The Circles - Book Eight - Chapter 18

The Circles - Book Eight - A Mordorian Bestiary
Chapter Eighteen
From Riches to Rats
Written by Angmar and Elfhild

The darkness of the chamber was deeper than any pit in the bowels of the earth. The murk had a texture to it, almost like velvet, and he could let himself sink into it, falling into a lassitude from which he never wished to return. If he concentrated, he could hold the filaments of darkness in his hand, letting his fingers touch the very particles of air and find energy untainted by the light.

The gloom held no fear for him, and he could lose himself in its inky depths until the shadows became one with him. He wondered if the darkness was this intense beyond the Door of Night, where the absence of all light hid the black soul of Morgoth. Had Eä been composed of nothing but dark matter before the Great Song when everything to be was revealed and the heavens had voices and sang, the sound echoing simultaneously from one part of the universe to the other? An idle speculation, he realized, since he would never know. Time could not go in reverse and take him back there to experience for himself that momentous, historical occasion. No, there was nothing except today, and bitter half-remembered yesterdays.

He gazed at the opposite wall, and his eyes took in every minute scratch, every tiny crevice, every smudge of grease, soot and dirt, and every spot of long dried blood and feces. From its cobweb draped top to the pocked and pitted floor, the wall painted a tapestry of terror. Near the center, there was a smeared handprint etched in agony upon the crumbling stone. Several times he ran a finger over the bloodstain, tracing down the trailing paths of blood. He could feel the energies in the rusty stain, for blood had its own power, and none sensed it more acutely than his kind. For lack of nothing better to do, he closed his eyes and tried to visualize the victim who had so futilely flailed against the wall.

Slowly, materializing out of the stone wall, the image of a bruised, haggard face came into his mind. The eyes were the most notable features, feverish, tortured eyes surrounded by shadowed hollows, as dark and deep as the farthest reaches of space. He knew the cause of death, a common one in the dungeons of Barad-dûr – an agonizingly slow and painful demise at the hands of the torturers. The eyes glared at him accusingly, blaming him for the horrors which the spirit had endured. "This guilt cannot be laid at my feet," he protested. "Go now, thou pathetic shade, and find peace!" He chanted a spell that would rid the cell of the phantom for all time.

Many had been brought here, never to return, or else to be sent out hopelessly marred and transformed. The spirit of the dead man was not the only one who traversed his cell. They often came, groaning and wailing and begging for release. Some could be quite irritating, accusing him of being instrumental in their downfall. Others were merely lonely and confused, refusing to accept the fact that they were truly dead. The prisoner had considered using the force of his mind and will to cleanse away every grim memory that clung like mold in this chamber of haunting death, but the expenditure involved for such a bombardment of spiritual energy seemed hardly worthwhile. The task would be hopeless anyway, for there would always be an endless procession of poor wretches who would die in agony in the vast dungeons, adding their angry, troubled souls to the roster of the damned.

The dispatching of the spectre had been the only distraction in this cheerless place where the time dragged by so slowly that the passage of a day seemed as long as hundreds of years. The chamber was the abode of terror, blood, death and torture, but for the prisoner, it had been a sentence to extreme boredom. A fortnight had he spent there, and already he was overcome by the monotony of the prison, the repetitious sequence of events broken only by the regular changing of the guards.

Boredom was a state which seldom troubled the Morgul Lord. He had always found that in whatever circumstance, whether he was alone or with others, his great encompassing mind could entertain itself, whether by solving complicated mathematical problems or by going over detailed battle strategies, or in any one of a thousand other ways. Though he had employed all of these methods, he was still restless, his mind not settling for long upon any one matter. No, there was something unnatural about this peculiar state of discomposure. He was having the same reactions as a prisoner who had been locked away for a much longer period of time than a mere fortnight. He knew that Sauron was playing tricks upon his mind, confounding his perception of time. He prayed that his Master would not make him start forgetting. Long years without sunshine or fresh air caused many prisoners to forget what life was like before the dungeon, and no other reality existed beyond the walls of their cells. He would not become as them!

An absurd thought had begun to toy with his mind. He would use his considerable powers of magic to level the thick outer wall of his cell in a great blaze of fire and fury. First the wall would begin to vibrate, its surface growing warmer as each particle of dust strove to burst free. Then the wall would crumble into untold millions of fragments, spewing outward with a tremendous burst of fire and smoke, hurtling down, down into the vast chasm below. Other times, he would raise up his hand and a curling dagger of white hot flame would smash into the stones, exploding them into billowing clouds of dust. He would step off the ledge into the abyss... and go... and go... where?

He would probably fall through the roof of one of the many orc taverns which clustered like begging urchins along the base of the Tower. There he would land with a loud crash upon a table, smashing tankards and bottles and sending platters of unsavory orcish food flying. The orcs would all scream and trample each other as they fled from the establishment. The tavern keeper would clutch his greasy apron, winding it in his clawed hands, and fall upon the floor, begging for mercy. Then if he had courage, he would look up, cocking one eyebrow, and ask humbly, "Would ye care for some wine, me lord? Ye can 'ave anything in the 'ouse at no charge! Ye can even 'ave me wench! She's a good 'un, always beggin' to be ridden! Take it all, me lord!"

As the prisoner shook away the image of a short, dumpy she-orc with greenish, wart-covered skin, he knew that the Dark Lord was responsible for these bizarre visions. Yes, Sauron was manipulating his mind again, filling it with delusions and hallucinations. The Master would not be satisfied until He had His fill of vengeance – whenever that would be. In the meantime, his Master would make certain that he would be incapable of deciphering reality from fantasy. Torture came in many forms, and Gorthaur the Cruel was master of them all.

There was a good reason why the dungeons of Barad-dûr were called the Houses of Lamentation.

Of all the torments the Master inflicted him with, the illusions and deceptions and fantasies were the worst of all, for they always stripped him of his grasp upon reality. Though they could bring the sensation of physical pain, the punishments were seldom that banal. He could be looking out the window of his cell, and suddenly he would find himself in the coils of a writhing serpent which would hold him in its scaly embrace until the life was almost twisted out of him. If the snake did not exist or was a product of his imagination was never apparent during the vision, and even after the episode had passed, the Morgul Lord sometimes wondered if the bizarre occurrence had really happened. The Master had ways of manipulating His servants' minds until they were close to breaking, though He never quite took them past that point.

After a long period of being bombarded with demon hallucinations and phantasmagorical visions, Sauron would bring him and his brethren before Him and remind them of their debt of gratitude to Him, emphasizing that He had healed them of their "aberrations." Khamûl was one who accepted the mercies of the Master, and while Rut and Udu surreptitiously acceded to the claim, the Morgul Lord was never quite convinced that they believed it. The others were never tortured to the same degree of magnitude as the three Númenóreans, for Sauron seemed to take a particular fiendish delight in driving them to the limits of sanity. Skri, though, was a special case. "He was already mad before he became one of the Master's Own, and he just keeps getting madder."

The Morgul Lord wondered how his comrades were faring, but so far he had not been able to contact them in thought. He was certain, though, that they were still housed somewhere in the Tower, but apparently the Master had blocked their usual methods of communication. He assumed that their existence was just as solitary as his. Until he could devise some means of breaching the wall of silence that had been imposed over their thoughts, he would be alone.

Diversions came all too seldom in the prison cell. Once a man had calculated the length, breadth, and depth of the chamber, counted every single one of the massive granite stones which comprised the walls, and registered each telltale bloody smear upon the crumbling mortar, there was little to do to occupy the time. There was the obvious, of course... self-gratification... but he was long past the point of needing physical stimulation to reach that sublime state of ecstasy. His powerful mind could visualize the concept, and he would know instant satisfaction. He imagined a beautiful woman standing before him, beckoning to him with a flirtatious gesture of her hand, a coquettish smirk, and come-hither eyes. Then the vision changed, and he beheld a maiden clad in bright, shining mail with a sword in her firm hand.

"Do I haunt your dreams, my fair golden one, as you do mine?" he mused as a sardonic smile played over his lips. "Perhaps there is a bond between us, for you almost brought about my demise and I yours. How beautiful you were that day, the tears cascading down your flushed cheeks, your golden hair blowing in the sea breeze! For a moment, I felt a pang of guilt for being the cause of your distress, but then you slaughtered my poor beast, whom I had raised as a hatchling! A brute creature who could only follow his instincts. He simply wanted his due, his just reward, but you denied him that, and his life to boot. Cruel maiden! You would have added me to your grim trophies of the day."

Once, long ago, in a land that now rested beneath the waves, it would have been considered unmanly to attempt to kill a woman, and so, maybe it still was. But she had challenged him as a man would a man, and while he felt regret that fate had decreed their meeting should be on the field of battle, still he felt no guilt. She had asked for no quarter, and he had given none. His mind filled with admiration for the valor of the brave warrior woman from Rohan. He felt a sense of sadness, too, that the heat of battle demanded that he should crush and break that which he would have preferred to touch gently and tenderly caress.

Memories of the Fields of Pelennor flooded through his mind, coming just as unbidden as the vision of the desperate shieldmaiden. A pain shot through the back of his knee as he remembered the blow from the halfling's knife, the doubt and disbelief that almost shattered him when the spell had been broken. So distracted had he been by his beautiful assailant, the demise of his beloved fell beast, and the threat of ancient prophesy, that he had not sensed the small figure creeping along the ground behind him.

"I should never have been bewitched by your beauty, temporarily stripped of my will like some whey-faced youth! You were swift, but I was swifter, but still you left me with a grievous wound." A twinge of pain passed over his features, and he clutched the side of his head where the sword had driven a bloody trough between skin and bone. His leg rendered useless by the halfling's knife, he had fallen forward, narrowly missing a fatal blow from the upward thrust of his attacker's sword. He had been left with a scar, though, that no magic could fully heal, and these days he often walked with a limp.

He remembered collapsing upon the fallen shieldmaiden, his body crushing her into the hoof-beaten mud. The ancient magic of the Dúnedain coursed through his body, burning him with a fire that could not be quenched by his counter-spells. His mind lost to a bitter world of agony, he had lain in a daze atop his fair enemy, his blood splashing down upon her face, a searing fire consuming his wounded leg. He felt the clutch of mortality seeping through his veins like a deadly poison, and he considered surrendering to Námo's call. Then the stark realization came to him, as it had so many times before... As long as his Ring was still in existence, he was bound to Sauron, and upon the destruction of his body, his shrieking spirit would join the host of damned souls that moaned and wailed through the dim corridors of Barad-dûr. No, the lonely, hallowed halls of Mandos would forever be denied unto him.

Slowly, with mounting urgency, his will to survive began to return to him. He did not wish to dwell as a houseless spirit until his Master could find some unlucky victim for him to possess. Weak from loss of blood and suffering from a magical wound, he knew he would be at the mercy of his enemies. Though at that moment his attackers were incapacitated with the Black Shadow, the halfling was still conscious, and a well-aimed dagger throw could be his undoing. The woman was still alive, though barely, for her wounds were more severe. For a moment, he considered killing her where she lay, but she had been a worthy adversary, and it seemed an underhanded blow to deal her. She would die soon enough from the Shadow anyway, unless she were cured of her ailment.

Bidding the shieldmaiden farewell, he bent down and kissed her lips, which were splattered with his blood. Then, grabbing the spear of a slain warrior, he struggled painfully to his feet, gritting his teeth against the fiery agony which raged in his wounded leg. The halfling had been tending to the dying king, and when he saw that his dread enemy had only been wounded, not slain, he froze in terror. The Morgul Lord gave the astonished halfling a withering glare as he hobbled by, causing the wretched creature to faint dead away. As he made his inglorious, ignoble escape across the battlefield, he had far greater concerns upon his mind. Out of the city of Minas Tirith poured the Gondorians, and the ground rumbled with the hooves of the cavalry of Rohan and Dol Amroth. His own forces were coming from the direction of the Anduin; if only he could reach them before the spell overcame him or his enemies trampled him. Then he heard the battle cry of Éomer, and when he looked over his shoulder, he discovered to his horror that the entire host of Rohan was pursuing him with a fury, crying out for his head.

Calling upon the last remnants of his failing strength, the Morgul Lord lifted his arms high and shrieked out a spell of Darkness. The skies turned black, lightning flashed, and a fog like night spread out over the battlefield, confusing the advance of the Rohirrim. His strength gone, his body consumed with agony and fever, he took a few staggering steps forward and collapsed under an upturned wain, coughing up blood. The stench of gore and muddy earth and the angry cries of the horsemen were the last things he remembered before he awoke in his chambers at Barad-dûr.

There, he found to his surprise that his Master had spent long hours by his bedside, fretting and worrying over him whilst he lay in a deathlike stupor. Sauron's eyes were wet with golden tears as He surveyed the grievous wounds which had been dealt to His servant, and He wrung His hands in despair. The Morgul Lord had nearly been vanquished, his strength ebbing away as he plummeted back to mortality. The spell that bound his spirit to his body had been broken by the blade of Westernesse, and he was on the verge of perishing from blood loss, exhaustion, and an enchanted fever. In a desperate attempt to heal His most valuable servant, Sauron had imbued the Morgul Lord's Ring with a portion of His own strength and then slid the glowing band upon the unconscious wraith's finger. Then, summoning forth His ancient powers, Sauron began to sing a song of healing, of mending and sustaining, of preservation and restoration, of necromancy and negentropy. The Morgul Lord could feel his body mending, the Dúnedain magic being purged from every fiber of his being. The old magic was being reforged, magic that would make him whole, protecting him from all ordinary weapons. New skin formed over his wounds, and he became hale once again.

As he recalled his healing at the hands of his Master, the Morgul Lord remembered the early days when Sauron had been his mentor and he His prized student, before time had driven a wedge between them. Perhaps these sentiments were real, or perhaps it was his Master manipulating his mind again. Who could tell? He would never forgive Sauron for the destruction of Númenor, or for robbing him of his Ring.

His Ring. Once again, it had been taken from him, and he was left bereft.

A long, soul-wrenching moan tore from the pit of his being, and he sagged into a chair, one of the few luxuries that graced his cell. The feeling of separation was intense, a blighted gnawing at his soul for the thing most priceless to him. Being denied his Ring was the only form of torture which could humble the mighty king. For seventy long years, his Ring had been in Sauron's keeping, until the Dark Lord had cut the Master Ring from the halfling's finger. He had then returned the Nine Rings to the Nazgûl, but when they had displeased him, He had demanded them to be returned. To have held his Ring for so short a time was agony to the Morgul Lord. He was like a drunkard who, after enduring many long years without drink, took a sip of the demon wine and then craved it continuously. How he hated the damned Ring, and how he loved it! It was his weakness, and his strength. Would he always feel the bitter emptiness inside, the longing to possess the only thing that made his life bearable? Were he not a high lord of Númenór, he would have crawled to Sauron and begged to be allowed to touch the golden band one more time before he was sent back to his cell.

Everything inside him cried out for it in desperation. He was empty inside, his body needing it as much as his soul and mind. If he could, he would will himself to death, but that was forbidden to him, for long ago he had been condemned to live forever. Dying would be a blessing, and whatever humanity remained in him longed for the Gift of Eru rather than the Curse of Annatar. He closed his mind to that possibility, for that was a route that long ago had been abandoned, and never would there be another chance offered... or would there?

The Morgul Lord sat there for long moments in silence, pondering upon his losses, his only company his sorrow. Then his finely attuned ears caught a faint sound to his left, and he turned his head. There, darting out of a crack in the crumbling masonry of the wall, a rat scurried across the floor. A small distraction, but a distraction none the less. The creature froze to the spot when it saw him. A faint smile flickered over his grim lips, and he bent down his tall frame and scooped up the squealing rat by the tail. The little rodent's body spasmed in terror, its stressed bladder releasing a stream of reeking urine to drip onto the floor.

The wraith held up the creature at eye level and looked into its small, beady black eyes, which were darting wildly with fear. He allowed the rat to thrash about for a while, waiting until it had tired itself with its frantic efforts to escape. He intoned a quiet spell of calming as he rubbed his finger over the back of the rat's head, and the small animal's body relaxed, its eyes losing their wildness. He moved it to his other hand, where the rat lay quietly, trusting but alert.

He quickly analyzed the creature's brain, a simple matter when dealing with such an uncomplicated being. He scanned its memory, delving back to the time when it was still in the nest, suckling at its mother's teats. There was nothing extraordinary about the rat; it had been neither the strongest nor the weakest of the litter, but merely an ordinary, unpretentious rat. Though the creature found comfort in its earliest perceptions, the wraith inwardly recoiled, his nose wrinkling as he smelled the stench of the cluttered nest, the droppings, the urine, the rodent-like smell that permeated every scrap of cloth, paper, wood, and feather.

The Morgul Lord quickly passed over the early life of the beast as being uninteresting, with nothing exceptional to mark the passage of time except feeding and squabbling with its litter mates. The man noted, however, that the rat had felt a certain pain and longing when its mother finally abandoned the litter after she had weaned her brood. The only thing that could be considered of interest was that this rat had once entertained hopes of becoming the king of the entire colony of sixty or more rats.

An impossible ambition, of course, and the rat had failed, as might be expected. He had lost the battle to an immense Black Rat which traced his ancestry all the way through the dark annals of history to Angband, where his illustrious forebears had held court in the depths of that dark fortress. The man detected that the rat had been humbled at losing the vicious, bloody fight with the Black Rat, his only consolation being that he had managed to survive. As a result of this miserable confrontation, the rat's fellows had dubbed him "Bloody Dung" in their own language. He had been the brunt of endless ridicule, and though he was too proud to admit it to the rest of the colony, he detested the name.

The Morgul Lord stroked the creature's pinkish ears and stared into his bright eyes. Here was another being which had known shame and humiliation. What was the harm in being kind to the rat? The prisoner gave him a new name, Murg, meaning "gray" in the tongue of Mordor, a clean and simple name which described the creature well. The rat seemed to approve, for he squeaked out his endorsement in a pitch so high that the ears of most men could never hear. Of course, the prisoner heard, and smiled to himself.

Further probing the rat's accumulated memory, he discovered every trail, every corridor, every passage that honeycombed the walls of Barad-dûr, the mental map that the rat used to transverse the very heart of the Tower. During the process, he learned a considerable amount of Rattish, a language which he had never before thought worthy of learning. Now with time heavy upon his hands, he added it to his extensive repertoire of languages, both human and animal.

Next he selected the area of the rat's brain which controlled more recent memory and gently pushed a finger of thought inside. The rat had long since stopped fighting him, and his mind was open and receptive, eager to yield up every possible scrap of information which his small skull contained. The Morgul Lord wished that men's minds were so easily overpowered. Some would never submit and allow their mental walls to be breached; instead, they would lock their minds away in hidden sanctuaries that even the agony of torture could never conquer. Those were useless, since they preferred death to breaking trust and divulging the information demanded of them.

Not aware that his thought processes were being studied, Murg had become so relaxed that his innate shyness was replaced by a quiet confidence that the man would not harm him. He looked down at a front paw and began grooming himself, licking his fur and occasionally nuzzling the wraith's fingers. When the rat was satisfied that his fur was clean, he twitched his whiskers and looked up at the wraith, who could only marvel at the strange irony.

"I, who was once a king, am now a prisoner, while you, my little friend, are free. How unfathomable are the workings of fate!"

Murg gave him what could be considered a sympathetic look.

"Kings and powerful lords summon their armies and send them out to conquer their enemies and strip them of their riches," the Morgul Lord reflected as he looked down at the rat on the palm of his hand. "Thousands die by fire and sword, and women and children are left without husbands and fathers. When the victors ride in triumphal procession through their cities, cheered on by their grateful countrymen who idolize them, they parade the spoils of war – gold, silver, jewels, slaves, fine horses and cattle, and treasures beyond number. Upon endless bloody battlefields, they leave behind them the wreckage of lives and hope. Always the gleam of greed in the eyes of petty little men burns brighter as they dream of new lands to conquer. Plague and disease follow in the wake of armies, and more numbers are added to the frightful toll of warfare."

The Morgul Lord paused and scratched a tender spot on Murg's back where a flea had bloodied him. "While civilizations rise and fall, and the names of great kings are eventually forgotten, your people go about their quiet, unassuming ways and populate the ruins of great palaces. Who are the victors and who are the losers?" he asked as Murg looked up at him questioningly. "Your people, my little friend, always endure. What can I do, I who was once a king, except bow to your people's perseverance and tenacity?"

He knew that Murg was able to understand only a little of what he said, for he had versed it in Westron. The rat looked up at him, a puzzled expression on his face, for the little beast could not comprehend complicated matters of philosophy. Then the wraith stroked behind his ears, and the rat felt contented.

"Now my bright-eyed companion of the moment, the time has come for us to say our farewells. I give you leave now to ask of me a boon, some memento of our time together." The Morgul Lord smiled benevolently down at the bit of living flesh in his hand. "What do you ask? A bit of meat, a piece of cheese, or perhaps a small draught of wine?" Though the rat could not behold his face, he gazed upward at the place where the wraith's voice was coming. "Just name what you wish, and if it is in my power, you shall have it."

The rat took a deep breath, uncertain whether he had the courage to ask such a favor or not. Then his eyes began to gleam in excitement, and he squeaked out enthusiastically.

"No, no, my friend," the Morgul Lord answered, the first real hint of amusement in his voice for weeks. "You and your folk may not build nests in my furniture or in my bed. Instead I might suggest that you take yourself and your tribe to Lord Khamûl's chambers and populate his environs with the virility of your loins." The rat cocked his head curiously before continuing in a series of earnest entreaties. "No, no, my little friend," the wraith told him. "I cannot vouchsafe that Lord Khamûl will not slay you and your folk. Best confine yourselves to the walls and secret passages of the Tower. Perhaps you have another request?"

He bent down closer to the creature. "You beg my protection from the orcs who seek to destroy you with traps and poison, and the monstrous Cats of Barad-dûr who creep about and spring on you when you least expect? I know them well... they trace their lineage to old Tevildo the Great of long ago. Yes, my little friend, as much as I am able, I grant this to you as a token of our newfound friendship. Go now, Murg. Return to your simple pleasures. Always remember that once you attended a king in his imprisonment."

...A king who once spent his time with lords and nobles, generals and warriors, diplomats and politicians, but who now idles his days in conversations with the lowliest creatures of the earth.

"Indeed, I have fallen low," the Morgul Lord thought with a droll laugh.

He bent down and released the rat, who looked back up at him before scurrying towards the crack in the wall. Then at a discreet distance from the wraith, the rat released a stream of yellow liquid from its full bladder. The creature trembled in fear and then remembered his manners, submitting an apology, which was accepted by the one who had once been a king. With his companion returned to the endless passages of the Tower, the Morgul Lord was alone with only the shadows of his gloom to keep him company.

Outside in the corridor, he could hear an orc guard arguing with his fellow over the outcome of a game of chance. From another direction deep in the dungeon, there was a piteous moan followed by a loud thudding noise. A gut-wrenching scream tore out of the mouth of another victim, an unfortunate wretch whose toenails were being ripped out by the torturers' tongs. These sounds were commonplace, all part of the fabric that made up the vast dungeons of Barad-dûr.

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