One of the Nine to the Once Vain,
Queen of all sadness and misery.
13th October, 2000 S.A, the forest of Dir, the Northern Waste
Adunaphel had never seen such a place in her life. It seemed that after her recent pact, her life had taken an extremely strange route – whether the road would end with glory or doom was a question she frequently asked herself.
At her side was a tall, grim man. Like Adunaphel he wore a swathe of black cloak with thick fur rimming his sombre face and hardened hands – without these gifts of clothing from their new ‘ally’ they would have surely frozen to death weeks ago. For it had been August when they left the dark mountains of the east, riding northwards through thick forests and across grey mountains until they came upon an unending waste of rock and snow, where any could have lost their way in the eternal blizzards, or fallen prey to one of the strange, myriad creatures the couple had discovered on their quest. But their blades were keen and well-handled, and no beast had yet bested them, and the tools of navigation granted to them guided them through the chaos. Their horses had eventually died in the extreme temperatures, and despite the fact they had been relatively useless in the hazardous terrain, the lack of their steeds had worsened their moods.
Day in, day out they would awake from disquieting dreams to be faced with the same endless white, the same soul-destroying weather, and yet their pride kept them warm and ploughed their feet onwards, though their rations became as low as their spirits. Their problems became ever more frequent – many times they had anxiously discussed whether they were moving in a circle due to the maddening similarity of the wastes, and on especially bitter days they would open their canteens to discover their water had transformed into ice.
However, one day ago, as the same day of worthless travel awaited them, they drifted out of dark dreams to discover that the blizzard had abated for the while, and in the distance they could see a wall of strange trees, the like of which neither had seen before, and they were taken with accomplishment, for this was what they had been searching for – the forest of Dir.
Since they had come under the relative shelter of the resolute trees, the assaults of the wind had abated and travel had become much easier. Due to the deafening blusters of the open wastes, conversation too had been difficult, and so now the travellers could speak without hindrance.
‘We may be out of the wastes,’ whispered Adunaphel in her characteristically quiet voice, ‘But such a large forest could be even more maddening. How can we locate the city we seek?’
Her comrade did not look to her as he spoke, but continued walking through the forest floor, ‘Our master informed me that the Urdar clans have several settlements in the midst of these trees, and they are very territorial. All we can hope is to be as unsubtle as possible in order for one of their patrols to find us, or for us to walk into the area of a settlement.’
Adunaphel mused over his words for a moment. ‘Master?’ she asked. ‘You called him our ‘master’? He is not our lord – he is our ally.’
‘Ally?’ chuckled the man sardonically. ‘Is that what he told you before he gave you your ring?’ She did not reply, but he continued, as if to press the point deep into her mind. ‘Is this the work of allies, to be sent into the corners of the world searching for new recruits?’
After a few moments, Adunaphel finally retorted, ‘You seem to be more than happy with this agreement, even if it is, as you say, true. Are you truly willing to be a slave?’
The man gathered himself for a second, as if physically swallowing his pride, ‘Of course not! To be given the title of slave, or minion; to be in subservience to another – I ruled an empire, how could I ever enjoy that title? But -‘
‘Then why are we here?’ she suddenly stopped dead in her tracks, as if abandoning the mission altogether. ‘You are right – it makes sense that he would call me his ‘ally’ to sweeten the blow. So, why have we abandoned our rulership for offers of power? From barely nothing I forged a great city – a haven of Numenor in the south – and I prospered and gained much land. But war came, desperation drove me to him. But now I wonder if this is just a masquerade of a defeat? We have still lost all we have!’
‘What I was going to say,’ continued the man, ‘Was that we must look at the broader picture. Yes, we must now suffer the role of service, but we shall be immortal! We now have countless years to forge new empires and lands – perhaps we could even gain enough power to overthrow him in time! That is the logic in our loss.’
Adunaphel eventually agreed, and they continued on their quest. But now, as she looked down at her ring, she could not shake the feeling that it felt like a shackle.
The day was beginning to turn into another mirthless night as the failing sun hung heavy through the tree tops. During the night they had discussed to create a fire in order to draw the attention of the Urdar, although they knew care had to be taken in order for them to not think they were enemies. Yet, at least now they could rest around the warmth of an open flame.
‘What else did he tell you about the Urdar?’ inquired Adunaphel, seeking to gain insight into the race before meeting with them.
‘They are a very old tribe, originally from Rhun, who settled here to escape the wars of the Dark Days. But much of their land, Urd, grew into a waste with the coming of Morgoth to Angband, and after his defeat many of his surviving minions and creatures wandered here – which of course the Urdar had to fend off. They must be very hardy folk to live in such a place.’
‘The Numenoreans have had worse days during our time in Beleriand,’ proudly argued Adunaphel.
Her companion chuckled mockingly, ‘Yes, you have such a hard life, living in luxury upon your little isle. It must have been so strenuous for you. You know, the flaw with your race is that you are born into power, you do not have to earn it like we men on Middle-earth, and so you get complacent and arrogant.’
‘And do you know the flaw with your race, Easterling?’ rasped Adunaphel, a little heatedly, ‘You express pride despite the fact you are brutish savages, scattered into tribes with no cohesion.’
‘We were scattered into tribes,’ he stated, ‘Until I came. I forged the entire land of Rhun into one, my empire. I wasn’t born into total domination, like your pompous royalty.’
‘True, but our leaders manage to keep their authority. You, however, let your kingdom fall. Did you not, Khamul?’
He avoided eye contact, probably in shame, ‘It was our new master’s fault. He did not let me return to govern my lands; he sent me away on errands to far off places, such as this. And the civil wars came in Khand – I had occupied the Variag’s land, but they eventually revolted, under the banner of a man, Uvatha, who I have vowed to one day destroy. Besides, you do not seem to be keeping your land very well either, do you?’
‘I was never too attached to my rule,’ whispered Adunaphel, ‘It was all too hollow to me. Power for the sake of power, you could say. After my father died… I never had much care left for the world, apart from hatred for what I believe killed him – our ties with the Elves. My city was my first step to aiding in their destruction. I will return, and I intend to capture and control the strongest haven of my nearby land, or indeed of most lands – Umbar.’
Khamul raised his eyebrow a little. ‘An impressive ambition.’
‘No, not an ambition,’ Adunaphel corrected. ‘A goal.’
They continued to talk into the black night about their respective lands and traditions, although each time they spoke they tried to outdo the other with their people’s traits and feats, and indeed their own, until conversation shifted once again onto the people who lived in this desolate land, the Urdar.
‘The current ruler of the Urdar tribes is a famous individual whose subjects know him as the Ice King. He is very old – as a young man he single-handedly slew a great spirit of fire and shadow in the wastes -‘
‘A Balrog?’ Interjected Adunaphel. ‘An impressive kill!’
‘Indeed. Yet somehow he seemed to take some of the power from the creature for himself – rumours say the essence of the Balrog lies inside the sword he carries, giving him unnatural long life. However, not immortal life. The Ice King seems to be on his last legs, which explains his alliance with our master Sauron, along with his losing war.’
‘Desperation driven by lust for power… We truly are as much as slaves to it as we are to these rings,’ mused Adunaphel.
Khamul continued, as if not hearing the comment. ‘The Ice King is at war with nearby Avari Elves, common enemies of the Dark Lord. I believe this came about when the Ice King first overthrew his own sister – you see the Urdar were formerly a matriarchal society, which I find a little odd –’
‘Odd?’ Interrupted Adunaphel, again. ‘Does not my rise to ascendancy in Numenor (even though my followers are hidden from the truth of my gender) not show you that women, too, can rule?’
‘Adunaphel, I was raised in a land where brute strength and domination rewards you, and as a rule, men are physically stronger. I do not see women as apt leaders. And I am especially puzzled why Sauron chose you to bear one of his rings.’
‘It takes more than muscle to be a leader, Khamul. You should know that, although apparently the Dark Lord does.’
‘Regardless,’ he wisely shifted the topic. ‘The Ice King overthrew the matriarchal royalty of his family and became the first ruling Urdar male – the idea of which he seemed to take from his study and friendship with the nearby Avari Elves, who had a hand in his civil war.’
‘The scheming Elves have always enjoyed meddling in the affairs of others,’ venomously spat Adunaphel. ‘Curiousity will be their downfall.’
‘Agreed. But the Ice King, after a long period of alliance with the Elves, became bitter and cruel towards their magic and immortality, and eventually brought war upon them, a war that he has ironically been losing. And that is where we, and Sauron, enter with our aid.’
‘Happy to help those who fight the Elves. I think the fire needs more fuel…’
Khamul leant over the fire to throw in a couple more fragments of the tree they had struck apart. As he cast the logs into the flame, he raised his head to see his inches away from Adunaphel, yet neither of them tore away in embarrassment. Instead, Khamul finally saw her face, obscured as it had been by her hood for so long, and finally saw her exposed face, a steely, cold siren in the night, and how…beautiful…she was…
Sharp cries rang about them. Khamul and Adunaphel darted up instinctively with raised swords in anticipation. Simultaneaously, they realised their folly, dropping their weapons and heightening their bare hands.
‘We seek the Urdar, subjects of the almighty Ice King,’ shouted Khamul, hoping the ambushers spoke the Common Tongue.
It seemed they did, as one by one, cloaked figures appeared from the darkness carrying hunting bows and spears. One of them, most probably their leader, entered the campsite itself, staring the couple up and down with suspicious scrutiny. Finally seeing them unarmed, he threw back his hood to reveal his unhindered face. His voice was quiet, yet harsh.
‘You seek the court of the Ice King?’ he spoke. ‘What is your business there?’
‘We are emissaries of the Lord Sauron of Mordor, a friend of the Urdar, whom your master seeks alliance with,’ stated Khamul.
The Urd warrior double-checked the two travellers. ‘You are not Elves?’
‘Nothing further from the truth, friend,’ said Adunaphel.
He now fully realised the female face under the hood, yet to Khamul’s surprise he did not react to her gender. It seemed the Urdar did not dismiss women in roles untraditional to them in Rhun.
‘Good. Then you shall follow us to the secret city of Uab, but you must be silent. The fire may have already attracted others – beasts of the wastes and Elf scouts. We must return to our village before we are found.’
The two agents of Sauron followed the Urd patrol back to one of their villages, where a small band of watchers greeted the patrol, speaking in the gruff, hushed language of their race. The couple were sent to rest in one of their more hospitable lodgings as an act of friendship, yet Adunaphel insisted on joining the guard, unable to sleep with the prospect of possible Elf scouts in the vicinity to slay.
She tried her best to discern the buildings and architecture of the Urdar, yet the darkness prevented her from doing so. All she could tell were that the lodgings were fashioned from wood, their makers obviously more concentrated on durability than beauty, a far cry from the citadels where she had been raised.
Adunaphel too took the time to speak to those of the Urdar warriors who could speak the Common Tongue – especially one who was also a woman, which was both empowering and fascinating to see. Adunaphel asked the Urdar of their battles against the Elves, and in return impressed them with tales of her exploits.
The night grew long, yet the Urdar watch continued to warm to Adunaphel. It was probably their lax conversation with her that maintained the first movements in the gloom to go unnoticed.
‘Did you hear that?’The female guard whispered, her words sending the others into a hush and prompting grave faces.
Quicker than they could fully react, a near-silent whistle permeated the hushed night. Adunaphel turned and saw with some shock how the sound was made – one of the watchmen fell blankly to the floor, a slender arrow stuck through his throat.
No order was made, no commands cried by the Urdar. They instinctively knew where to take cover, and how to respond. The archers amongst them readied their bows as a couple of spearmen hastily lit pieces of dry wood on fire before throwing them into the black, illuminating the area about each brand, making targets easier for the archers. Adunaphel was impressed with their skill, although decided her methods of killing would be better against such sly foes as she readied her daggers, obscured her face and crept into the shadowed trees.
The defenders did not see her go, so concentrated were they on the threat all about them, their eyes warily creeping up from behind their short palisade defences. And then their blood went cold, even for such people used to living so far to the north, for they heard a bestial roar and the rattle of chains. Out of the darkness came lumbering a great fell creature, like a massive muscular horse but stumpier and muscular, grey in colour with a fearsome horn of bone jutting from its wide head. The Urd cursed their luck, for the Elves, on occasion, captured beasts from the wastes to use in assaults upon the forest of Dir; yet the Urdar summoned their courage and let their arrows and throwing spears loose on the charging mass headed for their position. Yet its hide was tough, and its charge carried unabated straight into a palisade guard, crushing the hardy wood effortlessly and sending the unlucky trio of warriors stationed behind it flat into the forest floor.
The beast continued into the heart of the village, bellowing and swerving in confusion and anger as the now alert citizens barred their doors or rushed to their weapons. The strange creature seemed to at last focus on the remainder of the Urdar defence, bucking and shouting as it readied to charge. The desperate watchers prepared for a fruitless counterattack, until the door to one of their lodgings swung wide open and a swift black form leapt out, a long sword at their side, directly in the path of the beast. Khamul, irritated at being awoken from his slumber, seemed little intimidated by the animal, even as it now sped towards him, snorting exhuberently. At the last moment, just as it seemed he would be crushed, he masterfully jumped high into the air as the beast passed underneath his feet, before bringing his blade down through the skull of his bestial foe and landing on its head.
The creature gave a cry of pain before crunching into the earth, as Khamul almost casually pulled out his reddied sword and walked off the corpse. He stood without obstruction, and began wiping the crimson away from his blade. One of the watchers behind the palisade quickly motioned for Khamul to take cover, fearful of Elven arrows, yet Khamul continued his task before informing the survivors.
‘My noble Urdar soldiers, where is the woman Adunaphel who was in your company?’
They looked about themselves, yet saw no trace of her to their bemusement.
‘Then that certainly means,’ he continued, ‘That your foes are all now dead.’
One by one, the confused defenders stood up from their hides, looking into the woods illuminated by the burning logs. Surely enough, out from the black, she came walking, a look of death in her eyes as she carried the heads of seven Elves in her hands, holding the dangling trophies from their silky hair.
‘None escaped,’ she dryly reported. ‘Unfortunately I only had the chance to strangle three of them to death.’
The Urdar stared at her with a mixture of awe and mirth.
‘My brave friends,’ stated Khamul. ‘I am sure you, and your Ice King, will be very pleased to have us on your side.’
The two emissaries, assisted by several of the same watchers from the previous night’s encounter, began to near the secret city of Uab by mid-afternoon. Early that morning they had set out from the village, the waking residents perplexed by both the strange travellers and the great corpse. The Urd had a tradition of cooking and eating the mighty beasts they slew, yet there was a foul odour about the creature from the wastes and so they took it with much labour into the trees and burnt it, although the ground about it grew sickening and smouldered. The party took many supplies from the civilisation, due to many of the Urdar people gifting Adunaphel and Khamul for their aid, and after respects were paid to the soldiers who had died in the conflict they set off.
The forest of Dir provided itself with many strange landscapes the likes of which the emissaries could not expect – their quest truly seemed to be rife with surprises. Glaciers merged with woods in what looked like silent battles between the elements and the trees; the clearest streams and rivers the pair had seen ran like transparent veins through the forest; and by the setting of the sun they had come to a sheer rock face with gaping caves of icy stalactites dotting the natural wall. Their Urdar companions guided them through these caverns, the use of fire unnecessary as the failing sun seemed to reflect itself through the icy tunnels, and in the deepest parts passages of light fell upon the subterranean pathways. With little effort they came onto the other side of the rock face, onto a part of the forest where the trees were less close together, apparently the effect of timber harvesting.
‘You have now come to the inside of the stone ring which surrounds our city,’ said one of the Urdar. ‘We believe it was made by a huge fortress many years ago, but now Uab stands at the centre of it.’
True to his word, after a small walk through the trees they came to a clearing, and there stood dull, grey threatening towers, walls and buildings surrounded by a steep ditch, crossable only by a stone bridge that must have stood for many years. The city of Uab held little beauty, yet none questioned its strength.
However, after walking through Uab’s sombre streets, the inner palace seemed to be a contrast to the rest of the drab city. As Adunaphel and Khamul made their way inside, they could see how the chambers and passageways were ornamented by blue and white jewels and orbs, and bold art of the famous exploits of the Urdar. At the end of the corridor leading to the throne room the most recent paintings were displayed – the Ice King duelling the Balrog as a young man; the Ice King overthrowing his sister and taking the crown; and him drawing swords against a group of Avari Elf nobles. And now the servants of Sauron had come to forge the outcome of the next painting.
Two stern guards stood at the door to the chamber, although they seemed to recognise a couple amongst the patrol Adunaphel and Khamul had travelled with, speaking hurriedly in their gruff language. After some deliberation, one of the Urdar turned to the two messengers.
‘We shall leave you now, but it appears the Ice King has been patient for your arrival for some time. The guards will see you to him immediately.’
The Urd watchers respectfully bowed, to which Adunaphel and Khamul repaid the gesture, before making their way from the inner palace. The two guards pushed aside the portal to the throne room, and the emissaries made their way inside.
It seemed the basis of the royal chamber was a large cavern – the palace seemed to be built over and around it. Stalactites hung heavy across the cave roof, which was carved through in places to allow rays of light through, which cast cold blue hues across the room due to the flawless positioning of yet more blue sapphires, although these were much bigger and obviously more precious to the lesser ones on display in the palace. Two contingents of royal guard flanked the path leading to the throne itself, raised upon a dais cut through with stone and garmented with the most prized of the royal armoury. And there, upon the mighty chair itself which looked like it had been carved from solid ice (although was more likely a white stone of some kind), sat reverently, yet almost arrogantly, the fabled Ice King himself.
Adunaphel expected such an old ruler to be especially ancient-looking, yet he did not. He had no beard, probably cut very often to maintain he looked youthful, and his wrinkles were few. But the way he bent across the throne; how he leaned upon his legendary sword; the defeated look in his maroon eyes – it showed more about his true age than a beard ever could. He looked like the shell of a once powerful man, fading away whilst nostalgically trying to recapture the glory of his youth – no wonder he had sought Sauron’s aid.
Adunaphel and Khamul slowly removed their cloaks and travelling garm to reveal exotic, beautiful robes and armour and jewellery of exceptional craftsmanship, removing their gloves last of all to reveal their personal, resplendent rings of power. They then allowed several of the guard to search them of any secret weapons, before Khamul walked the path through the assembled soldiers to bow before the seat of the Ice King.
As he walked down the aisle, Adunaphel studied the lord of Urd intently. She noticed his eyes fall upon the ring of power, at the sight of which he tightened his grip on his sword in excitement. She also saw him furrow and frown at Khamul’s young-seeming face (due to his ring’s magical properties), which she assumed was in either awe or jealousy.
The Easterling bent down with an exhuberent gesture to kneel at the Ice King’s feet, who peered down at him, intrigued. Khamul then raised himself, although the Urdar lord was still several feet higher upon his heightened perch.
‘My lord of the north, whom is known far and wide as the fearful Ice King, I am Khamul, a lord of the east and high servant to his majesty the Lord Sauron. I have travelled here with the Lady Adunaphel of the west through treacherous travels and many dangers to seek your esteemed audience.’
The Ice King sat unmoved, and then replied, his faintening voice like the rasp of dry snow. ‘Lord Khamul, though I alone rule unbowed here, I see a lord and lady so high in the judgement of Sauron that I deem them my equals, and so you may rather not call me by my title of the Ice King, the name attributed to me by my subjects, but as my peers you may call me by my true name, Hoarmurath, son of the Matriarch Emurath.’
‘Very well, my Lord Hoarmurath, and I am honoured by your favour towards us. But with all niceties aside,’ now Khamul’s voice became a little darker and more serious, the time for flattery was over, ‘You know as well as I the purpose for our coming.’
The Ice King seemed to carefully chew over the words in his mind for a while, before steadily raising his sword to Khamul. ‘This sword has been passed down by the sons of the Matriarchs for centuries, you know. I can imagine it has endured much spite towards the ruling women of its household, for it has always been in the hands of those who could never obtain dominion, but were so close to it, and so I am happy to have finally granted it such a place in the hands of the first Urdar King. But if you know of my exploits with the fiery Balrog demon, a fell Maiar spirit named Aaras, then I can assure you that the legends are true – when I slew the creature its soul possessed my blade, and as long as it has been at my side my years have been lengthened. For centuries I have commanded the proud Urdar, and yet now, inevitably, my death is nigh, and with me I fear will go my great people, for the cursed Elves have been slowly clawing their way to victory.’
The old king now masterfully stood from his throne, proclaiming to Khamul and the rest of those assembled, ‘In return for alliance and friendship with Lord Sauron of Mordor, I seek his aid in both the destruction of the Elves of the north, and the answer to my quest for immortality. Grant us these, and the Urdar are his to command.’
Khamul took a daring step towards the throne, confidently looking to Hoarmurath with an air of accomplishment. Towards the back of the court, Adunaphel too smiled in completion, thinking of the endless freezing days and nights in the wastes, satisfied it availed to something.
‘My Lord Hoarmurath,’ stated Khamul. ‘The Lord Sauron is willing, and happy, to accept your alliance. And as a token of the newfound friendship between Barad-dur and the forest of Dir, we offer you this ring of power, the sixth amongst its kind, that shall grant you extended power, magic, and immortality.’
At this, Adunaphel ceremoniously marched down the path through the guard to Khamul’s side, taking a small ivory box from within her robes. She gently opened it, revealing and offering the glowing ring inside to Hoarmurath, who eagerly grabbed it and slipped it upon his finger, drawn in awe by what he had received.
‘At last…’ he gasped, barely able to control his excitement, ‘Everlasting life!’
Even as he said these words, it seemed to Adunaphel that he straightened into vitality, and the weary look upon his face smoothed. Yet the old look in his eyes still remained, and most likely would forever.
‘And now,’ he announced, holding his blade aloft and staring at it now in contempt, ‘I can be rid of this thing forever! For the spirit of the Balrog Aaras has ever plagued my thoughts and whispered blasphemies to me through this sword, unendingly – it’s lechery shall go on no longer!’
With that he tossed the sword high into the air, and focused his willpower upon it before letting out a painful shout, and the weapon disintegrated before the court’s eyes, highly impressing Adunaphel and Khamul as its last fragments of dust fell to the floor. Yet there seemed to be a shifting, shadowy cloud that drifted from the ashes, moaning lowly before vanishing through the cracks in the roof, leaving a fearful shroud over the minds of those who witnessed it.
Khamul and Adunaphel had to speak with Hoarmurath a long while after – discussing the terms of their agreement and alliance, treaties to the Dark Lord and many other even more trivial affairs. As evening drew in, however, they finally concluded their talk, and the Ice King bid them good night, for they were invited to stay in the lodgings of the palace itself. As they went to collect their cloaks and other items, though, it seemed Hoarmurath had one thing left to proclaim to his court.
‘What has transpired today means that I shall forever be here to watch over the Urdar, and so a more fitting title shall be given to me. My brethren, from this point onwards, you shall now know me as the Undying!’
The two emissaries were far too tired to bother staying to hear his subjects applauding. Soon the whole city of Uab, then the villages of the forest of Dir, will be passing information over their new immortal king. The two stood outside the doors to the throne room once again, now alone, scoping the paintings once again.
‘I wonder if they shall have this event framed?’ mused Adunaphel.
‘It is a possibility,’ replied Khamul. ‘I would have no qualms to it, unless they do not capture me well.’
Adunaphel smirked, slightly playfully, ‘A little vain, would you not say?’
‘That is what they call you, is it not?’ said Khamul. ‘The Once Vain? Rumour has it you were the gem of Numenor until -‘
‘Yes, that is true,’ morosity crept back onto Adunaphel’s face. ‘I was a Numenorean Princess, and behaved as one would expect a spoilt Numenorean Princess to do so. When my father died, and I expanded to the shores of the south, I had little regard for materialism or beauty any longer.’
‘Yet despite your title,’ spun Khamul, moving a little closer to her now, ‘You are still…beautiful.’
For a moment Adunaphel was about to laugh at the Easterling, before seeing the unembarrassed, serious glance in his eyes. He moved towards her, and she did not stop him. Their cold lips met as one, this spontaneous affair sparking a fire of passion inside the sombre chief servants of darkness.
They needed little convincing to retreat to the lodgings put aside for them, and that night the emissaries from the east celebrated their acclompishment in the court of the Ice King – and, strangely enough, after that night, the Easterling and the Numenorean came to appreciate one another much more.