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The Birth of a Nazgul
by Kyriel

The name of Miri’s village is unimportant, as it existed for only a handful of centuries in the middle of the Second Age, and then was lost from memory. At the time of this tale, it was little more than a scattering of shacks on the bank of the Great River. Its single claim to fame was a man named Aradil, Miri’s husband and one of the greatest metalsmiths in southern Middle-earth. Some folk claimed he had Elven blood in his veins, and Aradil never disputed the assertion. Certainly he had the look: black hair, fine features, and eyes that sparkled like moonlight on Anduin. If he had a slight tendency toward vanity, Miri didn’t mind. After all, he was a fine husband and a devoted father, and their love for one another was true.

It was early autumn when Aradil returned from market with an extra spring in his step. Watching from the doorway, Miri noted how the midday sun glinted off his hair, so that for a moment he was literally crowned with light. Then six-year-old Erel pounced on him from the bushes and the illusion was shattered. Miri laughed to see her loved ones tussling like puppies. Sometimes, she thought, it was hard to tell which of them was the adult.

Aradil caught her eye and sat up, brushing straw from his hair with a grin. "Miri, love," he said, "I have some amazing news. Let’s go inside." He scooped up his son and slung him over a shoulder, as Miri stepped aside to let them enter. Aradil kissed her as he passed, then deposited his son in a chair at the dining table.

Once he and Miri were seated as well, Aradil pulled a black velvet pouch from his belt. Almost reverentially, he untied the drawstring to release a stream of silvery nuggets onto the table. "What is that?" Miri breathed, picking up one of the stones and holding it to the light. The metal was surprisingly light, and that sheen: to her unpracticed eye, it seemed more like pearl than silver.

"It’s mithril," Aradil grinned, his voice slipping into an awed whisper. "And there’s more where that came from!" He stopped Erel’s hand as the boy reached for the precious metal. "Careful, son. One ounce of this could ransom an Elven king!" Then he turned back to Miri, his eyes alight with possibilities. "They say mithril is as easy to work with as it is to look at, and I can’t wait to test it out. Just think of what I can make, Miri: swords, rings, circlets and crowns -- necklaces fine as the Nauglamir! And the first and finest will be for you, my love!"

Miri stared at the nugget in her palm, half expecting it to melt away. Mithril! She’d heard of it, of course, but had never expected to see it in her lifetime. Awe held her speechless.

"Where’d it come from, Dad?" asked Erel, craning his neck for a better view.

"Lord Annatar," Aradil answered proudly. "He’s commissioned me to do some work for him."

But at that name, Miri dropped her nugget back to the table. "Annatar, hm?" she sniffed. To her mind, the man had yet to earn his title. Annatar might have the wealth and bearing of a nobleman, and he might claim to be a Numenorian, but there was something about him that didn’t seem right. Besides, none of the other Numenorians she’d known traveled alone or on foot. They tended toward mighty ships and bands of fifty or one hundred. Yet here was this "Lord," all by himself and without so much as a horse to aid him in his travels. He said he was returning to his home in the East after a battle, but the few details she’d heard had totally failed to convince Miri. But then again, he’d been in her village nearly a fortnight already, and no one could deny that he’d been generous with his gifts. Perhaps her suspicions were unfounded.

She picked up the mithril nugget again and turned it over in her fingers. Well, this was real enough, at least.

"May I ask a question, sir?" Aradil ventured, as the last of the rings cooled in their trays. Eight perfect rounds of mithril with the fire-writing already fading within.

"Of course," the strange Lord answered. As he turned his gaze away from the furnace, Annatar’s eyes held the red light a moment too long.

Aradil licked his lips. "I was just wondering -- from a, from a professional standpoint, of course -- what these rings will do."

"Do?" Annatar seemed to smirk, although that may have been a trick of the light. "They are Rings of power."

"Yes sir, of course. And I know you must be a powerful magician. I heard the spells you said over them -- although," he added quickly, "I didn’t understand a word and could certainly never repeat them even if I tried -- "

"Of course not."

"-- and I would never even think of trying to steal them from you."

"Of course not." Annatar shifted, and for the first time Aradil noticed that the Lord himself wore a ring.

"Well, then." The smith rubbed his hands over his leather apron. "Perhaps it wouldn’t do any harm to tell me what I’ve made?"

His employer chuckled, long and low, until Aradil licked his lips again from fright. If he angered a man like this, he could end up a frog -- or worse.

At last Annatar spoke. "These Rings are destined for eight great captains of Men. They will give their wearers knowledge, invisibility -- when they want it -- and power to become great rulers in Middle-earth." He paused, then added almost offhandedly, "Would you like such a Ring, yourself?"

Aradil colored. "Of course. Who wouldn’t, sir?" His eyes met Annatar’s, and for a moment he seemed to be standing on the brink of an abyss. Quickly he pulled away, but the longer the Lord remained silent, the more Aradil felt compelled to look back. At last he gave in. "Sir," he quavered, meeting those dark eyes again, "are you serious?"

Still Annatar said nothing, but only held Aradil’s gaze while the smithy seemed to darken around them. The world narrowed down to the pupils of Annatar’s eyes, then suddenly reasserted itself.

"You are an ambitious man," the magician murmured. "More so than your friends and family realize. More so, perhaps, than you realize yourself."

"That’s right," Aradil husked, startling himself with his own vehemence. But Annatar was right about his ambition, and if the smith had any hope of earning a Ring for himself, he had to speak out now. "If my father hadn’t trained me to be a smith," he forged on bravely, "I would have gone to war. I could have been a captain by now, or even a king."

"You still can be," said Annatar.

Steam hissed from the ninth Ring as Aradil sucked his finger. He hadn’t intended the cut to be so deep; but then again, he had been excited. This was the Ring, chief of the Nine -- and Annatar was giving it to him! At last someone had seen his real potential, after all these years of his being appreciated for his smithwork and his pretty face. Truth be told, he hated that face. It looked so...boyish. He was a man, and now he would become a ruler of Men.

Annatar picked up the ring and closed his hand around it. It must have been blazing hot, but somehow Aradil knew that heat could never harm that hand. Sure enough, the Lord spoke a few words in that strange, grating spell-tongue, then opened his fingers. The ring lay cool in his palm.

Gingerly Aradil reached toward it, then greedily as he felt the chill beneath his hand. He picked up the Ring and held it aloft, noting how the mithril held its silvery gleam even in the light of the furnace. And then he slipped it on his finger.

At once the smithy became gray and dim, while Annatar swelled in his vision like a mighty tower, the only real thing in an unreal world. Fear froze Aradil’s body, starting with his heart and racing outward through every vein...yet on its heels came the most delicious sense of power he’d ever known. "My Lord!" he gasped, and fell at Annatar’s feet.

"Well," sighed Miri, at least he’s gone. And good riddance." She admired herself in the mirror, tilting her head to enjoy the way her new earrings catch the light.

"Good riddance," Aradil echoed from behind her. She felt his fingers close around her neck.

"Hey!" She shrieked. "Your hands are cold." Then she saw the necklace, strand upon strand of mithril, intertwined with pearls, sparkling around her throat as Aradil fastened the clasp. For a long moment all she could do was breathe. "Oh, Aradil," she managed at last, "I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in all my life." She stroked the gems with trembling hands. "It’s almost too lovely to wear."

"Nothing is too lovely for a queen," murmured Aradil, and leaned in close to kiss her.

All the romance left Miri in an instant. "Your lips are as cold as your hands," she frowned. "Aradil, I think you must be getting sick. Here, let me feel your forehead." Her husband grimaced as she laid her palm across his brow. Then she peered intently at his face. "Your eyes look strange, too."

"Strange, how?" Looking over her shoulder at his reflection, he noted the new gleam to his pupils. Power. But Lord Annatar had commanded him to tell no one about the Ring, and so he kept silent. "Don’t worry, love," he told her. "I feel perfectly well. Better than I ever have, in fact."

Again he kissed her, and as her fingers found the necklace, she managed a smile. "I can’t wait to show this to my friends."

Aradil shook his head. "No, my dear," he murmured. "Not yet. The village mustn’t know of our wealth until we’re completely secure."

"Secure?" She almost laughed. "From what? I’m talking about our friends!"

"Are you so certain?" he replied, but for the moment he would say no more. And so Miri kept the necklace -- and the news -- to herself.

At first she noticed little change in Aradil -- except that he was prone to finger some secret treasure in his pocket, and his tussles with Erel were a bit rougher than before. Then he developed a habit of vanishing when she needed him most, and reappearing just behind her as though he’d stepped out of thin air.

A few months later, Aradil devised a new and better plan for their mithril hoard. He let Miri keep the necklace and earrings, but the rest of the treasure he took northward to trade in the Misty Mountains. Dwarves, he said, would pay their life’s blood for a treasure like this; and gold was more useful than jewelry any day. So much for the rings and tiaras, Miri thought sadly as her husband departed. But truth be told, she’d miss the mithril less than the man. Something fundamental was changing in Aradil, and even if he returned safely, she wasn’t sure he’d ever be the same again.

Aradil did return, and with him came three wagons worth of gold and a host of Easterlings -- without whom, he said, he’d never have made it home alive. But the bodyguards stayed on after his arrival; and soon Aradil had built new houses for them, as well as a mansion for his family. Miri supposed that meant they were finally "secure." At any rate, Aradil let her wear the mithril necklace in public now. In fact, he encouraged her to do just that.

As for Aradil, he’d begun wearing a ring she’d never seen before, a simple band of mithril without visible ornament. But it seemed to Miri that the cold which never left him now emanated from that one point; and it bothered her that he never took the thing off, not even for a moment.

Yet while his wife grew daily more concerned, Aradil was filled with secret delight. He’d mastered the Ring enough to tame its invisibility; and as for the occasional bad dream, well, if that was the cost of a Ring of power, it was a small price to pay. Besides, he could feel the power growing within him every day. Only recently he’d discovered a faculty for judging the hearts of his enemies. For instance, Eld, the village chieftain, had always treated him like a son; but now Aradil saw that the old man coveted his newfound wealth. In fact, he hated Aradil so much that it was a wonder he hadn’t tried to kill him already. Not that Aradil had anything to fear. His Lord had placed a powerful spell on the Ring, so that as long as Aradil wore it, he could not be killed by any living man. Aradil planned to live a long and memorable life.

As for Eld’s animosity, the smith briefly contemplated having him killed; it would be a simple enough matter for one of the Easterlings to attend to. But then he brought himself up short. What was he thinking? The old man would die soon anyway, with or without his intervention; and he was childless. Aradil had only to buy his way into Eld’s good graces, and he would become the chieftain’s successor. It would be a sacrifice, of course, giving up all that gold; but Lord Annatar had taught him well. Power always came at a price.

Within four years Aradil had assumed the leadership of his village; and within two more, he’d annexed several surrounding towns -- only somewhat against their will, for the Ring performed just as his Lord had promised. Now Aradil found he could turn the basest and weakest minds to his will with barely an effort. Even his own body was more subject to his command, for although the dreams had intensified and he often felt sick and weak, once his mind was set on a task he could not rest until he completed it.

And there were so many tasks these days! The plans sleeted through his mind as if from an outside source, although Aradil knew they must come from his own Ring-enhanced cleverness. He was especially proud of an idea that had come to him a year ago, to consolidate all the towns of his realm into one giant city of stone. This city would dominate all the surrounding land and, because he would not allow anything green or growing within its walls, it would also be unchangeable and nearly immortal.

The work was already well underway. Thanks once more to the power of the Ring, Aradil’s own village had been refinished from one end to the other in black granite, and every tree within five miles of his palace had been hewn down. Very soon now he’d begin on the neighboring towns.

The thought filled him with grim satisfaction. He was truly a King now, and his realm was expanding more rapidly than he could have imagined. One day, within his lifetime, all of the lands around the Great River would be his. He rarely thought about the other Rings, or the ambitions of their wearers. Lord Annatar had made him master of them all.

The one thorn in his flesh now was Miri. Somehow, in the slow accumulation of power, she’d slipped away from him. Oh, she still lived in his home, still slept in his bed; but only her love for Erel kept her there. The boy loved his father as much as he ever had, and would not leave him. It was odd, Aradil thought, that the Ring which drew so many others to him should drive his wife away. But she would come around, eventually. If worst came to worst, he had only to wait until his power reached its zenith. Then, he knew, he could force even gentle Miri to his will.

In the meantime, all he had to do was keep his wife close at hand, and keep his plans for Erel a secret. For Lord Annatar had left him another Ring, the second of the Nine, and had suggested that when the time was right Aradil give it to his son. It seemed only fitting, the once-smith thought. King and Prince: rulers together over all Middle-earth. Of course, he himself would take the larger portion.

Now the dreams came every hour of every night, pummeling him from within until resistance became no more than a memory. And then at last the Dark Lord himself came to Aradil, and revealed his true face. By this time there was hardly enough left of the real man to be afraid.

His mind lay naked beneath an eye like a giant wheel of fire. Its spokes blazed through every corner of his interior sky, and it had but a single demand: Aradil’s complete and utter submission. Aradil thought he’d given that already, but he’d been wrong.

Again the icy power flowed through his veins, just as it had when he first put on the Ring. But at last he realized that the power was not his own, that it never had been. It belonged to Sauron, the very embodiment of evil, and Aradil saw at last how he’d been betrayed. At that realization, the Eye retreated a little, but only enough to give its victim room to squirm. And so Sauron gloated over him for the space of several hours, while Aradil’s will crumbled slowly to ash.

Beside him Miri shivered in her sleep and pulled the covers close around her neck. But her husband lay still as a corpse.

Some days later, Miri lay sobbing by the banks of the Great River. She had thought she could bear it, being married to a man who became more of a stranger every day. But she’d never imagined his cruelty could extend this far. The executions had begun a week ago -- although many of the original victims had yet to expire. Their punishments were so grotesque that at last even Erel had turned against his father; yet Aradil was so caught up in his own designs that he seemed not to notice. The King -- for Miri could no longer think of him as her husband -- no longer went abroad by daylight and, for the most part, hid himself even from his family.

As she wept, it seemed to Miri that she felt rain on her head, although the sky was cloudless. Then a shadow fell over her, and she looked up into the branches of an enormous willow. Its leaves, tipped with dew, caressed her forehead and wiped away her tears.

Now, there had been no trees along this part of the Anduin for some time, so Miri’s first inclination was to flee. But she’d experienced enough horror these last few months to inure her to fright; and besides, there was something almost comforting about the touch of those branches. Miri looked harder, and soon she could make out a face among the leaves: an ancient, infinitely sad, infinitely beautiful face, its eyes more full of tears than her own. Then the branches fell away, and Miri beheld a tall, stately woman who smiled at her. "Do not fear," the woman said. "I am Nienna, and I have felt your grief as my own."

"My Lady!" Miri gasped, and fell at the Vala’s feet. She’d heard tales of the Ainur appearing to mortal Men, but only in times of great war, and only to great warriors. What use could a keeper of Arda have for a woman like Miri?

Strong but gentle hands cupped her chin. "Your husband has been bewitched," said Nienna, raising Miri’s head to meet her face. "Is this not so?"

"I fear it is, my Lady," sobbed Miri. And to her surprise, the story tumbled out of her in a rush while the Vala’s tears flowed without ceasing.

At last Nienna spoke again. "This is the work of Sauron. I fear your husband is already completely in his thrall."

Miri wiped her eyes with trembling hands. "Then there is no hope for him?"

"I did not say that. The Valar no longer act directly in the affairs of Middle-earth, but I will give you what help I can. You must know that your husband belongs to Sauron now, body and mind. But there is a third part of him, a part that sleeps now deep beneath the ice of sorcery." Nienna cupped her hands and bent forwards, forming a bowl that quickly filled with tears. "Not all mourning is weak, Miri. Tears may clear the vision and give one strength for action. So come, bathe your eyes and learn the extent of your husband’s plight. And then do with that knowledge what you will."

Trembling, Miri did as Nienna bade her; and when she looked up again, she knew all that had happened to Aradil -- and all that would happen, if Sauron’s will went unchecked. Most painful of all was the Dark Lord’s plan for Erel. But that could be remedied easily enough: the Numenorians traveled through their land quite frequently these days, and would be glad to give her son passage wherever he wished. More difficult was the problem of Aradil himself. If matters stayed as they were, his body would never die, but would be consumed by shadow so that his soul remained trapped between life and death -- forever frozen beneath the ice. And yet, the cost of saving him was almost too much to bear.

Miri looked up into Nienna’s face, but the Vala shook her head. "I can offer you no counsel in this matter, for every choice is an evil one. From this point onward, you will find both blessings and curses on every path." She leaned down and kissed Miri’s forehead. "But go, daughter, and know that whatever your choice, my prayers and my tears go with you."

"Mother, I can’t do this." Erel stood next to his horse, nervously twisting the reins between his fingers. In the distance, a band of Numenorians were already mounted and ready to ride. Only their outlines were visible in the early-morning fog.

"Erel, you must." The sternness of his mother’s expression made Erel step back. "I cannot yet tell you all that your father has become, but you must trust me and flee now, before you are as deeply trapped as he. Now go. We have relatives in Calenardhon who will take you in when you arrive. They will keep you safe until I join you."

Erel searched her face for a hidden meaning, but after all, he was only thirteen and not yet adept at reading expressions. "Do you promise?"

"I promise." Gently Miri stroked his cheek. "Now go, and take my love with you."

As the fog closed between boy and mother, Miri let the tears flow free. She knew she’d never reach Calenardhon.

Miri waited several days before approaching Aradil, for if her plan should fail, Erel would need as much of a head start as possible. Fortunately, it wasn’t difficult to conceal the boy’s absence when the King stayed locked in his quarters all day and spent most of each night with his Guard. It seemed to Miri that he had forgotten all he knew of human hearts, and trusted his son’s devotion to hold fast despite his cruelty.

Miri bit her lip as she paused outside the royal chambers. It was mid-day, with the sun directly overhead, and she hoped to catch the King sleeping. Things would be so much easier if he were sleeping. Cautiously she gripped the doorknob and turned -- or tried to. It was locked.

Suddenly there came a noise from behind the door, something between the hiss of a snake and the sound of a new-drawn blade. Miri’s hand flew back as the knob began to turn of its own accord; then the door swept inward. The room was filled with equal parts darkness and cold. "Come in, wife," she heard a strange voice say. And she obeyed.

This had once been their bedroom, but Miri hadn’t slept there herself in weeks, and Aradil had been busy in her absence. All the furniture was gone and the windows had been bricked over, although a thin, pale light flickered along walls and ceiling. The Witch-King stood alone in the center of the floor, dressed in a plain black robe. Although Miri knew he was only a few steps away, it was as if she saw him from a great distance. His features were slightly blurred, with just a hint of transparency about them; and his skin was like that of a corpse. Only his eyes were fully visible. Those eyes, which once sparkled like moonlight on Anduin, now glittered like cold steel. Miri shivered and wrapped her arms around herself.

"Ah, my dear Queen." The voice was low, metallic, sharp as a blade. Its owner lifted his arms in the mockery of an embrace. "What a pleasure to see you in my chambers again. Come to me, darling."

Entirely against her will, Miri found herself moving across that dank floor, into the arms of the thing that had eaten her husband. She pulled herself up short a pace away, and the apparition reached out and laid a hand on each of her shoulders. Aching cold pierced her skin, her muscles, her bones, until she wondered if she’d ever be able to lift her arms again. Erel, she thought, and a small measure of warmth returned to her flesh.

The Witch-King formed his lips into the parody of a smile. "To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?"

"I -- I wanted to be with my husband," Miri stammered. "I miss him."

The false smile widened. "And here he is. So, now that you are with him again, what would you ask? I have many gifts to offer you, much finer than this little trinket." A bony finger traced the lines of Miri’s necklace, which she had put on just before coming to his chamber. It was the first time she’d worn the thing in months. And now, at the Witch-King’s touch, the mithril grew tarnished and rimed with frost. Pain clamped Miri’s throat, and she fought for breath. "What would you like," the Witch-King continued, heedless of her distress, "power? Immortality? All of Middle-earth on a ring around your finger?"

"Nothing so complicated," Miri managed, and steeled herself with the memory of Nienna’s tears. "Only the embrace of my husband’s arms, and a single kiss from his lips." She moved in closer, and as the coldness enfolded her, she lifted her own arms. Falling back, her sleeves revealed a hidden dagger, pressed tight against her wrist.

The Witch-King, eyes locked on those of his Queen, never saw the blade until it flashed beneath his throat. His head fell back -- too far -- and a torrent of black blood flowed from the wound. Yet behind it came a cloud of even greater blackness, which flowed from throat and mouth and nose until it had completely enveloped the room. Icy midnight closed around Miri and choked her breath and senses alike. The necklace buckled around her throat, digging deeper and deeper into her flesh until even the black cloud could no longer reach her lungs.

Miri fell dead atop the Witch-King’s corpse, and their souls flew free together.

In later days, there was no one to tell the story of Miri’s sacrifice or Aradil’s redemption; for with the tyrant’s death, all that he had built crumbled to ruin, and many lives were lost in its fall. Only the Witch-King’s second-in-command, an Easterling named Khamul, sifted the palace wreckage until he found what he thought was the source of his master’s power: a simple mithril Ring. And so he became the second of the nine Ringwraiths; while the first, torn from his mortal body but by no means destroyed, flew back to Sauron with the first of the Nine still closed around his finger.

Lifetimes passed. Miri’s village fell out of memory and into dust; and when the last Numenorians built Minas Anor on its foundations, they never knew anyone else had lived there. More lifetimes passed, and Calenardhon became Rohan. Yet more, and Minas Anor became Minas Tirith. And four millennia later, on the same land that had once birthed the Witch-King, a woman of Rohan completed the work her ancestor Miri had begun.

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