27. The Great Plague
"How can I help you, good sir?" the old shopkeeper asked, tottering over to the customer.
"I'm terribly sorry to have come so close to closing time," the customer said, checking the store's hours. "I suppose even shopkeepers must shop sometimes."
"Oh yes, good sir. This is the day when I go off to buy my groceries. But what can I help you with today?"
"I'm just looking," the customer said. "I'll be gone in a minute." He glanced into a sack of beans, then into a barrel of dried fish. "Very fresh wares."
"The best in Minas Ithil!" the shopkeeper proclaimed proudly.
"Is there anything that takes your fancy, good sir?"
"No, I'm afraid not. Sorry to trouble you." As the customer left, he brushed hands with the shopkeeper, who felt a slight tingle. Curious, that tingle.
The shopkeeper went to the market that day and brushed hands with hundreds of people. They too felt the tingle. He sold the fish and beans to a soldier stationed in Mordor. He and all his comrades felt the tingle when they ate the food. No one paid it the slightest attention. Not until the fever came, that is.
The tingle swept across Gondor, traveled south into Harad, and surged up into Rhovanion and Cardolan. King Telemnar and all his family felt the tingle. Most of Osgiliath felt the tingle. The hobbits in Eriador felt the tingle.
The Great Plague had come to Middle Earth.
"Nice touch, the tingle," Khamul commented.
"It's always good to add a personal touch," Sauron said. This was the first time he'd visited Angmar. Always he'd kept a distance so as to keep suspicion from the Witch-King's realm. No one wanted the mighties to think that the Nazgul could be alive and well. Or worse, that Sauron was back.
"The constant vigilance of Gondor has declined," Sauron announced. "They have abandoned many of their fortifications in Mordor. The plague has called the troops back to the cities to defend them from enemies."
"Can we return?" Metima asked.
"Not yet," Sauron said. "The vigilance has declined, but it is still there. And I want Arnor taken care of before we go after Gondor. I feel that it is in Gondor that we shall have to strive the hardest to make it fall."
"Araphor's dead," Khamul said. "We should move now against Arthedain."
"No, we should move against Cardolan," Morion said. "The Dunedain have all perished in the plague. We should wipe out the remaining population, leaving Arthedain completely isolated."
"It's a good plan," Sauron said. "Except that if a king comes to the throne who renews contact with Gondor…" He left the sentence unspoken. It would ruin their plans. Angmar and Sauron could take one, but not both, of the kingdoms.
"We will isolate Arthedain, and then it will weaken," Morion said. "Constant raids by orcs into their territory will break them. Then we will take Fornost and the Line of Isildur will be broken."
"You have had a quarrel that has spanned millennia with Isildur's heirs," Sauron said to Khamul. "Therefore, you have the task of destroying them."
Khamul smiled. "It will be a pleasure," she said. She could imagine, some hundred or more years from now, spitting the last of Isildur's wretched descendents on her sword. The line at last would be ended. Elendil, she had liked. Isildur, she had despised.
"Good," Sauron said. "I trust you can obliterate Arnor. Meanwhile, I have some business to take care of. I wouldn't want to have Mordor open once more and put nothing in it, would I? Those soldiers of Gondor need something to keep them occupied."
The next morning, Sauron was gone, but whether he had gone back to Dol Guldor or to Mordor, Khamul didn't know.
"Go check on the city," Morion ordered her. "Illness, even illness spawned by Sauron, kills indiscriminately."
It was a grim sight. Carn Dum itself hadn't been affected too badly – only the occasional corpse here and there, which were being burned in pyres. But outside the city… The dead outnumbered the living. Bodies were scattered about the land, lying where they had fallen.
Surely Sauron could have made the plague not come to us, Khamul thought as she rode along a road lined with corpses. Unless this was his plan. Yes, that makes sense. He doesn't want us to move yet, so he cripples us.
"Do you have food?" a woman asked as Khamul rode by. "Food? There's no one left to farm."
It's going to be a bitter winter, Khamul thought. We'll lose easily twice as many as we have to plague by famine.
"The army's been mostly unaffected," Khamul reported to Morion. "The disease doesn't seem to affect orcs or goblins, but the Men are devastated. The graves are deeper than a dwarf's mine! And they're filled to the brim! Overflowing, actually."
Morion's face grew grim. "We can't launch an invasion then," he said. "You don't suppose Sauron…?"
"That's exactly what I think," Khamul said.
"Why would he do that though? He wants Arthedain crushed."
"And Cardolan, too."
Morion smiled. "Vorea destroyed them this morning," he said. "As you have noted, our orcs are unaffected by the illness. Vorea led a contingent of them into Cardolan. There were hardly any Men left; they'd all fled to Arthedain. And speaking of Arthedain, I want to know how they've been effected. My spies are all dead, I think."
"I have to go to Arthedain?" Khamul asked. "I think I'd stick out there. Just a little bit."
Morion sighed. "Ask Aica to go then," he said.
Khamul frowned. "I haven't seen her lately. Where is she?"
Morion shrugged. "I don't keep track of her."
"What do you do?"
"Plan this war."
"And you've done a great job. You would've got everybody killed if it wasn't for me arriving in the nick of time."
"In case you haven't noticed, both Cardolan and Rhudaur have fallen thanks to my leadership!"
"And where would you be if it wasn't for Vorea and me? Nowhere! You need us a lot more than we need you!"
"Really? Because I think that if I was gone, you two would be at each other's throats in no time at all!"
"If it weren't for you, we would've had Arthedain by the throat by now! Arnor would be in ruins, as would Gondor!"
"This is what I'm talking about," Morion said. "If it weren't for me, you would've thrown away everything we've worked for. Arthedain would triumph, and we would be destroyed. For over a thousand years we've been working towards the destruction of the Numenorean kingdoms, and you would throw it all away!"
"I know what I'm doing!"
"You don't! You're a rash, impatient fool who gets carried away with vengeance! In time we will destroy Gondor! In time we will punish them for what they did to the Haradrim! In time you can slack your bloodlust! But not now!"
"Then when?" Khamul hissed.
"When I say so," Morion snapped. "Go find Aica."
Khamul stormed out of the room, slamming the door so hard it shook the frame.
Morion sighed and rubbed his temples. I can't control her, he thought. One day she's going to do something immensely stupid. It's going to ruin everything.
I feel so cold. So horribly cold… And…stretched. Like everything's pale and thin, lacking in substance.
Fill the void, Melkor had told him. With what?
Morion glanced up at a noise.
"I've got some reports from Cardolan," Ringe said, holding up a stack of papers.
Morion's jaw ached. He brushed his tongue against his teeth and discovered the canines had grown long and sharp. Oh Valar, He's taking over my mind, Morion thought in horror. But I can still think clearly. How is that possible?
"Is this a bad time?" Ringe asked, edging toward the door. The Witch-King's eyes had lost their pupils and were as black as pitch. And the way he was looking at Ringe… The eighth ringbearer didn't want to spend anymore time than necessary in the room.
"Stop," Morion ordered.
Ringe froze in his tracks. Just don't move, he told himself.
Morion moved faster than even an elf. One moment he was sitting behind his desk, the next he was jerking Ringe's head back and sinking black fangs into his neck.