done it well. Even as his body began to grow old, he had gone out and met those that would try to break the hard-won peace, fighting from the foothills of the Withered Heath to the shores of the Sea of Rhun, and near everywhere in between.

The fact that the world around him had changed, that such places had been replaced with new ones that were completely alien to him, did nothing to change that. No matter what calamity descended on his people, it was his duty as King to protect them. Indeed, it was his duty even more now than ever, with strange surrounding and allies either out of reach or with their own challenges to face.

And so it was that Brand, King of Dale, stood upon the shore of the Long Lake, gazing south upon the ever growing camp that had sprung up far too close the corpse of Smaug the Golden for comfort. Even in the mists of winter, he could see them, bringing jewels and gold and silver up from the depths, seemingly ignoring the bone-chilling cold of the water in their lust for the treasure. The longer he watched, the more that the King of Dale thought that the legends of the Curse that lay upon the trove of the Dragon may have been more than simple legends. The men that he had sent there with offerings of peace had seen little of the leader of the camp, but they describe him as wild-eyed and constantly tensed, as if expecting an assassination attempt at any moment. Their descriptions matched all-too-closely to those of Thorin Oakenshield in his final days, as the gold sickness had overtaken him.

But there was little that Brand could do about such things. He could watch. He had tried to speak, but been denied. The men of that camp spoke not a word of his tongue, nor he a word of theirs. He had continued to send emissaries to them, attempting desperately to find at least some method for communicating with them, be it hand gestures or scribbles in the dirt, but it had become more and more often for his men to be turned away at the boundary of the camp, until finally they had been barred entirely. Now only scouts dared cross the lands between the two encampments, both Brand and his opposite number trying to discern the strength and plans of the other. There was little to be learned, except that both now had with them a large and increasing number of armed men.

The King of Dale preferred peace to war, as all sane men did. But it was increasingly apparent that the leader of the other camp may not have fallen within the category of 'Sane Men.' And so Brand had prepared, digging traps and planting stakes, erecting fences and excavating ditches. And waiting. The insufferable waiting. The waiting for something to go wrong. He continued to send envoys, begging for a chance to speak to the leader of the camp, all of which went unanswered. The waiting continued, and the King of Dale's feelings of dread grew with every moment that it dragged on.

And then, in a moment, with a loud scream from the other camp echoing across the water, the wait was over.

 

Lorien

Boromir, Son of Denethor, tried to distract himself. This took the shape of finding a quiet clearing in the woods of Lothlorien and practicing his bladework. Day after day, whenever he was not either eating or sleeping, he practiced, trying to lose himself in the familiar movements, attempting to focus on footwork and his guard and all the other little things that would save his life the next time that he entered battle and on nothing else. He tried not to think of the quest, brought to a standstill when the world beyond Lorien had changed beyond recognition. He tried not to think of home, which he had not heard anything of for weeks, if not months. He tried not to think of his brother, or his father, or all those that he had served with in the defense of Gondor, now apparently swept away in the blink of an eye. In fact, he tried not to think at all.

Parry, parry, thrust, parry, chop, stab, stab, slash, slash. Remember to move your feet. Hit hard, but don't overswing and extend yourself to far. Stay light on your feet, but heavy enough that you can't be knocked off balance. Keep your guard up; a wound in your legs is difficult to deal with, but survivable; a wound in the head or chest less so. Use your shield: it, too, can be a weapon, but it's main purpose is defense. Remember all of this: think only of all of this. Don't think of your home. Don't think of your men. Don't think of the Horn of Gondor, sounding from the White Tower, calling you home…

"Your practice would have more value if you did not face empty air."

The Son of Denethor turned quickly to the voice, sword held up. There he found the Aragorn the Ranger, the Chieftain of the Dunedain, and he lowered his blade. The two men simply stared at each other for a moment, their silence hanging in the air. Then the man of the south nodded, and the man of the north came forward, drawing out his own blade. They walked to the center of the small clearing, and after a moment's pause they began to spar.

As the moved around the clearing, trading blow for blow, the Son of the Steward found himself taking notes on the Ranger's abilities. He had seen the other man fight before, in Moria, but this was the first time that he truly observed the man called Strider. Surely, his training had been different than what Boromir had received in Gondor: he preferred a Longsword over the shield-and-shortsword pairing that was common in the south, yet despite the weight and length of his blade he was remarkably quick on his feet, dodging Boromir's strikes more than he blocked them, maneuvering with a skill that would have gained the respect of any of Boromir's own men, using his superior reach to keep the Captain of Gondor at a distance. In fact, the Ranger's style reminded him a surprising amount of the techniques of his own brother…

And the moment that this idea crossed his mind, all of the thoughts that the Son of Denethor had fought so hard to keep at bay welled up within him, overcoming his thoughts and his heart in an instant. Distracted, he felt his guard drop by a fraction, and an instant later Aragorn's blade was held gently to his neck. Boromir felt suddenly weak, his body utterly overwhelmed by a sudden fatigue, and he sunk slowly to his knees, his sword dropping to the ground besides him. For a long moment, he simply knelt there, breathing heavily. Then, he slowly began to shudder. And then he began to weep.

It felt like a long time that he knelt there, tears pouring into his hands, his whole body shaking like a leaf. He finally felt a hand come to rest on his shoulder, and he looked up to see Aragorn, the other man's eyes filled with a silent plea to speak, to allow him to help. Taking a deep breath, the Son of the Steward began to speak, his voice hitching as he did so.

"Have you ever seen it, Aragorn? The White Tower of Ecthelion, when the morning breeze catches its banners flying high? It is like...a glimmering beacon of silver and pearl, a light to all the world. The Tower of the Guard...do you know what it is like? To be called home by its trumpets? To hear its people singing?" He paused for a moment, his voice choked by sobs. Breathing deeply again, he continued to speak.

"For near 20 years I had fought for it, and my father for near twice that long before me, and his father before him. And for all that time, year after year, generation after generation, the strength of our people has waned. Mordor grows in strength, and our best blood is slowly spent holding it back. My father was a noble man, but his rule was failing. Every day, it seemed, we were driven further back, and every day our hope faded further. Our people lost faith. He looked to me to make things right. All of our hopes he placed upon me, that the glory of Gondor might be restored. This quest...it was our greatest hope. Perhaps our last one."

The Son of the Steward began to weep harder now, and tears fell from his cheeks like raindrops.

"But now...now all is lost! I am told that all that I held to, all that I hoped for, is swept away! Where may I take my hope, my strength!? What may I hold to!? We may yet destroy Sauron. We may yet complete the quest. But what victory would be won? That we may wander alien lands, never again to see all that we fought for? What, now, is the point!? Of anything!? What may men do against such evil!?"

Boromir spoke no longer, the only sound in the clearing now his weeping and his shuddering breaths. For a long time, it remained the only sound, as the Son of the Steward wept freely.

Finally, he felt a gentle hand on his shoulder once more, and he opened his eyes, tear-filled as they were. Now Aragorn spoke, his voice gentle, his eyes soft. "I know not what path to walk. I, too, am lost, cast adrift in this new world. I cannot see the path before me, and the path behind us is just as uncertain and dangerous. I do not see what may lurk in the darkness ahead, as much as I wish that I could. I do not know where I may safely trod."

The Ranger sat down besides the Captain, his own breathing also beginning to shudder. "But I do know this: we cannot stay this ground forever. Perhaps not today, or tomorrow, or the day after, but the time will come when, one way or another, we must choose a path. It will not be simple, and indeed will be even harder than before. But fate shall not wait for us: eventually, it will meet us, whether we wish it to or not. When it arrives, we must be ready for it. We cannot hide, or flee, or cower: we must face it, with all skill and courage that we may muster. With hope or without, with our dreams broken or whole, we must go out along the road one day, lest fate catch us unawares. We must find the strength to stand."

"And where might we find it?" Boromir asked, his weeping finally beginning to subside.

"I do not know," Aragorn replied, "But it will be found most easily together than alone."

Slowly, the Son of the Steward nodded. He breathed deeply. But not yet did he stand. Aragorn, too, remained seated upon the ground, now entering into his own thoughts. Galadriel had assured him of the safety of Rivendell, of Arwen, but there was little other knowledge that the Lady of the Golden Wood could share with him. The Ranger wished dearly that the Grey Pilgrim still walked with them. Surely, the Wizard would have had some wisdom for them, even now. But no. The weight of the quest now fell even more heavily upon Aragorn's shoulders.

He hoped that he, and the others, could bear the weight.

 

Moria

In the deep, in the heart of the Black Pit, a fire burned. It was one that had been ignited long ago, deep in the cursed pits of Thangorodrim, when a Maiar, name long forgotten to the sands of history, had sworn their allegiance to the Dark Enemy of the World, the one so mighty that even Sauron had bowed before them. That fell Master had been sealed away, but the sparks of destruction that they had ignited had caught, and even now their black fire continued to burn, carried by their twisted mockeries of creation.

This particular fire's journey had been long and bloody, a trail of carnage left behind it. In the days of the First Age, they had smote all that had stood against the Dark: springing the entrapment of Feanor; marching at the Vanguard of the Orcs when the Long Peace had been shattered, and the full might of Glaurung, the First Dragon, had been unleashed; aiding in the slaughter of Fingon and Huor and the capture of Hurin. Even after their Master had been thrown down, this flame that he had ignited had burned on.

For five millennia, the fire had smouldered, more like warm coals than a true inferno, buried and forgotten. But in the days of Durin VI, the dwarves had delved too deep and too greedily, and the flame had burned with vigor once more, consuming all in their path, and driving the dwarves out from the black pits. From that time, it was called Durin's Bane and The Nameless Terror, and it was undisputed master of Moria. The goblins and orcs of the crags and crevices feared it, and either fled or bowed before it in awe and dread.

Even Sauron did not dare to try and master it. Those orcs and trolls that entered the pit were sent more as tribute, as a gift, than as a conquering army. The Dark Lord saw that Moria would remain beyond the reach of those that would dare defy him: for now, that was enough. Let other fools try to reclaim the mines-there were other places that the blood of his thralls was better spent.

And so it was: for near 1000 years, the pit belonged to the last of the Balrog, and to them alone. Even when Azog the Defiler had entrenched himself in the upper halls, in the final days of the War of the Dwarves and the Orcs, not even he had dared venture deep into the dark. When the Dwarf Balin attempted to reclaim the mines, they were burned out of the deep places, and the rest the orcs slaughtered. The Balrog was unchallenged.

Until, that is, they had arrived. A company of nine, half of their number appearing to be no more than children. They would have been left to the orcs, but for one detail. Among them, the Nameless Terror had felt a power that gave even them reason for pause, a power unlike any that they had known since the time of the War of Wrath. They were no mere trespassers in the domain of Durin's Bane, no: they were, for the first time in millennia, challengers to his rule.

The Balrog had met his challenger in battle. For 10 days and nights, they had fought without ceasing, the black fire of Morgoth doing all they could to burn their foe to ash. Finally, atop the very peak of Zirakzigil, their flame had burned so hot, so unchecked, that the Nameless Terror had felt the very world itself shake to its foundations as it had met with the challengers own white fire, and for a moment, the two blazes had combined, fueling each other, increasing beyond the control of either that wielded them, and the whole world had felt like it had shattered.

Sometime later, Durin's Bane had reawoken. It's physical fire was slackened, smothered by slime and mud and water from the roots of the mountains and the snow from its peak. Their flesh had hardened, and their skin was like stone. But the flame in its soul now only burned hotter, and now a great roar sounded out throughout all the Black Pit, the Master of the Pit exerting their might over all that still cowered in its depths. They rose once more, hatred and rage burning like the sun in their black heart.

Their only thoughts were of vengeance. A mad and feral power now rose within them, fueled by the pain of their scarred and stiffened body. The very world around them seemed to twist at their pure malice, and they sounded a dark call, like thunder in the mountains. It was answered. The orcs and goblins and trolls of Moria, weak willed puppets, felt a new master take control of their strings. Unlike Sauron's black whisper, there was now the endless scream, a sound that could not be blocked out. All that dwelled in that black pit heard it as it echoed in the endless caverns. The Nameless Terror, Durin's Bane, Last of the Balrogs, wanted revenge.

And they would burn the world to ashes to have it.