Back on the pony I went, with Captain Gríma and half a dozen mounted Dunlendings leading the way, and an army of Sauron's orcs behind me. I had another good look to the east as I rode out of Fort Baran. There was a range of mountains in the south that rose up until their peaks were covered in snow. The orcs were marching along the foothills, looking like a line of ants marching past Buck Hill. There were plumes of black smoke rising here and there along the line of their march, and I figured those were burning Rohirrim villages. Closer at hand, the company of orcs that the Dunlendings had scattered had managed to regroup, but they seemed content to stay where they were for the time being.
I expected Captain Gríma to led us down the path to the Gap of Rohan, but instead he turned to the right and led us around the west face of the fort. The west slope of Dol Baran wasn't as steep as the east and south sides, and he led us down out of sight of the orcs. "The Dunlendings know these hills like the backs of their hands," he told us. "There are more ways to reach Isengard than just the Isen valley, ways that Sauron's orcs don't know about."
The overcast that covered the sky to the east didn't extend all the way to the western horizon. There was still some blue sky to be seen there, and I found my spirits lifting despite myself. I hadn't realized just how gloomy the dark gray mass of clouds had been until I had something to contrast it with.
We spent maybe two hours picking our way through the hills north of Dol Baran before finally passing through a narrow defile that opened out onto the Wizard's Vale. We were about four miles north of Dol Baran, and when I looked to the right I could see the black swarm of Sauron's orcs gathering around the base of the hill.
Straight ahead was a broad plain crossed by a road and a river. There was movement along the road as another army marched down it. They were dressed in black, and over their heads they carried square banners on poles showing the white hand. It looked like the Professor wasn't going to give up Fort Baran without a fight.
Captain Gríma led us down to the road, and a man on horseback, a Dunlending wearing a gold helmet with a white plume, left the line of march and came to meet us. Captain Gríma saluted him, and the two men exchanged some words. I looked at Legs for a translation and he shrugged. "Captain Gríma reporting as ordered, that kind of thing. The other man seems to be the commander of this force. He's telling Gríma to carry on." The two men exchanged salutes again, and the Dunlending commander turned and rode back to his army. Captain Gríma issued an order to his men, and they led us north by the side of the road.
Another twenty minutes went by while the Professor's army marched past us, and then the road to Isengard was clear. I could make it out in the distance by then, a wall of black rock nestled up against the mountains, with a black tower rising up from the middle. There was a steady drift of black smoke coming from within the wall, rising up to join the black pall coming from the east.
Evening was setting in by the time we came to a halt in front of a vast iron gate set in the otherwise featureless black rock of Isengard. Captain Gríma and the men standing guard above the gate exchanged ritual greetings, and the two halves of the gate swung silently open. We went in, and by torchlight I could see that more iron doors were set into the black rock, with stairs leading up to higher stories. The far end of the tunnel opened onto Isengard.
Captain Gríma and three of his men had picked up torches from within the arched tunnel, and they led us through the deepening gloom down a road lined with marble pillars connected by chains. There were literally thousands of lights within Isengard, most coming from windows set within the inner surface of the wall, and a few coming from the Tower of Orthanc itself. They couldn't all be candles, because I didn't think there was that much beeswax and tallow in all of Middle-earth. Maybe the Professor had come up with a substitute.
Despite the dark, there was the noise of activity coming from all around us. Dunlendish troops sang out as they drilled, and the blacksmith-shop sound of metal banging on metal was everywhere. Professor Curunír had turned Isengard into a military stronghold, and with all those orcs marching west from Mordor I found myself thankful for his forethought.
It was half a mile from the gate to the Tower of Orthanc, and the whole way there the road was flanked by the white marble pillars. The road ended in a wide courtyard flagged with dark stones, with its center occupied by the broad base of the Tower. It rose up hundred of feet into the night, with lights shining here and there from its windows.
Captain Gríma led us around to the right, where a broad staircase of black rock was flanked by more Dunlendish guards in black uniforms. Gríma and his men dismounted from their horses, and we did the same. He again exchanged ritual greetings with one of the guards, and the guard led us up the stairs to the tall iron door. There was a black circle in the center, with a white hand inscribed in it. The guard called out in Westron, "Captain Gríma has returned, as Lord Curunír ordered. Let him enter!" The door opened silently outward, and the guard led us into the Tower of Orthanc.