by San Antonio Rose
Ye have abjured Me, but ye remain
Mine. I gave you life. Now it shall be shortened, and
each of you in a little while shall come to Me, to learn who is your
Lord: the one ye worship, or I who made him.
—Eru Ilúvatar, "The Tale of Adanel," Morgoth's Ring
The burn of the dagger as it pierced the skin behind his knee, skin that had become insensible to physical pain an Age ago, this pain that shot through the whole of his ancient being and reached his very soul… the sting of the sword that ended almost as suddenly as it had come as the blade severed bone and nerve… and suddenly it was over, and he saw his empty trappings fall away, and he screamed as the Maiar of Mandos took hold of him and bore him away to the hated West. He defied Mandos to his face. He sulked as the Maiar brought him, bound, to the ship on the shores of the outermost sea. He resented being confined with so many bright spirits like Halbarad and Théoden. He wished to be left alone in a place where their light could no longer torment him.
It was only as the ship passed beyond the walls of Arda that he realized that he was no longer wearing the ring.
The light grew only brighter as the ship approached the Timeless Halls, both from without and from within—the 'righteous' (as he called them sneeringly) seemed to glow with anticipation. He was in no such hurry. But finally they reached their destination, and the naked fëar were escorted from the ship through the Halls and into an antechamber, whence they were led, one at a time, into another room. He steadfastly refused to look at it.
Soon—too soon—he was summoned, and though he tried to resist, the searing grasp of the Ainur was too firm for him to break away. They brought him through the double doors… and he was enveloped in a blinding light so strong and pure that he feared it would burn him alive, and he cried out in agony. He had felt such a sensation once before, but this… this was an all-consuming fire. When the Ainur released him, he collapsed on the floor and curled into a tight ball, cursing his cowardice yet unable to bear the light.
"Rise, My child," said a voice like a rumble of distant thunder.
"I cannot," he replied petulantly.
"Come, friend," coaxed a second voice in tones that reminded him of the hated Faithful he had known. "There is strength for him who asks. Stand before thy Maker."
"I… I cannot."
"Thou canst," came a whisper in his ear as gentle as a summer breeze.
He shuddered but made a great effort and forced himself to his feet, trembling as he stood with his eyes shut tightly. "Who… who are you?" he asked.
"I Am," all three voices answered at once.
"And who art thou?" the first voice continued.
"I am the Witch-king of Angmar, lord of the Nazgûl and lieutenant of the Dark Lord."
"That is not what I asked. Who art thou?"
He was so startled that his eyes popped open. "What… what do you mean?"
"Thy name is Varno," supplied the second voice helpfully.
Varno… he had not heard that name for more than an Age. Truth be told, he had forgotten it long before the Last Alliance… his name, his home, the family he had known as the youngest son of the lord of Vinyalondë. Sauron had burned away his past. Why were these voices bringing it up again?
"All must give account of the life I have given them," the first voice replied, as if the speaker had heard his thoughts. "And thou must answer for much, for thou hast stolen more days than I had allotted thee, though I had given thee longer life than that of most Men."
"Wilt thou not remember?" asked the second voice.
"I don't want to," Varno whimpered.
"Try," whispered the third voice.
Long-dead memories returned unbidden—happy childhood days in Vinyalondë, lessons about the history of Arda and of the Númenoreans, the beginnings of a secret resentment of the life of the Eldar and of those whose folly cost Men their immortality. The voices questioned and prodded as Varno's life, good deeds and bad, unfolded in his memory; sometimes he could answer, sometimes not. Together they watched him grow into a young man, left behind to govern the harbor as his father and brothers went to war against Sauron and help the commanders from Númenor who came unexpectedly in the darkest hour of the war, then mourn the loss of all who were dearest to him, a loss so great that it almost overwhelmed the joy of victory. And they watched young Varno talk with the ambitious Prince Ciryatan and begin to desire wealth and power to fill the void his father's death had left, as well as the ability to avoid death either from age or from battle wounds.
"It seemed an idle wish at the time," said the second voice.
"I suppose so," Varno agreed. "But then the messenger came…."
The voices fell silent, letting Varno tell his tale and review his memories even when he ceased to speak, the first voice reaching him only occasionally.
The Southron came into Vinyalondë one day in Second Age 1710 and requested a private audience with the lord of the harbor. Curious, Varno received him. After the usual exchange of pleasantries, Varno felt sure the man was not dangerous and dismissed the guards. Once they were alone, the Southron drew a small black pouch out of his robes.
"My master Annatar sends you greetings," he began, "and bids me give you this trinket as a token of his friendship. It is to be for your use alone, for the power it bestows cannot be divided. Use it as a tool in whatever way you see fit. In return, my master asks only that you come to him when he should summon you."
Varno thought he could hear a faint thrumming noise as he took the pouch from the messenger. "This is no mere trinket, I deem," he laughed, attempting to hide the strange mixture of fear and curiosity he felt.
"Indeed," the Southron replied. "It has certain virtues that you may find useful."
Varno gingerly opened the pouch and slid its contents onto his palm. The heavy ring, made of both silver and gold and set with a great red amber stone, bore obvious signs of Elven workmanship, and there were tiny runes inside the band that he could not read. His heart raced as he examined it, and he felt his face grow hot as he flushed, though he knew not why.
"Use it with care, my lord," the Southron warned. "I know very little of it, but I do know that its power is great."
"I shall," Varno replied, hurriedly putting the ring back into its pouch. "Please convey my thanks to your master and tell him that I shall be pleased to accede to his request."
The Southron bowed and left, and Varno raced to his chambers to hide the ring in a chest with some of his other treasures. As he slammed down the lid and turned the key in the lock, he let out a breath he did not realize he had been holding. Shaking, he walked away from it, determined not to take it out again save at greatest need.
"Thou hadst desired power, yet when it came, thou knewest its dangers," said the first voice. "Thou wist well that it was wrong for thee to have."
He had held to that determination for many years, though the ring seemed at times to call to him. Even when he wed, he did not speak of the ring to his wife. But eighty years is long even for a descendant of Elros, and at length, he succumbed to the temptation to look at it. At first, that was all he did, and then only for a short moment. Slowly, he began to feel capable of controlling its power long enough to study it closely. The more he learned, the longer he could hold it without feeling overwhelmed, and the more frequently he felt the urge to take it out again. Within a couple of years, he began to carry the pouch about with him to maintain contact with it.
His wife Indil began to notice a change about him, and he could see suspicion in her eyes. But he said nothing to her until she caught him examining it one day in his study by slipping in unannounced.
"So that is it," she whispered, shattering his concentration. When he looked up at her sharply, she continued, "I sensed a change… an aura about you that was different. I suppose it was that ring."
"Aye. An aura… well, of power, I suppose. Sometimes it is so strong it frightens me."
Varno put the ring back into the pouch. "I would never wish to frighten you, beloved," he smiled at her. Yet inwardly he rejoiced that he was growing accustomed to the power of the ring and that he was the stronger for it.
"Have a care with that ring, beloved," Indil replied. "I have heard tales that Sauron tricked the Elven-smiths of Eregion into making magic rings and that he himself made a ring that would control all the others. I would not have you fall prey to the Enemy."
"Oh, posh," said Varno, hoping to allay his own fears along with hers. "This was a gift… an heirloom. And Sauron has been defeated. I shall not easily fall to him."
"Why would you lie?" asked the first voice. "You had long accounted your wife wise. And you knew she was right to fear."
The couple agreed not to speak of the ring, and there the matter stood, though Varno spent ever longer periods studying the ring. Five or six years passed before he finally ventured to put it on. The sudden surge of power he felt was so overwhelming that he pulled it off at once and locked it away, reeling as if from too much strong wine. Once more he swore he would never touch it save at great need. Yet within a year he was carrying it again, and eventually he could wear it for short periods and wield it once every few months.
Then Prince Ciryatan returned and ordered the Númenóreans in Middle-earth to expand their territory and return tribute, especially in treasure, to Númenor. The settlers who had removed from Vinyalondë to farm the surrounding countryside were none too happy about the new imposition, and after the prince left, they sent a delegation to Varno to petition him, as Tar-Minastir's regent, to report Ciryatan's behavior to the king and deliver them from his extortion.
Varno received word of this delegation several days in advance, and he fretted over what to do about it. He too resented Ciryatan's interference, but he dared not refuse; he had seen the prince's temper and knew his boundless ambition, and he knew that Ciryatan would take the goods at swordpoint if Varno did not deliver. He also desired to stay in Ciryatan's good graces—he liked the prince and agreed with his philosophies far more than those of the King—and had little use for farmers, who he feared would take arms against him if he did not deal with them firmly. After days of agonizing, rejecting all attempts of others to give him counsel, he came to a decision.
He knew by then that he could cause the ring to disappear while it was on his hand. He knew a few tricks he could play with it. And so he wore the ring to the meeting, taking care that it would not be seen. When the farmers presented him their petition, he silently summoned storm clouds over the palace. He read slowly, surreptitiously glancing up at the farmers' growing consternation as the rumbles of thunder grew louder and more ominous and smiling to himself.
Finally, he held up the petition in one hand and said, "You will obey Prince Ciryatan's command, or your crops shall perish—thus." And the parchment burst into flames.
Terrified, the farmers promised to obey, and the impending storm vanished as they fled. Varno went back to his chambers, giddy with the success of his prank and practically drunk with power. Indil was waiting for him, and suddenly the sight of her sparked a desire within him that he had not felt as strongly since the night they wed. His face was flushed and his breathing heavy as he shut the door behind him.
"Well?" she asked.
"It is well… oh, it is very well," he cried, then flew across the room to her and kissed her hungrily.
They did not leave their chambers until dinnertime. The next day, they rose late, and Varno cancelled all his appointments for the next week and took Indil off to their favorite retreat—alone. Though he left no such order, no one dared to follow or disturb them.
And Varno forgot to take off the ring. By the time he remembered, he decided he did not want the feeling to end, and he never took it off again.
"A simple jest thou didst think it," said the first voice. "Didst thou not in thy heart of hearts know thy jest was cruel and the power with which thou madest it dangerous?"
When Varno and Indil returned, even he knew he had changed. He was more ruthless in enforcing Ciryatan's regulations and expanding the territory under Númenórean control, the more so after Ciryatan took the sceptre, and his ferocity in battle against the Dunlendings astonished friend and foe alike. He had less patience with suppliants and counselors. His appetites increased; he ate more, went hunting and fishing more often, and fell in lust in ways he never had before, though he remained faithful to Indil—indeed, she was the object of his lust more often than not. Their son suddenly gained a host of new siblings. But though Varno loved his family, he was far stricter with the younger children than he had been with the eldest, and he was less patient with Indil's physical and emotional needs. Eventually, he began levying heavier taxes than necessary for the King's tribute and keeping the rest; at first, he rationalized it as a means for providing for his growing family, but soon he kept back even some of that fund for himself alone. On one scouting trip along the Hithaeglir, he found a secluded area in the north and secretly chose it for the site of a pleasure palace; from then on, his private stash went toward the construction of his new dream home.
Slowly but surely, Indil deduced what was going on. She began pleading with Varno to take off the ring before he destroyed himself, her, their family, and their people. He refused to listen. At times he became abusive, other times summoning hailstorms or other disasters to terrify her. When he calmed down, he usually apologized to her, but he would not take off the ring.
And the whispers grew that Lord Varno was a fell sorcerer, quick to wrath and seldom merciful. They grew louder after two generations of farmers grew old and died and the members of the court felt the approach of old age, while Varno remained as young and strong as ever—even to the point of appearing younger than his own sons and grandsons. Varno's impatience with weakness grew unchecked, and he cast his eye on younger women as Indil aged and her beauty faded, though he still loved her enough to remain faithful.
Then one year, a foul wind arose from the east, and many members of the colony fell ill. Varno did what he could, but he had never had the gift of healing, and the ring had no power in his hands against disease. Even his beloved Indil grew sick through working with the healers, though he tried to forbid her from doing so. At her age, the illness took a heavy toll, and within days she was near to death.
"Please, Varno," she wept when he sat by her bed, "will you not take off the ring? It may be that the Valar will have mercy upon us and drive away this contagion."
"Thou knewest she was right," said the first voice.
Part of him wanted to agree, to fling the ring into the depths of the sea in hopes of saving his wife. Part of him wanted to mock her hopes and fears alike, scorning all thought of help or judgment from the West. He did neither. He simply shook his head.
She turned away from him to look out the window just as a dove fluttered down to perch on the window sill. It looked at her intently.
"Oh, Eru, forgive us," she sobbed.
The dove cooed loudly.
Indil sniffled, smiled, and breathed her last. And the dove flew away.
Varno buried his face in his hands and wept. But soon a sharp pain shot through his right hand and arm, and when he looked at his hand, he saw that the ring was suddenly so tight that it was cutting into his flesh. As he stared at it in confusion, he began to think about his wife's dying words. What, after all, was Eru to them but an Elvish tale? Tar-Ciryatan did not really believe in Eru, though he kept to the tradition of officiating at the three yearly prayers on the Meneltarma simply for the sake of tradition. Even Varno's notions of the Valar were vague and uncertain. There seemed to be good evidence in Númenórean history for the Valar's existence, and Tar-Ciryatan did not doubt them as he doubted many things, but he also considered them cruel and oppressive. He would not dare to say such things in Númenor, but in Vinyalondë he would sometimes grumble privately about the Ban and the fact that men were not immortal. And through the years, Varno had come to trust Ciryatan far more than the Elves. Furthermore, even those with the firmest belief in Eru and the Valar could not say what happened to Men when they died.
Had Indil deluded herself by trusting the Elves?
The more Varno thought along this line, the more the ring relaxed and the more grief turned to disdain. By the time he left the room, he had rejected Indil's faith and, though still aching from his loss, felt himself a fool for having ever loved her. He left her burial arrangements to their children and attended the funeral merely as a formality.
Yet the ache remained, and Varno's thoughts turned ever more frequently to his pleasure palace in the North. He had stayed there for short periods since its completion, and he had already enticed commoners looking for a change of scene to move there and establish a small farming village in the valley below the castle. Now, tired of Vinyalondë and freed from the constraints of marriage, he gave his position to his son and moved permanently to his mountain hideaway. On the way, he attracted farmers and townsfolk in search of new opportunities and younger sons of minor nobles in search of a better position. He especially encouraged young people to join his entourage. When they arrived at their destination, Varno helped the new settlers to find homesteads and town sites and ushered his courtiers into their decadent new abode.
And decadence quickly became the most obvious characteristic of Varno's court. He threw frequent banquets marked by wild revelry and encouraged his courtiers to pursue pleasure as heartily as he did himself. He spent little time on administration and much on experimenting with the ring, and he often delighted the court with his conjuring tricks and the silly things he would make people do while under a spell. But though he sought to drown his sorrows in strong wine and a fun-loving crowd, the emptiness remained, and he became prone to violent mood swings if anyone, courtier or commoner, crossed his will.
Nor was Varno long able to contain his lust. After a few years had passed, he sent an invitation to the nearest village, requesting that all fathers with daughters of marriageable age come with their daughters to a feast; the reason, he said, was that he sought a new bride and that none of the women of the court suited his fancy. The families duly attended, and Varno kept the usual license of the court in check long enough to appraise the young women and impress their fathers; the carousing commenced only after the villagers had left. Several days later, he sent for several of the girls with the excuse that he wanted them to live at court while he made his decision. Some weeks later, he sent to each girl's parents, informing them that he had chosen her and requesting whatever dowry they might be able to give her; he gave each family a reprieve from their taxes for the rest of the year. The messenger returned with the dowries and placed them in Varno's treasury. Then and only then did the girls realize that Varno did not plan to marry any of them—or rather, in their view (which he found hopelessly antiquated), that he intended to marry all of them.
At first, Varno was charming and gracious to each girl equally. But he began to play favorites within a matter of months, bestowing his favors capriciously, and he demanded more of them as time went on and his lust grew unchecked. The harem swelled as he repeated his ruse year after year and collected more girls on his occasional travels into Rhûn. Some girls, whom he had selected for their rebellious natures, relished the wild life of court; others, whom he chose for their docility, feared Varno but obeyed him without question. Yet sooner or later, most fell out of Varno's good graces. As soon as a woman became pregnant, he sent her back to her family with her dowry plus an added financial gift and a second tax voucher; if she simply grew too old for his taste, he turned her out with only her dowry. A select few remained at court even after Varno's lust for them faded, but those were usually married off to courtiers; a handful died young.
After a few generations, the commoners began to protest. Not only was Varno taking all of the most desirable young women and preventing them from marrying the men of their choice, but he was also including some of his own descendants in the round-up. When one father stood up to Varno in the street one day, Varno struck him dead with lightning from a clear sky and took his property, his wife, and all his daughters. Another family tried to flee, with the same result. After that, the villagers tried to work against Varno's designs without offending him; when that failed, knowing escape was impossible, they prayed ceaselessly to the Valar for deliverance.
Slowly but surely, centuries of wearing and wielding the ring began to take their toll on Varno. He began to shun natural light, rising at night and often cloaking the palace in dark clouds to prevent even moonlight from penetrating its interior, and he stopped going abroad. In time, he ceased even to walk outdoors. He seldom felt hunger and lost his taste for even the most sumptuous foods. Water, too, he scorned, often forbidding rainstorms from crossing into the valley. In his dreams he began to see a great, fiery, lidless eye that searched for him, and he sought to escape this vision either by not sleeping or by drinking and drugging himself into oblivion. Rage and lust burned ceaselessly within him, age gnawed at him, and old sorrows left a gaping chasm that he sought to fill with increasingly perverse pleasures. Not satisfied with the effects of wine and sleeping draughts alone, he sought and obtained rare intoxicants from Rhûn and Harad, some of which had mind-altering effects. So desperate was he for relief from the drudgery of life that he would sometimes take amounts of these drugs that would kill a lesser man and spend days alone savoring the experience. Torture of man and beast became one of his chief delights, fueled by the boundless cruelty he found in a band of orcs that he captured and bound to his service, and that cruelty spilled over into his treatment of his harem, especially if he were drunk, high, or both. Women now came back to the villages severely injured as well as pregnant, and fathers who refused to bring him their daughters disappeared and returned haunted, scarred, and cowed—if they returned at all. Varno's appearance grew as terrifying as his deeds; pale, gaunt, and slowly becoming transparent, he often had to enspell a woman in order to overcome her horror before she would submit to his advances.
"Thou knewest the truth," said the first voice. "How couldst thou not know that thou wert become a monster?"
His favorite in later years was a young woman named Cua, whom he had ravished with such intensity that her mind shattered but who, once he had enthralled her with the power of the ring, lived only to do his bidding. Watching her dance at his command one night, he hit upon an idea that would free him to pursue more interesting pastimes than administering his hidden kingdom. At midnight, he went into the high tower from which he would often wield the ring and wove a spell across the entire valley that bound the will of every man, woman, and child to his own and bade each one to continue in his or her usual mode of life until he released him or her. And so he left his realm to run itself, neither knowing nor caring that it would inevitably decline. His desire for food had diminished so far that he never noticed when the crops began to fail, trade fell off, and the banquets he gave became more wine than meal. So long as he could satisfy his desires with sorcery, cruelty, and women, he cared for little else.
Then on the night of his two hundredth anniversary in his pleasure palace, Varno ordered the servants to draw wine from a cask that he had brought with him from Vinyalondë when he first arrived. His courtiers all praised the vintage, but because the wine was strong and the food scarce, it took little time for them all to become drunk—and the more Varno drank, the more his passions were inflamed. The effect was amplified when he indulged in several of his favorite drugs in rapid succession. In the depths of his delirium, he took Cua to her chambers, bound her with rope and with spells, and had his way with her repeatedly and with increasing violence over the course of several hours. So ravenous was his lust and so clouded his mind that he hardly heard her screaming.
Varno woke the next evening to the sight of Cua's battered and emaciated body beside him, and he was shocked into sobriety by what he had done. She lived, but he knew he had gone too far; he could not heal her, and her wounds would prove fatal without the spell that kept her in his thrall. The servants, too, appeared to be starving to death, as did the members of his court, who were still asleep in the banquet hall, exhausted from the wildness of the party the night before. Puzzled, Varno stepped outside for the first time in years… and was astounded by what he saw. The fields were barren after decades of overfarming and overgrazing and parched for want of rain. The livestock were dying of starvation and thirst, and the villagers had wasted to little more than walking skeletons. He hurried to his tower and conjured images of other places throughout the valley, but everywhere the view was the same. Even a few of the orcs were grumbling about the lack of food.
A tiny spark of mercy still flickered in Varno's fëa, and the crushing realization that his neglect had cost him his idyllic realm allowed it to flare again briefly. He summoned the orcs to him and ordered them to tend to the dead, then shut himself in Cua's room and recalled the spell that had bound his people to his will. He wept bitterly as she died.
"Thou knewest the truth," said the first voice again.
In that very hour the summons came. How Annatar's messenger found his mountain hideaway was still a mystery to him, but find it he did, and while Varno would almost have preferred to stay locked away in the darkness of his own thoughts, the fact that Annatar had finally requested his presence after all these years made him curious enough to follow the Easterling to a remote palace in Rhûn to meet with his mysterious benefactor. He knew he would return to the North one day, but he could hardly have guessed how or why.
The place was sumptuous, but though the fading Man received more attention and better fare than he had had of late in his isolated northern fortress, he was still dissatisfied and could enjoy little of the pleasure he was offered. Somehow, deep down, he felt thin, stretched… empty… old.
"Thou knewest the truth," said the first voice once more.
Varno had been there about a day before his host finally greeted him. Annatar was even taller than he, about as tall as an Elf, though he looked like the most well-formed Man Varno had ever seen. And yet there was an air about Annatar that told Varno that he was more than he seemed. After some small talk, Annatar took Varno into a private audience chamber and ordered the servants not to disturb them.
"Now, my friend," Annatar began, seating himself on a throne and leaving Varno in the middle of the room, "are you pleased with my little gift?"
"Oh!" Varno looked down at his hand. "Yes, thank you… quite pleased… I know not whether I have learned to use its full potential…." He trailed off, staring at the ring.
"If I asked it of you, would you give it back?"
"No!" Varno cried, looking up in horror… then suddenly wondering why he was so loath to surrender it.
Annatar smiled. "No. No, 'twould be most ungracious of me to take back my gift, and I see that you cannot be parted from it even if you were willing."
Varno felt a deep twinge of unease.
Annatar leaned forward. "Then would you let me show you how to use its full power? There are longings within you that have not been satisfied; I can sense that this is so. I can help you to find what you seek."
Varno involuntarily drew a step or two nearer. "How so?"
"I know the power that dwells within this ring, for I helped to shape it. I can help you overcome your weaknesses, satisfy those desires that hold you back. I can help you unlock the secrets of this ring. You shall never know hunger or thirst or want. You shall never grow old and die like other Men. No woman's wiles shall pierce your heart, no living man shall harm you henceforth, if you will but give me your hands…."
Varno had come almost to the foot of the throne, within arm's reach of Annatar's outstretched hands. He saw the glint of gold on Annatar's right hand.
"Yes," Annatar replied to his unspoken question. "I, too, bear a Ring of Power. Is that not reason enough for you to trust me?"
Hesitantly, Varno reached out his left hand and placed it in Annatar's right. The jolt of power that coursed through his body left him breathless and motionless for several seconds.
"You… you are no Man…" he gasped, terrified. "You… you are one of the gods…."
"Yes," Annatar smiled. "I am the servant of him whom thy fathers worshipped in the East before the Elves found them. And thou shalt be like a god, even my own second-in-command, if thou wilt but trust me."
"Even now thou hadst the choice to turn away," the first voice rumbled.
Varno stared into Annatar's eyes for several moments, still gasping for breath. Then slowly, trembling, he raised his right hand from where it hung by his side and placed it in Annatar's left hand.
Immediately torrents of power flowed through him and around him as his ring connected with Annatar's. Varno's breathing became rapid and shallow, and he feared he might collapse.
Annatar grasped Varno's hands reassuringly. "Trust me," he whispered. "Let me show thee the way."
Varno stared into Annatar's eyes a moment longer, then took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and let himself fall.
It was like falling into a living fire; Annatar's power seared his flesh and battered his mind, and he lost all sense of place and time. And yet there was pleasure in the pain, pleasure like he had not known in many years, and he found himself submitting more and more readily as Annatar ravished him seemingly out of body and mind. Every sense was overwhelmed; every desire was quenched; thought ceased and will melted in the sheer ecstasy of the experience, until at last even consciousness fled and he swooned before his master's face.
When he finally opened his eyes again, all was grey and shadowy save the bright figure on the throne; he was strong and fell, and he felt no desire save one: to do the will of Sauron.
"Thou knewest the truth," the first voice repeated. "Thou hast seen how Sauron lied to you."
"Wilt thou cling to him even now?" asked the second voice sadly.
But the darkened spirit paid them no heed, reliving the intoxication of his transformation. "I am the Witch-king of Angmar, lieutenant of the Dark Lord," he whispered. "And I would do it all again. My fealty is to the Darkness alone."
"Thou hast chosen darkness," the first voice stated gravely, "and into darkness thou shalt go."
"Oh, my Lord!" cried a female voice suddenly. "Is there no hope for him?"
Varno could barely make out the woman's figure against the light, kneeling at what he could now tell was the foot of a throne. It took him a moment to place her.
It was Indil.
And he was unmoved. His wife was pleading for his fëa, and he felt nothing.
The fact bewildered him. He could not now recall how he had loved her; he could scarcely remember such a thing as love at all. How could she still love him?
Something like a Man made of pure light came down the steps and raised Indil to her feet, and Varno wondered why she did not cry out that she was burned.
"He hath made his choice, dear heart," said the second voice, which Varno could now tell belonged to this shining Man. "'Twould be cruel to force him to choose otherwise. Canst thou not see how ill he bears Our presence?"
Indil looked at Varno, and he quailed before her bright eyes, even though they seemed dim compared to the light around them.
"He cannot even bear mine," she said, her voice filled with sorrow. "He is lost indeed."
"Take him," the first voice thundered as the shining Man drew Indil into a comforting embrace.
To Varno's relief, the Ainur took him out of the throne room, out of the Halls, and the light around them faded as they walked. Finally they came to a door which one of the Ainur opened, and they thrust Varno through it and into the dark abyss that lay just outside. His heart soared as he fell and escaped the light he hated…
… and then fell the further as he discovered that the absolute absence of light was more terrible than its presence.
And thus, left utterly alone in the torment of the full knowledge of his folly, the Witch-king of Angmar, whom no living man could kill but who was slain by a Halfling and a maiden, began to wail.
A/N: Someone—I forget who—once said that the essence of Greek tragedy is "What a shame it had to happen this way," whereas the essence of Christian tragedy is "What a shame it happened this way when it could have been otherwise." I hope I've shown the Witch-king's choices clearly enough that this story meets the Christian definition of tragedy.
I have to credit Nilmandra's History Lessons series for influencing my views on how the Rings would act and how the Ring-bearers would acclimate to them, as well as my description of Annatar. Despite the pace of the story, I hoped to show how gradually Varno succumbed to the ring; C. S. Lewis says in The Screwtape Letters that "the safest road to Hell is the gradual one." The pleasure palace, which I'm picturing as the foundation of Angmar, is rather vaguely inspired by Xanadu (as in Coleridge, not Olivia Newton-John) and the court in Hamlet that spends all its time carousing. Decadence, at least in the history of German literature, refers to opulence and licentiousness that includes an obsession with death.
If you couldn't tell, the three voices belong to the three Persons of the Trinity; given the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, Tolkien seems to have pictured Eru as being triune. And the bit with the dove was largely inspired by Touched by an Angel; although we know that birds are Manwë's messengers, the dove is the symbol of the Holy Spirit in Christian iconography.
Because so much of the First Age material was written from an Elvish viewpoint, we're never told exactly what Eru meant in the quote I used as my epigraph, so I've pictured the fate of evil Men as rather like the traditional Western Christian concept of Hell (the "outer darkness" where "their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched," and "there is weeping and gnashing of teeth"), with just a pinch of The Brothers Karamazov—Father Zosima defines Hell as "the suffering of being unable to love," hence the final scene with Indil. Varno damns himself by reaffirming his choice of Sauron (and Morgoth) over Eru—"and this is the condemnation: that men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil."
As faithful readers know, I do not generally go in for dark tales of this kind. But this story demanded that I write it, so I pray that it will serve as both a warning against the Darkness and an illustration of how bright the Light really is.