Author: Selah Ex Animo
Fandom: Lord of the Rings
Character(s): Earnur, Mardil
Prompt: Earnur before his fatal battle with the Witch-king
Word Count: 2,274
Author's Notes: Borrowed and paraphrased a line or two of dialogue/description from the actual canon.
Summary: This is how to build a monument to vengeance: stone by stone, thought by thought, nightmare by nightmare that won't go away.
How does one construct a life?
I have sometimes asked myself this question, and I have built upon the answers that suggest themselves. Birth is the foundation, and on it experience is founded, stone by stone, until one has reached the pinnacle of their tower, and passed on into death. So experience itself is built, stone by stone. So are the lines of kings and kingdoms born and nursed. This is how love is built, and sadness. How can life be otherwise?
I have watched a king build a tower in his heart, stone by stone, as a monument to vengeance. It is a tower built by thoughts that will not keep silent, that eat away at the mind until it crumbles. I cannot silence thoughts, for I am no wizard. But I may temper the action that comes as the consequence of those thoughts.
For I am Mardil, Steward of Gondor. It is my duty to thwart the risks a king in the fevered embrace of wrath may attempt to take. My duty could not be otherwise.
The Lord of Morgul, whom folk call the Witch-king, came calling while King Earnur had reigned in Gondor but seven years. He sent my lord a herald, and from this herald’s lips mockery spilled, venomous enough to boil the blood.
A wise men bears mockery with composure, for he understands that it is fools who resort to insult. They have nothing more to offer.
But my king is not a wise man. Some say that wisdom died with his father.
I do not think is wholly true.
King Earnur is rash, and he is reckless, and when the herald gave his message—a challenge of single combat, laced with blundering insults (“To the faint heart of youth is added the weakness of old age,” said the herald, smiling, and his eyes were lidded; the look in them was more telling than the gibe)—Earnur soared to his feet and reached for his sword. He roared, as a beast roars, and I was shamed by the wrath of my king. But I stepped forward and spoke with him, calmed him, ordered that the herald be escorted from his sight.
We have been through this game once before, the king and I. The Witch-king challenged Earnur when he took the crown at his father’s death seven years ago; he taunted Earnur with the memory of their last encounter, which came at the fall of evil Angmar. Earnur had been carried off by his frightened horse before he could answer the Witch-king’s challenge. This was the birth of shame, and Earnur has built his tower to his vengeance since.
Earnur would have answered the challenge, there and then, newly crowned and hot with insult. But I spoke with him, calmed him, and I found in him the wisdom that had defined his father. I broke his wrath, and used his own reason against him. And now seven years have gone, the Witch-king has come calling, and I find I must break my king again.
It cannot be otherwise, much as it sickens me. There is a way to break a king, a necessary way, and I do not like it. Earnur is not so much king of Gondor as its champion, and he rides the swell of his great, violent feelings—his wrath, his passion, all too big for his throne—like a valiant horse. He must be contained. But the containing—the breaking—must be done secretly. Stealthily. Earnur understands challenges. So I do not challenge him. It is my duty to my kingdom. To my king. To my fathers.
Ah, noble Gondor! Your steward stoops to trick your king into submission. He does this for your sake.
There is much that folk say of the Witch-king, much that is true and much that is false and some things that I do not believe, though I am in no position to know. But who can say what is truth and what is lies? Rumours are never challenged, only embellished, and wise men keep their counsel. Who can say? Perhaps the wise do not know.
Folk say many things, in little, shuddering whispers: they say there is winter on the Witch-king’s breath and death in his mouth. He speaks in spells that fill up a man’s heart with rotten ice, and in his laughter there is judgment—damnation. He rules the winter and the darkness. He is the shadow of Minas Morgul, that men once called Minas Ithil (but they no longer speak with pride and certainty of this place, for the Witch-king has seized it, filled it, and it breathes his pestilence across the land). The Witch-king is the shadow that walks, and he spreads the sickness of Minas Morgul across Gondor and into the Middle world.
Folk tremble at his name, proud men and noble women, and perhaps even kings. And why not tremble? The Witch-king took Minas Ithil and he is the chief of the Ringwraiths; he issued from Mordor and slew good men, and though he fled before Glorfindel the Elf-lord at the fall of Angmar, his influence has not passed from this land. It is whispered that no man can defeat the Witch-king; it is said that Glorfindel himself spoke this thing. And what is this foretelling, except a kind of damnation? We strive against evil, but what if evil is granted immortality? Good is broken before it has ever raised its sword. The cause is blasted.
But Earnur does not tremble at the name of the Witch-king, and perhaps he never has. And this, I fear, will be his downfall—how can it be otherwise? There is wisdom in some fears—but my lord fears nothing—there are wise ways to treat with courage—and yet for all his bravery, my lord knows little of them. He has his father’s valour but nothing of his prudence.
Only I stand between my lord and his destruction. I have broken his wrath before now and I will break it again. I am his steward. This task is mine to fulfill. I cannot do otherwise.
We sit in private council, the king and I, in the great hall of Minas Tirith. It is evening, and we have arranged ourselves in the ring of torchlight that lately illuminated the king’s supper. He takes his food where the statues may watch him from between the pillars, and he watches them in turn, with calculating suspicion in his pale, moist eyes. The light illuminates empty platters smeared with sauce and speckled with crumbs. He plucks crumbs from the table—more motion than action, for the table is clean, and it is phantom bits of bread and cheese that he crumbles between his fingers, until their ghosts are crushed to smoke.
I stand at the head of his table, with an eye to the dusk that fills the windows, in an effort to deny to myself that I am drawn to stare at him, at the great, crushing power of his champion’s body. It is hard to look away from one’s adversary when one is soon to engage him. To fear a thing—to fear a man—is to yoke one’s self to it. I cannot look away, but must measure and prod my king, and attempt foretelling: who will fail in this contest of wills? Myself? The Other? A steward should not fear his king. Perhaps it is not the king I fear, but the battle that hangs above us like a drawn sword.
I see his anger, in the tightness of his posture and in his needless movements. The taunts of the herald burn in his mind. I fear they form a new brick in his tower to vengeance.
His eyes shift from the statues and pass over me. He pauses, and then he looks away, his face tight. Our game ever begins thus, the game I must play to break him of his wrath: the restless king and his restless steward, poised and unspeaking and full of waiting. The king will not speak first—why should he? The steward will not speak just yet—I love this game no more than Earnur. It chafes at my energy, this constant wrestling with Earnur’s wrath, his recklessness, his pride. I am tired.
But at last I speak. “My lord.”
He looks again at me. His eyes droop at the corners; they do not suit the bold, hard lines of his face. He says, “You wish to break me.”
I look at him, startled. He has never said “break” to me, before.
“No, my king. I wish to advise you.”
“Breaking. Advising. It amounts to the same thing.” He lurches from his seat; he does not bother to push it back.
“I do not think so. There is nothing to be broken.”
“Nothing?” A small, grim smile curves his mouth. The stare of the pale eyes does not change. “I wish you to describe ‘nothing’ for me, Mardil. If you can. What is ‘nothing’? Nothing!” He strides to the edge of the torchlight, tense and shaking.
“My lord. I understand you are… unhappy.”
“Unhappy? You are too mild. Tell me what I am, in truth. Be quick!”
“Haste will accomplish no good thing.”
“Haste.” He chews the word, and swings around to glare at me. “Is it haste that brought the herald of the Witch-king to Minas Tirith on this day, Mardil?”
I stare at him, bewildered. “Perhaps. His challenge—some might say it was a hasty thing. He challenges Gondor. But Gondor has defeated him once before.”
“He challenges me.” Earnur spat this last word. “He does not challenge Gondor, he challenges me. Me. Earnur. Son of Earnil. I who marched against him at the battle of the North, who finally fled before him.”
“You did not flee, my lord. Your horse—”
“My horse. No, Mardil, I heeded an Elf-lord. Do you know what he said to me? When I rode back and found the Witch-king vanished into the night?” He paused, and I imagined. The imagining was terrible, for the king’s clear eyes were upon me, and I saw them gleaming in the moonlight that had spilled across the battlefield all those years since gone, wide with injury and rage and confusion. They sought the Witch-king and they sought his challenge. A champion’s thirst for selfish glory played no part in that look. I recognized, suddenly, Earnur the King.
He feared for his people. He feared for the kingdom he served.
“He told me, ‘Do not pursue him! He will not return to this land.’ I tried to speak; I did not understand Glorfindel; I thought, can you be sure? But Glorfindel did not pause; he continued, ‘Far off yet is his doom, and not by the hand of man will he fall.’ He said this to me, Mardil, but I could not understand then. I do not understand him now.” Earnur paced suddenly away from me, back and forth over the stone, with that quick, hard stride that belongs to the battlefield, and a general on campaign. “I had my chance then, upon that field, to fight the Witch-king. To slay him. Why not? And why not now? My chance has returned. He challenges me, and I will answer him. I will accept his challenge.”
“But my… lord. Glorfindel—”
“And how does he know?” He stopped his pacing and turned on me, pale eyes wide. “If no man tries? He said the Witch-king would not return, but where has the Witch-king gone? Into Minas Ithil, and corrupted it. He lives still, and he is a sickness, and if no man lifts a hand to drive him out, who will?”
Was this anger that spoke? Bitterness? Thirst for vengeance to pacify a shame that still burned? I stared at him, and tried to see into him.
“Mardil,” he breathed. “How can I do otherwise?”
“But your duty lies with Gondor. You are the king. You have… no heirs.”
“Indeed, my duty lies with Gondor. If I do not challenge the pestilence that threatens her, who will?”
His words chipped at me, broke me. Was this not his father’s wisdom, speaking through his son? For who would champion Gondor, if not her king?
“But the throne, my lord. The ruling of the land.”
He looked at me for a moment, and said more with his silence than he had yet said in words.
“I mean to accept the challenge,” he said. “You will rule in my name. Is that not the duty of Gondor’s steward? To his kingdom? His king? His fathers?”
I could not speak.
Perhaps the king built a tower to vengeance, stone by stone, thought by thought, and this is why he rode out on a crisp summer’s morning, to challenge the Witch-king at Minas Morgul, and was never seen again.
But perhaps he built a tower to Gondor, to the pride and nobility of the kingdom he loved. And perhaps on the day that his horse bore him away from the battle, and he returned to find the Witch-king vanished into the shadow, he began to build a tower to Gondor’s safety, as an anxious father would ring a wall of defense about his children.
Did shame eat at him? Or was it fear and love for his land?
I cannot say. I can only rule in his name, and in my thoughts build a tower to his victory and his life. Perhaps he lives, perhaps he does not.
But he rode for Gondor. And maybe this is enough.