At the Erech Stone
Isildur was up at first light. A light frost had fallen, and mists hung above the Morthond stream. Isildur paced the camp silently, wrapped in his long black cloak. He startled more than one of the sentries and the sleepy cooks starting their fires when his tall dark figure appeared out of the mists, pacing slowly and acknowledging them not.
After the men had broken their fast, the mists wafted away on the morning breeze and the day came bright and clear. Isildur called his captains together.
"Have your companies prepare to march tomorrow," he said. "The remaining Elders of the Eredrim should arrive this morning, and then we can take counsel together. I hope to see the muster well under way by the end of the day."
The hours dragged by and still no riders appeared. Isildur, too anxious to wait quietly, called for his horse Fleetfoot. Leaving orders that he be summoned if the Elders appeared, he rode alone up to the head of the valley to see the Caverns of Erech.
The valley was deep in lush spring grass, high enough that Fleetfoot waded through it up to his belly. The valley narrowed and grew steeper as the high and rocky walls closed in on either hand. He came upon a beaten path beside the stream and followed it into a jumble of huge boulders that had fallen from the heights above. The stream tumbled among the boulders in dozens of small cascades. The valley narrowed until it was only a slit in the mountain, so close the rock on the left hand nearly brushed his knees, while the trail became but a narrow ledge above the rivulet. The walls soared away out of sight, so high that stars gleamed in a black sky, though it was not yet noon. Fleetfoot's hooves rang on the stony path, sending echoes clattering into the heights.
He rounded a sharp turn and the walls fell back, leaving an open space almost like a huge well. In the far wall was a broad stone arch leading into darkness. A black horse was hobbled beside the tunnel's mouth. Isildur dismounted and approached. He could feel the cold damp air wafting from the opening, like the breath of something ancient that brooded under the mountains. Here was the entrance to the vast Caverns of Erech.
As he looked into the darkness, something moved within. His hand dropped to the hilt of his sword. A harsh laugh came from the blackness before him. And then the long hawk-like face of Malithôr appeared, a beam of light cutting across it, leaving only the eyes in shadow.
"You will not need your sword, Isildur," he smiled. "This land is yet neutral, and we are both emissaries here."
"The Eredrim will not remain neutral for long, Malithôr. This day will Romach give his decision. Then you may take word back to your lord that the Eredrim shall always remain faithful to Gondor."
"Do you really think that Romach is bold enough to defy Umbar? He and those other old fools wouldn't dare. Did you see him sweat when I reminded him of Lefnui? He is a fool."
"Is your contempt only for him, or for all the Eredrim?"
"It encompasses all the tribes of the Uialedain. Come, Isildur. You're one of us. You know what they're like. They're born to serve us Dúnedain. They've proven time and again that they're incapable of ruling themselves. Why do you bother trying to forge alliances with them? They don't need allies, they need a strong hand to rule them."
"Such as your emperor's, I suppose?"
"Why not? He at least has already proven himself capable of ruling them, which your father has not."
"We do not seek to rule them. We want them as friends, not subjects."
"Friends? Why would you wish to have such rabble as friends? They are a lesser race, Isildur, you cannot deny it. They know nothing of Númenor, its great history, its heroes, its beauties. Through the long rise of our civilization and its recent downfall, they have remained here tending their herds and living in their log houses. They are barbarians. They don't even speak our noble language, but only babble in their rude tongues. They live but a handful of years and die like dogs."
"No, like us, they die as Men and leave their widows grieving. Though our lines were sundered long ago before the world was changed, still they are our brothers. Malithôr, listen to me. You are a learned man. Herumor deems that he is acting for the greater glory of Umbar, but he is but Sauron's creature. Sauron sends forth his long arm and the Umbardrim sail to war. Do you not see the evil that Sauron represents?"
"I see only that he is the more powerful." Malithôr studied Isildur a moment, considering. "I will tell you this in confidence, Isildur, speaking as one Dúnadan to another. I have lived in Middle-earth a long time, far longer than you, and I have seen kings come and go. Sauron cannot be defeated by Gondor or Umbar or the Elves, or by any alliance save that of the Valar themselves, and that will not happen again. He is mighty beyond our comprehension, and he is determined to rule all of Middle-earth. Nothing can stop him. I intend to survive this war, and that means standing with Sauron, whatever the Emperor desires."
"I thought you were His Imperial Majesty's man."
Malithôr looked at Isildur with a wry smile. He lowered his voice even further. "No. You were quite right. Long have I served in the court of Umbar and the Emperor considers me his most loyal and trusted advisor, but as you guessed, I am in fact Sauron's agent. I manipulate the Emperor to keep the policies of Umbar to Sauron's liking, though Herumor thinks he is acting only for his own ends. Yesterday in your anger you called me the Mouth of Sauron. You meant it as an insult, but I acknowledge the compliment with gratitude." He drew himself up and his eyes flashed with pride. "I do give Sauron's will a voice. I am proud that the Master trusts me to speak for him to Herumor, and through Herumor to these Uialedain savages. Sauron and I work together well. We understand each other."
"Sauron knows me as well," replied Isildur. "Often did I speak against him in the palace at Armenelos when he whispered his treacheries into the ear of King Ar-Pharazôn."
"Aye, he remembers you as well, Isildur. He has spoken of you many times. He seems to bear a particular enmity towards you. Something I did not fully grasp, about a tree, I believe?"
Isildur gave a mirthless laugh. "Yes. Once long ago in Númenor, he had at last convinced Ar-Pharazôn to burn Nimloth, the White Tree that grew in his court. He had no reason to do it, save spite and his hatred of all things Elvish, for it had been given to all Númenóreans by the Elves. I would not see it destroyed, and so alone and in stealth I entered into the palace in disguise and I took from the tree one fruit. I was discovered and attacked. Though I was grievously wounded, yet did I win back to Andúnië with the fruit and its seed."
"All that for a mere fruit tree? Why?"
"Nimloth was more than a tree. It was a token of the undying friendship of the Eldar and also a reminder of the Valar, for it was a scion of Celeborn, and that of Galathilion, and that of Telperion, Mother of Trees."
"You do indeed revere the old ways, Isildur, foolish and vain though they may be. A bold but senseless adventure. But in spite of your disguise Sauron learned that you were the thief?"
"Yes. He burned Nimloth, but he never learned where the seed was hidden. Years later I planted it before my hall in Minas Ithil and it grew tall and fair, even as Nimloth had."
"It was in Minas Ithil?" asked Malithôr. "Then Sauron..."
"Yes. Now Sauron has burned that tree too, curse him. But tell your friend this when next you meet: know that the tree bore many fruits and the seed of each was kept. Many were planted in secret places, others were sent away to safe and distant lands. He can never destroy the White Tree, just as he cannot sunder the friendship between Elves and Men."
"The Master," said Malithôr, "holds another opinion. Whether or not the Elves remain allies of Men is unimportant. The Elves and all their powers and works are passing from the world. Their interest in events this side of the Sea is fading. They are leaving, sailing forever from our shores. Soon they will all be gone, and you will stand at last helpless and alone before the Master. These nuts you have squirreled away will not help you then, Isildur. All shall fall on their faces before him. All save those of us who stand beside him."
"The Elves will never desert us," said Isildur. "They will leave Middle-earth one day, it is true, but that day is not yet come. They returned hither from far Elvenhome to defeat the evil of Morgoth, and while Sauron yet rules their task is not completed. The Army of the Alliance will camp next the Barad-dûr until he comes out, and then they will destroy him."
"Destroy Sauron?" laughed Malithôr. "There is no power on Earth that can harm him while he wields the One Ring. You may throw yourselves against his walls until he tires of your noise. He is but biding his time. Soon he will ride forth and wrest all the lands of the west from you. Then his enemies will be thrown down and his friends raised up." He drew himself up with a malicious smile. "Perhaps then I shall be Lord of Ithilien, or even King of Gondor."
"You may be the Mouth of Sauron, Malithôr, but you do not know his mind. You are more likely to become a slave than a king. There were once many high and noble kings of men who thought to be Sauron's lieutenants. Many were learned mages and wielded great powers of their own. No doubt they thought to be kings as you do. And Sauron honored them with gifts of the Great Rings of Power, and now they are now naught but shades of men, ghosts that must do his bidding like puppets dancing on his strings."
Malithôr's dark face paled. "You should not mock the Nazgûl, for they are fell and dangerous. A fear goes before them, and none may stand against them."
"Yet stand against them I shall," replied Isildur. "And I shall prevail, for they occupy my fair Minas Ithil. You can advise Romach to break his oath and kneel to Sauron, but I am not so easily swayed or corrupted." Suddenly he threw back his cloak and swept his sword out and held it up ringing before him.
"I make an oath to you, Malithôr: I shall scour Sauron's scum from Minas Ithil and all of my land, and if it is within my power I shall slay Sauron and cut the One Ring from his hand myself. Then all of Sauron's works and spells, his creatures and poisons, and all those who aided him, shall be thrown down."
"You do not th..." began Malithôr, but then they both turned as a horn rang clear and true in the distance. Isildur hurried to Fleetfoot. "It is the horns of Erech," he called as he mounted, "the Elders are come at last." But Malithôr was already racing for his horse. Isildur gave Fleetfoot his head, and the horse flew through the long grass like a ship plowing the sea. Malithôr was soon left far behind.
Isildur galloped into camp and hurried to his tent. Ohtar was already there.
"Is it another Elder?" Isildur asked.
"Two. They arrived nearly together less than half an hour ago. They have been closeted with Romach since then." Ohtar looked at the king's face. "Did you see the Caverns, Sire?"
"No. I reached them, but found another already there. The ambassador was there as well."
"You met him? I knew I should have gone with you."
"He is not fool enough to raise his hand against me. We had a most interesting talk. I'll tell you later what he said. Now, I must dress for the meeting with the Elders. I shall wear my mithril armor and the blue cloak. I want them to see with whom they are dealing. Now help me with this thong. Where's the other end of it?"
Isildur shifted uneasily in his chair. The meeting had been going on now for several hours, and still the Elders had not reached a decision. Isildur pleaded his case and they seemed to favor him for a while. But then Malithôr addressed them and he was both eloquent and threatening, and the Elders wavered again.
To Isildur the choice was clear. At last he could stand it no longer. He jumped to his feet, interrupting a seemingly endless speech about the impact on local trade of an alliance with Umbar.
"Only one argument need be considered," he suddenly cried.
Urmach, the Elder who had been speaking, looked at Isildur in surprise. He was not used to being interrupted. He blinked in annoyance. "I beg your pardon, Sire?"
"The Oath of Karmach. Your lord Karmach gave his solemn oath that our two peoples would be allies for all time -- that if either were assailed, the other would come to its aid if called. Well, Gondor has been attacked and is in a struggle to the death with Mordor. I am the King of Gondor, and I am asking for the help of the Eredrim. There is but one response for honorable men. You are foresworn."
There was an awkward silence. No one would meet his eyes, though there were many quick sidelong glances among the Eredrim.
"Karmach?" said Malithôr in an innocent tone. "I have not met this lord. Why is he not here today?"
There was a nervous chuckle. "Karmach was the great-great-grandfather of Lord Romach," whispered Urmach to Malithôr.
"Oh, so he is dead?"
"Of course. His barrow has been green since before my father was born."
"Are the living then to be ruled by the dead?"
"Yes!" roared Isildur, his voice echoing back down from the rafters. "Karmach swore his oath to me personally, and he bound his heirs to it forever."
But Malithôr was not fazed.
"But none of you Revered Elders was alive at the time of this oath?"
"No, of course not," said the Elder. "This is all ancient history."
"But the world changes, nations and leaders rise and fall. Who knows that if Karmach yet lived he would not repudiate his vow?"
"Karmach was a man of honor!" said Isildur angrily. "His oath was without conditions or time limits of any kind. Karmach would never have countenanced any suggestion of breaking the vow."
"So you say," said the ambassador. "But he is not here to speak for himself. None of these Revered Elders heard his oath, nor can they ask him to clarify his thoughts and intentions at the time he made the oath."
"His thoughts were to protect his people and their land, and Gondor offered that protection. He mentioned to me often in later years, how for the first time he had no fear of war upon his borders."
"That may have been so at that time, when Gondor was the only nation strong enough to protect the Eredrim. But now Umbar too offers its protection. Gondor is pledged to protect you, but it is embroiled in a hopeless war against Sauron. Have they sent their legions here to protect you in these dangerous times? Did they protect the people of Ethir Lefnui? No. They are too busy fighting in Gorgoroth. Instead they ask you to leave your families unprotected and ride away to die in their war in some strange land far away.
"But Umbar offers its protection freely, without asking anything in return: no oaths, no sending your young men away to someone else's war. Umbar is not at war, with Sauron or anyone else. And his Imperial Majesty Herumor is on close terms with Sauron. He can protect you from Sauron's wrath. Or from Gondor's, for that matter."
Isildur's rage burst forth at that. "You do not need protection from Gondor, lords, whether or not you honor your oath. It is not our way to attack our neighbors. But you may well need protection from Umbar. They have a long-standing policy of destroying those who do not bow to them. Herumor is only seeking to add your lands to his empire. His very kind offer of protection is but a thinly veiled threat. He is extorting you at the point of a sword!"
Malithôr smiled. "Thank you, Isildur, I could not have put it better myself. Umbar offers you the open hand of friendship if you join with us. But if you refuse that open hand, you may find it mailed when next you see it. The Empire will not tolerate disobedience. I say unto you, Revered Elders, that if you ride now with Isildur, his Imperial Majesty will have no choice but to view you as a threat to the Empire."
"We are enemies of neither Gondor nor Umbar," said Romach pleadingly. "Neither of you has aught to fear from us, and well you know it. We are but simple herdsmen who desire only to be left alone."
"That is true today, yes," replied Malithôr. "But if you were to acknowledge Isildur's claim on you, you would be forced to take up arms against Sauron. And know you that the friendship between Mordor and Umbar is very close, very close indeed. Herumor would certainly judge that an enemy of our ally is but another enemy of ours. Because of my esteem for you, I would of course plead for you at the court, but Herumor is given to sudden passions against those by whom he feels betrayed. I am afraid I could not answer for your safety."
The Elders stared glumly from one to the other. For a time no one spoke. Then Romach broke the tense silence.
"We Eredrim are a people of peaceful commerce. We know little of the wars of the great. But when the diplomatic niceties are put aside, your messages come down to this: if we ally ourselves with either of you, the other will destroy us."
"No," said Isildur. "That is not my message. Gondor would never attack you, unless you were to take up arms against her."
"That we would never do, Sire. We have no quarrel at all with Gondor, I assure you. Our only wish is to remain neutral."
"Then the matter is settled," said Malithôr with obvious gloating on his face. "The Eredrim shall remain neutral, and safely at home." The Elders brightened visibly. One moved to rise.
"No," said Isildur, and his voice was hard and cold. "It is not settled. The Oath of Karmach still remains, and I shall not release you from it. Do not dishonor the noble Lord Karmach by becoming oathbreakers. If you fear the threats of this Mouth of Sauron, you must keep a strong well-armed force in reserve to protect your land from the Corsairs. But those you can spare, let them ride with me."
The Elder who had risen collapsed back into his chair. "Then you are leaving us no option, Sire?"
"Yes. I leave you one option. The option to do what is right and honorable, to ally yourselves with the people of good will and to strive against the forces of evil. Honor your oath and stand with Gondor and Arnor and Lindon and all the other free lands of the west. Help us to defeat Sauron and free the world of his evil. Then together we can begin to make the seas safe for travel. When the war with Sauron is over, I promise you Gondor will deal with these blustering, threatening Umbardrim and drive them from our shores forever."
Malithôr's face grew even darker. He opened his mouth to reply, but Isildur cut him off by rising to his feet. He threw back his sky-blue cloak and his mithril armor glowed red in the firelight. He seemed to grow taller, filling the hall, and he looked fell and grim.
"This I say unto you, Men of the Mountains," his voice boomed out. "I am leaving now to break my camp and make ready to depart at first light tomorrow."
"Good," said Malithôr. "You need not wake us."
Isildur ignored him, but those near him saw his jaw clench tighter.
"But before we ride," he continued, "I shall go to the great stone on the hill, the one you call the Stone of Isildur. There I shall sound the great horn that Romach gave us. And I shall call the Eredrim to fulfill their oath. Let any who think to ignore that call take long and careful thought. The oath shall never be forgiven."
And he stalked quickly from the hall, his cloak flying behind him like the wings of a great sea bird.
Ohtar finished packing the last of their gear and men carried the bundles out to where the pack horses stood stamping in the early morning chill. On all sides tents and pavilions were fluttering to the ground. A pink glow was just beginning to suffuse the eastern sky when the last bundles were being lashed in place. As he worked, Ohtar kept looking around, hoping to see some sign of the Eredrim making preparations as well. But so far none could be seen. Glancing up the hill toward the Erech Stone, Ohtar could just make out the figure of Isildur standing there silent and motionless, wrapped in his long travel cloak against the cold mountain air. Finally all was ready. Ohtar picked up the long horn Romach had given them and climbed to stand beside Isildur. The men stood wtching in silence.
"Shall we give them a little more time, Sire?" he asked.
"No. The sun is nearly risen. Sound the horn."
Ohtar raised the immense horn and put his lips to its cup. Taking a deep breath, he blew as hard as he could. A deep mournful blast of sound, shockingly loud in the pre-dawn stillness, rent the air and reverberated from valley to valley.
"People of the Mountains!" roared Isildur, and the echoes from the cliffs magnified his voice so that it might have been the voice of Aulë calling in the wilderness when the world was made. "I, Isildur Elendilson of the House of Elros, King of Gondor, call upon you to fulfill the Oath of Karmach. Gondor has need of your aid. Will you answer her call?"
Several minutes passed, while the echoes gradually faded and died. There was no sign of life at any house. Finally a door creaked and a man stepped out of Romach's hall and stood looking up the hill toward them in the growing light. Ohtar realized he was too tall to be Romach, or any Eredrim. It was Malithôr.
"Isildur of Gondor," he called back. "I speak for the Eredrim. They have no quarrel with you and do not wish to detain you any longer. But they have no wish to enlist in your war against Mordor. They declare themselves a neutral and sovereign state, in the service of neither Gondor nor Mordor, nor of any other state. They repudiate the oath made by Karmach and refuse to be bound by it."
Isildur stared long and hard at Malithôr, hatred and a hot fury gleaming in his eye. Then Isildur drew himself up, and it seemed to those watching that they looked upon one of the old kings of Númenor, so mighty and so terrible did he seem. Then his great voice rolled out again over the valley. No Eredrim could be seen, but he knew they were cowering unseen in their houses, trembling as they listened to his voice.
"Then hear me, Romach," he roared. "Thou shalt be the last king. And if the West prove mightier than thy black Master, this curse I lay upon thee and thy folk: to rest never until your oath is fulfilled. For this war will last through years uncounted, and you shall be summoned once again ere the end. The Eredrim will never again grow and prosper, but will dwindle until the last of your children's children fade and pass into the shadows, reviled by all honorable peoples. Then these valleys shall stand desolate and barren and even the names and deeds of your people shall be forgotten.
"Even death shall not release you from your oath. You shall find no rest in your long barrows and your shades shall wander the deep places under the earth. And so you shall remain forever, lest in some future time you find a way to fulfill your oath to me. This doom do I pronounce on you and all your descendants unto the end of time. Farewell forever, Oathbreakers!"
His dire words rang out over the village and came echoing back from the cliffs, as if the mountains themselves were repeating the terrible doom. But Isildur now was boiling with cold fury, all his intolerance for faithlessness burning in his voice.
Then he called Ohtar to bring him his horse, and he sprang upon Fleetfoot's back and he galloped down the hill, straight to Malithôr. The ambassador looked up at him with a triumphant sneer, but then he sensed Isildur's righteous power and the sneer faded.
"As for you, foul Mouth of Sauron," said Isildur. "I will not slay you as you deserve for this treachery. But I lay a doom upon you also. You shall live long in the service of Sauron, but you shall ever diminish until you are naught but his mindless tool. All shall forget your name; even yourself. And my gifts for far-seeing tell me more than this -- that these Eredrim you have ruined will yet be the ruin of Umbar."
Then he jerked the reins angrily, wheeled Fleetfoot around, and led his host on the eastward road. Only when the last companies had disappeared over the edge of the valley did the Eredrim start creeping cautiously from their homes. But the day that had dawned so fair was turning dark and ominous, and already they could feel a dread drawing about their hearts. Malithôr and his escort departed hurriedly for the south without a word, unwilling to meet the eyes of the people who stood staring in horror after them.
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[Glossary]; Colophon (Still unavailable.)
This story was inspired by Tolkien's work.
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