I.) Sauron's Challenge
On his black throne in the heart of the Barad-dur, Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor, laughed. It was a high, clear laugh, like the ringing of a bell, and seemed out of place in the grim surroundings of the throne room. As did the Dark Lord himself; tall, slim, cloaked in robes of crimson and sable. His robes, long black hair, and ruby lips contrasted with the paleness of his skin, which was like white marble, unmarred by any flaw. His eyes were a clear blue, bright and keen. As fair of face as any Elven-lord, he bore a striking resemblance to one of the Noldor, those High Elves who in an earlier age had journeyed in exile from Valinor to Middle Earth. On the third finger of his long, slender right hand, he bore a golden ring. This ring, inscribed with letters in Elvish script that glowed curiously, was his only adornment.
In his own mind, Sauron was the Lord and Master of Middle Earth, and King of Men. Yet it appeared the King of Numenor, that distant island of the Men of the West, nigh to the shores of Valinor, had other ideas. Ar-Pharazon the Golden styled himself the ruler of all lands east of Valinor, and viewed Sauron's growing power in Middle Earth with dismay and contempt. Who was this loathsome beast Sauron, a slave whose master had long since been defeated, to challenge the might of Numenor? Who was he to challenge Ar-Pharazon the Golden, the King of Men, descendent of Earendil the Mariner, and heir to his fabled son Elros Half-Elven? Who was Sauron to challenge the heir to the ancestors of Elros, the proud mortal Beren and the fair Elf-maiden Luthien Tinuviel of legend, who had cut a Silmaril jewel from the iron crown of Morgoth while he lay in an enchanted sleep? Who was Sauron, master only of a reeking horde of vile Orcs and brutal wild Men, of slag-pits and dung-heaps, to challenge Numenor, with its palaces of marble, gold, silver and ivory, its broad plains and high mountains, its thousands of ships of war, its millions of brave warriors, its mighty royal family and nobility, who were blessed with long life and great powers of mind and body, the wisest and fairest Men upon Earth?
Numenor was Queen of the Seas, and Ar- Pharazon was adamant that she should be master of the lands of Middle Earth. He had sent his cousin Lord Armeneltir of Nindemos as ambassador to the Dark Tower, the Barad-dur, with a message and a warning for Sauron. Drawing himself up to his full height of well over six feet, a lofty sneer on his dark-bearded face, Armeneltir issued Sauron with an ultimatum. The so-called Dark Lord must withdraw his forces to the east of the great river Anduin, and at least two-hundred miles from the Sea in all directions. He must send to Numenor every year a tribute of one million pounds of gold, silver, jewels, and ivory. He must do this, or there would be war. Either the self-styled Dark Lord would pass under the yoke of Numenor, or King Ar-Pharazon the Golden would deal with him as the Valar had dealt with his vanquished master in the elder days.
Ambassador Armeneltir, reflected Sauron, did not seem quite so haughty now that his soft skin had tasted the whips of Orcish torturers. It was the broken man's screams that had brought laughter to Sauron, for he ever reveled in the sport of torment.
"Something the matter, my lord?" asked Ugnash, Chief Torturer of the Dungeons of Barad-dur, summoned to the throne room in order to demonstrate his art to the once-proud Ambassador. Ugnash, being an Orc, was quite incapable of laughter, and found it oddly disconcerting when it issued from the lips of his Cruel Master. "Perhaps something a little stronger than a whip, my lord? An iron from the fire?"
"No Ugnash" said Sauron, in his clear, ringing voice, "I think you have given our esteemed guest a fair sampling of your talents". He looked down at Armeneltir, who groveled at his feet, begging for an end to his torment. "My dear Ambassador, whatever seems to be the matter?" asked Sauron. "Just this morning, you assured me that the Men of proud Numenor were as powerful as gods. You claimed that they could be compared to the Valar, the Lords of the West themselves. I merely wished to test the truth of that assertion. Though I must confess, I am somewhat disappointed. I don't believe that a god would allow himself to crawl on my floor because he had tasted a few lashes from an Orcish whip. Nor would he need bodyguards, I daresay, though at least my Orcs found a use for them." Ugnash belched and licked his lips.
"Forgive me, my lord!" sniveled Armeneltir through his bruised lips.
"Why, there is nothing to forgive, my dear Ambassador" replied Sauron. "Indeed, it is I who should ask your forgiveness. As a Lord of Numenor and ambassador, you must be in need of a swift reply for your mighty King. And yet I have taken up an entire day of your valuable time to indulge my idle curiosity." Sauron's eyes narrowed slightly. "Are you willing to be of service to me, so that through you I may send my reply to His Majesty?"
"Yes, my lord!" pleaded Armeneltir. He let out a racking cough, blood issuing from the corner of his mouth. "What message shall I carry to the King?" he wheezed.
Sauron allowed a faint smile to appear on his lips.
At his post by the gate of Pelargir, young Ulbar the guardsman shivered beneath the heavy woolen cloak that covered his thin tunic of blue and green cloth. The starless sky was so black that he could barely see through the dank, chill air beyond the shafts of light issuing through the iron grille of the portcullis barring the gate. Such darkness seemed unnatural so close to the dawn, and was all the more unwelcome in a city so close to the frontiers of Mordor. For Pelargir, an ancient city-colony of Numenor, lay on the western shore of the mouth of the great river Anduin. Barely a hundred miles to the east lay the Mountains of Shadow, the western marches of the Black Land.
That Pelargir was an important outpost of mighty Numenor should have made its citizens feel safe. Yet all of them, Ulbar included, lived in growing fear of the Shadow from the East. Sauron the Dark Lord had been powerful for as many generations as the Men of Pelargir could remember, yet in recent years his power seemed to have waxed considerably. It seemed that every year his armies of Orcs, and wild Men of the East and South, camped closer to the shores of the Anduin. It was even rumoured that recently his armies had crossed to the western shores of Anduin many miles to the north, and were ravaging the villages of the pitiful wild Men of those lands.
Ulbar cursed, and shivered again. He consoled himself by thinking that not even Sauron would dare to meddle with a city under the sovereignty of Numenor. At least, as long as he stood within the lights cast from the city gate, he was completely safe. Only another hour until dawn, then his turn at the watch would be over, and he could get some much needed ale and rest.
A cracking sound, like the snapping of a branch underfoot, issued from the darkness beyond the gate. Ulbar felt a cold pit forming in his stomach, and leapt to attention. "Halt! Who goes there?" he shouted, as much to reassure himself as to fulfill his duty.
Stealthily, a squat figure crept into the light. It was one of the wild Men of South, noted Ulbar with alarm, wrapped in robes of sable, armed only with a short curved sword hanging in an ebon scabbard from his leather belt. Under his left arm, he bore a package of some sort, wrapped in dark cloth.
"You stand at the gate of Pelargir, City of Numenor!" shouted Ulbar. "State your business quickly, barbarian!"
The facial scar that ran along the Southron's olive skin creased as he opened his mouth. "Peace!" he said, in a soft, sly voice, speaking the tongue of Numenor with an outlandish accent. "I am but a lone herald. I bear a message from Sauron, King of Men, to Ar-Pharazon the Golden of Numenor. Will you accept my message, and bear it to the Captain of the Guard of Pelargir, so that his Lord the City-Master may arrange for it to be borne over the Sea to his liege-lord?"
"Give me your message and be gone, foreign dog!" snarled Ulbar. "I've better things to do with my time, even while standing watch, then bandy words with one of Sauron's maggots."
The Southron smiled mockingly. Quick as a striking snake, he threw at Ulbar the cloth-wrapped package he had held under his arm!
Ulbar let out a sharp cry, yet stood still for some moments, too petrified to move. Then, beginning to recover his wits, he sounded the alarm. Within half a minute, the iron portcullis was raised, and a score of guardsmen, garbed in the blue-and-green tunics of Pelargir, rushed through the gate. Spears at the ready, they demanded that Ulbar tell what threat had led to his summoning them. The Southron had slipped back into the darkness beyond the gate before their arrival, and all they saw was Ulbar standing by himself, staring stupidly at the ground. Then they looked down, and in an instant fell as silent as the grave. In the dust lay the bruised, severed head of Lord Armeneltir, cousin to Ar-Pharazon the Golden, King of Numenor.