The Witch-king of Angmar was the Lord of the Nazgûl and the Black Captain of the armies of Mordor. Wielding one of the nine rings of power given to mortal kings in the Second Age, he was a ghastly, undead wraith. Not only a mighty sorcerer beyond the understanding of the modern world, he was a fell warrior of old. When Angmar waged war against the splintered kingdoms of Arnor near the beginning of the Third Age of the world, the elf lord Glorfindel prophesied, “Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall.”
That was a shame. Not the bit about a nightmare from the ancient world being real and out to kill him. Bilbo was growing rather used to that sort of thing. Far more unfortunate was the fact that Glorfindel made the prophecy in the first place. Getting to know Glorfindel in Rivendell had been a pleasure. It was truly regrettable that Bilbo was going to have to kick him in the shins at their next meeting.
“You cannot fight him in single combat,” Bilbo said, very sensibly.
“It bought us time,” said Thorin, looking pointedly at King Thranduil of Mirkwood. “Three hours we might not have had, and far more than that, it is to be hoped. Perhaps my hand cannot kill him, but trust my ability enough to believe that I can keep him busy. Hopefully, for as much as another hour.”
“Another hour.” Thranduil looked up at the sun, but he said nothing further.
“My son accepted the challenge, and he will win it!” Thrain butted his head against Thorin’s with a force that belied his many years. “Speak not of doom before Thorin Oakenshield takes to a battlefield.” Then, in a lower voice that could be heard only by Thorin and Bilbo, he added, “but risk not beyond the gamble you already make. As soon as you feel the tide turn, signal us and we will come. If he cannot be defeated, then he cannot be defeated, but we will keep him off of you.”
Again, Thorin only nodded.
“Perhaps I should go with you,” Bilbo said inanely. What could a hobbit do to an evil being so much older than even his own homeland?
At least the idea animated Thorin. His whole face turned to his husband, flushing red with something unnamed. “You must stay with your brother and the other archers.” Stepping in close, he pressed a subtle hand against Bilbo’s breast, where the Ring now hung upon a chain. “Remember what is truly important, husband.”
Grabbing his beard in both hands, Bilbo pulled Thorin down into a fierce kiss. “This is what matters to me. This is the only thing that matters to me. Everything else can go hang.”
Thorin chuckled a little, a small, forced thing. Then he kissed Bilbo again with rough, desperate passion. When their lips parted, still he remained close, pressing his forehead to his husband’s.
“How dreadful it is, that you must love a prince,” the dwarf said softly. “How terrible that I must be one. Duty calls us each to different roles: me to guard, and you to be now guarded. I beg you to serve, for love of me if for no other reason.”
“For love then,” Bilbo said, with bad grace. “But if you do not return to me, Thorin Oakenshield, I make no guarantees of my conduct.”
“Then I had best return.”
“Yes, I think you better had,” said the hobbit, kissing him again for good measure.
“It is time.” Gandalf’s voice was not unkind. Indeed, the compassion in his eyes was so great that Bilbo could not bear to look at him. Allowing himself to be lead up to the battlements with Kili, the hobbit watched the doors of Erebor open and the dwarven army march forth with Thorin at their head.
In their perfect lines and rows, the dwarven army seemed to number like bricks in a wall. There were more soldiers in the army of Erebor than there were people in the Shire, Bree, and all the lands in between. Each dwarf wore full, bright armor and carried a sheild. In addition to their battle axes, many carried long spears, which meant that the blood and fighting could happen a long way from their bodies, on the other side of those sturdy shields. They seemed even safer than a wall.
Until Bilbo’s eyes rose, and he saw the orcish horde.
The orcs did not line up so much as sprawl like pebbles on the mountainside. They covered the land in darkness despite the noonday sun, a swarm of ants pouring over a picnic, turning every ridge and crevice black by dint of their presence.
“I thought they hated the light.”
Gandalf was not there to answer, but King Thranduil was. All the elves of his retinue lined up with the archers, where they would not need to be in such direct danger, but could still help the fighting below.
“They hate it, yes, and it weakens them. Despite what the Witch-king may say, dwarves do not hate the noon sun, for all they might see in the dark. Yet these Gundabad orcs will be at half strength fighting in this light. I wonder they do not hold stalemate until nightfall.”
“Won’t the dwarves attack if they do that?” Kili asked.
“They will,” Thranduil said, “if I may judge King Thrain by his past campaigns. Yet they would be disadvantaged to do so. A charging army has momentum, but the defending army has pikes and a shield wall.”
Since Bilbo was only vaguely familiar with martial tactics from his reading of history, he didn’t quite comprehend the significance of this. Even so, he knew enough to say, “Perhaps they want something in the mountain very badly.”
Taking his eyes from the armies below, Thranduil looked directly at Bilbo. “Yes. Thrain spoke to me, but said little. Dwarves keep their secrets. Will you tell me what they seek?”
Bilbo did not put a hand to the Ring beneath his shirt. He remembered the way Thorin looked holding the Ring, and that even the white wizard, friend of Gandalf, had been corrupted by wanting it. “Something which the Lady of the Golden Wood deemed a danger to her people, and so refused.”
Thranduil nodded his acceptance and looked out over the armies once more. “Good,” he said. “I would not like to think all of this was for one of the paltry seven.”
Thus Bilbo understood that his words were enough to enlighten the elven king beyond his intention.
“Legolas.” Thranduil did not look at his son, but his words were a hard, incontrovertible order. “No matter what, stay with the new prince consort. He must not fall into the hands of the enemy under any circumstance. Your death is acceptable, in his defense.”
The elven prince bowed in acknowledgement of this order, but Bilbo heard the red haired elf beside Kili gasp.
“Your death is most certainly not acceptable,” he said, looking from the father to the son with an expression that only just managed to convey how appalled he was by the concept. “No deaths are acceptable.”
Legolas smiled at him. “If only it could be so, in war.”
Bilbo looked out over the assembled armies once more. “It’s going to be fine,” he said, but he did not believe it.
Below, Thorin strode forth from the dwarven ranks. Across the divide, the Witch-king came. When he was not astride his dark horse, Bilbo saw that he was a giant, easily half again the height of an ordinary man, taller than even the elven king. For the first time since that initial meeting outside of Bag End, Thorin Oakenshield looked small to the hobbit’s eye.
“I give you one final warning wraith!” Whatever power made the Witch-king’s voice audible to all listeners seemed to work upon the field. Either that, or Thorin’s voice was simply so known to Bilbo’s heart that distance could not quiet it. “Leave Erebor now, or face my sword.”
The Witch-king only laughed. From his cloak grew a dark, spreading cloud that seemed to reach for Thorin. From the army at his back, five darting arrows shot toward Thorin.
“Treachery!” Bilbo screamed.
Legolas and Tauriel both fired arrows from the battlements, striking down two of the black darts. The third and fourth were caught by Thorin’s deft use of his fabled shield. Which meant only one dart struck the prince. Surely one dart was not enough to hurt a hero who survived a dragon. But as soon as it pierced his shoulder, Thorin Oakenshield crumbled to the ground unmoving.
Bilbo could do nothing but scream as those around him shot arrow after arrow down at the Witch-king, striking only the dark cloud which enveloped him. The monster loomed over Thorin.
From the dwarven army, a white flame shot out. It struck the darkness of the Witch-king, seeming to dispel his cloud a little. Only a little. Even as the white flame burned before him, the cloud around the Witch-king roiled like steam from a kettle. He laughed. “Is that the best you can do?”
Looking down, Bilbo saw Gandalf slumping heavily against his staff. The wizard did not answer.
“That has cost him,” Thranduil said, unnecessarily.
Even so, the wizard’s working was not for naught. Around Thorin and the Witch-king, orcs and dwarves clashed together in fierce battle. Arrows from Kili and the other archers felled any orc that approached the fallen prince. Bands of men from Dale stood with the dwarves as well, guarding the flanks of their force with long spears and grave faces. The armor they wore was of dwarven make, and their weapons were equally as fierce. As the orcs attempted to swarm around the dwarves, engulfing the smaller army and pressing them back toward the gates of Erebor, the spears of Dale held them back.
King Thrain bowled into the Witch-king with his mighty ax. Unhurt by this attack, the dark giant was nevertheless pushed away from Thorin by sheer force of momentum.
“Come not between the nazgûl and his prey, little dwarf,” the monster snarled. “You do not want my attention. You will not survive it.”
“Nor do I fear it,” said Thrain. “Coward! You knew you could not best my son and so resorted to base treachery.”
Swinging his giant mace in one hand, the Witch-king set the broadsword in his other hand aflame. “I win my battles, King of Dirt. I cannot be killed. Will you say the same? Stand against me, and you shall die.”
Bilbo could not see the faces of the dwarves so far below, but he imagined Thrain smiled. He knew his father-in-law well enough to think that he did. Like Thorin, he was the sort to smile at danger.
“What better death for any dwarf than to face the evil one, for the tombs of all my fathers, and the salvation of my son?”
Thrain charged once more, putting himself bodily between the nazgûl and Thorin’s slumped form. The Witch-king swung his blazing sword. Thrain’s head and the Raven Crown went tumbling, spinning through the air, bouncing along the ground, before coming to rest beside Thorin’s shoulder. His headless body dropped, lifeless, still clutching his ax.
Bilbo could only stare in horror. He did not understand how it could happen so. How could the Witch-king once again be marching on Thorin’s prone, unprotected form?
Golden in the light of the sun which shone upon his armor, Fili stepped up. Brave, quick-tempered Fili put himself between his uncle and the monster. “You shall not have him!”
The massive mace of the Witch-king struck him across the chest, knocking him down like a bowling pin. Crushing him. He did not rise.
Kili howled beside Bilbo and one of his arrows made it through the dark cloud only to be blocked by the nazgûl’s flaming sword. Bilbo could not comfort him. There was no comfort to be had. Fili and Thorin were so still. Thrain was dead. The dwarves were outnumbered so dramatically by the orcs.
“Courage.” Thranduil’s hand was much softer upon Bilbo’s shoulder than a dwarven hand would be. Too large, too light, such a hand could give no comfort. Bilbo could barely see the elf through the veil of his tears. “Look: hope.”
At the back of the Gundabad army, coming down from Ravenhill, a great host clad in bright armor appeared. Their arrows flew straight and true, felling many orcs in the first assault. Half the orcs were forced to turn to face these new arrivals, relenting somewhat from their great press against Erebor.
“The elves?” Blinking away his tears, Bilbo saw that there was, in fact, some hope. Although the orcs still outnumbered elves, dwarves, and Dale men at least five to one, they were caught between the two forces. The unexpected appearance of the new army from behind caused panic in the orcish ranks, making them easily mowed down by the skillful elves.
“My people,” said Thranduil proudly.
Below, the Witch-king laughed. He raised his flaming sword. Down the Long Lake, great ships rose up like shadows. Black sails and dark wood made storm clouds over the water. Even in the distance, Bilbo could see swords flashing like lightning along the decks. Clearly, the attackers had reinforcements of their own.
“Despair!” the Witch-king crowed. “None can stand against the might of Mordor.”
From the ground before the nazgûl, Fili pushed up to his knees. “The mountain—” He got one foot underneath him. “Erebor—” Shaking, his other foot managed to join it, and he rose to stand. “Will never fall.”
Laughing again, the Witch-king only spun his giant mace. Some of the spikes were as big as Fili’s ax. The whole ball was the size of his body. Another hit would surely kill him. Suddenly, the chain snapped, the ball of the mace flying off into the orcish army, hopefully to crush many of the enemy.
There, in the middle of the swirling darkness was funny little Bofur with his silly mustache and the mattock he wielded instead of an ax. He seemed to be sitting on top of the handle, and Bilbo saw that the head of the mattock was pinning a single link of the giant mace’s chain to the ground.
“Faulty craftsmanship, that,” he said cheekily. “Should have gone with dwarven-make.”
Howling, the Witch-king struck him with the club of the mace. He flew through the air as the ball of the mace had. Bilbo did not see him land. Fili swung his ax, but it was parried by the flaming sword. A single kick sent him back to the ground. The dark cloud stretched out over all of them.
“You will not deter me,” the nazgûl shrieked. “No man may harm me. Your prince is beaten! Beaten I say, and all of you shall fall.” Once again, he loomed low over Thorin’s still body. Then he stiffened and rose as Dis wrenched her ax from his back.
Turning, he looked at her. Even if he had a face, Bilbo would not have been able to see the expression upon it.
“I’m hardly a man, am I? And no one beats up my brother but me,” Dis said, striking his head from his shoulders.
It did not bounce along the ground as Thrain’s had. Instead, it shriveled up like the scorpions had so long ago, unable to withstand the sunlight now that the dark cloud holding it together was gone.
“This battle is not won,” Thranduil said.
“No.” Bilbo saw the fierce, tall men pouring from the black ships to catch the elves between their assault and the orcs, mirroring the initial elvish assault.
Below, some of the nazgûl’s working lingered, because Bilbo heard the clattering of Dis’s ax as it struck the ground. Leaving Thorin, she sank to her knees beside Fili.
“Open your eyes,” she said. Bilbo’s heart broke to hear her. “Open your eyes, my son. Please. Your hand is not cold. This blood upon your lips is not much. Nor your own, I think. You have only bitten your tongue as you fell, perhaps. No, no, you are well. You are well. Open your eyes, Fili, and show me that you are well. It shall not be as it was before. I shall be the mother you so wanted me to be. I swear to you. Only open your eyes. No gold will touch my hand again, save the golden hair of my beloved son. Please, Fili.”
Losing their captain seemed to enrage the orcs, or terrify them. Wailing in hatred, they threw themselves at dwarf and elf alike with no regard for their own safety. By sheer numbers, they bore down the defenders. Then, in the distance, Bilbo heard the roar of a bear. Beorn crashed through the orcs, wrecking their lines and savaging them with tooth and claw. From the sky, golden eagles dove down upon the attacking army, lifting orcs high into the air and dropping them upon their fellows.
Fili and Thorin lay still.