THE OLD SHADOW
Tilion the Wayward was nearly through his great leap from the Mountains of Shadow to the White Mountains. He shone to his fullness, brightly illuminating the stone pathway, leading a Man on horseback to the great city. Even at the dead of night, this Man needed neither torch nor lamp to light his way, for the road was straight and he had traveled it many times over the years. Long ago it seemed when he first looked upon the city and the wonder of its white walls and tall glimmering towers. It was in his youth that his father Baldīn relinquished the lordship of Pelargir; a desire had awoken within his father to look upon the rebuilt Kingdom of Arnor. And like many men before him, he never returned from those beautiful lands.
It came to be that Balanthir was sworn in as Lord of Pelargir, and King Eldarion appeared to bear witness. Like many men before him, Balanthir loved his King since first he beheld him. And as the new Lord of Pelargir, he declared that a ship was to be built, worthy of the splendour and majesty of their King. From every part of the kingdom he summoned the most skilled workers and shipwrights from Dol Amroth joined the gifted craftsmen of Pelargir in constructing a staunch hull.
Sturdy blanks they were, though most fair, coming from the beloved lebethron trees of the White Mountains. Maidens gathered the finest silks from across the lands, sewing them together for sails worthy of great kings of old. Within a year’s time, the great vessel was complete; Balanthir personally set forth up the Great River to deliver the majestic ship. And in two days time, mariners of Harlond, as if caught in some type of enchantment, beheld masts of such grandeur and beauty that they thought the long lost kings of old, of Nśmenor, had returned from their ocean depths. No Nśmenoréan king was Balanthir, though upon the stern of such a vessel he held himself just as highly. Trumpets echoed through the harbour, banners with livery of the heirs of Elendil were unfurled, and in the waning light of the afternoon sun of Midsummer, the Lord of Pelargir had presented the Cair Lūtha to the King, pledging his eternal love and loyalty.
Thereafter, Balanthir would often journey to Minas Tirith, and though he never resided within its circle, it always felt like a homecoming. And yet this time, as he rode within the walls of the Rammas Echor, it did not. The moon's face was full and bright and the stars were unveiled to their fullest, but their light only seemed to accentuate the emptiness of the road, the road which marked the centre of travel from Arnor to Dale, and even to the city of Umbar, where all their peoples might gather to trade with the prosperous city of Minas Tirith. Never was such a road utterly barren as this. And yet, glancing here and there, Balanthir could see no life, not even in any of the many homes which had arisen over the years. Not lamps nor candles nor any movement at all could be seen in any of the homesteads or orchards. And so an ill-feeling began to weigh upon his chest.
No less than a mile away, he could see the Great Gate, forged by the Dwarves of Aglarond, its mithril coating shimmering in the moonlight. He struggled to reassure himself, he was in the very heart of the great kingdom of Gondor, a small distance away from the most impregnable fortress of all of Middle-Earth; no danger need dwell in his mind. Yet his fears were not soothed. As he edged on his steed, his heart began to pound, now eagerly wishing only to be within the safety of the City, surrounded by cheerful men and fair maidens, resting near a warm fire, with a glass of the finest wine from Dorwinion. Thus it was that part of his wish was granted, his solitude ended.
‘Hail Balanthir! Lord of Pelargir!’ cried out an unseen voice. Out from the shadows stepped a tall man, stopping in the middle of an open clearing, where there was neither house nor barn, nor crop grew. As Balanthir’s steed approached the man, the shadows seemed to lessen and he could discern more details of the man. Long black robes flowed across his body, foreign red runes traced its trim. A dark hood masked his face, but the moonlight shining on the road illuminated the man’s mouth. It was ill to look upon, and its foulness sent a cold shiver through Balanthir. He tried to dismiss the feeling, for not everything in the world was fair and few men had such privileged lives as he. ‘Greetings, stranger. Long has it been since I’ve ridden beneath the shadows of Minas Tirith; little did I know that my face was known in these lands. Yet it pleases me to see another being, for this night has me restless, and the emptiness of the road is queer.’
‘I have indeed seen thee before, and have heard of the many great deeds thou hast accomplished in the ancient harbour of the Exiles. For in these dull days, I entertain myself with the gathering of news and tales from all over the kingdom of Nśmenaraniė.’
‘Dull these days may seem to some men, but they should be slow to wish for exciting times, for they may often lead to peril and foul deeds.’
The cloaked mouth smirked. ‘Thy words are wise, lord,’ the man said, bowing low.
‘Wise you say?’ the Lord of Pelargir questioned. ‘Perhaps. But at the very least I am wise enough to know that your tongue is not native to these lands. Tell me stranger, where you hail from?’
‘Wise I say again, lord. For I come from the cape of Umbar, though it be many a year since I dwelt there.’
‘Ah, Umbar!’ Balanthir pleasantly acknowledged. ‘Pelargir’s sister city of old. It comforts me to see how the ancient hostilities between our two cities have finally passed. The people of my city value the merchants of Umbar greatly, and though they bring many fabrics and plants and trinkets that are strange to our land, we accept them with eagerness.’
‘Trinketsss? Trinkets you say my lord?’ the man hissed. ‘I do indeed have many trinkets. I have one such that may interest thee. Though it comes not from Umbar; this little thing comes from the ruined wasteland of Mordor! Long did I search the ruined site of the Tower of the Dark Lord. Though it be many a year since his destruction, wild wolves still roam his land, if thou search hard enough, my lord, deep in the cracks and caves of the wall of the Ered Lithui, thou will even find Orcs. Many survived the Dark Lord’s fall, and many still yet survived the great hunt from the returned King. Deep in their caves they lurk, hiding from the hunters of the West, hiding from the bright eyes of the Sun. What wits they once have had left them and I easily eluded the now mindless animals of Mordor. I was rewarded with this.’
From his cloak he drew out a red ring, the likes of which Balanthir had never seen before.
‘May I see it, Sir? Much history lies within this gem. I wonder if the loremasters of the City might be able to tell us more.’
‘You may keep it, my Lord!’ The man smiled, humbly presenting the ring to the Lord of Pelargir.
‘I could not my good Sir. At least let me pay you. This is surely a valuable item, I dare not to cheat you of profit.’
‘No, no, my Lord. Take it, take it. I have kept that in my possession for many years and it has served me well. But now I give it to thee. Put it on, put it on!’ the man keenly encouraged.
As Balanthir slipped on the ring, a strange numbness swept through his hand. Quickly, he dismissed it as soreness from the journey. His attention instead was focused on the ring as he held his hand aloft, studying the great jewel within the centre. It appeared to be some type of ruby, though lacking the typical glimmer. It was as if made of blood as absurd as that sounded. It mattered not, for it was an entrancing jewel nonetheless. For a moment, he thought that he would accept the ring for his own, but the man of Umbar broke the enchantment.
‘What a transformation thou hast taken, Lord! I am sure thou would resemble one of the Nine Kings or warriors of old with their Rings of Power!’
Balanthir’s face went deathly white at the stranger’s words.
‘Do not say such things!’ Balanthir yelled, and he aimed to rip the ring from his finger and throw it into the Anduin if he could reach it. He pulled and tugged and tore at the ring, wanting nothing but to get the accursed filth from him. Yet he could not. Legends of old raced through his mind, and he deemed that the ring, of its own will, clenched down upon his finger, ensnaring him, when in fact it might have been just that his hand had swelled and he was too anxious to think clearly. And though the ring had no power of its own, its designs were dark and fully known to the man of Umbar, whose head was still covered with the dark hood. Amidst his struggles Balanthir could still see the man’s hideous mouth, smiling a ghastly smile.
It was then that the man of Umbar finally revealed himself and cast back his hood. Balanthir recoiled at the man’s face and his hand went for his sword. The man’s speech hinted of his age, yet Balanthir did not expect the man to look so decrepit. Yet it was not the man’s appearance that brought him to action. Indeed he knew not why his hand was at his sword. Perhaps a dormant trait of foresight was finally kindled, or perhaps not. But this much he knew, this man before him was evil.
‘What devilry have you beset upon me?’ Balanthir yelled. And yet the man answered not. Instead he began to speak in some foreign and yet dark language that Balanthir knew not. The light from the road seemed to fade about him, though the moon shone just the same.
Gimb-agh thrak-u-i burzum-i gūl
Balanthir’s horse reared back, for the words were menacing and powerful, inducing such a madness that his master barely could control it. The longer the man of Umbar spoke, the stronger was growing the horse's madness. The ring upon Balanthir’s finger grew tight, the pain was great.
Krimp-i Durb-Nazgūl-u-i glob tark
’Nazgūl?’ Balanthir gasped. The language he knew not, but that dark word he recognized. Every child knew the word, for in Gondor the tales of the War of the Ring were told round the fires many a night. They all knew too well of the Dark Lord’s servants, the Ring-wraiths, their winged steeds and their Black Captain, the only enemy to pass under the gates of Minas Tirith.
‘Why do you speak that foul language in our kingdom?’ Balanthir shouted with such fury burning within his eyes that the man of Umbar almost submitted. Yet no answer was given, for at last Balanthir’s horse could no long contain its madness and fell back, collapsing to the ground. Balanthir fell with his beast, narrowly missed by its crushing body.
’Fool!’ the man said, returning to the Common Speech. ‘I do not answer to thee! For I am the Mouth of Sauron and I come from a far greater power than thy pitiable King!’
Balanthir did not bother to search his mind for any tales about the man’s title; an insult to his beloved King was enough. He rose from the ground, appearing to have grown in stature, and drew his sword. A fire shone from his eyes that would have brought a lesser man to his knees.
‘I do not know what evil you have placed upon my finger, nor do I know what your intentions are. But you have defiled our fair streets with that filth speech of Mordor, and for that you should be imprisoned. Worst of all, you have insulted my King, whom I hold dearer than any treasure in all the lands. And for that you deserve death!’
A blind rage overtook the Lord of Pelargir, and he charged forward, aiming to dispatch his enemy in one blow. Yet it was not to be. For the Mouth was not as defenseless as he seemed, and out from the dark robes he drew his own blade. Of such length it was, that Balanthir knew not how such a sword could be hidden. Dark magic he deemed it to be. The sword, however, was anything but dark and the steel shone brighter than the blade of Gondor.
Not since the Battle of the Pelennor Fields had swords met in combat within the walls of the Rammas Echor, but in the coming days it would not be the last. Great were both, in their skill in battle, yet greater was the Mouth’s skill but his age and strength, however, were not. So the great clash was evenly matched for a time. As if two mating eels their shimmering swords appear, dancing back and forth in a ballet of love. Yet no mates were these and no love was given to the other. Death filled their minds.
Evenly matched they were for a moment, but it was the Mouth who made the first error. Overly eager he swung his sword down, missed Balanthir and struck the dirt. A useless clang echoed in Balanthir’s ears. For his foe was now exposed, and Balanthir raised his own sword, ready to deal the death blow. Again it was not meant to be. The Mouth lifted his hand, and Balanthir’s sword leapt from his grasp, falling to the ground beside him. Amazement and fear came upon him, for never before had he met such a sorcerer and indeed thought none were left, if they every truly existed. Unarmed, but far from defeated, the Gondorian stood erect and proud before his grotesque enemy. He would fight to the end if need be, and would gladly give his life to rid his kingdom of this plague. Three times did the Mouth of Sauron swing his blade, and three times did Balanthir dodge his attacker. On the third, Balanthir lunged forward, catching his enemy unawares, disarming him. There, upon a barren piece of land the two did wrestle, and charred black dust sprang up, choking the very air Balanthir gasped for. The sky darkened, as from nowhere a single cloud appeared in this clearest of nights, passed over the moon, plunging the land into a black abyss.
This was no darkness of that he had known. The land that Balanthir knew better than his own homeland had now changed. A swirling mist ripped through the streets, and the sound of a wretched wind deafened his ears. The hazy world seemed but a pale shadow of the bright road to Minas Tirith. He could hear the shuffling of his enemy’s feet, but as Balanthir stumbled about, he could not find his target, for his sight was dim and he could see little beyond his own feet.
Yet another noise grabbed Balanthir’s attention. A shrill cry rang out; far off from the East it seemed, and yet also right before him. So horrible and harsh was the voice that it pierced the proud Gondorian, straight to the marrow. The voice repeated something that he could not hear, but over and over again did it chant in a low moan.
It was from the East that his vision became terribly clear. A bodiless form streaked across the heavens and back down to the Pelennor. Balanthir held his sword up in defence of this wight, the edges of the steel flickering red. What was a faint whisper was now growing louder and louder as it grew closer.
It was then, just as the wight was almost on top of him, that the Mouth, almost forgotten, renewed his assault upon Balanthir. Amidst their struggles, and amidst the darkness, a pain of utter cold pierced Balanthir’s chest. Almost as if its task were complete, the cloud continued on, revealing the moonlight, and much to Balanthir’s horror, the source of the bitter cold enflaming his chest. A long, thin knife was buried within his flesh. The ring upon his finger, which he had all but forgotten, shone forth with a brilliant red flame. The Mouth’s eyes captured the light and reveled in its meaning.
Balanthir could feel his life flowing from the wound, and with his strength pulled the blade out and cast it to the ground, where it shattered. It was the last he ever saw. He collapsed to the ground, whispering over and over again, the chant that which the dreadful wight had imprinted onto his soul.
This is my hour, this is my hour, this is my hour.
So passed Balanthir, son of Baldīn, Lord of Pelargir.
Yet for grief as yet unbeknownst to the free peoples of Middle Earth, his body did not die. There would be no tomb, nor grave, nor pyre for Balanthir. For a dark and ancient power now dwelt within the body of the Gondorian, intent on wreaking terror on the world once more.