As the occupants of the chief slaver's tent drifted off to sleep, they could hear, far away across the camp, the last sounds of the day's festivities as they ebbed away. Great had been the rejoicing amongst the caravan guards and workers at the return of their lord and his bodyguards. The celebrants, their stomachs filled with large quantities of food and cheap wine, staggered, walked or crawled back to their tents, or simply slept where they lay. Several men in the camp were musicians of considerable skill, and had set up an informal concert to celebrate Esarhaddon's return. Now, though, it was time to retire for the evening and prepare for the long day of traveling on the morrow. Putting his beloved oud back in its case, Inbir bade a good night to his fellow musicians and set off for the tent which he shared with Ganbar and a servant boy whom he had brought from Harad. The tent, the last one in a long line of tents, was not far away; he could even make it out by the light of the waning moon.
Behind him, he could hear the laughter and ribald jests of the other men as they said their goodnights. Inbir was in a fine mood, smiling as he remembered all those who had complimented him upon his singing and playing. As he strolled leisurely, he thought of the lovely, gentle eyed Aeffe, and wondered if there was any possibility that he might be able to see her in the next few days. There was a guard, a friend of his, for whom he had done favors in the past and who might be persuaded to take a bribe for releasing the young beauty for a short while. All Inbir needed was a few minutes alone with her, and then he could reveal his heart and tell her how much he yearned for her. Things could go no further than talk, however, for he knew that the Shakh would kill him if he touched her. As the laughter faded behind him, the night grew still, broken only by the mournful hooting of an owl somewhere far away. Inbir decided to take a shortcut, crossing behind several tents in the camp.
The evening was warm, and he had drunk more than his fill of wine, but his head felt clear. Still, as time passed, he began to wonder if he had consumed more of the sweet brew than he had thought, for his clothing began to feel oppressively heavy. As he proceeded on his course, his perspiration began to flow freely. Soon sweat begun to accumulate under his arms and trickle down the small of his back. Cursing, he wiped the moisture from his forehead with the back of his hand. He stopped, looking around, and then began to walk faster. He was not sure how far he had traveled, but either he must have taken a wrong turn on the shortcut, or else the tent was farther away than he remembered it.
Though he was hot and sweaty, a chill prickled down his spine. He stumbled once, almost falling to the ground, and laughed foolishly when he realized he was outrageously drunk. His state seemed to alternate between bouts of incredible warmth and freezing chills. He wondered if he were coming down with the ague, and considered that possibly he should seek out the camp physician on the morrow. Shivering, he pulled the hood of his burnoose over his head. In his mind, he could hear a strange, melancholy melody, which he began to hum. He hurried across the bleak plain, hoping that he could remember the refrain before it was gone forever.
Something was wrong. The tent was nowhere in sight. He halted, no longer quite sure which direction to take. Though he could not remember striking his head, perhaps when he had stumbled, he had become disoriented and lost his way. He began walking again, but had difficulty making out his surroundings. The night had grown darker and colder, and the shadows had become deeper, until they seemed to form shapes that drew ever closer, surrounding him in a ring of darkness. Inbir began to trot, occasionally glancing over his shoulder when the shadowy figures seemed to close in on him.
Sweating profusely, he felt both hot and cold at the same time. His clothing was soaked, his undergarments clinging damply to his body. "O cup, where is thy sweetness, which didst made my heart merry but a short moment ago?" he asked rhetorically. "If I keep up this pace, perhaps I will sweat out the wine!" His laughter echoed hollowly in his ears. He tried to move faster, but his feet were clumsy, and he often stumbled. It was as though the dark figures were reaching out long, distorted hands which groped for his arms and legs, trying to trip him and drag him into their nightmarish realm. "Cup of joy, thou hast abandoned me!"
His breathing labored, his heart pumping like a drum in his chest, Inbir cursed himself for declining the offer of a musician friend to accompany him back to his tent. Surely he should see some sign of light by now, if nothing more than the glowing embers of dying campfires, but he saw nothing, nothing but the darkness! He must stop, catch his breath, and try to regain his bearings. Nothing was wrong; he had merely lost his way in the darkness. If he were unable to find the tent, what would it matter if he spent the night upon the plain? Breathing hard, he stopped to catch his breath, and when he continued again, he felt much more confident. The darkness even seemed a little lighter.
"All in vain" -- the words seeped into his consciousness like a fragment from some half-forgotten song. He laughed at himself as he tried to finish the rhyme. "Rain... pain... stain..." He frowned when all he could come up with were nonsense rhymes which meant nothing. The laugher invigorated him, though, driving out much of his sluggishness. He broke into a run, chanting "All in vain, all in vain" over and over until he tired once again, and the words slipped away from him. He stopped, his breath coming out in ragged gasps.
By squinting, he could make out a bright star in the canopy of darkness above him. As he caught his breath, he watched it for a while and was comforted until the star began spinning wildly, sending out milky filaments which resembled glowing arms. The star spun faster and faster until the light suddenly went out, extinguished by the darkness.
"All in vain" -- the words came back again, and this time they were so loud that they drummed with each beat of his heart and echoed inside his brain. He broke into a run, the words seeming to follow him as his feet pounded the desolate earth. He ran aimlessly, without direction, for the darkness and its legion of shadows had returned, and he could not see where he was going.
Sensing rather than seeing, Inbir felt the inky shape above him. Before he had gone another foot, an unearthly shriek tore through the night. Inbir fell to the ground, his heart racing so rapidly, his breathing so labored that he felt that his chest would explode. On his hands and knees, he groped like a blind man, moaning in abject terror. Then his fear, raw and bitter like acid, bubbled up in his throat, and he vomited, his stomach muscles straining, heaving up one vile smelling mess after another.
"All in vain--"
The disembodied voice was right beside him, but he was too sick by that time to care.
"The cupbearer is not always kind, nor is the draught always easy to swallow. Ah... such is the bane of existence." A deranged cackle which tapered into a sobbing moan grated in Inbir's ears like long, twisted claws scraping over slate. "The only true freedom comes with the sweet finality of death. In the meantime, take mint for your stomach!" A hand as cold and bony as the haggard hand of Death touched Inbir's shoulder, but when he raised his head, no one was there. Horrible, unearthly shrieks punctuated by gasping laughter echoed all around him. The ghastly screeching proved more than he could bear, and he clamped his hands over his ears before emptying what was left inside his tortured stomach.
When the dizziness had passed, Inbir gazed into the dim heavens and saw a monstrous dark shadow fleeing towards the East. He shook his fist and uttered every obscenity he knew to curse the diabolically mischievous wraith. The messenger was unable to hear him, though, for he was already far away, nearing Barad-dûr.
The message the Nazgûl carried to his Master was a grave one, and Skri, chief and speediest of all the Dark Lord's couriers, was loath to deliver it into the hands of his Lord. Sauron was never above killing a messenger who brought Him bad tidings, but since Skri was neither living nor dead, the whole point seemed moot to him. Shrugging his thin, bony shoulders, he tilted the wineskin of Dushûrz Gabhîk to his lips and felt the glowing green draught trickle down his esophagus and splash into his stomach. With a simple, unimpressive spell of seeing, he could visualize the passage of the magic brew as it fed into his bloodstream, finding it morbidly amusing. He cackled senselessly and promised himself that if he should be escorted into the presence of Mandos that night, they would toast his greatly delayed arrival with chilled goblets of wormwood liquor.
Though the Dark Lord roared and raged when the messenger delivered the sealed dispatch case, He did not fling Skri from the Window of the Eye to plummet endless stories to the jagged rocks below. Sauron had done that the last time that Skri had brought unfavorable tidings. With the campaign in Rohan going the way it was, the Eighth Nazgûl judged that he might be forced to take these sudden descents ever more frequently. After every plunge, Skri sustained numerous gashes and bruises, but he had merely brushed off his austere black livery, intoned a spell of mending to remedy all the tears, climbed back up the endless flights of stairs to the Dark Tower, and presented himself once again to Sauron for His new orders.
Upon this date, June the 27th, the latest missive of woe and despair chronicled the loss of Aldburg in the Fold, a prominent city in Rohan. The cost was great for both sides, with the men and orcs of the Mordorian armies taking the heavier losses. After the defeat at Helm's Deep almost a fortnight before, the morale of Mordor's warriors was low, and sinking ever lower as the days went by. It would be some time ere reinforcements from the East would arrive, and the Dark Lord's armies were forced to make their long retreat through the Eastfold, the armies of Gondor and Rohan in hot pursuit. The Rohirrim, who were in their own territory and determined to drive the enemy from their lands, were fearsome and unrelenting foes, and their Gondorian allies were equally as tenacious. With the forces of the West was a host of Elves who sang of ancient magic in songs which filled the servants of Sauron with dread but gave hope to their allies.
Like his brethren, Skri the Eighth Nazgûl feared for the future. Ever since that incident at the Sammath Naur back in March, their Master had become exceedingly temperamental, often flying into violent rages over the least little offense. His confidence deeply shaken by the great calamity which had almost befallen Him and His Ring, Sauron hid His terror beneath His rage, which burnt as hotly as the fires which surged and boiled within the Mountain of Doom. It was not a good time to incur the Dark Lord's ire, Skri thought to himself, but it could not be helped with dismal battle reports such as these.
Perhaps to Mandos he would come soon.
That thought twisted Skri's lips into a morbid smile, and he threw his head back towards the heavens, one shrieking howl of demented laughter after another tearing itself from his throat.