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Part II: The Tempering

-The year 3434 of the Second Age-

For many moons, conflict had been tearing at the fabric of the world. From the pale ramparts of Osgiliath to the shadowed slopes of Ephel Dúath, the bodies of the fallen blanketed the ground, an interwoven mat of mangled limbs and twisted blades. Upon the battle-scarred wastelands, the flowing blood of elves, men, and orcs alike mingled, and churned into putrid streams of death and despair. The ashes of funeral pyres and burnt cities blew upon the winds, and dispersed. This was the bitter taste of war.

In the barren wastelands of Emyn Muil was buried the last hope of civilization, the hand that might move to shield the flame of life lest it be snuffed out by the rotting winds of Mordor.

Hunched by a rocky vale was Gil-galad, king of Lindon and sovereign of the elves of the Last Alliance. His head was bowed, his thoughts hushed. He was grieving for Rumìl, an elf and his former comrade. Uttering a brief prayer to the Valar within his noble mind, he turned his gaze upward and found that it was met by allies that had come in his time of need.

Thirty men of Númenor, mounted upon mighty white steeds had come to him, two of the lineage of the royal Dúnedain. Elendil, greatest of all Númenoreans and high king of Gondor, dismounted and hailed the elvish lord.

“Gentlemen. I come with aid,” he announced in a commanding voice.

“Elendil of Númenor,” Gil-galad murmured in surprise.

Elendil removed his helm and humbly bowed his head in a show of respect.

Interrupting the formalities, Elrond, aide to Gil-galad and commander of many legions of elvish warriors, began to speak. “Our party has been assailed by Nazgûl and a band of orcs.”

Elendil tensed, and a flame of warrior’s fire ignited in his eyes. “Nazgûl, you say? What is this tale?”

“A wraith of Barad-dûr . He fled,” responded Elrond. Gil-galad was still silent.

Gripping the hilt of his sword, Elendil motioned to his men for alertness. “Then we have not a moment to lose. Come.”

Gesturing towards a slim, blond knight astride a dark horse, Elendil commanded, “Isildur, you and Vorion shall travel on foot to the Alliance base and await my return.”

The blond knight scoffed. “You intend to exclude me from battle yet again, father?”

Gil-galad broke in, now poised regally, Aeglos hanging at his side. “There is battle enough to be had at the encampment. If you make haste, unslain orcs may yet await you.”

Elendil nodded once again at the elven-king. “Your hospitality is most kind, master elf. Isildur and Vorion shall wait at the camp.”

Isildur moodily dismounted, his dull golden armor reflecting the vague, moonlit forms clustered about him. Gil-galad and Elrond took the riderless horses, and with a clattering of hooves the thirty Gondorian stallions had disappeared across the craggy vale in pursuit of the fleeing Nazgûl.

Isildur and Vorion trudged northward in silence. Within minutes, the wreckage of battle appeared sprawled before them. The marauding company of orcs had at last been slaughtered, and the foul task of dealing with the bodies now fell to the survivors.

As they approached the bright tents, all emblazoned with emblems of elvish or mannish nations, several of the Númenorean soldiers ceased in their labors and saluted the young prince of Gondor. Isildur, still frustrated at being sent from combat, curtly instructed them to continue in their tasks.

Entering Gil-galad’s unoccupied tent, Vorion shook off his heavy leather cloak, folded it, and lay it upon the ground. Sitting at the commanding table, he pored inquisitively over the maps that Gil-galad had been studying when crisis had wrenched him away.

Mordor, Mordor, Mordor, he read. Again and again appeared the Morannon, and the dread fortress of Barad-dûr . A chill ran down the Númenorean’s spine as his eyes alighted upon a simple, irregular red ring inscribed upon the parchment: Orodruin.

Isildur, meanwhile, had shucked off his armor, shield, and scabbard, and now paced furiously from one side of the tent to the other.

Vorion had made little contact with the prince in his many days of service under Elendil, but had nevertheless become aware of Isildur’s temperament. The shuffling of Isildur’s coarse traveling garments drifted from the one boundary of the tent to the other, and then back again.

Vorion shook his head as he shuffled the maps of the Dark Land around the table. Perceiving the behavior of the young prince, it became clear that if the blasting fires of Mordor were endured, Elendil’s leadership would be vital in order to piece together the nations now descending into conflict’s chaos. Isildur was not ready to stand at the helm of Gondor.

Isildur did, however, have a brother. Though Vorion had not met him on social terms, he gathered that despite the fact that Isildur exceeded him in years, his behavior was more alike to his father’s.

Elendil’s confidence in Anárion, Isildur’s brother, was even now being demonstrated. While Isildur languished in the desolation of Amon Lhaw, Anárion commanded two thousand knights of Gondor in defense of the city of Osgiliath. Osgiliath was located near the banks of Anduin, the great river, and lay mere miles from the western margin of Mordor.

This, of course, made it the first target in Sauron’s malevolent crusade. For the passage of many months, hundreds of orcs had traversed the verdant banks of the Anduin an besieged Osgiliath. As Elendil and Gil-galad marshaled the troops of the Alliance, Anárion had fortified the great city with his courage in battle and tactical acumen. Thinking of this, Vorion looked briefly upon the young prince and understood him more deeply. Being reduced to his father’s lackey while in the prime of his youth was eroding the man’s already fragile patience. Vorion, however, suspected that Isildur would soon have his chance to prove himself.

Within days, the army of the Last Alliance would reach the jagged, barren border of the Dark Land, and wage battle upon the hosts of Mordor. Perhaps, he thought, Elendil would entrust a battalion of troops to Isildur. Perhaps, in the Desolation of the Morannon, the prince would find his glory. Perhaps.

Abruptly, Isildur stopped pacing. “Did you hear that?” he asked the older knight, his voice low and wary.

Vorion cocked his head, but no sound fell upon his ears. “Hear what, milord?” he enquired, with an air of almost exaggerated respect.

“Oh, t’was but a fleeting whimsy. Nothing,“ he responded.

Vorion nodded briskly at Isildur in order to prompt further elaboration. Isildur shrugged.

“I but fancied that I did hear the cry of the distant Morgul-specters.” Laughing nervously, the young man drew up a chair opposite Vorion. “Naught but the idle dreaming of a troubled mind. The journey, as you well know, was not a soothing one.”

Vorion had to agree. “Aye, five days and nights hard travel, with scarcely enough food to feed all of us. And always, signs of orc pursuers. Never once did they show their hides.”

Abruptly, Isildur raised a silencing hand. “A notion has entered my mind. What if the orcs and Nazgûl that now plague the camp traveled our trail? What if we, in our heedlessness, alerted the scouts of Mordor to our location?” Staring with a shrewd gaze upon Vorion, he noted the paling of the skin, the features drawing taught and anxious.

Not giving Vorion time enough to draw his own conclusions, Isildur charged further on. “Surely some orcish sentry will forewarn them. Forces shall be massing at the Dark Gate in mere hours.”

Shaking his head in vexation, Vorion spoke in a dire tone, “We must alert the troops upon your father’s return. We must take some other route, some course that the legions of Mordor shall not anticipate.”

Waving his ring-bedecked hand, the prince of Gondor dismissed Vorion’s suggestion. “No, your mind is not sharp as it might be, knight. No doubt Sauron expects us to take the very path of action that you propose. No, I think not. We shall retrieve my father and his party from their skirmish with the wraith. Upon our return, we shall mobilize our troops and strike out for the Desolation of the Morannon at accelerated pace.”

Hoisting himself from the seat, Isildur reached for his golden armor. The icon of The White Tree of Gondor was engraved upon the breastplate.

Many years ago, in Isildur’s distant childhood, he remembered Nimloth, the white tree of Númenor. Isildur had long coveted the sinuously chalky boughs of the great tree, and secretly desired to have one of his own. At the time little more than a commoner, he could but look upon Nimloth from a distance. Time did not quell his desire, however. Over the years, the avaricious hunger to possess one of Nimloth’s snowy fruits hovered unbearably over Isildur. When the time seemed right, the youth had stolen into the court of the Lord Ar-Pharazôn and furtively plucked one of Nimloth’s pale fruit. Upon his retreat, however, a sanctuary guard mistook him for a spy of Melkor and wounded him severely. Through this, however, he concealed Nimloth’s fruit. It was now his.

Later, at Sauron’s behest, Ar-Pharazôn had Nimloth felled and then burnt upon the altar of the sanctuary. As Armenelos, the capital of Númenor, was razed by Sauron‘s minions, Isildur and Anárion fled across the sea. The fruit, then a sapling, had come with them.

That was many years ago. Since then Ar-Pharazôn the Golden had diminished into a dusty memory, and even Númenor itself had been swallowed up by the vast watery maw of the ocean.

Isildur now took up his gauntlets, and began to equip them. “Vorion, rally a unit of troops. Good horses shall we need, as well. Our company shall comb the wastes until my father is found.”

Vorion rose swiftly, but did not move to don his cloak. “With all due respect, I do not believe it wise--”

Isildur tensed, and ceased in tightening his gauntlet. Slowly, the prince’s head rose. By degrees, the eyes fixed upon Vorion.

“Do you contradict me?”

Refusing to be shaken by the wrath of a whelp such as Isildur, Vorion responded unhumbled, his voice ringing lustily within the enclosure.

“I merely stated that I believe your choices to be…” Vorion nearly choked upon what he knew was the wrong word. “Foolish.”

Scowling, the prince strode pompously around the table to the knight, paused, and dealt him a stinging backhand slap with his ungloved hand.

“No petty, dotard knight shall so slander the heir of Elendil! Now, go hence and assemble a band for quick travel.”

Vorion restrained himself, remembering that the man he now faced was Isildur, and heir to the throne of Gondor. He considered his options.

“Though you may be royalty, you must remember that I am your superior as a warrior. I shall go forth and summon a party, but my first act upon convening with Elendil shall be to inform him of your insolence.”

Isildur, still sneering but now genuinely worried, watched as the soldier of Númenor unhurriedly pulled on his cloak and exited the tent.

Elrond stared silently across the rocky vale. His elven eyes could make out no moving form, Nazgûl or otherwise. He started slightly as a human hand clapped itself onto his shoulder.

“I’m sorry, master Elrond, but I fear that our quarry has escaped us. We may as well make our way back to camp,” said Elendil gravely.

Nodding in sullen resignation, the elf let his eyes rove over the moonlit valley once more, and mounted his dark horse.

Gil-galad, astride a larger white horse, bent near to Elrond and murmured in a whisper so low as to barely be audible. “To your left, Elrond. One goblin archer, arrow not yet notched.”

Elrond’s pure gray eyes blazed alight. Elendil, too, sensed that something was afoot, but had the wisdom not to inquire. Straining his hearing, Elrond could make out the scrape of a rough orkish arrow-shaft sliding across the bowstring. The air seemed to hang still and lifeless, falling to the ground. Feigning calm, Elrond reached down to his leg and drew a slim dagger of Imladris. Glancing at the bluish gleam of the serrated edge, he knew that he might be able to launch it at the archer before he could loose his arrow. Or, more likely, he would fire upon seeing Elrond’s movement. Feeling the reassuring curve of Vilya enwrapping his finger, Elrond grasped the handle of the dagger and drew it from it’s sheath. He poised, his hand firmly clasping the weapon, and listened to the grim sound of the orkish twine straining as the arrow was drawn. As long as the shot was not instantly fatal, Vilya could be used to heal the victim. As the bowstring tautened, Elrond twisted in his seat and prepared to launch the knife.

Suddenly, a shout rang out across the barren valley. “Elendil!” sounded Vorion’s sonorous voice across the rocky slope which he now began to descend.

“Down! Get down!” shouted Elrond. Swiftly, Vorion, Isildur, and the four other knights began to dismount their horses. Vorion, however, was not swift enough. With a deadly twang, a black-plumed arrow slit the air and caught him in the throat. Gasping in grim comprehension of his own mortality, his wordless cries spraying a mist of blood into the clear night air, he plunged from his horse and collapsed upon the ground.

A second arrow hurtled aimlessly into the night as Elrond’s blade struck home. “An ambush! Curse the frailty of my reason,” Elrond muttered. No other orcs could be seen, and the Ringbearer approached the writhing form, his elven heart pounding within his chest as he and Vilya drew closer.

The knight’s eyes gazed glassily, and a few strangled gurgles were all that the throat of the once-mighty man would yield. Grimly, Elrond wrenched the barbed shaft diagonally from the flesh, and was greeted by a spurt of pumping red blood. Quelling dismay, he drew Vilya to the dying man’s throat, and waited with trepidation as the healing warmth flowed through him.

Meanwhile, Gil-galad looked upon Vilya’s undimmed powers with a sickness of the spirit. Never had the healing Ring demonstrated such ability while in his care. Was he truly that unworthy? Was Celebrimbor’s gift to him so undeserved?

Within seconds, the pluming blood had slowed to a trickling. Vorion gasped as his lungs filled with the pure air. A white, star-shaped scar stood out irregularly upon the flesh of his neck, in the very spot that the arrow had pierced. He looked for a voice with which to proclaim his gratefulness for Elrond’s miraculously abilities and admirable fortitude, but he could find none. Vilya’s aid, it seemed, had not come quickly enough. Whispering, forming words out of the air, he mouthed. “I am indebted, lord of elves.”

Gil-galad mournfully smiled, a gesture of humble acknowledgement.

“We first discovered orcsign here,” said Isildur, gesturing to a spot northwest of the Parth Galen. Elrond, Elendil, Gil-galad, and the speechless Vorion were clustered around the elf-king’s table, ever-strewn with maps. “Again, at the crossing of the river Anduin,” continued the prince, “At Nómin bridge.” He turned to Elrond. “Tell me, elf, of what is the bridge constructed?”

Elrond’s eyes gleamed with fury at the human’s condescension, but he held his tongue, remembering that the quest of the Alliance was perilous enough without bickering among comrades. “It is of Gondorian stone and wood harvested from the forests of Amon Hen.”

Still all but the prince were silent, attentive. Even Vorion was listening carefully, his malice forgotten. Isildur cupped his chin in his hand, thinking. “Then retreat is not an option. The orcs will have hewn it to pieces in our wake.”

Elendil’s eyes rose in realization. “By Eru…we must change our plans, and with haste.” Sliding the map across the table, his elderly but noble face bathed in the flickering torchlight, Elendil studied their predicament. “We best follow Anduin south…to the fourth mouth of the river Entwash. From there we turn east, to Mordor.”

“But surely Sauron will suspect just such a strategy!” protested Isildur. “Time cannot be wasted! We must approach the Morannon at once.”

In an even tone, Gil-galad interjected, “I am inclined to agree, Lord Elendil. Ambushes may be prepared along Anduin. Also, we have little more than a few wafers of lembas per soldier. In mere days, more supplies will be necessary.”

Elendil faltered. “Your previous dispatch informed me that food was plentiful in your camp. Has some unknown misfortune befallen your company?”

Gil-galad’s eyes were downcast. Dire news indeed was now to be imparted. “While our men were combating the orcs on the outskirts of camp, a few goblins breached our lines and made their way to our tents of provisions. My warriors came upon the brutes and slew them, but not before the fiends did burn all but a few bundles of waybread. We have only enough for three, perhaps four days.”

Defeated but still standing tall, Elendil looked once more upon the black contours inscribed upon the map. Between two of these lines lay their camp, their people, the last dagger that might pierce the Lidless Eye. And there, only inches of dry parchment away, was the Morannon. They could not travel down the Anduin and strike out to the northeast in three days. They would have to risk frontal assault.

“Our path is chosen,” proclaimed Elendil. “Rally your men. Upon this very night shall we cull Sauron’s villainous servants and cleanse the corrupted earth with their dark blood.”

Unprotestingly, Gil-galad agreed. “My troops shall be prepared for travel within the hour. Ready your Númenoreans. Together, we shall tell them of our reconsiderations.”

Isildur cleared his throat, and the consciousness of the other four focused once again upon him. “If you don’t mind my saying, I believe that informing the troops of our motivations now may be premature. Think, what might happen if one of the Nine were to descend in darkness, skulking beneath the thin shadows, and overhear our address to the troops? And consider…if but one man were lost to clawing orkish hands along the stretching path, he would betray us within hours. I have heard of goblin-engines which can break any man.”

Turning exasperatedly to his son, betraying little more than a trace of humiliation, Elendil spoke forcefully. The Dúnedain’s rich voice filled the murky confines of the tent, brightening the torches and briefly enveloping elf and Man alike. “Isildur, the men that now mill about this camp are not tools, to be used and discarded at will. They have entrusted the worthy expenditure of their wills and lives unto us, and we shall not repay them with deception. Tell me, do you fear that a wraith should assail us? If so, then you may bear my sword away into the wastes and carve with it his formless flesh. Only once you have proven yourself may you command the ranks of men, in wisdom or in folly.”

All looked on in astonishment as Elendil drew his sword and extended it, hilt-first, toward Isildur. Narsil, forged in the hellish subterranean furnaces of Nogrod, had long been Elendil’s arm in battle. Now, the smooth silver blade, notchless despite years of service in combat, pierced the fluttering veil of torchlight, and all that looked on seemed to see the flares and crackles of the flames drawn into the shining shaft of the weapon and distilled into lucid strands of luminosity that danced along the length of the blade as it sliced cleanly through the air.

Impatient, Isildur snorted air through his nose. “Do not task me with some mad quest which I cannot fulfill. I could no more crush one of the Nine with that blade than I could with a dwarvish hatchet. You place too much faith in such relics, I think.”

With a grim demeanor, Elendil slid the glittering blade back into it’s sturdy scabbard, and Narsil’s light shrank and was hidden by the sheathmetal.

“Come,” said Gil-galad. “The troops must be assembled.”

Nodding somberly, the mannish king turned and left the tent. Elrond, apparently, had already departed in order to muster the elven soldiers. Vorion, sinking back into the shadows between the torches, stole a glance at the face of the young prince. Smiling grimly, he too hovered on the boundary between light and darkness, the flowing shadows etching strange patterns into his face. It seemed to Vorion that Isildur had made a disgrace of himself and shamed his father. Nevertheless, the prince’s pride seemed undiminished.

Elendil and Gil-galad stood at the head of the multitude of troops. Stretching into the torch-flecked night, elf and Man alike harkened and were bound to one another in the darkness. Flanking the two stately monarchs was a small entourage of aides and generals. Lingering by two torches that had been thrust into the unyielding earth, the allies studied each other out of the edges of their vision. Furtive glances were stolen; names and deeds were known, but few of the conquering heroes had yet met those representing the other race.

Of Gondor and Númenor there were four: first Isildur, son of the king, the young knight who might one day bear sovereignty over all that he now looked upon. Thinking so, Isildur stared with silent satisfaction into the shifting mass of armor and helmets, the amber torchlight seeming to burn his vivid green eyes gold. Vorion, of course, accompanied him. Hanging further back, clothing themselves in night’s protective obscurity were two other commanders, both equal in esteem to Vorion. The first was Aratar, an aging victor of long-deserted battlegrounds, his leathery skin inscribed with many scars. He knew of Vorion’s misfortune, but had yet to speak of it.

Valandil was younger than Aratar, but it was said that he rivaled the old man in tactical skill. If so, the time to prove himself was drawing near. Valandil remained away from the group, and crouched by the dark flap of an empty tent. Isildur had disliked him instantly; everything from his clothing to his gait was irritating. Valandil had a tendency to hang at the edges of conversations, absorbing all that was said, but never betraying his thoughts to others. He wore a battered coat of some black hide that hung almost to the ground, and a strange, angular sword was constantly slung across his back. It had no name, and was seldom unsheathed.

Isildur was tugged from his thoughts as his father addressed the troops.

“Some might call you elves and men,” began Elendil, with a sweeping motion of his hand, “but tonight you are no longer. Tonight you are unified as warriors of the Last Alliance. The Dark One depended on our differences to drive us apart! Now, we shall show him how very wrong he is…”

Isildur sneered silently at the back of his father’s gray head. Elendil was a great king, a king for the ages, but he was no orator. Scanning the ranks, he could see that the old man’s misguided monologue was only further driving the direness of the situation into their minds.

The prince toyed with the idea of stepping forward and taking the platform himself. Even without premeditation, surely any speech that he could formulate would outdo the incessant droning of the Númenorean monarch.

As Elendil approached the climax of his discourse, he raised his right hand into the air. But, before he could bring it down, his concentration was shattered by a disturbance in the army below him. The strangled scream of a man slashed at the air like a knife, and the ranks seemed to part as if to allow some creature passage. A crackling chill passed through Elendil, and his bowels seemed to liquefy as he heard the shriek of a Nazgûl for the first time in his many years. Reaching for Narsil, his frenzied hand found only emptiness. Scarcely a moment had passed before Elendil realized that Isildur had accepted his offer. He had gone to slay the Nazgûl.

Isildur and Valandil raced along the undulating perimeter of the army, following the sounds of the marauding wraith. Finally they came upon a gap in the soldiers, for they had drawn back and now held their weapons in a defensive posture. Beneath one of the iron torches the two men beheld the wraith, crown perched high in the air, drawing it’s sword toward the sky and swinging it down into the mutilated corpse of a Gondorian soldier. Blood still seeped from a deep wound in his back, and the wraith was continuing to slash at the meat of his face. With hellish lucidity, Isildur saw the Nazgûl’s fleshless gaze turn to pierce him. The bloodied sword hoisted before the iron chestplate, poising for a skirmish with the two mortals.

Without warning, the Nazgûl slid over the rocky ground as if it were ice and ran Valandil through with the spindly black blade. Swinging feebly with his sword, Valandil collapsed and the wraith’s steel was buried up to the hilt in his chest. As his sword clattered aimlessly to the parched soil, Valandil screamed blood, shuddered, and was no more.

The Nazgûl savored the sweet sensation of blood pouring over it’s gauntlets, filling the crevices and bathing it’s hands. Seeing that the second mortal wished to die too, the sword was withdrawn with a metallic rasp, but far too late.

Elendil looked on, stunned, as his son approached the Ringwraith, unmindful of the bleak dread that surrounded the creature like a cloud, brandishing two bright swords.

“Back, soulless beast!” shouted Isildur, arcing his sword toward the fell thing that knelt over Valandil’s remains. “Back to the pits that spawned you!”

The sword rang through the air, and it seemed to the prince that time flowed thick and slow around him, around the deeds that he now wrought. The royal emerald eyes moved over the prickled spires and runic inscriptions carved into the foul dark crown, capturing each detail with perfect precision. The men and elves were now just a backdrop, a shimmering tapestry of astonished faces, bereft of substance.

The crown tilted a little. A metallic hiss escaped the wraith as the sword slid slowly through the air. It took a very long time to reach the crown.

Abruptly, time resumed it’s flow. The Ringwraith twisted in an evasion attempt; the sword shone like lightning and slammed with a cracking down through the crown.

The two halves of the ironforged band clattered to the ground.

Leaving his sword embedded in the ethereal flesh of the Nazgûl, Isildur bellowed with bloodlust and with both hands drove his weight through Narsil and into the pestilential creature’s chest. Narsil’s razor point emerged through the black armor, where it shone, capturing the pale radiance of the skeletal moon and transforming the stars into volatile eruptions, each.

Isildur paused and saw that the gauntlet had dropped the blade. Notched along it’s length, it lay harmlessly in Valandil‘s shadow. Isildur drew his hand over the armor’s neck, where a tattered cloak was hitched. There was nothing there.

In a flash, Isildur realized that Gil-galad, Elrond, and his father were standing behind and around him, and that the legion before him had fallen into deadly silence.

Isildur cleared his throat and shook the combat frenzy from him head. “We have talked long of this day,” he began. A voice not entirely his own spread from his mouth until it had blotted out all other sound in the valley.

“Let us talk no more! Deeds speak louder than any mortal words! Follow me and this very night we shall hold Sauron’s black heart in our hands!”

An indescribable rush of exhilaration rose in Isildur’s chest: the army of the Last Alliance had erupted into cheers, Gil-galad and Elendil stood respectfully by, and a servant of Sauron lay slain at his feet.

The cheering thundered over the vale and consumed the very air around him. Isildur’s hand brushed his bristly cheek and he found that it was stained wet with teardrops.

Brimming with the hot rush of pride, the prince lifted the dark weapon from it’s resting place. His eyes fluttered briefly over the rows of carven symbols. The angular hand brace dug into his knuckles as he swung it down onto the stony ground. The shaft of the blade split into a curved, fanglike shard, and the fighters of the Last Alliance cheered anew.

Motioning, Isildur dismissed them. Much preparation was needed for this great undertaking

If only Anárion were here, he thought.

If only.

“These tents shall no longer be of use,” said Gil-galad, making an invisible boundary with his naked right hand. “Have your men use them as fuel for a pyre, nikerym. The orcs can be left for the scavengers, but we must treat our dead with dignity.”

Gil-galad turned and began to descend the slope toward the roiling mass of troops, gathering themselves for war. The king paused by the pale stump of a tree long leeched of life, and turned to add an afterthought.

“Have Isonduil prepare a separate pyre for Rumìl, Valandil, and Jaedor.” Jaedor was the first human of the Last Alliance to fall to the Ringwraith’s knife.

Elrond nodded, and murmured, “It shall be so.” Shame burned the elf’s sleek head in the knowledge of his possession of the Ring. Gil-galad had let him bear Vilya, but nevertheless Elrond was weighted, as if the Ring was begotten by means of usurpation. Clearing his head and breathing in the morning air, Elrond started down the path to the skeletal tents.

A blush of morning sun was beginning to spread over the frayed horizon as Elrond and Isonduil began their toil. The surviving elves and men had already piled the bodies, segregated by race. Then, darkness had spared them of the full extent of the orc-wrought mutilations. Now, it was not so.

First, the stiff orkish corpses were scoured for arrows, and then grudgingly replaced. Isonduil’s patrol began to dismantle the wooden struts of the tents and with them erect the structure of a mass pyre. It was grim work.

As the rosy fingertips of morning moved over the sky, light fell upon Saurons horrors, for though he plotted the domination of all lands and the slaying and subjugation of all people, the truth of his evil lay in the details, in the inconsequential. Elrond surveyed his workers, observed their stoicism silhouetted against the window of the rising sun, saw in their eyes the quelling of nausea as they looked down and beheld an old friend in their arms, dispatched in the name of Mordor‘s dominion.

Isonduil had cleansed the blood from Rumìl’s brow, covering the gashed throat by turning up the fine elvish collar. Placing him gently upon the entwined timber of the funeral pyre, he took a long look at the elf. They had never met, and yet Isonduil felt great mournfulness at his passing. The skin was pale, but not yet beset by decay. Rumìl’s lips were faintly upturned, as if in appreciation of some irony of life that only the departed can understand. Quickly muttering, “Quel esta,” Isonduil left him. Rumìl continued his rest among the snapped beams like a single snow-white symbelmynë, frozen by the ice of an ageless winter, and so preserved for all time.

As morning broke, the army had been mobilized and set in formation. Meanwhile, Elrond set light to the pyres, and the fallen were diminished to powder and blown on the wind to some peaceful realm. Elrond and Isonduil’s men rejoined their comrades and prepared for travel.

The mounds were deserted while still ablaze, for their whiptails of smoke could easily attract vengeful orcs, or worse.

As the elvish nobility joined the royal Gondorians at the head of the procession, Gil-galad sensed some silent crisis. Approaching Elendil, who was bedecked in heavy silver armor, he inquired, “Does some matter trouble you, my friend?”

The army swung into motion like a great engine, oiled with spilled orcblood and armored against Sauron’s fury. Sluggishly at first, they began their grinding progression across the ravaged plain, a thin sheet of metal glinting with sun.

Elendil stared ahead, his eyes fixed upon the steady flow of stones and crags as the ground was eaten up by tramping soldier’s feet.

“Vorion the Speechless was at my call last night, when the Nazgûl fell upon Valandil.” Elendil made no mention of Isildur, by whom the Morgul-shade was vanquished. “Previous to this day‘s dawning, he has neither been seen in camp, nor left any sign of his comings and goings. He has disappeared with the Nazgûl.”

“Ed’ i’ear ar’ elenea!” exclaimed Gil-galad, faltering for a moment. “The Ringwraiths, the Úlairi have taken him? Is this certain?”

“Nothing is certain,” said Elendil, “In times like these, even one’s own name is often contestable.”

“Does Isildur know of this?” interrupted Elrond.

Smiling wryly, the mannish king nodded. “Oh,” said Elendil, “I think that Isildur suspects much more than we.”

A solemn wind blew across the lonely, war-swept vista. Miles and mountains away, in the long-sullied region of Gorthulad, scurried a hunched figure. The figure was manlike, but indistinct, and over it’s shoulder was draped a great burden. The figure turned and tilted it’s eyeless head back toward the stubby pikes of Emyn Muil, and then hastily returned to it’s sleepless course.

Not far ahead was something: perhaps a peculiar gust of wind or a heat ripple; it held no substance. But, perhaps, it was the bent figure of a wounded beast bearing his split crown away to home.

As these events came to pass, the sun slid into the sky where it hung, a molten droplet of gold suspended on day’s burning brow. With hesitance, it trickled down and burned vermilion in the hazy clouds at the horizon.

At this time, the army of the Last Alliance had once again pitched camp, at the outskirts of Gorthulad and far away from the nightmares of Emyn Muil. The footprints had been puffed away, the bodies burnt. It was history.

Elendil doubled the guard around the perimeter of the camp, though an attack on such a level field would be easily foreseen. Within an hour, the comrades were breaking out their meager rations and grinning as if food were to be had in great quantity.

Gathered around a dim orange fire, the heroes of the Alliance shared tales and drank heartily of mead, diluted with water to stave off drunkenness.

His gray hair lit softly by the embers, Elendil recounted tales of ancient Númenor, or Númennórë as it is now called in the tongues of elves; of the lord Ar-Pharazôn and his plot to seize the throne of his cousin, Tar-Palantir. In vivid detail he painted ancient Númenor as it was before Akallabêth, the fall.

Elendil’s eyes grew clouded, more with memory than mead, and he brought Man and elf alike through the mists of time as he told of Armenelos in all of it’s splendor, the fairest city on all of Númenor. He told of Nimloth, and of young Isildur’s thievery, and the prince’s eyes brightened in mischievousness as if he was a youth once more.

Then came the capture of Sauron, dread servant of Melkor, and his humiliation and imprisonment under the eye of Ar-Pharazôn himself. Even from the dungeons Sauron created malice, and soon had risen from prisoner to courtier, eventually rising to stand behind the throne of the king himself.

All knew the story. All knew how it would end. Still, all listened with horror as the events unfolded.

In years Sauron had convinced Ar-Pharazôn to erect a temple to Melkor, enemy of the Valar, and to condone the practice of human sacrifices therein.

Within months, Armenelos and Númenor came tumbling down: Nimloth was felled and burnt as an offering to the long-vanquished Melkor. Frenzied carnage in the temple spread to the streets, and so Elendil and his sons took ships of the Númenorean navy and set out for the lands of the west. The ships had run ashore in Lindon, where Elendil and Gil-galad encountered each other for the first time.

By now the moon had risen. The weak mead had loosened all spirits, and a mirthful twinkle danced even in Elrond’s eyes. Seeing this, Elendil seized upon it and bade Elrond tell them of his home in Imladris.

Imladris was an elven-refuge founded many hundreds of years ago by Elrond himself, and was shielded from Sauron’s malignancy by the pure concentration of natural energies. But Imladris was not so much a fortress as a citadel of art and lore, for the archives and artwork of generations. Elendil and Isildur had stayed briefly in Imladris, and even now Isildur’s wife, Haelith, and his three sons, Elendur, Aratan, and Ciryon resided within it’s walls. Elendur was eldest and thus heir to the lordship of Gondor upon Isildur’s passing.

Though to some a stronghold, Imladris was anything but oppressive; silver vines twined through the latticed walls and bloomed. It was said that if one was but to behold it‘s splendor, all peril and illness would seem to melt into the dark golden depths of the haven.

Imladris means deep-dale-cleft when translated from the tongues of elves, but men call it Karningul or Rivendell.

As Isildur’s time to speak drew near, he filled his cup, leaned back, and told the others of the founding of Minas Ithil, his city, and the planting of Nimloth’s fruit. His tone darkened as he spoke of the fall of Minas Ithil to the armies of orcs that ravaged the lush countryside, and Elrond wondered why Isildur did not share some great triumph, as was expected.

Sparks flickered in the prince’s eyes as recollections of defeat poured from his parted lips; the destruction of the White Tree once more, and Isildur once more safeguarding a fruit, which now rested in Elrond‘s sanctum in Imladris.

Isildur was forced to take flight with Haelith and his children. Anárion was called forth from Minas Anor to defend the stronghold of Osgiliath as the first waves of orcs slammed into it’s barricades. In the shadow cast by his brother’s burning glory, Isildur had been forced to hide. He and his family fled through the bitter blackness of the wilds, until being taken in by Elrond, nothing more than royal vagabonds seeking sanctuary.

Breaking off suddenly, Isildur stared murderously into the coals. Wordlessly, the meeting disbanded, and all retired to their tents for much-needed rest. Elrond ordered an early changing of the guard and left to survey the barracks-tents.

His head clouded even with the cut mead, Isildur groped his way through the dark to his tent. Entering, he muttered and began to throw off his armor. In the corner sat several chests, containing his personal supplies and clothing. One, acute in presence, held the Ringwraith’s armor and cloven crown.

He kept his eyes on it as he loosened his gauntlets, deep in murky thought.

A shuffling behind him caused the prince to whirl in his clattering armor and reach for the hilt of a sword that had already been removed and lain aside. Emerging from the shadows was a pale and gentle figure, nebulous in a silvery robe that clung and flowed like mist around a the slim form that breathed softly between the folds.

Fatigued and bitter, Isildur exhaled in sharp disapproval. “Lady, what business have you in my tent at such an hour? Explain yourself!”

The woman was still vague in definition, hazed by drink and gloom.

“You accompanied Valandil to the skirmish and murdered the wraith?”

Isildur’s mind was weakened by the wearying journey, and he was upset by the woman’s refusal to be intimidated by him. Her statement seemed to be made in the tone of questioning, and so he replied to her.


“Valandil was my brother,” she said. The words hung like iron weights suspended by spidersilk, and with that she emerged further into the ambient light of the room, and revealed herself to Isildur.

The prince saw now that she was of great beauty: her skin was quite pale, and unmarked by toil. Over her shoulders hung lustrous tresses of dark hair, a burgundy corona for her fair head. She wore modest clothing, but it seemed that in the simple fabrics there was something far more exquisite than the elaborate robes of royalty.

Watching the slow and rhythmic intakes of breath, Isildur reminded himself sharply of Haelith.

The prince motioned for the woman to seat herself and he fumbled ineptly at his supply chest, at last producing a flint with which he kindled the single torch into light.

Seating himself atop his cot, he faced her once more. Before Isildur could formulate an appropriate comment, the lady spoke.

“I am Valourië, daughter of Valondur. I wish to express my gratitude for the vengeance that has quieted my soul. I was there, I looked upon the slayings, three.”

Relieved that the girl’s motivation was benevolent, Isildur chuckled and attempted to graciously brush the praise away.

“Truly, lady, it was nothing. The sons of Elendil are no cowards.”

Valourië nodded once, again curiously unmoved. The young prince was intrigued.

“I come also for my brother’s sword, for it is mine by right.”

Isildur rose from the chest and stooped to unlatch the small dark box containing the Morgul armor and Valandil’s sword.

Valourië silently moved to his side and peered down into the open chest.

“You keep the remains of the wraith with you?” she queried, with a carefully calculated trace of disgust.

Impatiently, Isildur muttered, “Yes, I have kept it as an heirloom of my defeat of the chthonic fiend.”

Hastily the prince retrieved the sword and held it in it’s scabbard to Valourië.

She thanked him and left, her deep violet eyes burning him with humiliation.

There was a strange finality about her simple and curt words of parting. Isildur moodily stripped his armor and climbed into his cot. Who was Valourië? He had not met her in camp ere this night. He did not know her post of duty or senior officer, all he had were a few inconsequential scraps of information; her weapon and lineage.

With luck they would never meet again. Turning over, Isildur could but hope in vain that Valourië’s all-pervasiveness in dreams was the result of a night’s swilling.

Elrond, too, was at rest in his tent. His ears strained to fill themselves with the voices of the night, even in such a grim place as Gorthulad. He sighed, pensively.

Images of fair Imladris were conjured up behind his lids, and he placed himself far, far away from the ravaged wasteland that he now inhabited, in the core of his sanctum, with books and scrolls piled about him.

Sighing, he looked out from the delicately carven window into the courtyard. There, a fountain of crystal water flowed, and he did smile to behold it.

Squinting, Elrond could make out a figure by the fountain, obscured by twining strands of blossoms.

The elven-lord opened his eyes, but the vision remained before them. Struck with a sudden rush of panic, he swept the books from his writing table; the ledgers clattered to the floor with as much reality as he had ever known.

A second figure appeared at the fountain, that of Haelith. The first one shifted, and Elrond saw him to be a faceless white knight clad in black armor.

Haelith knelt in reverence before the white knight, and he drew a black sword and held it above her head as if about to bestow an honor.

As Haelith was butchered in the flowered glade below, Elrond turned to find Isildur slouched jauntily behind him, drinking from his father’s chalice. Elrond stared with apprehension upon this new facet of his vision.

As Isildur twirled the goblet, Elrond found that it was cracked on one side. Scarlet drops trickled from the fissures. Isildur grinned and took another red swig.

Springing to life in the darkness, Elrond felt the cool air around him again, and bounded from his tent. He must take heed.

Isonduil was appraising the vigilance of the northern guard when Elrond came to him, breathless.

“What is it, my lord?” inquired the dark-headed elf, ever earnest.

Elrond’s eyes were regaining his typically calm demeanor, but traces of wildness still lurked within their gray depths.

“Send an emissary to Imladris. Tell all to be wary of treachery, especially Haelith.”

The elf paused.

“Let the citizens of Imladris know that one may come to them in fair guise, as if to bestow an honor.” Elrond kept his precognition of Isildur to himself.

Clapping Isonduil on the shoulder, Elrond continued. “In reconsideration, I believe it best that you go, for none more trustworthy can be spared. Find a steed and fly forth to Imladris. Fly!”

Without a word, Isonduil departed, his mail shining in the moonglow.

The colorless elven-eyes locked upon the sickle moon, and the moon was in turn held within them.

The frightening vision still reverberated between the peaked ears, quivering Elrond’s very foundations; it seemed to him as if his mind was built upon a lofty but slim pedestal.

In the parched hell of Gorthulad the Last Alliance was already under siege, though no orcs there were for many dozens of miles. Elrond’s troubling vision, Isildur drinking from his father’s cup, and at once the intrusion of Valourië upon the noble’s mind. Strife consumed them, and strife drove them into Sauron’s shadow where flowers wilt and breath tastes sour in one’s mouth.

The Last Alliance was not forged in harmony or because of harmony, but it was brought about in harmony’s pursuit, and thus was it’s course made even more tumultuous.

Elrond was a shadow in the dark. He turned, and with a billow of his cloak disappeared into the brooding black.

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