After our interview with the Professor we were assigned quarters in the Ring of Isengard, as the vast wall surrounding the complex was called, near the gate. Captain Gríma escorted us from Orthanc, and saw to the stabling of our ponies. I was almost ready to flip a coin to decide whether to eat dinner first or just fall asleep where I was standing, but as Bandobras Took once said, a hobbit travels on his stomach. Captain Gríma led us to the mess hall that served the gate guards, and we all feasted on freshly-baked bread, cheese, dried apples, and salted pork. Several of the Dunlending soldiers were smoking pipe-weed, and Petals and I were able to bum some off of one of them for an after-dinner smoke.
I noticed Petals giving Isengard some professional scrutiny. "I could make out like a bandit in this place," he said. "The locks are pitiful, stuff I could pick back when I was living with the Old Bastard."
"Don't get any funny ideas," I told him. "These are soldiers. If they catch you stealing, there's no thirty-days-in-the-lockholes like back in the Shire, they string you up and let the crows deal with you."
"All right, all right, I'm just saying," Petals insisted. "You could open these locks just by swearing at them. They're practically begging for someone to clean them out."
Petals and I had been keeping it down, as you might imagine, but Legs' hearing was pretty sharp for a Big Guy. He leaned down and said, "You two have bigger problems to worry about than the locks of Isengard. Like that army of orcs coming up the Wizard's Vale. They were bad enough before, but now that Sauron knows the Ruling Ring is here, he'll be pulling out all the stops."
"What was all that about, Legs?" I asked. "You'd almost think the Professor wanted Sauron to charge in with everything he's got."
"Maybe he does," Legs answered, but he wouldn't say anything else.
The Professor turned out to be right, and I found myself awakened for the second time in a row by the sound of a battle. Captain Gríma had bedded us down in one of the barracks. It was situated on an upper story of Isengard's wall, just below the fortified roof. Petals, Legs, and I were awakened along with the soldiers by an officer holding a lamp. There were ringing bells and blowing horns and banging drums in the distance as an alarm made its way through Isengard. The officer was barking out orders to the men in Dunlendish, and they were all hopping out of their cots and helping each other into their mail shirts and helmets. In a couple minutes, only the three of us were left in the room.
There was a fire burning low in both of the room's fireplaces, and it gave the three of us enough light to see by as we dressed ourselves. Legs led us out of the room and up a wide set of stone steps to the top of Isengard. We were near the inner edge, where a narrow wall came up just under the eyes of Petals and myself. Beyond it, in the dim light filtering down out of the overcast sky, I could see across the expanse of roads, pits, foundries, stables, parade grounds, and barracks that surrounded the Tower of Orthanc.
There was a gritty feel to the dark stone under my feet, and I lifted my left foot and inspected the sole. There were little black bits stuck to the skin, and I pinched a few in my fingers and brought them up for a closer look. Legs saw what I was doing and bent over to wipe at the stone with his finger. He rubbed the bits between his finger and thumb and finally said, "Volcanic ash."
That didn't make any sense. "But the nearest volcano is . . . "
Legs nodded. "Mount Doom, in Mordor. That's where this is from. Sauron has sent a plume of ash from the volcano to give his orcs cover from the sunlight. Now it's drifting down and coating everything."
Let me tell you, it was damned creepy knowing that these little black bits I was holding in my hand had come from Mordor. We were hundreds of miles away, and yet here it was drifting down out of the sky. It gave me a sense of just how much effort Sauron was putting into this whole operation.
But there was no sense in worrying over volcanic ash when there was a war being fought along the outer edge of the ring wall. The walls guarding the outer edge rose at least twelve feet above the top of the ring, and there was a catapault facing outwards every hundred feet or so along the outer perimeter. There were also two towers flanking the gate, and these rose another hundred feet above our heads. Some of the horns and drums we could hear were coming from beyond the outer perimeter, from the army of orcs that was preparing to assault Isengard.
Watching the uniformed Big Folk rushing back and forth and manning the various engines of war gave me an unaccustomed and unwelcome feeling of insignificance. True, the ultimate cause of all this hustle and bustle was hanging from a chain around my neck, but I still felt like a piece of discarded wrapping paper at a birthday party.
So when Captain Gríma showed up and announced that he had been ordered by the Professor to place himself at our disposal, I asked him if he could get me a view of the battle from a good vantage point. Gríma thought about it for a moment, then said, "The guard post above the gate seems as good a place as any. I will lead you there."
The guard post was directly above the gate, between the two towers. A set of stone stairs led up to a flat landing guarded by a low wall looking south into the Wizard's Vale. The wall was low enough for me to look over, and look over it I did.
If you've never seen an army of orcs gathered together, count yourself lucky. That much ugly gathered into one spot ought to have caused the ground to give way in sheer disgust. The road passed out through the gate directly underneath us, and ran through cultivated fields for about a quarter of a mile before disappearing under the ranks of the gathered orcs. Sitting directly on the roadway was a huge steel battering ram hanging by chains from a massive wooden frame. The head had been carved into the likeness of a snarling wolf. There were also at least a dozen wheeled towers rising up above the sea of black-clad figures, and plenty of catapaults and ballistas and whatnot. The orcs were busy lining up into ranks, blowing horns, beating drums, and making as much racket as they could.
My eye was caught by the sight of a figure on a horse, and even in the dim light I could tell it was one of the ringers. The figure brought its horse to a sudden stop, and turned its hooded absence of a face until it was looking directly at me. It let out one of those shrieks, and at the sound everyone and everything else came to a halt, so for a long moment the battlefield was completely silent. Then the orcs all started caterwauling at once, twice as loud as before, and just like that they all started moving forward.
Sauron had evidently run out of patience, and the battle for possession of the ring hanging down inside my shirt was about to be joined.