Legolas turned and set an arrow to the string, though it was a long shot for his small bow. He drew, but his hand fell, and the arrow slipped to the ground. He gave a cry of dismay and fear. The ranks of the orcs had opened, and they crowded away, as if they themselves were afraid. Something was coming up behind them. What it was could not be seen: it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet slouching; and a numbness and apathy seemed to be in it and to go before it.
It came to the edge of the fire and the light faded as if a cloud had bent over it. Then with a sigh it leaped across the fissure. The flames roared up to greet it, and wreathed about it; and a black smoke swirled in the air. Its ball-cap kindled, and blazed behind it. In its right hand was an essay that yammered like the screeching sound of nails on a chalkboard; with its left it was texting on a cellphone.
‘Ai! ai!’ wailed Legolas. ‘A student! A student is come! ‘
Gimli stared with wide eyes. ‘Harold Bloom’s Bane!’ he cried, and letting his axe fall he covered his face.
‘A student,’ muttered the Professor. ‘Now I understand.’ He faltered and leaned heavily on his staff. ‘What an evil fortune! And I am already weary.’
The dark figure streaming with fire swaggered towards them. The orcs yelled and poured over the stone gangways. Then Boromir raised his horn and blew. Loud the challenge rang and bellowed, like the shout of many throats under the cavernous roof. For a moment the orcs quailed and the fiery shadow halted. Then the echoes died as suddenly as a flame blown out by a dark wind, and the enemy advanced again.
‘Over the bridge!’ cried the Professor, recalling his strength. ‘Fly! This is a foe beyond any of you. I must hold the narrow way. Fly!’
The student reached the bridge. The Professor stood in the middle of the span, leaning on the staff in his left hand, but in his other hand his pen gleamed, fiery and red. His enemy halted again, facing him, and the shadow about it reached out like two vast wings. It raised the cell phone, and the ringtone jangled and whined. Fire came from its nostrils. But the Professor stood firm.
‘You cannot pass,’ he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. ‘I am a servant of the English Department, wielder of the Pen of Red Ink. You cannot pass–you failed too many assignments, and you were absent for more than half the times our class met. You still don’t know what an apostrophe is for. Your whining will not avail you, flame of Udûn! Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.’
The student made no answer. The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew. It stepped forward slowly on to the bridge, and suddenly it drew itself up to a great height, and its wings were spread from wall to wall; but still the Professor could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm.
From out of the shadow an essay leaped flaming.
The Professor’s pen glittered red in answer.
There was a ringing clash and a stab of white fire. The student fell back and its essay flew up in red-stained shreds. The professor swayed on the bridge, stepped back a pace, and then again stood still.
‘You cannot pass!’ he said.
With a bound the student leaped full upon the bridge. Its cell phone buzzed and beeped
At that moment the Professor lifted his staff, and crying aloud he smote the bridge before him. “You–shall not–pass!” The staff broke asunder and fell from his hand. A blinding sheet of white flame sprang up. The bridge cracked. Right at the student’s feet it broke, and the stone upon which it stood crashed into the gulf, while the rest remained, poised, quivering like a tongue of rock thrust out into emptiness.
With a terrible cry the student fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell it threw its cell phone, and the hard plastic case dashed against the Professor’s knee. He staggered and fell, grasped vainly at the stone, and slid into the abyss. ‘Proofread, you fools!’ he cried, and was gone.