Even under the mountains on their way to Gondolin, Bilbo had never been as far underground as he currently was in Erebor, following winding passages into the depths of the earth. He never doubted the sturdiness of the dwarven architecture, as they seemed to favor thick, hard lines that seemed stable enough, but he couldn’t shake the fear that he would be buried down here. Hobbits lived in holes in the ground, and this was an abyss by comparison.
It was that whole being an abyss business that made it possible to get Mingalaz down here, even if it had been a bit dicey at the front gate. She’d been fitted with a saddle that must have been made in secret overnight, which Gandalf claimed was a precaution if they needed to escape in a hurry. If Thorin thought anything about the prospect of cramming everyone onto his dæmon’s back, he didn’t say so. At least there would be one less rider than originally anticipated: the Lady Galadriel had requested Glorfindel’s assistance in closing the remaining open portals, and he had agreed. Bilbo just hoped they wouldn’t miss his help.
So they descended deeper and deeper following ancient stairs, while Mingalaz flapped her giant wings slowly in pursuit. It seemed to go on forever, but so had the abyss in Khazad-dum, and he’d seen the truth of that. Still, he hoped Mingalaz was good at hovering. How quickly did dragons tire, he wondered?
“This is the spot,” Gandalf announced. They were nowhere near the bottom, if the dark depths beneath Mingalaz were any indication. As he suspected, she wouldn’t be able to land.
“The tunnel isn’t wide enough here for me to cut a portal that Mingalaz can fit through,” Bilbo admitted, scratching his head. He could always mount Mingalaz and cut from there, but it would be hard to balance, and did he really want to show off that he could touch her without a problem? “It would be easier if she could land, but-”
“We wouldn’t be able to enter Mordor at that depth,” Gandalf finished for him. “I hadn’t considered that.”
Bilbo distinctly heard Dwalin mutter something that sounded a lot like “measure twice, cut once,” but before he could offer any opinion on this practical dwarven idiom, something had grabbed him from behind and was lifting him quickly into the air. Myrtle automatically stiffened in his arms, as if sensing a predator. But if Myrtle had been carried like this before…
“Mingalaz, put them down,” Thorin scolded, genuine fear in his eyes.
Oh. He was in the jaws of a dragon.
She seemed to be managing her teeth well, somehow. He didn’t think he was being speared by them, anyway. But Mingalaz could hardly explain what she was about with her teeth digging into his mithril shirt! Oh, why did she have to be so like Thorin?
Suddenly he was swinging violently, tossed about like a rag doll between Mingalaz’s teeth. “Oh, this is the exact opposite of helpful,” he moaned, hoping his breakfast would manage to stay down.
“Draw Sting,” Myrtle ordered, her teeth clenched with effort. “I don’t think she’s just discovered a new toy, maybe it just didn’t occur to her to explain herself before she picked us up.”
Bilbo gave Thorin his best glare, and to his credit, Thorin did look sheepish. Still, he drew Sting, and it quickly became clear what Mingalaz wanted him to do. Her spastic head movements ceased, and she carried Bilbo slowly through the air, forming a huge rectangle. She wanted to help him cut a portal that she would fit through, he realized with a snort. She might be a dragon, but she was definitely still Mingalaz.
“You might have explained yourself,” he scolded her, but then let his mind slip into the concentration needed to find the opening. He didn’t need Gandalf’s guidance to know which one was correct: a flash of heat surged through him when Sting found it. Not only heat, but another feeling that he couldn’t name. His stomach curdled the longer he maintained contact with it, a weakness creeping into his limbs. No time to waste then.
With Mingalaz holding him securely, he made the cut, letting her draw him slowly through the air while he did the same with Sting. When they finished, Bilbo was left to gape through the largest portal he’d ever made. He’d known that they’d be coming through underground, but he had expected tunnels like the ones in Erebor. In Mordor, they were looking into an underground prison.
Rows and rows of cells hewn into the rock lined the walls, containing shadowed forms that he couldn’t make out anything about. Faintly, he heard moans, but nothing more spirited than that. The room itself was far larger than he would have expected for a prison, but if she was careful, Mingalaz would be able to move around without too much trouble. There were no guards that he could see, but that could change at any time. Best to get everyone through now, before someone stumbled across the portal and raised the alarm.
Bilbo gestured for everyone to follow, then dropped through the portal as Mingalaz’s teeth finally released him. He watched as the others, careful to avoid direct contact with Mingalaz, used her as a bridge to enter, with Mingalaz herself flying through last and landing with an audible thud. At Gandalf’s nod, he tugged the portal closed. Gandalf claimed there would be another way out, though he couldn’t imagine what.
“What use do they have for a prison?” Tauriel asked, her dæmon grooming himself compulsively and sitting as close to her head as he could. Legolas looked equally unnerved. “I would have thought that they kill all intruders on sight.”
“Experimentation,” Thorin guessed grimly.
Gandalf nodded in absent agreement, gesturing that they should hurry on without him, and approached some of the cells. Bilbo watched him at a distance, some instinct telling him that he would regret getting close, until Mingalaz was nudging him after the dwarves with her snout, and there was really no arguing with that. He started off at a jog, doing his best not to look at the inhabitants of the cells as he ran. For their part, they didn’t seem terribly interested in him either.
“This place smells of death,” Myrtle complained in a hushed voice. “Not in the usual sense either… I can’t explain it.”
“I don’t smell anything, but I trust your nose,” he assured her. “This is the source of all our troubles, so it’s bound to be a little strange.” For the first time since Mirkwood, Bilbo saw huge, thick spiderwebs in some of the corners of the room. He picked up his pace to catch up with the group. Better not to linger here, he decided with a heavy swallow.
He reached the group in time to hear Tauriel saying, “I said that we would find the source of the spiders.”
“I will never doubt you again,” Legolas replied with a faint smile, though his expression quickly became serious again. Mirth could not last long in such a place, Bilbo suspected, jumping as a more energetic prisoner banged on the bars.
“Shouldn’t we do something for them?” Ori asked, drifting near one of the cells. Kirthâl fluttered above him, leaning closer to the cell, her curiosity winning out over her usual caution.
Dori promptly tugged him back to the group. “They’re as likely to attack you as to thank you,” he scolded, his dæmon eyeing Ori’s as if she wanted to snatch her out of the air.
“There is not much we can do for them,” Gandalf agreed, returning from his inspection. “Every one of them has an incurable condition in varying stages. They will be released of course, but…”
“The result of an experiment? Or a side effect of this place?” Óin asked, his medical interest apparently defeating his deafness.
“In a manner of speaking,” Gandalf confirmed cryptically, without really answering either question.
“Will it affect us?” Thorin demanded, and Gandalf shook his head.
“No, we won’t be here long, so I doubt there is anything to fear,” he replied easily enough, though without inspiring confidence.
The prison emptied out into a large open chamber, with more high-ceilinged tunnels branching off from it. Looking up, Bilbo discovered that this chamber had no ceiling: they were at the bottom of a deep pit. Given what he had seen of orcs and climbing, it was probably no hardship for them to get in and out. For the sickly prisoners in the cells, escape was probably more difficult.
“Where to?” Kíli asked, looking back and forth between Thorin and Gandalf. A sickly feeling settled in Bilbo’s stomach when he saw that Thorin was fiddling with the compass absently, but didn’t look at it or ask it a question. He still couldn’t read it.
“We must find Sauron’s false dæmon,” Gandalf said, as if it were the simplest thing in the world to do, really.
As if on cue, Tauriel’s dæmon sped off out of the pit. “He will scout for us,” Tauriel assured them, though her eyes followed the direction he had gone long past anyone’s ability to still see him.
“Now,” Balin began, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “How do we get out of this pit?”
“How else do you suggest we get out of the pit, then?” Thorin asked, trying to sound patient and not like he was grinding his teeth.
“I don’t know,” Mingalaz replied, flicking her tail out carelessly. “But I’ll get shot down the second my head clears the pit. It’s suicidal. We agreed not to do that anymore. I thought that was why we didn’t just come through above ground.”
“Would they really shoot you down, though?” Bofur wondered. “Wasn’t Sauron creating dragons? It could be in this very pit.”
“You might just blend in,” Bombur agreed.
Mingalaz grimaced… or maybe she was smiling? Thorin still struggled with reading her new face. “That might work, but a pile of dwarves on my back will probably attract attention.”
“If it’s for a short time, I can conceal us a little,” Gandalf offered. “Behind your wings, we would hardly be visible in any case.”
Mingalaz ground her teeth together a few times, but eventually nodded. “Fine. Where am I flying to?”
“You will a lone black tower, reaching into the sky,” Gandalf instructed as the party climbed carefully onto Mingalaz’s back. “That is our likely destination. You will not be able to fit inside, so once we are within, it would be wise to try hiding yourself.”
Mingalaz snorted, but made no reply. Satisfied that they had some kind of plan, Thorin looked over the company. “Does everyone have something to hold on to?” he asked, gripping one of Mingalaz’s spines. The others could not do that, even Bilbo. It might distract Mingalaz in the air.
There was a chorus of grunts and other assenting sounds, and without warning, Mingalaz stretched her wings, and took off into the air. Thorin couldn’t remember the last time he did something quite so alarming. Her body did not stay still during flight, which he supposed he should have anticipated. The resulting rocking was almost like what he imagined being in a boat must be like… in the middle of a storm on the ocean.
Eventually, she cleared the pit, and Mordor was laid out before them. Thorin saw now why they had bothered to enter the world through the pit, even if it meant flying out of it. The world was a long, grey plain, ringed on all sides by a distant mountain range. Standing starkly above it all were two landmarks: a mountain, spewing ash and fire from its peak, and a black tower. At the top of the tower, a eye made of flame stared down at everything, never looking in one place for very long. If they had come through a portal on the surface, the eye would have seen them and had them killed immediately. Seeing a dragon emerge from the pit on the other hand was a different story. The eye glanced at Mingalaz, but quickly moved on, confirming Thorin’s suspicion: some of the prisoners down there were dwarves, and Sauron was trying to transform their dæmons into weapons. Even when Mingalaz made for the tower, the eye didn’t spare her any further attention.
“Is that Sauron?” Bilbo asked, squinting against the ash that filled the air. Myrtle’s fur was already full of it.
“It is a form he takes,” Gandalf confirmed. “In truth, I doubt we could have avoided his notice without Mingalaz in this form.”
“A blessing in disguise, then,” Balin observed, and Thorin felt his eyes on the back of his neck, but didn’t turn. He wished Balin would stop trying to put a positive spin on such an obvious proof of his own depravity. Even if he hadn’t felt any of those odd stirrings since Bilbo touched Mingalaz.
As they approached the tower, at first Thorin thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. The surface of the tower seemed to be moving, and eventually he realized that it was just orcs, scurrying here and there in a flutter of activity. How were they going to get past that?
“Mingalaz should toss us through a window,” Dwalin suggested. “We won’t make it if we have to climb all the way to the top.”
“Who said we had to climb to the top?” Glóin demanded, eyeing the tower dubiously.
“That is the likely location of the artificial dæmon,” Tauriel supplied, her dæmon returning to alight on her arm. “Gailon saw something that might be it near the top.”
“What did it look like?” Legolas asked. Where the dwarves clung to parts of the saddle for dear life, both of the elves looked perfectly stable without doing so. Gandalf at least had to hold on with one hand. And Kíli was going to fall to his death if he kept trying to impress Tauriel by not holding on either.
“Gailon didn’t get a good look at it,” Tauriel said with an apologetic shrug. “But he saw a figure leaning over something, and holding it close.”
“Vague, but that does seem likely,” Gandalf agreed.
“Through an upper floor then,” Mingalaz confirmed with gritted teeth. “Clench your jaws, I don’t want anyone biting off their tongue.”
It happened alarmingly quickly. One moment they were flying toward the tower at what felt like a leisurely pace, and the next, Mingalaz had shifted her weight, and catapulted them into a window. As they hurdled through the air toward the glass, Thorin spared a moment of worry for Bilbo. Depending on how the hobbit hit the glass, he was the most likely to get seriously cut up.
And then they were crashing through, glass shards flying everywhere, and Thorin just had enough sense to curl into a ball and let his thick clothes protect him. He landed hard, knocking the wind out of his chest, but was otherwise unharmed after shaking the glass out of his thick hair. The rest of the dwarves were much the same, and the elves appeared to have waited to jump through until the glass was broken, judging by the complete lack of glass or cuts on their persons. As for Bilbo and Gandalf, Thorin saw the outline of a shield fading, and relief flooded him. Gandalf had protected Bilbo.
For a moment, shame replaced his relief that he had not been the one to offer protection, but he pushed that feeling down. They hadn’t told anyone the truth yet, and there hadn’t been much time to think anyway.
“Let us hurry,” Gandalf cautioned sharply as the dwarves picked themselves and their bruised dæmons off the ground. “Our enemy is one of the Maiar, a foe far beyond mortals. He has chosen to become more like a mortal, and this makes him vulnerable, but that is only an advantage if he doesn’t kill us before we get closer.”
“There’s some stairs over here,” Dwalin called, and they were off and running, the blue glow of Sting, Orcrist and Glamdring urging them forward.
“You are well?” Thorin checked with Bilbo as they ran, allowing himself to be impressed at how easily Bilbo kept up with them now.
“Myrtle’s a bit jostled, but that’s not unusual,” Bilbo assured him, flashing a quick smile. “I’m more worried about Mingalaz. She won’t be able to hide out there after nearly crashing into the tower, will she?”
“Who says that kind of thing doesn’t happen all the time?” Thorin reasoned, patting Bilbo on the back. “A newly changed dæmon behaving erratically can’t be unusual considering what they’re put through here.”
Rather than being comforted, Bilbo gave him a sharp look. His eyes seemed to say, “I was worried about you, you big, dumb dwarf,” though perhaps it was only meant to convey that last part, Thorin allowed wryly. Rather than feeling chastened, he felt a strange lightness in his heart. Once this was over, if everything went well, he’d have all the time in the world to decipher those looks.
As they ran toward the top of the tower, he wasn’t willing to entertain any other possibility. They were going to destroy the artificial dæmon and stop the flow of darkness into the worlds, Mingalaz was going to return to her true form, Bilbo was going to return with them to Erebor and attempts at courting would go well, their world would become healthy again in time. This was the future that Thorin saw, and lacking the ability to ask the compass, he had no choice but to believe in it and push forward.
His optimism had never been fully rewarded before, so why did he believe it would start now?