4: Burning Bridges
~~~Chapter 4: Burning Bridges~~~
Chittering cries echoed through the great stone hall, and the Fellowship plus one accidental traveler ran towards the far end. Boromir glanced over his shoulder to make sure the little ones and Wesley were caught up, and shook his head.
The stranger was more than he initially appeared. Far from the scruffy battered lump the monster had thrown at the startled hobbits, this man was an enigma. He knew his way around weapons and could kill a cave troll, however unconventionally. Boromir hadn’t missed the fact that the small spear like projectile had been made of wood, and was obviously designed to do something specific. He wondered what Master Wesley Wyndam-Price did that required wooden weapons. He also wondered what else the man was hiding, since now he was holding not only the axe, but also a medium sized dagger that appeared from a sheath by his ankle.
He reminded himself not to underestimate this Wesley. He was a man of cunning and fortitude, someone who could make a valuable ally, or ruthless enemy. And they knew as little about him as he did about them and their quest.
While his language skills had progressed, the brunette offered little to no information about himself or his world. They knew that there were no hobbits, dwarves, or elves, but he had said that he’d faced things similar to trolls, and he’d not been too surprised at the appearance of orcs. Boromir also had the feeling that even if Wesley was a native speaker to the Common Tongue, he would be reticent about personal details. Good warriors never gave away information that would allow an unfair advantage to their foes.
The man who would be king over Boromir’s people had quietly cautioned them against sharing too much with the lean man in turn. He warned that even though the circumstances of his arrival were odd, that was no guarantee that he would help with their cause. Boromir thought this was a bit overly paranoid since Wesley had done nothing overtly hostile since he’d arrived, and in fact went out of his way to be helpful. He’d seen how the others guarded Frodo and had protected him with his own life on the line.
But Boromir did understand the need for caution, especially since Wesley had… reacted… to Frodo’s presence. Where he, Boromir, felt a draw to the ring, a belief that the ring could help as well as hinder, Wesley avoided the hobbit as much as possible. Whenever Frodo, or the ring, got too close, a strange look of uncomfortable familiarity washed over his face, and the stranger inevitably moved away, as if it were unpleasant for him to be in the ring’s presence.
From what he’d heard of the ring, all men, and most elves, felt compelled to use the ring for their own will. What this man had that allowed him to resist, and even repel, the ring, Boromir had no idea. The stranger might not even know himself, especially since Wesley didn’t even know there was a ring to fear, for good or for ill.
Boromir could see the orcs streaming down from cracks in the ceiling and up from craters in the stone floor. He shivered involuntarily and gripped his sword tighter. He knew it would end poorly, no matter what tricks any of the others had up their sleeves. Cornered in a mine filled to the brim with goblins was no picnic on the plain. He joined the others in a loose circle, back to back. The hobbits were pushed to the center with the larger folk and dwarf taking up more offensive positions. Even Aragorn and the elf looked apprehensive, but the stranger had only a look of concentration and determination on his face. While not classically handsome, he had a presence that no one could ignore, a look in his grey-blue eyes that said they’d seen too much, that his world was full of pain.
They were soon surrounded by shrieking orcs brandishing all manner of armament, waving swords and axes, but surprisingly staying back. Perhaps they didn’t like Gandalf’s magic light, but Boromir was sure they wouldn’t stay away long. He didn’t know who felt it first, the orcs or the Fellowship, but suddenly they weren’t alone. There was an ‘other’, a beast with heat and char on its breath.
The orcs looked around in confusion and fear, twisting to look in the direction the low roar had come. They dispersed as if by magic, crying and scuttling back into the darkness. Boromir turned with the others, facing the flickering light that moved behind the great stone pillars, and was utterly at a loss.
“What is this new devilry?” he asked.
The light moved closer, a halo of orange flames just out of sight. The company edged forward to stand level with Gandalf, who tightly closed his eyes. The relief at the sudden departure of the orcs was soon overwhelmed by a general sense of dread. Perhaps it was innate, the fear of whatever lay just beyond the corner, or perhaps the creature brought the fear with him, a foul miasma every bit as present as the burning, singeing heat.
Wesley ran his hand down the axe handle and tilted his head as if listening. Gandalf opened his eyes and looked ahead. He ground out slowly, “A Balrog.”
Wesley started and repeated, “A Balrog? May be Balroque, demon of below?”
The entire group turned his way, and Gandalf asked in a whisper, “You know of Balrogs?”
The stranger blinked, thought a second, and burst into mildly hysterical laughter. The beast was coming closer and Boromir wanted nothing more to do than run, but Gandalf held out his hand to stay flight. Wesley stifled his laughter and said again, tightly, “Balroque!”
“Do you know how to defeat it?”
He thought for a second, opening his hand and staring at the palm. He shook his head slightly and said, “Not here, home, yes. But no- “ here he said an unintelligible word. Gandalf shook his head, and he tried again. “No air freezing water, no breath.” Frustrated at his inability to communicate exactly what he needed, he gestured in the direction they had been heading. “Cannot help, best to run?”
All too eager to agree, the company ran for their lives.
~~~ ~~~ ~~~
As he fled along the wickedly twisting staircases, Wesley wondered briefly if he’d been trapped all along in some sort of personally designed ironic hell and hadn’t noticed it. He was covered in black bloody goo… sore, tired, and moderately out of sorts. The lump on the back of his head throbbed with every step, a pulsing reminder of the fragility of the human body. He was being attacked by creatures mildly more frightening than vampires, but considerably less so than most of the demons he’d hunted. The unfortunate thing, from his perspective, was they seemed to have a much better grasp of team work and archery. Wes hopped lightly as an arrow struck the stone beneath his feet.
It was the mention of a Balroque, however, that made him wonder. If this was a gigantic joke on his behalf, ha ha, he got it, best move on. If not, he figured the great cosmic karma wheel had just made another revolution and he wanted off of the ride. Who would ever have thought that the one question he’d gotten wrong on the Watcher certification tests would come back to haunt him.
Candidates had been asked to identify and discern the real and fictional demons that the slayer may encounter, list the manner and ways of defeating said demon, as well as their habitat and mating rituals. It had been towards the end of the test, and Wes was perhaps a bit over confident. The questioner asked about the Balroque, and he, in his youthful arrogance, said that they did exist. They were demons of a lower ring of a hell dimension, created out of flame and smoke, and rarely seen near human habitations. The councilman had merely raised an eyebrow, marked an x, and informed Wes he needed to study more carefully next time; everyone knew that Balroques were creatures of fairy tale, a boogey man of lesser demons.
Chastised, Wesley had swallowed his shame, locking it away with a thousand other miserable memories, nodded politely and left the examination hall. He’d gone back to study even more fervently than before; the chance to become an active watcher was too valuable to give up. The next time the test had been administered, he’d gotten a perfect score. Those results had sealed his placement as Faith’s watcher when her own watcher had been brutally killed by Kakistos.
He couldn’t suppress another small bark of laughter even as they hurried down a particularly treacherous stretch of stairs. To think, all these years later, he was proven right after all. He wondered if he really could defeat one, and thought perhaps the best conjecture was some sort of liquid nitrogen approach. It would quench the flames, seal the beast into a cage of ash and charcoal, and then they may have a better chance of defeating it. But given the distinct lack of modern chemicals in the near vicinity, he’d be happy to settle for running away, dignity mostly intact.
A chunk of the bridge like stairs had broken away, the gap larger than it was comfortable to jump, especially for the hobbits. The elf leaped the space lightly, followed by Gandalf. The orcs shot arrow after arrow at their exposed position, and Wes wondered, not for the first time, why the hobbits didn’t wear shoes. Pippin just didn’t have a satisfactory answer.
Boromir grasped Merry and Pippin his arms and gave a mighty heave, landing with less than his usual grace on the other side. Unfortunately, the leap knocked more of the unstable stone structure away, leaving Wes, the dwarf, Sam, Frodo and Strider trapped even further away. Strider threw Sam across, and turned to Gimli. Time was growing short, with both the Balroque, or Balrog, and the orcs coming ever closer.
“Nobody tosses a dwarf,” grumbled Gimli, and Strider raised his hands and moved away, leaving him the choice. Wes mentally rolled his eyes and pretended not to understand the dwarf’s request. He wasn’t about to see his companion tumble down in the chasm below, not when he could help. Gimli sputtered and thrashed, but when Wes determinedly tossed him anyway, he landed safely on the other side. Legolas smirked, but Wes only ignored him and jumped himself.
Once everyone was back together and still traveling downward, Wes looked around. He couldn’t help a small gasp of awe at the immensity of the cavern, smoky flames rising from dark chasms below. It looked like something out of Dante’s Inferno with no Virgil in sight. He shivered.
It felt as if they were almost there, almost free, when they reached the bridge, what Gandalf had called the Bridge of Khazad-dum. Wes thought it looked an awful lot like the rest of the narrow, decrepit, stone bridges they’d been running over, but it meant that the end was in sight, he was willing to go with the name calling. Gandalf urged them forward over the bridge and no one needed to be told twice.
When most of the company was across, Wes could see just how right he had been all those years ago. The demon rose from the flames, long curved horns, widespread wings of flame, a roaring maw of pure heat and energy. When the wizard turned back to fight, Wes stopped. The others were already mostly across, but he took a few steps closer the gray clad man. Wesley knew magic would perhaps be the only thing to stop the beast, but even then, it wasn’t a foolproof plan.
It was with shock, and not a little bit of envy, he watched the old man face down the demon without even a tremble of fear. When Gandalf cried, “You shall not pass!” it was almost as if he was made to face this creature of evil, as if he’d found his waterloo in the hellish depths of Moria. Determination was etched into every movement of every muscle and Wes stepped back, following the elf over the bridge. This wasn’t his fight; he would leave it to who it called.
It wasn’t cruelty or callousness that drove him away. He understood the magic in the air, the calling of one nature to another. He could feel it hum on his skin as he turned and watched the drama unfold. His magic was of a stiffer sort, buried in ritual and formula. He’d never tested the limits of his abilities, hiding behind the formality of sorcery rather than the more organic expression of pure magic. Watching Gandalf lash out at the demon of hell and heat, he promised to himself that should he live, he’d learn more about his magic. Regardless, he understood the workings of true great magic. It bound the participants into a ritual all its own for a finale blood and death.
Even as it appeared that Gandalf had won, that he’d beaten back the demon, banishing him to the depths of Moria, a flaming whip coil sprang from the darkness, wrapping around the wizard’s ankle. When he was yanked downward, his eyes met Wesley’s. A moment of understanding passed between them, and Wesley nodded. This fight was far from over, and the he would honor Gandalf’s unspoken request to aid his companions.
Horror-struck, the rest of the Fellowship was rooted in place. Time seemed frozen as Gandalf slithered backwards, barely hanging on to the broken ledge of stone. He choked out, “Run, you fool!” and Aragorn grasped Frodo around the waist. A shower of arrows rained down and Wes pushed the others in front of him, running towards the light once more.