The desert was harsh, but one could find what one needed if one looked hard enough.
Knocking an arrow, Mur let it fly at a large rodent that was crawling about a camel carcass. Some damn fool's been stumbling around in the desert again, she thought, urging her horse towards the body.
It was indeed a large rodent, and Mur was quite pleased with the kill. Not that anyone else will be, she thought. The only reason I'm allowed to hunt is because there aren't enough able-bodied men. If there were, I'd be learning more weaving and doing women's work.
The thought caused her blood to boil, and with a snarl, Mur kicked the camel carcass, splitting it open and letting the organs slop out.
"Not fair," Mur muttered, swinging up onto her horse. "Let's go back," she said, nudging the beast with her heels. "Maybe they'll appreciate the meat just this once."
And then, a peculiar thought took hold. There was a camel carcass. It was recent. It had a saddle. Therefore, there was a passenger somewhere. If Mur could find the passenger, and if he was rich, she might prove her worth. Imagine! Bringing back loads of gold and jewels. Ah, they'd love her forever.
"Wrong way," Mur said, steering her horse away from the tent city far in the distance. "We're going to find this bastard, and by the Valar, he better be rich!"
It took her much of the day, but at last she found a small cave within a large red rock, one of the local landmarks. Looking inside, she saw a fair-haired young man sitting with his back to the wall of the cave. He carried a large leather satchel, the riches of which Mur could hardly imagine.
"Hello, friend," she said, smiling. Better to speak Western, she thought. I doubt he understands Haradrim.
"Ah, the rescue party," the man said. He didn't seem surprised, alarmed, or even pleased to see her.
"You were expecting me?" Mur asked. Is he some sort of wizard? she thought. He looks a bit odd. Kind of elvish. I don't know about elves…But they're rich, aren't they? Filthy stinking rich!
"Not you, specifically, but one of your kind," the man said. He stood up. He was obviously an elf; tall, slender, but that fair hair was unusual in the elfkind.
"You some sort of lord?" Mur asked suspiciously. Elves didn't take kindly to Haradrim or Easterlings on account of some long-gone war.
"Yes, you might call me that," the man said. "You have a horse, yes?"
"I would like to borrow it," the man said. "In exchange, I offer you something that has a value beyond price."
"What is it?" Mur asked.
"Everything you have ever wanted," the man said. "Power, money, freedom. Everything."
Mur's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "I don't believe you," she said. "I think you're lying through your teeth just to get my horse."
The man sighed and rolled his eyes in exasperation. "All right then," he said. "Clearly you don't want any of that. Now, what price do you put on gold?"
"How much and how pure?"
"Pure gold, and perhaps fifty grams?" the man said. "A little more, maybe a hundred."
"A hundred grams of pure gold?" Mur gasped. That was enough for her to get out of Haradwaith altogether. Hell, with that kind of money, she could hire a mercenary army and take over.
"Yes," the man said. "And a gem. Women are partial to shiny things, I believe."
Mur glared at him. "Maybe," she said. "But I prefer my shiny things to be made of steel and extremely sharp."
The man smiled darkly. "You're just the person I've been looking for," he said. "I shall return within a year with a hundred grams of gold, and a small, but precious, stone. Ruby, maybe?"
"I don't think so," Mur said. "You're just going to run off with my horse and say you're coming back? I really don't think so."
"You would not want to accompany me," the man said. "I am returning to Eregion, you have heard of it? It's far from here, and they do not like Haradrim there."
"And why do you?" Mur asked. "It's just a bunch of elves there, and you're an elf as well."
"Am I? Am I indeed?" the man asked, his eyes sparkling. "Well then, call me a more liberal minded elf. In truth, nothing would please me more than to bring you back and see what you could do to my enemies."
A chance to fight? Mur grinned. "If I had a sword, I could show you a thing or two right here," she said. Her brother had taught her how to fight in the middle of the desert, far from the tents. No one approved of a girl learning how to wield a sword. And by now Mur was the best swordmaster in the tribe. Her brother, however, had died when his horse threw him.
"Yes, I'm sure you could, but I need stealth and secrecy right now," the man said. "I shall return. Fear not."
"And you want my horse," Mur said. She sighed and took a leap of faith. "Fine, have him. But you better come back, or I'll come looking for you."
A year passed without sign of the elf. And then another, and then another. Mur's father was enraged that she had 'lost' her horse, and forbid her ever to go hunting again. She spent her time weaving during the day, and sneaking out into the desert at night to practice with her brother's sword.
"You have been studying for a year, and still you have not improved!" her mother lamented when examining Mur's latest weaving. "It is appalling. This blanket is so full of holes it looks like a cheese. I have seen children create better weavings. And you so close to your wedding day."
"Maybe if I can't weave, I can't marry," Mur suggested. She was engaged to a fool of a hunter who was both stupid and a drunk, but he was the best her father could get for a girl who couldn't weave or speak civilly.
"Your husband will not tolerate such words," her mother snapped. "He will marry another woman if you speak to him like that."
"Good for him," Mur said. "I hope he does just that."
Her mother was apoplectic. She gasped and very nearly choked in rage. "How dare you!" she gasped.
"I'm done with this," Mur snarled, standing up and throwing the loom to the ground.
She walked to her small section of the tent and changed into her hunting clothes.
"What are you doing?" her mother demanded.
"Leaving," Mur said, buckling her brother's sword around her waist. "Like I said, I'm done with this."
"You can't leave!" her mother snarled, blocking her way to the door. "Don't you dare disgrace your family!"
"Get out of my way," Mur said, pushing her mother aside and walking out into the blinding sun.
"You told me you lost your horse," her father said, walking over. He took no notice of Mur's clothes or her sword.
"I did," Mur said.
"Then why is that man riding it?"
And it was, indeed, her horse that a tall man dressed in black rode up to the tent.
"Mur," he said, dismounting. "It took me a bit longer than I thought."
"Who are you?" Mur asked.
"What? Oh, of course. I am the elf you met a year ago."
"You're not an elf," Mur said. The rider was definitely human, although he could have some elf blood in him. Besides, the elf Mur met had fair hair. This one's hair was as dark as Mur's own.
"You asked me if I was a wizard. I am something similar to one," the man said.
"Who are you?" Mur asked.
"All in good time," the man said. He took out a ring of pure gold, set with a ruby. "For you."
"Who are you?" Mur's father gasped. "And how dare you give a ring to a woman betrothed to another!"
"Is she?" the man asked. "I had no idea."
"And that ring belongs to me!" Mur's father snarled. "She is not married yet, and what is hers, is mine!"
"Are you the chief of this village?" the man asked.
"No, of course not."
"Find me the chief," the man said in a tone that booked no argument.
"What are you going to do?" Mur asked. She slid the ring onto her finger. It fit perfectly. It was so very pretty as well, she thought. Ah, stupid thought.
"You will see," the man said.
The chief of the village, a tall, elderly man, walked up. "Who are you, stranger, and why do you flout our laws?" he asked.
"I don't care about your laws," the man said. "Bring me a horse and supplies. This woman is coming with me."
"Yes," Mur hissed in exultation.
"You can't do that!" her father roared.
"I can and I will," the man said.
"Who do you think you are?"
"I am Sauron, lord of Mordor," the man said. "You see the Ash Mountains far to the east? Those are the boundaries of my land. You have heard of orcs? They will raid your lands and pillage your cities if you ever cross me. When I call for you, you will answer. When I ask for you to die for me, you will do so gladly."
The chief stared in amazement.
"Good," Sauron said. "Now, the horse!"
"You have made a deal with the devil," Mur's father said to her. "You will regret this all the days of your life."
"Perhaps," Mur said. "But at least I'm free of this dump."
As they rode east, Mur watched as the sand of the desert gave way to green hills.
"I have never seen grass so plentiful before," she said, looking around. "Or trees like that."
"Mordor is a land of darkness and ash," Sauron said. "There is no blue sky, no green, no life. There is only a sea of gray water, and a volcano of fire."
"Anything's better than Haradwaith," Mur said.
Sauron smiled. "Excellent," he said. "I have a question though. What is your name?"
"Mur," she said. But that was such a terrible name. It meant 'gem' in her language, and it annoyed her to no end. She liked her brother's name better. It meant 'strength'. "But this is a fresh start for me, isn't it?" she asked.
"So forget Mur. Forget I ever told you it. Call me Khamul instead."
"Very well then," Sauron said. "Allow me to explain my plans for you… Khamul."
The woman now known as Khamul nodded.
"I have in my possession nine rings, one of which I have given to you. These are no ordinary pieces of gold and gems, but are magical."
Khamul frowned. "Magic?" she asked. She trusted magic as far as she could throw it.
"Yes, magic. Fear not though, while it's not 'good' magic in the strictest sense, it won't cause you harm either."
"What does it do?"
"It will allow you to communicate with me through the mind," Sauron said. He held up his hand, and Khamul saw a band of plain gold on his finger.
"Is that magical as well?" she asked.
"Yes. I call it, the One Ring. I have poured a great deal of my own life force and power into it. If this should be lost, it would be disastrous. Therefore, I ask you to protect it with all your strength should the need arise."
"What does my ring do?" Khamul asked. "If it is good enough, I will protect yours."
"You're immortal," Sauron said.
"The ring grants your immortality. You will never die of natural causes, and only the strongest of the strong can harm you. Therefore, you are nearly invulnerable as well. I think that is gift enough to prompt you to protect this ring."
"If the One Ring is destroyed," Khamul said, "what happens to mine?"
"It will dissolve as well," Sauron said. "Right now, that means nothing. But in ten thousand years, if the Ring were to be destroyed, you would crumble to dust as all the years caught up with you."
"So this Ring controls all others?" Khamul asked.
"Exactly. Yours and the other eight."
"Who will get those?"
"Eight other deserving people. Numenor seems a prime recruiting ground, don't you agree? Although I think it will be difficult for me to go there."
Khamul had heard of that land of men. They were refugees from fabled sunken Beleriand, descended from elves, and wisest of all men.
"I don't think you'll find any good ones there," she said.
Sauron chuckled. "I shall have nine ringbearers," he said, "and you shall be lieutenant to the chief."
"And why won't I be the chief?" Khamul demanded angrily. "I am the first, after all!"
"Indeed you are," soothed Sauron, "but to be the chief means bureaucracy and decisions, and paperwork. As lieutenant, you will be able to carry out missions, fulfill your dreams of grandeur, and do whatever you like."
"I don't like this idea of being anyone's subordinate," Khamul said.
"You won't be," Sauron said. "You have fine fighting skills, I have no doubt about that. And you would be a fine leader as well. But people are fools."
"You think that because I am a woman they won't obey me?"
"They won't obey you immediately. They will eventually. But I need instant loyalty, no mutterings, no mutiny."
Anger seethed inside Khamul. "I'll kill the first person who says a word against me," she said.
"Will you indeed? By all means, go ahead." Sauron seemed faintly amused by this proclamation.
Swallowing her fury, Khamul turned her attention to the matter of the remaining ringbearers. "As you said, it would be impossible to go to Numenor," she said. "It is an island quite some distance off from the coast."
"Not to mention that they would kill both of us on sight," Sauron added.
"Ah, yes, of course," Khamul said, nodding. And this is what happens when you spend your entire life in a backwater tent village, she thought sourly. You have no idea about anything whatsoever. This man could be one of the Valar descended to earth and you wouldn't know it.
"You do know what Numenor is, don't you?"
"Of course," Khamul said. "Land of the beloved of the Valar."
"Yes," Sauron said. "And you do know who I am, don't you?"
"You are a wizard," Khamul said.
"Not exactly," Sauron said. "I am a Maia."
Khamul's eyes widened. A servant of the Valar! Here! In front of her! "Indeed," she said. "You look like the legends say."
Sauron smiled. "And who is the Vala I follow then? Do the legends tell?"
Khamul had never heard the legends, as they weren't to be told to women. Her brother had made some mention of the Valar and Beleriand, but little more. He wasn't as interested in the histories as she was.
"Aule?" Khamul guessed. He was the god of metal and craftsmanship, and what could be a finer example than this ring?
"Once but no longer," Sauron said.
"You struck out on your own then?" Khamul asked, grinning. A man after my own heart, she thought.
"For a little while. Have you heard of Melkor?"
"The Dark Vala."
"Yes. He was my master in Beleriand. You seem surprised. Do I not seem the evil type to you?"
"I don't care whose side you're on," Khamul said. "Although, now I'm curious. What were you doing in Eregion? That's elf territory, I know that much."
"Eregion is a land of great smiths. Was a land of great smiths, I should say," Sauron said with a crafty look. "And I have no small skill in metalwork myself. Together we forged many rings of power. The One I made alone without their help, just as they made three without my aid."
"Three other rings of this amount of power?" Khamul asked. In the hands of the elves, they could prove very dangerous indeed. "Did you destroy them?"
"They were already in the hands of the elves by the time I arrived," Sauron said. "The Queen of the Golden Wood is not one to be trifled with."
The legends of Lothlorien had reached as far as the small collection of tents in Haradwaith. Khamul hissed.
"She is very near a Maia herself," she said.
"Nearly," Sauron said. "Besides the three, seven other rings were made. For the dwarves, I thought."
"They are still around then? I thought they had all drowned in the sinking of Beleriand."
"They still live," Sauron said. He took out a large ring of solid gold, embedded with a single large emerald. "A gift worthy of the king of Khazad-Dum himself! The lord of Durin's folk, mightiest line of all dwarves!"
Khamul nodded to Sauron's enthusiasm. One day I'll know what all this means, she thought. "Excellent plan," she said.
"But you are right," Sauron said. "We must discuss where we shall find the other eight. Numenor is, obviously, out for right now. Although, in time, I think it would be an excellent place."
Khamul snorted. "What do you need those half-elf bastards for? There are more than enough good folk here in Middle-Earth."
"Ah, but I need a rat to kill a rat."
"So you need a Numenorean on your side in order to destroy Numenor?"
"Exactly. Do you have any objections with this plan?"
Khamul shook her head. "What do I care for a bunch of elfbloods?"
"I believe the north may hold promise," Sauron said, looking towards the Misty Mountains, far in the distance. "The rest of your kind are small-minded with no appreciation for the work it takes to gather such power as I have."
I will learn all this, Khamul thought fiercely as they rode through day and night. I will learn the names of these lands, their histories, their legends, their cultures. I will learn their fighting styles, and master them, and I will show Sauron that I deserve to be the chief of the ringbearers.