Nine For Mortal Men

Disclaimer: This is a fanfic. I don't own the characters, places, etc.

There was no particular reason for Merry and Pippin to be in throne room this morning, except to enjoy the spectacle of Strider the Ranger attempting to appear lofty and impartial when rendering judgments on the latest complaint of sheep-thievery along the border of Gondor and Rohan, or even worse, pretending he was not bored with the petty backstabbing of his courtiers. Of course, reflected Pippin, actual backstabbing would not have been boring. A little knifework would have livened things right up. He suppressed a snort at his own thought. That was hardly a hobbitlike sentiment. He had been in foreign parts too long.

There was a lull in the day's business as a servitor brought around a tray of wine, serving the king first, then the queen, then passing among the courtiers in no particular order. Merry and Pippin each snagged themselves a glass and drifted over to Aragorn, who was momentarily unoccupied with any more elusive conversation.

Pippin climbed halfway up the steps to the throne and sat down within easy speaking range of Aragorn, which caused a bit of a murmur among the courtiers, though no one dared pluck him off the stairs. He was the Prince of the Halflings, after all, and still wore the fine black livery with the White Tree embroidered on it, although it was a bit tight. The murmuring died down as the courtiers pressed close to the foot of the throne to hear what the Ernil I Pheriannath and the King were saying to one another. In addition to the usual faces of the important men and women of the city, there were a few foreigners, ambassadors and merchants, and Faramir was visiting from Ithilien.

"All this," Pippin asked casually, waving a hand to include everything in front of the throne, "this fine city and realm, and all its armies, fine clothes, and servants to bring you wine, a soft bed at night, plenty of food, a bath whenever you want one, nearly everybody around you falling over themselves to obey you and do you honor—does it make up for losing the freedom of the road?"

Aragorn sprayed wine halfway down the stairs. "What would you know of—never mind. I don't think I want to know. That's hardly a fit subject for the king's court."

Pippin blinked innocently at him. "Everybody knows you were a Ranger, Aragorn. It's hardly a secret."

Aragorn sighed. "Pippin, you have a talent for saying exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time."

Arwen snickered behind her hand.

Pippin did not know what he had said, but he realized he had put his hairy foot in it again. If Gandalf had been here, he would no doubt be calling him a fool of a Took and telling him exactly how to remove his foolish head from his body. Big Folk could be maddeningly hard to figure out sometimes. He was just considering how to find a neutral topic—he thought he HAD been asking about a neutral topic—when Faramir came to his rescue. Or at least, put in the spoke he'd come to speak, as the Shire saying went.

"My Lord, if we could turn to matters of import. There is a new presence in Mordor. Men, Easterling Men in the main, but with a disturbingly long and sudden list of allies."

"Oh? Go on, Lord Steward," Aragorn said, emphasizing the official nature of this conversation by using the title. Aragorn leaned forward in interest.

Faramir stepped up onto the wide platform at the bottom of the stair, where the chair of the Ruling Steward used to be. There was nothing there now, but Faramir still thought of it as "his" step. "Their leader calls himself Lord Chin. He apparently was the chief of an Easterling army that came to serve the Enemy, and has now taken over the Tower of Cirith Ungol for his men. Surrounding lands in Mordor are filled with the tents and wagons of his allies. Somehow he has gained the allegiance of a disparate collection of different kinds of men, and one half-orc in charge of what orcs of Mordor survived and did not flee to the mountains, in a very short few months' time. I do not know how he did this. He was not in a favored position with the Enemy. Indeed, all those who were have perished, for they were indoors when the Dark Tower fell, and the Towers of the Teeth also. His men were far back in the line behind the Black Gate in the last battle, and escaped its ruin and the belchings of the Mountain by being distant from both. Since then surviving Enemy forces have flocked to him, and they say there is a strange power about him. Worse, men who were not allies of the Enemy have come to serve him as well."

"This is grave news," said Aragorn. "What more can you tell me?"

"He has seven major allies. The half-orc is called Durbatu. The others are Men. Three who were Easterling captains and kings in their own right, with their own forces assembled in Mordor, named Yamotaq, Shann, and Skuryokhav. The Haradric captain, Mumude. And two who were not servants of the Enemy, who have joined him recently. A Rhovanian lord, called Hodur, and a leader of brigands named Tarondor, him being an outlaw from Umbar—and what exactly he could have done to be exiled by the Corsairs I know not—"

"There is a measure of law in Umbar," Aragorn interrupted. "But go on."

"Lord Chin is a dangerous man, my Lord. And he has sent a messenger to me in Ithilien asking for an audience with you. To discuss a peace treaty."

Aragorn's eyebrows lifted. "An audience? To come here personally, not to send an ambassador?"

"Indeed, my Lord. He claims he will leave the armies he has massed and come with but little escort, trusting you would not assail a potential ally under a flag of truce. I suspect some trap. I know not what. But according to my spy among the brigands, even so did Chin come to Tarondor, and left but a day later with Tarondor's fealty. And the spy tells me that Tarondor had no intention of even entertaining the idea of an alliance, much less pledging his loyalty. He accepted the embassy only in the hope of establishing trade relations."

"Hmm. Perhaps he does have some kind of magic. But we have some here as well. Gandalf is still in Minas Tirith. Surely he could counter any sorcery Chin may possess. Does Chin purpose to make war if I do not allow him to talk peace?"

"That is the implication of assembling an army, I believe, my Lord."

"Then I will hear him. With Gandalf by my side, I have no fear of being enspelled. Tell him he may come."

Faramir looked like he had bitten into something sour, but he nodded. "As you will, Your Majesty."

It was several weeks later when Lord Chin and his retinue came to Minas Tirith. He brought only a small escort into the city, as promised, consisting of two guards, a servant, and four bearers carrying a small box between them on poles. Banners hung from the poles, rippling in the breeze. Below the city on the Pelennor Fields, a stouter troop of guards waited, along with a baggage train, and his seven allies and their officers and servants. The colorful and varied tents of the eight different kinds of soldiers were a curiosity that drew many to the walls of the city to look upon them. But those who were privileged to hold open invitations to the king's court went there instead, to watch the peace negotiations.

Merry and Pippin were there, along with a crowd of men. They had asked Frodo and Sam to join them, to gawk at the different kinds of men if nothing else, but Frodo had said he felt troubled and had no mind for entertainment. Merry and Pippin had not bothered to ask after the nature of this trouble, for Sam would look after him, and in any case Frodo rarely wished to speak of that which shadowed his heart.

Lord Chin's box carriers entered first, then Chin and his men. The box was of carved wood, chased with silver. Lord Chin came to the foot of the stairs in front of Aragorn's throne and announced, "I desire peace with Gondor and its allies. In token of this, I have brought a peace offering. Please accept my gift, King Elessar, in earnest of the mutual profit that peace will bring your peoples and mine, and those of my allies."

"I thank you for your gift and your offer of peace," Aragorn said, motioning the box bearers forward. He walked down the steps until he stood on only the third step, within reach of the box. He was bending forward to turn back the lid on its hinge and display the peace offering when a small figure ran into the room screaming.

"No! Don't touch it, Aragorn!"

Pippin was startled to recognize Frodo. His face was wild, his blue eyes white-rimmed.

Aragorn paused in his reach for the box. "Frodo? What is wrong?"

Frodo wheeled on Chin. "You would bring this poisonous thing here." Frodo's voice had turned from a shriek of terror to an oddly menacing tone, almost a growl, a peculiar sound to hear coming out of a hobbit. "Fool! Do you think to ensnare Aragorn as you have trapped your other 'allies'? You did not reckon on me."

"What is going on?" Aragorn asked. He turned to Gandalf, standing beside the throne. "Gandalf, what is it?"

"I do not know. But my heart misgives me. You suspected a trap from the first, perhaps the box is it."

"But you sense no wizardry."

"Not all magic is obvious even to a wizard. Just as not all whistles call men, but some only the guard dogs can hear."

In the meantime, Frodo had advanced on the box, shaking. His eyes rolled halfway up in his head, so that he had to cock his head at an odd angle to see, and he was mumbling something.

Chin barked a command in the Easterling tongue. One of his guards stepped forward to fend Frodo away from the box. Frodo snarled, tripped the guard, and jumped onto the box. The box bearers dropped their poles and rushed forward, but they did not get there in time. Frodo unlatched the box and grabbed whatever was inside. He turned back to Chin, pointed at him with the hand that held the peace offering, and growled, "Down! Down on the ground before me!"

To everyone's surprise—most of all Chin's, by his expression—Chin dropped to the ground. He looked up at Frodo in horror. "How did you do that?" whispered Chin. Chin's men cleared away from Frodo, afraid.

"You think you have the will to wield this power? Fool! Will gets in the way! You cannot use it until you have no will left! What is required is attunement. And that you can never have, for the Eye is closed forever."

"Frodo!" Aragorn called. "What is it?!"

For answer Frodo brought his other hand up. He looked like he was wringing his hands, and then everyone saw the glint of gold. He held up his right hand, the one missing a finger, and there was a ring on it.

Pippin felt himself gasp. Not a ring! This one had a stone, though. A glittering black stone.

"Not much power left," Frodo commented. His tone was almost normal, and somehow Pippin thought that was even creepier than the snarling had been. Frodo looked at his hand. "Not even a little transparent. Well, maybe a small amount. Just a pale reflection of its former self. The wraith it held bound to itself for so long is fled. There is not enough magic left here to keep it undead. But there is still a little power. Just enough to influence a Mortal mind. As you have found. Have you not, Easterling king?"

From the ground, Chin spat, "How can you be doing this? I hold the chief!"

Frodo walked toward him slowly. "Yes, the chief. I know its cold touch well. You wear the Ring of the Witch-King of Angmar. Idiot. You cannot turn one of the Nine into the One. There is no Ruling Ring now."

"Then—then how are you doing it?" asked Chin.

Frodo laughed evilly. The sound set the hair on Pippin's neck on end. Aragorn stepped off the stair and onto the stone floor, pacing after Frodo with a confused expression on his face, halfway between concern for Frodo and wariness of him. Gandalf took a step forward as well.

Frodo rasped, "I am not doing it. This is. Did I not tell you that will gets in the way? This comes not from me, but from the ancient words that echo within me. Have you sensed that dark potential? But two lines of poetry, forever branded in the place where my soul used to be." To the horror of all present, Frodo began to chant in the Black Speech, softly, as he glided across the floor.

"And your allies—seven. This that I hold is the last of the set. How convenient that you have brought the others with you, camped before the walls of the city. Bad strategy, that. Or perhaps you knew the limits of your magic? You cannot let them stray far from you, or your influence will wane. That is it, isn't it?"

Frodo stopped within arm's reach of Chin. Chin began to struggle, clearly trying to rise and assault the Halfling, and roared in anger when he could not.

Frodo waited in eerie calm for Chin's shouting to cease. Then he whispered, "Give it to me." Frodo held out his be-ringed hand, and Chin's arm slipped out from under him and started rising. Chin's arm shook. The finger on which his ring rode rose faster than the rest of his hand, and he hooked his finger again and again in an attempt to call it back, but his hand kept rising.

At last, Chin's trembling hand splayed, and Frodo plucked the ring from it. Then Chin's arm fell to the ground again. Frodo put on the second ring.

"Call your allies, Easterling king," Frodo whispered. "Send your guards to bring a message to them, to come up here. All seven, alone, with no guards. You will do this, or I shall command you to slay yourself, and you will do it. I have done it before."

Chin gestured to his men. "Go, do as he says." His men fled the room. "How are you doing this?" Chin asked. "I no longer wear a ring, yet you still keep me like this!"

"You have worn it too long, Easterling king. You have left your mind open to its call. You never took it off, even to sleep, did you? You dared not, once you had given the other rings to your allies."

"How do you know this?"

"It speaks to me. Can you not hear it? They both do. Each with its own voice. The voices of the other seven are distinct, too. I cannot quite understand them yet. They are not near enough. But soon."

Aragorn had now come up right behind Frodo, only a step away, but doubt was in his face. He did not know what to do. For a long time, no one spoke or moved. Except Frodo, who began whispering in the Black Speech of Mordor, and caressing the two rings he wore.

At last the seven allies came into the room. At first they rushed in as if to defend Chin, but then Frodo looked at them, blue eyes wide and feral, and they halted. Frodo went to each of them in turn, and took their rings from them. Each tried to fight, and each was as unsuccessful as Chin. He put on each ring as he acquired it, and with each one, he got a little more transparent. As he moved, patches of his skin went invisible for a few seconds at a time, revealing muscles and bone beneath.

Now Frodo had a ring on each finger—nine fingers, nine rings. His face flickered between living flesh, skull, and the horror in between.

"Go," Frodo whispered. "Leave. Go home. Go back to your armies and take them home with you. Never again trouble Gondor or the West, never again touch the artifacts of Sauron. Flee from me, for I am not merciful. I leave you alive only so that you may suffer as I do. You will walk forever in the shadow world, empty, forlorn, bereft. You will fare in hateful longing to the end of your days. For Precious is gone. Go now."

As one, they rose. They turned as one and walked out the door of the throne room like sleepwalkers. For several minutes, nobody moved. Then Frodo sighed and swooned. He fell backward, and Aragorn caught him. Frodo came awake with a wild yell and twisted away. "Keep back!"

Aragorn gestured with empty hands. "Frodo. It's me."

Frodo blinked at him, and his expression softened to something approaching normal. "Don't get too close, Strider. I am dripping with shadow."

Just then Sam came barreling through the door. He halted when he saw Frodo's hands. "Frodo! Me dear! Take them off!"

And Frodo took off the rings. A collective sigh escaped the assembled people. Frodo held the Nine in his two hands. "Now what do I do?" Frodo wondered.

"Are those—" Sam started to ask.

"Rings of Power? Yes, they are. Nine for Mortal Men, doomed to die. So goes the poem."

"Then I guess they'll have to be destroyed, won't they, Mr. Frodo?"

"Yes. These, too, were forged by Sauron. In the Mountain. No smithy in Minas Tirith could melt them. They must go to the fire."

"But not with you, surely."

"No, Sam. Not with me. I could not open my hand over the Crack of Doom the first time. I could not do it now either. And I have no heart for a second such journey, even though I could take a host of men with me this time, and wains full of baggage, and even dancing girls if I asked for them. Once the armies of the Easterling king and his former allies clear out of Mordor."

"That's good, Mr. Frodo. This second journey can be for others to take. You deserve to rest."

"Yes. And though I am sure I could not open my hand over the fire, I may be able to open my hand over another hand. As Bilbo did, when he passed the Ring to me. Who then shall go? I cannot entrust these things to Men. The quest of the mountain takes a hobbit. Two hobbits. One touched by the darkness, to bear the ring—rings—and one not. To save him from himself."

Frodo's gaze passed over the assembly and came to rest on Merry and Pippin. Merry and Pippin looked at each other in wide-eyed dread. Frodo walked slowly toward them. As slowly as he had walked toward Chin, and with almost as much menace.

Pippin took a step back as Frodo stopped in front of him. "Uh—I was just leaving," said Pippin.

"There is no other choice," Frodo said. "One of you must take it. Them."

"Give it to Merry!" Pippin squeaked, taking another step back.

"Oh, thank you, Pip!" Merry said, aghast.

"No, it must be Pippin," Frodo said. "The one who stands in the place of Sam must be a true innocent. Pippin, you cannot take that place, for you have seen the Eye. You are like me, now. A little."

Pippin took another step back, and fetched up against Merry's encircling arm. "Don't worry, Pippin. I'll help you," said Merry. It sounded more like a threat than a promise.

"I only saw it for a little while. An hour at most, though I lived a whole lifetime of terror and pain in that vision. And the Palantir was hardly a Ring of Power, much less nine of them. Besides. Wouldn't it be better to give them to someone who has never seen the Eye? Or been seen by it?"

"Hold out your hand, Pippin." Frodo's tone was almost indifferent, but there was a sinister look in his eyes.

Pippin shook his head. "Don't do this to me, Frodo."

"One of you must take it."

Merry took Pippin's right hand in both of his and pried it open. "Merry," Pippin whispered, "what are you doing?"

"Sorry, Pippin," Merry said. His face was grim. "Frodo's the expert on these things. What he says goes." Merry held Pippin's hand out for Frodo. Pippin squeezed his eyes shut, as if bracing for pain.

Frodo set the rings into it, and Merry closed Pippin's hand around them.

"Now get them out of my sight," said Frodo, "before I try to take them back."

"Frodo?" Merry asked, puzzled.

"If Pippin now stands in my place, and you, Merry, stand in Sam's, I know well what role is left for me. Go where I cannot find you. Sam will stay with me and help me through this."

Pippin did not know what he had expected. Cold? Searing heat? Rending pain? They just felt like lumps of metal in his hand, but he did not sigh in relief yet. Because he felt them stirring. Not physically. Physically, they were inert, just circles of gold and jet and obsidian.

Pippin opened his eyes and stared off into space. "I can hear them," he whispered.

"Come on, Pippin," said Merry. "Let's go find a quiet corner of the city." Merry guided Pippin out the door.

End of Part One