January 20, Year 3019 of the Third Age of Middle Earth
Durin’s Tower, Moria.
Parry. Swing. Thrust. Parry. Swing. Thrust. Parry. Swing. Thrust.
The rhythm of the duel was ingrained into the Istari by now. The Wizard’s actions had become nearly automatic, the Maia of Manwe and Varda’s movements being guided more by pure instinct than any conscious thought, his limbs almost spontaneously shifting to where they needed to be. The being known variably as Olorin, Gandalf, and many other names and titles could not afford to spend even the slightest of moments thinking: The briefest of hesitations was nearly guaranteed to be lethal in a battle such as this.
In the face of a foe such as the Bane of Durin.
How the ancient beast of Morgoth had come to dwell beneath Khazad-Dum was unknown to the Wizard. Most likely, it was a survivor of the War of Wrath, having fled the downfall of its master at the hands of the Valar and hiding away in the darkest, deepest place it could find, hidden away from the Children of Eru. For five full millennia it had slumbered in the shadows, unaware of the changing of the world above it, as a full Age came and went, as Numenor rose and fell, as Sauron did the same and as the elves had begun to fade away.
Finally, the dwarfs, seeking mithril, that most valuable and rare of metals, had delved too greedily and deep. The Flame in the Shadows, smouldering in the deep dark, had been relit. Five thousand years of slumber had done nothing to smothers the monster’s fire, done nothing to weaken its unbreakable flesh, done nothing to sate its undying rage. The Balrog’s fury was absolute: Two kings of Durin’s Line, Duin VI and his son Nain, fell before its might, and many of their people with them. Khazad-Dum, that place filled to the brim with a proud, valiant and resilient peoples, which had successfully resisted the powers of both Morgoth and Sauron at their fullest might, would be all but destroyed in a matter of months, the few survivors scattered like so much dust in the wind.
For a thousand years since, the cursed Black Pit had been left to the Balrog and the Balrog alone; not even Sauron himself dared to claim dominion over the Nameless Terror, instead leaving his ancient masters’ fellow servant to its own devices. The creatures that the Dark Lord sent to Moria occupied only the upper halls and living in terror of the beast below, cowering away from wherever its fire could be felt. Only the most foolhardy and the most desperate ever daring to venture inside Moria, and neither ever stayed for long.
Olorin fell into the latter category. It had not been his wish to enter Khazad-Dum: circumstances had forced his hand. The quest of the Fellowship of the Ring had to succeed, no matter the cost, or else all of Middle-earth and all and every land beyond would fall beneath the iron fist of Sauron. The Free Peoples could not possibly hope to defeat the Dark Lord of Mordor by force of arms, so hiding the Ring away would merely delay the inevitable; using its power for themselves would simply unleash new evils into the world; destroying his Ring was their only hope.
And to do that, the Nine Walkers had to find a way to cross the Misty Mountains. But Sauron had long worked to isolate his enemies, and there existed no safe way to do so. Crossing the northern reaches of the mountains, from Gundabad to Goblin Town, would have been a suicide mission. The High Pass, the main road from the elven sanctuary of Rivendell to the east, was too closely watched, and left the mountains dangerously close to Mirkwood, which was dominated by the Enemy. Saruman’s betrayal had closed the Gap of Rohan and any other route in the south. And every day that the Fellowship delayed, the Dark Lord became stronger, and the strength of the Free Peoples, whether by the departure of the elves or the endless skirmishing on the frontiers of Gondor and Rohan, diminished.
This had left the Redhorn Pass, between Caradhras and Celebdil, as the only option available to the Nine Walkers. But the old trade route between the elven realms of Eregion and Lorien, too, had proved dangerous: wolves waylaid them, spies of Saruman shadowed them, and fierce winter blizzards had all but closed the pass. Forcing a crossing through the mountains had rapidly become all but impossible. Yet the quest had to succeed.
And so the Fellowship had tried to cross under the mountains, though the ancient mines of Moria. There they had found gruesome evidence of the fate of the previous fools that had tried to enter into that place: Balin, Ori and Oin of the old company of Thorin Oakenshield and all those that had accompanied them to try and retake the mines, every last one of them massacred by the orcs, goblins and trolls of the Black Pit. The same orcs, goblins and trolls had risen out of the dark to attack the Fellowship not long afterwards, assaulting the within Balin’s tomb and forcing them to flee for the Great Gates at the eastern side of the mountain.
And then Durin’s Bane had become aware of their presence.
Even the creatures of Sauron had fled at its approach. The Fellowship had as well, fleeing as the Balrog’s spells had blasted open doors and shattered corridors behind them. Olorin alone, as a fellow Maiar, could hope to stand against the monster, and even he was quickly forced into a fighting retreat, nearly broken by the Nameless Terror’s counterspells against his defenses. For hours and miles they had fled, sprinting through darkened corridors and skirmishing with orcs, the Flame in the Shadow never far behind. Finally, exhausted, the Istari had made his stand upon the narrow Bridge of Khazad-Dum. The Flames of Udun and Anor had clashed there, the Dark Fire and the Secret Fire’s servants breaking against each other, and in the end both had fallen into the dark.
How long ago had that been? Hours? Days? Weeks? More? Ever since breaking the bridge, Olorin had lost all track of the passage of time. His seemingly endless duel with Durin’s Bane had seen to that. He had battled the Balrog nonstop for however long it had been, neither Servant of Morgoth or Servant of Illuvatar able to defeat the other, though their all and every thought were devoted to doing so. They had battled in freefall, striking at each other with blade and claw as they tumbled into the seemingly endless pit. They had battled in water, in the deep, forgotten pools at the bottom of the mountain, trying to drown each other in the black depths. They had battled in the deepest, darkest places below the earth, where terrible, unspeakable things gnawed at the roots of the world. And they had battled upon the Endless Stair, driving each other endlessly further up the mountain, striking at each other’s heels.
Now they battled upon the summit of Zirakzigil, atop the very peak of the mountain. The ruins of Durin’s Tower were strewn around them, shattered by the seemingly endless battle between the two immortals. The skies and winds raged all around them, thunder booming and lighting crashing down from every side, as if Celebdil itself was trying to throw the Maiar off of its heights. Blinding snow and hail encompassed the whole of the summit, forming an arena of forbidding grey clouds around the combatants as their duel finally entered its last stages.
Both Istari and Balrog, despite their Ainur heritage, were exhausted, their bodies beaten and bloodied, almost broken. Their movements, their strikes and blocks, were becoming slower, more sluggish, more desperate. Olorin and the Balrog both knew that they were at their limits. Soon, one of them would break. Here, upon the peak, one way or another, their battle would meet its end. Both were determined to be the victor.
The crackled around them, spitting out yet another lighting bolt at the two fighters. This one, though, darted closer than the rest, and in a moment of almost divine clarity, Olorin reached out with Glamdring, the Foe-hammer. The ancient blade of King Turgon of Gondolin shone like the stars as it caught the lightning, and for a single instant the whole mountaintop was ablaze with white light, as the Istari thrust the legendary sword forwards towards the Balrog’s chest, aiming to strike a final, mortal blow.
In another world, another life, he would have succeeded. Olorin would have smote his foe upon the mountainside, before succumbing to his own injuries. Gwaihir the Windlord would have plucked him from the peak and carried him to the care of Galadriel in Lorien. He would have joined with the Three Hunters, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, and from there led the armies of the Men of the West in Rohan, at Minas Tirith and finally before the Black Gate. The story of that world, of that life, has been told and told again, by many storytellers and in many forms. It need not be told again here.
But this is a different story. A very different story. A story of two worlds, brought together by unforeseeable circumstance, and of the chaos that followed. It is a story of the darkest of despair and the brightest of hope. It is a story of unwavering, but not untested, faith. It is a story of the schemes of Kings and Emperors. It is the story of the Dark Lord Sauron’s conquests not of Middle-earth in the Third Age, but of his war against Europe in the first months and years of the 13th Century. It is the story of the desperate Crusade that Christendom would wage against him, of Saints and Sinners, of Heaven and Hell.
And it begins when the Istari Olorin slips on a tiny pebble, no bigger than a man’s little finger.
With his footwork thrown off, the wizards’ stance shifted. His strike went wide. Instead of a lethal thrust into the Balrog’s heart, the tip of Glamdring instead pierced into the Nameless Terror’s shoulder. A strong strike to be sure, but nowhere near a finishing one. Now, this is not to say that the blow went unfelt by the monster. Indeed, the Balrog let loose an earthshaking sound of pain as the lighting bolt coursed through its body, its agonized roar making the whole mountain tremble. It’s limbs spasmed, the Balrog’s whole body briefly glowing with blueish-white light.
But Durin’s Bane did not die. It smoked and steamed, the blow staggering the beast, but it the monster fall completely. It fell to its knees and hands, but the swirling aura of fire and smoke around the beast showed that the battle was not yet over. Olorin could not press his advantage: he had put much of what power he had left into the strike, and now all he could do simply to remain standing. The Istari leaned heavily against his staff, warily staring at the Nameless Terror, desperately trying to catch his breath in the cold winds.
After a long few moments, Olorin noticed something: the winds were no longer cold. The air atop the mountain, in spite of the weather, the altitude and the season, was heating, and heating rapidly. It did not take long to discern the reason why: the Balrog had begun to glow. Something was welling up inside it, its darkened flesh starting to gain a reddish hue, veins of fiery lighting appearing on its hide. The shadows and smoke around the monster grew even darker, seeming to expand even as they wound themselves tighter and tighter around Durin’s Bane. Even then, the burning light within the Balrog shone cruel and red, its sword and whip aglow like exploding stars.
Now the snow beneath and around the Nameless Terror was not merely melting but rather boiling away under the sheer heat that had begun to emanate from the monster. The stone beneath fare little better, the ground beneath the Balrog’s feet melting into slag. Waves of heat washed over Olorin, fueled by one thing and one thing alone: pure, unadulterated hatred. The Beast of Morgoth, in all its millennia of existence had never been in such pain as it was now. The Istari’s strike had come close, oh so very close, to striking Durin’s Bane down, but now it served only to fuel an anger the likes of which even Olorin had never seen.
Most other creatures would try to cower or flee in the face of such agony and the one who had inflicted it, but the Nameless Terror felt no fear of the Maiar before it. The Beast of Morgoth was not afraid to be destroyed, so long as it could destroy the one before it in the process. All that Durin’s Bane held within its heart was an undying fury, a fury directed at Olorin and Olorin alone.
It did not take long for that fury to be unleashed. The Balrog stuck out like the feral beast that it was, lashing out at the Istari with sword, whip and claw in a hurricane of flames and fury. The blows rained down on Olorin like thunderstrikes, the Wizard barely holding back the onslaught. The Nameless Terror beat Olorin’s defenses like a drum, the rhythm of the strikes rapidly building towards a terrible climax. The Maiar could not last against such a relentless assault: Glamdring was barely held aloft; his staff began to splinter and crack; his tattered robes began to smoke and char.
Fear gripped at Olorin’s heart. This was beyond him. The Istari could barely comprehend the aura of pure hatred radiating off of the Balrog, a terrible thing like choking black smoke and roaring red fire both that enveloped the entire mountaintop. It was empowering the monster, somehow, their hate and fury and pain burning like a great furnace, driving the Nameless Terror like some hideous engine, ever accelerating, ever strengthening.
The flames burned ever hotter. Durin’s Bane was ablaze like a second sun, the rock of Zirakzigil melting and running like candle wax around it, the mountaintop becoming like a sea of molten glass as fire undid stone. The Nameless Terror was unbound, its roars outsounding the thunder and winds of the storm, its blows shaking the whole mountain to its very roots. It was a force of nature. Unapproachable. Unfaceable. Unstoppable.
Nightmarish visions shone in Olorin’s mind’s eye: Lorien and Rivendell and beyond ablaze, destroyed utterly by the flames descending from the mountains, a flame that could not be stopped until it had consumed the whole world. The ascendency of a second Dark Lord, just as terrible as the first, striking against Eriador and Wilderland, trapping the Free Peoples of the south between Shadow and Fire.
Such things could not come to pass. The Balrog could not be unleashed from Moria to menace the world. It’s terrible might had to be contained, no matter the cost. No mortal power could hope to contain the full might of Durin’s Bane. But Olorin was no mortal power. He was a Maia, an Ainur born before the Great Music, ancient already when even the Nameless Terror was young.
He had been sent across the sea to encourage and persuade the forces of Good to stand against the darkness. The restrictions of his mission were clear: he was to persuade and encourage the Free Peoples, not to rule or dominate like the Dark Lord. But now, standing alone upon the mountain, with no allies besides him and only the enemy before him, the Istari could no longer hold back.
And so it was that Olorin stood their ground. Every hammer blow was met and turned aside, another portion of the mountain being shattered into dust in the process. The Dark Fire could not burn him. The smoke and shadow could not consume him. Wind and light radiated from him as fire and shadow did from the monster, holding the Balrog’s powers at bay. The Nameless Terror’s hatred met with the Grey Pilgrim’s courage, neither able to overcome the other.
The fire grew even hotter. The winds blew even harder. Light and Darkness collided without ceasing, tearing away the top of the mountain, tearing at the Balrog and the Istari, tearing at the very fabric of the world itself, and the Great Music itself built into a terrible crescendo, ascending towards a new and dissonant chord, a new melody to be written...
And in a moment that seemed to last an eternity, the first new note echoed throughout all of creation.