Author's Notes: 'Their peril is almost entirely due to the unreasoning fear which they inspire', Tolkien tells us in Letter 210. 'The Witch-king, their leader, is more powerful in all ways than the others... .' He has some foresight and cunning - in 'The Hunt for the Ring', we are told that he spares Grima because he realizes that faithless Grima will do great harm to Saruman (of whose treachery, in his dealings with Sauron, the Riders have learned). He has control over evil spirits (ie the wights of the Barrow-downs) and is a formidable sorcerer. We see his magic at work when the gates of Minas Tirith are breached:

'Then the Black Captain rose in his stirrups and cried aloud in a dreadful voice, speaking in some forgotten tongue words of power and terror to rend both heart and stone.
'Thrice he cried. Thrice the great ram boomed. And suddenly upon the last stroke the Gate of Gondor broke. As if stricken by some blasting spell it burst asunder: there was a flash of searing lightning, and the doors tumbled in riven fragments to the ground.'
[1, 2, 3].

He is Sauron's most faithful servant and one of his greatest weapons, in part because he has some ability to think independently - he is not just a pawn. Sauron must have allowed this, as the Ring permits him complete control over the Ringwraiths. Why does Sauron choose him, and why does he trust him? [4]

Disclaimer: All characters belong to Tolkien aside from original characters needed to move the story along. I've invented the name of the Witch-king, as Tolkien did not give him a proper name. Translations of Tolkien's languages, further notes and explanation of the Adûnaic grammar in the opening poem appear in the 'Story Notes' chapter at the end of this story.

The Apprentice

Kinâkha! Kinâkha! Agannâlun, kinâkha!
Zigûrun urûkhi kiyada.
Kinâkha! Kinâkha! Mânôn 'ndâur, kinâkha!
Idô dulg nûluvô, lôkha pûha 'nki

Arise! Arise! Death-shadow, arise!
The Wizard, he calls to you.
Arise! Arise! Gloom-spirit, arise!
From blackest night,
come forth your twisted breath.


Eriador, Third Age 1075

Olórin savored the roasting venison, rubbed with herbs and spit-roasted under the watchful eye of his companion. The Lady's bright jewels twinkled, crickets and night birds sang lustfully to one another, and the sweetness of the night denied the Shadow of its existence. Olórin's eyes looked east, however, beyond the yet unseen mountains, beyond the great river. However soothing the stars, however blissful the birds, evil's bony fingers wove a poisoned net in the Greenwood, growing longer each day. Thus had he come to Ennor; thus had his companion returned. With reluctance, he broke the silence, taking up again the tale they had let lie while setting up camp for the night. [8]

"The other nine, Sauron distributed among men, and you have no doubt heard tales in Valinor of the fate of those men. Eight are, to greater or lesser degree, but slaves to the Dark Lord's will, and if indeed they hold Amon Lanc in the Greenwood, as Círdan believes, we cannot doubt that Sauron himself has begun to stir. The ninth is another matter. In life, he differed from men as you do from elves. Sauron holds the Black Captain in thrall, but not utterly so. [9]

"Melian was his foremother, and he inherited many of her powers of enchantment, which Sauron has twisted and augmented with his own. Even elves must pause before him, for fear is not his only weapon."

"That is where I come into this tale, I expect," Glorfindel said, stirring the fire.

"Indeed. My heart tells me you will meet him more than once - to stand against him, in your service to the son of Eärendil, may be your purpose in returning to Ennor. Yet do not underestimate him - he will only grow more powerful as the Dark Lord waxes."

Glorfindel took the meat from the fire and shared it between them. He kept an eye on the wizard, who ate in silence with a thoughtful look in his eye. He knew that if he remained silent, Olórin would soon go on with his tale. At last, his wait had reward.

"When the first shadow fell on Númenor, I came to the island in the guise of a simple man, traveling about, turning my eye in watch upon one or another place. I came only to observe - not to interfere, for that was not Eru's plan."

"Men could not be rescued from themselves," Glorfindel sighed, understanding the sad inevitability of the fall of Númenor.

The wizard stroked his beard. "In Númenor, we perhaps made the same mistake as we did when we invited the elves to leave Cuiviénen. The minds of the Eruhíni must have challenge, lest they grow idle and capricious, unappreciative of their blessings and led into folly." [10]

The elf-lord winced. 'For such folly I have atoned,' he reminded himself. "But no elf would serve the Dark Lord - not knowingly. Save Maeglin," he added, frowning. "And he had little choice, once in the clutches of Morgoth."

"Strange you should mention Maeglin, for his story would not be entirely foreign to the Witch-king. Yet, his master is more clever than Morgoth. Sauron aims not to destroy, but to control and corrupt. And the Witch-king represents his greatest success." The Maia took hot tea from the elf-lord and arranged his pack that he might sit more comfortably. [11]

"Once, he was only a boy... ."

Númenor, Second Age 1818

"Well, Angórë, come here and we will see how this fits you." The old woman beckoned her grandson forth. The child stood patiently while she fastened the clasp at the neck. "Stand back a bit."

Obediently, Angórë took a giant step back. The old woman smiled. She had fashioned the cloak in the image of the Elven cloaks recalled from her distant childhood in Andúnië. Angórë was not a handsome child. He had a face a tad too thin, a nose just a bit too long. Most striking was his hair: of deepest black, so black it seemed to absorb the light around it. The old woman had chosen bright scarlet in contrast to the child's hair, and even a critical eye would admit that in this beautiful cloak, the boy might pass for an Elven princeling. She smiled, planting a kiss on her grandson's forehead. "You look like a little prince. Does it please you?"

"Oh yes, Ona." He had a new cloak, of the sensible, sturdy grey wool his mother had chosen. Too tight at the neck and too long, it itched terribly. If he could help it at all, he never wore it, and twice he had forgotten it at his tutor's cottage. [12]

The woman eyed her work critically. "I have but one more adjustment to make. Mercy me, I had forgotten how boys grow!"

Reluctantly, he took off the cloak and returned it to his grandmother. Wrapping his thin arms around her, he said, "It is the best present."


The following morning found Angórë absorbed in his lessons when the tutor's wife hurried into the room without knocking. "Please forgive me, but the lord wants his son home," she apologized. "His grandmother -" she looked at Angórë. "She is very old, you know," the woman finished.

Upon reaching his father's manor, Angórë hurried up to his grandmother's rooms. Behind the door, slightly ajar, the healer spoke with his father. As he reached for the door, the housekeeper came out and shut it firmly behind her.

"You cannot go in there!"

"I want to see my Ona. What is wrong? Why is the healer here?"

"The healer is here to see your grandmother. Run along and play, I expect they shall call for you later."

Angórë walked away dejectedly. When the housekeeper had gone back into his grandmother's rooms, he crept down the hall to a recessed doorway across the passage and sat down in the shadows. The housekeeper came out a moment later. "Now where has that insufferable child got to?" she muttered.

Angórë watched the door, hoping his father would come out. His father would let him in to see his grandmother. After some time, the lord did leave the room and stood motionless before the door, his head bowed. Angórë left his hiding place and tugged at his father's sleeve.

"Angórë! Where have you been? I sent the housekeeper to find you ages ago."

"I have been here all day, Ada. I want to see Ona."

His father squatted down. "And your Ona very much wanted to see you. But she has gone away now."

Angórë looked at his father, confused. "Where did she go? When is she coming back?"

"I do not know where she went. Only spirits know that. But she cannot come back."

Angórë began to understand. "No! She will come back. She would not leave."

He left his father in the passage and ran to his rooms. "She will come back, she will. She would not leave me all alone."

A small boy stirred in the corner. "You are not alone. I will not leave you." Angórë lifted his head, considering the boy. Perhaps he could call her back, as he had called this boy. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying with all his might to call his grandmother.

"It will not work," the other boy said sadly. "Only those who are not weary remain in this world. She has gone beyond."


"Stop fidgeting, child," the housekeeper said, combing the boy's hair with none too gentle strokes.

A voice sailed from the doorway. "I will help him finish. You may go."

Angórë turned around in his chair. "Alatundar! Naneth said you would not come." His brother lived at the King's court, many leagues to the north.

His brother began to make a braid of the tangled hair. The child had evidently been left to run wild since their grandmother had died. Alatundar would send up a maid with more patience after the funeral. "I came as fast as I could." He felt the loss keenly, for his grandmother had been more a parent to him than his mother or father, and he felt a pang of sympathy for his young brother. "There, that should do. Now, put on your gloves, for we have not much time."

They joined the soberly-dressed household in front of the manor. At the coachman's signal, the horses set off at a dignified pace, pulling the funeral coach. The mourners fell in behind, on foot, while a bell-ringer walked before the coach, calling those who would mourn the dead to follow. As they reached the town, many did join the procession, for the people of Nindamos recalled the lord's mother fondly.

The coach met the highroad near the sea and turned back toward the manor, and the family's burial ground. Before the tomb, mourners filed past the bier, laying flowers on the casket. Angórë tugged at his brother's hand. "Alatundar, I do not have a flower," he whispered, his face wrinkled with worry.

"We will both lay this one." When their turn came, the brothers laid the flower with the others. Angórë did not move on, however. He stopped before the casket.

"I know you hear me, Ona, though my friend says you have gone beyond. Please come back to me, Ona." He lowered his voice to a whisper. "They do not see the spirit people as you and I do - no one need know."

A muffled snort came from a big, swaggering boy. Some of the townsfolk looked uneasy. Angórë's mother took him firmly by the arm and led him away from the people. "Do not embarrass me like that again. Were you not told what to do?"

The boy nodded.

"Now, come and stand with us, and try to behave until this is over." The child's grandmother had indulged far too many of his whims. If only this moody, oversensitive child were more like his brother! In truth, her younger son resembled her in temperament more than she liked to admit.


"That will be all for today. You may go, Angórë." The boy gathered his work and went to the cloakroom. He stood for a moment, holding his cloak to his cheek. He could still smell his Ona's distinctive scent on the fabric. It gave him some comfort. Finally, he put on the cloak and reached for the door. As he did, the older boys filed in for the afternoon lessons.

They were not the nicest of children. Nîphrûkh, a rather stupid giant of a boy, took great pleasure in tormenting Angórë. "Look at the little lord with his pretty red cloak! Did you get this from the spirit people you are always going on about?"

"My Ona made it," Angórë said in a trembling voice.

"Oh, his Ona made it. Who is your Ona, little one? One of your imaginary friends?"

"My grandmother," Angórë said in a small voice.

"Ah, your grandmother. Well, then, what a shame she has died and will make no more silly cloaks for spoilt little lords."

Angórë burst into tears, running until he reached the manor. He wanted nothing more than to crawl into his Ona's lap.

She was gone, and there were no soft laps to take her place.

He would not return to his tutor, he decided. He announced this the next morning, remaining steadfast though his mother cuffed him and scolded. At last, she called his father.

"Why do you not wish to go to your tutor? You like your lessons, you have said so."

"I am never going back there. Never!"

"Why ever not?"

"Oh, Ada, they laughed at my cloak that Ona made. They said - they said -" the child could not continue.

"Well, I will send word to your tutor to let you leave earlier, so you do not meet these boys."

"Can you not make them stop?"

The lord sighed. "No, Angórë, I cannot make them stop." The boy was much too sensitive, much too artless in his dealings with others. He must learn to cope with the Nîphrûkhs of life; he must get a thicker skin. It did not occur to the lord that his son might come to wear the hide of an oliphaunt.

Númenor, Second Age 1823

He heard the whispers, the derisive laughter. He heard them, and knew himself the target of them. Safer it was, safer to hide away here, on the shadow side.

"Why do you listen to them?" a childish voice demanded. In the gloom a small boy approached, his companion of all the years he could remember. Angórë had grown tall, perched on the edge of adolescence, but the boy never changed, never would change, for all that could grow into a man lay in a molding heap of rags and bones.

He had learned too late that such abilities as he possessed must be guarded, must be hidden. Too late, he had learned that the unhappy spirits concealed themselves from others. Too late, he had learned he alone could call living and dead things to do his bidding and raise fire without kindling. The townsfolk feared him, for they did not understand. They shunned him and they tormented him with their whispers, whispers thought beyond his hearing, yet he heard them, nonetheless.


Leaving his tutor's cottage, he noticed that the afternoon sun still shone brightly. The days had begun to lengthen again, just as spring had also brought much rain over the past few days. Ruts and holes pitted the highroad; that morning, his father had hired a crew to begin repairs.

He had walked perhaps half a league when he heard the sound of approaching horses. His sharp eyes recognized the livery of the lead horse, and Angórë fought the impulse to hide in the woods - what offense had he committed, that he should hide away like a thief?

Above the splat of the horses' hooves in the muddy road, Nîphrûkh's voice sallied forth in a mocking tone.

"Look, it is the lord's son. Be certain to bow to him as we pass." The other boys laughed, save a few made uneasy by such blatant disrespect. Nîphrûkh urged his mount into a swift canter, refusing to move to the side of the road as he should. Mud flew from the steps of the passing horses, spattering the solitary walker.

Angórë wiped the mud from his face. Rage erased all prudence from his mind. Cocking his head to the side, he listened to the forest until he found the sound he sought. He called to the crebain under his breath: "Craban vorn vuio nin si, na nôl dín blabo raifn lín." [13]

A crow rose from the shadows and descended upon Nîphrûkh in a flurry of wings and talons. His mount panicked, unhorsing Nîphrûkh as the boy put up his arms to protect himself from the bird's vicious pecks, crying in distress and terror.

Guilt soured his triumph and Angórë called off the bird. "Farn! Enni!" he cried, and the bird flew to land on his outstretched arm. Nîphrûkh looked up at Angórë, still gibbering in terror. [14]

"You will learn to leave me be, Nîphrûkh."

Fury overcame the older boy's fear. He dared not seek revenge here and now, but as Angórë diminished to a speck far along the road, a slow smile crossed Nîphrûkh's face. Angórë had gone too far.

Come morning, the townsfolk spoke not in whispers but in loud voices. Few would defend the child, but many deferred to his father the lord. Others held forth more boldly. "There is an evil spirit in that boy - he has always been a strange one," a merchant told those gathered at the tavern.

At the lord's manor, the servants told the story in hushed tones. The serving girl cast wary looks upon the boy as she served supper, dropping a tureen with a crash in her haste to escape from the dining room.

Nervous and uncharacteristically quiet, Víressë turned her cheek as her son came to kiss her goodnight, so that his lips touched only air.

"Something must be done this time," she said, when the child had gone up to bed. "Are you listening to me, Tárano? You really must do something."

"What is it that you would have me do?" the lord demanded, abandoning his work in irritation. "Have the gossips and scandalmongers pilloried?"

His wife sniffed. "When I was a girl, the line of Elros commanded respect."

"As it still does, I hope. But the power of the lords has waned. The merchants and privateers hold the Council of the Sceptre. Númenor changes, and we must change with it." The lord constitutionally resisted such change. It appalled him that the troublesome son of the Master of Nindamos could take such liberties. The descendants of Atanalcar had once governed Nindamos freely. In this day, the lord had but one voice on the town's council. "The people will gossip. Idle minds yield wagging tongues." [15, 16]

"Perhaps it is not only gossip," Víressë whispered.

The lord looked up from his work in irritation. "Perhaps what is not only gossip?"

"These stories - such claims they make of our son."

"Nonsense," the lord replied firmly. He picked up his quill, hoping that his wife would understand the matter closed. His practical nature rebelled against the romantic notions of the lady. To his mind, Nîphrûkh's ridiculous claims only exploited sentiment against an unpopular child.


Angórë listened until the voices in the drawing room grew silent. His father had attention only for his work; his mother thought only of herself. He felt very small and low. Perhaps he was possessed of some wicked spirit. Had Eru thus fated him to this unhappy existence, as a thing of evil? Though birds and spirits might hear him, it seemed Eru did not, for the One gave no answer.

Númenor, Second Age 1826

"If you have no further need of me, khôrí 'nhê, I will take my leave." [17]

Víressë did not look up from the babe at her breast. "You may go, Urêbêth."

The baby hardly had need of a nurse, for the lady rarely let the child out of her sight. This child, the daughter she had very much wanted, would carry the torch of hopes long buried in a miserable childhood, desires unrealized in a loveless marriage.

The nursemaid took her cloak and hurried to the servants' door, wishing not to waste a moment of the night. As she left the manor, a figure stepped out of the twilight, startling her.

"My apologies, good lady. I am going to town - if you are going that way, might I accompany you?"

"Yes, that is most generous of you," she said, glad for the escort. Of late, rogues and thieves prowled the highroads; the fisher-folk spoke of a shadow over the land and named these villains a sign of dark things to come.

Urêbêth had arranged to meet her betrothed at the tavern in Nindamos, and though they reached town without incident, the man proved absent upon their arrival. Angórë pressed her to share a hot laced tea while she waited.

They found a table and ordered the tea. Thereafter, Angórë's tongue unexpectedly tied itself into a knot and he could think of nothing to say to the girl. Fortunately, she kept up an animated chatter, filling the silence for both of them. Of Hadorian descent, her folk had worked the lord's land as tenant farmers for centuries. Her father produced a good living, and she had taken this situation as a nursemaid not out of necessity but to earn money for her wedding.

"I was to have worn my mother's dress, but it will not do, not for the likes of his family," she admitted.

Angórë was charmed by her frankness. His mother came from poor nobility, but concealed her stark childhood behind half-truths and evasions. As Urêbêth talked, her loose, golden hair swayed emphatically with her words, mesmerizing her companion. Girls were strange to him, but he now learned that such creatures had tricks of fascination quite unlike his own magic.

So taken in was he by her wiles that he failed to notice that his hated rival had entered the tavern and made his way to their table.

"Urêbêth, what keeps you? My father expects us to be prompt." Nîphrûkh crowded close to the table, his bulk towering over the girl.

"I have been waiting on you this hour," the nursemaid complained, rising. She allowed Nîphrûkh to wrap her cloak about her shoulders, Angórë forgotten. "I would not have left my lady so early had I known you would be so late."

"That is my lookout," Nîphrûkh said imperiously. As he trundled the nursemaid out the door, he looked back at Angórë with a smirk of triumph.


Nindamos greeted Eruhantalë with a festival in celebration of the harvest. Folk came from distant parts of Hyarrostar, while merchants from the vineyards of Hyarnustar did brisk business. Booths on the quay sold batter-fried fish or sweet cakes. Farmers sold apples and roasted squash seeds and shopkeepers plied trinkets suitable for sweethearts. At nightfall, musicians - troubadours from Andustar - tuned their instruments while young people cleared space for dancing. Even Tilion had joined the festivities, arraying Ithil with an orange glow in honor of the harvest, his full glory mounting the sky to bring light to the revelers. [18]

Angórë watched the dancers from a rocky perch beyond the quay. The happy laughter only heightened his loneliness. In a moment of foolish conviviality, he had invited a girl to dance. She accepted, but not without hesitation; he realized now she could not refuse the lord's son. After a lively reel, she released his hand quickly and returned to her companions. Thinking themselves beyond his hearing or notice, the girls giggled, looking surreptitiously after him. Though he could not hear their words, he knew himself to be their joke. He retreated into the darkness and watched his nemesis and the pretty nursemaid. Nîphrûkh moved like a clumsy ox next to the graceful girl, and it pained Angórë to see them - as it did to look away.

After several turns, Nîphrûkh loosed his hold on Urêbêth and went in search of a draught of ale. Angórë approached the girl as she left the floor. "Might I have one dance?"

She hesitated as had the other girl. Angórë turned away. "It is just that my feet are rather sore," she explained.

"How can you marry such a fool?" he burst out.

She frowned. "I wear no blinders, Angórë. Nîphrûkh wants only a pretty girl who will bear him beautiful children. Can you blame me if I wish my children to have more than beauty? Nîphrûkh's wealth will offer chances denied a tenant farmer's daughter."

His eyes narrowed. "At the base of it, your sex is all the same. You only wish to get a husband who will improve your situation." With these bitter words, he stalked into the night, his back rigid.

"Tell me, son of Lord Tárano, would you take me to wife?" Urêbêth whispered. "Would you defy custom and your family and marry blood more common than dirt?"

Angórë urged his horse into a gallop, despite the hazards of such a pace in the darkness. Still, the cold air that whipped at his hair and cloak could not ease the burn of humiliation.

He found the manor dark and quiet; even the stairs did not groan as he mounted them. This night, he swore, he would leave Nindamos behind him.

Passing the nursery, he heard the baby give a little sigh in her sleep, and on a whim, he went to her cradle and watched the child for a very long time. "Love is but a vanity, a pretty word for Possession, or longing for what we have not got. And what is Possession but Power? Power is all that matters, little one. Power to take and hold our deepest desires.

"Shall we set you in a glass case, to be a marionette, your strings firmly in the grip of your mother's love? Nay - that is not your fate. Innocent and undisturbed is your sleep, and so it shall remain." He put a finger to the baby's cheek, cold as he knew it would be.

"I hope you have not woken her!" the housekeeper said crossly, bustling into the room. Her mistress had gone to bed with too much wine and that flighty young nursemaid still had not returned from the festival. The housekeeper wanted her sleep.

"I do not think she will wake." Angórë left the nursery, reaching his own chambers as the housekeeper's cries roused the manor.

A great commotion followed. When quiet - an eerie, unnatural quiet - had descended upon the house, the boy left his rooms, creeping halfway down the stairs. The healer had come from Nindamos and spoke to his father in a low voice. In the drawing room sat the housekeeper, her face puffy from crying. Spying Angórë out of the corner of her eye, she leapt to her feet.

"You wicked, wicked boy! They say there is evil in you, and truly, I have seen it by my own eye. Ki dulg manô!" [19]

The lord came to see what had roused the housekeeper. "Cease this at once!" he commanded the woman. The lord ran a tired hand through his hair. Truly, Angórë's presence in the nursery that night was most unfortunate. He could not hope that the servants would keep silent.

If only the boy were not so sullen, so inherently unlikable. Angórë, he saw, brought much of the town's hostility upon himself with his strange ways and aloof manner. The healer spoke of the sleeping death that sometimes took infants without reason or warning, but within days, the townsfolk whispered of a boy who could steal the breath of a babe. The lord's wife placed the blame firmly on Angórë, and not even Alatundar, recalled from Armenelos, could make her see reason.

At last, the lord despaired of checking the wildfire that had grown beyond his control. "There is nothing else for it, Alatundar. He must be sent away," he sighed.

"It is a bad business," his heir agreed. "Yet it is perhaps for the best. He shall need a vocation anyhow. He is good with numbers - perhaps he might make a pilot."

The lord offered a tight smile. Recent days had brought uneasiness to his heart. His honesty made him see his fault in the crumbled remains of his family.

Alatundar, at least, remained ever sensible. "I shall write to some of the ship's captains I have come to know in Armenelos. I am certain they will provide a situation for my brother, though he is yet young."