Gandalf, newly returned from his counsels with the rulers of Elven and Dwarven kingdoms in the north, looked on his fellow with dismay. “Lord Eärnur went where?” he demanded.
Saruman felt exasperated by the dullness of the Grey Wizard. “He went to answer the challenge offered him by the Captain of the Ringwraiths,” he repeated.
“And you simply allowed him to go?” Gandalf’s voice was filled with incredulity.
“And how am I to stop him? Am I his keeper? Has he not been King of Gondor now for seven years? Is he not the master of his own counsels?”
“Perhaps he is, but he is also foolhardy, and has left no heir, either of his body or declared! You simply allowed him to leave to face Angmar, knowing the tale of his discomfiture before the gates of Fornost, knowing he will do anything to prove himself unafraid of the Witch-king? You know the way to the gates of Minas Ithil as well as I—it will be nothing for an ambush to be laid----“
“You think that Angmar has so little honor?” interrupted Saruman.
“I know he has so little honor!” roared Gandalf. “And had you seen and heard what he did within Arnor----“
The White Wizard drew himself up straight and tall, towering over his furious companion. “And what is Arnor now, other than a name in the histories of frail Men?” he demanded in his own turn. “Sometimes, friend, it seems nothing pleases you. When Eärnur delayed the sailing of his fleet to make certain that he took more than enough forces to see to the defeat of Angmar’s armies, then you whined about how much care he took. Now you insist he takes too little care, and act as if it were somehow my fault!”
“We were sent to offer the folk of Middle Earth guidance and wisdom,” Gandalf began, moderating his tone with obvious care. Saruman, however, again cut him off.
“And how often to they listen to us? We were not given sufficient authority to make certain they heed our wisdom, after all! Indeed, if I recall correctly that is why we took such forms as we did—that we not overwhelm them with our authority. Well, I have no stomach for seeking to wheedle with those with little understanding or appreciation for the consequences of their actions and choices. If the King of Gondor is such a fool, then I say let him live with the fruit of his decisions.”
And with that, the White Wizard turned and swept out of the room and out of the house, leaving Gandalf watching after him with increased consternation. At last he walked out upon the balcony at the back of the house in which the two commonly dwelt when within the White City, looking down. Long he stood there, hoping against hope that Saruman would return. But an hour before sunset he saw a rider heading east across the Pelennor from the great Gate of the city, and knew that Saruman was gone from Minas Anor, now called Minas Tirith. He was heading toward the ruins of Osgiliath, where he would ride across the great bridge and probably turn north and then east again toward his frequent haunts beyond Rhûn.
“Why, brother, did you not even try to stop him?” he muttered as he saw his fellow drawing further and further away. “Arnor is no more, and Aranarth remains a king without a kingdom to rule. Would you see Gondor go the other way, and become a realm with no king?”
But there was none to answer, and at last he shook himself. He had no horse this time, but perhaps if he were fortunate the Steward Mardil would allow him to borrow a mount from the stables in the Sixth Circle so he could perhaps seek to overtake Eärnur and coax him to turn back….
Fifteen Men, all competent Rangers, followed Gandalf. But no signs of the King or his small escort could they find, not once they passed the Crossroads. Those who’d guarded the way there spoke of an eerie silence from the road to the captured city of Isildur, which they now referred to as Minas Morgul rather than Minas Ithil, now that the Nazgûl had taken it and Angmar had joined them.
No enemy did they see as they rode, although all were certain that they were watched.
“I do not understand it,” murmured a returning scout, keeping his voice low as if the rocks themselves might be seeking to hear what news he carried. “Not one trace of even the least of orcs have we seen. Since the wraiths took the city, this way has been teeming with the creatures, and even when we do not see them we are aware they are above us and about us. There are always rocks pushed off the heights above us, or crows in the daytime and bats at night, shadowing our movements, keeping an eye upon us. But now all is strangely silent. I like it not!”
Gandalf had to agree.
They rode to the bridge over the river, and paused. “We have not been allowed to come so far since the city fell to the wraiths,” said the Captain, then he blanched as he looked upon what had been the fair Tower of the Rising Moon.
The glowing white of the city was now somehow tainted. Where once it shone with the light of the moon for which it had been named, now it seemed to merely capture what light there was, and the gleam of its walls was dampened, somehow sickly. No longer did living trees rise from the parks within the upper levels, and even the vale before the place was apparently sickening and dying. The great poplars that had served to break the wind were all apparently dead or fallen, with many limbs broken away or twisted unrecognizably. As for the water under the bridge—it was no longer pure and sparkling, but grey and putrid in color.
“It is like looking to see the face of the woman you love, and instead seeing only her skull,” whispered one of the Men, and Gandalf found he could appreciate the sentiment.
The city of Minas Ithil had been left almost empty for many years now, barely protected by a small, often harried garrison of Men who had come to see themselves as abandoned by the rest of Gondor. But still it had been beautiful, even stripped of its populace and dignity as the former habitation of one of Gondor’s two founding Kings.
“It is as if they have stripped it of its skin,” one of the older soldiers said, looking at the stained, sickly walls.
But of the King and his escort they found no sign.
The railings of the bridge had been broken down, and the statues of Isildur and Anárion that had ever guarded it were now headless and armless, the sword and battleaxe on which each had leaned hammered into shards.
“There is not even a rat!” muttered the oldest of the soldiers.
No birds roosted in the bare limbs of the trees, and no frogs croaked in the meads beneath them.
A younger soldier, shivering, whispered, “It is as if dead eyes were upon us! It is haunted!”
Another answered him, “Then you feel it, too?”
There was nothing to see, nothing to tell them the fate of the King or his companions. At last they turned to go back.
But although all were aware now of the watch being kept on them, they saw and heard nothing. “We cannot even say where it was he might have been ambushed!” fumed the Captain.
It was as they passed a cutting in the rock that, if Gandalf remembered rightly, had once led upwards toward the pass higher in the Ephel Dúath, that he paused, troubled. Beyond the cutting the stone was crumbled. He looked upwards. There was another tower on the inner boundary of the mountains, reachable by this path; except it appeared that the pass was no longer open. “Something has smote the stair that once rose here,” he noted. “The road itself is unmarked, but not the mountainside.”
The Captain nodded, but said nothing. Finally they rode away, not certain what to think. Only as they left the cleft behind them and could see the statue of the King at the Crossroads did they hear anything—and even then no one could say for certain precisely what they heard. Only Gandalf in his heart was certain that they’d just been honored to hear the laughter of the Witch-king of Angmar.
Deeply had the slaves of the wraiths dug below the keep of Minas Ithil. Its libraries were long gone, carried first to Osgiliath and then to Minas Tirith, where what remained had swelled the store of wisdom kept by the heirs of Meneldil. The same had happened with the treasuries, and even much of the statuary of the city had been hauled elsewhere in the centuries since all realized that Isildur’s sons would never return to the city their father had built.
Too few had lived to return here of those who’d followed Elendil and his sons to the Dagorlad. And of those few, too few remained as time dragged on and no lord of the land would agree to live so close to the memory of Sauron.
There were a few cells within the levels below the Citadel, but the true prison for the place had been in the lower levels of the city. Now the orcs and nameless creatures who might once have been Men and who slaved alongside them scoured the hidden holes and crannies, carving out noisome pits and fitting out torture chambers.
Here the party that had come from Minas Tirith was brought, helpless prisoners. And here the one who pretended to the throne of Gondor was forced to watch as, slowly, one by one, three of his Men were tortured and killed before his face.
“He is strong,” muttered the chief of the wraiths’ torturers as he came before the former lord of Angmar to make his report. “He has failed to break, no matter what we have done to him or to his servants.”
The Witch-king made a soft hissing, and then a guttural noise horrible to hear. “I will see him myself,” he said at last, and rose, casting about himself the black robe that gave him sufficient shape to be perceived by mere mortals.
The chamber in which Eärnur was chained to the wall was dank, lit by a single, smoking torch whose red light flickered feebly upon the walls stained black with the blood of what victims the wraiths and their lackeys had already drained there. The pretender sagged in his chains; the bands about his wrists, new when put upon him, were already marred by the Man’s attempts to free himself during those times he was left unwatched. His breath was harsh, ragged. His skin was pale from lack of sunlight, and dry from the prisoner having been denied sufficient water. His eyes were deeply sunken and his mouth slack, the former dry and reddened by the strain to see in the feeble light and the misery of his captivity, the latter working to moisten itself from too little saliva. Dried blood had left trails down his chin and chest from where he’d bitten his lips repeatedly at the horrors he’d been forced to watch.
His remaining men had been removed to other cells, and now he knew abject solitude. He looked up as the Witch-king entered, and the wraith recognized relief in the shadowed eyes of the Man. And now he knew, at last, how to break him.
“Unbind him, and place him alone in a cell. Let him have light and water and sufficient food for each meal. But do not speak with him, nor show your faces,” he directed his servants. “We will leave him to his own company for a time.”
Within a matter of days the Man was raving; within two weeks he was catatonic.
But the Witch-king had overestimated the Man’s strength—within four weeks the Man was dead.
No one within Gondor held sufficient of the blood of Anárion or Elendil to put himself forward to claim the Winged Crown and the throne of Gondor. None questioned Mardil’s right to rule in place of the King until such a time as the King might come again.
Gandalf wept over the situation, and sent up silent prayers for the repose of the King’s spirit.
He rode south to consult with the Prince of Númenor vi Ennorath, to suggest that perhaps he might put himself forward to take the Winged Crown and Gondor’s throne. Imrazôr greeted him with solemn dignity and drew him to a courtyard at the back of the keep where the view was out toward the Sundering Sea. “It is the favorite place within the grounds of the house for my lady, where she appears to find the greatest comfort,” the Man explained as they walked slowly through the building to the rear gardens.
“Then you have married since I was here in the south of Gondor a few years back?” asked Gandalf.
“I heard that you visited my city and Edhellond while I was out in the mountains hunting with my men,” Imrazôr said. “I am sorry I could not be here then to entertain you as you deserve, Mithrandir. But we had to learn just what disturbances were occurring within the Ered Nimrais.
“Yes, I have since married, although,” his expression became more defensive, “not all appear to accept my marriage as perhaps proper. I will tell you this—I found my bride there, amidst the mountains. She had been forced to fight for her life against orcs, and she had apparently seen many she loved greatly slain cruelly. I found her atop a steep cliff over which at least one appears to have fallen to death, although she has never told me who it was who died there, or what that one meant to her. A stream fell over the cliff in a narrow falls, and the body of whoever fell was lost in the pool below. We searched it, my men and I, seeking for the body of the fallen that we might see it properly interred, but it was in vain.”
The Wizard paused, realizing that whomsoever Imrazôr had married was most likely one of Nimrodel’s companions, and perhaps a member of her direct household, maybe even one of her handmaidens. He gave a guarded nod, and resumed following the Man out into the rear courtyard, unsurprised to realize he recognized the elleth who sat there, her hands busied with a spindle and a basket of wool. He approached her, smiling gently into eyes that had seen at last the depth of sorrows that Elves might know in this marred world. “Mithrellas? It is good to know that you are here, and have found safety at the side of one who loves you.”
Imrazôr appeared surprised to realize that the Wizard recognized his wife. “Ah, my beloved one, I rejoice that one has come who appears to recognize and honor you,” he said to her in soft tones as he knelt by her.
“Yes,” she said, her voice not as sweet as Gandalf remembered it. “Mithrandir—it is good to see you again.”
Yes, she had been nearly broken by what she’d experienced within the embrace of the White Mountains. “A long way it is from your home to the north, my lady,” Gandalf said. “And I am told that now you have accepted a home here, in Prince Imrazôr’s house, and as his wife? I believe your lord and lady would rejoice to know of your happiness here.”
Her face paled at the direct reminder of her loss. “You think so, Mithrandir? I must suppose it would be so.” She attempted a smile that Gandalf realized her husband took at face value. She rose, and he realized with some shock that she was pregnant. “I must see to it that a room is readied for your use, that you be properly honored in keeping with your station. If you will excuse me.” She gave a partial curtsey, and lifting her basket went into the house once more.
A short time later Gandalf and Imrazôr sat together within what Imrazôr used as his office, a tray with a bottle and two goblets set between them by the Prince’s aide and a stand of candles alight above the hearth.
“Then, you knew her before,” Imrazôr said, focusing his eyes on the wine he was pouring out for the two of them.
“Yes, I saw her on occasion in her Lady’s company,” Gandalf agreed. “She was the chief of the handmaidens to the Lady Nimrodel, late of Lothlórien. Long has Lord Amroth, Nimrodel’s beloved, been here in the south, overseeing the building and outfitting of the ship on which they and their households were intended to sail to Valinor. He recently sent word that the ship was finished, and called his lady to join him. She never made it alive out of the Ered Nimrais.” He accepted the goblet offered him and took a sip. “Mithrellas has not told you of the journey?”
“She has never told me aught of what happened there in the mountains,” the Man answered him, his voice sad. “She will not speak of from whence she came, or why they traveled over the pass, or what became of any she traveled alongside. It was weeks after she came here ere she would speak at all, in fact. Her grief is very great, and seems to stay with her in spite of all done to give her comfort by me or mine. I had to coax her to eat, and my maidservants had to all but carry her to bathe, and for weeks must change her clothes as a girlchild would treat her poppet. At last she trusted me with her name, but when asked who it was who fell over the cliff into the pool below would go silent and still again, as if seeing over and over again what she beheld as that one fell.”
“I see. It was her beloved mistress whom she saw fall, and I am assured that the Lady Nimrodel is indeed dead. There were many close to Nimrodel and Amroth who came south intending to take ship with them to the Undying Lands, and very few survived the many attacks they knew from orcs and Rhûnim once they came into the pass that had been chosen for them to traverse. Again and again they were assaulted, and it is a wonder that any survived.”
He sipped again at the wine, glad for the warmth it appeared to give him. At last he continued, “Those few we could save returned to their own land with word of what happened, and will soon arrive in greater force to take the other ship lying ready now in Edhellond. Few of the Elves of Middle Earth who have children will agree to remain within the Mortal Lands to see evil again rise to destroy all they hold dear. There will be few if any children born now to the Eldar of the Hitherlands, and their numbers shall ever dwindle from this day.”
Imrazôr gave a single nod of recognition of the import of Gandalf’s words. “And perhaps—perhaps she will wish to go with them?” he asked in low tones.
“I do not believe she will, or not at this time. But how was it she came to agree to marry you?”
The Man shook his head. “It was a few months after I brought her here. Some of my people began to speak against her. It was said that the lord of those who had sailed from Edhellond as the storm hit the coastline fell from his ship and was lost, and the people grieved and wondered at the word of such a thing happening. But many of my people fear and distrust the Elves of Edhellond, who after all have little commerce with other races. The rumor was rife among the people of the city that the Elves are accurst, and there were some who would have seen her driven forth, hoping that by forcing her to leave she would take whatever ill fortune is believed to be attached to the Elves with her and so spare the people I rule.
“I could not allow them to do that, and at last I besought her to wed me and so take upon herself my protection as her husband. She loves me as she can, and I know that it is not with the depth of her heart as she is capable of doing. But she said that there is no place for her in the land from whence she came, and no other place she feels she could turn to, not at this time. So, she agreed, and we wed at midwinter.
“Few seem to remember now that she is not a woman from among Men, or at least none speak aloud of it. All are now respectful of her as is right toward she who is now my wife, and now that she had quickened all appear most hopeful and speak even of how blessed my lineage will be, with so fair a mother for my children.”
Gandalf felt relief at what the Man told him. “I am glad that she recognizes the love you hold for her, my lord, and that she responds to it. She has a faithful heart, and will never willingly seek to cause you hurt, particularly as she realizes how deeply you love her. But I do not believe that all will be easy for you, as you appear to realize already. The heart of an Elf is not easily won, for their love is intended to last unto the ending of this world. I will tell you this—she once loved another who could not return her love, and knowing how that one’s heart was disposed she was willing to know that grief. That she has allowed you to worship her with your body is a surprisingly hopeful thing, and even more so that she has conceived a child by you. But as you approach the ending of your days it will become increasingly difficult for her, for Elves do not live by the cycles of birth, life, and death known by Men, and to think that you must perforce go where she cannot follow will be a great grief for her. It will not be that she truly will cease to love you. Nay, she will only need to distance herself from your aging and movement toward what lies beyond the Circles of Arda, for she will not be able to follow you there, I fear. Not for her the choice of Lúthien. Her lineage is not great enough to accept that.”
“I stand forewarned,” Imrazôr sighed. “All I can do, I suppose, is to reassure her as I can that I yet love her, and will never cease to do so, but that I will not seek to hold her when at last her heart tells her it is time to leave me. I would do such a thing anyway were she a mortal and to die before me. I must think there is but little difference in the end.”
Later that evening Gandalf told the full household of what had been found by those warriors who followed Nimrodel’s party into the pass, and what he’d further learned of the fate of Amroth, and that they were believed to have been reunited when the waters that bore Nimrodel reached the open Sea.
After word came that the greater ship that carried many Elven families West had sailed from Edhellond, the story that Mithrandir had told to Imrazôr’s family was told abroad throughout the city of Númenor vi Ennorath. In time, after Imrazor’s son Galador was born, the people, in honor of the woman their lord Prince had married, came to call their city Dol Amroth, in memory of the one it was whispered she might once have loved. Certainly as long as she dwelt among them, the Lady Mithrellas never told them any differently.
But Imrazôr refused ever to make himself King of Gondor. It was enough for him to remain Prince of the Southern Fiefdoms, and he publicly pledged his oath to the Ruling Steward until such time as the rightful King might return to take the Winged Crown for himself. And his heirs ever echoed that oath.