He first glimpsed the shadow some weeks ago. A black stain upon the coast of the Bay of Umbar, crawling inland like an infestation of starving maggots. Ships bobbed off-shore, gilded in red and gold as though they were fire and gems floating upon the water, rather than ships of wood and sails of wool.
He waited quietly, watching their inching progress through the hours, until a messenger arrived the next day to tell him what he already knew. What he had always known.
Mairon does not pace.
Such a thing suggests impatience, restlessness. Things like nervousness and anxiety. Fear and caution are tools for survival, but his goal here has never been to survive. Such a desire would be too base, too simple. He will never truly perish, so how could he desire to live?
His forces may diminish, but they are Men. They will replenish themselves in time, and time is all that he has.
His advisor, not so much.
"Tûlgith," he says, the way an employer summons a worker. The way a distant parent addresses their adult child. "You are wearing a hole in my floor."
His unconcerned remark goes unnoticed. Instead, the pacing only seems to increase in both speed and urgency.
"There is already a moat outside the tower. Are you trying to make one in my personal quarters as well?"
"M-my apologies, Lord Mairon." The Umbarian, Tûlgith, does not stop, but he does seem to slow down.
"You seem anxious," Mairon says in a mild tone. He reclines in the seat at his desk, watching a black sand hourglass trickle away. "Is it because we are alone?"
Tûlgith's expression wavers. "No... no, my Lord, I—"
"Yes, I know." His sigh slips through in the faintest of breath, hanging in the air like smoke after a fire. "The tára-khil, is it?"
"The Númenóreans. You worry because they are marching towards us."
"Their forces are.. great, my Lord. And formidable. Many are the reports of their prowess, and word has never spoken of their cowardice."
"They are descendants of great beings, and proud of it," Mairon murmurs. "...But that is called foolish arrogance, not strength. Still, their feats cannot be ignored. Sharp is their steel and hard is their skin."
He snarls, softly, baring his teeth at the open window carved into the west wall. There is no malice. Only the lingering instincts of a beast.
"Yet they are not sharp enough, not hard enough. Where are our forces now?"
"They are gathering still, my Lord. The Orc tribes will arrive from the plateau within days, given fair weather. From the east, Jorâr and Ûndir have agreed to send their forces in a week's time. The Southrons..."
The report continues on. By the end of it, Mairon learns what he already knows: the Númenóreans are pushing forward at an unprecedented speed. Far quicker than his own allies are able to.
"At.. at this speed, they- they will arrive before the Easterling forces even cross into our borders."
It would be unfathomable, in any other circumstances. Mairon does not consider himself or his allies ill-suited for war. The given estimate would be more than enough time, if their current invaders were anyone else.
"You've made no mention of the other Easterling tribes, Tûlgith." Though he is not upset, it comes out as a sharp, hissing lisp, like Tulkidh, betraying the origins of his native tongue. He does not take his eyes from the muddy skies outside. "If I recall, they all renewed their pledges this past winter."
Tûlgith does not respond. Mairon does not expect him to.
He looks instead to the door as it creaks open, allowing a shadowed figure to enter. Its presence brushes against his mind in greeting.
Tûlgith turns to see what has caught his attention. To his credit, he manages to do no more than jump in place at the sight of the Nazgûl at the door.
"Why have only two responded to our call, Khamûl?"
"It was quite a sudden summons that we sent, master," is the rasping hiss he receives in response. Tûlgith has had years to accustom himself to the sound, yet he still shudders in response to it. It is, in the end, a voice without a mouth that could be seen. "For a nomadic people as ours, delivering your message this quickly is trying enough. To have the tribes assemble in that same amount of time is asking for a miracle, master."
"You brought word from Jorâr and Ûndir yourself, did you not?" His smile is small and slow, bordering on content. A smile of expectations met in the basest of sense. "That was well done."
"Two out of two hundred." The Nazgûl inclines his head stiffly, but the fluttering in Mairon's mind tells him he is pleased. "Several messengers have gone missing as well. They were under-prepared for their journey; as yet, I have not received word of them from their contact with any tribes. Jorâr and Ûndir have sworn to spread word to those we could not reach in time..."
"..They have stated that we cannot expect more than three-thousands in troops from all the tribes combined. The drought has affected them more greatly than we had thought."
"Even with all the preparations and supplies we have sent?"
"We would not have the aid of Jorâr and Ûndir otherwise, master. But even they have traveled too far to the East for green lands to return to Mordor so quickly." Khamûl seems to sigh, though he has no breath in him. "...Of those I could confirm for myself, Nahîl has fallen out of favor with his tribe. His influence now is little more than a minor commander. I have stressed to their current leader on the importance of this summons, and what will happen if he should refuse it."
"Oh? What is this one's name?"
Mairon's mouth twitches in a soft puff of laughter.
"What?" Tûlgith looks back and forth between them, losing any appearance he may have had as a personal advisor to the Lord of Mordor himself. "What's so funny? What did you tell them, Khamûl? You're not going to kill them, are you, my Lord?"
"Have you a fondness for Nahîl's tribe, Tûlgith? I can leave them be, if you do."
The young man's face twists. "..Were you going to have them killed?"
"That is a rather extreme option." Mairon taps his chin, then looks at Khamûl again. "Should we?"
"I think it would be sufficient to suddenly encounter a problem producing the goods they need in the next trade gathering."
"Oh? Khamûl, these are your people."
The Nazgûl lets out a raspy, rattling grunt. The thoughts of his exchange with the new tribal leader flashes into Mairon's mind. "Nahîl is easier to deal with."
"..You are not wrong."
Mairon's gaze slides over to his advisor, shuffling in place and wringing his hands together, ready to begin pacing again. If he cared more, he might have tried to calm the young man down. Settle his nerves. Get him more accustomed to this sort of environment.
Tûlgith has always been like this, though. Nothing much to be done about it. A Man, greater or lesser, might wish for a different sort of aide. One with a better demeanor, befitting of a royal advisor. One as reliable and steadfast as their namesake might suggest, as Mairon had been to Melkor.
(Was, at times. No one is perfect.)
But Mairon is not Melkor, so Tûlgith need not be as he was. Tûlgith is not his lieutenant, his second-in-command. Mairon is his own replacement, his own leash. He keeps himself in line, in a way that Melkor did not require.
(How disappointed he might be, to see such restraint in his own lieutenant.)
"Dimna has brought word from the South, no? Why is he not with you, Khamûl?"
The Nazgûl turns around. Upon seeing only empty air, he turns back to Mairon. "...I suppose I took a few too many turns. He must be lost."
"He can't be lost, he lives here!" Tûlgith says in a pitched rebuttal, then whips about when Mairon laughs again. He makes a brief attempt to regain his composure. "They- they both sent word ahead before returning, so I- I know some of Dimna's report, my Lord."
"Is he practicing formalities again?" Khamûl muses. "I've not heard him speak to you so deferentially since you tossed him into a roomful of Southron ambassadors."
Tûlgith makes a noise of resentment unfitting of his position.
"Do not pester the boy, Khamûl." Never mind that Tûlgith has not been a boy for some years now. "How can I test him if you tell him it is a test?"
"..You're testing me?"
Of course not, Mairon doesn't say. Why should I test something I have no need for?
"What is the news from the South?" he asks instead. "We moved several hundred men each to Khetira and Illahm. Each town should have at least 1,000 units. There should be plenty to rebuff the Númenórean forces."
Tûlgith doesn't respond right away. Even Khamûl moves in a way that seems uneasy and unsatisfied.
Cowardice is the emotion that hisses through his mind. Disdain for the foolish and the fearful.
"Dimna is not lost, is he?" Mairon asks. He knows the answer.
"Perhaps he is trying to get himself killed."
Tûlgith's brow knits together, and Mairon sees his hands gripping each other tightly. Khamûl spares him a turn of his head, but says nothing.
Mairon closes his eyes and runs a thumb over the band of gold on his finger. He calls out to the shadows that lurk in the corners of Mordor.
'Merah Dimna,' he says.
The image that coalesces as thought is one of violence. Brutal frustration and anger coiled into a fist with no substance. If not for the ring and clothing, Dimna would be little more than an enraged spirit, wreaking havoc upon the people with all the force of a discouraged dust cloud.
Mairon commands him, 'Come to me.'
"When the Númenórean forces arrived, our people at Illahm and Khetira.... retreated, my Lord," Tûlgith finally says. He is choosing his words carefully. "They... they fled."
...Well. That is to be expected. He is not Melkor, to influence his armies so forcefully. Neither are his forces united in a single, all-encompassing way, drawn to chaos or destruction or rebellion. They are not servants or slaves, not foolishly loyal nor deathly fearful of him and his wrath.
Perhaps it is better this way. Although no one desires to be on the losing side, and the drop in morale will have more of an effect that one would assume, it sounds as though there have been no casualties. For the Númenóreans to have made it to Mordor so quickly must mean that they forewent all standard procedures of warfare, including raiding and conquering any towns along the way.
That would be reckless. For all they knew, there could be a good number of people left behind to attack the rear of their army. The most logical course of action would be to ensure they would not be ambushed from behind, by means of either destruction or leaving behind sentries.
And yet, the Númenóreans have passed by at least two Southron towns without lifting a finger against them. It would be difficult to leave a watcher outside of the town to make sure reinforcements did not arrive, for one as unused to the environment as the Westmen.
He could always look, if he wanted to be sure. But he is not so curious. It isn't something he wouldn't be able to pry out of the Númenórean king's mouth, anyway.
"They will be at our gates within 2 days." Unlike Tûlgith, Khamûl is not so unnerved by this situation, though he doesn't like it. "The Plainsfolk may not make it in time, but we may still be able to drive forth the Orcs and those of Rhûn."
"No," Mairon says. "From what I have seen of the invading force, I doubt it will make much of a difference. We may have the advantage of terrain and eventual reinforcements, but it would seem his numbers are greater overall. All it would result in is a battle of attrition, and we have not the time for such things."
"We can't keep them at bay forever." Tûlgith looks down for a moment. "..We could keep the gates shut and keep a tighter guard on all other routes into Mordor. They'd need time to prepare if they wanted to come in from the East."
"They'll never set foot in the East," Khamûl says with a low and steady conviction. "We have the East."
"We can rout them on the retreat," Tûlgith suggests, muttering not out of nerves but as an unbridled train of thought. "They'll have to pass by the Spider's Lair, an ambush can be laid there. Unless they've left scouts along the way, then the ambush risks being seen through. If the Southrons were willing to gather for another strike when the Númenóreans pass by again..."
Mairon raises an eyebrow. "Tûlgith, you are not a war commander."
"..But am I wrong?"
His gaze flickers over to Khamûl, who shrugs. "It is simplistic and broad in application. He has never met the Spider before."
"Yes, I am aware. He declines all my invitations when I go to feed her."
Tûlgith goes pale. "I don't want to see a giant spider eating people. What if it tries to eat me?"
"Then it dies," Khamûl says dryly. He does, however, send a look towards Mairon for confirmation, which may seem to others like no more than the twitch of his head.
Mairon waves a hand dismissively. "I will tell her not to eat you, Tûlgith."
"But.. she doesn't listen, does she? Shelob isn't.. a pet."
"Tulgha, what our Lord considers a pet is far different from what you consider a pet. Shelob is, by definition, the Dark Lord's pet." While the young man (boy, really) considers this, Khamûl's rasp drops. "..We are all but pets in the eyes of a god."
Mairon does not confirm his words, but neither does he refute them. He does not consider it an issue to be addressed at all.
"..Couldn't you face them yourself, my Lord?"
Mairon turns to Tûlgith. The boy makes a point. However:
"If brute force were all one needed to solve one's problems and inherit the world, our Maker would have taken it back eons ago. And I would have Elves in Mordor."
"We do have Elves in Mordor."
Mairon considers the diluted Avarin blood along the shores of Rhûn and Núrnen.
"...I would have more Elves in Mordor."
Perhaps, a certain elf in particular. Perhaps. He doesn't say this.
Instead he says, "A dragon would be nice."
"A.. a dragon?" Tûlgith says, slightly squeaky. "That's... that's even more extreme, isn't- isn't it? Where would you even find a dragon? —Er.. my Lord."
"Tûlgith, you have been speaking out of tone ever since you entered my office. It is too late to change that now."
"I can try."
"Khamûl." Mairon's head lolls over almost languidly. "Have you not been teaching him how to speak to his superiors?"
"I- I know how to speak with respect, if- if that's what you mean!"
"Then why don't you?" Khamûl interjects gruffly. Tûlgith's mouth twists and he shrinks back a step. "..Forgive him, master. It seems I must teach him some more."
"No, that is not necessary. I trust your words, both of you. What good does a show of respect do for me?"
The words are easy on his tongue, but heavy. Familiar in a way that they must have been repeated from somewhere, someone he'd heard them from.
He remembers. But it was no mortal Man from which they had sprung forth, no grounded being, no Visitor.
Melkor had a taste for fire. Chaos, destruction, and all things that went against all that their true Maker stood for. Against life and restrictions, against the light itself. He had a use for strength, and power. Not respect.
One did not have to respect him to serve him. And one who did respect him, may still be slaughtered by his hand, for any number of reasons. There was always a reason. Mairon tended to throw a fit if they lost workers unnecessarily.
Waste of labor, he would say, and it would be the rare occasion when Mairon did not speak to his Lord with reverence.
"...What are the projected losses if we were to face the Númenórean army head on, or in ambush?"
Khamûl goes quiet for a moment, though his mind reels and runs through countless simulations of war and strategy. Mairon plays spectator briefly before retreating to give him his own space and time. He closes his eyes and looks out again over the lands beyond the borders of his kingdom, observed by spies placed here and there, in the minds of beasts and burdens.
"They must be blessed," he murmurs, watching their marching feet behind his eyelids. "Blessed by the Valar. To walk so far, so tirelessly."
But to raise ones hand in the matters of Middle-Earth was to interfere, in the eyes of the Valar. Who, then, would be so bold to lend the Númenóreans aid in a venture like this? Who would hasten their pace and widen their strides, make full their bellies and give strength to their bodies, to endure a march as this?
"They cannot be," Khamûl says, low and hissing. "It is forbidden amongst their kind."
"Who told you that?"
The Nazgûl makes a low noise like a grunt, as though he does not wish to answer. Mairon gives him a mental prod.
"The other witch."
"Attâlu?" Khamûl gives no answer. Mairon prods him again. "Alkhâr? I have a number of witches, Khamûl, you must specify which one."
"The Sea-Witch. Alkhâr." Khamûl makes another sound, same as before. "You have too many."
"So I have heard. What, exactly, did he say?"
"...He has said that the West-men have denied the Holy Ones. They have banned the tongue of the Elves among the coastal areas that he patrols." Khamûl pauses. "..Has he not told you, master? My. How irresponsible of him."
"Shame on you, mocking him when he cannot even be here to defend himself."
Khamûl cackles. There has always been little love between Easterlings and Númenórean, even in death.
"If you see him later today, send him to me. I must speak with Dimna, and I will not have the three of you in the same room if I can help it."
"As you wish." The Nazgûl dips into an exaggerated bow before sweeping out of room.
"...Is he always like that, my Lord?" Tûlgith asks after a moment, hushed and secretive.
"If you get them all in a room together, they never shut up." Mairon leafs through a pile of papers he had set aside when Tûlgith had come in. "Have you never seen them all together before?"
"Nay, my Lord. I.. I have only met with Khamûl and- and Dimna. Regularly, that is."
"Then you are in luck. I am recalling them all before the Númenóreans arrive. You can join them for breakfast."
"I already have breakfast with Khamûl and Dimna. They try to stab each other daily."
"Not with the Morgul blades, I hope. They only have so many of them."
Tûlgith opens his mouth and then closes it. He looks away.
He will need to have another word with them, then. On the matter of not wasting supplies.
"..In any case, Tûlgith, you may go. I believe Khamûl and Ammala have added some blade-training to your schedule."
"I- um. I think I had something else to report..."
"You may report it later."
"But- but I—"
"Dimna is here."
Tûlgith lets out a squeak and hurtles to the side just before the door is thrown open. A surge of wind and heat is all that keeps it (and him) from slamming against the wall. Mairon does not like furniture being broken and needing replacement.
"Merah," he says, as the wraith comes closer. With gesture of his finger, Tûlgith takes the signal to leave the room. "Your mood is ill."
There is no chance that Dimna would hurt Tûlgith, at least not physicaljy or with purpose. But a Nazgûl is a Nazgûl still, and when upset as Dimna is, they oft have little control over the powers that come with being a Ringwraith.
Namely, the ring itself.
"The South is full of cowards," Dimna says, as hoarse as can be. The aura of death surrounds him, poisoning the air, and more or less acting as a rather effect pest deterrent. "I am ashamed to be known as one of them!"
For Mairon, it is little different than the fumes emitted from Orodruin itself.
"They still live," Mairon adds. "I am glad to not hear that we have lost another two towns. And merah Kharif, no less."
"Cowards! They flee instead of fighting!" If wraiths could spit, he imagines Dimna would be doing that now. In any case, it would be less destructive than whatever it was Dimna had been doing before being summoned.
Unfortunately, destructive is the type of person Dimna is. Was, in life. Now his spectre carries on the same ambitions, the same desires. The same manners.
"You can demonstrate your disapproval to them at a later time, if you have not done so already."
"The Black Shadow," Dimna rasps. "He pulls me away before I can so much as speak a word."
"Good of him to do that." Mairon watches the Nazgûl carefully. No doubt Dimna knows better than to get violent in Mairon's office, but a bit of precaution never hurt anyone. "I need you to stay in Mordor for the time being. At least, for the next few weeks."
"You need, Mairon?" The cloaked head tips almost mockingly, but perhaps not. It is a Southron habit. "You command me to be here?"
"I would rather not." Mairon thumbs the ring on his left hand, banded gold and simple. Nothing extravagant, save for the wave of heat and exhilaration one might feel from wearing it. "..But I can make it a command."
He doesn't feel anything of it, of course. It is his own creation, his own being. One does not marvel at the every day use of a limb, or one's eyes.
Only others are drawn to it. To its force and powers, to the headiness it gives them when they near it. So too do they crave and cradle the rings he gave them.
Dimna's hand twitches. He still wears his.
"That is excessive, no?" The wraith laughs. Cackles. "I will stay. I have been in the sun too long. I miss the dark of Mordor."
Funny words, from a Southron. All they have is sun. But a wraith does not function well in sunlight, so his Nazgûl do well enough as they are, travelling about to complete what tasks he has to give them. Thanks to them, Mairon has not had to leave Mordor in some time, save for his regular visits to the Southron towns and the Easterling clans.
"You are restless," Dimna says. The anger and upset has dissipated, mostly, or at least set aside for civil conversation. "You are King, Mairon. Kings do not travel. Kings do not wander."
"I am no king."
"You have land, you have people. You have power. Who can contest your might? None in Mordor can overthrow you. If that is not a king, then what is?"
Mairon actually considers that for a moment, until Dimna's thoughts trickle. His eyes narrow.
"We are not going to war with Númenor, Dimna."
"Tsk. What good is a kingdom if you do not use it?"
"..It is not a kingdom if there is no king."
"No ambition!" But Dimna laughs, because it is said in jest. "Why do I follow such a man. He wants nothing more than what he has."
It is not altogether untrue. Still, it isn't something he generally shares with the Secondborn, and he doesn't care enough to make a point of correcting the matter.
"So long as you stay," he says. "So long as you follow."
"Life is long, and tiring. If I did not follow, Mairon, I think I would die of boredom."
Dimna laughs at his own joke, then laughs even harder when Mairon does not.
The Nazgûl's mood is lighter when he leaves, sent off to deal with some matters in the east. Send the Plainsfolk back home in a way that would not make it sound like Mordor was surrendering.
Khamûl will monitor the South, he decides, after the Númenóreans passed. They must ascertain whether or not any forces had been left behind, and also check in on how their Southron allies are faring. His Ringwraiths are simple to recall to Mordor, if he needs them to return. And he will.
But not yet. There is still time for that.
Lord, Melkor, Maker and Saviour,
we thank You for the life that comes with dawn.
We grasp the Day with our hands and bring to You
the Freedom You have shown us.
Your Words are heard, your Will is done.
May Night follow Day, and Day follow Night,
until Two becomes One and One becomes None.
We await your Glory.
- Rituals of the Mehradin 2.7-8