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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.

Númenor comes.

 

 

 

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?"

"..My Lord?"

"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.

Even so.

"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..."

"However?"

"..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?"

"Irrelevant."

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."

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 Witch."

"Khadîn?"

"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.

"Like what?"

"..Talkative."

"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

Chapter Text

The land of Mordor has no official capital city.

It has a landmark. The volcano, known by some as the Hill of Fire, though it is far more than a hill. Others call it Dustfire Mountain, for the ashes that oft fall like rain from the sky.

It has a stronghold. The Dark Tower, the Black Spire. Lugbúrz. His Lordship's dwelling, home to the Prophet himself, and his descendants. Few would dare to live where he lived.

Instead they gather throughout the plains and fields in small settlements where the land is most fertile, growing robust crops and raising hardy creatures for food. They move when the feeding grounds are barren and return later to forage and harvest.

Along the mountain ridges there dwell still those who lived there before, safe from the summer heats, insulating the caves with the spoils of their hunts. They are few, now, and even fewer as years go by. Instead, they come down to the plains and the sea when autumn ends, and leave again when spring begins. Sooner, if their hunting grounds have become particularly plentiful.

Here, in the city of Mordor along the shores of the Sea of Nurn, they wait for the turn of seasons.

Gerzhenn is looking forward to it. If only because there is always a massive feast to celebrate the season before they leave. She'd missed last year's, for a number of reasons.

This year, the city is even more bustling than usual. The turning of the season was still weeks away, so it was unusual to see everyone so busy.

"What's going on?" she asks out loud, more to herself than to the ones around her. "Is it time for the season's end feast already?"

"Wouldn't know," says her friend, Oruna. "I just got here, same as you."

"Then I wasn't asking you."

"You posed an open question. Am I to read your mind to know who you meant it for?"

"You could start with that." Oruna lets out a snort of laughter. Erzehnn calls out to one of the stall owners as they pass by. "Hail, ajitan! Do you happen to know what all the fuss is about?"

"Fuss?" The stallmaster is one of the less busy ones on the market street, though he is still hauling around baskets of produce. She's never seen them receiving goods so late in the day. "We're getting all bought is what the fuss is!"

"Is it the season's end feast already?"

"No, no, it's— erzhad! Pardon me, zamih." He stops mid-sentence to wave vigorously at a passing acolyte to beckon them over. "Erzhad, I've that delivery of greens, right around the back. Boy called Khuzun just pulled in with it. Might ask for coin to take it to the temple."

"We will pay it." The acolyte makes a note on a pad of paper with a piece of charcoal. "Thank you, ajitan. May you be looked upon with favour on this day."

"That's fancy," Oruna remarks. They had both stopped to watch what was going on. Several of her clansmen have done the same. "What's the occasion?"

"Ask one of the erzhad." The stallmaster gestures again towards the various acolytes walking with purpose through the street. "All I know is they're gathering up food and people for some melkhan'aadam. Quite suddenly, too. Oh, did you bring anything back from the hunt?"

"Some," Gerzhenn says cautiously. It is not good to brag too much when among other hunters.

"The erzhad will pay good coin for meat, if you can spare it."

"..I will let our ergardikh know."

"Safe travels, then, hunters. And good karma to you, if you attend!"

She has heard of people who are so extravagant with feasts that they will buy up everything they see, and leave nothing for the small people. Coin will do them no good if there is no food left to buy to feed their own bellies, and if there is, what if it costs twice more than the usual? Better to keep their kill, feed themselves first.

But a melkhan'aadam is a different story. Even the season's end feast for the entire city is not quite so lavish as this.

Gerzhenn is no temple-goer. She attends morning prayers with her clansmen to their native gods, and sometimes to the Maker that these people preach to. It has been years since they learned of Mordor's beliefs, and they have managed to exist alongside one another quite peacefully thus far.

Still, a grand temple celebration is not something her people could ever manage so quickly. They would have to negotiate and arrange for several dozen clans to offer their own resources.

Her clan leader, Gelheer, calls the Mordorans a peace-loving folk. Peace-loving and two-faced. They spread word of their Maker while working people to the bone along the shores of the lake, and in the pits of their dark, musty mines.

If not for the easy trade, Gelheer would not be having them come down to Mordor every winter. She knows of many that have left these lands entirely, gone to join their Eastern brethren on the vast plains beyond these mountains.

They would have to leave behind the caves they've used for centuries if they left. Which is likely the only reason why her clan and several others still linger within the basin.

"Think we should trade?" Oruna asks once they've gone a ways from the stall. "Temple festivals are a pretty big deal."

"So are the season's end feasts, and those are just once a year."

"Gerzhenn, this is chance to build karma and gain the temple's favor! Unless...." She lets out a slow, exaggerated gasp. "...Unless you're not a believer."

"Neither are you!"

"Alright, true. But I think there are some things we'll have to get before we leave in the spring, so we should trade to have coin for those, if not for the karma."

"If we need it, then we need it." She looks at the sack of game slung over Oruna's shoulder. "...End of winter hare doesn't have much meat, though. It might not sell for enough."

"Well.. as you say. If we need it, then we need it. Not much we can do about that."

"Ergardikh Gelheer can figure that out... Did he come into town, too?"

Oruna taps her chin. "I think he's still at the camp. Taban and Kuzhikta had an argument when we arrived. He was mediating, last I saw."

"..What could they be arguing about?"

"Whose arrow killed that pronghorn."

"They're 14..."

"They're very competitive 14 year olds."

Gerzhenn shakes her head with a laugh. "He'll be there the rest of the day, then. Dealing with them always tires him out."

"Kids are always more exhausting when they're your own," Oruna says in agreement. "So he says, anyway."

Gerzhenn nods. She hoists her own sack more securely over her shoulder. No point trying to trade them now. "Well. We'd best go rescue him."

 


 

Gelheer is absolutely done with his two daughters.

"Mind yourselves!" he says urgently. He had already reminded them at the city gates to behave, but they are unruly.

Or rather, very excited.

There were generally no restrictions regarding dress at a festivities like these, but they have decided to come in their best. After making sure the clan still had enough game the rest of winter, he decided to trade the small excess of their hunt with the temple. They coin he received was distributed among those who needed to have clothing and tools repaired beyond what they could manage on their own first. What was left was used to trade for new accessories and clothing for those who wanted to liven up for the festivities.

Of course, they enjoyed their own woven jewelry and bracelets, but when one wanted something glimmering and metal, Mordor was the place to buy them from. As much as Gelheer disliked buying such things, too many of his clan enjoyed Mordor's goods for him to ban them from trading for it.

He could, at the very least, refuse to buy anything for himself. There was always stuff they could trade coin for from another tribe, later. And if he was counting the days right, it was nearly time for the trade caravans to come back up north. The South still had items that he preferred over those found in Mordor.

All the things in the city gave off some.. uncertain air about them. Something he couldn't bear to have near him for very long. He'd always had the feeling that he'd get sick if he had to wear one of these necklaces or bracelets for more than a day or two.

There was a great deal of that air, that energy, gathering in Mordor right now. Moreso than usual. It made his stomach curl like badly soured milk.

"Are you alright, father?" Kuzhikta asks. Even as giddy and excitedly grinning as she is, she still has time to worry about him.

"I am well," he says, just to ease her thoughts. "It seems something big is going to happen."

"Yeah!" Her sister agrees, unable to stop from bouncing on her heels. It would be improper in a more formal setting.

However, several others are doing the same, restlessly shuffling around, some looking exhilarated and others looking much the way Gelheer feels. Very uncertain.

He looks one of them in the eye, and finds something like understanding and sympathy in the smile he receives. He gives the same in return.

Best to put his misgivings aside. A melkhan'aadam is meant to be a joyous occasion, not one full of suspicion. He'll consider it later.

"There he is!" Taban calls out, pointing to a spot in the distance. "Father, I see him!"

"You've better eyes than I, zezigi." Gelheer squints where his daughter is pointing to, but can only see a dark, hazy speck. He can certainly hear the noise of the crowd cheering as the procession continues down the path.

As one of the more prominent members of the Ulaghul tribe, he and his clan are standing near the end of the path, at the entrance to the temple's amphitheatre where the main entertainment will be taking place. Looking around, he can also see the other clans and their ergardikh, donning Mordoran fineries or their own traditional ceremonial wear. The divide is quite clear. It's been a source of tension between them in recent years.

It takes a good 20 minutes for the noise to escalate their way. The cheering rolls towards them like grass in the winds until he can finally see the barest shape of the one at the center of all this commotion.

"Have you ever seen him before, father?"

"I have not. Oguuma's tribe is the representative of our council, so she deals with him the most. He has never come to see us personally."

"First time for everything," Taban says.

A great beast comes first, bearing a rider almost too large for it. Both are frighteningly armored and pitch black. At least, he supposes it must have been pitch black at the beginning of the procession.

After walking past all those people, it was now covered in strung garlands, flower crowns, and loops of colored strings. Someone has even delicately placed a crown of wintercress around the steed's ear, complete with flowers and small fruits.

The rider is no less spared, having caught several circlets on the prongs of their helmet. As they are wearing the customary black robe and face-coverings of the Dark Spire's residents, Gelheer cannot tell who it is, or if they are enjoying themselves or not.

Still, to bear all of those offerings so calmly must mean that they do not mind.

"Susuundag!" A child cries out. She is waving a bracelet of woven fibers, dyed a bright ochre.

The rider leans over and extends an arm, but she cannot get the bracelet over the expanse of the metal gauntlets. For a moment, she looks stricken.

Then the rider exchanges words with the girl's parents. Her father hoists her up until she is high up enough to place the bracelet around the center-most prong of the susuundag's helm.

Gelheer remembers, then, the shape of that helm. A shape most unique, even among the Wraiths. It is the mark of the Lord of Mordor's lieutenant. The Sea-Witch.

There is a flower tied to the base of his steed's tail.

No musicians follow behind the lieutenant. Not even a flowerbearer or an announcer. Instead, an Easterling in Mordoran garb rides a horse, equally black and equally large, though this one's rider seems almost too small for the steed. The horse is larger than the usual one he and his people would ride, but still smaller than the one leading the procession.

He wears no crown. The only items denoting his status are the high collar around his neck made of gold, bearing the Eye of Mordor, and the bright plate upon his brow, inscribed with the temple's mark. He wears not the robes of an Easterling in celebration, or even a Mordoran elite.

He is a temple priest. The High Priest, if memory serves. Lord Mairon.

The High Priest and his escort approach rapidly, being on horseback. Gelheer imagines he can feel the ground rumbling from the mere ambling gait of these two horses alone.

The Lord of Mordor passes him by, bringing with him the weight of oppressive air and stifling silence. Gelheer suppresses a wince when his ears start ringing briefly.

He looks up briefly, and by some fluke of fate and it seemed, for a moment, that the other had looked back at him. He recalls a fleeting glitter of gold, far brighter than what someone would normally wear as body coloring, or even as adornment.

The silence is gone in the next moment, with a screeching squelch like something has been sucked back into place. He hears again the clamor of the crowd, the crowing horns and the beating drums.

Next to him, Taban and Kuzhikta also seem to be coming out of a daze. They look at each other, sheepish and shaken, but then notice that he must have been doing the same thing.

"...Father?"

He watches the back of the High Priest entering the amphitheatre, and behind him, the first of the crowd begins to file in.

With a hand on both of their shoulders, he draws his daughters to him.

"Stay close," he says.

For once, they do not argue.

 


 

"The Westmen have arrived."

Mairon faces the denizens of Mordor that have gathered in the amphitheatre, built after carefully watching their progress for a century.

There is no need for a theatre if there are no entertainers. And there are no entertainers to use a theatre or people to attend a performance if they are all too busy fighting one another over land, or scrounging for food.

Which was not to say he artificially advanced the people of Mordor to an outrageous extent. He had simply taken a look at their resources, their environment, and introduced more effective means of procuring food and using the land. Better methods of extracting stone and materials for building. Deeper, safer mining locations, for metals. Providing better quality pitch and caulking sap to waterproof their belongings and their boats.

When the people flourish, their numbers grow. And the excess, rather than remain unemployed or grow fat on their riches, he invites to join his armies. There is never a shortage of things to do, be it culling the more dangerous and unwanted wildlife, or keeping the area safe from bandits and raiders.

He has done hard work to keep these people out of the hands of the Númenóreans, touched as they are by Elves and Valar alike. Now it seems that his efforts may all be in vain.

"Long has our Alliance been at odds with the Men of the West. When they first landed upon the Southern Shores, they drove our Southland brethren from their homes," he says, allowing the structure of the amphitheatre to make his words loud enough to be heard by everyone here. He draws a gesture over his torso, reverence and respect for those long dead, and his audience does the same. "They have warred, fought, killed, conquered. Plundered. This you all know. Trade and aid to the South has been perilous.. but to abandon them is to abandon ourselves. Through their sacrifice, Mordor has been spared the brunt of war."

Mairon lets his expression fall, just so. Not enough to seem emotional; not too little to seem cold-hearted. Moved, but not compromised. "...But now they have advanced upon us. They have left destruction in their wake, driven people from their towns, disturbing all those who live along the Langflood without care for friend or foe.

"It has been said among some that they seek to expand their territory. That they tire of their island, their coastal conquests. That they want us, our lands, our wealth, and they will let nothing stand in their way."

Alkhâr's disagreement enters his mind in a susurrate whisper. Mairon shushes him.

"I have decided to meet with their king. I will drive him from our lands and out of our sight. I do not know how long it will take.. perhaps I will be gone days, or weeks. Perhaps even years. But I swear on the lives of our fallen brethren, however long it takes, I will make sure the Westmen never bother these lands again."

The murmurs of assent hush again, another moment of silence for the dead.

"Now, as many of you may know, today marks the 1500th anniversary of the founding of the Melkorist Temple here in Mordor. Long has it stood and persisted, and long shall you, the people of Mordor, do the same. I have been told that the time of celebration here may well exceed the standard of 3 days." A small titter of laughter ripples through the crowd. Mairon smiles, just briefly. "At the end of festivities, I will begin preparations to return to Lugbúrz. Until then, I will reside within the temple itself. As ever, I extend an open welcome to those to seek me."

With a gesture, the temple acolytes and senior priests step up next to him. They lift their hands, fingers touching their brows. Above and around them, their audience does the same, save those who do not believe or are not quite as diligent.

The priests begin reciting the prayer words, lifted from a scripture that Mairon himself had spoken and penned, 1500 years ago. He knows them by heart, for those are his words that spill from their lips. Dredged from the depths of his belief. Salvaged from the frayed ends of his loyalty.

"..Maker guide us, and find us Glory in these days."

Mairon lifts his head, arms swept out to the side. "May He look upon us all with favor."

He leaves the stage and makes his way to the seats reserved for himself and Alkhâr at the front row, denoted by nothing more than another pair of vigilant acolytes. They are hesitant to leave when Mairon dismisses them, but a looming Nazgûl convinces them that there is nothing to worry for.

"If they could see us now," Alkhâr hisses quietly, barely loud enough to be heard even by those closest to them. For musicians and dancers on stage have begun their performance. "One of their own people, serving their enemy.... Ar-Pharazôn might declare a war for that matter of pride alone."

"They are not your people anymore," Mairon replies sprightly. Where another ruler might take offense, Mairon finds the remark.. quaint. Eternal.

He still thinks of himself as Melkor's, after all.

"...And he is not your king."

"No, he is not." Alkhâr makes a sound like forge bellows being pumped. A scoff, perhaps. "Ciryatan is the only King I'll answer to. Long may he rest."

Mairon accedes to this.

"Well," he says, with an incline of his head, "Ciryatan is dead, and I am no king... So where does that leave you, alkharîya?"

"...Immortal. Dead. And waiting for you to grow bored of this so we can head back."

"Are you upset that I made you come here with me?"

"No." Alkhâr is a poor liar. "There are simply more urgent things to be attended to in the tower."

"Yes, I know. They can wait. You will have plenty time yet, once I am off to the West. But I will still find time to heckle you from across the land and seas."

"Across the seas?" The wraith's head turns. To the untrained eye, he looks merely like he is surveying the surroundings, keeping an eye out for trouble. "...You intend to enter Númenor itself?"

"Why do you ask?" Mairon spares him a glance and a small, cursory smile. "Do you miss it?"

Alkhâr looks at him out of the corner of his eyes for a while, quiet. Then he turns to face the stage again.

There is a somberness that clings to a spirit, the longer it remains one.

Some like Dimna are cheerful, and less dour. Some become more violent and frustrated, like Khamûl.

Mairon has 9 of them, and they are all different. All very much like how they were when they had been alive, but much.. less, now. Less, but also more.

They are not quite dead, though. Not entirely alive either.

Their spirits linger. Because he made them linger. Because they wanted to linger, to remain here and alive and experience more of life than they had when they still lived. It is different from immortality, but it is what he can manage to grant them with this meagre bit of power.

Some might say that he forces it upon them. Some might be right to think so.

Maybe one day, Númenor will fall, as most civilizations do. Maybe they will abandon their island for sweeter lands. Greater lands. Maybe he can move in after.

It's a bit much for them, though. And too little for Melkor.

"I visited the island, once," Alkhâr says, a whisper in their minds. "When I was made lord of Faras-azarûn. Where I was made lord, actually. There were quite a few others there as well. We had a small tour around it when the ceremony was done.. they invited us to see the rest of the island if we wanted to stay longer. Out of courtesy, I suppose. But I... left. Rather quickly."

Mairon mulls over those thoughts, a mix of distant images and recalled sounds, scents, and colors. They are distinct, but not very clear. Like they were painted on with water and oil.

"It is very far away," the Wraith concludes in a tone that is ostensibly neutral. "Andûnye. The West-most."

"There is one more West than they," Mairon adds. They are all in the west.

"Is that why we push to the east?" Were they alone, Alkhâr might have come right up to him to speak, rather than keeping this respectable distance. A habit from their past, when they were both flesh and bone. "You seek to distance us from they who abandoned this world?"

"I suppose." It is surprising that it has taken this long for them to speak of such things. Due to the rings, their minds are all but shared, bared to one another, save for when Mairon shields his against theirs. Yet not once have they come to this topic, this question. "..But it is not quite for that reason."

He has never mentioned it before, to these chosen Men. It has always been a distant goal, a theory, a plan he intended to carry out only once the new forces were well on their way to developing on their own. Only once he knew they would stand if he left them alone, for a time.

It was a wish. A desire to bring about a future wrought with his own hands.

It was a hope.

"..I am looking for a door."

"A door?" He can feel Alkhâr trying to enter his mind, to seek out answers after finding that he is not forbidden access to the thoughts of his master. "To where?"

"To nothing."

What he allows his wraith to find is an endless breadth of darkness, nigh incomprehensible to the small minds of the Creator's children.

Emptiness has always been a strange thing. What might once have been peace and quiet to them is now a bottomless fear, something to abhor. Something daunting.

In a world where there is something, they have all become attached to it. Something that was once home now feels like a dream. Something alien. Something.. other.

"...Do not worry yourself overmuch." He stops himself from physically reaching out. It was never a motion he would have made often, before. Before Melkor found him. Before he found these Men, these people. "It is only a passing thought."

"For you, master," Alkhâr murmurs. "You who claims he will end only when the world does. For you, every thought is a passing one."

Mairon smiles, pityingly, because it is true.

 


 

Lord, Melkor, Maker and Saviour,
we thank you for the Paths we walk.
Now do we descend into the Dark;
we do not fear, but ask your Guidance
and Companionship, so that we might see
the Day again.

May Night follow Day, and Day follow Night,
until Two becomes One and One becomes None.
We await your Glory.

- Rituals of the Mehradin 4.4-5

Chapter Text

The celebration lasts almost a week.

In truth, the city will be in high spirits for the entirety of the month, but the festivities hosted officially by the temple comes to an end after 7 days.

Every morning, Mairon attends the early dawn prayers as High Priest. He speaks to a few who seek his aid and guidance, prioritizing those who require a.. special sort of intervention. Something more than mere words.

To them he hums whispers. To them he recites a chant, and murmurs a lilting string of words. To them, he sings. The earth is not the only thing he can influence.

In the afternoon, he goes into town to partake in celebrations and lead the sacrifices, along with several other rituals.

While it is well-known (or used to be, at least) that he cannot be consulted outside the temple, there are still those who try their luck even then.

There are those who even attempt to provoke him. Those who doubt his powers and abilities, who question their faith for what reason they have. There is no shortage of them in the days he is gone from Mordor.

Mairon does not respond to the provocation, though the head priest, Taghai, fears that avoiding them will sow dissension and disbelief. He fears that it will cause people to distance themselves from the temple. Even when Alkhâr seethes at those who dare call his master a liar and a fraud, Mairon makes no effort to prove otherwise.

The Arts, as they call it, are not a show to put on display.

In the evenings, Mairon returns to the temple and receives visitors again, the faithful who come to pay their respects. He gives guidance to the needy and blessings to the desperate. He listens.

He listens, and sings, and partakes, each day, for 7 days.

And on the last night of festivities, Mairon convenes in the temple bowels with the priests and members of the city council.

"I see there are some new faces at the table," he says. "But I recognize only few of you."

"I am Taghai, merhadi," says the man at Mairon's left. "Head Priest of the Temple of Mordor. We met briefly a few times."

"So we did."

Taghai goes through introductions for the rest of the attendees as well before any of them can begin to speak for themselves.

"These are my colleagues, Senior Priest Channai and Etegen. From the council, we are joined by Yesugei, Overseer of the Land; Janggi, Overseer of Public Security and.."

"Erkhe Toloi," Mairon finishes for him with a slow smile. He extends a hand to the Overseer of Finances, with whom he has had several dealings recently.

Erkhe's eyes dart about, and he nervously returns the gesture. Their fingers touch, briefly, before withdrawing. A formal greeting. He has only had his post for several years, which only makes it easier for Mairon to make his influence known.

As for the others, their reactions are minute. It is apparent that they do not appreciate Taghai taking the initiative in this meeting.

Yesugei takes advantage of the awkward silence to say his piece. "When we first heard you would be coming to Mordor, my Lord... It was almost unbelievable."

"So it is. And yet, here I am."

"I never thought I would see the day when I could behold the High Priest with my own two eyes," Yesugei says, attempting a smile.

Mairon's smile widens. Yesugei's falters.

"I congratulate all those who are meeting with me for the first time," Mairon continues, "and I am pleased to make your acquaintance. Unfortunately, this may be the last meeting I am able to physically attend for some time."

"We've heard that you intend to confront the Westman King, my Lord," says Janggi.

What she does not say, and what he knows she means, is Surely you intend to succeed.

"I do," he says, "and I will. By any means necessary. If that means I must chase them to the coast myself and assail their shores until there is nothing left of them to beleaguer us with, then I will do so. Personally I would rather have them join us in our endeavors. They are, after all, a mighty force."

A siege has never been to his taste, though. Sieging Númenor especially would be a waste of supplies, especially when it is already quite capable of sustaining its inhabitants. Occupying a foreign land for so long would play only to the Alliance's disadvantage. He would have to raze their farms and plague their livestock first, poison the lands so nothing could grow again, assuming they managed to set foot on Numenorean soil.

A waste. It would become a pile of dirt fit only to be sunk into the ocean, and even then it would poison the waters. Then what would there be left to rule?

Better to just destroy them entirely. Drown them in blood and iron. Take the island by force.

But if it came down to it.. he is patient enough, to let fire do its work.

"They are not weak, by any means. I do not expect an easy victory, nor do I wish for one. For the effort they have taken to knock upon our doors, for the king himself to come here.. we cannot afford to underestimate them. We cannot afford to let them remain. If they have tried to conquer us once, nothing will stop them from wanting to do it again. Not if we leave them be."

"What exactly do you intend to do, my Lord?" Yesugei asks cautiously. He has had little enough dealings with Mairon to be wary of him, despite all his accomplishments.

"We've heard only rumors," Janggi adds. "Do you truly intend to destroy the Westlands? Will you face the invaders and cut off their heads?"

Yesugei's nose wrinkles. "You hear those rumors, I've heard nothing of the sort."

"You would if you bothered listening."

"Is there anything you need of us, my Lord?" Taghai asks while the other two bicker. "Anything you wish to procure to take with you to meet the Westman King?"

"Not presently," Mairon says. He has grown accustomed to Janggi and Yesugei, from Alkhâr's reports. They do their jobs well enough, and that is what matters. "Are there any tasks left to be done before I go? I have spoken to the worshipers, we have finished the festivities... I regret I cannot be here for the next pilgrimage."

"We need only to visit the Black Spire, Lord. The faithful have already heard your words here, if you but leave some sign or item at the shrine... it will be enough for them."

"We have come while you were away before," says Etegen, one of the priests. "It has never been a problem. We are merhadin, after all."

"I know. But I hate to miss any gathering of the people."

"We have you in our hearts, merhadi." Taghai dips his head. Then he looks at Janggi and Yesugei. "Are you two done yet?"

They weren't. But they finish up rather quickly once they notice Mairon watching them.

"My apologies, Lord Mairon," Janggi says, clearing her throat. "We'll keep Mordor running while you're away, as always."

"If you have the time, Lord, the mines could do with your blessings," Yesugei says. He ignores the sharp look that his childhood friend gives him. "We've located several locations that seem promising for new veins. Normally we would conduct a few more tests before we start digging, but... if it is possible, could you look in on those as well?"

"I would love to," Mairon says, cattish. "Would tomorrow be too soon?"

 

 

 

He returns to the temple dusty, covered in soot and smudged with dirt. The mines are no place for the immaculate, and it is far from the first time he has come back from an excursion less than spotless. Not to mention this trip had him going down quite deep to inspect the veins and tunnel structure.

He's never felt quite so at home in a long, long time.

"Come in," he says when a knock comes at the door. It opens. Mairon doesn't look up from his clay carving.

"Merhadi," the aide greets, bowing. "Welcome back to the temple. Do you wish for any refreshments? Food, water? Or perhaps— a bath to clean before your leave?"

"I will visit the washroom myself, later. Do not send an aide, I can handle that much by myself."

The temple aide hesitates. "..But, my Lord—"

"And the largest clothes we have here. If there was time I would have liked to visit the tailor personally..."

"We.. we can summon one. I do not think leaving the temple right now would be the best of ideas. The faithful continue to gather, Shaa'Taghai fears an incident may occur if they see you in the town."

"It would be just as difficult for the tailors to come here, would it not?" Mairon waves his hand dismissively. "Do not concern yourself with it. A set of loose cloth robes will do for the ride back."

"But.. That is-- we cannot let you leave dressed so lightly, merhadi."

"The manner of my dressing will be the least shocking thing when I depart, erzhad."

The aide goes quiet. Mairon does not press him, too absorbed in his figurine.

"...I will inform shaa'Taghai."

He leaves as quietly and obsequiously as he arrived, and for a moment Mairon cannot but stare at the place where the aide had been standing. For it seemed that it was only yesterday that he had been in that same position, reporting to his master. To Melkor.

It seemed it was only yesterday that he must heed Melkor's orders, despite how illogical they may have seemed at the time.

(Or how illogical they had been, in fact. Melkor had never been quite right of mind in the later years. How tasking it had been then, maintaining order within the fortress in spite of it all.)

(Yet order was what he loved best. In retrospect, it had been no task at all, to do what he was dutied to do.)

Now, he is the master. He is to these people what Melkor was to him.

It is a strange thing to think about. Even after all these years.

Surely it has not been that long since he was last here, to ruminate on such banal thoughts.

"It was only months," Alkhâr says, entering the room after the aide has gone. He shuts the door behind him. "...Perhaps nearly a year. Perhaps more."

It was not a very helpful estimation of time.

"You've kept us around near twelve-hundred years, master. At what point are we allowed to stop keeping track of the time, as you do?"

"I do keep track," Mairon says, affronted. "But in larger increments."

"Nobody counts in twelves anymore."

"Elves do."

The air of Alkhâr's mind grows stone-cold. Mairon smiles without looking at him.

"..I didn't know that you knew claywork," Alkhâr says instead of continuing the topic. He sounds as mild as a fish in water too warm.

"I am a creature of many talents." He holds the incomplete figurine up to the light. It is a... well. Not a typical Númenórean, exactly. Mairon hasn't met enough from the island itself. "How would you describe your average Númenórean?"

"Hairy."

He thinks on it a moment. Then carves out a thick head of hair and shows it to his lieutenant. "Like so?"

"...Not quite."

Mairon does not argue the fact that Alkhâr is not even close enough to see it.

"You prefer hair on the chest? Arms and legs, like yours?"

"I do not know if that sort of appearance would go well with the face that you are fond of."

"I could change it." Mairon is in the middle of replicating his own face when Alkhâr says this, so he starts making little modifications.

An aquiline nose, a narrow chin. Longer eyes. A fuller mouth. The body he carves out tall, but not too tall. Strong, but not too strong. Not plump, but not waspish.

He considers what it means to be 'average'. And decides it really isn't for him.

"...That would depend. Do you intend to resemble them, or seduce them?"

"Can I not do both?"

He receives a grunt in lieu of a reply.

Mairon sets aside the carving wire and starts smoothing out the angles, humming to himself as he does so. It will not be an exact likeness of what he is to become when he meets with the Númenórean king, but it is a starting point. And it is better than changing his form over and over until he finds one that is most effective.

The heavy touch at his hair gives him a moment's pause.

"You intend to wash, do you not?" Alkhâr asks in a low rasp. He is unraveling the braids and extracting the beads and rings woven into them. He has metal for hands, after all. "There is dust in your hair as well. It will need to be cleaned."

"Are you volunteering, Alkhâr?"

The wraith lets out a breath that sounds like hot irons in a cooling vat. It has the same chilling effect.

"I can hardly do this without tangling it in my hands, master. Washing will be an impossible task."

"Maybe I should have given you gloves," Mairon muses, and not for the first time. "I considered it, in the beginning... But then you would have to keep the gauntlets with you at hand."

"If you had made gloves, it might have been possible."

Mairon holds out a hand for Alkhâr to pass him the trinkets. He imagines that metal gauntlet to be a glove instead, silk or leather. Or woven steel fibre, pulled thin and fine.

Perhaps, the hide of a Man.

Alkhâr makes a hiss to show his distaste and refusal. If Mairon wanted, he could make them all wear the hide of Men, regardless of their willingness.

But that is a lot of skin to harvest, so he will have to think of something else instead.

"Elf-hair makes for a strong, fine thread," he says musingly. Alkhâr's hands still again. "..And Elf-skin is quite resilient."

"If you make me wear Elf-hide gloves, I will walk into the Hill of Fire myself."

Mairon holds back a laugh, and hums instead. "Then my own hair? My own skin? It is not as though I cannot grow it back."

Alkhâr does not speak for a moment. His mind churns, but remains silent also. Mairon does not try to decipher his thoughts, and instead finishes smoothing down the contours of his figurine.

"...I forget, at times." His words are quiet. Whispery, as though breathless and lacking strength. "That you are not a Man, as we are."

"You wear the skin of beasts," Mairon says, holding up the figurine once more. "You eat of their flesh, pillage their homes. You hunt them with stone and spear in numbers greater than they can avoid. You chase them with a bow and arrow they cannot escape from. You trap them with lures and nooses, you put them in cages."

He stops, for a moment. And adds a small jagged scar across the clay throat with the nail of his thumb.

"You keep them as pets. Train them to obey. Take them with you into battle. Teach them to hunt with you, for you." Alkhâr has stopped by now, hands stilled in Mairon's hair. Mairon does not look back at him. "Shall I go on?"

"..Is that how you see us?"

"Alkharîya... did you ever doubt it?"

For a moment, he thinks Alkhâr might try to leave. It is not as though Mairon needs his help with this task, nor has he been ordered to remain here. It matters not that they are master and servant, lord and lieutenant— he has never needed a servant to do such things for him.

Mairon still has his own hands, after all.

But Alkhâr does not leave, and Mairon is tactful enough not to drive him away.

"And this? This thing you are making." The wraith steps back, having divested Mairon's hair of all its adornments. "What is this, then?"

"I am going hunting," Mairon says. The sculpture is set on the dresser. "A good hunter knows to conceal his presence."

The aide returns with another knock on the door. A line of attendants come in with a tub of hot water, a tray of washcloths. A stack of folded garments is placed nearby upon a stool.

"You can go," he says to dismiss the aide before the other can speak. "I will wash myself."

"I'm not washing you this time," Alkhâr says when they are alone again. He does, however, reach out to slide off the rest of Mairon's bracelets and bangles.

"I would not ask you to."

Mairon puts the jewelry into a small pot on the dresser. He removes his robes, his small clothes, taking stock of his reflection in the polished mirror. Making note of what needs changes where.

"..Are staying to watch?"

"What is there to watch?" Alkhâr lets out a sound almost like a sigh. "Your washing, or your changing your form?"

"Either." Mairon tips his head to the side. "Or both."

"No." His lieutenant sets the clothes aside to be collected later. "I will be outside the door."

The door shuts. Mairon hums, almost in disappointment, for the lack of company.

And in the silence, his bones twist and shatter.

 


 

Miles away from the capitol of Mordor, the host of Anadûnê make camp.

The mountain range surrounding Mordor are greater than they had expected. Scout reports simply did not convey the sheerness of them, how far they stretched, how high they rose. The tallest summit might have reached the clouds if the weather was right, but they weren't capped with white. Even so, the sides seemed sheer for from where Pharazôn stands, in the middle of camp.

A gust of wind blows ash and dust into his face. Pharazôn rubs his eyes and spits the taste from his mouth, trying not to breathe it in. He wonders how far the volcano is from here and how anyone could survive near it.

"Sire!"

The hail draws him away from the scene, eerily beautiful as it might have been. He dusts himself off and ducks back into the tent. The murmuring of the other gathered lords of Anadûnê stops quite suddenly the moment he enters, and by the time he takes his seat at the other end of the space, it is silent.

"No sign of a herald," Pharazôn grunts, settling himself. "No messengers, no eagles, not even a single bloody vulture. Surely it doesn't take him a week to make up his mind."

"Might be they're trying to starve us into leaving," Athazûl remarks.

"If they are, they're doing a damned good job of it," Nalarik says gruffly. "Sire, if we wait any longer, starving will be the least of our problems. Supplies can stretch another week but it'll be a rough journey home. Assuming the men stay with us that long."

Pharazôn sighs and rubs a hand over his face. With some luck, they've camped out somewhere hospitable enough outside the gates of Mordor. But even hunting and foraging is barely enough to supplement the rations for the amount of soldiers they brought with them.

They're geared for an invasion, not a siege. Never mind the equipment, the men hadn't come here thinking it would be more than just breaking in and dragging Sauron out. Shouldn't have taken more than a few weeks, if they managed to scare him with numbers.

Only they hadn't quite expected Mordor to be so well-defended, or that they'd be so well-stocked to make it into a war of attrition, if that was indeed what they intended. It was going to be hard to siege Mordor if they couldn't even get in to cut off escape routes.

"I say we give them two, maybe three more days, sire," Amandil says. Words of wisdom that Pharazôn would say if the didn't care the risk of coming back to bite him. "A week, if we're being lenient. Are we?"

Halazar scoffs, but doesn't say anything.

"After that, we send another message. And if there's no reply then, we'll need the last of the rations to make it to a town for resupply. I don't imagine we'll have enough to last the way home otherwise."

"Not without some heavy raiding we won't," Athazûl adds.

Amandil doesn't look too happy about that idea.

If only those damned mountains weren't in the way. If this were a normal fortress, with normal walls, it wouldn't be a problem to storm in. And door can be knocked down.

But a gate that large? They'd need a dragon to break it down.

He wonders how they even made it.

"Agreed," Pharazôn says after taking a look around the room. He waits for protest, but sees and hears none. Only a unanimous sound of agreement, which is something of a pleasant surprise.

Hunger and doing nothing but waiting day after day must wear on a man in more ways than one.

"If they do not surrender or reply this time, we'll return with greater forces. And a battering ram." Pharazôn gives that a brief thought, and nods to his own idea. "A big one. Where is that pageboy?"

"Went off to fetch our messenger, sire."

He didn't expect the reply to come from the scribe. Phâran does have the decency to pause in his recording to look up, clearing his throat sheepishly.

"Should've sent for food, too," Pharazôn mourns.

"Wouldn't have done any good, sire," Nalarik says humorously. "Rations won't be sorted out for another hour."

"Rarely does the belly listen to the head." He runs a hand through his beard and doesn't think about the roll of his stomach. It's still as much as it was when the left the island, even with the marching and the rations. Fat doesn't burn as quickly when there's nothing to do. "Not much for it. We need a force this size if we want to end things quickly."

"It is only unfortunate that Sauron's allies did not fight at all. We couldn't have expected to have arrived here without a single casualty at all."

"I hope you're not implying you wished some of the men died, Lord Anakhôr."

"No indeed, Lord Nalarik," Anakhôr says, returning the mild comment with a thinly veiled sneer. "I hope that was not what I had implied."

"Perhaps that is part of their plan," Athazûl adds. "Upon seeing our great numbers, rather than surrendering, they simply board up their walls and wait for us to starve out on the plains. They seem confident enough in that gate of theirs."

"We should've brought more food," Halazar says, more than discontent. "Less soldiers, better soldiers. We should be finding a way past that gate! Surely there are tunnels, guard entrances, something they use to get outside."

"Better soldiers wouldn't do any good with a mountain in the way," Anakhôr says. "We've had scouts watching the gate and the mountain for secret passages for days. There's been no movement, nothing to even suggest it. We don't know if they even need to come out this way."

"Only a fool puts his city up against a solid wall with no escape route." Pharazôn stands up and circles around to the war table where a giant map is pinned down. "We haven't started mapping the mountain range, have we? That'd be the best way to find any hidden tunnels or passages they might have."

"I don't think now is the best time to search for something like that, sire."

"No, you're right, Lord Anakhôr. Both sides are already too aware of each other. Even if we find a way through the mountain, they could just be waiting for us on the other side. Not to mention we just aren't equipped for that sort of task."

In hindsight, they were woefully unprepared for an invasion of Mordor. But Sauron had been so easily driven out of Eriador 1500 years ago... To be honest, they'd been expecting Mordor's defense to be just as easily beaten. And it likely might have been.

If it weren't for the bloody—

"We knew where Mordor was located," Nalarik says, coming over as well. Likely to escape Halazar's incessant muttering. "But none of us expected them to use the entire mountain range as their fortress walls. It isn't exactly something anyone would be capable of doing. We underestimated how severely unreasonable the Lord of Mordor is."

After several days of scanning the mountain peaks with an eyeglass, they'd finally made out several lookout towers, clearly visible at the highest vantage points. No doubt there were several hidden in the sparse foliage, maybe even built into the cliffsides.

If the Lord of Mordor really was the Sauron of the legends, he'd have had first-hand experience with mountain fortresses. There might even be a network of tunnels for people to live in.

"I'm well aware, Lord Nalarik," Pharazôn says. "There's no need to placate me for my own misjudgments."

"Oh no, sire, I was just explaining to Lord Halazar why he should shut up."

"Shut up?" Halazar spits out. He also rises from his seat. "How dare you—"

The rest of the meeting proves relatively unfruitful until they get Halazar to stop grumbling.

The pageboy returns with one of their heralds on rotation and Pharazôn has the scribe write up a missive to be delivered to the gate in three days time, demanding a reply on the threat of a full-blown invasion if there was none.

He dismisses the herald to be outfitted with an escort and enough supplies for them all for a week while they waited for a response. Surprisingly, there are volunteers.

"Bet they're just glad to be rid of the rationing," Amandil says. The rest of the council members have left the tent, except for Halazar. "Of course, they'll have to ration themselves if they don't want to run out of food early. If there's anything worse than being given rations, it's having to give yourself rations."

"Truly a nightmare," Pharazôn replies without humor. His friend and mentor chuckles. "Lord Halazar, you wanted to speak with me?"

"Yes, sire." Halazar's hands wring together tightly. "I would thank you for taking the time out of your undoubtedly busy schedule, but seeing as we've been doing nothing for the past week, I'll have to put that aside."

Normally he would be beside himself with apologies and a nauseating amount of pandering. It was one of the few things he was good at.

"Sire, I have... concerns."

Pharazôn sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. "If this is about our progress, or, as you put it, lack of—"

"No, no, it isn't. At least, not entirely. My concern is with the men."

"...The men."

"Their morale, sire."

"..Lord Anakhôr has reported no problem with the troops."

"With all due respect, sire, Lord Anakhôr receives his reports from night guards who've had too much sleep. The men are restless. The progress isn't the issue, although I don't think it's helping, but being forced to sit around and not.. do anything is wearing down on them rather quickly."

"Well, unfortunately, Lord Halazar, there's not much to be done about that. As we discussed earlier, there is currently no way past the gate."

"What if—" Halazar stops mid-gesture and starts pacing again. "What if.. we use the priests?"

"The priests?" Pharazôn holds back a laugh. "What will they do, pray that Sauron comes out of his fortress? I suppose we can expect the Avalôim to lend us a hand out there."

"I have spoken with them, and I— I did not mention this at the meeting because I was not entirely sure yet. I'm still not quite sure, but I believe that, together, they may be capable of— of the Arts. Sire... we may be able to open the Black Gate."

"That is not what the Arts are to be used for, Lord Halazar," Amandil says testily.

"Oh, of course," Halazar snaps back. "They're meant to bolster the crops and summon fair winds for the ships. Why shouldn't it be used to strengthen our troops? Tear down the walls? Get us past the gates and into Mordor?"

"It is not for warfare! Sire, please. The Arts are too unpredictable for what he's suggesting."

"Are they?" Pharazôn looks between them. "Have either of you ever used the Arts before? Can you tell me with certainty whether it is or is not possible, or whether it should be done?"

Amandil stares at him. "...Pharazon, you can't actually consider this as an option."

"I'll consider anything that gets Mordor to roll over and surrender." Pharazôn gestures to Halazar. "Let's meet with these priests and see what they have to offer."

 


 

Mark the forehead thrice, vertically, with a blade;
draw the blade across the neck with a single stroke,
cutting only vein and artery.
Collect the offering in a bowl; drench the altar; and light the incense.
Put the body upon the pyre, and speak the words:

Lord, Melkor, Maker and Saviour.
We give to you the blood of the Follower,
and we give Their flesh to the Flames,
for They are unworthy of us.

May we remain thus unsoiled,
until Two becomes One
and One becomes None.
We await your Glory.

- Rituals of the Mehradin, 14.6-8

Chapter Text

The skin of his back splits.

In days of yore it was open all the time, an empty crevasse with a crystal-magma core where his spine should have been. A body that moved by will, and not the constraints of flesh and bone. It glowed, bright and hot.

He had no organs, then. At least, none of the conventional ones that could be found these days. The crystal core would have been something like an heart, or brain, necessary for the body to function. Stone skin, gem-like joints, seeing-stones where eyes would have been.

Rock and earth he was made of, once. Less, now.

Now he is flesh and bone, molded like clay. Stretched, pulled, long and gangly. The shoulder-length hair he had worn as an Easterling now reaches the hips of his new form, leaving an itch under his scalp.

It could be longer. It used to be, he thinks, so long ago. But the list of his inhuman traits is long enough already. A neck too malleable, fingers too long and tapered, nails too sharp, and his eyes...

Well. Those are neither here nor there.

Just as Melkor did not take on the eyes of an Elf, neither does Mairon take on the eyes of a Man, though Mannish they may seem at first glance.

He is Númenórean in appearance, or just so. Just enough to get a foot in the door, so to speak. Though he is on the small side for a Númenórean, he would still clear Dimna by a head. Dimna would probably like that.

He himself prefers the form of dust and stone, as he wore before Melkor showed him the bodies of Men and Elves. He was molten rock for flesh and shards of glass for hardened silicone for bone. His blood was liquid carbon, when he wanted it to be.

It was only after countless studies and dissections that he took a similar form, made of skin and sinew and all things that decayed softly. Like Melkor.

Melkor, who always held strength and terrible beauty above all else. In all their various forms, never were they anything but.

Mairon looks in the mirror and wonders if the form that looks back at him could be called beautiful or strong, or terrible indeed.

He wonders if they call this vanity.

 


 

Pharazôn taps an impatient rhythm upon the table.

He knows his request for a meeting with the priests is rather sudden, but they're taking far too long to make themselves... presentable. The soldiers might have leave to dress down, but the priests shouldn't have any reason to be out of their vestments at midday. If that's even why they're taking so long.

Pharazôn wishes he didn't have to wear his formal clothes all day, but it is better than having to wear the royal court garb. Nightmare to put on and take off, those are. And hard to breathe in.

"I still don't think this is a good idea," Amandil mutters. He hasn't stopped pacing since they were directed to wait in the congregation tent. "The Arts... Sauron knows the Arts, Pharazôn. Who's to say the Arts will even work on that gate? What if it's— what if it's guarded? What if it rebounds?"

"Leave the worrying for after we find out more, Amandil. I just want to hear what these priests think about Lord Halazar's idea of tearing down the gate. If it isn't doable, then we won't do it. Simple as that."

"That's what everyone said about dragging the Lord of Mordor out of Mordor, and yet here you are, Pharazôn." Amandil throws his arms out wide. "At Mordor's gate. Trying to drag him out."

"I like a good challenge."

"Climbing a mountain is a challenge. Sailing to new lands is a challenge. Establishing new trade routes with neutral parties is a challenge! This? This is not a challenge!"

"Amandil, old friend, if we manage this, we'll have done all three."

Amandil shakes his head. "You push your luck."

"I pushed my luck when I married Zimraphel, and so far that's turned out quite well."

Except for the part where they weren't able to conceive, which did throw a nail in his plans for an heir.

Amandil doesn't respond. Luckily the pageboy ducks in to let them to know that the priests will be arriving shortly. Pharazôn seats himself at the table and Amandil sits down at his right with a discontent grumble.

"Good afternoon, Elder Abîran," Pharazôn says in greeting as the first of the priests start filing into the tent.

"Your Majesty." The elder priest bows after entering. The others do the same, and they all take their places at the table. "You wished to speak with us?"

"Lord Halazar suggested we could use the Arts against Mordor," Pharazôn says, cutting straight to the point. It's a time-sensitive matter. "Can we?"

"To fight, sire?" Elder Abîran frowns. "No, we cannot fight in that manner. Bolstering the army is already the limits of our abilities."

"I don't mean if we can. I want to know if it's possible at all."

"That..." The Elder goes quiet. One of his apprentices shoots him an anxious look that Pharazôn does not miss. "...In theory, sire. If the old tales are to be believed. We.. we cannot harm them directly, but there must be ways to do it. What exactly did you have in mind?"

Pharazôn raps his knuckles against the table. "..The Black Gates are closed to us. We need them opened."

"Sire, do you.. do you mean to destroy the gates? There is indeed a Song of Destruction but-- the power of it is... and the requirements, sire. It's unbelievably immense. My priests and I will not be able to carry it out by ourselves."

That's not quite what he wants to hear. Amandil gives him a look that almost says I told you so.

"..Is there anything the soldiers can do?" Pharazôn asks. He's not quite grasping at straws yet, but if there's a will, he will find a way.

Of course, it would help if he knew a little be more about how the Arts actually worked.

The Elder confers with his priests in a low murmur. Their looks of doubt turn into those of hesitation, then curiosity.

"It's true that having more priests will have a better effect," the Elder says afterward. "But every member of the temple is initiated in the Arts, even if only in a supportive manner. There may be records of the uninitiated participating in a Song, but.. those are left in Númenor, sire."

"So all we can do is try?"

"Indeed. All we can do is try."

"Then we will try. Whatever you need to carry out this trial, tell me, and you will have it," Pharazôn says. Amandil makes an aborted sound like a hiss, only to quiet down after Pharazôn shoots him a glance. "I want those gates torn down."

Elder Abîran bows, and his retinue does the same.

"As you command, Ar-Pharazôn."

 


 

In their prayer tent, the Elder sits down heavily and with a sigh. Priest Nimilnitîr runs both hands through his hair, on the verge of tearing at it in frustration now that the King is no longer around.

"Well," Abîran says. "That went about as well as it could."

"I can't believe the King would ask such a thing of us!" Nimilnitîr cries. He paces inside the tent and the others give him a wide berth to avoid being run over. "Does he not understand the consequences of this? We can't possibly..!"

"I don't see why we can't," says Elenníssë, another priest. "It is within our powers, is it not? We have the ability to do it."

"But should we? Imagine what would happen if we- oh, we cannot!" Nimilnitîr makes a sign over his head and mutters a prayer. "Manwë forgive us for considering it."

"What is there to forgive? We are not using our abilities recklessly, and we are not intending to do harm to anyone. I see no risk in this."

"I fear," said Abîran, "that if we do this, the King shall ask us for other things as well. That we will go from providing morale to destroying buildings, breaking barriers, and from there to attacking the enemies themselves."

"For us mortals to entertain a battle of the Arts against Sauron himself would be suicide!"

"You don't know that," Elenníssë snaps at Nimilnitîr. "Those are but tales to frighten children out of wandering the woods alone. To stop them from playing in old abandoned ruins, lest they come upon and are challenged by a ruthless, child-eating sorcerer. In all the years since Eregion, have we ever heard tell of his Arts?"

"That doesn't mean anything! You would assume he is not capable of such destruction simply because he has not since the banishment of his master? Perhaps there are no tales of them because no one has lived to tell it!"

"You would rather be a coward!"

"Enough, both of you." Abîran pinches the bridge of his nose. The younger acolytes have shrunk to the side to avoid being dragged into the conflict. "We've been given an order by the king."

"We must abide by the Valar, Elder," Nimilnitîr pleads. "And by common sense."

"Priest, you are implying the king lacks common sense, do you realize that?"

"Yes!"

One of the acolytes lets out a shrill gasp and utters an oath to Ossë, making a sign over her forehead at the same time. Abîran almost wishes he hadn't thought this was going to be a good experience for them all.

"We obey the king's order," he says, simply. "For now it is simply a trial. One of the acolytes will demonstrate the Song of Destruction with and without support from the soldiers... we will see what the king has to say from there."

Abîran considers the lot.

"Acolyte Cuiliel. You are familiar with the Song of Destruction, are you not?"

"..." The young woman bows her head. "I have a passing knowledge of it, Elder."

"More than any acolyte has need of, I gather. But it is in your favour today. You will be the one leading the demonstration."

"Elder!" Elenníssë comes forward. "Surely one of the priests would be the better choice, to show our ability..!"

"We need only allow the king to know that it is possible," Abîran says. "And that the support of the soldiers will, in fact, bolster the power of the Arts. We need not make a blatant display of force."

"Elder, we've been stuck bolstering the army's morale for the entire journey here. We need to show the king that we can do far more than that!"

"And risk letting Sauron know what we are planning to do?" A hush falls over the group, and he is glad to be reminding them all of it. Arrogance has killed lesser Men. "I fear enough that this mere demonstration may alert him to our presence..."

"If we run the risk of drawing Sauron's attention, that is even more of a reason not to do this, Elder!"

"I agree..." He finds his head lowering, feeling heavier than he has in years. "..But it is an order from the king."

Perhaps it is the possibility of all of these lives weighing down upon his shoulders. Every single one in the encampment, and Ar-Pharazôn himself.

"We are the king's men, after all," Nimilnitîr says in a mutter, almost reluctant.

"Speak it with pride, Nimil." Elenníssë stands at her full height, aided by a trickle of Elven blood that she has only recently been able to accept. "We are the King's Men! And we will show Sauron our strength."

Valiant she is. A good trait to have, in dark and trying times.

Abîran hopes it will not be the end of her, of them all.

 


 

Master.

Mairon lifts his head out of the water, brushing out tangles with his fingers. The light press against the borders of his mind has been persisting for some time now, seeking a response.

He considers ignoring it.

Instead he sends out a touch of his own, gentle and luring, intent for more good than harm. He feels a tremor and the approach of fear incarnate, but not a fear known to himself.

The call is distant. It takes several minutes for the wraith to find him in the temple's washroom, sunk deep into the heat of the bathwater in a stone-carved tub.

"Alkharîya," he says when the Nazgûl enters the room. The door closes with a soft click, out of sight. "Why do you seek me?"

"Stirrings," Alkhâr utters, his voice a low rasp as he parts the sheer curtains separating the bath itself from the rest of the room. "Stirrings of a Song."

"There are many Songs that stir now, Alkhâr."

"The West-Song stirs most of all." The curtains fall shut with a shush, dimming the light in the bathing room once more. Alkhâr looks at the candles in their wall holdings, seeming to debate the advantages of their existence. "...It is one I am familiar with. I hear it better than I hear others."

Mairon closes his eyes and lowers himself until his ears are submerged. The water connects to nothing but the stone tub, and tub to floor, floor to wall to floor to ground.

And from there, he hears what he thinks it is that Alkhâr hears. One song amongst a hundred, a murmur amidst a rumble.

Surely nothing important.

Metal brushes over the back of his hand braced upon the edge of the tub. He lifts himself back out.

"They have been at the gates for several days now." Alkhâr has knelt down next to him, heedless of the damp floor and water spilling over onto the hem of his shroud, of the blood left on the ground from the last of his master's changing. "Khadîn hears their restlessness."

"She is good at dealing with restlessness."

Alkhâr bristles. "..They are demanding your surrender."

Mairon hums, reaching for a small bottle of oil on the shelf nearby. "She is good at dealing with that as well."

In his own quarters, he has a collection of scented oils and perfumes, gifted by various dignitaries and merahni over the many, many years. He has used most of them at least one or two times, as a courtesy.

Unfortunately, since the scent of burnt slag is considered by most to be revolting at worst and panic-inducing at best, not to mention not being reliably mixed by anyone to begin with, Mairon uses wood-scented oils the most. The temple is well-equipped with them as well, including the one he is using right now. Though it was not put here by his own personal request.

Perhaps they simply noticed the scent that lingered behind him whenever he visited. On the rare occasions that he visited.

"..Is it wise, master?" Alkhâr lowers his head, almost as though conspiring. There's no one else in the room, and certainly no one beyond the curtains close enough to eavesdrop. "To keep them waiting so long?"

The host was 2 days away... 5 days ago. The return trip from Mordor proper to the Black Spire will take another full day's travel without obstructions. At worst, the Númenóreans host will have been waiting a week.

Such a small amount of time to fuss over.

"Perhaps," Mairon says. "It is neither wise nor clever."

"Then why are we still here instead of in Lugbúrz?"

Mairon leans over the side of the tub, on arm draped over the other, reaching into the gloom of the Nazgûl's hood. He catches the wisp of beard and soul between his fingers.

"Because, alkharîya," he says, pulling the wraith in closer by the front of his cloak. "I do not particularly enjoy the presence of Númenóreans so close to Mordor, and I intend to make that clear to the their King."

Beneath the hood would seem to others to be empty space between his shoulders. A pitch of void-black, invisible and intangible to those without the Gift.

..But to Mairon there is an aging face that shifts between withered and young, hair of white and silver like a old cloud wrung dry of rain. So different from when they first met, when the man had been sprightly and vigorous with vitality and love for his cousin. Memories not so easily forgotten by either of them.

"..That does not sound like a wise decision." Alkhâr repeats, gripping the edge of the tub.

"I have already acknowledged that it is not." Mairon lets go, bringing his arm back into the water. "But it is what we are doing. There is nothing to worry about."

"What if they become more impatient? Will a simple gate truly keep them out of Mordor?"

"Does the Valacirca keep darkness at bay?"

Alkhâr is silent. Beneath his hood is a pair of aged eyes, hollow and sunk. Of all the Nazgûl, he is the most seemingly listless, a stark contrast from his living persona. The others are.... dulled, compared to how they were before.

But Alkhâr... Not his first, but perhaps his greatest wraith.

Alkhâr is somber. So very much like how Mairon used to be, if not for the fact that he has even less room for non-obedience than Mairon ever did.

"..It does not," he admits. He must.

Of course it did not. If it did, Morgoth would have been long banished and defeated, and the name Sauron would never be known or uttered, for he would have perished with his faster years ago.

"They believe that it does," Mairon says. "They believe that it will."

He lays back and sinks full into the water to listen again. It is a quiet chanting, scriptures recited in murmurs and a child's hymn. One beat. Two beats. One repetition. Two.

Three. Four.

Alkhâr's gauntlet comes down into the water to cup the side of his jaw, a flutter of concern in its wake. Mairon lets out a stream of bubbles, thin and fluid, rising up like bouyant pearls. He remains there listening to the chorus from the West, until the sensation of collapsing lungs bids him to the surface once more before he starts breathing water (not entirely unwelcome).

The wraith's rattling hiss is audible even over Mairon's own slaking breath.

A thousand years ago he would be cursing. A thousand years ago, he would be beside himself with worry. A thousand years ago he would have gone into the water to pull Mairon out.

A thousand years ago, Alkhâr would not have been so easily reassured by a single touch, a single thought.

"Let them believe it," Mairon murmurs, watery. "Let them believe it as you did. That walls of any making will save them or stop them. And they will realize, eventually, as you did, that it does not."

He grasps the wraith's forearm with a strength that is no longer belied by his appearance. With a hissed grunt, Alkhâr pulls them both to their feet, water sloshing over the edge of the tub and sleeting down from Mairon's body.

They reach for the towel at the same time, but Alkhâr is closer.

"I did not call you here to wait upon me, alkharîya," Mairon says, though he remains still for the wraith to throw the towel over his shoulders. The grip on his shoulders is sturdy, keeping him from slipping while he is guided out of the tub.

That Alkhâr does not release him after he is out does not alarm him at all.

"I know," the wraith says. "Unfortunately, master, you have not given me much else to do either. Perhaps you should have taken Dimna with you instead."

In hindsight, Dimna would have made the trip more memorable and enjoyable, up until he realized he could not pick any fights or run off to challenge the local authorities. It would have been a more stressful trip, in the end. Khamûl was not exactly what one would call friendly, not least of all towards Mairon, and the others...

The others had their reasons for wearing their rings. And those reasons were not Mairon.

(In further hindsight, Alkhâr's reason was also not Mairon, which really only shows his taste in picking his servants.)

(But after all, Mairon's reason was not Melkor. At least, not in the beginning. If it ever was.)

"I enjoy your company, Alkhâr. For what of it that you give."

"You and I both know that Dimna makes for a better travelling companion than I do, master." Alkhâr takes a step back, finally, leaving the towel where it is. Mairon takes it and dries himself off properly. "I recall the two of you did travel together, for a time."

He slips into a robe two sizes too small, and the longest and largest pair of breeches the acolytes were able to find. Both fit tighter than he'd prefer, but there is a congregation to attend before he leaves that will take too much time to find anything else. The trip to the tailor will have to wait.

If needed, a cloak can hide anything unseemly.

"So we did... Perhaps I will bring him the next time I need to make an excursion, then, if accompanying me is so distasteful to you."

"..That's not what I said," the wraith says, stiffly. "Nor what I meant."

Mairon smiles, a touch on Alkhâr's arm to prove a point. "I would not mind if you did mean it."

The Ring does not command loyalty or create worship. It creates the opportunity for worship, wields a power that may bring loyalty. The Ring, itself, cannot make happen what never existed.

The Ring is what Melkor was. And if even Melkor had trouble winning Mairon's loyalty, then this Ring would be even less effective.

Being able to force the Lesser Ringbearers into action, perhaps, did not help. But it did make his work much easier.

"We are leaving this evening, yes? After prayers."

"That is what you decided," Alkhâr confirms with slight reluctance. "If you do not take too long with the Sacred Fire."

"We will see. The Fire is my main concern, for the time being. Firiya will be handling the ones in the East and South, but you will be delivering my messages to the Fire of Mordor, Alkhâr."

"Might I ask why?"

"Because you are mine," Mairon says. He rakes his hair to one side and wrings the water out, letting it drip onto the stone floor. It will help get the blood out, at least. "Because you are my Ringwraith. Because you are my greatest wraith."

Alkhâr doesn't tower over him anymore. There is but a head between them, at most, which means Ar-Pharazôn will be perhaps another head more.

Maybe he should have made his form just a little bit taller.

"...And because I trust you, alkharîya."

The wraith uses a new towel to wrap Mairon's hair, to keep it off of his clothes and to help it dry faster. The gauntlet-clad hand brushes against Mairon's jaw along the way, sharp and chilly.

He trails down Mairon's arm and takes his hand, brings it up between them. Thumbs over the Ring on Mairon's finger with a sensation akin to bones grinding together.

"I do not think this could be called trust," Alkhâr says, quiet. "..Master."

It isn't trust.

What it is is a gentle backdrop of noise to weather through the days with.

It is Dimna's complaints at how peaceful the year has been, how little conflicts they've had, or haven't had.

It is Firiya constantly trying to find out where his idol is, wanting to be assigned to tasks with him but never asking outright, only mulling over it endlessly in his head.

It is Khamûl, reminiscing on one thing or another, of all the battles he had fought (regarded, jealously, by Dimna), of the lands he had conquered and ridden over, remembering the extents to which his tribe could reach by the end of his reign.

It is Shêmut studying his liquids and chemicals and herbs, making medicines and poisons that may never see the light of day.

It is the constant reminder that there are lives not his own, concurrent to his own. Where Melkor did not consider them, being what he was; and where Mairon never concerned himself with them, fleeting as they were.

Now they are what he has at his disposal. Now, they are things he must consider, to do what he needs to do.

Now they are, and he is.

But.. it is not trust.

"..No, I suppose not."

And it is not, to Mairon, what the Silmarils ever were to Melkor.

He removes his hand from Alkhâr's grasp. And then removes the Ring after, settling it into the wraith's hand with a tiny clink, folding stiff and hollow fingers securely around it.

"--What are you doing?" Alkhâr demands when Mairon moves away, leaving the Ring in his hold. "Master-- Mairon--!"

"Hold onto that until we return to the Black Spire, if you would, alkharîya."

"But I--"

It's been a while since he wasn't able to hear Alkhâr's thoughts. Or any thoughts, really, without great effort. If he wanted to he could still press upon the wraith's mind, and likely he might be granted access if only because he has always done so before.

But the Ring allows unfettered access, where now Alkhâr would have the ability to refuse him.

And, perhaps, Mairon would like to know if he would. Refuse him.

He does not try.

"Just for a little while," he says instead. "I do not think you would be able to go very far with it on your own, in any case."

As if to prove a point, Mairon gathers up the last of his belongings and makes his way out of the room. Alkhâr does not follow him immediately.

And when he does, he is in more of a rush to catch up than Mairon expected him to be.

"The Ring," Alkhâr rasps, urgent, in the rusty tongues of Black Speech. "It whispers. It whispers in your voice."

"Yes," Mairon says. Less rusty and more rustic. "It does. Because it is mine."

Alkhâr hisses, displeased, and takes him by the arm. He pulls them both back into the eaves of an alcove they'd just passed by.

"What sorcery did you commit?" he asks, holding up his closed fist as if unable to open it to show the Ring hidden within. As if he wouldn't dare to. "What have you wrought? It should not speak so!"

Alkhâr lives up to his namesake, a witch through and through. He knows the Arts, though he uses them less and less lately. It is for good reason that Mairon considers him his greatest Ringwraith, his greatest servant. Only Khadîn has more than a passing knowledge in the Arts; the others can repeat what he instructs them to, channeling his own powers through themselves, but are otherwise.... lacking.

It does not diminish their usefulness, of course. But it does mean he has less people to talk to about such things, when need arises.

Even Telperinquar never questioned the making of the Ring and how it worked the way it did. Then again, that was probably more due to lack of opportunity to ask and a desire to outright reject anything about Annatar, than a lack of curiosity or concern.

It was unfortunate, truly, that the Elf would change his mind in the end. After all the trouble they went through to make the rings.

Elves are, in the end, far more useful. Stubborn and willful, yes. But efficient.

"If you remove your ring, it will stop," Mairon says, soft and soothing. He feels the Lesser Ring burning though the wraith's glove and the sleeve of his robes. "The whispers, the waiting. That feeling of stagnation and eternity stretching before you, the shadow of life that shadows your steps. And yourself, alkharîya. All of it will stop."

He touches the hand gripping his arm and Alkhâr lets go as though he's been scalded. The wraith takes several steps back before stopping short. If Mairon had to make a guess, he would say this regained freedom must seem shocking. That no longer having his master in his mind must be freeing, and to have his inner thoughts be his own again, a relief.

Perhaps. The Race of Men are of Closed Minds by nature, after all. Unused to the sensation, but weak to it also. Not like the Elves.

"We made those, he and I. The rings that you wear." Mairon takes his hand back, fingers curled. Poised, one could say, to strike. "I would gather that they contain what he felt for me, and I for him, at the time of their making."

A lie. But they cannot hear his thoughts now, and they will not hear that thought again. A thought, or a hope.

"What did you do?" Alkhâr demands. His grip on the Ring is tightening; Mairon feels it, somewhere deep inside himself, in the part of him that is no longer there. "What did you do?"

"He that wears the Ring might master it," Mairon says in a way of response. "He who masters it will master all Lesser Rings."

He can feel Alkhâr's mind go from wary to curious, tempted. Power makes the Race of Men delirious, he has found, and the concept of owning such power makes them do silly things. Like pledging their lives away. Taking up false banners. Following dead kings.

Loving the loveless. Grieving the deathless.

Mairon wonders what this great servant of his will do.

"..He who masters the Ring will master its Maker."

The confession is met with a raw sort of silence, the kind that comes after heavy rain as one waits to see if the sun will show itself or if more rain will come, and Alkhâr does not move. Mairon's heart beats once, torpid and heavy. Twice. Three times.

Four.

An anxiety he'd never known of rises in him, and the desire to claw himself out of the wraith's hands becomes nigh unbearable. As if in response, Alkhâr closes the distance between them in an instant, pressing the Ring back into Mairon's hands.

"This is not trust," Alkhâr repeats, and if he sounds overly harsh and ragged, weary and thin, Mairon pays him no heed. The rush of his thoughts, also, is a torrent that goes unchecked and ignored.

"No," Mairon says again, the same as before, and returns the Ring to its rightful place. "It is not."

It warms itself upon his finger, telling him of all the worries the other wraiths have had in that short period of time.

Silence is always unsettling to those who have not had it in so long.

"Pity you did not try to wear it," he says, chipper and mournful, slipping out of the alcove the way a serpent slips out of one's grasp. "I would have liked to see what would happen."

Yet spoken in a tone so dangerously light that no one should be offended when Alkhâr removes himself a pace and a half away.

"Come now, we have prayer to attend to, and a long trip ahead of us."

Checkmate, says Khadîn, from her mind to his. Once again.

"Once again," he repeats. Alkhâr trails along behind him again, the way he always has. Whether because he is bidden to or of his own volition is of no matter to his master. "With any luck, this one will not throw away the ring that I give him, once I have him cornered."

A ring? Whose? she titters above the clamor of the other wraiths. Not Dimna, I hope.

"A different sort of ring," Mairon assures her.

He looks back over his shoulder. Alkhâr doesn't seem to have joined in the worries and protests. Perhaps he knows better now.

"...One that I have been crafting for many, many years."

 


 

The peafowl is an immortal delicacy.
Its meat shall not spoil, and to consume its flesh
preserves one's own state.

Take a live male peafowl remove its head.
Let it bleed into a dish, and remove its feathers.
Flay it, and divide the succulent among the seeking.
Partake of it raw and red, at its freshest.
Dress in the feathers of the fowl and drench the altar
with the blood unspoiling, and speak the words:

Lord, Melkor, Maker and Saviour,
we seek the gift withheld from us,
we seek the gift given to what we have consumed.
For your forgiveness we offer the blood of the slain,
untainting, unfouling. May it provide us life
until your search ends, until you have reclaimed
what was once stolen.

We will hear your Words and do your Will.
May Night follow Day, and Day follow Night,
until Two becomes One and One becomes None.
We await your Glory.

- Celebrations of the Mehradin 3, Festival of the Eye

Chapter Text

"Send your thoughts into the Fire, and let it see unto you."

The woman kneels before the wraith, head bowed over her clasped hands. She murmurs a litany of prayers, courtesy, before going silent.

A shallow copper dish sits between them, as wide as one's arm span and filled with illuminating oil. Rags submerged within kept the whole thing ablaze, filling the temple with its odor and fumes.

The odor is not entirely pleasant, but getting rid of it is something that Mairon is still working on. Was working on. Shêmut and Attâlu have taken over the project and made some improvements, but nothing to match the perfection of olive oil.

Unfortunately Mordor is too far inland to grow any, and the coastal Far-Southrons are less than cooperative for the time being.

But it is not, to him, a hindrance; and to them it is harmless, if proper ventilation is practiced.

He closes his eyes and breathes in the fumes, lets it tickle the edges of his mind. The runes carved into the outside of the bowl light up, glowing red and gold. Designed by Mairon himself, they would take any word spoken before it and transmit it to the bowl in the Black Spire, and allow anyone there to send word out to any Fire they wished.

To seek contact, to initiate an exchange. To tell him they are open, and that he may see them as they are. Whispers of a flame. The Ring was always meant to be a trial and error sort of thing, and it is clear that despite all its successes, it is, in the end, an error.

He cannot teach Alkhâr how to write these runes, unfortunately; an Elf might be able to, but Mairon is done working with Elves now. It is a simple enough matter to reconfigure the runes, though, and the torch is passed thusly from him to Alkhâr. To allow the wraith, a Man dead and undying, to see into the mind as an Ainu would, so long as this fire is lit and the proper steps taken.

Mairon circles around them, like a vulture.

"The one who wronged you has been put to trial, and will be punished," the wraith says, hollow. His love for the Mordorans is little. "Now is the time to heal yourself. Find aid where you seek it least. Help others like you, who have suffered as such. Vengeance comes best to those who wait and recover."

Mairon's eyebrow rises, as vengeance was not something he considered suggesting. But Alkhâr will be his messenger for the foreseeable future, so he does not refute this advice. He knows enough of how Mairon does it to learn quickly.

".. And," Alkhâr adds, slowly, pulling long-lost knowledge from his master's mind, "in time, you will find that vengeance may not be the answer you are seeking. Satisfaction is a fleeting thing."

The woman raises her head, contention in her heart. She looks between the two of them, servant and master. "..Merhadi, I--"

"I hear your desires and your hurts." Alkhâr takes her attention, commands it with his presence and his stature. "I see the pain that was wrought in you, but her death will not heal it. Ointment prevents infection; only your body can recover itself."

Her eyes flicker again; even from behind her, Mairon can tell. His wraith has eyes, and all eyes of the Ringbearers are his own.

"Mehrad can bring you back from the brink of death, that is true. He has done so for many of us." Alkhâr comes around the fire and leans down towards the supplicant, despite the heat burning what part of him it reaches. "But the Maker cannot save your soul if it festers."

"But I... what she did..." Her shoulders are shaking. "How can I forgive..?"

"Do not forgive. You do not have that right to pardon her wrongdoings. Hold them against her for the rest of your life, and hers. Only our Maker may grant her forgiveness." Alkhâr straightens up, and only Mairon sees his gaze rise to meet his own. "Only the Mehrad can forgive her."

Mairon raises his hand to stop her from rising; he has seen her intent to implore him, to beg. To want retribution. He will not promise it to her.

"I will see what she has done, all that she has done. I will hear what she says. And I will see her intent, for she cannot hide it from me." He speaks in a soft litany, words he has given to many others before, so consumed by anger and vengeance; and they are right to feel this way. But anger and vengeance serves only temporarily. It consumes, also. "And if, one day, you fall into a desperation, I will know what you have done, what you have said, and whether you truly repent. The Maker will judge us thusly; fairly, and equally."

It does not bring peace to her; it is not meant to. But it will preserve her, for a time. He cannot have the people of his lands trying to kill each other left and right. It's a waste of an otherwise perfectly good workforce.

"..As you say, merhadi." She sounds reluctant, a touch of frustration that accompanies the helpless. He cannot promise that it will abate with time. "I will hold to your counsel."

But she is reverent, even as she leaves the pit with her head lowered and her shoulders drawn. He has lived too long, showed his face too many times, walked too many fires and torn up too many bodies for them not to believe he is more than Man, more than human. Elves were worshipped, once; and Mairon is far more than an Elf.

"I do not think that was what she wanted to hear," Alkhâr murmurs to him. The pit holds only them, and above them are the others, knelt in prayer. The woman joins them shortly, next to her newly bereaved kin.

"It is never want they want to hear," Mairon replies. "We are bathed in righteous glory, alkharîya, and none to wipe it off but our own hands. Remember that when they seek you."

"Do not run your city into the ground, you mean."

"You were a lord once. I trust you know how to be a lord again."

This is not being a lord, master, the wraith says, silently, as Mairon steps into the burning oil with all the grace of an open-air bath. The congregation bows down even deeper, if that were possible. That is being a god.

Nonsense, Mairon replies. The oil warms his toes as fire dances around him, remnants of the secrets of all who have come before it. There is no such thing as a god. There is only us.

 


 

"This goes against the Valar's teaching, Pharazôn. You know this, don't you?"

"What of it, Amandil?" Pharazôn implores tiredly. It's been a long day of doing nothing but watch over practice exercises, drills, and looking over the sparse accounts their scouts had given them several days ago. Mental legwork for someone who prefers actual legwork. "As far as I'm concerned, the Valar never taught us anything about the Arts."

"That's exactly what I mean." Amandil sips at his watered wine, tapping the table with his other hand in a nervous tic. "It isn't something we were taught to do, not something we were meant to do. There are no legends of Men using the Arts, no stories that it was ever wielded for good or evil. It is not something for our kind."

"Yet we can use it. Can we not? You've seen the effects of the Song yourself during the march." Pharazôn flips a page, comparing two separate days of notes on the gate's guard rotations. "Don't tell me you're going to say it won't work."

"I don't think it will do us any good, to be honest. Completely honest."

"Yes, so you said when I met with the priests the other day. I respect your words of wisdom, but now is not the time for that. At least, not until you can think of another way around that gate."

"The scouts are still scouring the mountains for a secret passage. With time--"

"We don't have time, Amandil." Pharazôn doesn't know how he can stress this how little time they have, how little time he has. This is something he must do, to cement his title, his claim. To call the scepter his own. "I've lived half of my life now, I won't waste the other half when an opportunity like this is in my grasp."

"Pharazôn.. To see this as an opportunity..."

"It is more than that, old friend. Can you not understand? It is a matter of pride. Pride!" He shakes his head, as if he can't even believe himself. Greater men than he have died for less. Greater beings than he have been faced grand losses and defeats for less. Wars were started, for less. "How can I be king if there's someone else out there claiming to be King of Men? King of me? I won't have it, and neither will Númenor stand to be insulted like this."

There is the chance, of course, that he is acting on a baseless rumor. Well, maybe not baseless. Everyone knows Sauron has a basis for doing just about anything that he does and that basis is (in service of Morgoth the Terrible). But Pharazôn is aware that using an unsourced rumor that Sauron is claiming to be King of Men just to dethrone him could end in several ways.

It could be true, and he would be ridding the world of a dark and tyrannical creature.

It could be false, and he would still be ridding of a world of a dark and tyrannical creature.

Or it could true, or false, and he would be pegged as too ambitious. Oppressive and as far-reaching as Sauron himself, despite being nowhere near as terrible.

Whoever was the first to say that resorting to enemy's tactics made you just as bad as they were had never fought a war before. Being the 'bigger man' was an ego stroking tactic.

No man is greater than another in war. Everyone died the same.

"Resorting to the Arts is not the way to go, old friend. That's sorcerous work. It is the Gods' Realm."

"The Elves knew the Arts."

"That's not fair, Pharazôn, and you know it."

"Why shouldn't it be?" Pharazôn asks, without really expecting an answer. It's a question the King's Men philosophers have been asking for years now, ever since the King's Men were founded. "Why shouldn't it be fair? Why must we be banned from what they have, their youth and longevity? Why should they have access to the Valar while we sit here, watched over like a gaggle of children not allowed to enter the study room?"

"You weren't allowed because you kept spilling the inkpot."

"Sword-fighting on tables is a staple of one's boyhood adventures!"

"Well.. Not so much on important documents...."

Pharazôn concedes this with a grunt. Amandil is probably right.

It's nearly dusk, and now that they've gotten through the worst of travelling at the edges of a desert, the daily schedule is more or less back to normal, for an army abroad. Pharazôn had done it enough in his years fighting Sauron's forces before he became king.

It's a little different, now that he's King. A King who is also a Commander.

"...We can't just back down now, Amandil," Pharazôn confesses after a moment of silence. If Amandil is surprised, it doesn't show. "I can't back down, even if I wanted to-- and I don't, for the record, before you start trying to change my mind again."

"I wouldn't dare."

"Yes you would, and you have."

"..Alright, fine." Amandil reaches over to fish out a blank sheet of paper and something to write with. "Let's play devil's advocate and assume this works, then."

"It will work."

"Okay, it works. Or, as you said, it's possible to pull off, and we manage it. What then? We've never used the Arts on a scale this large before. What's going to happen to the army, or the priests?"

"That's what the testing is going to find out."

"Then how do we plan to get Sauron out? You're hoping he'll recognize our strength and just turn himself over?" Amandil starts jotting down notes, which Pharazôn thinks is an awful waste of paper, to be honest. "Are we going to march into Mordor to drag him out? Will we be able to. Never mind that we don't know what the Arts will do to the forces, but the gate itself is enormous. The amount of rubble it creates once we destroy it will surely block the way in."

"I'll bring up whether we can aim the destruction inwards, leave a clear path for us to enter." Pharazôn frowns. "..If not that, then destroy it so the rubble is as small as possible. Make it easier for us to move if out of the way if we have to."

"We'll have to find Barad-dûr after that. Well, I'm sure it's in the general vicinity of the volcano, which poses another problem entirely-- it's active, and as far as our reports say, it's also constantly releasing ashes and gas fumes. The air will be hard to breathe the closer we get."

"We got through the desert with makeshift face covers. Test those out once we're close enough."

Amandil raises an eyebrow. Respectfully. "That's a lot to put on chance, Pharazôn."

"Chance is what we have." Pharazôn reaches for his mug of watered wine. "..And failing this, we have your mountain routes to try out. If the scouts find any."

"We are so woefully underprepared for this," Amandil laments.

"Stop saying that, we can't let the army know."

"I'm sure they already do."

"Not in as many words, they don't, and it's going to stay that way." Pharazôn gestures to him with the mug. "Keep going. I'm having fun listening to you tear my plans apart."

"I wasn't aware you had a plan, Pharazôn."

"Maybe not. That's what you're here for, Amandil. I can't be doing all the work, now, can I?"

 


 

"Must you leave so soon, merhadi?"

"I am late enough as it is," Mairon sighs. The ceremony is over now, but the temple is full to the brim. Leaving is a tough matter at the moment. "There are more people still here than I anticipated."

"If you visited more often, this wouldn't have happened," Alkhâr suggests dully.

"I do visit often."

"Firiya visits, as your proxy. It is not the same."

Mairon considers that. "..Is it like when I speak with you but have not physically seen you in some time?"

Alkhâr makes a sound and looks away. "That only happens to Dimna."

"Of course." Mairon hides a smile. To the senior priest, he says, "Clear a path to the gates and beyond as necessary. If need be we will push our way through, but I would prefer not to."

Etegen bows and retreats to pass the word on to the captain of security at the temple.

"..I am surprised you would suggest visiting more, Alkhâr," Mairon says, looking out the window and into the full courtyard. "After all, you seem to be displeased every time I visit Illahm, even though that is but 3 times a year."

"You do realize they won't leave because they can see you through the window?" Alkhâr mutters, taking Mairon's arm at the elbow and gently tugging him away so he can shut the curtains. "And I've never been displeased about that."

"I recall you thought it was particularly frivolous, and time ill-spent."

"I spoke specifically regarding your pleasure visits with the merah."

Oh, but he has been lax with his wraiths of late. To hear the more loyal of them speak to him like this.

"Pleasure visits?" It comes out crisp and sharp; almost a hiss, if a hiss could sound throaty like a snarl as well. "Is that what you think of them as?"

Perhaps it is unfair, to dare his own servants to refute him when he can remove their self-will at the drop of a pin. It is the thought that matters.

"..I am not sure what else to call them," Alkhâr says carefully. The ties of obedience are pulled taut in his voice, hoarse though it is. "They are.. allies, certainly. But it is not for the sake of an alliance that you see to the merah so frequently."

"You would know this?"

"That is why you visited me, in Faras-azarûn, isn't it?"

The wraith's skin is not skin anymore, and feels nothing much like it. The soul is no more solid than gas, for all that it is only held together by spells and sorcery, and a thin band of metal on a finger. But for the Ainu it is as real as anything, and it is not his hand that touches Alkhâr's face, but the soul contained within it.

It burns, perhaps. Or perhaps it is that they have not felt touch for so long that to feel it again is foreign to them. Like a pinprick, or the bite of a needle. To kiss a spirit is not unlike breathing in mist or stumbling through the morning fog, the clinging, cloying sensation of sandalwood smoke.

Empty things, but no less solid a gesture.

...And it is nice to do this without having Alkhâr bend over double to reach him in his shorter form.

"I visited your lands for the Seer in your cousin," Mairon says against the ghost of his wraith's lips. They are cold, like ice. Like stone. "And later, for you."

(not like melkor's, that burned like fire. cut like teeth and tasted of blood and desperation. like so much want that a bucket the size of the world could not contain it.)

"When she left, so did you," Alkhâr says, a low husk of a sound. "...And later, so did I."

"She needed guidance." Mairon looks askance. Not apologetically. "..And I had time."

"I did not."

"Yes, I seem to forget that quite a bit. But you do now. Now you have all the time in the world. The merah of Illahm does not."

Alkhâr doesn't push him away; but then again he never really does. Mairon fingers through the wispy mist-hair of his beard before backing off.

He has never been one to press a matter, when it did not matter.

"Why don't you just make another ring, then?" The clank of a single step makes Mairon stop in his own. "You can do that, can't you? Or do you not want to?"

He looks behind him. At the gauntlet that covers the wraith's hand, at the ring hidden beneath it. It is there, he knows it is there, though he cannot sense it for himself. It is not possible to perceive the part of yourself in something else.

But he does sense the something else.

"The Rings are not meant to be made alone," Mairon says, and if there is a touch of mourning, Alkhâr does not bring attention to it. "Just as children cannot be made alone."

"He made them alone, didn't he?" Alkhâr brings his hand up, clenched, to his chest. Whether to protect the ring it wears or to better feel its powers, Mairon does not know. "You made one alone as well."

"..He did." Mairon cants his head. "And so did I."

And what remained of them both, now, but scraps and rags? A candle, nipped at the wick. What left is there to burn?

"But we are not really ever alone. And Elves especially are never really alone. I am sure he knew that, before he made the Three. Or he found out as he was making them. I have never thought to ask."

"You did not want to know?"

"Why should I?"

Ambition is so prevalent in the Incarnate. To be so bound to the world and to life, to be so free of fate that one must fine purpose to keep living. That one must have purpose, a purpose not pre-given, and to feel so squandered by time that they dive headlong into their passions even if it led them to their doom.

Mairon has ambition. Dimna might think he does not, but it is only because his ambition is of a different sort. more long-lasting, far-reaching. Less rushed. Ainur are eternal creatures, and patient ones. What can be done today can also be done tomorrow, or in 10 years, or 100 years. Or 1000 years.

(and then there was melkor, who flew towards his doom with the speed and force of a falling star, crushing everything in his way and taking them with him, for he, too, hated to be alone.)

"..So you can't make any by yourself."

"It is highly inadvisable," Mairon says bluntly, going back to the window. He leaves the curtains in place, nudging only a small part open to peak through. "Besides which, where is no reason to give the merah a Ring of Power. I do not need him to be powerful."

"Perhaps if he had been, he would not have been defeated so soundly."

"Or perhaps he would still lose, and the Númenóreans would have the ring in their possession. And then they would try to use it to bargain with me, as though it held any significance. Lord knows one of them will be tempted to wear it, for all the strength it gave their enemy, and they would try to hatch some conniving plot to find a way to wear it without becoming a wraith. Ply it from my lips by honey or by harm."

Alkhâr gives a jolt; a clear sign of interest. But he has learned to show restraint. "Is that.. is that possible?"

"Of course not," Mairon hisses. For all that he gives them away as gifts and lures, to think on the rings more deeply is like getting caught in a snag. The effect it had on Men was not what they intended, but what else did he expect from giving rings to Men that were made for Elves? "They were never meant for your hands, for the hands of Dwarves. Mortals were never to wear them... too fragile and weak, to easily swayed and completely taken by them. They are incomplete, in that sense, and I see no reason to make more of them."

Alkhâr hums, though it sounds more like the rumbling purr of a cat instead. A particularly displeased cat.

"Yet still we wear them."

"Do you dislike it?" His words sound pleasantly snappish, even to Mairon's own ears. It's not a topic that comes up often, or never at all. Not a pleasant one. "Khamûl seems to. I think he would return his if it did not mean a slow return to death."

"You should have thought of that before giving him one."

Mairon considers that for a moment, and laughs, because it is true. It is an abrupt change from the somber and serious. Yes, he is a patient creature.

But a creature, nonetheless.

"Well," he says, light and nostalgic, "I have never claimed to be a good judge of character."

If he were, he would pick servants of those more easily swayed, more obedient. More loyal and gratifying. If he were he would have more need of such servants who would not question his orders and rebuke his commands.

Yet he is his master, to the end, and Melkor did choose him.

"Will that be all for your concerns, alkharîya?"

The crowd outside has yet to disperse, though with the curtains drawn their interest seems to be waning steadily. He could leave now if he wished.

Alkhâr takes his elbow again, but this time does not pull him away from the window.

Instead he is turned around, and there is a touch light upon the side of his face, or as light as metal can be, tipping his chin up, his head back. The gauntlet is cold and it sings of power, of magic and sorcery, to keep the spirit within it from dispersing.

It is much easier to do this when Alkhâr does not have to bend over.

 

 

 

"Shaa'merhadi, we--" The head priest stops in the doorway and immediately eases the door shut. "Oh! My-- my apologies, I didn't--"

"Come in, shaa'Taghai." Like his servant, Mairon does not push Alkhâr away. In fact the wraith seems to tighten his hold on Mairon's elbow, and the hand at his neck curls in slightly, almost gripping. "You are not interrupting anything."

"So you say," Alkhâr says, hushed.

"You can hold me on the trip back to the tower."

"That's.. not very comfortable for you."

"I have had my throat torn open before," Mairon muses, finally extricating himself from the wraith's grasp. "Comfort is subjective."

Huffing, Alkhâr returns to his post in the middle of the room, watching his master like a hawk.

"Shaa'Taghai?"

"Ah.. merhadi." The priest comes into the room, lowering his head in a bow. "I am told the horses are ready for travel. The road is clear as well, for a ways. They are clearing the rest of it."

"Oh? That was rather quick. Perhaps we should have a head start on our journey."

"That would be ideal, shaa'merhadi. The crowd thinned easily enough, but the sight of the path we cleared is causing them to gather again."

"So long as it is clear, I do not mind. Alkharîya, see to the horses. I will join you in a little bit."

It takes a bit of nudging in his mind to get the wraith to reluctantly leave the room. The head priest shuffles slightly, wondering if he is being dismissed or not until Mairon shuts the door after Alkhâr is gone.

"...You are the youngest Head Priest this Temple has ever had, shaa'Taghai." He looks over his shoulder just in time to see the man startle. "Is that correct?"

"I... yes, Lord Mairon," Taghai says with a nod and another bow. "At least, by my knowledge."

"And by mine as well." Mairon folds his hands in front of him, regarding the priest with a fair assessment. He does not seem the frail type. "Was it you who poisoned the late shaa'Karuluk?"

"His death was unfortunate.. but it was the will of the Sacred Fire, Lord Mairon. He had--" Taghai makes a gesture with his hand, not indicative of anything but the idea that the reason for it was already known by the both of them. "He had become greedy. The Great Void did not look kindly on his avarice."

"So I heard." His hands curl into claws. The lace-metal finger guards back at the tower are sized more for Easterlings than Númenóreans, so it will be chance to see if they still fit him now. "And the gold?"

"Shaa'Karuluk had graciously arranged for it to be donated to the Temple upon event of his death, to be redistributed to the city. As proof of his faith and service."

"And you decided that yourself, shaa'Taghai?"

The priest inclines his head thoughtfully. "It is better for the Temple that he be a good man, in the end."

"Perhaps." The results are not unsatisfactory, and the problem was removed. Mairon is not one to criticize methods. "Remember, then, if this should happen again. So long as the Sacred Fire remain lit, so long as it burns and is attended to, I will know of all transgressions within the Temple. In this Temple, and all Temples. We are here for the people, shaa'Taghai. We are here for the future."

Taghai bows low. There is a slight tremble about him, either fear or anxiousness. Mairon will have to check back here frequently. Had he more time he could purge the ranks now and bring in new priests and officials, vetted personally.

Firiya will just have to handle that, if need be. It has always been better for Men to rule Men.

"As I said at the convening, Firiya will be here within a fortnight as my Herald. As tradition dictates, he is to accompany your formal ascension as the new Head Priest. Have you met him before?"

"In passing, I think." Taghai is barely 40 year this. Karuluk was, perhaps, in his early 70s before he died. An unusually long life that likely led to his growing material desires. "We will prepare to receive him according to the scripture... Except for the food, yes? He is like yourself, is he not?"

"Make the food," Mairon smiles, opening the door, "and let the faithful partake in it, after."

 


 

Music... is a powerful thing.

All celebrations ride high on the shoulders of celebrated musicians, known by their names as well as the King is known by his. It is music that makes a festival; it is the beat that leads a song, it is the accompaniment that raises it, it is the voices that guide it.

The echoes of a dying chant leaves goosebumps on Pharazôn's skin. He looks at the sizable dent made in the ground, blasted apart by the so-called Song of Destruction.

The only one singing was a single priest, accompanied by a half-dozen soldiers chosen for their relative lack of proficiency with the Arts. All things considered, the results are quite.... stunning.

Pharazôn waits until Elder Abîran gives him the go ahead to approach the crater and crouches down next to it, just to get a better look at the damage.

"Didn't we excavate mines like this back in the day?" he asks. "I've seen these kinds of marks before."

"North Andustar?" Amandil takes a look next to him, toeing a piece of rubble and watching it tumble into the crater.

"Aye, in the old copper mines." Pharazôn traces the jagged edge of the hole, not quite uniform but still seeming like there's a pattern to how the cracks formed. He almost wants to take the time to try and find out. "I always thought it sounded creepy in there. Now I think I know why... it sounds kind of like this."

Like he could hear the stone mourning, crying, wasting away. The upheaved dirt and stone had been scattered around after the explosion, luckily to no one's harm, and the sound of it still rang in his ears.

"..This is far enough away from the gate, isn't it?" He lifted his head to look in the distance, where the mountains were. "Sauron won't be able to see this?"

"We are.. a fair distance," Elder Abîran confirms. "He is called the Great Eye among some of his allies, it seems. Perhaps for a good reason."

"A spy has eyes," Pharazôn mutters. "If it's the Arts he hears, then he should be called the Ear instead."

"Some say he is long-eared as well. And long-armed, reaching across Middle-Earth to claim things as his own."

Pharazôn looks at Amandil, who only offers an aborted shrug. No help to be found there. It figured the Faithful wouldn't have any more information on Sauron, despite decrying him for his terror and horror so much.

Granted, it likely doesn't help that news of Sauron's activity doesn't exactly reach that far West. He just sounds like some otherworld creature right now.

"This will work on the Black Gate, Elder Abîran?"

"We dare not try it before the assault, lest it be tied to Sauron himself and alert him of our actions. But given this amount of destruction with this amount of people, we should be able to do inflict some damage to the gate if the entire army where to be an accompaniment. More, if we had the time to place the proficient ones accordingly."

"We don't have time." Pharazôn rubs some of the dirt between his fingers. It's a little dry here, but not so much along the river. Much more fertile. It might be prudent to put down settlements near the water in the future. "Place them and teach them through the night."

Whether this plan goes well or not, and especially if it does not, they can't overlook Sauron's retaliation. Keeping a better watch on Mordor will be a great service to all of Middle-Earth. One that the Valar were refusing to do.

"We'll strike tomorrow at noon, when the sun is highest. That ought to put a leash on those wraiths of his at least." Pharazôn rubs his chin. "...They are weak in the sunlight, right?"

"All creatures of Darkness wilt in the Light, sire," the Elder says, making the sign above his brow. "Sauron is no exception."

 


 

Life is life's true gift. To live it is a joy, but one must not condemn others to a life without life.

A creature who roams is sacred, and the one who stays has given their life.
Hunting of the wild is not to be done; to take the life of one who lives free, one must give life in return.
Give of one who stays, and ask the Maker for His blessing. Give the vitals of the hunted, and ask the Maker for His forgiveness.

The Free remain Free, lest they choose to Obey.
Let that choice be their own undoing.
Let it be their Death.

- Serain, Teachings of Mehrad 14

Chapter Text

"Why is Shêmut at the Black Gate?" Mairon frowns. "I do not recall sending him there. Nor Khamûl."

"Perhaps they are eager to please," Alkhâr says idly. His voice is muffled just slightly against his shawl, and the back of Mairon's shoulder. "The matter is urgent enough. I would have done the same."

"You are less affected by daylight."

Alkhâr lets out a grunt. "Shêmut knows how to Shroud them. That's probably why he went with Khamûl."

A hum, curiously. "He is unusually responsible today."

"You removed the Ring. They worry."

Mairon turns his head just so. Just enough to see Alkhâr out of the corner of his eye. "Is that why you are holding me?"

Alkhâr's arm tightens around his waist. It could be simply a precaution against the swaying of the horse, but Mairon takes it as as answer.

From the Ring he feels a twinge and the sensation of his power fluctuating, dipping just slightly. The stress from the two wraiths at the Black Gate lessens, telling him that Shêmut has sung the Song of Shrouding to lower the effect of the sun on them. It is morning still, and the glare is weak enough, but the Shroud will have to be enhanced if they intend to stay out there longer.

A turn of his fingers, and he permits the ring to reserve that sliver of his power needed for it, for later. It is bothersome to feel his energy slipping, even if by a fraction. A fraction of a fraction.

Alkhâr is the only one for whom the sun has little to no effect on. Admittedly, Mairon is not exactly sure of the reason for that... He suspects it's the Song in him, and Alkhâr's ability to wield it. The Shroud is less a shroud, and more a Shield.

To this day, Mairon has not seen any other Mannish folk with a greater gift than this one, not even Firiya. The fact that he is Númenórean might have something to do with it.

"Are you sure you are not Half-Elven?" Mairon asks.

"I do not know," Alkhâr says, less hostile than most Númenóreans are on the topic of Elves these days. He's had time to mellow. "If my family ever kept record of our ancestry, I do not recall seeing it. By the time it mattered, they were unwilling to speak of it, at least to me."

"By the time it mattered?"

"When you first asked it of me."

How long ago that was, now. Mairon remembers it like it was yesterday, currying the favour of the Lord of Faras-azarûn in something like an odd courtship. All he wanted at first was to win over the cousin, the Seer. Amâtthi, she was called then. Khadîn, now.

He hadn't expected the Lord to be a sorcerer himself, or to become on. A budding witch amidst the still-Faithful.

"I thought it strange to see such talent for the Arts in a Man. A Man without Elven blood, and untaken by the Darkness no less."

"You would call it Darkness?"

Mairon looks over his shoulder again, at the face hidden beneath the black iron visor. "I would call it what it is."

Across the valley, he hears the messenger from Ar-Pharazôn through the ears of his wraiths, demanding surrender. Demanding servitude, obeisance, tribute. Demanding reparations. More urgent now than the messages before. It doesn't seem like they had planned for a long stay, and are eager to leave, one way or another.

Unfortunate, for them.

"...And Darkness cannot exist without a Light to shine upon, besides."

His life has been a dichotomy of Light and Dark. His hand in Melkor's. Telperinquar's in his.

He wonders which hand Ar-Pharazôn will end up being.

 


 

"West-Men are so very long-winded, eh?" Shêmut says with a dying chortle. Below them, outside the Gates, is a tiny speck of a Man astride a horse, reading from a roll of paper that must be a mile long. His guard escorts are yawning. "Think they are going to make us read it too?"

Khamûl grunts. He isn't very talkative outside of Tûlgith and their Master.

In the Dark Lands, as they called it here, literacy was uncommon. Highly respected, but not well-structured enough to teach easily. Shêmut himself is not very fond of reading the script of the Dark Lands. He has always been a warrior, and later, a healer, if one could call it healing that he did.

These days he misses the smell of the black soil after the water recedes, and his vials and herbs are labeled in a mix of Dark Land script, Mordoran Tengwar, and something that the master calls Taliska. Attâlu says 'It's basically Adûnaic, I don't know why he calls it that.'

It was not 'basically Adûnaic' and Shêmut did not know why Attâlu kept insisting that it was.

"You're not even listening," Khamûl remarks. He's also not listening.

"I lost interest after they threatened to burn our fields," Shêmut says. "They cannot do that. The Master specifically had us bread grains that would not burn. Oh-- that reminds me..."

The messenger is still talking, droning on in the background while Shêmut makes a few notes in a worn notebook. He goes through them quickly, when he actually uses them. Most of the time he relies on the Master's memory.

But with the West-Men at their doorstep right now, who knows how much longer their Master will be around. Not that he thinks the Lord of Mordor could ever lose.

Plus, Mairon seems preoccupied with something else.

"..Did they just threaten to destroy the gates?" Khamûl taps his fingers along the railing. It's hard to hear from this high up. A messenger will probably relay it to them soon. "We should respond."

"I did not come here to speak with West-Men," Shêmut supplies helpfully. "You respond."

Then he realizes that's a bad idea, but Khamûl is already descending the tower under the nervous eyes of the guards on duty.

"--Wait! Khamûl!" Shêmut shoves the notebook into his satchel and follows the Easterling. "If you start a war, the Master will be very unhappy with you!"

"Good!"

 


 

Pharazôn squints.

"Was that a laugh? I thought I heard someone laughing."

"I believe it was a dying rooster, sire," Anakhôr says, fanning himself to no avail. "Perhaps plump and fat, being cooked over a fire."

"How dare you, Lord Anakhôr," Nalarik says listlessly. His stomach growls despite having just eaten. "How dare you."

"Oh, but I dare, Lord Nalarik. And I hunger so."

"That's not going to get you bigger rations, Lord Anakhôr," Pharazôn says. He wishes he could commandeer the rations for himself, as King, but that would be unwise.

The messenger they sent looks to have finished reading. The echoes have petered out, he read it so loud. Normally they would wait for a response, but seeing as the Gates are likely nowhere near where Sauron must be, a response could take hours or more.

It's surprising, then, when Pharazôn spots movement in one of the guard towers through the scope. It doesn't look like an archer, at least not one aiming to kill their herald, but it isn't one of the normal guards either. Whatever it is, his herald has noticed the movement as well and is staying put. Perhaps someone is descending to relay a pre-planned message.

Then Pharazôn takes in a sharp breath, and his jaw tightens.

"What is it?" Amandil asks quietly.

"Shades," Pharazôn says, equally quiet. He rubs his eye, hoping he's just seeing things, and looks through the scope again. "Wraiths just came out of the towers."

Two figures, black robed, smaller than he expected. One almost looks the size of an Easterling or Southron; the other is a tad taller, but he can't tell for sure at this distance. They're on horses, also. Even more difficult.

"What do you think?" he asks, handing the scope over to Amandil.

Amandil looks through it, frowning visibly around the eyepiece. He focuses it on a few other places as well, but eventually settles back on the main gate.

"The guards aren't behaving strangely or differently than usual.. no sign of any messages or signals being sent up. Unless Sauron is at the gate already, they'll have to communicate our message to him one way or another." Amandil gives the scope back. "We haven't been able to get much information on Mordor, except that we know the volcano is several hours ride from the gate. If Sauron is anywhere near there..."

"Well, he can't expect us to wait any longer than we already have," Pharazôn says. Discontent is not unknown to them with the situation as it is currently. "We've given them enough of a fair warning now. If Sauron doesn't surrender himself, we'll break down that gate and come get him ourselves."

"I can't imagine they won't think you're bluffing."

"That's fine with me. Then they'll know we aren't joking around when we tell Sauron we're going to make him pay for everything he's done."

Amandil gave him an exasperated look, one of many in this trip alone. Luckily, no one else is watching them. "How, exactly?"

"...Killing him would be easiest."

"That's certainly the quickest way to start a war with Mordor. If it even works."

"My, but you are a pessimist today, old friend."

"I prefer the term overly cautious. Something you might want to get familiar with, Pharazôn."

"I wouldn't be enjoying the popularity and position I have now if I were overly cautious."

"I wonder, sometimes," Amandil says, "and this is speaking just candidly and hypothetically of course-- I wonder sometimes how different it'd be if you hadn't married Míriel."

"Her name is Zimraphel, Amandil."

Amandil's face twitches. ".. If you hadn't married her and become king. She'd be queen and we wouldn't be sitting here burning up in the day and freezing our asses off at night."

"I think about that sometimes." Pharazôn collapses the scope and sets it back in his pocket. He's lost it a few too many times from setting it down by now. "But I would've found some other way to become king. I'd still be out here, in Middle-Earth, on the seas, fighting Sauron's forces. We've been fighting him for decades now, you know. Sooner or later I would stand up and tell everyone, it's time to put an end to this warring, time to put an end to Sauron once and for all. Tar-Palantir is my uncle, I'm as much of the royal lineage as anyone. Seizing the scepter..."

Amandil doesn't respond right away. Pharazôn has heard what he had to say on the matter before, heard his caution and warning when he found out Pharazôn was intending to wed the late Tar-Palantir's only daughter. His own cousin. He heard what everyone had to say about it back then.

Nothing has changed much since, save for the increasingly wild rumors.

"..I'll admit, you were main reason why our settlements had been safe for so long. I don't doubt the people would have supported your claim to the throne even with just that, if the conflict had gone on any longer."

"You're just saying that to fluff up my ego."

"I'm not, Pharazôn. I mean it. But--" Amandil gives pause, seeming to weigh his next words. Whether to be careful with them or for some other reason, Pharazôn can only guess. "..Tar-Miriel--"

"Ar-Zimraphel."

"--Stop that."

"Use her proper name, then."

Amandil's face does the twitching thing again before he smooths it out into something reluctant. "Fine. Ar-Zimraphel. She's done a lot of work for the people on Númenor, almost as much as you have. Enough to erase the worries of another like Tar-Vanimeldë, may she rest the gods." Pharazôn does not repeat the prayer, though he mirrors the gesture of respect. "And with her being Tar-Palantir's direct descendant, next in line for the throne... it's hard to say who would get it if the two of you went head-to-head."

Pharazôn gives the table another tap, thoughtful. "It would've been messy, wouldn't it."

"Númenor doesn't need another internal power-struggle," Amandil agrees. "But I imagine that's what would have happened."

"You're right, of course. We thought about that for a while. And we decided not to go head-to-head."

When he sees the herald starting to turn around and ride back to them, shades in tow, Pharazôn stands up.

"Now, let's go see what those wraiths have to say."

 


 

Alkhâr's unbreath leaves him in a disgruntled rush.

"..They have no idea how far away the Tower is from the Gates."

"They are ill-prepared." Mairon urges their horse to hurry, for they have a ways to go still. It's a trip they should have started hours earlier, were it not for the ceremony and the crowd. "But they do not seem to be starving just yet. There is strength in them, and in their claims."

"Drag you out of Mordor in chains," Alkhâr recites a line from the herald's message, Ar-Pharazôn's declaration to the Lord of Mordor. "When will people realize that chains don't work."

"No need to tell them... Let them feel secure in their machinations, for once." Mairon nearly rolls his eyes. In jest, of course. "After all, did you not feel satisfied having me in your little prison for a night?"

"Those were iron bars, not chains."

"Iron is iron, all the same."

"... I suppose." The wraith pauses. ".. And it did. It was satisfying to know, or think we knew, that we had the terrible and mighty Sauron locked away."

Another pause. Fingers drum over Mairon's stomach, wrapped in iron black.

"Until you broke out of it, anyway."

"They were very mortally built," Mairon says, humming. Built of stone and lined with wood, barred with iron. Not a touch of Elven influence to be seen, except: "The Song of Holding was well-faded. Easily broken."

"Relics of the past. We had not the skill to maintain it, then. Would it have worked?"

"Sung by the Mannish folk? Hardly." Mairon laughs. It is not mocking. "But I might have been convinced to stay another night to appreciate it. Longer, if your cousin had not paid me a visit."

Alkhâr rasps out a dissatisfied grumble. "I knew she had something to do with it."

Mairon laughs again.

In the past this had been a contentious subject. When the two of them still lived, it had never been broached; not by Mairon because it was not his piece to say, and not by Khadîn, who did not think it important enough to be discussed. It was only Alkhâr who held it against them in his silence.

Not so much now, though. Some grudges do not last 1600 years.

"Can we actually be considered 1600 years old?" Alkhâr muses.

"Why not? Just because you no longer age physically does not mean you are not aging. Elsewise an Elf would never age, and my existence could never be explained."

"You never have explained it."

Mairon leans forward and twists around in his seat, letting Alkhâr pick up the slack in the reigns to keep their horse on track. The wraith alternates between looking ahead and looking at Mairon.

"You have never asked." His head tips. He is aware that he has never offered to tell either, either, and his servants are nothing if not privy to his privacy. "..Do you want to know it?"

Though in most cases, it's just that the tale is so lengthy and far-removed from the present that the thought of reflecting on it makes him... weary. At a loss to how to address it, how to explain the daily life of an Ainu. How drearily long wars were, how he spent most of this days entrenched in metal and stone, digging coal out of the ground for the furnaces.

So much coal. So much work.

"I know that you have met Melkor, Morgoth, Enemy of the Elves," Alkhâr says. Reciting, perhaps. "I know that you have served him as I have served you. That he chose you as his speaker, his prophet. You call yourself Mannish, but no Sorcerer, Elf or Man, could hold a candle to the Arts you wield. None that still live.. or perhaps that ever lived. No Incarnate."

Mairon has never spoken of himself at length, not in the way that Incarnates do. He speaks of family without naming any, of friends without faces, of loves without lives. He speaks of time as though it did not exist, as though 'now' and 'then' were separated by nothing more than a wall as thin as spider silk.

He speaks of his life as though he has simply walked through it, a bystander to his own machinations and schemes.

(to speak of it otherwise would be to live it again, to remember who he schemed for, worked for, loved for. the one who bade him to live, above all else. live so that they might see each other again before the ending of the world.)

"I know that you say you love him, as you have loved others. In the same way, the same manner." Alkhâr flicks the reigns and they begin to pick up pace. "I know that you have sworn to serve him until your death, and that you are Undying."

The prickle at the edge of his mind grows sharper. He has ever been perceptive of anger and resentment, for his is a fickle master; easy to please and easy to anger, and not usually willing to compromise. To settle for less.

"And," Alkhâr continues, quiet, a ghost of a breath upon Mairon's cheek; the metal visor pressing to him a mockery of a kiss, "I know that you lie."

"Even so." He does not turn away. "Here you are."

"..Even so," Alkhâr echoes, "here I am."

With Elves it was never an issue of choice, for their choice was their own, always. They might be convinced to see another way, or swayed to conceded, but to take the mind and soul of an Elf, to enslave it, was no easy task if they were unwilling, strong as their spirits were. They would flee before they broke. Mairon knows this.

He knew Teleprinquar, ambitious and desperate, trying to right a wrong that was not his to right. He knew Maeglin, jealous and unloved, with a dead mother and a murderer of a father. Maedhros, to his credit, remained largely unbroken, though it wasn't as if they tried particularly hard to break him.

(in the end it seems he broke himself. the scions of Fëanor seemed to have that habit in common.

oaths have never been kind to their keepers.)

Melkor was the only one for whom the strength of a mind made no difference. And though Mairon had his suspicions as to why, it was easier to let the world believe in the strength of his master.

Men, however, are a different matter. They always have been, since Melkor found them.

"Come with me," Mairon says, his touch light upon the reigns in Alkhâr's hands. "I would have you by my side when I treat with Ar-Pharazôn."

"..As you wish."

While he is content to hear it, the words also give rise to a sting in Mairon's chest. He has felt this before, he thinks; and he has heard those words before, he knows.

The words are his own; he has said them to Melkor countless times. As you wish, my Lord. As you command, master. Good and loyal he thought it was, then. He still thinks it is now.. but for the sting in his chest. But for that, this would mean nothing more than what it is. A loyal servant. That is, after all, all that he needs.

(yet somewhere along the way, he began to want for more. or perhaps he had always wanted more? had he become his master in truth?)

Then Alkhâr leans forward, closer. A hum falls in the scant space between them like trickle of water. Perhaps the sting is his own imagination, a shadow of the past. The curl of darkness his master must have once felt.

"We should hurry," Mairon says. He murmurs a string of notes, lending a measure of his power unto the beast they ride so that it might go faster. It will be needed, to bear two people so large, even if one them is mostly just hollow armor. "There is much to be done before the end.. and so little time to do it."

He looks to the East where the sun is rising from, and in earlier days he would have been able to see the horizon. The edge of the world. The shadow upon the lands.

Then his head lilts to the side, seeing and hearing another sight, another sound. Sees the approach of what must be the King of the West-Men through the eyes of his wraiths. Hears their words through the rings.

"So demanding," Alkhâr notes with little humor.

"Yes, they are." Mairon hums. Turns his attentions to Shêmut, and Khamûl, leagues upon leagues away. "Well.. we have kept them waiting long enough. Tell him--"

 


 

"--We refuse your demands, King of Númenor."

"Well," Amandil mutters at his side, just loud enough for Pharazôn to hear, "at least they aren't beating around the bush anymore."

It's not funny. Not that he wasn't expecting an answer of that sort, given how long they've had to wait already, but it still isn't funny. His men are tired and not in the best of shapes, the sun is hot, and it's been looking like storm clouds on the horizon for some time now.

"You refuse them, wraith? I doubt your master has even caught wind of our most recent message."

"He has," the shade says, almost mirthful. "He refuses."

Amandil gives him a sharp look. Surely it is impossible-- Mordor is not small, and the tower cannot be so close to the gate that a message can be sent so quickly. Barely any time had passed at all. Moreover, the previous times they sent a hail, their heralds were notified that the message was being relayed to the Black Spire, where their Master dwells.

There is no such indication this time. They're lying. They have to be.

"We do not lie, King of West-Men," the other wraith says, Easterling-accented. It must've shown on his face. He doesn't like the idea that they can read minds, too. "The Master sees through our eyes, and hears of our minds."

It raises a hand. In the gap between the pieces of the gauntly, Pharazôn espies a glint of gold and some sort of gemwork. A Ring of Power, then.

So the rumors were true.

Pharazôn frowns, tries not to let his anger show. "This is what he kept us waiting an entire week for?"

The wraith tips its head. "Most people would have gotten the message by now and stopped waiting."

"Is that his final answer, then?" Pharazôn demands one last time. This time loud enough to be heard by his council members nearby, and the guards on duty as well, so that none could say they did not give their enemy time to consider actions. "Sauron will not surrender to us to pay for the crimes he committed against the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth?"

"You," says the wraith, "have no such right."

If he could see a face he imagines there would be a sneer, mocking and haughty. What would an Easterling know, after all-- they were the ones on Sauron's side when he razed Eregion. These people had likely been swayed by Morgoth himself in the bygone days, and now by his servant, Sauron.

There was no point arguing with these sorts of people.

"Then we will be true to our end of it!" Pharazôn announces, stepping forward. "Let none be mistaken that you were not forewarned. We have stated it clearly; Sauron will surrender himself before us. If he will not leave his tower, we will enter Mordor and drag him out ourselves. Only death awaits those who oppose us!"

"I am the Undying," one wraith says with a dry, crackling laugh. "I was Undying before I became the Undeath. I have escaped worse things than you, West-Man King. Death does not frighten me."

The shade turns and heads back to the gate, its cloak whipped up in the sudden wind. The other one, the Easterling, steps up to face Pharazôn directly.

"Your threats fall upon deaf ears," it says, hissing and hoarse. "I am a khamûl. I am the Khamûl, I am the Tyrant of the East. My lands stretched farther and more freely than your pitiful island ever has, King Pharazôn. The fields I roamed would make your kingdom seem a pittance. I fear no West-Man, not even if he is the Emissary of the Gods."

"Be those words of a servant, wraith? Or words of their master?" The creature does not reply. Pharazôn sneers. "No matter. Gods did not send me here; I came here myself, by my own right. I bring not the judgment of a higher being, but the wrath of those living here on this very earth! Though I do not expect barbaric folk like you to understand."

"Barbaric?" the wraith spits out, threatening enough for its small stature. The darkness it exudes is chilling Pharazôn to the bone, but he stands firm against it. "Strange words, from a conquerer himself! You think yourself better because you use ships to raid and pillage instead of horses and camels? Because your war and bloodshed is bathes iron and steel, not fur and leathers? Death tracks into your homes as much as it does ours. You are no less barbaric than I, Ar-Pharazôn."

The creature's head dips and it makes a spitting sound. Pharazôn half expects some ghastly phlegm to come from its unseen mouth, but all he feels is a sharp drop in temperature and the overwhelming urge to flee.

Not overwhelming enough.

"I do not like my master," the wraith says in a growl. It palms the scabbard at its waist-- and Pharazôn makes an aborted reach for his own sword --with the closest hand, half-hidden by the long, tattered robes it wears. Trinkets litter its clothing; the color is long-since faded faded but they are assuredly Easterling in design and make. "But I despise the West even more. We do not surrender! Not I, and certainly not the Lord of Mordor. Go back to your island, King of Men. No Man in these lands will answer to you."

It whirls around, and were it anything else, Pharazôn would have admired the form of its horse as it pranced away.

"You're a thing of the past, khamûl!" Pharazôn shouts to the wraith's retreating form. "And your master as well! We have cages enough for you and your ilk, when this is over."

 

 

 

"If I might, sire," Nalarik says cautiously, "I don't think that was a very good idea. Provoking them so."

"Maybe not," Pharazôn admits. The wraiths are gone, but he still feels cold. "Tell the priests to get ready, Lord Halazar. We will strike at noon as planned."

"He'll have taken precautions now that we've announced it," Amandil reminds them. "Even if it takes hours to get to where Sauron is, you heard them-- Once they hear it, he has, too."

"If it takes hours to get to where he is, then it'll take him hours to get to where we are," Pharazôn says. "And that's if he rides alone. How long did it take us to get an army together to march to Mordor? Weeks, Amandil. Maybe they've got something setup for emergency marching, but supplies? Provisions?"

"They could have a standing army, Pharazôn," Amandil says in a low murmur. "We know Sauron is a conquerer. What conquerer isn't ready for war at the drop of a hat?"

It feels as much a jab at Numenor as it is at Mordor. But they are only defending themselves against the threat that is Sauron; and they are not conquering, but liberating people from the Darkness that clouds them. Sauron is the greatest cloud above Mordor, above all of Arda, save for Morgoth himself.

Morgoth, however, is in the Void, which isn't really anything the Númenóreans specialize in. Sauron is here, and that is something they can handle. And they will. Handle this.

"Have the men standing by for cover." He gives it another moment of thought. "..And tell the archers they're free to take a shot if Sauron shows his face."

Unsurprisingly, that doesn't make Amandil any less concerned.

 


 

Khamûl returns to the guard towers beside the gate, only to find it cleared out and silent. He feels a sense of restlessness-- an odd thing, considering it's been a while since he felt restless in a way that wasn't aimed at the wide open fields.

He doesn't like it.

Shêmut is at the battlements at the top, pacing. Shêmut paces often though, especially outside his and Attâlu's lab. Or inside it. They'll pace anywhere.

"He sent them away?" Khamûl asks.

"Have caution," Shêmut says in a voice not quite his own. The gait, Khamûl notices now, is also not his own. "I heard here whispers of a song not ours."

"I saw priests," Khamûl says before their master asks. Because he knows Mairon will ask, verbally or otherwise. "Perhaps they pray."

"Perhaps."

Shêmut goes still, murmuring under his breath. It doesn't sound like the Black Tongue. Then, his head snaps up and he looks around.

"He sent them away?" Shêmut scratches his head, or what he can of it. Must be a habit from his living days. When he still had a head. "Why?"

"Song," Khamûl replies. He doesn't bother to elaborate. "We should probably leave, too."

No, says the master, in a whisper from the shadows. It makes Khamûl pause mid-step on his way towards the stairs. You will stay. Remind them that they are being watched.

Khamûl snarls. He does not like his leash.

But their master is too distracted to placate him like he usually does, so Khamûl simmers in silence with only a medicine man for company.

"Hey!" Shêmut retorts. Their master hasn't silenced them entirely. "I am good company."

"You are company," Khamûl admits. "Which is more than can be said for the others. Especially Dimna."

I resent that! Dimna kicks up a fuss from wherever he is. Khamûl wonders if his leash is being pulled as well.

You're supposed to, he says blithely.

Ai, Khamûl. A thousand years and you are still so unfriendly. So surly.

I don't know why you expected me to change, Dimna.

A change of pace is exciting, my Easterling friend. Being the same is boring. Let us have a spar when you are returned!

Fine. Khamûl pauses. ...I am not your friend.

You are my friend.

Shêmut cackles next to him. Khamûl sends him a look of long-suffering and doesn't reply to Dimna, which only makes him more insistent and boisterous.

It's going to be a long few hours.

 


 

The hymn begins with a hum.

The acolyte, Cuiliel, sets the beginning tune, the beat, the rhythm. It's not song in the sense of being pleasant to hear. It's not a song one would listen to at a festival, played by musicians or sung by performers. Not a song one enjoys hearing at leisure.

But it is powerful. It's strong and heavy, forces Pharazôn's heart to beat in an unusual pattern, thrums through him like a strong and well-aged wine. Gives him a rush that feels the same.

Cuiliel is soon joined by the other acolytes; they've been split into two groups equally, over a dozen each; one to work now and the other on stand-by, in case of accident or success. If something goes wrong, the second group can pick up the pieces. If it succeeds, they have a backup to cause more damage if they so wish.

Pharazôn does so wish.

The first wave of destruction hits the ground like the ocean tide against the side of a ship. It lurches, visibly, ill-aimed and no doubt a waste of energy-- but it is working. Elder Abîran barks an order and does what Pharazôn can only term as directing the force. The words he says and the notes he sings must be a focal point, for he sees ripples distorting the air, rising, aimed now towards the Black Gate instead of at the ground.

Behind the priests stand a full quarter of the marching army, swords raised in their sheaths as a crude method to direct their energy. All those with Elven traces in their lineage had been conscripted and split, just as the priests and acolytes were. The rest are made up of those who show an aptitude for the Arts after thorough examination by the priests. This combination, Elder Abîran told him, would be most effective, and most efficient. They must still reserve some of their forces for storming the land, after all.

And the effects are indeed.. spectacular.

Clouds of dust rise with the trembling of the earth, alike to but greater than an earthquake. Some of the men not at the front are looking for ways to brace themselves, finding no other option but to kneel or crouch down.

Kings do not kneel, so Pharazôn commandeers a spear instead.

Before long he can see the tremors reach the base of the gate, shaking off layers of dust from its walls. The sound echoes across the plains, almost as though he were underwater. It rumbles, makes the metal groan, pulls at its seams. Like tearing a dress apart.

The chanting grows louder, stronger, and something on the Gate pops, releasing sharp line of dust as the plated pieces come apart.

Pharazôn feels a thrill in him to see something so grand be taken down by mere sound, mere Song.

"Imagine, Amandil," he says, a low murmur compared to the rising crescendo. "Imagine if we could do the same to the Black Tower. To Sauron."

"They call that overconfidence, Ar-Pharazôn," Amandil replies, gravely. He and Lord Nalarik are not quite as excited as the rest of them. "It has been the doom of many Men, to attempt to wield the power of the Gods."

"Not us, friend." Pharazôn steels himself as the first piece from the top of the gate towers begins to loosen and sway. "Not I."

It snaps off, comes down like bone tiles in a line. Crashes down, like water.

 


 

"You know, Khamûl," Shêmut remarks, voice shaking with the ground beneath their feet. "For all that you claim to hate our master, you are very much like him."

"Hate is a strong word," Khamûl says, wiping the fey grin from his face. He's not sure if it's his own or their master's. "I am merely holding him to his."

"Did he make a promise with you, too?"

"He made promises with all of us. Did you think any of us were here out of loyalty?"

"Firiya might be." The Darklander laughs. Khamûl grunts in agreement. "The master promised me the chance to destroy disease and illness. Now I am on the cusp of life and death, no closer to a cure for the common cold than the next person."

"There's no such thing as a cure for the cold," Khamûl snorts. "He lied to you."

"Hmm, perhaps. But I have found remedies for many others, in the mean time." The battlements sway, threatening to fall. Khamûl already sees the black iron plating peeling away, fastenings coming loose with sharp cracks and bangs. And still they are commanded to stay. "What did he promise you?"

Khamûl frowns. He remembers that day as if it were yesterday.

The day his men dragged their rival's sorcerer into his tent and he demanded the man's surrender, demanded he pay for the death of their own with his life. How the sorcerer brought them all to their knees with but a single Song, and then extended a hand in friendship instead of finishing them off.

He remembers being in awe, and being ashamed of his own lack. How his own shamans seemed paltry in comparison, just like Pharazôn's priests did now.

But Khamûl is sure Pharazôn's fate will not be like his own.

"..He promised me the world."

Mairon has no more rings, after all.

"Oh. Well. Let us hope we do not die before that happens, eh?"

Khamûl sends Shêmut a dirty look just as the ground beneath them gives way. They plummet to the ground in silence, accompanied by naught but the roar of shattering stone, and shrieking metal.

 


 

When the sacrificed is slain, consume not the flesh,
for it the embodiment of they who believe in Others,
who believe that Death is a Gift.

Death will not be a Gift. It is a Curse.
Accept the end if you must, but do not accept it as Fate;
accept it as a Fate stolen, forced upon us
by those who would name themselves our Rulers, our Minders.
Those who would see us lower than what we were, what we Are.

Do not consume the flesh of the Sacrifice.
It is the flesh of those who believe we were never
meant to be more than what we are, and to consume it
is to make us one of them.

It is to throw away the chance of regaining what is
rightfully ours when our Maker returns.
Because he will return.

And we embrace the Freedom he has given us.

- Serain, Teachings of Mehrad 12

Chapter Text

Tûlgith wrings his hands together before being reminded that he has already dug his nails so far into his palms that they bled.

The marks don't bleed again, but they do sting. Lips pursed, he steps away from the far-scope and debates looking for the medicine kit. The Dark Lord has a balm for cuts.

He's been increasingly nervous these days, ever since hearing of Númenor's arrival. Pacing is but part of it; he worries at his thumb and is constantly checking the scope whenever he has the chance. The mountains are useful; good for keeping out invaders, for funneling incoming traffic into just a few routes that are easy to monitor.

Hellish for trying to observe anything beyond them. He'd have to climb one of those blasted peaks for that. The Dark Lord doesn't suggest trying it.

...But he really wants to know what's happening at the gates. The far-scope can only see the inside of the gates, not what's beyond. All he can really tell is that security has been increasing the past day and a half, though there aren't as many guards in the gate towers now as there were yesterday.

He could ask one of the wraiths. If he really wanted to know.

Balm first, Tûlgith tells himself. He pinched a cut too much and now it's beading red. He doesn't want to stain the Dark Lord's far-scope, so he leaves the Dark Lord's study with his palm to his mouth.

The medicine kit is two floors down, closer to the stairs than the lift. The Dark Lord has made it known that basic medical kits are to be found on every other floor, for the tower is tall and a trip down to the infirmary takes several minutes, even in the central lift. He has no use for them himself, of course-- there is no kit in the Dark Lord's study room --but for the many and varied Men and Orcs employed in the Lugbúrz Tower, it is a necessity.

The floor below is not really a floor, though, so there's no kit there either. More of a Funnel, really. Tûlgith always passes through it very carefully. It's open to the air and secured only by a sturdy railing on all sides, not even a cage to keep people in. Many a poor soul has leapt over it, only to roll down the sloped roofing and off the edge of the tower itself. Maybe the Dark Lord throws some of them over himself.

If not for some safety measures installed, they would've plummeted to their deaths.

The Dark Lord calls it 'security'. Tûlgith calls it 'you just think it's funny to watch intruders fall screaming off the tower'.

(Not many make it this far up anyway. At least, Tûlgith has never known of anyone who did, whether during his time or in the past.)

After applying balm and gauze, Tûlgith heads back up. He pauses at the neck of the Funnel to look down at the town at the base of the tower. Aaallll the way down.

It's a long drop. He hopes he never falls.

"Tulgha?"

The voice is coming from overhead, wan and wispy. It's one of the wraiths.

"I'm down here, Ammala!" Tûlgith goes up the stairwell as quick as he can.

Wraiths don't usually go looking for him, unless it's Dimna or Khamûl; neither of whom would talk like that. It could be Khadîn, but Khadîn is supposed to be in the Main Office on the ground floor with her slew of assistants, taking care of incoming requests. She takes her job seriously.

Ammala is at the far-scope in the Dark Lord's study room, though she isn't looking through it. He supposes she can see what's going on through the Dark Lord himself, through their rings.

"Tulgha," she says again. He holds up his palm. "Tsk. You should have tea, for the nerves."

"Tea makes it worse."

"Not the master's mushroom teas."

Tûlgith goes stiff. "..That makes it a lot worse."

Ammala hums. She steps away from the far-scope and makes for the Dark Lord's bedchambers instead. Another person might find that alarming. Another person might also get their head chewed off by the room's owner.

Tûlgith knows she probably just wants to borrow some of her master's jewelry, and that the Dark Lord already knows she's in there. They have a similar taste in adornments. The beguiling sort.

(Tûlgith gives himself a small reminder to return the hair clasps he borrowed last week. They are far from the most luxurious ones, or even ones that the Dark Lord would notice missing, but he swears there's some sort of magic done on them. His Lordship's gaze has felt ever-penetrating since he started wearing them.)

"Ammala," he calls out, sticking his head into the bedchambers, "did you need something?"

"Ah," she says back. Somewhere. "Yes. One moment."

Sliding into an armchair (the guest one-- though it's hard to tell which one is which, since the Dark Lord will sit just about anywhere, on any surface unoccupied), Tûlgith continues pawing at the gauze. The balm smells spicy and it tickles his nose.

"Have you had lunch yet, Tulgha?"

"Um.. I did. Lunch.. didn't agree with me."

She makes a tsk from the other room. How he can still hear her will remain a mystery. The Dark Lord's chambers are massive, spanning the entire floor. One could be murdered in here and never be heard by anyone, even in the next room over. He's not sure how the Dark Lord can stand it up here. Tûlgith's room is on the fifth floor and even that is so quiet he feels like he's going mad half the time.

The Black Spire is just... so big. No wonder no one stays in their rooms.

"You puke over the side of the tower again?"

"No!" Squeaked. The very thought of it makes him go red with shame. "I haven't done that in ages!"

Only from his fifth floor balcony... and luckily not onto anyone's head.

"I had-- ginger. One of the kitchen staff gave me ginger tea." Sweetened with raw honey, a fine luxury to have right next to a live volcano. "I'm- I'm fine now."

"Hmmm." She hums again, this time showing her face. Well, her hood. Her not-face. Tûlgith can't actually see the wraiths. He can't tell what accessories she added or removed, either. "What are you doing up here, Tulgha?"

"...Worrying myself raw, I think."

"Tea," she suggests again. "Mushrooms."

"No! I have-- I have work to do!" Tûlgith says, very clearly trying to avoid his work at the moment. "I can't work with.. with mushrooms!"

"Why not? Mairon does. All the time."

"He.. does?"

Ammala tips her head. "..He doesn't?"

"..I'm pretty sure he doesn't!" She has a point though. Tûlgith thinks about it a little more. "At least.. not that I've ever known."

"Hmmmm." Maker, will she ever stop humming. "You worry for something, yafiwa."

He slouches further into the couch, really not feeling like the Dark Lord's advisor at the moment. Quietly: "..The Númenóreans are at the Gate."

"They are. Khamûl and Shêmut are dealing with them." For some definition of 'dealing with', no doubt. "And Mairon is prepared. As you should be."

"Prepared for what?" For invasion? For sacking and raiding? For war? I don't do war!" He realizes this contradicts his earlier words, when he attempted to advise the Dark Lord on military matters. Suggesting something broad is not the same as commanding forces, though. "I didn't come here for war. Maker, why did I ever-- why did I think believing him was a good idea? He's... he's Sauron!"

"Because that is what he does," she says. "If you see someone move a mountain, you would believe him when he says he can take you wherever you want to go. Yes?"

She's. Right. But Tûlgith hates that she has to say it like that. "He didn't move a mountain, he- he put out a fire. A really.. really big fire."

"A metaphorical mountain, then." Ammala settles into the armchair across from him. Dragged over from elsewhere, because it isn't supposed to be there. Probably. "For you, a fire. For me, the Númenóreans."

"Last I checked," Tûlgith mutters, "Númenóreans were still around."

"He's working on it."

"Is he really?" He lets his head fall back, staring up at the closed ceiling. "Doesn't seem like it."

Later, in the late, late evening, the Dark Lord would permit the ceiling to be retracted to look upon the night sky. Or not, if the Sickle was visible.

"..He's been focusing a lot on the East," Tûlgith continues when Ammala makes no reply. "And the South, a bit, but mostly- mostly the East. That's.. that's kind of the opposite direction of. Númenor."

He can feel Ammala's condescending gaze without looking at her and it just makes him sink lower in his seat with a despondent groan.

"He is focusing on it now," she says. A bit eager, but he won't make a point of that.

From what he'd learned, she was one of the last ones to receive her Ring of Power, but a thousand years is still a long while to wait for a promise. Tûlgith doesn't think he has a thousand years, though.

"Everyone else has easy promises." She ticks them off on her fingers. Gauntlets. "Dimna wants war. Firiya wants Dimna. Dimna wants Mairon, too. Shêmut wants his laboratory. Attalu... I don't know what Attâlu wants. I'm not sure what Alkhâr or Khadîn want, either. Or Eoweard."

"I have no idea, either." The exact three people (....wraiths) that Tûlgith almost never interacts with. "Anyway-- um. You were saying earlier? About why you came up here."

"Hmm? Oh, yes. Mairon will be back soon. He said to tell you to start packing and getting ready to go."

"Go-- go?" Tûlgith feels himself go ashen. "..Go where? Is he.. is he kicking me out?"

Before fulfilling a promise? That doesn't sound like the Dark Lord.

"No, he wants you to attend to him in negotiations with Ar-Pharazôn."

"Nego.. he wants to negotiate?!"

"Yes." Tightly. If wraiths could purse their lips, he imagines hers would be doing just that. "Negotiate."

Tûlgith's mouth works soundlessly. This is the first time he's heard of the Dark Lord wanting to... negotiate with Númenor.

The past few years have been-- harried, at best. Númenor has been trying to establish footholds on Middle-Earth for years, successful in some places, refused by Mordor in others. According to written accounts, Númenor has always been the one to instigate conflicts with the Sutherlanders, even though desert warfare doesn't suit them.

Making peace with them after that much fighting doesn't seem possible.

...But, he supposes, if anyone would think it good idea, and a possible one, it would be the Dark Lord. He considers war to be a waste of labor forces. Only their advantages have allowed it to go on for this long.

If not for the Sutherlanders, this situation might have happened much, much sooner.

"..But why? We have.. we have enough forces in Mordor. Orcs and Men-- and the Gates, the Gate is a bottleneck, we can..."

His words peter out, because it's nothing that hasn't already been said in meetings past. Options they put to table, only for the master to table them. Anything suggesting the weaponization of Mordor proper had been immediately dismissed, despite the resources there.

War is expensive, the Dark Lord always says, chiding and scornful. I learned that quickly, after....

He would pause, always. He never liked to mention the Maker's banishment.

Armies need food and water. Armies need arming, and armoring, training, discipline. Infantry is a commodity. Mounted units....

The amount of calculations that go into supporting an army is daunting, to say the least.

"Efficiency," Ammala says. "A truce of any sort will end hostilities quicker."

And if it doesn't.... the Dark Lord didn't say he was unwilling to face Númenor himself. Something about a dragon..?

A chill goes up his spine, then, and a low rumble makes its way to his ears. Ammala flies to her feet with a hissing snarl.

"What--" he squeaks, trying not to recoil. The Wraith Aura radiating from her is more than he's used to. "What's wrong?"

She does not answer him. Instead he has to follow her back to the study, to the far-scope that she stands next to. He swallows and looks through it.

"Ammala? What's going on? Why did you..?" He doesn't see anything. "I don't see anyth--"

In the gap of the Haunted Pass where a massive stone and metal gate should be standing, he sees nothing. Nothing but a puff of dust, and hazy red-gold banners beyond it.

Ammala steadies him with a hand on his back before the truth of the matter can sink in.

"Tulgha," she says, quick and quiet. "Pack your things."

 


 

It takes hours for the dust to settle.

Pharazôn orders everyone to retreat once the Gate falls, especially as the first piece of over-sized rubble comes crashing their way. The momentum is tremendous, but it luckily grinds to a stop several hundred meters from where the vanguard is.

It's enormous. It almost pains him to know that such a construction was so easily broken down.

"Imagine," says Anakhôr, "all the sweat and time they must have put into building that. Years, I'd say! What do you think, sire?"

"We can't even get this kind of stone and metal in Númenor," Athazûl adds. A few fragments have blasted their way and buffeted the tent walls and the soldiers' shields. "At least, not in these amounts. Stone like this we would use for housing, and metal for plating a fleet of ships. To use this much in gate is absurd."

"A conqueror's resources and priorities are different from ours," Pharazôn states. "They must live in squalid shacks. Dreary. All the better that we are here to take Sauron's influence from them."

"Aye, sire," Halazar agrees. Pharazôn expects that. "Mordor will be ours."

"Mordor will be free," Pharazôn says, pinning the councilman with a sharp look. "If they choose to join hands with us, then so be it."

"Oh-- of course, sire!" The man says hurriedly, very nearly squawking in defense. "I only meant-- it would be.. impertinent of them not to.. not to... er.."

"We are not here to take Mordor for our own," the King reiterates, quiet and level. They need not know how much he desires Mordor under his own thumb. Or, at least, to be squashed by his own thumb. "We are here for Sauron. Mordor will be useless to anyone, including us, without him."

"Of- of course, sire! Of course, as you say. I was remiss."

Pharazôn waves it off with a sigh. Being too lenient won't help him in the long run, but keeping an ironclad hold on them won't do much good either. He doesn't need yes-men.

"The lands are too far from Anadûnê, besides," Amandil says. He probably just doesn't want anything more to do with Mordor besides tearing it down and burning it clean. That's what Pharazôn would like to do to it. "I can't imagine any of us, or indeed any Lord of Anadûnê, would want to be assigned to rule it. 7 days to get an army here if anything goes wrong... Sounds like a nightmare."

"Lord Aphanuzîr has a point," Athazûl says in agreement. "Surprisingly."

Amandil leans over stiffly to fix the councilman with a look. Athazûl gives him a sharp-natured smile in return. No love lost between them.

"What about you, Lord Halazar?" Amandil says loudly, causing the man to jump. "How would you like to oversee Mordor once this is done and over?"

"Oh," he says, weakly. "I think the volcano would erupt the day I arrived and I would be forced to return. So unfortunate I am."

Halazar's fortune (or misfortune) is well-known. Despite finally managing to gain a voice in the Council, his luck is.... terrible, in most other areas. Love, family, career. His persistence and hard work are among the few things that keeps his position.

"Do you think they really live next to the volcano?" Lord, his council sounds like a pack of gossiping mice. Anakhôr seems to have been waiting ages to ask this question. "That sounds like a terrible life. And it's active, too! I'd be terrified-- but I suspect Sauron enjoys that."

"It's odd, isn't it," Nalarik muses. He swills a goblet of very watered date-wine. "How does someone as terrible as Sauron manage to hold the deserts from us for.. how long has it been now?"

"I feel like I've been facing down those sand-damned bastards for an entire lifetime," Pharazôn growls. Memories of the skirmishes are still fresh in his mind. He doesn't miss them. "I noticed they took the South River while I was busy being king."

Admiral Imru meets his eyes briefly before lowering his head in a silent apology. "Captain Lômil has expressed his deeply regret for his defeat."

"..Lucky for us we brought both fleets, or we'd have had a fight on our hands there. Makes me ashamed to know we lost it to a sack of rotten cowards who won't even fight." He ignores the fact that they didn't fight because he had faced them down with more numbers than they could ever imagine. "I don't want to see that river lost again."

"Understood, sire. I will make sure of it."

"See that you do." He turns his attention back to the rubble. It looks clear enough. "Send a crew out to assess the situation. We need a way in and a way out. I'll not let that rubble bottleneck us to our doom."

 

 

 

The debris is an obstacle that they weren't expecting. Or, he supposes, they did expect it. Just not in this amount.. nor that it would collapse in such a manner that there was almost no immediate way of getting into Mordor.

When one battered in a gate, one knew the remnants would be on the other side. But a battered gate is oft made of wood, not metal. And it is not usually higher than several Men on each others' shoulders, be they Adûnâim or otherwise.

This one is far too massive for the usual tactics. So it would seem.

"Any chance we can break them down smaller?" he asks the Elder. Abîran shakes his head. "Pity. We can't move them, either?"

The Elder tips his head, as though considering. He makes a vague sort of gesture with his hands. "It is... more difficult, Your Majesty. Destruction is base, simple. All things break when enough brute force is applied, but they need be of a sufficient size. Our Song of Destruction does not affect smaller objects. People, for example."

Pharazôn tries not to seem disappointed. If only it were that easy. They could Sing Sauron to death.

"As for moving an object, it.. would require a much more intimate knowledge. How large is it, how far away is it, how heavy is it.. how much must it move, how high must it go. For objects of that size-- we would not have the time or luxury to make it work."

"A simple 'no' would have sufficed, Elder."

Abîran gives him a wry smile. "I am willing to serve, sire. But there are things beyond our abilities."

Pharazôn gives a nod. "..What about Sauron?"

"Your Majesty?"

"Would it be beyond his abilities?"

Abîran's eyes linger on the king for a moment. Then he turns to the Gate, to the destruction and ruin, and the men that Pharazôn currently has picking through it for anything notable. Their task is to clear the way as best as possible for the army to march, and for their supplies to be brought in with them, as well as to secure a comprehensive route out in case anything happens. Better to retreat at this point than to lose what supplies they need to make the return trip to Anadûnê.

"..Records do not speak much of sorcery in a way that can be understood. Our ancestors were loyal to the Gods and friends to Elves, after all. Elves would not teach us the Arts, so it remained forbidden; we did not permit ourselves to keep detailed accounts of any Spells he might have seen or heard. We, the King's Temple, have taken many pains to discover how to use the Arts." A hand extends to indicate the scene, the damage they have wrought. "Sauron would have learned this and much more from Morgoth himself."

The turn of Pharazôn's brow grows impatient. Elder Abîran dips his head humbly, but chuckles.

"I have no doubt that Sauron is capable of destruction and decay, and warfare. We have the remnants of Hollin to attest to that. But building? Rebuilding, repair, reconstruction? Surely it must go against his nature to accomplish such tasks. Naught but corruption would I think him capable of." Abîran bows low. "But I regret that these are only assumptions, Your Majesty. And I apologize, deeply, if this will be all for naught. We know much of Sauron and his reputation, and yet we also know nothing of him at all."

"Well," Pharazôn grunts, "at least you're honest about it. I see now why my late father had us attend service at your temple above others."

"We are greatly honored by your patronage, Your Majesty, and that of your line. Perhaps this journey will provide the both of us with further insight to the world as we know... I think the Service after our return will be a most interesting one."

Pharazôn laughs. "What a tale we'll have to tell. Sauron, defeated!"

"Indeed, sire." Abîran gives a measured smile, almost unwilling to believe their own accomplishments. "Sauron defeated."

 


 

(They spoke too soon.)

 


 

A storm arrives at the Dark Tower, the Black Spire.

Storms are not new in the desert and the plains of Mordor. They used to be worse before the trees were planted to break the winds. That had been an order from the Dark Lord himself. Sand and dust makes machinery break easily.

But no windbreaker, no barrier, saves them from the storm this time. For the storm carries not soil and dust but Darkness and Death. The storm is suffocating, a black mist upon the land, terrifying all living creatures that encounter it.

The storm is the Dark Lord himself.

It touches a sprig of growing mints, and the whole bed of it blackens in an instant. The wrong touch is all it would need to crumble to dust. The perpetrator does not stop to apologize, nor to offer reprieve; he sweeps through the land, through the massive gates, and disappears behind its walls. The mist follows him like a siphon. Like a sheer bridal train, black as night and near a mile long.

But the mints' owner does not despair.

In the past, she may have; in the past they would worry for their livelihood when their Lord is in a temper. When his displeasure makes itself known and seeps out of the fortress that seems built to contain it, direct it elsewhere. She has heard rumors, tales, that it is harnessed for more nefarious purposes.

In the past, they would have had to dig out their crops and toss them, burn them, bury them far, far away, for the corruption spreads to anything it touches. The dirt would have to be changed entirely. The pot would need replacing. The air would crackle with some dark Power, reek with the stench of burning things.

These days she will sigh and invite the Hall of Sorcery to come to her fields, and be paid a pretty coin for what they collect. The Hall has developed better methods for cleansing soil after the harvest, and though her output of mint may dip slightly this year, and the pot will not be fit to plant for several months, she has made more than enough to make up for it.

What the Hall does with her poisoned mint shrubs, she does not know, nor wants to know. Nor cares. The Dark Lord is the one soiling her crops, but he pays to rectify it. He, too, is the reason they can even grow mints, among so many other things, a stone's throw from the volcano, active as it is. He is the reason they can reap its benefits while remaining safe.

She cannot imagine a better or more powerful Lord would be found anywhere else on this earth.

 


 

They sweep in, a pair of clouds billowing ink and misfortune. The reception hall has been long cleared upon word of their arrival at the borders of the fortress.

He passes through to the throne room and leaves behind the choking fumes of sulfur, phosphorous, rotten things. It will take several hours for the barrier to purify the air into something more... sustainable, for mortal lungs. Production will slow until then, but that's fine. The workers have masks.

A throng of wraiths await at the foot of the dais. He counts four. Eoweard is difficult to part from the horses, and Ammala has already been given her task.

His advisor, however, is not present.

"Where is Tûlgith?" The tone is snappish, sharp. Accented. Tulkidh. His upset, however, is not towards his advisor. "Dimna?"

The Southron doesn't answer right away. He looks at Alkhâr first, behind Mairon, and then Mairon himself.

"..His room, I think. You told him to pack."

"At noon." It's hours after. And where is Ammala, then, for that matter?

He debates waiting a little longer. Then, decides against it.

"Fetch him," he says. Nothing less than an order. Dimna jerks forward with puppet-like movements, hesitant. Mairon's eyes narrow. "Go."

The wraith lets out a series of hisses, snarling at Alkhâr as he passes by. Alkhâr returns the favor in kind. Mairon pays them no heed. They are Men, and leaders no less. They have never enjoyed being led.

"Attâlu, I need a number of your concoctions. Deadly, undetectable, odorless, tasteless. As many as possible. One dewdrop's worth each in its own goblet, filled with whatever you please. Have them prepared in my study."

The healer regards his master, a mercurial look in his hollow eyes. None of the wraiths had been easy victories, not least of all the once-Faithful.

Mairon feels his mood lifting. A challenge is always a welcome distraction. "..I do not intend to poison him, Attâlu. And if I did, why would you care? He is not of the Faithful."

"Old habits," Attâlu says, mournful. "Will you be wanting the copper amulet as well?"

"What did I just say about not poisoning him?"

The wraith inclines his head. "... Don't?"

Mairon tuts. "Must I come down there for the vials myself?"

"And have you cleaning up my clutter?" He cackles on his way towards the stairwell. "Never, Lord!"

It's nostalgic. Reminds him of a time when he had to be bullied into assigning someone else to monitor the archive rooms in Angamando, or the storage halls in Utumno. And to have someone else fetch material from them, because he couldn't be trusted to walk in and leave without trying to rearrange something or other. Having permission to flog those who did an ill-job of keeping things organized helped, for a time.

But it turned out the old fortress store rooms were simply... too massive. Too numerous. A task which Mairon should not have tried to handle on his own-- and yet he did, to some degree of success.

The Dark Tower's smaller basements are much easier to keep organized, even if he has to employ a dozen people to keep it that way. Better than a hundred. Better than one.

That mortals possessed a concept of time helped immensely, especially with keeping old and expired things where they ought to be. Time was not something Mairon kept track of well.

"War Room," he says to the others, at the touch to his elbow. Alkhâr hovers closer than usual. "Meet us there. I need a change of clothes. The tunic has been riding up my thighs the entire way here, and I will not meet with Pharazôn in it."

"How lascivious! No wonder merah Dimna was so upset," Firiya murmurs. He leans heavily on his iron staff, no longer the picture of youth he was in his days. "You must make a pretty a sight, my Lord."

"A pretty sight indeed," Mairon says, a soft laugh on his lips.

The wraith hobbles past with a mirthful hum, every step punctuated by a clunk of the staff. Immortality did not preserve his body, unfortunately, and death did not reverse its damage.

Khadîn says nothing as she goes past them, save to give her cousin a sharp look. Alkhâr stiffens with every clack of her heels on the stone flooring. When Mairon looks back, Alkhâr pointedly avoids his gaze.

"..Well. To storage we go, then. One your old things will do for now... or Khadîn's. We must make haste." He casts a thread towards the Gates, to Shêmut and Khamûl. They are still there, if silent. The shock of Song and destruction must be impeding the connection. "The safety measure I set on that Gate can only last us so long. "

"They haven't the skill to dispel it," Alkhâr says, almost hesitantly. Mairon loosens the leash, just so, and feels a measurable sigh of relief from it. "I haven't the skill to dispel it, not at that size. Not when you have hidden it so craftily. Runes in the bedrock..."

"The first builders thought me foolish, digging tunnels so deep," Mairon muses. "Sadly they did not live to see the fruits of their labors. But we have them to thank, for their efforts."

He should have made the underground tunnels bigger. Stretched them further. Enough to hide an army, enough to come up behind Pharazôn's host and flank them on both sides.

Mordor is a tad on the large side, he realizes. The inhabitants don't live close enough together, and getting them to move from their long-lived lands is difficult. Perhaps in another hundred, two hundred, one thousand years, he will have a settlement right behind the Black Gates, enough to support a standing army. It will be needed.

War is ever imminent, much as he dislikes it. When is the only variable to trust; and time holds too little meaning to not prepare sooner, rather than later.

"Idle hands," he says in a breath, in a voice far removed, of a memory far removed. Busy, busy. "A day's work never done."

"..Master?"

Master.

"I wonder if your old clothes have lasted the millennia, alkharîya."

"I.." The wraith inclines his head. Mairon tugs on the thread between them, until he follows close behind instead of lingering in thought. "I doubt they have."

"No matter. We will find something suitable, let the tailors repair what needs repair." A pause. "Or, I suppose I could, if we are in a dire need."

Many long hours in quiet did he spend at a workbench, with steel for needles and tendons for thread. Armor is not always made of metal alone, and Mairon was never skilled in delegating his duties in the early days. Everything done by hand. His hand.

Perfection never went hand-in-hand with Efficiency, not least of all with Chaos. Not easily, and not naturally.

"You seem excited," Alkhâr notes, quietly. "..Or very angry. It is hard to tell."

"Perhaps both?" Hummed. It is usually both whenever he has to deal with a challenge. Like Melkor. "...A little song and dance never hurt anyone."

A block to sharpen the knife upon.

 


 

The Temple shall be attended on the day of solstice.
The priest shall lead you in prayer and magic,
and we shall bring darkness for three days and three nights.

We shall be gods by day and hold vigil, never eating,
never drinking, never resting.
Only when darkness comes and before darkness lifts
will we accept sustenance,
and only in darkness shall we rest.

May our efforts prove fruitful.
May we bring about the end, and pave the way for his Glory.

- Rituals of the Mehradin 15.4-6

Chapter Text

A furious shriek comes from the depths of the rubble just as the sky begins to darken, rising in volume and cadence until it rings in his ears like the blast of a war horn.

The sound brings the search to a sudden halt, lingering and echoing like a shout in a canyon. All around him, Pharazôn hears men screaming, howling, falling to the ground. Most of them, he notes, are those who were assigned to aid the Song of Destruction earlier. The King's Temple followers are visibly swaying, what he can see of them, but most are still on their feet, hands clapped over their ears.

Pharazôn reaches Amandil and his son just in time to keep them from falling over, even though he's starting to feel nauseous himself.

"It's the shades, Pharazôn," Amandil says, hoarse and heavy, barely audible over the din. "Rumors of it hold true after all."

It makes Pharazôn feel out of place for raising his voice just to make sure his old mentor can hear him. "What rumors?"

Amandil shakes his head. Like the others, he seems to find comfort only once he's crouched to the ground.

"The voice of an Úlairi, sire!" Elendil says, seeing that his father isn't capable of responding. "The Shadow Walkers. It's said that their voice brings great fear and torment to all who hear it."

"It damn well does," Pharazôn growls.

If the previous encounter left him chilly, this one leaves him frigid. He feels cold to his bones, all his hair standing on end. Every single instinct in his body tells him to flee, for there is nightmare on the horizon and it will not let them leave alive.

Pharazôn is no coward. Reckless, perhaps, but not a coward.

A second shriek rings out, and he has to consider that last statement again. The shrill sound sends up another round of agonized howling, though it sounds quieter than before. Likely because some of the men have passed out and have to be dragged back towards camp.

"Elendil, can you--"

"I have him, sire." Elendil hefts his father's arm up around his shoulders. He looks in pain, but not as much as Amandil does. "I'll bring him to the healer's tent. Kingsfoil might work."

"Good. I'll figure out what to do about all this."

He makes it only several paces before the page boy, Kalahar, runs up to him, his skin pale with fright but cheeks flushed with exertion.

"Sire-- King, Elder Abîran bids me to say-- they have set up a sanctuary-- that way--"

"Breathe, boy, else you'll get a stitch in your side." Poor lad must have run all the way across camp.

"Yes, sire." Kalahar takes a few deep breaths, hands braced against his knees. Color starts returning slowly to his face. Better. "I.. I have already informed the other Council Lords, and the Captains. You were the last I could find, sire. Except, Lord Amandil... er--"

"He's being taken to the healer's tent," Pharazôn says, glossing over slip in Quenya. "Elendil has him. Said something about Kingsfoil."

"Elder Abîran says the Wraith's Cry is not a wound that can be healed..."

"Go let him know. " Pharazôn gives the boy a clap on the shoulder to send him on his way. "And see if the healers have anything else that can help!"

He doubts it. No one's faced a wraith for hundreds of years. They've kept to themselves, surprisingly, given who their master is. Pharazôn remembers tales from his younger days on the battlefield about spirits that come haunting in the night. Crying, moaning, groaning, feeding on fear and terror.

The records spoke a great deal about them in the history of Umbar. When wraiths came and sacked the city, seizing control in the name of Mordor. Seizing back control. It had taken nearly a hundred years to drive them out.

Anadûnê knows better now. Pharazôn knows better, now. Or, he thought he knew better.They all thought they knew. Sunlight is supposed to be the wraith's weakness, and yet two have managed to stand upon a black stone gate for the greater part of a day, watching their every move.

Now night is falling fast, and the sunlight hours are dwindling. Every successive shriek from the mountain of rubble grows stronger and stronger, sending more and more of his army into a near-catatonic state, proof that night is strengthening their powers. There is little time left to act.

"Light," he mutters under his breath. Pharazôn grabs a lit torch from the side of a tent; the warm glow suffuses some of the chill in his hand. Heat crawls up his arm like pinpricks, easing the rapid beating of his heart. Light.

"Fire!" Someone shouts in the field. Alarm piques briefly before the speaker clarifies himself. "Fire drives them back!"

Another wail pierces through the encroaching dusk, cutting deeper than a steel blade. The torch in his hands sputters, but holds its light.

"ALL HANDS!" he bellows. It is echoed and repeated by those near enough to see him, see his face. They pass the message across the field in a wave of sound, a chorusing rumble, din enough to drown out any shrieking. "Grab every torch you can get ahold of! Take up arms, regroup, and await further orders!"

A soldier with a Commander's pin on his front approaches with a small group. Pharazôn holds out his own torch to light theirs, made of old cloth tied around the end of a stick of firewood.

"Light the braziers," he says. There's enough of them scattered through the camp. "Get the injured to the Sanctuary. Everyone else, arm up and torches with you. We'll burn those damned things to the ground."

 


 

A fur cape made of fisher's pelts in sunburned brown.

"Too long... Bring it up to the knee- about there. Add the Crest of Mordor to the clasp."

Panther skin, sleek black and spotted, with the head whole and preserved. The eyes replaced with glass replicas, teeth polished, enameled, and glued back in place.

"How long will it take to make a cape of this? ..That should be time enough. Work the clasp and design the same as the fisher's.. No hemming. Beading for the fur. A braided tassel to the tail? Yes, that would look lovely. Black silk; but do not use all of our stores for it."

A tunic of auburn, loose and roomy, perfect for the desert. Another, richly black with a boteh damask, and a neckline wide to the shoulders and dipping below the chest; closely fitted.

"Hem them both with yellow. Ochre, I think. Add beading as you see fit.... and copper, for the auburn. Beads and discs. For the black, embroider the neckline, down here, and the sides, like so. The same ochre thread, yes."

"And for the Eye, merhadi?" The tailor, Khuzhek, indicates the sleeves where the back of the hand is marked off for a design to be added.

Mairon tuts. "Yellow brass will do. Use the sheets from my workshop."

"Everything fitted just so?"

"Just so." He holds still for another round of measuring. Khuzhek's hands are respectable, if light and wandering. New, perhaps? The older workers have gotten over the novelty of dressing the High Priest... Or perhaps it is his new form. None here have likely seen anything resembling a Númenórean before. "..Except for the pants. For that, something breathable, something loose.. not leather. I know there must be something like that in here..."

Khuzhek wraps up the measuring tape and jots down the numbers with a short nod. "I will check the ledgers."

The tomes are thickly bound, well-kept. The clothes storage is meticulous; very garment is numbered and labeled accordingly, records kept and updated in the tomes. The rooms are lined with various instruments and tools to tell the keepers when it is too warm or too cold, too wet or too dry. Simplified and labeled barometers to let them know when the ventilation shafts should be shut.

At the first sign of wear or damage, affected pages must be copied and replaced as soon as possible, usually done by a scribe-in-training. They have more paper on hand now than they did in Angband or Utumno., a result of more competent paper-makers, perhaps. The plains of Mordor have plenty of grasses for making it, though harvesting them is a tedious task. Honest work, and well-paying.. but tedious.

But paper consumption is rising, lately, which makes the gathering more profitable. He's glad to hear the numbers; it means more are finding uses for it, especially in the area of literacy. Teaching only a select few would go quicker, but restricting literacy to those select few will eventually put a cap on how far they can progress. He needs them to go further. Faster.

"I had forgotten how much we collected over the years," Mairon muses quietly, looking over the vast store of clothes. "Perhaps we are overdue for a bit of cleaning out."

Many of these pieces are recent, brought in by merchants and traders, both gifted and purchased. The ones in the far-back have their own separate minders, pieces a thousand years or older, very well cared for. He was able to stop using spells to store them after the first few centuries. He doesn't wear them, of course, but they are too sentimental to throw out. Alkhâr's old clothes, Khadîn's shoes, Khamûl's various trophy furs. Dimna had gifted to him dozens of things as well, all of them well-preserved.

Nowadays it is mostly used by students and apprentices in training, for teaching.

"The older ones, merhadi?" Another tailor calls from further down the rows. "I do not think those are fit for travel... Nor that any in Mordor would have enough coin to purchase."

Having just visited the city proper, he has to agree. They've done better over the years, for being largely self-governing, but one of the better-kept tunics from the Far South (nearly a hundred years old now) could be worth an entire household in Mordor.

"Ah!" Mairon and Khuzhek look up at the same time. The other tailor comes out of the rows with a length of garment between her arms. "Linen, merhadi. A bit aged, but a gentle wash and airing will do the trick. Oh, but we haven't time for that... Perhaps something from the recent purchases?"

"Dark Land tributes. That should be in Area 3, Shafaani."

"Area 3," Shafaani mutters, going down the aisles. "Wonder if they'll fit... Dark Landers aren't much bigger than me..."

"We ought to get a map," Khuzhek sighs, watching her. "Too many apprentices getting lost..."

"Requisition a copy of the tower blueprints," Mairon suggests.

Utumno and Angband had been full of maps at every turn in the hallway, if one knew where to look. (Most didn't. A very unfortunate flaw in design that had been, on both building and Maia.)

"Ah... are we-- is that permitted, merhadi?"

"It is. No one has yet died of losing their way in the Tower.. but I would rather we make sure it remain so."

"--As you say, Lord." Khuzhek's head dips low over the ledger. "Will that be all?"

"You two keep looking for those linen trousers." Mairon fingers the hanging sleeve of a Númenórean muslin smock. "..I will pick out a few more things to be touched up, before I leave. Khadîn will handle the payment once you have it calculated, as always. I will speak with her about clearing out some of these as well."

"We are honored, and glad to be of service."

 

 

"..Don't bother too much with the extravagant, Tulgha," Ammala says from the doorway. "The master is picking out pieces for you from the storerooms."

Tûlgith puts back the decorated robes he was planning to take with him. On second thought, he packs it anyway. "I didn't.. think they had stuff in my size."

"He was an Easterling, for a time. A long time. Though gifts came in all sizes, most were given to fit him."

"They're the Dark Lord's?" He frowns. "Won't they be.. won't they be really fancy? I thought I was going to be some-- some kind of servant. That's not clothing for a servant."

"We are all servants, to he." She taps her fingers together. Clink, clink. "That was the original Plan. It seems he has changed it. You are trained as an advisor, Tulgha. A waste it would be to make you a scullery boy. Or a cupbearer."

"Cupbearers are very highly honored!"

"Hmmm." Again with the humming! "Not for someone who cannot be poisoned."

Tûlgith frowns again. He tosses several more undershirts into the pile on his bed before slumping down next to it with a heavy breath. "..I don't know if I can do this, Ammala."

"Why not? You were trained for it. You have the knowledge, you have aid, you have the tools. You have sorcery. You have the Plan."

"I'm just-- I'm a normal person, Ammala.. Just a kid he pulled out of the fire. I'm not... some descendant of royalty, or a chieftain's heir, or.. or anything." He covers his face with both hands, beset with uncertainties that have been building up for years. "I don't know what he sees in me."

"You don't want to know what he sees in you, Tulgha. He does not see good things in people." Ammala's head tips. She knows. "He sees use. It may seem kind, and he may treat you kindly, but only if you are worth something to him... And I do not mean a sentimental worth."

"I never-- I never thought he did. I knew.. I know he didn't. Doesn't. He isn't.. keeping his promise to me because he cares. I know that, but it doesn't help."

"Doesn't it?" She sits down next to him, a rustle of fabric starched stiff. For theatrics. "He is rationality and pragmatism. He would not give you this chance and opportunity simply because he believes in your ability. It means he has observed your progress and decided you are capable. Have more confidence in yourself, Tulgha."

He lets out a huff and rolls over onto the heap of clothing, in a move of utter procrastination. Maybe if he doesn't finish packing, the Dark Lord won't drag him off to talk to the Númenóreans. If he doesn't get up, maybe the Númenóreans won't invade.

Ammala's hands (claws. gauntlets.) comb carefully through his braided hair.

"..It took me 23 years to accept his offer. 19, from there, before he thought I was ready to return to Umbar."

"And you were ready."

"Not ready enough. I could have held it longer." The exhale of her breath (more air than anything) is the sound of frustration. "Just a few months shy of a century! Dimna was so unhappy to leave."

"I haven't even been here 10 years," Tûlgith says muffled into the garments. "It'd be a miracle if we could even do anything, let alone hold it for... a few decades. Plus, you had the ring! And you had Dimna. I just have... you, Ammala"

"You have the master himself."

Tûlgith goes still. After a minute, he sits up slowly. "..You really think he'd help me with this?"

"He despises wasted effort above all else. You are an investment, Tulgha. 10 years worth. It may seem little to you.. and indeed to him, but it is still an investment. However." Tûlgith turns too quickly, feels something strain in his neck and rubs at it while he watches her speak. "You must be very clear of your desire, Tulgha. The promise is like an Oath. He will be held to it.. but only to its minimum."

Her gaze shifts; he knows because he can no longer feel it's pressure. She must be trained in it, that focus.

"..I said I wanted to take Umbar back from Númenor, and so he allowed me to do so. But I did not specify that I wanted to keep her from them-- for I did not think they would be able to take her away from me. And the master.. would not help me keep it. As the plan went, he had already pulled Mordor's forces out before Númenor came. His investment was done."

A hundred years she kept Umbar. In the history records, it speaks of their joy and jubilations, the trials they overcame and all the things they accomplished in that time... Until the Númenórean factions split, and Umbar with it.

A split faction is what he and the Dark Lord will have to face, now. Not a united front, but fronts competing with each other.

For the favor of the King.

"Think carefully on it, Tulgha. And remember that he will ask of you an equal favor, in return."

"What if... what if I can't-- what if I can't. Um. Return the favor? What if it's.. not something I can or want to do?"

She looks at him. He cannot see her eyes.

There are portraits of the wraiths, from when they were alive. Painted by an unknown artist, statues carved of them littering the Tower, in places where they are treated almost as patron gods. Their likenesses match, so it is not wrong to think they were made when the wraiths were still alive. When they still had physical form to craft from.

Ammala is in a painting dressed in fineries, like many of the others. All lords and kings in their own right, and she, a queen. A tunic of fine white linen and gold threading, a girdle of richly coloured silk.

"It will always be something you can do, Tulgha. That is how he works. Why ask for the impossible? "

Someone else might say Isn't that what Sauron does? Someone else would assume he enjoys watching people squirm, wish for them to fail so he can punish them. Some call him a tyrant, an oppressive ruler.

The Dark Lord heads the Alliance, true. He is the reason it exists, why it still exists. He has put the most effort into brokering peace between a dozen nations and peoples and keeping it that way for a thousand years. But he does not rule. Not the Alliance, and not Mordor. If anything, the Dark Lord is a.. a guide. A dark one, and a dark light, perhaps, but a light nonetheless. The brightest one in the night.

A morning star.

..Above all else, he is reasonable. And that is frightening.

For nothing is easier to follow than a reasonable guide. Whether it is up a mountain into the clouds, or down a valley into the darkness.

Or off the edge of a cliff, to be dashed upon the rocks below.

 


 

Pharazôn bustles into the 'Sanctuary' with an Admiral and two Captains on his tail. All of them hold torches aloft, with unlit spares tucked into their belts.

"Elder Abîran!"

The Elder doesn't greet him right away-- he's not surprised, nor disappointed. It's busy here, devotees mingling with healers, bringing water and food and herbs in every direction. Rationing doesn't apply in emergencies. It'll put them at a shortage, but he'll deal with that later... Likely they'll have to pick up and leave sooner than he'd like.

Someone points him in the direction of the largest tent.

Abîran is inside with the Chief Healer, steeping Kingsfoil in water over a brazier. Two soldiers lie on raised cots; they're in the worst state Pharazôn has seen so far.

"Did they fall?" he asks. There's blood crusting a trail from their ears to their jaws and under their noses, and their breathing seems ragged.

"Nay, King," Abîran says, weary. "The Wraith's Cry did this to them. They were carried in bleeding-- I'm not sure of their names, we hadn't time to find out...."

Azrubêth, the healer, comes over with a bowl of water and a damp cloth. She starts wiping away the dried blood. "They aren't conscious, sire. We've tried salts to wake them, but there was no reaction, very worrying. Lord Nimruzîr says Kingsfoil should have some effect, and we agree, but...."

"No good?"

"Their breathing is better than it was when they came in." Azrubêth's expression tightens. "Unfortunately this is the limit of what we can do with Kingsfoil. Elvish heritage is not easy to come by. I've none of it, Lord Nimruzîr must attend to his father, and the others.."

"Everyone else with Elven blood we used for the Gate," Pharazôn finishes the sentence for him, running a hand over his face. "And nearly all of them have collapsed. I saw them on my way here, they're almost as bad as these two, I reckon... Why are they the only ones like this?"

"That is....." The healer frowns. "Rothuzîr?"

"Uh?" The nearby attendant jolts, spinning around. "Yes, sir?"

"What was it you said about these two, the ones who brought them in?"

"Oh! Yes. Sire." The attendant gives a salute. He's a soldier, Pharazôn realizes, wearing the healer's apron and porting supplies instead. "They was closest to the wraith, when it screamed. The ones that brought 'em in said they was digging near where the wraiths came out of--"

"They saw the wraiths?"

"Aye, sir. Said they shouted something at 'em-- at the wraiths, that is. Some, er." Rothuzîr hesitates. "Somethin' Elvish, sire."

Hm.

"...Did it work?"

"Eh..." The man scratches his elbow. "They.. did say it made the wraiths scream fiercely. That's- that's how they came to be like they are. Said it hit them in the face with their Cry. Can't imagine how they managed to get away like that..."

"Aye, indeed." Pharazôn frowns. "It must have been something very insulting."

Someone mutters behind him, "I didn't know you could use Elvish to insult someone... else I'd have learnt it sooner."

..Well. If there was any sort of Elvish Learning that Pharazôn would support, it would be learning it for the express reason of insulting someone.

"Abârakhâd," he says to the Admiral behind him, "you and the Captains get an update on the situation outside. How many hale and able to fight if we need to. Check on the perimeter, if it's been set; if it hasn't, get one set up and line it with torches and braziers. Take the roster and make sure everyone's accounted for, one way or another."

A breath, to steady himself. The faint shriek in the distance makes him nearly flinch in reflex. All of them, actually.

"Report back once you're done. Send a runner if anything else comes up."

"Will you be in your tent for the reports, sire?"

"No. I'll stay here a while."

"..Your Majesty?"

Pharazôn looks around the tent and rolls up his sleeves. "Kingsfoil, isn't it? I recall it's more effective when prepared by the royal line. Elf-blood and all." A slight grimace. "I'm no healer, but I'd sooner crush healing weeds than sit around idle, waiting for reports to come in."

He's more of a fighter than a healer. More of a killer than a saviour. War is his craft, not peace. Yet the two are always related, always leading one to the other no matter the order.

He can't fight a wraith alone, anyway. Well. He'd rather not.

"..And send Kalahar over, if you find him."

"By your command, sire." Abârakhâd touches his fist to his chest in a salute, and other two captains follow suit, echoing his words. "Should we notify the Council?"

Just thinking about the Council gives Pharazôn a headache. "...Inform them of where I am, at least. Am- Aphanuzîr is among the injured, tell Nimruzîr instead."

"..Understood."

He hears the Admiral barking out orders once they leave the tent. Once their voices are lost in the din outside, Pharazôn turns his attention back to more pressing matters.

"Your Majesty," Abîran says, dipping into a bow of courtesy. Azrubêth does the same next to him, though her hands are full enough that her bow is merely half. "You honor us with your aid."

"Honor has nothing to do with it, Elder. Healer. We've got wraiths to kill, I need all the hands and knowledge I can get to do it." Pharazôn takes up a loose fistful of dried herbs. It feels like tea leaves. He recalls the lessons from his childhood. "Anything special needed? Prayers, incantations.. arcane hand gestures?"

"I'm afraid not, King." Azrubêth has set a new basin of water over the brazier, and stokes the flames higher to keep it hot. "Simply crush them into the water-- gently, gently. The scent releases more steadily, if lightly handled... There we are."

The aroma seeps out with the steam, permeating the air confined in the tent. He had smelled it upon entering, but could not place it for how faint it was then.

It is reminiscent of what he imagines a clean spring would smell like. Old and ancient, tucked away in a corner of a vibrant forest valley, never before touched by any creature, living or otherwise. Water come straight from the depths of the earth itself; cool, and sharply refreshing.

The two soldiers begin to stir. Lightly, for now. Their breathing evens out almost immediately, tension easing out of from their prone forms.

"There we are," Abîran echoes, with a heavy, if relieved, sigh.

The basin is moved to a smaller brazier, more to keep it warm and heated than to boil it, and a fresh basin replaces it. Pharazôn crushes another handful into this one as well, once it's boiled. Then the process is repeated several times until there are enough basins of steeped Kingsfoil for all of the afflicted.

Abîran instructs the attendants to take bowls of it out with cloths for mopping, hoping to treat the Wraiths' Cry like a migraine of sorts. The two on the cot have their own damn cloths folded over their brow and eyes. Their color is returning slowly, but steadily.

 

 

It seems like hours before they have a chance to take a breather, waiting for another fresh basin to boil.

Azrubêth slumps down into a chair, rubbing both hands over her face. The rush of breath that leaves her is shaky.

"Are you alright, Healer?"

"..I'm not sure, sire," she says into her hands, muffled. "Never have I see anything like that.. this was no physical attack. They weren't struck, no bones broken, no skin bruised... They just went down and started bleeding. Gods above.."

Pharazôn drops into the chair next to her, running a hand through his hair; bits of Kingsfoil clinging to his palm leave the smell of spring water on his head. The Cry hasn't affected him as much as others, but he certainly felt a lift of his spirit when the scent first came up. Kingsfoil works wonders.

He'll have to remember to add a note of thanks to Elendil.

"We've come to strange lands indeed," Pharazôn admits quietly. "Every myth and legend we've ever heard is coming true, little by little. Undying wraiths, sorcery... Next we'll find out Sauron rides dragons into battle."

"Burns!" Azrubêth groans. "Burns are the worst."

"Not the bites?"

"I suspect one would die rather quickly when bitten by a dragon," she says, solemn. "They are quite large."

"Hm. True." So the legends go, in any case. No one's seen a dragon in several thousands of years now, though tales of them sometimes come down from the North in the Dwarf-lands. "..We should add spikes to our armor."

"The men'll put each other's eyes out sooner than fend off a dragon attack."

Pharazôn bites back a laugh; it comes out as a raspy cough instead. Having personally led his own fleet before, he has to agree with her.

Another shrill cry rips through the tent, ringing out far closer than it has any right to be, and no hint of an alarm sent up by the perimeter. Azrubêth jolts to her feet, reaching for the knife at her waist. Pharazôn leaps up with a hand on his sword and heads straight for the entrance. A chill breeze wafts through the opening, setting gooseflesh to his uncovered skin.

He unsheathes his blade and steps out into the cold night.

 


 

"You should not go."

Tûlgith's hands fidget behind his back.

Dimna had come to fetch them in the middle of putting things away in the travel chest. Said the Dark Lord wanted them in the War Room for the meeting, and to finish packing later. It feels unusually rushed for someone like the Lord of Mordor who, despite his focus on efficiency, is in no more of a rush than the average person.

Tûlgith thinks it likely has something to do with being immortal. Khamûl and Dimna have been getting the same way. Or had they always been like that?

"You're not my minder, Khadîn."

"And I am not minding you! I am just saying this is not a good idea."

"It wasn't my idea. You're questioning the master's orders."

The Dark Lord is surreptitious, observing the exchange with a wandering gaze. He's otherwise engaged with writing something, quill scratching elegant lines across a sheet of pressed beargrass. Whatever attention he's paying to them, it's evidently not enough to stop the squabbling. Which means it isn't that important. Lesser arguments have been ended by the Dark Lord's own hands, when he deems it necessary.

"The master has been wrong before." Khadîn's cowl tips sharply, the only indication that she might have just shot the Dark Lord a pointed look-- of what kind, Tûlgith can't tell. He suspects it's nasty. "He is wrong to take you with him this time."

Alkhâr looks at his master this time. When he gets no response, he lets out a hissing breath that sends chills up Tûlgith's arms. Not as badly as it would have when he first arrived at the Tower.. but enough to remind him that the people he's surrounded by are... not people. Not really. Not anymore.

And the Dark Lord least of all.

(And himself, as well.)

"I am going," Alkhâr says. "None are better suited to be his guard than I am. Especially against the Númenóreans."

"He doesn't even need a guard!"

"Why does he get to go, anyway?" Dimna interjects. "Why can I not go with Mairon? I guard him just as well as anyone!"

Ammala lets out a snort. "You'd try to kill them the moment you saw them."

"Well, why not? We are enemies!"

"He--" Tûlgith nearly swallows his own tongue when they turn to look at him in unison. Even the Dark Lord lifts his head, just so, to fix him with a heavy gaze. He manages to squeak out the rest of his words. "..The Dark Lord wishes to.. to negotiate. W- with the Númenóreans."

The Dark Lord holds his eyes for a moment longer before returning to his writing.

"..I thought he was joking," Dimna says, tutting. "You were not joking, Mairon?"

"I do not jest about such things."

Alkhâr makes a scoffing sound. "He wouldn't be taking just one of us if we were going to fight them."

"He fights wars by himself sometimes. And he wins. How should I know?"

"Doesn't he, um. Tell you?" Tûlgith had assumed the wraiths knew everything the Dark Lord did. "Because of the- the rings."

The wraiths share a look. Dimna shrugs. "When he wants to."

"Th-then..." Tûlgith glances at the Dark Lord. "Um.. wouldn't it have been prudent to- to inform them? My Lord."

"Hmm," says the Dark Lord, a hum not unlike Ammala's. He doesn't look up. "Must have slipped my mind."

In his experience, that meant that the Dark Lord knew it would not be well-received, and decided not to tell the others who would dispute him. If Tûlgith had been a normal advisor... or an advisor to anyone else, who held council with anyone else, he would consider this disrespectful at best, borderline tyrannical at worst.

But these are not 'anyone else'. These are the Dark Lord of Mordor and his Wraith-servants. The Lord of Mordor is ever accustomed to having his way. Tûlgith fears how the negotiations with Númenor will pan out.

"He told all of us," Ammala says, quaintly. A contrast to how she lounges in her seat. "You likely weren't paying attention, Dimna."

"Oh, stuff it, merah."

Ammala snarls, low. "Don't call me that."

"Fine," Dimna spits back, rising to his feet. "Dread Queen."

Her lunge is interrupted by a flourish of the Dark Lord's hand, throwing both wraiths back into their seats with a resounding thud. Tûlgith startles where he sits, shivering from the wave of energy that emanates from the head of the table.

The sheet of paper, now signed (extravagantly so), is pushed away to allow it to dry undisturbed. The Dark Lord's quill pen is wiped clean, placed back in its holder.

"Tûlgith is correct. Later tonight, we will be leaving for the Black Gates, to treat with the host of Númenor. Our goal is to drive them away, and ensure that they do not return hostile. Where is the pitch and seal? Ah." Another flick of his hands, a hum, and the writing caddy on the scribe's desk (rarely used) opens. A stick of bitumen flies out of it into his awaiting hand, and after it a soapstone seal. "I will be taking him and Alkhâr both with me."

Dimna makes an aborted sound of disapproval. Ammala does the same, though her hissing can be heard throughout the room. The Dark Lord pays them no heed.

Tûlgith watches the end of the stick melt from nothing but the heat of the Dark Lord's hands, dripping onto paper next to his signature. The Dark Lord presses his hand to the puddle, palm down, imprinting first the ring on his finger into the pitch, then the Seal of Mordor over it.

No one else would dare do such a thing. Though official correspondence from Lugbúrz must be sealed with pitch, the Dark Lord is the only one who would stamp it with his own hand; the indentation leaves a smattering of Aura from the Ring, palpable to anyone handling the letter even if they didn't have the Gift. Tûlgith himself had to be trained to sense it. He wasn't born here, after all.

"I- understand the- boy," Khadîn murmurs, haltingly. The words seem caught in her... her not-throat. "But why- why Khôya?"

Alkhâr starts to protest, until the Dark Lord lifts a finger to silence him.

"Why not, Khadîn? Is there something you know that I do not?"

Tûlgith doesn't think that's possible. Khadîn may be a Seer, but the Dark Lord is... something more than that. Surely he knows more than anything Khadîn would... surely he sees more. There can't be anything she knows that he does not.

"I know Khôya," she says. "I know that the New displaces the Old.. I know that some loyalties never die."

Khadîn does not look at her cousin as she says this. She looks at her master. Her master looks back.

"And you, Khadîn? Alkhâr?" The hiss is silent. "Have your loyalties died?"

Khadîn gives a toss of her head. "You should be asking that of Khamûl."

"Yes, I should. Is he harassing the king?" The Dark Lord frowns. His expression is distant, as if listening to some far-off sound. "Why is he harassing the king?"

"Boredom," Dimna says. "..Maybe."

"...Hm." A finger taps on the wooden table, once, twice, the sound sharp. The Dark Lord has long nails that never seem to break. "Let us get on with this meeting, then. Then we will see about that issue."

 

 

He sends Dimna and Eoweard to the South, to confer with those in the Alliance who retreated from battle, once negotiations are complete. Better to avoid any unnecessary alarm or conflict. Firiya puts up a quiet fuss about not being able to go with Dimna, as he always does.

Khamûl, when he returns, is to take the Easterling tribes out of Mordor. Tulgith confirms that arrangements have been made for them to receive at least minimal payment for answering Mordor's call to arms, and that letters of warning have been written to those who did not.

Firiya is to go with them, splitting off at Mordor proper to oversee Taghai's ascension to Head Priest. After that, to catch up with Khamûl, and ascertain that the Khalwadîn Easterlings are still well-versed in the rites and rituals, and the _Gulhasan__ Southrons after that.

Shêmut would return to the Dark Land coasts and make sure trade routes are well-hidden, to prevent the Númenóreans from learning of them. Their own scouts will patrol the area more often so that they might more quickly mobilize the army if the Númenóreans make a move.

Alkhâr is going with the Dark Lord, so Khadîn has the throne. Ammala will be her Lieutenant and advisor, temporarily.

 

 

"This is a little unfair," she mutters. "That a lord's cousin should be Regent while I must be the Second, though I was once a Queen."

"Khadîn has been in Mordor longer, Ammala," the Dark Lord tells her. It's reasonable. "She knows the lands better."

"Plus, you are a Dread Queen," Dimna adds. Not reasonable. "Who would want to serve you?"

"The Dread Queen is your Lieutenant, Dimna," Khadîn says, deceptively light. Just like their master. "However temporarily."

Dimna's robes ruffle slightly, but he accedes with a humph and a nod.

Ammala murmurs something that Tûlgith does not catch. Khadîn makes a sound like a pleased trill in response.

 

 

"What is Khamûl doing?" Tûlgith whispers to the nearest wraith, in between discussions of how and when best to retreat Jorâr and Undir's forces out of Mordor.

"Screaming," the wraith says.

 


 

The Temple shall be attended upon the dawn of the darkest night
The priest shall lead in prayer and magic,
and in this darkness we shall not rest.

So long as the moon remains,
it shall be done month after month,
until which day the moon is no more,
until darkness reigns forevermore.

And on that day we will rejoice in his Glory.

- Rituals of the Mehradin 16.6-8

Chapter Text

The torches are a lifeline.

It helps them see in the night, helps drive away the darkness that these creatures live off of. It helps with the Cry, which sounds oddly muffled where it meets the light, but it's still enough to make them stumble every time they hear it.

"Once again!"

Pharazôn directs another rush at the wraith. They're far too close to the encampment for his comfort. The Cry had sounded so loudly that he feared it had made its way deep into the camp.

Luckily, it hadn't.

Only one of the wraiths is coming at them, the Easterling with the embroidered scabbard that houses a short blade. A whip is in its other hand, that must have been hidden under its cloak. It sends its Cry out at them every chance it gets, driving them further and further back towards their own perimeter. If not for the braziers they lined it with and the fire in their hands, they might have been overrun already.

The wraith lunges at one of his men, driving him back several paces and creating a gap in the line. The soldiers on either side close in just quick enough to keep the wraith from getting through, forcing it to retreat away from the camp. Every crack of its whip radiates displeasure.

He can't say it's been a particularly difficult fight. The Easterling wraith is small, shorter of range, but quick enough to fend them all off single-handedly. And its whip keeps the worst of them at bay before they can get within striking distance. He hadn't thought Easterlings would be versed in whips for battle... must be an affectation of Sauron.

But even for so many of them against a single wraith, the fight is taking longer than it has any right to. It's hard to move in the dark, even with the torches. Swinging a sword around with one hand makes it even more difficult. Their blows are weaker, and there's no shield to follow up with. Pharazôn already has several welts from being hit with the whip coming out of the dark, and at least one of the men has a sprained ankle.

The wraith obviously seems to be stalling, though, which doesn't make sense. If the darkness gives them strength, shouldn't it be fighting more fiercely?

"It's toying with us!" the Commander next to him spits out. "I've seen this among the Southrons before. Their chieftains love to draw out the fighting."

"He's an Easterling."

"Isn't that the same thing, sir?" another soldier adds, snidely. A second later, the wraith targets him with another shriek.

"Idiot," Pharazôn says under his breath. He snags the wraith's robe with his blade, but only manages to tear a hole in it. No blood comes out.

"Fool," the wraith cackles, brandishing its whip again to drive distance between them like a wedge. "You think to kill me? I am Undying!"

"That's what the Elves of the Lone-Lands said!" Pharazôn returns, raising his voice above the sharp cry. "And look what happened to them! Dead! Burnt and razed and utterly destroyed!"

"By the hands of our master!" the wraith says, gloating. "By the hands of those who made us."

The whip flicks, brisk and practiced. Something wet flecks onto Pharazôn's face. Blood, no doubt. Some unfortunate fellow must have caught the bad end of it one too many times.

"Aye, they did. By your master's hand. And now, you." Pharazôn raises the torch higher, throwing the wraith into ghastly, sharp, flickering relief. "By my hand."

 


 

"He's fighting?"

"It sounds like it. He's always been the restless sort..."

"You can't tell for sure?"

"No. The connection is weak. The Song they used must have disturbed it.. and the runes are not helping, either..."

"What runes? Why not?"

Mairon holds back a heavy sigh, leaning back in his seat. It worries him for the connection with Khamûl and Shêmut to be so faint and warped. He can feel the pulse of energy from each of Khamûl's Cries, but the lingering Song is blocking his own power from being transferred. Similar things have happened before. Like in his battle with Felagund.

He doesn't like it. It means that if Khamûl continues on as he is, he might end using expending all of his own power. Mairon doesn't know what will become of the wraiths if that happens. If they can be refilled, recharged, brought back to their initial states, or if they will expend themselves and lose their tethering to this mortal coil. Or if they will simply fade away.

Khamûl may not be one of his more loyal wraiths.. and he might threaten to leave often. And Mairon might tell him that he has leave to step down from his service, if he should wish. But Mairon would not want to see him go, any of them.

They are all indispensable, in their own ways. And after spending so many years on their cultivation, it would be a waste. Song and Sorcery are not easily taught. Finding a new Ringbearer to replace them would be such a pain.

"Master," Alkhâr says from the front of the carriage. Tûlgith has one hand parting the forward curtains to let his voice in. "He is weakening."

"I know," Mairon says, thumb pressed to his teeth. He doesn't want to admit it. "..I cannot reach him."

"Can't you— can't you tell him to stop? At least that? I don't—" Tûlgith's face pinches with worry. "..I don't want him to die. Or— whatever happens to them."

"Nor I, Tûlgith. As Alkhâr said, the connection is weak... I cannot give him my power and I cannot stop him. It may be a matter of distance."

The carriage is already travelling at a quick pace, and only because they have been breeding horses for long journeys, hard work. Not nimble, dainty-limbed steeds for grasslands, but specialized line of draft creatures, capable of ploughing through snow and stone.

A pair of them have no trouble pulling a carriage across the plains.. but there's still a limit to mortal bodies.

"Isn't there a.. a Song of Quickening? Speed? We can make them- we can go faster, can't we?"

"I could." Mairon twirls a few notes of a Song around his finger. "You two might kill them."

"I would not kill them," Alkhâr protests.

"Not intentionally." He presses his palm to the carpeted flooring. "..And we must be careful not to damage the carriage."

"You'd never allow a Lugbúrz carriage to be so shoddily made, master."

"Well... that is true."

It is well-made indeed. Mordor proper is starting to catch up in quality as well, judging from his visit. A very good sign. It's taken longer than he'd like. Ideally, all craftsmen would hold their apprenticeship in Lugbúrz to ensure a consistent quality throughout Mordor...

But the trip to the Tower is long.

He has to make a concession soon, also, whether to construct the connecting road straight through and over any obstacles in between, or to . The land survey and roadway drafting has been in process for longer than he'd like, but it's a trade off for making sure they will be able to do something like this again on their own, without his aid.

The advancement of the Númenóreans is impressive, by contrast. Blessed is only a term the ignorant would use; Mairon knows they have taken their own vows to not interfere with the affairs of Middle-Earth, however hypocritical it is. What knowledge the Númenóreans have comes from Elves.

And now near the height of their peak, they would deny that knowledge and where it came from. Banning Elves from their lands....

"Fools," he mutters. Turns the ring on his finger, idly. "Better to take from them all that you can first. Disposal is not so easy to reverse."

"..My Lord?"

"Nothing, Tûlgith. Hold to your seat. Let us see how much quicker they can go."

Mairon pulls the cords to open the side curtains and and looks across the empty plains. One day he hopes to see all of it settled, utilized to its utmost. By Orc and Man alike.

He takes a deep breath and Sings into the night.

 


 

The wraith falters mid-swing.

Almost at once, one of their number bellows his intent and swings hard for the wraith's arm. It strikes with a heavy clang, hitting some sort of metal gauntlet under the cloth, and ricochets off. They already knew it was wearing armor, so all that serves to do is put another hole in its robes.

Black mist-like substance started leaking out after the first few tears, clinging to the wraith like a haze. Those who've gotten too close to touch it have collapsed near-immediately and had to be hauled away.

Pharazôn wipes the sweat from his brow. The nights are cold, chilling even, but they've been doing this dance for almost an hour and are no closer to take the wraith down than they were before. The torches are burning uncomfortably low.

"You tire, king," the wraith says in a hollow growl. The taunt is as empty as it is. "Pity now your forms, so frail and mortal!"

The whip stings past his cheek, cracking loudly enough behind his head to make his ears ring. It curls around another's sword and throws it to the ground before striking someone else in the face not a moment later.

Cursed creature.

But Pharazôn can tell the wraith is not as strong now as it was when they started. Despite the moon rising and the night deepening, it Cries less now. Its tactics have shifted, no longer trying to force fear upon them— terror has reduced their numbers by half already. Now it's focusing on disarming them, making them move. Tiring them out.

A hunter on the prowl.

"You're not invincible yourself," Pharazôn responds. "You're weakening, wraith!"

"That's right," says the man to his right. The firelight catches a welt above his eye, but no blood. "I can barely feel that whip anymore. Like a baby's touch!"

"I felt a feather! Tickled me, it did!"

"Aye, I thought it the touch o' my wife, gentle as it were!"

The wraith lets out another scream, predictably; Pharazôn bears the brunt of its first strike, parrying a blow that nearly numbs his whole arm. Distantly, he's surprised that neither blade has chipped from the impact.

"Weak!" it says, chanting the word with every blow it delivers and exchanges. First Pharazôn's, then the one next to him, and another who dives in to distract the creature. "Weak, weak, weak!"

It reminds him of his early training days against boys who wouldn't listen, wouldn't hold back, didn't know how to hold back. Back when they were safe using wooden swords and sticks instead of real blades. They'd beat each other black and blue. Heal up for a few days, and them jump right back in for more.

Pharazôn ducks, the whip whistling over his head, and lunges. He shoves his torch forward. The hem of the wraith's robe catches fire and it retreats, shouting wordlessly in agony.

"Watch out—!"

Pharazôn has only a moment to savor his triumph before the beginnings of a shriek wipes it away.

Then something heavy and solid barrels into his side, knocking him straight to the ground.

 


 

"U-um... Mairon..."

Mairon lets his focus wane enough to turn his gaze to Tûlgith, peeking through the forward curtains again. The young man sucks in a breath. Mairon eases his his expression into something calmer.

"..You seem angry."

"Of course he's angry," Alkhâr says in a growl. "I am angry. Khamûl should not be fighting."

"You're always angry at Khamûl." The wraith hisses, and Tûlgith's silhouette startles in place. "I- that's what he says! He says you're always angry at him."

Alkhâr doesn't say anything. After a moment, the wraith ducks down to look through the curtains as well. "Is he supposed to be this impudent, master?"

"I find it very quaint."

"You think everything is quaint."

Mairon hums. "Not everything."

Not Melkor. Not Eru, not Arda. Not the Valar.

Sighing, Alkhâr turns back to the front and flicks the reigns again. It doesn't do much. The horses are already barreling across the plains with enough speed to batter through a wooden gate. They'll have to stop soon for and water, and a short rest; much sooner than if they were going at normal speeds, and much more often. They have supplies enough to account for it.

"He is my advisor," Mairon says at length, "not a servant. And even of servants, I allow them to speak to me as they see fit. Just as you do."

The wraith lets out a forceful exhale. "..It's disrespectful."

"Little lords," Mairon sighs. Alkhâr sends him a wave a mute displeasure. "Very well, then. Tûlgith, mind your tongue before the king. We do not want to give him further reason to pursue war."

"I think you're the only one who'd give him any- any reason," Tûlgith mutters. He yawns. "Reason.. reason enough."

"I, too, will be on my best behaviour."

For some meaning of 'behaviour'. And some meaning of 'best'.

 

 

The sounds of fighting are getting louder. They're still a few hours from the gate, but the connection between wraith and master grows stronger with every moment that passes, as the Song settles back into place.

First thought, and sound— these two it was that existed first before all.

Sight, next. The vision he gets from Khamûl is blurred with motion and panic. It's also bright; worrying, given that it is still night time, and no moon should light the area so well. Fire, then. The rockwool fabric blend their cloaks are made of seems to have its limits for being fireproof.

..Well. People usually don't walk up to a wraith with a torch, so it should be fine to keep the blend as is.

Minutes later, he finds the thread connecting them and grabs it like the reigns of a horse, pulls it tight and taut. Firm. A horse spooks easily, if its rider is easily spooked.

Mairon placates Khamûl first.

«Master,» the wraith say. Bemoans. He has never heard the Easterling chief so plaintive before. «Master, the gate...»

«I know,» Mairon tells him. «I felt it crumble.»

«They dare! They are... breaking...» The wraith's voice fades in and out, fluctuating with the flames on his robe. «—I have... king... my mercy...»

"Don't kill him," Mairon hisses. Tûlgith jumps, sending a quiet inquiry if anything is wrong. Mairon ignores him. «Do not kill him, Khamûl. I am not here for war.»

«They insulted...! They come... war.. weapons... they demand... surrender!»

«I was not aware that you cared about my surrender.» The wraith goes quiet. Not unexpected. Mairon soothes the connection again, smooths it out with a gentle touch. «We will not war with Númenor. Stop fighting them, Khamûl.»

No response.

«..Stop fighting them, or the only thing you will be doing for the next century is overseeing the Orc mines.»

To that, he receives a roar, another shriek. The flames are licking higher up Khamûl's robes. Mairon cannot feel the heat, but he feels his wraith's fear of it.

«Sha!» Khamûl seethes. He values his freedom above all else; Mairon knows. «...Fine. I will retreat.»

«Good.»

He lets his approval flow, a fine and delicate thread. Uses it to seep his consciousness through, along the Bond of the Rings, through the Song that binds them. It is a small price that they should pay, for immortality.

«Now, give me your voice.»

 


 

Pharazôn can barely see the wraith.

The moment he'd fallen, he heard a cry at his side from where he had been standing before. By the time his head stops spinning enough to see straight, someone is propping the lad up, the one who had barreled into him. He's pale. Pharazôn can't tell if that's metal or blood that he smells.

He can't see the wraith, there's too many bodies between them for that, but he can still hear its shuffling steps, the raspy breathing, the guttural sounds like a wailing madman. With its shroud on fire, he expects it to be panicking, and it does... or did, for a short while.

It lets out a shuttered screech, and then it goes eerily still. Not silent— still breathing harshly, if breathing it could be called. Even the clattering of its trinkets dies down to nothing but a whispering murmuring of cloth against cloth.

A hum sounds in the air, low and deep with an energy that lifts the fine hairs on his skin. Not a few of the men still standing clap their hands over their ears. Pharazôn would have done the same, if the sound was any less.... pleasant.

It is. Pleasant. Cool, soothing, hushed and murmured. Nothing like the hissing and rasping of the undead, nothing like the war-like chant of the Song of Destruction. It is melodic.

And, for some reason, it is terrifying.

Then the fire on the wraith's robe gutters out. In the next moment, all of their torches follow suit. The moment after that, half a dozen lights on the perimeter closest to them go out as well, and with it the dull humming Song, dying down just as quickly as it had risen. A silence falls loudly upon them, the very air of it oppressive and haunting. His gambeson feels like it's made of thick lead instead of leather when he tries to move.

Urgent hands bring him sluggishly to his feet. The voices around him are hushed and worried. Moonlight reflects sharply off of their raised swords, the only source of light in this night.

"Ar-Pharazôn," the wraith says, in a voice far different from what it had been using up until now. Less hoarse, less aged. Adûnaic. "Khamûl will harry you and your men no more."

But the accent is... ancient, to say the least.

"Who speaks?" Someone in the front steps forward. Pharazôn can't make out who it is from behind. "Name yourself!"

"You..." The voice fades in and out, making it difficult to understand. "..not he... who..?"

"I am Imru, Admiral of the First Royal Fleet of Anadûnê. Who do I speak with? Wraith?"

A shuddering breath. He can't tell whose.

"I was once known... tar..... Mairon.."

"..Tar-Mairon?" The man at Imru's side scoffs. "Arrogance! And Elvish, no less!"

"Annatar, you fool." The creature (wraith?) hisses, causing all of them to raise their blades again. "I speak.. as the delegate of Mordor, to meet... Ar-Pharazôn, King of Númenor."

"Annatar?" Pharazôn mutters. Wasn't that..? "Sauron?"

Someone else has the same thought. "Sauron!"

"Sauron? To meet with our king?"

"I'd sooner die than let that happen!"

A wave of something ripples through the air like a sudden gust of wind. It presses in on his ears and makes him feel as though he's just hiked up the Meneltarma without rest; muffled and lightheaded.

"I do not answer to that title."

The voice is clearer now, less faded and crackling. He hears in it a power beyond the Song they had just used to destroy the Gate.

Pharazôn walks over, hunched and held up on one side, until he can see the wraith properly. The fall has given him a stitch in his side and it hurts to stand up straight, but he can still raise his voice enough to be heard.

"You called yourself a delegate," he says. "Why?"

"I did," says that voice behind the wraith's. Svelte. Despite its seeming antiquity. "The Mordor delegation will arrive by daybreak."

He grits his teeth. "...For what purpose?"

"To discuss terms."

"Terms?" Pharazôn manages to bark out a laugh, and winces when it pulls on the stitch in his side. He doesn't know if Sauron (if it is indeed Sauron) can see him, but he won't look weak before his own men. "You think we'll accept terms after what you've done? After what your wraith has done?"

"Perhaps not." The wraith's head tips to one side, eyes gleaming as bright as live coals as it sweeps the crowd. "But you did destroy our gate...."

The creature's gaze finds him. "... Âru n'Andunye."

He doesn't recall ever announcing himself.

The pressure in his ears increases, then disappears just as quickly. The heaviness is gone from the air, withdrawing from them like a passing storm. As if in irony, the darkness retreats back towards Mordor, and the wraith with it. The only mark of its passing are the eyes in the dark, the scorch marks on the ground where it had stood, and foul stench of burnt stonecloth.

All the sounds of the night return in full strength, as if the wraith had frightened them into silence. All manners of crickets, the shushing breeze, blowing grasses.. even the noise from the camp had been deafened to them.

"...Should we pursue it, Your Majesty?"

"No," he says. He feels tired, so tired. Truly, one has never known real fear until one has met the Shadow Walkers. The Ringwraiths. "Head back to camp. Let's get the injured seen to, first."

They'd gone out with several dozen, though only a handful could face the wraith at the same time. Barely half of them are still able to stand now, and every one of them bears a welt at least, or some scrape from trying to avoid a blow. Their swords haven't fared any better. The few of them that ran a sword through the wraith didn't end up doing any damage to anything but their own blades.

"Bring those," Pharazôn gestures to the swords that looked like they'd been dipped in acid, "to the metalwrights. Tell them to be careful. See if they can be repaired." He takes a look around to assess the situation again. "..Rothuzîr! Is that you I see?"

"Yes— yes, sire!"

"Good. You don't look too bad.. Take a look at everyone's wounds, see who needs the healer."

"If- if I might, sire... I think everyone should be seen to." Rothuzîr rubs a welt on his arm. He'd come straight out of the healer's tent, no time to put on his armor, just like half of them. "I don't know about the others, but... I felt cold every time it struck me. A chill in my bones. It's not natural."

Pharazôn doesn't want to admit he felt the same. He'd thought the dull ache was just age. It must be. He's getting there. Not quite as much as Amandil, of course, who by all rights should have died years ago, the stubborn bastard. Speaking affectionately, of course.

"Very well, then. Imru, Abârakhâd— Where is he? I thought I saw Abârakhâd with us." A murmur to the back tells him Abârakhâd is among the heavily injured. Damn. He singles out someone with a Captain's insignia instead. "Alright. You, there. What's your name?"

"Uh- Adâira, Your Majesty. Captain under Admiral Abârakhâd."

"Captain Adâira. You and the Admiral help Rothuzîr with the wounded. And make sure everyone's accounted for.... again."

"At once, sire."

 

 

The second time goes quicker.

Pharazôn receives the report shortly that everyone was present. Some of the injured had nearly been left behind in the dark, they were so quiet, but everyone had been found and shuffled where they needed to be. Whether it was to the temporary Sanctuary for treatment, or to get a long drink of something hot, to fight off the chill.

For Pharazôn, it's a quick look-over from Azrubêth, a bowl of steeped Kingsfoil to ward off the worst of the unnatural cold, salve for the cut, and being told not to sleep just yet. Everyone who'd taken some blow to the head was given the same warning.

It will be tough. Council meetings almost always put him right to sleep.

"..They wish to meet with you?"

Anakhôr's remark is rightfully wary, pinching his face with suspicion. Even more so when the attending healer gives him a sharp look for not staying in the medical tent.

Pharazôn had wanted to take the meeting in there, but Anakhôr insisted on not taking up the room.

"Sauron, aye. Him and whomever else is making up his delegation. You didn't hear it, Lord Anakhôr?" The man leans forward and taps the back of his head, where a welt had been treated earlier, along with a full check for head injury. "Ah, right."

"A single wraith did all this..." Amandil rubs his face with one hand. The other is still holding a goblet of warm, watered wine, for his nerves. The steeped Kingsfoil has done what it could. "I apologize for not being able to fight at your side, Your Highness. And my son..."

"You could barely stand, Aphanuzîr," Pharazôn says, droll, but no less kind. "Nimruzîr helped with the Kingsfoil while I was gone. I won't fault him for not joining us in battle."

"Thank you, sire." Amandil lowers his head with a sigh, but doesn't bring the matter up again. "About that meeting..."

"Don't tell me... you think it's a bad idea."

"Oh, I think there's been a lot of bad ideas up to this, but meeting with Sauron?" He takes a swallow of wine and grimaces. Watered too much, perhaps. "That's particularly terrible."

"I have to agree with Lord Aphanuzîr on this, sire," Nalarik says. He's of the several that was not heavily affected by the Cry, and also did not head out to fight the wraith. Pharazôn hears he did his own fair share for the healers. "Sharing words with Sauron is unwise."

"I as well," says Anakhôr. "Demanding a meeting after setting his wraith on us.. the audacity!"

"He claims the wraith is repayment for destroying his wall," Nalarik adds dryly. "I'll admit it was a terrifying ordeal, but paltry compared to what we did. If that's his idea of retaliation, I wonder how he wages war."

"He doesn't, clearly," Anakhôr quips in response. "I don't recall any notable opposition on our way up here. Do you?"

"There will be no stoking of egos before breakfast," Pharazôn mutters tiredly.

"But it's been a dreadful night, Your Majesty," Nalarik bemoans. "And the morning is such a long ways off..."

"All the better. I've still yet to decide whether we'll meet with this delegation or not... or what will come of it."

With a collective sigh, the others sit up straighter in their seats. Anakhôr receives another withering glare from the healer, which he barely manages not to quail under.

"...You've been oddly quiet this eve, Lord Athazûl," Pharazôn notes. "Nothing to say?"

"Lord Athazûl is discovering that sea-sickness may indeed be found on land," Anakhôr says on behalf of the very tired, very pale lord. Athazûl looks as though he'd lain in the sun for hours after washing ashore from a shipwreck. Half of the encampment does. "Or so the healer told me when I asked."

Athazûl gives the other lord a look, but doesn't refute the statement.

Pharazôn frowns. "If you're ill, Lord Athazûl, you should rest."

The man waves a hand lightly. "We're all badly off, sire. This is urgent, besides. I can hardly miss out."

"This isn't that urgent. But speaking of missing out, where is Halazar? I assume he was accounted for. Kalahar!" The pageboy ducks in from outside the tent. "You brought my summons to Lord Halazar, didn't you?"

"I did, sire. He said he had a matter to take care of, and that he would be here soon... Should I bring him another message?"

"No, no... he must have fallen asleep." Pharazôn rubs through the hair his chin. He needs a trim soon. "Let him be. I'll send for him again if Sauron actually shows up."

"I hear he didn't use that name when he announced himself," Nalarik remarks. "Is that correct, sire?"

"He didn't. He used... what was it? Mairon?"

"Tar-Mairon," Anakhôr says with no small amount of derision. "The whole camp is talking about it. The nerve of him... "

Athazûl scoffs. "It's Sauron," he says in a hoarse whisper. "What else would you expect?"

"He wants to discuss terms.. though he was unclear as to what sort of terms. Surrender, treaty, ceasefire." Pharazôn waves his hand. The very thought of it curdles his tongue. "It could be any of those."

"He's a proud creature, is he not?" Anakhôr swills the wine in his goblet. "After having his Gate destroyed and setting the wraith on us, I doubt surrender is something he would consider."

Nalarik hums in agreement. "Though it is the one we would most prefer."

If only it were that easy.

Outside the tent, the sound of bustling draws their attention.

"Admiral Imru reporting, sire."

"Aye, come in and join us. We need another voice anyhow."

"Do we, really?" Amandil says. He gives the Admiral a cursory glance as he comes in, but nothing more. "Four isn't enough for you, Your Majesty?"

"I like an odd number." Pharazôn waves the Admiral to one of the empty chairs. "Have a seat."

"My thanks, sire." Imru gives him a salute before sitting down. "Abârakhâd is being treated, and the rest of the men have been seen to as well. No lasting injuries so far. We may need to lessen the amount of fires being lit, else we run out of wood."

"Morning's not far off. Keep the perimeter as well lit as possible. We'll not risk a wraith getting too close again."

"Understood."

"Kalahar, get the Admiral some wine. It's been a long night, he'll need it." The man accepts the goblet with a nod of thanks. "Now, then. On to the meeting... Shall we treat with Sauron or not?"

Someone takes in a sharp breath. Pharazôn doesn't bother finding out who; they all feel the same way, one way or another.

"..And if we do, to what end? To his surrender? To an armistice, a ceasefire?"

No one says anything immediately. Pharazon doesn't want to consider a truce, but with his men in their current state, and faced with the prospect of facing several creatures like the Easterling wraith, a full on battle would be difficult. Especially if they're ambushed again in the dead of night.

While he's fairly certain they could survive another encounter like that, it would be eating into their already light stores of Kingsfoil. The wood, also, as Imru brought up. And if one encounter is enough to render half of his forces catatonic and the other half nauseous...

"Begging your pardon, sire," Imru says, quietly over his warm wine, "but after what that wraith did tonight.. and after what we did to his Gate— Sauron's Gate —I doubt there's a single one of our men who would feel safe with him walking among us. Or free to roam anywhere on this earth. Not unless it's us walking him into the deepest, darkest hole we can find and leaving him there to rot."

It's not a bad idea. Provide they could find any hole deep enough, dark enough, secure enough to keep Sauron in place.

"..Or we could simply rid ourselves of him, once and for all," Anakhôr suggest, wistful. "Speaking kindly, of course."

Also not a bad idea. And quite possibly the only one they all seem to want to agree on.

If only there were a simple way of doing it.

 

 

A messenger is spotted approaching at daybreak, announced by the rising sun against the back of a white flag.

None of them had slept properly after the meeting adjourned. Pharazôn fell asleep the minute he shut his eyes, but it was a fitful rest. To short for a full slumber, but too long for a nap.

He's groggy when he wakes again to the sound of Kalahar calling for him from outside his tent. Cold water helps. He's getting tired of the near-frigid nights and scorching hot days— and in the dead of winter, no less.

Pharazôn throws on a thick cape before stepping outside. The camp is quieter than usual. He suspects it's because of what happened in the night. Everyone's anxious and on edge, not knowing when or if the wraiths would come again. Pharazôn can still hear the echoing howl in his ears, the ungodly shrieking. Worse than the sound of grinding metal.

Suddenly, the cape doesn't feel warm enough. He's just as cold on the inside as the air is on the outside.

"Blasted wraiths." Muttering under his breath, Pharazôn pulls the cloak tighter around him as he makes his way to the front of the camp, Kalahar close behind on his tail. "Ought to throw them into the volcano, next chance we get."

"Who's getting thrown into a volcano?" Amandil comes up behind him, bundled up the same way. "Hope it isn't anyone I know of."

"I don't know if you ever caught his name. He goes by.. what was it..." Pharazôn feigns a thoughtful look. "..The Black Easterling?"

"Oh, Tyrant of the East, is it?" Amandil shakes his head with a laugh. "He never gave us much trouble in Númenor, but tales of what he did spread far and wide. Knowing he'd become a servant of Sauron, everything makes more sense now... He ought to be thrown in a volcano."

Amandil looks much better than he did earlier in the night. In fact, everyone that Pharazôn has seen so far is looking in better spirits than they did hours ago. Whether it's the Kingsfoil or the wraith's retreat, or even whatever song it was the Sauron-wraith had sung, he doesn't know, and likely never will. Abîran hasn't a clue what it could have been, or what purpose it would have served other than to put out a few lights.

No way to know what's going on in a wraith's mind. Or in a creature like Sauron's.

"You heard about the messenger, then?"

"The boy alerted all of the Council." Amandil gives a nod to Kalahar behind them. "Thought you'd need us to convince you not to meet with Sauron alone."

"I wouldn't dare."

"Even if he demands it?"

"Then I'll.. demand otherwise."

No point getting caught up in pride and bravado. Pharazôn brought two fleets with him for a reason— an entire battalion to demand Sauron's surrender. Insisting on meeting with him alone now, of all times, would make all of that pointless.

Amandil doesn't seem to believe him, though.

"I'm no coward, Aphanuzîr." He spares the pageboy a hidden look. "But I'm not fool enough to meet with Sauron alone."

"Are you telling me you believe in the stories after all?" Amandil's frown at hearing his Adûnaic name eases into a crinkle of his old eyes. "The so-called 'old wives' tales' passed down the bedsides of terrified children?"

"Four meters tall and two wide at the shoulders, able to spit fire like a dragon?" Pharazôn scoffs. "Hardly! That's physically impossible. But I don't doubt he's a deceiver; clearly he's a sorcerer as well. I'd rather have people watching my back than to end up a dead man."

"Well... that's unexpectedly reasonable of you, Your Majesty."

"Nonsense! I'm almost perfectly reasonable, at any and all hours of the day." A cold breeze sweeps by, biting through the thick fabric of both of their capes. Pharazôn swears under his breath. "Not this hour. Not this day. Ossai's balls, it's cold.... I'll throw Sauron onto the fire myself when we get our hands on him. That ought to keep it going long enough."

"It'll smell horribly," Amandil points out. He sneezes.

"Mittalmar doesn't smell any better on a summer's day. We'll live."

 


 

Mairon rests the palm of his hand against a slab of black stone, buried beneath piles and piles of other stones, other metals.

A sliver of magic, of Song, keeps the whole thing in place. Keeps it here in the shape of a blockade, keeps their would-be invaders from being able to invade. An ingenious little thing inspired by his time with the Brotherhood. Mairon himself would have simply arranged for it to fall down as destructively as possible. Large, immovable pieces, crushing ground and enemies alike.

Very aggressively Melkor-like, if he's honest with himself.

This is much better.

"How.. how will we get through?" Tûlgith cranes his neck back, trying to take in the entirety of the pile of stone without much success.

"We move it. I move it. Perhaps." He taps his fingers against the stone. The lace-metal finger-guards still fit, though they're on the smaller side. A bit of thinning and stretching of the metal fixed that. "Depending."

"..Depending on what?"

"On how the King responds to our request for a treaty. That is what we sent Alkhâr out for."

"Couldn't we.. couldn't we go out the same way he did?" Tûlgith looks to one of the Orcish guards that had been stationed on the Gate. "Aren't the side tunnels big enough?"

"Was, urzha," the Orc says in passable Black Speech. "Wall collapses, blocks end of tunnel. No room for cart. No room for carriage. One man, one horse. No more."

Tûlgith looks back at Mairon, who shrugs.

"We did not dig," the Orc continues. She gestures to the stone with the tip of her spear, runes glowing faint on the rock and metal. "We see it, dushûrzu. We know. Not to touch."

That's good. Going through the trouble of teaching the Orcs to recognize runes and spellwork paid off after all. Elsewise they might have tried to dislodge something, and taken the entire thing down with them.

It's a shame they don't pick up Black Speech as well as he'd hoped. Something about it's source, perhaps, conflicts with theirs... but the few that do manage it have become accomplished witches and sorcerers themselves. So he has hope for the future, that someone else will be able to upkeep the Gate even when he isn't here.

For now, it's his job.

«Mairon,» Alkhâr says, distant and yearning. «They said they will meet with us.»

«They?»

«Ar-Pharazôn will not meet with you alone,» the wraith clarifies. Mairon's brow furrows. «He will meet only with his council present.»

«He is cautious,» Mairon muses. «Almost surprisingly, given how readily he marched up to our Gates and tore it down.»

«...Shall I refuse?»

«We have no reason to... Do they seem receptive to the idea of it?»

He receives a series of brief images; a man, tall, in a dun-coloured cloak. On his brow is a winged headpiece, a crown, holding back a full head of dark bushy hair. He wears no braids, unlike Alkhâr, though his companion has several. His face is unclear; Alkhâr is not close enough to see the details, and it would be unwise to get closer.

In the distance, Mairon can just barely make out a number of other figures. Soldiers, perhaps. Many of them have something in their hands, something bright, something gleaming. The rasp of swords being drawn is like music to his ears.

«...Not very.» Which is not unexpected. «Tell them I accept. The Mordor delegation will treat with his council.»

«As you wish, master.»

Mairon opens his eyes. The runes are still glowing beneath his fingertips, dimmed though they are from under the shroud he wears over his face.

Turning away from the wall of rubble, he sees the Orc guard kneeling with her head lowered, and Tûlgith in the same manner next to her. Hearing movement, Tûlgith looks up and flies to his feet. The guard is a few beats slower to rise.

Mairon gives him a curious look. "Why were you kneeling?"

"I- I don't... she did it first." Tûlgith indicates the guard with a jerk of his shoulder. "It felt.. weird, being the only one standing."

"We don't look at Master when he Communes." The Orc presses three fingers to the brow of her helm, and then to the center of her breastplate. "Bad luck."

"..Why not just look away, then?"

"Rude," she grunts. "Ignoring Master, very rude."

"Oooh.." Tûlgith looks he's just made some sort of revelation.

Maybe Mairon should have sent him to liaise with the Orcs instead, rather than currying favour with the Khalwadîn tribes.

"Is the escort ready for us?" he asks.

"Ready, Master. Best guards for you."

"Good. Back onto the carriage, Tûlgith." The young man climbs back into the driver seat. With Alkhâr gone, he'll have to handle the horses. They're well-trained, and he should have learned enough of it to get them there in one piece."Since Pharazôn appears to be accepting the prospecting of a meeting, we will use the tunnel and deal with the blockage when we get there."

If he hadn't, Mairon would have had to use a show of force to convince him otherwise. All the better; the Song tires him more now than it did in the past, especially if he were to employ it at such a large scale. Just as it would anyone else. No crudely trained army would be enough to supplement his Singing, and his Priests have better things to do.

Mairon dusts himself off and gets into the carriage as well, rearranging the veil around him once he's settled.

"All set?" He hears an affirmative from both Tûlgith and their guard retinue. "Then off we go. We've a King to impress and drive away."

 


 

Of our Maker it is said that he was great and strong. But the strength of one may still be overcome by the strength of many, and it is in this way that the Valar suppressed Melkor, as they suppressed Aulë, the Smith.

Our Maker chafed at the control they exacted over him, over others. Denied the fate they decided for him and for others. The greatest of them, his brother, Manwë, devised with the Valar a way to flaunt their greatness.

They made the Elves. They made them beautiful, fair, perfect. They made them undying, unaging, unyielding. And in their cruelty they made their creations unending, to remain with this world so long as it exists. In life or in death.

They made the Elves theirs. Forever.

- Gunith, Tales from Mehrad 12