1. Ghosts of Midwinters Past
Darkness so thick that it was almost palpable hung heavy in the chamber and concentrated most heavily about the tall, lean figure who sat forlornly with bowed head and heavy heart. Spirits of the primeval night - born of the ancient theme of discord and summoned forth by anguish and sorrow, or perhaps wrought from melancholy itself - immerged soundlessly from the gloom like ink spreading over parchment. The dark ones hovered about him, gaining strength in the shadow of his withering despair, the anguish and sorrow of this mournful lord of darkness and fear. They danced to solemn dirges that only he could hear, their shuffling footsteps dragging through the ethers, their claw-like hands tearing at featureless faces. Still he sat, silent as the tomb – silent as she was on her bier of marble – silent as death, silent as the endless passage of long and weary years.
Tomorrow night was Midwinter Night, Yule, the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. The power of the Nazgûl would be at its zenith, for darkness lay heavy upon all the lands north of the Girdle of Arda, and the Nine drew strength from the winter gloom. Absorbing it into their essence, they grew mighty upon short days and endless nights, their potency increased by the dismal woes which made men's hearts heavy and the deadening languor which made their bodies long for sleep. When the sun set tomorrow evening, the Nine Brothers of the Ring would congregate in the Great Tower and combine their powers to weave spells of great magic. Lightning would swirl around the ivory spire, enveloping the tower in a vortex of raging energy, and the restless ones, the unquiet dead who dwelt within the valley, would be summoned forth to appear before their lords in celebration of the solstice.
But his mind was not upon tomorrow, but upon tonight, Midwinter's Eve. She danced through his thoughts, clad in a cape lined in ermine, laughing as she spun round and round, the snow falling all around her. And he danced with her, twirling in the snow, dancing a dance of Rhûn, and playing a song of love upon his silver flute.
But then the day came when she could no longer bear her life, prolonged beyond its rightful end by potions and magic. She had not the fortitude of the Nazgûl to withstand the endless toll of years, and though she appeared but a girl of eighteen summers, her fëa longed to escape the prison of her body. She tried to stay for him, for she knew how devoted he was to her, but she began to waste away, her body submitting to the caresses of Mandos' withering hand, and there was no potion or charm could keep her spirit upon the earth. Well, none save for one – and he would not subject her to that. He would not condemn her to a life such as the one he led, the very existence which her soul sought to flee.
She had accepted death gracefully, whispering her last goodbyes as he held her in his arms. Then her fëa slipped from her body and departed for the realm to which he could never go. At least not until some brave soul freed him from this unholy curse...
So many years had passed... So much time.
Yet in memory, it was only yestereve...
His eyes, unblinking, stared at the marble floor, seeing but not seeing, not caring that the swirling patterns of the stone were burning into his vision like a branding iron, not caring that those swirls seemed to have lifted off the floor to twist and undulate like ashen snakes. His breathing had slowed – for what was the purpose, when one did not really need to breathe at all? – until each inhalation came after intervals of fifteen or twenty agonizingly long minutes. He could sit like this for days, weeks, months – years, even, if his King did not demand his presence – in the stone-like torpor of melancholy, his bodily functions slowing down until he lingered on the threshold of death. But he could never die. Nay, even though his spirit could leave his body and walk among the lonely shades and ghosts who dealt in the haunted city and its environs, he could never sever the cord which connected his fëa to his hröa, for the ephemeral thread had been strengthened by the power of Sauron, forged into a chain to bind His servant to the temporal realm.
But today was not one of those days that Skri, the Eighth Nazgûl, would spend moping in a state of near catalepsy as he mourned for his beloved and lamented his wretched state of immortality. Tonight was Midwinter's Eve, and inspiration tugged at his mind like the eager, impatient hands of children dragging their parents off to a fair. It bewitched him, beckoned to him, called to him like a lover from the grave. He would write a song for her, his dear, precious one, gone from him for so many long years. Yes, a song. It was times like these, when his heart was consumed by grief that demanded to be expressed to the world, that he turned to his music. But tonight was not the night for the crystalline notes of his enchanted flute, but a sound more heavy and brooding...
Straightening his tall, cadaverous frame, Skri stretched out the stiffness in his ancient joints, groaning as the slumbering muscles rallied once more into life. Picking up the half-empty goblet of wine which had been aging upon the nearby table, he first toasted the mournful shadow-spirits before banishing them with a hearty swallow and a wry smile. The strong draught warmed his stomach and made his aura glow a little more brightly.
Tonight he did not drink just any wine. No, it was neither heady Dorwinion nor mellow Nurn for Skri this night, but a brew far stronger and much more robust... Dushûrz-gaabik, the wine of Minas Morgul. Though the exact ingredients of the brew were a closely guarded secret, it was rumored that the draught contained the chill waters of the Morgulduin, certain herbs which grew in the valley, and charnel blossom honey. Whatever the exact ingredients happened to be, though, it was well known that the draught was heavily ensorcelled and caused fantastic hallucinations – or even death – in mortals who had drunk to excess.
Uncorking the bottle, Skri tipped the narrow mouth towards his goblet, watching mesmerized as the glowing green liquid rushed forth like a font of emeralds. Bubbles swirled about in the turbulent currents, rising to the surface and then breaking free, only to pop ignobly and fall down in a spray of mist. The phosphorescent brew glowed in the darkness like a lantern made of green glass, providing the only illumination in the darkened chamber. Skri did not mind the absence of light, for to his eyes the darkness was as bright as day, and the day as gloomy as a foggy night. Bringing the goblet to his nostrils, he inhaled deeply before drinking of the fragrant draught.
After draining the goblet, he set it down and then rose to his feet. He moved as silently as a shadow through the darkness, swiftly crossing the spacious chamber and passing through an arched doorway, which opened before him seemingly on its own accord. As he climbed up the long, winding staircase, torches of pale fire like corpse lights flickered into ephemeral life to guide the way before sputtering into nothingness as he passed. At the top of the stairs, he came to yet another arched door, which willingly swung back on its hinges to permit his entry. He had come to the top of his tower, a narrow turret which looked out over the walls of the Dead City.
Housed within this circular chamber was a massive organ which brooded along one wall like a silent monolith. Set within an ornately carved framework of rosewood ornamented with silver, the argent pipes rose towards the heavens like the turrets and spires of a great fortress. Though silent now, when the great organ was played, it would cause the pallid walls to vibrate and shimmer with the intensity of its power. Wafting out from the narrow windows, strains of Skri's melodies would fill the valley, sometimes accompanied by his deep, rich voice singing in some forgotten dialect of ages past. All those who heard these phantom sounds were filled with awe and dread, for fantastic visions came to them. Often these apparitions were terrifying and could drive a man mad, unless he were an ally of Morgul, protected by the sentient spells which lay over the Haunted Vale. Yet when the Eighth Nazgûl played the organ for her, the melodies were always hauntingly poignant and filled with sweet sentiment and undying love.
Sitting down upon the velvet covered bench, Skri cracked his protruding knuckles and stretched his long, bony fingers over the keys. His hands were almost as pallid as the ivory keys, translucent, the veins wrapping around the slender bones like blue serpents. He bowed his head for a moment, deep in concentration. When he looked up again, his eyes were glowing a dull red - evidence of his rising passion. He licked his pallid lips and smiled a grimace as wry as his tormented brain.
Ah, love. It is a sickness, a madness... a Ring.
He threw his head back, howling and shrieking with laughter.
And then the Eighth began to play.
Originally written for the HASA Advent Calendar 2008, Day One (Prompt: Bottle).
Skri is a character in "The Circles" by Angmar and Elfhild.