Barad-dûr, 3261, Second Age
Outside, the wind wailed and nattered like a wounded soul, echoing Dolgu’s increasing disquiet as he climbed the winding stairway of Barad-dûr. This audience with His Excellency would not go well—of that he was sure. But there was no one else that he could force to convey this news, not for all the whips in Middle-earth. And so, as the Chief Nazgûl, highest in rank, the task fell upon him. He consoled himself that at least if his dreadful Master finally finished killing him tonight, it would come as a welcome relief.
A blast of cold wind coming through a vent forced grit into the wrappings about his face. The sensation would have been unpleasant if he could feel it, but long ago he had ceased noticing mundane physical discomforts. That had proved useful on endless campaigns. But the off side was that he could not feel pleasure either. The scent of fresh bread, the taste of sweet wine, or the comfort of a warm body pressed close, all that he’d enjoyed long ago, were denied him. He might as well be dead. But fear and its twin sons, anger and hate, those he could feel. It was as if other sensations had been stripped, leaving only those distilled into their perfect and consuming essence. He had learned to direct that purity of emotion into a deadly weapon. When the messenger had arrived and bowed before him, stuttering out the evil tidings, Dolgu had turned his wrath upon him, and the pitiful creature had slain himself with his own hand. The blood was still splashed upon Dolgu’s boots.
He paused at the wide landing at the top of the stair and contemplated the iron-bound door with its hideously leering gargoyles. One of them hissed and he felt the resistance of an unseen barrier. His Master trusted very few, even of his own servants. Dolgu’s lips quirked as another emotion surfaced—pride. He was the first and foremost in his Master’s affections, such as they were. He shouldn’t forget that Tar-Mairon needed him. Pausing, he squared his shoulders, letting the black robes settle about his tall form, and then sent out his inquiry. In response came the cold thread of his Master’s thoughts, “Dolgu, my stalwart, you are here. Enter.”
Slowly the doors ground back on their hinges and Dolgu came into a large room, open on one side. Overhead, a vaulted ceiling disappeared into the gloom. The room faced west, framed by a portico that looked directly at the smoking hell of Mount Orodruin. An eruption oozed like pus down the mountain’s flank, illuminating the room in terrible, crimson splendor.
This was the audience chamber with its immense stone chair carved of black basalt. It was rife with his Master’s power, as overwhelming as that of the fiery mountain, beating full onto his consciousness. But Tar-Mairon wasn’t here.
Heavy wooden doors at the other end of the room opened for him. He passed under the curved archway and went through the next room, which was fearsomely warm from a roaring fire on the hearth. There were many heavy wooden tables crammed with equipment: bubbling pots and beakers of liquids colored blue and red and green, crucibles and tongs. Hanging in rows along the wall were all sorts of instruments of the smith’s trade: knives, hammers, picks, pliers, chisels, files. A bellows and a small forge were set in one end of the fireplace. There were man-sized models of engines of war—including a strange device that resembled a catapult. It was a new design. Dolgu could see that. He paused, touching it in reverence. His master’s intellect never ceased to amaze him. In the next room were shelves lined with jars of herbs and strange pickled creatures, and all manner of bizarre stuffed animals, dried insects and bats pinned to the walls, and cages full of living horrors that scurried about and peered at him with malevolent red eyes. Faintly, he could smell rotten flesh.
“In the maproom, Dolgu,” the voice spoke in his head.
He passed through several more chambers, each crammed with specimens of his Master’s ferocious desire for knowledge. The maproom had shelf upon shelf of books from floor to ceiling. There were scrolls, rolled maps, and drawings everywhere, sprawled open on the divan, on tables, and the polished stone floor. Here also, a small fire burned in a hearth. In the center of the room a large map was unfurled on a table, its sides weighted down with glistening globes of obsidian. It was very detailed, drawn in black and red ink, and covered with markers signifying the location of his Master’s and opponent’s forces—both the type and number. The Númenóreans were indicated by tiny ships docked in the vicinity of Umbar. Dolgu noted briefly that the markers were wrong.
Handsomely robed in black and red silk, his Master sat in a plush, wing-backed chair, his legs drawn up under him. At his feet lay the huge wolf, Ráca, who growled slightly at Dolgu’s approach. Tar-Mairon held an enameled goblet in one hand and was cradling his chin in the other. His dark silver-streaked hair was plaited into a thick braid that hung over his shoulder. The flickering firelight etched his gaunt face in harsh angles. On his brow sat an intricate gold circlet with a large ruby in the center, a piece that Tar-Mairon had wrought himself. He was looking with his characteristic intensity at a gnome who was bent over the map, his strategist, Gron.
With a languid rise of the cup, Tar-Mairon gestured towards the map. “It is not certain, Gron. As yet our force is not large enough, nor sufficiently armed, and the eastern plains of Umbar offer little cover.”
“Excellency, is there not another battalion coming from Khand?” Gron said in his strange, creaking voice.
“Yes, by my summons,” the Master said. “Their king has pledged an increase of one thousand. Put a marker there.” His voice had the purring undercurrent of a great panther. The gnome inclined his knobbed head, pushed his spectacles up his long nose, and hastened to the bin to select a blue marker, which he put in place.
“Not there. Already, they should be at the far shores of Lake Nûrnen,” Tar-Mairon said and with a flip of his finger, the marker slid further up the map. “They will add to the forces within Mordor.”
Gron stroked his chin. “If we wait for the Dúnedain to march inland, we should have enough to contain them at Arzog’s Pass, just barely.”
Although Dolgu knew his Master was aware of him, it wasn’t until then that Tar-Mairon acknowledged his presence. He smiled charmingly, raised a clawed finger, and beckoned Dolgu close. The gold band about his middle finger glowed like fire. For a moment, Dolgu’s head was filled with its whispers. He had to shake them clear. His own ring grew heavy on his finger.
He bowed low. “My Lord.”
“Dolgu, freshly come from the fences, I’ve been expecting you. Do you want some wine after your journey?” He held up his cup. “It is quite good—a new shipment from Dorwinion. Ah, but I forget, you have no taste for such things.”
Dolgu shook his head. “No wine, my Lord.”
“So then, my pet, you bring news.” Tar-Mairon’s eyes lit up hungrily.
“I do. Recent spies have brought further intelligence of Ar-Pharazôn’s forces.”
Tar-Mairon rose from the chair, tall and gaunt, silk rustling. Behind him, his shadow spread out on the wall like a vast wingéd thing.
The Ring whispered.
Tar-Mairon said, “I notice you have come yourself. What happened to the messenger?”
Dolgu gestured at the blood on his boots. Tar-Mairon frowned. “You know I desire to hear directly from the source,” he said. His fierce golden eyes pierced through all Dolgu’s wards and wrappings to see HIM as if his heart were pounding naked outside his chest. Involuntarily, Dolgu clutched his robe.
“I interrogated him completely and have it all exact.” Dolgu tapped his temple. “My Lord . . . ” He steeled himself. There was no sweetening this news. “It appears that the intelligence from Númenor underestimated the size of the force.”
Tar-Mairon’s frown deepened. “By how much?”
Dolgu hesitated and suddenly felt his forehead throb. “By a goodly amount, My Lord.”
“By . . . how. . . much?”
That rumbling note shook Dolgu to his core. It took all his control not to cower down like some kicked dog. “By a factor of . . . two, at least.”
“Two. . . ” Tar-Mairon’s voice rose. “By two? There are forty thousand troops disembarking on the shores of Middle-earth?”
“That was one estimate. The ravens reported fifty thousand, but they do not always count well enough from the air.”
“Oh, they count well enough! Far better than those sniveling men. Fifty thousand! How could we have been so off? For what are we paying those fools on Númenor?”
“It would seem that Ar-Pharazôn, wary of spies, built a goodly portion of his force in secret on the southern coast of Hyarrostar. The two forces joined en route. The messenger reported that when they appeared off the coast of Umbar, the array of sails, red and golden, was so vast that it spanned the horizon, north to south, terrifying the Corsairs who had sworn fealty to you. They have fled, offering no resistance. In addition, the King has gathered vassals from the coasts. It is said to be the greatest military force ever assembled. They have already disembarked and are marching inland—as we speak.”
“As we speak,” muttered His Excellency. “Then there is little time. One of our spies must have betrayed us to Ar-Pharazôn.”
“He has plenty of gold with which to buy affection,” Dolgu replied. He swallowed. “My Lord, Ar-Pharazôn is demanding your surrender. He sends heralds before him, calling for you to come forth from Barad-dûr.”
“What?” Tar-Mairon looked shocked. He began striding about the room. “I should surrender without fighting a single battle? What massive arrogance!” He hurled his cup against the wall where it hit with a vicious clang and a slapping splash. The gnome hastened to pick it up and then hid under the table. His Excellency wheeled upon Dolgu. “You were charged with buying affections and, by whatever means, making sure the loyalties stuck! You! I trusted you. How could you have failed me so thoroughly?”
Stung by the rebuke, Dolgu tried to keep his voice steady. “My Lord, do you not recall that I warned we may have been vastly underestimating Ar-Pharazôn’s forces? But then you trusted the word of that Corsair from . . .”
“Shut it,” Tar-Mairon thundered. He suddenly raised his hands and Dolgu found himself flying backwards and then pinned against the wall like one of his Master’s insects. Blue lightning writhed about him and he found that he could feel pain after all. “Never again am I trusting to treacherous tarks,” Tar-Mairon railed. He paced, pulling at his hair. “Gron, get out here! I want to see if this situation can be salvaged.”
Shaking like leaves in a tempest, the gnome emerged from under the table, the goblet held out in front of him as if to ward off his Master’s wrath. Tar-Mairon scooped a handful of little silver markers from the bin and flung them at him. “Now, put in place an additional thirty thousand disembarking at Umbar and marching inland like a plague of ants. How would you stop them?”
“I . . . My Lord. As you well know the plan was to catch them in a pincer movement: The Easterlings, in effect six thousands coming through the Dagorlad; the forces from Khand, one thousand knights, very fierce in battle; then those Hillmen from the north, maybe five thousands. The Corsairs were to harry them from the sea. Their fleet was charged with burning the Númenórean’s ships at dock and thereby cutting off their retreat, and now we hear they have departed. Unfortunate development. There are still three thousand uruks arrayed on the east side of the Ephel Dúath we can push forward. If you empty your lands of those you had reserved to guard the fences of Mordor, we have . . .” he paused and shook his head, “still only five thousand more, making a total of twenty thousands. And I doubt we can move those uruks quickly enough. Perhaps if King Hybernan’s forces coming up from Haradwaith join. . . ”
In agitation, Tar-Mairon slammed both hands down on the map. “We don’t have enough time. Do you not recall that Khamûl sent word that the Haradrim have been . . . difficult to convince to our banner? My Lorcastrîn have not been able to influence Hybernan’s nephew Aksan, and he’s the real power among them. Skinflaying traitors! After all I’ve done for them! And without the Haradrim, the pincer plan will be overwhelmed with the force Ar-Pharazôn can bring to bear.”
Gron shook his head as he stared at the map. “Can we not get the new engines of war ready in time, Master? He waved a long-fingered hand at the pieces on the map. “I have estimated one throw could take out twenty knights at once.”
“The latest design is still untested in battle and we have only the two half-size prototypes,” Tar-Mairon said, his voice rising in frustration. “And the trainer of the hill trolls said they were not yet trustworthy enough to wield them. Not surprising since they have brains the size of a weasel’s good intentions! I told Melkor that was a design flaw but he cared only for breeding brute force. It comes down to this: fifty thousand against twenty thousand. We could throw all our troops to the last snaga at them and the numbers would still best us!”
“Then, I counsel retreat, my Lord. Bring all the forces within Mordor. The walls are impregnable.”
“Have you nothing better, Strategist?” Tar-Mairon sneered. “Our stores wouldn’t last six months feeding an army of that size. They could be years at siege with continued supplies from the land around, especially if Gil-galad gets off his high horse and decides to come to Ar-Pharazôn’s aid. Curse the elves! In any event, that is hardly the mien of the King of Middle-earth, to hide behind walls like a craven. For years I have been setting this in motion. Years of planning and expense, all tossed in the slop bucket! By Melkor’s chains, I despise men, and the Númenóreans most of all! I cannot stomach another defeat at their hands!”
“If we negotiate a truce, perhaps they will leave?” Gron ventured. “Ar-Pharazôn must see the wisdom in withdrawal as he won’t want to lose most of . . .”
A rising wind appeared around Tar-Mairon that began sweeping up small objects in the room until there was a veritable maelstrom. Gron grabbed a heavy metal candelabra as his legs flew up in the air. “Master . . .” he wailed.
Dolgu felt his Master’s wrath like knives cutting his undead flesh. He hated him so thoroughly it felt like love. Hardly able to move from his position pinned against the wall, he hissed through lips drawn up in a rictus of pain, “Your Excellency, you know that my loyalty to you is absolute. I will drive your forces from behind. Dread shall make them invincible. They shall throw themselves upon the enemy and vanquish them. I swear it!” The final words were wrung through a howl of anguish.
But Tar-Mairon was now fully possessed by the tantrum. Dolgu had only seen the like a handful of times as usually his Master held himself in tight control. The shadow grew, absorbing the light. Books and candles and maps flew in ever-tightening circles. The wolf ran howling into the other room as His Excellency’s wings appeared, tearing through his robes, and, with a shriek, he soared upward into the gloom. By Utumno, Dolgu loathed it when Tar-Mairon pulled that stunt.
“Excellency,” Gron cried above the tumult, “When military force is insufficient, I counsel . . .” his voice rose into a wail, “I counsel . . . guile!” At that moment the gale plucked him from the candelabra and smacked him into the wall.
There was a sudden calm. With a ping and a thud, objects rained out of the air. Both Dolgu and Gron slid down the wall, landing unceremoniously on the floor. They glanced at one another. Gron rolled his eyes.
Tar-Mairon had reappeared in his human form. With an air of controlled excitement, he strolled about the confused debris of the room, thoughtfully tapping his lips with one finger. The Ring was whispering.
“Guile,” Tar-Mairon repeated. “Of course. Treachery, deceit, the Fallback Plan.”
With a painful moan, Gron picked himself up. He rubbed the back of his head. “Yes, Excellency. You could offer to surrender. We could lure Ar-Pharazôn here. Set a trap for him.”
“I have a better idea,” Tar-Mairon said in a voice musical with anticipation. “Much better. A tactic that will accomplish what I wish most efficiently without the loss of so many resources. How could I not have seen it before?” He approached Dolgu, reached down and took his arm, helping him to his feet. “Are you hurt?”
“Pain is a temporary inconvenience,” Dolgu replied. He suppressed a shudder at his Master’s touch.
“My most faithful.” Tar-Mairon fussed with the hood folded about Dolgu’s shoulders. “Come and speak with me. I regret my lapse of . . . control. You forgive me, do you not?” He cupped Dolgu’s chin in his hand. “Remember when you first came to me in Umbar?” Again, his voice had taken on the purring undercurrent. Warmth crept like an ache into Dolgu’s body. He did not want to remember.
Tar-Mairon released him, picked a book out of his chair, and tossed it to the side. He sank into the seat. “Gron, send for some more wine . . . and food. I suspect we will have a long night. And summon some snaga to repair this room.”
Gron folded into a deep bow and made a hasty retreat.
“We have much to discuss,” Tar-Mairon said. “Much to plan and little time.”
“As ever, I am your servant,” Dolgu replied sullenly. His nerves seemed to be on fire.
“Tell me about Ar-Pharazôn, whom the elves call Tar-Calion.”
“What do you wish to know?”
“I need to know who he is and what he most desires.”
“What he most desires? What men have always desired—to be immortal, my Lord.” He did not add that the promise of immortality was what had ensnared him and that he had found the granting of his wish to be less than he had imagined. The band tightened about his finger.
“Of course, that’s a given,” Tar-Mairon said with a flip of his hand. “No doubt, he envies the elves. We both know there exist two factions on Númenor, the King’s Men, who voice dissatisfaction with the ban of the Valar, and the Elendili, the Faithful, who still believe the Valar have their best interests at heart. The fools! But of course our spies tell us within those factions are yet more—each looking to their own interests. It is good for us. Factions can be used against each other as diamond dust to diamonds.”
Dolgu nodded. “That is certain. There is much distrust between them. However, Ar-Pharazôn still has a powerful councilor and boyhood friend who is of the Elendili. That would be Amandil. He keeps the factions from open war with one another.”
“Ah yes. What sort of man is he?”
“Amandil? He is a great captain of men with an unsurpassed knowledge of ships and sailing. He commands loyalty and respect, even from Ar-Pharazôn.”
“I see. And Ar-Pharazôn, the Golden, does he command loyalty and respect?”
“Through fear and loyalty to the crown, yes, but not, I think, through love of his person. He is strong-minded and ruthless and desires power and wealth, which he has in large measure achieved through exploitation of your subjects. If he succeeds in taking over Middle-earth, then he will usurp your title, King of Men.”
Tar Mairon smirked. “For a time, perhaps, he shall believe that he has taken that title. Tell me then, how fares their trade?”
“Anadûnê is still mostly self-sufficient, but lacks silver and gold, which the king covets. They import all manner of luxuries, as well as grain for their growing population. Timber for ship-building is becoming scarce too, they say.”
“The desire for gold is a weakness certainly, even more so is the lack of sufficient bread. But I want to know his heart. Does he have children?”
“No, my Lord.”
“As I recall, he is married . . . to his cousin.”
“The beautiful Míriel. They say she was forced into the marriage.”
“Yes. Her father was Inziladûn, the Seer.”
“Inziladûn,” Dolgu grimaced. “He who named himself Tar-Palantir and revived the old ways. They say his daughter is like-minded, one of the Faithful. She was heir to the throne and had the support of the Faithful but Ar-Pharazôn has powerful allies and a forceful personality. He manipulated the situation, forced her hand in marriage, and seized the Sceptre to himself. My spies tell me that his relations with his Queen are understandably . . . troubled. There are no offspring, as yet.”
Tar-Mairon looked thoughtful. He absently twisted his ring, which protested softly. “Then above all, he wants heirs. Tell me, does he have any bastards?”
“Unknown. But it is unlikely.”
“How is that? A king of his power surely can have any woman he likes.”
“He could if he liked women,” Dolgu replied smugly. “But his preference seems to be for his own sex. He has a cadre of favorites, beautiful young men from Anadûnê and their subject lands. They are called his zirâmîkin—beloved boys, although there are others who give them names not quite so attractive.” He sweetened his voice. “I’m told he is quite dissipated, that there are extravagant, drunken feasts in which he watches them perform, and that at the end, he joins them. It is quite a scandal among those who know it.”
“That penchant would make it hard to get children, legitimate or not,” Tar-Mairon chuckled. “Yes, I believe I can see all the ways to Ar-Pharazôn’s heart. Simple enough.”
“I should warn you, my Lord, he is no simpleton, as was shown when he was able to hide the strength of his force.”
Tar-Mairon frowned. For a moment Dolgu feared the return of his terrible temper. Instead he rose from his seat.
“I think, Dolgu, my pet, that the time has come for the return of Annatar. Come with me.”
They went through a series of rooms into a large wardrobe. “It’s in here somewhere,” Tar-Mairon muttered. He removed a stack of wooden boxes and then cried, “Lo!” as he whisked a drape from a large mirror on clawed feet. He and Dolgu dragged it out into the lantern light. Standing before it, Tar-Mairon studied himself, turning one way and then the other. Then he disrobed so that he was clad only in a loincloth. He frowned. “This is a problem, Dolgu. My form has changed since the days of Annatar. I was unaware of how much.”
“Has it, my Lord?” Dolgu looked at his Master critically for the first time in many years. He saw golden eyes with elongated pupils, more feline than human, a face as gaunt as the rest of his body, skin milk-pale in hue, and lusterless greying hair. Though still tall, his Excellency was stooped slightly and his form had withered, like a leafless tree in winter. Indeed, he was not the alluring creature of dark hair, creamy skin, and supple body that had come to him long ago. It occurred to Dolgu that perhaps the Ring was consuming his Master as well.
The Ring murmured and Tar-Mairon’s face became alive with a thought. “Remember those elves taken in the siege of Ost-in-Edhil that I gave you for safekeeping? Are they still alive?”
“We have one left, my Lord. The others faded, but one has held on against all odds. He is in the dungeon below Barad-dûr.”
“Which one survived?”
“I do not recall ever knowing his name. He has red hair, unusual for a Noldo.”
Tar-Mairon smiled. “Not unusual for one of Fëanáro’s brood. Yes, I remember that one. I knew there would be a use for him someday that would defray the cost of feeding him. Bring him to me. And then find out what is keeping Gron.”
“Yes, my Lord.”