Ninth and Last
I did not take my Ring when He first offered.
I had no need of power: no neighbors seeking to wrest my kingdom from me. I had no need of magic to measure my days or rule my realm. I thought there was no need that human strength would not suffice. I was young, and strong; I had my land and there was time aplenty left for wife and heirs.
Then came the pain. The wasting-disease had hold of me, relentless. I went to Him, and asked for power, but the truth was that I did not wish to die.
A hundred years to find a mare too stupid to dash herself to death in my presence, and ten foals from her belly. Centuries to breed the herd, mares put to stallions chosen for increasing strength and intelligence. I stood at every birth and coaxed each trembling newborn with soft hushings, filling their noses with a charnel breath before they'd known the living air. A thousand years to create nine companions for our road.
How many leagues did they carry us, only to die within sight of our task's end? The River has taken what was left of my heart.
He sends me to cajole and coerce my kindred into sending mumakil and men to support the coming battles, so I go, as is my duty. The desert is bright, but soon I come to jungle and the ancient paths that are kept clear by constant effort. And in those hot, green shadows I ride and remember my home and the ivory stool which was my throne. I remember my sons, tall and strong, their bright smiles flashing white in dark handsome faces as they gathered to pay respects to the pale stranger who came to bring me my Ring.
Even mountains begin to fall, if you watch them for more than an Age of the world. The River has built new islands and channels from the silt that once was farmland and forest far upstream. The coastline bends in where cliffs have tumbled, and sand beaches have tucked themselves into sheltered corners that did not exist when my subjects fished along these shores. The fortress I built has crumpled, but I go on. Neither stone nor creature is left in these lands to compare what I am now to the Man that I once was.
Only the Sea remembers.
There are advantages to being a wraith, of course, which compensate for the inconveniences that are inevitable whenever He calls. Fortunately, most of my conclusions have been reached by observing the others, rather than personal experimentation. Some blades can harm us, and fire will burn, but when was that ever not true? We cannot walk through walls or people, although walking off of a cliff is not so much dangerous as distracting. Strictly speaking we are not discorporate, like ghosts, although we are invisible. Which is just as well, because how else could I turn the pages of my books?
To hear the Elves tell it, there was nothing that Men knew or built or wrought before some long-eared busybody deigned to intervene. There is no art they will concede us priority – not brewing or baking, not spinning nor weaving. According to them even the fruits of fields and orchards came to humankind at second-hand. Before the Elves we must have been naked and hungry, wandering in the dark alone. That is, if you believe the Elves.
There have been times when an Elf has strayed into our hands. Good times. There are lessons that I can teach to Elves, too.
This makes up for so much. The recalcitrant digestion, the incurable tendency to bite off the heads of the orcs who are meant to tend them, the molting feathers that stick to my robes; these are nothing compared to the view which I now command. The very mountains are like pebbles beneath me.
Even better it is to bend my mount and fall without fear, diving to soar over farmland and fortress, my own shadow sweeping across the upturned faces of the gathering armies.
I shriek out my delight, and watch the frightened ants scatter.
"Look at me! I'm flying!"
The Brown Lands they are now, but I remember how green they were when first my armies marched this road. There was plenty to spare, and some of the farmers were quick to accept our protection in exchange for what we needed. But the disobedience of the others, and the resistance fostered by the Elves was like a leaking wound, and little by little we were forced to slay the villagers and burn the fields, until the battles were fought on salted earth.
This time, we will do things better. This time we'll be careful not to burn the fields.
First and Greatest
It would be convenient if I knew precisely what it was that the Elf Lord said when foresight touched him at that battle long ago. The words came to me in various guise, and no battle yet has proved him wrong. Then again, I have battled only living Men since then. I've avoided Elves, and graveyards.
But as she stands before me, holding her sword as high as if the terror of my presence does not touch her, I must consider. Was there an adjective in that prophecy or not? Was it the noun that mattered? Capital M, or small?