60. The First Challenge
"Prince?" Mardil asked, poking his head into the yard where Earnur trained.
"What is it, Mardil?" Earnur asked.
"I have several things to report."
"All right. Let's hear them."
"First, Minas Ithil…er…Minas Morgul, continues to spread a plague of small white flowers."
"Apparently they're quite deadly if ingested."
"I would suspect nothing less."
"Second, the city's merchant guilds have at last decided to adopt the name of 'Minas Tirith' for our city. This, of course, comes several decades after your honored father renamed it."
"Yes, yes, it's already been called that for a while. It's not news, Mardil. Give me news."
"Ah, last. Your father has disappeared and cannot be found."
Earnur heaved a sigh. "About time," he muttered.
"Excuse me, sir?"
"Sire will do, Mardil. Father's gone to the Houses of the Dead."
"I'll go get the crown. Organize a coronation, will you? Nothing fancy."
Bumbling idiot, Earnur thought as he made his way through the palace toward Rath Dinen. Father always warned he was going to sneak off and die like this. The bastard.
Sure enough, when Earnur opened the door to the Hallows, there was Earnil II, lying on a stone slab, quite dead.
"You could've told me," Earnur muttered. The crown lay on his chest. Earnil looked relaxed, at peace, but there was a vigilance about him. As if he was guarding the crown and had a feeling he would be doing it for quite some time.
"Well, that's where you're wrong," Earnur said, picking up the crown and twirling it in his hands. He was king now. He was king and he would drive the scourge of the Nazgul from Minas Ithil.
When he returned to the castle, the place was in an uproar. Servants hurried to and fro, stringing up garlands, laying out food, cleaning the place.
"I said nothing fancy," Earnur told Mardil when he found the steward at the center of the chaos.
"It's a coronation," Mardil said.
"And so will my son's be!"
"If you ever marry."
"I'll get to it, I'll get to it. What's in your hand?"
"Hm? Oh, a letter. Someone gave it to me. I can't recall who."
Seeing his name on it, Earnur snatched it from the steward and tore it open. As he read it, a frown developed on his face. He grew so engrossed in the letter that the crown started to slip from his grasp. Mardil made a diving leap and saved the crown from the ignominious fate of landing on the floor.
"Is there something wrong, sire?" he asked as he staggered to his feet.
"It's from the Witch-King," Earnur said.
"Sire?" Mardil paled.
"He's challenging me to a duel. He accuses me of cowardice during the Battle of Fornost. Agh! Mardil! This challenge cannot go unanswered! Have my horse saddled! I ride forth to Minas Morgul at once! Postpone the coronation."
"Sire, I strongly caution against this," Mardil said. "No doubt this is either a joke, or if it isn't, it is an attempt by the Witch-King to slay you and end the line of Anarion."
"A challenge cannot go unanswered!"
"Please, wait until after your coronation then," Mardil pleaded.
Earnur sighed. "Very well," he said. He gave the letter a glare of fury, but then threw it into a nearby fire. "It will not go unanswered though," he said. "One day I shall make up for my horse's foolishness."
"Yes, sire," Mardil said, relieved to have avoided the first catastrophe of Earnur's reign.
"I thought it was a very good letter," Ancalime said. She was pleased to be back in a proper castle. Carn Dum was simply too much like a fortress to be to her liking.
"It didn't do the job though," Morion said. He sighed. "I'll wait a few years and try again. After the difficulties of kingship, Earnur'll want to fight someone."
"Do you know that this is the first time in…" Ancalime quickly did some figuring in her head, "almost a decade that we've had a proper talk?"
"Yes. I think it might be more than that, actually. You spend an awful lot of time with Ringe," Ancalime said suspiciously. She, being rather blind to anything she didn't want to see, hadn't noticed Morion's relationship with the eighth ringbearer.
"We're friends," Morion said.
"We used to be good friends too," Ancalime said. "And then came this business with the rings. You'd think being immortal would mean we'd have more chances to chat."
"Yes, you'd think that."
"You've been so busy though."
"I'm sure we'll have plenty of time to talk after Sauron takes over the world."
Ancalime frowned. "You spend a lot of time with Ringe."
Oh Valar. She was noticing. Morion wasn't sure how to handle this. "He's a good spy," he said.
"He's not as good as Aica. She knows everything!"
"So does Sauron," Morion said. He would never forget that awful gleam in Sauron's eye when he'd presented him with the palantir of Minas Ithil. Now he can spy on us whenever he wants to, Morion thought.
The palantir had been found by Khamul, and then had to be wrestled away from her. Morion hadn't seen a lot of the Haradrim after that. She was resentful of the fact that Morion had turned over the palantir to Sauron, but what could he do? Sauron was keeping Morgoth in check, and if he'd withheld the palantir, there was no telling what might've happened.
"But Ringe isn't Sauron. Why do you spend so much time with him? You know, one morning, I saw the pair of you leave his bedroom together. Why was that?"
Think fast, Morion told himself. "I…needed to talk to him about something."
"Oh. Okay," Ancalime said. She looked cheered, but the frown crept back quickly. "You aren't…" She began, but wasn't sure how to finish it. "You aren't… You two… You aren't…are you?"
All right. Might as well tell her. "Ringe and I are lovers," he said.
Ancalime's eyes went very, very wide. "What?" she whispered.
"We're lovers. I don't quite think we're in love, but we enjoy each other. There. That's what's going on."
"Oh," Ancalime said. "I think I can understand why Aica's been so mad lately."
Aica's always mad. She's a mad, violent person. "Yes, I don't think she approves."
"I don't know if I do either. I mean, you were supposed to marry some nice Numenorean girl, but then Numenor sank. And then you became the Witch-King and all these horrible things started happening."
"It's a lot to take in, I know."
"I'm a very modern person," Ancalime said. "So I don't mind the principle, but I just…oh my."
"I have some work that I need to get done," Morion said. "The army doesn't do its own paperwork."
"I see," Ancalime said. She stood up and wandered off with a slightly dazed expression.
That'll wear off eventually, Morion thought. She'll probably forget by tomorrow. Ancalime never was a bright one.
"What'd Earnur say about the challenge?" Khamul asked as she walked in.
"Ah, you've decided to grace me with your presence," Morion said.
"Shut up. What'd the prince say?"
"King. And seeing as I have received neither answer nor a bunch of soldiers at the gate, I think he declined."
Khamul scowled. "We have to get to him before he has kids."
"He doesn't even have a wife. I don't think he's interested."
"Of course he is. Maybe we should just assassinate him. Aica could do that."
"No. I'm going to challenge him again in a few years. That should work."
"And if it doesn't?"
"Then I'll think about assassination. However, I want to avoid overt bloodshed. I think a nice, quick disappearance into Minas Morgul is just what we want."
"And then we can take Minas Anor…Tirith, or whatever they're calling it now."
"No," Morion said patiently. How many more times did he have to explain this to her? "We are not going to take the city. Not yet. Even without their king they are still very strong. And so are we. So we're at a stalemate."
"What happens when Earnur's dead then?" Khamul asked.
"The line of kings will have ended in both the north and the south and everyone will be very depressed."
"Aranarth's still alive though."
"Yes, I know," Morion said. I'm reminded very strongly of it every night. "And because you've developed such a fanatical obsession with killing each and every heir of Isildur, I think you should go back north and finish them off. Once Earnur's dead."
"Fine," Khamul muttered. "Sounds all right by me."
"What was Ancalime talking to you about anyway?"
"How we don't talk enough," Morion said. "And also some things about Ringe."
"Finally figured it out, has she?"
Khamul chuckled under her breath.
"You don't approve, do you?"
"I don't care."
"You don't have an opinion on it?"
"Or anything for that matter?"
"I don't care," Khamul said. I've always thought you were handsome, she thought. You're intelligent, too, and skilled. You're too good for that sewer rat! He doesn't deserve you!
"Oh, well, glad that's settled," Morion said. "I think there's still a nest of former citizens hiding out in the sewers of the city. Take care of that, would you?"
Khamul nodded grimly and went off to find Aica. The palantir would tell her where the dead men were hiding.